Crutch Words – the Word Police

wikimedia commons: keystone cops

The Word Police are back at it, rapping on my door and handing out citations. I plea-bargained my way out of jail by agreeing to publically share some of my past transgressions. The hope is that other wayward writers will take heed and avoid my mistakes. Crutch Words is the first in a series of writing tips from the coppers.

What are Crutch words?

Crutch words are words that add nothing to the meaning of a sentence. They’re hollow words that we automatically insert and frequently don’t notice. We want our writing to be tight and sharp. Too many crutch words will slow down the pace and dull the impact.

An interesting thing about crutch words is that we often have favorites. You may never use some words from the list below and use others more than you want to admit!

As a condition of my parole, I provided examples of these sneaky words. And I remind you that it would be impossible to remove every one. Sometimes you need them (in which case they aren’t crutches at all). Simply be aware of yours and edit when appropriate.

Here’s a list of some common crutch words:

that, then, next, just, actually, really, still, yet, only, so, even, began, started, going to…

Below are some examples of these sneaky words used in sentences. Notice how they nothing to the meaning.

She missed all the targets he’d lined up for her.
She missed all the targets that he’d lined up for her.

He grabbed the towel hanging over the rail.
He grabbed the towel that hung over the rail.

Mary knelt in the garden, yanked on her gloves, and spent the day weeding.
Mary knelt in the garden, yanked on her gloves, and then spent the day weeding.

Burt finished his breakfast. He delivered the packages and stopped at the market.
Burt finished his breakfast. Next, he delivered the packages and stopped at the market.

I’m trying to push the boat from the dock.
I’m just trying to push the boat from the dock.

If he intended to use the knife, he’d need to sharpen it.
If he actually/really/still intended to use the knife, he’d need to sharpen it.

He didn’t know whether he’d attend the wedding.
He didn’t know yet whether he’d attend the wedding.

If she could read the sign, she’d know which way to turn.
If only she could read the sign, she’d know which way to turn.

Teenagers rarely wake up early.
Teenagers so rarely wake up early.

He tried to climb the tree, but couldn’t reach the first limb.
He tried to climb the tree, but couldn’t even reach the first limb.

I chatted with Betty as we walked down the path. The lake sparkled in the distance.
I chatted with Betty as we began/started to walk down the path. The lake sparkled in the distance.

This will be the best day to hunt for shells.
This is going to be the best day to hunt for shells.

Next from the Word Police: Vague Words.

Happy Writing!

February’s Speculative Fiction Prompt

Pixabay image by Marianne Sopala

For visually challenged writers, this is an image of an elephant in a snowstorm next to a little house that’s resting crookedly in a tree. A handful of white mice are on the roof of the house.

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Thank you to everyone who responded to January’s prompt. There are marvelous imaginations out there, and I loved reading and sharing your stories, poems, and artwork. Now, for something a little different! Above is February’s image. If interested, you have until February 21st to submit a response. Happy Writing!

Here’s how it works:

On the first of every month, I’ll post a speculative fiction prompt from Pixabay. These images are attribution free so you can use them on your blog without worrying about copyright restrictions.

Throughout the month, in order of receipt, I’ll reblog as many of your prompt-inspired creations as I can. And on the last day of each month, I’ll share a complete round-up of all contributions with links to the original posts. Visiting the blogs of participants is a great way to meet other speculative fiction writers.

Post your response on your own blog and link back to this post with a pingback, so I can reblog your post as well as include you in the month-end round-up. There are no word limits or style restrictions, but please keep it somewhat family friendly.

If you’re unsure of how to create a pingback, Hugh has an excellent tutorial here. If you prefer, you can copy and paste your link into the comments of this post.

Above all, have fun.

New Year, New Feature: a Speculative Fiction Writing Prompt

I wish you all a wonderfully creative, happy, healthy, and safe new year, full of laughter and love.

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After 5+ years of blogging, I thought I’d try something new… finally. How about a Monthly Speculative Fiction Writing Prompt? Sue Vincent was the inspiration for this idea since I’ve loved participating in her weekly prompts (check out her extremely popular feature here.)

If you’re interested, here’s how it will work:

On the first of every month, I’ll post a speculative fiction prompt from Pixabay. These images are attribution free so you can use them on your blog without worrying about copyright restrictions.

Throughout the month, I’ll reblog your prompt-inspired stories, poems, reflections, writing. And on the last day of each month, I’ll share a complete round-up of all contributions with links to the original posts. Visiting the blogs of participants is a great way to meet other speculative fiction writers.

Below is January’s prompt. On or before January 24th, post your response on your own blog and link back to this post with a pingback, so I can reblog your post as well as include you in the month-end round-up. There are no word limits or style restrictions, but please keep it somewhat family friendly.

If you’re unsure of how to create a pingback, Hugh has an excellent tutorial here. If you prefer, you can copy and paste your link into the comments of this post.

Above all, have fun.

January’s #WritingPrompt

by Stefan Keller

3 Fiction-Writing Terms: Data Dump, Filter Word, Head Hopping

While some of us are pushing through the last week of Nanowrimo, noses to our keyboards, an editing-monster looms in our future, packing on problems like a glutton.

Kathy Wagoner wrote a great post clarifying three different writing terms that carry a lot of unwanted calories. These are often newbie problems, and I’ll confess that they gave my early writing serious indigestion. The good news is that after fixing them thousands of times (literally), I do a better job of avoiding them in the first place.

Are these important? Yes. All three of these can knock a reader out of the book or reduce a reader’s engagement by distancing them from the characters and story. For me, head-hopping will usually result in an unfinished read.

Even after years of vigilance, I still have to put my monster on the editing treadmill to trim away the fat and give my writing more muscle. Kathy did a thorough job of explaining the terms and providing examples. It’s worth clicking over for a look. 🙂

via 3 Fiction Writing Terms: Data Dump, Filter Word, Head Hopping

Gardeners and Architects

I’m working on the outline for my new trilogy, and it’s not going well. Summer is such a distraction, isn’t it?! The muse is not amused. I dug this post out of the 2015 archives to give me some inspiration. I hope you enjoy it.

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When I plunked down to write my first book, Myths of the Mirror, I was on a mission of discovery, led by the muse and sheer inspiration.

I had no plot in mind beyond a mental sketch of a couple things that could happen maybe sort of somehow. It was all incredibly vague, but what did I know? Nothing. I wrote like a woman obsessed, relishing every moment of my creative forage and traipsing along behind my characters down whatever path they chose to wander.

Halfway through my journey, a secondary character whom I was in the midst of killing off stood his ground. With the unwavering support of his companions, he argued that he should not only survive but should become a main character. “Oh, okay,” I said, and skedaddled back to the beginning of the book to start over. That happened a lot.

A year later, once every character had their say and did as they pleased, my masterpiece was almost 190,000 words long. Ta da! Ready to celebrate, I enlisted a few courageous readers.

Uh oh.

For the next two years, I peeled away words, sentences, paragraphs, scenes, and whole chapters! Deleted. Recycled. 65,000+ words forever gone. I felt as though I’d been flayed.

Then an editor wielded a red pen and lopped off another 4,000. After all the anguish and suffering, I had to finally admit it – I had a much better book.

Nature-Multicolor-Flowers-Garden-Summer-Bees-Depth-HD-PhotoGeorge R. R. Martin separates writers into Gardeners and Architects. Gardeners are discovery writers, planting seeds and digging around in the dirt of writing because they can’t wait to see what grows. They thrive on a process that is full of surprises and let their stories develop organically. To them, outlines feel like straitjackets, stifling the natural unfurling of character and action.

images (22)At the other end of the spectrum, Martin’s architects are outliners. Structure is key. Charts, graphs, and spreadsheets abound. Every step is planned in advance: the story’s try/fail cycles are mapped, the hero’s journey arcs through its phases, the turning points and pinches are set in stone. For outliners, the steps of each plot and subplot form the stairwells in a skyscraper. An architect has an eye on the penthouse and knows how to get there.

awesome-tree-houses-to-live-in-plextm4bAfter my trials and tribulations as a gardener, I brushed off my hands and applied a bit of architecture to my stories. I wouldn’t say I engineer skyscrapers – that’s still too much concrete for me. In my mind, my method is more akin to building tree-houses, leaving plenty of space for nature and play.

I plot out the story’s threads and set the characters off on their journey, letting them be who they are. Occasionally we have to negotiate and backtrack, but overall they cooperate. It’s collaborative; they know their goals and I know mine.

My guess is that most authors engage in a little gardening while they construct their cottages, fortresses, and stone towers. Or they have a few fences to keep the growing things safe from rabbits. How do you bring stories to life? Are you a Gardener? An Architect? A builder of tree-houses?

Soul Swallowers: Danzell and Johzar

As my current WIP sloooowly progresses, I thought I would offer a peek into some of the characters.

You might have met the main character Raze here.

Danzell is a soul-collector, one who swallows multiple souls. In her case, wise ones.
Johzar is a slaver of questionable morals and allegiances.

I hope you enjoy this snippet.

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The glowing soul rolled in Danzell’s palm, and she tilted her head. If only she could pry into the sphere, truly know the person bound within, their succulent secrets, forbidden dreams, and ripe desires. The wise of the world weren’t without their idiosyncrasies, the blades of madness that cleaved the mundane to unleash visionary brilliance.

Johzar watched her, a pendant on the Temple’s table between them, the one she’d given him as a gift. The soulstone still shone with the light of the soul within, her gift thus far rejected. Was he a fool or a wise man? She remained undecided, wary.

The Temple was her haven for the moment. She and the slaver sat by the window on the eighth level, too high for the common wanderer, and she kept her cowl up, face in shadow to all but him. “Why are you here, Johzar? Why the interest in imperial affairs? Why now? Why accompany me like my guard dog? What do you know? What do you want?”

He mulled over her questions, the gears grinding in his head as if visible to her eyes. Did he invent excuses or parse through her questions for the ones he’d answer?

“Curiosity.”

“And?”

Another pause. “Boredom.”

“Aah.” She chuckled and dropped a hand to her lap, fingers tickling the hilt of her knife. “And profit? Are you for sale?”

“Now and then.”

“Now?”

He shook his head. “I’ll stick with curious.”

“Did you or someone from your crew kill my sister?” She wrapped her hand around the hilt of her dagger.

“Nae.”

“Do you know who did?”

His gaze pointed to her hip as if the table were transparent. “I may not tell you if I did, but my answer is nae.”

“Did you betray my friends to the soldiers?”

“I saved their lives and mine by turning over the girl. She’s Benjmur’s weakness, and he’ll protect her. I’m sure of it.”

Danzell sighed. “I should have killed them all in the catacombs and added their bones to the vaults. They’ve complicated my plans.”

“Why didn’t you?”

“The voices in my head.” She smiled and rolled the soul.

He slid the pendant toward her. “I gift this back to you. I don’t need to listen to a voice inside my head tell me what I already know.”

“Such arrogance from a slaver, Johzar. Do you claim to possess the wisdom of the ancients?”

“Far from it.” He leaned back and crossed his arms. “But I know myself, and I know what I need to do.”

“Hm.” She draped the pendant around her neck, eyes returning again to the pearl of light in her palm. Her hesitation surprised her, the sensation new. Had she reached her limit? Was she edging toward the brink of madness from which she couldn’t return?

She hadn’t suffered conflicting opinions in her head until recent events required choices for which the outcomes were unclear. When it was all passive speculation, the answers were easy, reflecting a hypothetical black and white world without a broad palette of grays. Taking action was much more nuanced.

She popped the sphere into her mouth and swallowed. Johzar leaned forward, studying her. Her eyes closed, she surrendered to the sensation radiating from her stomach. The heat streamed through her veins, tingling her fingers and toes, and rushed into her head in a dizzying wave. She envisioned a room full of chattering, the newcomer mingling, ideas bouncing off others, temperaments clashing and merging. Similarities and differences flailed about with practiced words. She’d thrown another stone in the pond, created a chaos of ripples. She breathed through it, seeking the inevitable peace as the waters stilled.

Writing from the Oral Tradition: Guest Post with Clayton Callahan

There’s something special about seeing another writer hit his stride with a really great book. A couple weeks ago I finished The Spirit of Cahir Mullach by Clayton Callahan.  I loved the “voice” of this book and though I rarely (never) read books aloud, I couldn’t resist the occasional urge to don my improbable Irish accent and enjoy the sound of this tale.

Why did I “hear” this tale in my head…?

Clayton is a natural storyteller from the oral tradition. I’ll let him tell you about the inspiration for his book:

I have always had a deep fascination with history, culture, and people in general. It was that interest that led me to join a peculiar organization called the Society for Creative Anachronism when I was but a lad of seventeen. While other high school guys were perfecting their mullet (it was the 80’s), I was finishing work on my leather and chainmail armor for the upcoming tournament.

The SCA was a medieval extravaganza, complete with dancing, sword fighting, food, brews, music, and storytelling. Truth be told…I wasn’t too good at the dancing or the sword fighting. However, at storytelling, I can boast some talent. I’d pour through the public library for folk tales, mythology, and legends suitable for a fireside performance and worked hard to bring them to life before an audience of inebriated Vikings/college students.

One of the marvelous tales I discovered was The Great Mr. Berry of Cahir Tyrone. The traditional folktale is much the same as the book. However, since it blatantly takes place after the Middle Ages ended, I never was able to use it in the SCA.

Fortunately, a good tale is never forgotten, and now twenty-odd years later, I’ve given it another crack.

The Story:

The story starts in the Irish town of Baile with a fireside recounting of the time Lord Oisin defended the village against Viking raiders who attempted to abscond with his cows. As the legend goes, Oisin’s spirit still dwells within the ruins of his great castle, Cahir Mullach.

It’s now the end of the Revolutionary War in America, and thousands of redcoats return to Ireland in defeat, Michael Snodgrass among them. He marches across Ireland, a trek that takes him through Baile, where Mr. Terry plans to sell his cows, evict his tenants, and raise sheep.

Mr. Terry’s also the billetmaster, and he sends poor Michael to be quartered in the ruins of Cahir Mullach. The king’s law is clear that any subject must make welcome a soldier who holds an official billet in hand… and that includes a subject now eight hundred years dead.

My Review:

I thoroughly enjoyed this book for a whole bunch of reasons. Despite being a work of fiction, it’s well-researched and sprinkled with details that bring authenticity to both of the book’s settings – America at the end of the Revolutionary War and the rural Irish village of Baile.

The point of view is shared by a number of wonderfully rounded characters with distinct voices and personalities. Relationships feel genuine and are recognizable to anyone living in a small community where differences are dealt with peaceably and according to custom. The story has a load of warm humor amongst some darker moments. Beyond the tragedy of war, there’s minimal violence, just ordinary villagers going about their day and experiencing extraordinary events.

The main character Michael Snodgrass carries most of the story. It was interesting reading about the Revolutionary War from the point of view of an Irish redcoat who had no stake in the conflict other than to stay alive. Michael has a true heart and guileless nature that’s endearing.

What I loved best about the story, and where Callahan truly shines, is in the authentic voices of the narration and characters. I read many parts of this story aloud just to bask in the lilt of the language.

The souls of his shoes were so worn that every chunk of gravel in the road seemed to take time out of its busy day to introduce itself personally to the feet of one Corporal Snodgrass.

Granny Collins had been laying out gifts of buttered leeks, biscuits, and milk by a hole in the old castle wall for the “good folk” of the hill. And kind as the father was, she’d no intention of abusing his good graces with her less than Catholic ways. But Christian or no, it was always best to be on the good side of fairies, lest children start coming up missing in the town.

The first chapter of the book is a long one and recounts the tale of Cahir Mullach in a more stylized voice. After that, the book transitions to the “modern” 18th century and the pace picks up. The book suffered from poor editing, but that appears to have been corrected by the author.

A delightful read that I recommend to all ages, and particularly to those who love myths, legends, and tales full of personality.

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A final note: Clayton has written across several genres. Though he writes primarily space opera, he also has a historical spy novel and non-fiction book: Armed Professions: A Writer’s Guide that I’ve referred to many times.