Thursday, September 3, 2009

Another mark of the amateur

Someone asked for us to list what we see in submissions that we think of (cruelly) as "marks of an amateur."

A lot of introductory participial phrases, that's something that seems to correlate to "new writer" for me.

Here's another. Gushing. I'm thinking not of where, in the query letter, you tell me how wonderful I am (gush away then :), but rather in the story, where the writer amplifies in an overly positive way--

She was astoundingly beautiful.
The keychain was the most wonderfully perfect gift he'd ever received.
The chair was incredibly richly detailed.
The road was wonderfully pretty.

She was incredibly beautiful.

He was amazingly smart.

The problem is usually in the modifier/modified combination. This doesn't mean you shouldn't use modifiers-- I love 'em-- but be careful of redundant combos:

voraciously hungry

excruciatingly painful

enormously large

But you know, I could probably live with those, because I see that the writer has a vocabulary. But whenever I see "incredibly" in a sentence? Well, it means NOTHING. It's just an intensifier, and more annoying than, well, "more" or "very" (which are, after all, common words that mean exactly what they're meant to mean in the sentence-- intensification). "Incredibly" means 1) nothing, 2) not what you want it to mean in front of that other word. (It means "unbelievably," another empty intensifier.)

You don't want to sound like a pre-teen girl talking about how much she loves one of the Jonas Brothers, do you?

"Incredibly delicious..." This makes me think about how "delicious" used to be enough. You know, when I was growing up, a dish of vanilla ice cream was about as far as our little imaginations could reach. But that wasn't delicious enough, and now this is what you can order (for $7) for dessert: A brownie sundae, with brownie, hot fudge sauce, chocolate chips, marshmallow creme, whipped cream, oh, and vanilla ice cream. Definitely "incredibly delicious".

(Speaking of definitely... a couple semesters ago I had a raft of papers come in that kept using the word "defiantly" -- "I was defiantly glad that Mom and Dad adopted my little brother." "History is defiantly the major for future videogame writers." Whoa. I mean, that led to some interesting ideas... defiantly glad, huh? Mom and Dad punished you for being glad? Or? Then I realized that they'd all misspelled "definitely" the same way-- definately-- and spellcheck had corrected that to "defiantly". :)

Consider a "show" here so you don't have to "tell" so much.

Even raising his hand for the bill set off waves of pain through his shoulder.

He was so grateful he sat down and wrote his mother a thank-you note.

If we "see" the amazingly incredible whatever, we'll believe it more. After all, Helen wasn't termed "amazingly beautiful." Rather she had a face that launched a thousand ships.

Try to show the amazingness in some action or some comparison. Don't gush-- show us.



Jami Gold said...


Thank you! I was the one who'd asked the question. If you think of more, keep them coming. :) And good tips for how to fix this gushing problem too.

Jami G.

Amanda Borenstadt said...

You're so amazingly helpful to post this most delicious blog. ;)

Andrew Rosenberg said...

Super awesome post. Wicked excellent. Hope to see more blowbackingly brilliant bumbles.

Anonymous said...

Wow, I read your incredibly amazing post and sheepishly thought you were writing right at me. Then I did a word search on my MS (currently @ 60K)... and NO "incredibly". Perhaps there is hope after all.

Edittorrent said...

Rachel, I do like "sheepishly." It's got some meaning to it, plus it makes me think about wool. :)

Unknown said...

My one vice? Brilliant!

Anonymous said...

I hear ya. I read a book recently that probably could have been 30 pages shorter if the author (or her editor) had cut some of that gushing. A little bit here and there is cool, if it contributes to the voice of the character. But too much and it becomes tedious to read. Or, I should say, incredibly exhausting.

Leona said...

So, I'm going to ask an incredibly (ha ha) amatureish question.

Seriously though, what if you are using it to mark an out of character moment?

Edittorrent said...

Leona, if it's used for effect-- if, as I said, you want to replicate the speech of a pre-teener or comically downplay or upplay something-- that's okay. I should probably "get" it if you're doing it for effect. If I don't get it, either I'm not the editor who understands your style, or you're not doing it right. :)

But there's a big difference, I think, in someone doing anything to create a more fun/deeper experience for the reader, and someone doing the same thing because he/she doesn't have much imagination, vocabulary, or understanding of the story.

It's like sentence fragments. When done well, they can add to the feel of the story moment. But if a passage has a lot of sentence fragments that don't seem to have much purpose (and "a lot" suggests that most won't have much purpose-- the complete sentence exists for a reason), I'm going to think two things: 1) this writer doesn't know what a real sentence is, and doesn't care, and 2) I'm going to have to waste a lot of time fixing most of these.

So... less is more, as I always say (and everyone is tired of hearing :).