Plain Vanilla   14 comments

Do you use said or asked after a ? or tag your interruptions? Any punctuation that bugs you? What’s the hardest for you to get right?

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Keeping It Brief

I trained and worked as a newspaper reporter, where “Keeping It Brief” is an overarching motto. Hence, I trained in newspaper writing, which is very different from English writing. So, the world is filled with punctuation and grammatical “necessities” that fly in the face of my training.

Examples?

The Oxford comma is a waste of ink — except in the very rare instance where it defines an important shade of difference. People overused it in the past and now it’s mandatory ink wastage. I notice my local newspaper still doesn’t use it. Good for them! I got tired of my editor yelling at me about it, so I use it now, but I still think it’s a waste of ink.

“That” following a reporting verb is also unnecessary except in rare instances. It’s always wrong when you write “said that”, but it’s also almost always wrong when “that” follows a verb. Essentially, if the “that” can be eliminated and the sentence still make sense, it needs to be deleted. It’s an unnecessary word that became so overused we think it’s necessary. I blame English teachers who were Education majors rather than English majors, but it’s also because we hear and read non-teachers use it all the time, so we assume it’s correct. The only time when “that” is absolutely necessary is when a reporting verb precedes a prepositional phrase. Example – “We complained to the committee that they had not kept us informed.” But even in that example — you don’t need it in dialogue and it creates an interesting way for some (not all) characters to speak. I use it for Trevor in “What If Wasn’t” series because his father’s a journalist and Trevor is a breezy talker. It makes his dialogue more distinctive.

Essentially, the use (or non-use) of “that” is probably the writing item I mull the most. Most people don’t care. I skip over it blithely when I’m reading other people’s books, but when I am editing my books, my training lurks in the back of my head reminding me this is almost entirely an unnecessary word.

I don’t necessarily struggle with my decision to eliminate the word when it isn’t necessary, but I do consider whether it is necessary on rare occasion. My husband gets to decide sometimes. “Does this sentence make sense?” and I read it aloud to him. If he says “yes”, I don’t add the “that”. If he hesitates, I reread it with the “that” and he gets to contribute to my writing. But over the years, he’s learned to listen critically and now occasionally says “It’ll work either way.” The “that” doesn’t survive uncertainty.

Dialogue Tags

Dialogue tags are those phrases following quotes telling us who is speaking. Dialogue tags frequently slow down the narrative. Sometimes they’re absolutely necessary. You’ve got three or more characters talking and readers would struggle to track the conversation without the dialogue tags. Most of the time, they’re unnecessary or can be substituted with an action sentence.

“Look at that beautiful sunrise,” Justine said.

Justine is one of four characters in a scene in the serialized novel I’m writing for Kindle Vella. Readers definitely want to know who is speaking, but is the tag necessary? No, not in this example. The line actually reads —

“Look at that beautiful sunrise!” Justine pointed toward the watercolor painting lightening the periwinkle sky.

Way more immersive description than “Justine said.” It’s more words, but I’m writing novels not newspaper articles, so word count is not as important as drawing the reader into the narrative. The description puts the reader right in the scene. The dialogue tag is eliminated as well, which is a bonus.

Related?

Beta readers and editors alike sometimes insist “said” is the only acceptable reporting verb in a dialogue tag. I disagree. Yes, it’s unobtrusive, but it’s also boring and overused. It adds nothing to the description. You wouldn’t use it, except you need a dialogue tag and “said” is an easy choice. Drawing from my journalism background (where we were writing under strict word limitations and deadlines), I don’t use “said” often. My Newswriting professors used to use my reporting verbs as examples for the class. My 101 professor was a former New York Post reporter who previously taught at Columbia University’s School of Journalism and my 401 professor was a former reporter and editor for the New Orleans Picayune. They HATED when students used “said” because they believed it was the Apache White of reporting verbs. “You only have 350 words to engage the reader. Don’t throw one away on a plain vanilla word.”

I have the same view of the word “asked”. If it is necessary to tag a question in dialogue, my tag is congruent with the use of a question. It probably won’t be “asked” because it falls into Apache White territory. “Inquired”, “queried”, “requested”. Despite all the sage advice of writing gurus today, I consider “said” and “asked” to be lazy writing if I am the one using it.

Better?

“Look at that beautiful sunrise,” Justine gasped.

The alternative reporting verb “gasped” tells readers who is speak, but it also tells them something about how Justine spoke without putting an adverb in the mix.

“Look at that beautiful sunrise,” Justine said excitedly.

Abverbs are frowned on as unnecessary these days — although I think they’re a condiment that makes all the difference in compelling writing. While I’m glad we moved away from the “purple prose” era of writing, I think we might overcorrect in chasing down bugaboos. Still, I think “gasped” is a better substitute than “said excitedly”. The first is “show”, the second is “tell.” Enough said.

It’s okay to experiment with language as we write, to search for what will work best for our writing, to find techniques to hold ours apart from the writing of other authors. Variety is the spice of life. It’s also the condiment of novel-writing.

Announcing Serialized Novel

Watch for Words I Wish I’d Said sometime this summer. It’s a romance set in Hawaii, and the couple has enough problems to keep readers guessing between weekly episodes for at least half-a-year. I previously struggled to write romance, but somehow the serialized method broke my writer’s block in that genre. I might tackle mystery in that method next.

I’ve already posted some of the series episodes and written a good bit of future episodes and am now waiting on Kindle’s unannounced launch date for their new program, supposedly around the end of July.

Posted June 28, 2021 by aurorawatcherak in Blog Hop

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14 responses to “Plain Vanilla

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  1. Hi Lela, I enjoyed this post. I have the same attitude towards that as you do. I usually leave it out but have the odd debate about whether it is necessary. When my mom reads my drafts, she always writes it in. Congratulation on your romance series.

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    • Don’t worry about what your mother thinks of your language – Elmore Leonard

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      • My mom lived in Alaska when the male to female ratio was 4 to 1. Ordinary women didn’t swear much back then. Alaskans women were a breed apart. Mom could scorch the wallpaper off the walls with her use of Anglo-Saxon expletives — except the f-bomb. For some reason, she reserved that word for very special circumstances. I never heard her use it and the few times my teenage self used it in her presence, she wasn’t at all shocked by it, but advised — “That’s salty language there, girl. If you use salt, only use it when you absolutely need it, otherwise it loses it’ saltiness.”

        My kids (who are adults now) will tell you that their mom uses the f-bomb very infrequently, but when she does, best take cover.

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      • I have a teenage female protagonist who occasionally swears like a sailor. The blame goes to her older brother and Rosie the Riveter grandmother, not her upright parents. My mother could peel paint, but as you say, not much with the F. There’s a funny story somewhere on my blog, prompted by research on swearing females. Those who do have as many different contributing factors as those who don’t. Mom, vocational environment, siblings…

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      • Mom was also Rosie the Riveter as were two of her sisters. I never heard the one aunt I knew swear more than a “hell” or “damn” on rare occasion, but Mom — so I always figured it was Alaska that did it. Auntie Lu lived in Seattle.

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      • My mom was from the Ozarks before phones and corp of engineers power. She could weld, drive a truck of any size, bandage anything, talk birds out of trees and call off mean dogs. And swear like stevedore when needed.

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      • My mom was from North Dakota. She jockied in quarter horses races and worked as a horse wrangler until the men figured out she wasn’t a boy. She was really too small to pull that off after about age 14. Grandpa managed to keep a farm going during the Dust Bowl era, but Grandma could do the math and see they couldn’t continue indefinitely. The family moved to Seattle to work in the defense industries during World War 2. She and her sisters worked for Boeing. Of course, when the guys came back from war, the women all lost their jobs. She married a mechanic who suffered serious wanderlust (his mother was a fortune-teller for Barnum & Baileys, so he’d never lived anywhere). He brought her to Alaska where there was one woman for every four men. She worked as a diner waitress in a town full of men away from their wives and children. The language was understandable.

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      • !!!! I wrote a lick about how women were dissed after the war, how men needed to feel worthwhile more than women did. Crazy.

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      • And I just “borrowed” the guy whose mom was a fortune teller.

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      • Cool! I knew him — he and Mom got back together after my dad died — and Roy would have enjoyed being a character in a book. Big personality, there!

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      • I ight have to write something for the character with a phobia bit coming up sometime.

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      • Roy was afraid of heights, but loved to fly in airplanes and would climb water towers and such because he refused to let a phobia keep him from doing anything.

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    • I figure it’s worth the experiment to see if I can write romance. I’ve always wanted to try serialized fiction, but the stuff on Wattpad never inspired me to write anything. Since Vella is a brand new thing, I get to help set the early standard. Worth an experiment anyway.

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  2. Opinion only – Synonym said-isms are no better than their deeply maligned -ly relatives.
    As for “that”, I was taught it was useless except as a paraphrase set up when a direct quote was unavailable – Councilman Hootis said that his plans for the southern district did not include a car jacking or road rage practice range. “That” gets you off the hook for misrepresemtation.

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