Ten examples of how the English language is trolling us

Regular readers of my blog will know that my full-time job is as an editor. You’d think that I’d be fully across all the various, ugly, beautiful permutations of English and its stupid-arse spelling.

You’d be wrong.

What brought this to my attention most recently is that in my latest manuscript I spelled “lightning” wrong. Like, every single time. My finger itches to put an e in there, but noooooooo, that would be the verb meaning to make something lighter. As in, “The lightning is lightening the sky.”

Because obviously.

Eyebrow Doctor

Now, to be fair, since I don’t work for the BOM, I don’t read about lightning in my job very much — so it isn’t something I’ve had trained out of me. But still, I did want to pull my hair out a little bit.

Here are some other examples of the ways that English is trolling us:

Alter / altar. One is the verb meaning “to change”; the other is a sacred table or platform at which religious offerings are made.

Baited / bated. One is describing something with bait (such as worms) attached. The other means “restrained” (with relation to breathing) — so the phrase “with bated breath” means with held breath, not with a mouthful of raw prawns. On behalf of all those romance heroines out there, I think we can say that’s a relief.

Blonde / blond. I gather this one is the fault of French, which has gendered adjectives. There, blonde is feminine and blond is masculine. In English, that’s sorta kinda true, but the application varies; my former publishing house’s convention was that “blond” was the adjective that describes hair colour and “a blonde” is a woman with blond hair.

Compliment / complement. The first is a nice thing someone says about you; the second has a bunch of meanings but generally relates to something that completes a thing or makes it perfect.

Climatic / climactic. One relates to weather; the other is the, er, climax of something. I have seen the wrong one used. Who knew weather could be so exciting?

Discreet / discrete. The first is wise, prudent or judicious; the second is detached or distinct. (I still have to look this one up every time.)

Exercise / exorcise. The first is physical activity and the second is to drive out an evil spirit — possibly in response to having seen me exercise! (Scary stuff.)

Grizzly / grisly. The first is something grey or a type of bear (but not a type of bare!). The second is something gruesome.

A sanction can be both authoritative permission and a provision of a law that enacts a penalty for disobedience — so two things that are OPPOSITE to one another. And in my dictionary, at least, as a verb it always means to approve or ratify something — so sentences such as “the UN sanctioned X country for breaching Resolution 1234” are actually saying that the UN approved the country’s actions rather than punishing it. Oh, UN, you so crazy.

Storey / story. One is a floor of a building; the other is a tale we tell ourselves. (This one’s not for US readers, who I gather use “story” for both…?)

So, all of that being the case, how do you avoid your writing being full of hilariously climaxing environments and buildings where each floor is a tale (but not a tail) of wonder (but not wander)? The answer is at once deceptively simple and also a lifelong job:

  • Read a lot
  • Own (and use) a current-edition dictionary of the specific English variant you’re using
  • Proofread your work (I noticed an incorrect “it’s” when I proofread this blog post — gah!)
  • Proofread it again (I did)
  • Have someone else proofread your work — copy editors are worth their weight (not wait) in gold
  • Make a list of words you know you get confused, and then double-check their usage whenever you see (not sea) them

What’s your favourite pair of words that are usually mixed up? Are they about meeting the principled principal? Having dessert in the desert? Eliciting illicit activity? I need (not knead) to know now!

Pleased Doctor

I finished writing a book, you guys

I had an amazingly productive week last week. It turns out all I need to have happen in order for me to get things done is:

a) have a medical treatment that means I feel fine but can’t be around people because I am slightly radioactive, and

b) send my son to his father’s place interstate for a week (see a, above).

Lead container

This is what a lead container holding a radioactive tablet looks like. Note the gloves. #TwoByTwoHandsOfBlue

I had my expensive tablet on Tuesday of last week and went home to my silent house. There, I spent all day continuing to work on my edits for Lucid Dreaming, finishing them by dinnertime. (If you need an editor for an indie project, I can strongly recommend Lauren K. McKellar.)

The next day, I cracked open my work in progress, the fantasy inspired by Ancient Greece, which I’m sure I’ve mentioned here before. I was only a few chapters from the end, so I wrote … and wrote … and wrote… By the weekend, when I collected my son, I had 12k words down, with only a couple thousand left needed to finish the book.

I wrote those couple thousand on Monday night this week.

If you follow me on Twitter or Facebook, you’ll have seen me getting all giddy about it. Because although the draft is — like all first drafts — as rough as guts, and there are a couple of niggling plot holes I have to fix before I do anything else, it’s DONE! And that is the best feeling, because you can’t edit nothing. And because I am a super-slow writer, and the fact I’ve managed to finish five novels is just OMG wow, you guys.

Happy pointing

This was me, basically. Only with more glasses and less bow tie. #BowTiesAreCool

I started this project in October last year, around the same time Isla’s Inheritance came out. It was always a challenging project for me, because I’ve only ever written urban fantasy before, and I found fantasy a lot more difficult due to the world-building required. (That’s why I put off writing it for over a year.) But I attribute more of the delay to the fact I released two books after I started drafting — editing and promotion are time-consuming — and wrote two novellas for different projects as well.

The book doesn’t yet have a name; it’s working title was (wait for it) “Greek Fantasy”. I am a freaking legend at naming things! It’s currently 92k words, making it the longest first draft I’ve ever done.

The plan from here is to proofread Lucid Dreaming so I can give it to the formatter, and then I will read over Greek Fantasy and tidy it up for my critique partners. And then I will start the sequel to Lucid Dreaming, which also doesn’t have a name yet.

(send help)

Five things to do after you finish your manuscript

In case you missed it, here’s my July post over at Aussie Owned and Read, where I make suggestions about things you can do after you finish drafting your manuscript that don’t involve either submitting it to agents or editing it immediately.

Aussie Writers

As I draft this blog post, I’m a chapter away from finishing my fourth manuscript. It’s also the third and final book in my Isla’s Inheritance trilogy—and it’s under contract with a scheduled release date partway through next year, so needless to say I’m pretty keen to get it whipped into shape so I can present it to my editor with a pretty pink bow wrapped around it.

A virtual bow. You can get those, right?

But here’s what I’m going to do (after I do an ecstatic dance around the house, frightening the dogs, and have a brag on Twitter):


That’s right. I’m going to step away from the manuscript. And, gentle reader, if you’re in this situation you should too. If you’re anything like me, you’ll want to dive headfirst into that precious document, to roll around in your words. You’ll be riding the rush of those final…

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My penmonkey evaluation

A couple of days ago on his blog, author and blogger extraordinaire Chuck Wendig posted what he called a penmonkey evaluation—a chance for writers to self-evaluate. I thought it was an interesting exercise so decided I’d do it here. If you decide to evaluate yourself too, please post your blog link in the comments. I’d love to see how others fare.

PenmonkeyWhat’s your greatest strength/skill in terms of writing/storytelling?

Definitely my editing skills. I still have the same problems with being able to impartially view my own work as everyone else, but I think I produce a fairly clean initial draft.

At least grammatically—I make no guarantees as to content!

What’s your greatest weakness in writing/storytelling? What gives you the most trouble?

Transition scenes can die in a fire. I try to avoid them if I can, because I struggle with them so much.

How many books or other projects have you actually finished? What did you do with them?


Isla’s Inheritance – scheduled for release with Turquoise Morning Press in around October 2014

Isla’s Oath – scheduled for release with Turquoise Morning Press in around January 2015

Lucid Dreaming – currently on the agent query world tour

Best writing advice you’ve ever been given? (i.e. really helped you)

After considering all the wonderful advice I’ve received (minimise adverb use, avoid dialogue tags, etc), I couldn’t come up with just one thing I’d rate about the others.

Then I realised it was this, which I got from Mister Wendig himself.

“Just write.”

Writing your first novel is daunting. It’s a bit like mountain climbing solo, or at least what I imagine mountain climbing solo might be like. You have all these tools, and maybe some people to yell at you or inspire you, but you have to do the hard yards yourself. Each step can be torturous. There’s a risk of avalanches, and of being eaten by wolves.

But the feeling when you get to the top is ah-MAY-zing, and the next mountain you climb is just that little bit easier.

Even if you only manage to write 200 words in a session and it’s like squeezing blood from granite, that’s still another step forward.

Worst writing advice you’ve ever been given? (i.e. didn’t help at all, may have hurt)

“The beginning is critical. If you don’t hook your reader, or that agent or editor, you’re screwed.”

This is not inherently bad advice. It’s actually very true. But where it tangled me up was when I was starting that mountain climb on my first book. I knew how critical the beginning was, and I felt from the start that mine had issues. I got so hung up on getting the beginning right that it took me a very long time—embarrassingly long—to move on with writing, you know, the rest of the book.

The reason this is bad advice is because I fixated on it at the wrong time: during drafting rather than editing. When you’re drafting, just draft.

One piece of advice you’d give other writers?

You can edit badly written words. You can’t edit a blank page.

Just write.

In other news, on Tuesday I was over at Marcy Peska’s blog, doing an interview about writing dialogue. Yes, I was talking about writing about talking.

What not to say to your editor

Before I start ranting here — because this is a ranty post — yesterday I appeared as a guest at Stacey Nash’s blog as part of the From Australia With Love tour. There’s a (rather tongue-in-cheek) interview with Isla from Isla’s Inheritance and an excerpt too. You know, if you’re curious.

Yesterday when I got in to work a colleague greeted me very loudly. My boss immediately appeared from her office and started making small talk. Then she asked me if I could pop into her office before I read my emails.

Uh oh.

For those of you that aren’t aware, in my day job I edit technical documents. They are often long and very boring, written by subject matter experts whose areas of expertise seldom include more than passing English language skills. Mostly I love it, but sometimes writers are, quite frankly, a pain in the ass. And I say this as a writer who loves writers.

Well, most of them.

My supervisor wanted to warn me out about a passive aggressive email that came in yesterday while I was on leave, before I saw it and started screeching profanities. To paraphrase, the author of a document I edited last week had observed that he’d “gone through the laborious process of going through the enormous number of suggested edits” before going on to tell me he hadn’t done a bunch of them.

This same writer has previously told me that anyone “with an adult level of reading” would understand what he meant by a certain phrase, after I explained that I’d misread it.

Never mind the fact that some of my edits were basic things like turning fragments into full sentences and pointing out missing information, or that some of the missing information would have been damaging to the organisation I work for if it hadn’t been added.

Needless to say, he didn’t say thank you either.


Excuse me while I put my ranty pants on. (And note that when I say “you” below I don’t mean you you … unless you’d also send the above sort of email. In which case I totally mean you.)

At the risk of stating the obvious, taking this tone with your editor is not helpful. It comes across as prima donna-ish, like you think you’re above the editing process. If you do think this, here’s a newsflash: no one is above the editing process. I’m a professional editor who draws a pretty good salary for what I do. I have what I like to think are very high levels of English grammar skills (although now I’ve said that I’m just waiting for someone to spot a typo in this post!), and I am not above the editing process.

This is why I bend over backwards to do what my editor asks me. Because I figure if she’s asking me a question then I haven’t made myself clear enough, and if she misreads something so will readers. The same goes for the questions my beta readers ask.

Not to mention the fact that everyone makes typos, and it’s almost impossible to proofread your own work.

If you get rage-inducing feedback from an editor, agent, crit partner or your mother, WALK AWAY FROM THE KEYBOARD. Take a breath. Think about it. Don’t drive angry, and above all when you reply thank them for their time even if you want to strangle them. (If you have an agent and the editor’s suggestions are unacceptable, let them go back and be the bad guy.)

To do anything else is unprofessional. And, as agent Laura Zats blogged last week, “There’s always another author. There’s always another book.”

Beginnings: starting in the right place

Starting your journey... Source

Starting your journey… Source

One bit of advice you’ll often hear from agents and various other book people—such as PitchWars mentors and other competition judges—is to make sure your book starts in the right place. I’m basically giving you that same message, but thought I’d do it with an example.

The inciting event—the first big, life-changing incident that triggers the plot—in Isla’s Inheritance happens at a Halloween party. That event is in the first chapter of the novel, and always was…but the first draft of that chapter started with Isla and her cousin Sarah receiving the party invitation and sorting out costumes. I’m still fond of that scene, because it sets up the relationship between the two characters, and Sarah is a lot of fun to write. But it wasn’t the best place. Isla thinking about whether she had time to get her homework done before the party wasn’t exactly the sort of thing that hooked the reader.

In my defence, it was my first novel, and I learned by making the mistake. :p

The fact my opening sucked bugged me all through drafting the book, so after I’d finished and taken the time to get a bit of distance from the writing, I went back again. (The distance is crucial. As I said, I was fond of the costume-choosing scene, which meant I needed to take the time to see it for what it was.) I cut the first part, and started the scene instead with the two girls and Sarah’s older brother, Ryan, arriving at the party. That’s better, I thought!

That was the version of the book I started querying. I entered it in PitchWars at the end of 2012, and the feedback I got from mentors really shook me. I was still starting in the wrong place, damnit! Again, I was still taking time to establish the characters. I had Sarah and Isla giggle over an old school crush. Dance. I thought I was setting the scene, but it was still slow.

I went back and amputated even more from the scene. By this point I’d probably removed around 2000 words. Now it starts with Isla, at the party, meeting Dominic—her eventual boyfriend—and getting invited to participate in a séance. Sarah doesn’t even appear until the end of the chapter.

Whether that ends up being the perfect starting point for the book will ultimately be decided by my editor at Turquoise Morning Press, and—if she is happy with it—by the reader. But it is far, far better than where I began.

If you’re getting told your book starts too slowly, have a look at what you’re trying to show the reader in your opening scene. For example, say you start with your character jogging, thinking about their life (apparently this is a very common beginning, as is staring into a mirror). You want the reader to see upfront that your main character is a physical creature who has problems that need pondering. Instead, why not start with the manifestation of the problems. You can always have the character jog later, or mention the athletics trophies being knocked to the ground during a zombie attack—that sort of thing.

Obviously there are exceptions to every rule. (For example, if your character is doing a marathon and they rupture their Achilles tendon in the first page, or get hit by a car, because the rest of the story is about their healing journey.)

I’d like to think I’ve learned this lesson now. I’ve started three other novels, and all of them have a much quicker beginning to the plot. But I learned it the hard way. Avoid my mistake, grasshopper!

In case you missed it, check out my latest advice post over at Aussie Owned and Read… Querying agents and publishers: a glossary.


Show, don’t tell

I’ve been in the edit cave since I finished Lucid Dreaming at the end of August. There’s been Isla’s Inheritance, Lucid Dreaming and now Isla’s Oath, as well as a couple of critiques for good friends. If there was a NaNoEditMo, I’d be totally caning it — even if the goal were more than the 50,000 that the NaNoWriMo folks are aiming for.

Dalek Advice

Weak prose: daleks say no

At least, that’s what I’m telling myself. (I’m not doing NaNoWriMo because I’m more of a NaNoSlowMo!)

Anyway, I always knew one of the writing mantras was show, don’t tell. But it wasn’t till after I went through my wonderful editor’s feedback on Isla’s Inheritance that I truly appreciated the breadth of this phrase.

It’s a funny expression, in a way. I mean, we’re writers. By definition, everything we do is telling, not showing. But the trick is to make the reader forget that you’re telling them. 😉

I always applied it to info dumps: those really boring parts of a book where you, say, summarised a piece of a character’s history. Better to have the character discuss said history in conversation — with someone who doesn’t know about it, obviously. (Don’t commit that awful crime you see on TV where characters repeat things to each other that no real person would, just to convey meaning to the reader/watcher. Ugh.)

That’s not to say that I didn’t have any info dumps in Isla’s Inheritance, but I managed to keep them under control for the most part. Or at least I recognised them when I saw them when I edited under my own steam, and cut them out.

But where I hadn’t fully applied show, don’t tell was in describing my character’s emotions, and in things she observed in the world around her. My manuscript was full of phrases like:

I felt guilty.

I heard sirens.

I saw him flinch.

Better to say:

My stomach churned with guilt.

The wail of sirens drew closer. (Or “The sirens’ wails drew closer”, if you’re on a passive sentence crusade.)

He flinched.

They convey the same meaning, but the latter set punches it up a notch. It’s the difference between telling someone a story and giving them the full immersion experience.

Show, don’t tell is my new favourite piece of advice. I may get it tattooed on my arm. (Ok, probably not, but it’s still a good one!)

Update: words to be wary of

EditingI’ve been doing a lot of editing in the last two months. A lot. I’ve done a first read on Lucid Dreaming, and separately incorporated feedback from a CP on it. I’ve CPed something in return. And, the biggest one of all, I got my first-round edits back from Turquoise Morning Press on Isla’s Inheritance.

So I guess it’s no surprise that I’ve added words to my list of things to keep an eye out for. So here’s an updated version. Maybe it will help others out too.

Adverbs (words usually ending in ly) – Do a search for words ending in “ly” and see whether you need them. Sometimes you can delete them outright; other times you can write around them. Rarely will you need them.

Dialogue tags such as gasped, shouted, yelled, cried, squealed, exclaimed, pronounced, whispered… I could go on all day. Check out this post if you want more information.

began to, started to, suddenly – “She began to run” is a long-winded way of saying “she ran”. Sometimes “began to” can be useful—say, when a girl begins crying halfway through an argument with her boyfriend—but not usually. And the house “suddenly” exploding isn’t any more shocking than the house exploding.

had – I’ve seen some people suggest you never need the word “had”. I don’t agree; in a past-tense novel it can be useful to flag that you’re talking about something that happened prior to the current scene. For example, “I had been to the shops”. If you say “I went to the shops” the way you would in a present-tense document (or life) then people will get confused about when the event happened. That being said, it’s not always necessary so use with caution.

of the – This is a typical indicator of a passive sentence, which is often unnecessary and always more wordy than an active sentence. For example: “The hair of the dog” vs “The dog’s hair”. Times you might want to keep a passive sentence include when the actor in the sentence is irrelevant or unknown; for example, “He was killed” versus “Bob killed him”. The latter is spoileriffic!

around, possibly, probably, likely, usually, almost, mostly – Do you need the qualification? If not, it should go.

seemed to – Because both my books are in the first person I overuse this phrase to describe my character’s interpretation of others’ feelings, thoughts or opinions. But nine times out of ten it doesn’t need to be there.

realised, knew, thought, saw, heard, felt (or their present-tense equivalents) These phrases all flag a place where you’re telling rather than showing. “I felt angry” is the author telling the reader how the character felt, rather than showing it: “My fists clenched as fury raced through my veins”. (It’s terrifying how often I misuse these words!)

of Sometimes this is unnecessary. Consider ‘The rage beat inside of my heart’. What is the ‘of’ contributing?

that – Sometimes you need “that” in a sentence. There are quite a few of them throughout this blog post. But you can often delete it with no impact on the meaning. Also, make sure you shouldn’t really be using ‘which’.

very, really, pretty (when it’s being used to mean “very”), just, simply, totally, finally, apparently, allegedly, supposedly, usually, awesome, fabulous, fantastic, incredible, wonderful – I keep these in dialogue and thoughts (because that’s how people talk), but at almost no other time. Note a lot of them are also adverbs?

Edits, procrastination and Chicken of the Year…

I edit for a living. Not in the publishing industry, mind you—so don’t try and pitch me anything!—but in the public sector. Lots of boring non-fiction. So I’m pretty familiar with the process.

Not the receiving end of it, though.

As I mentioned in my last post, I got my first-round edits back from Turquoise Morning Press a few days ago. In her email, Shelby said, “Please don’t be discouraged when you open it and see all the comments and marks. This is the first round and I ask a lot of questions.”

Uh oh, I thought. That’s the same thing I write in my feedback emails when I’ve totally smashed a piece.

I mentioned it to a colleague, who laughed and asked me what I’d do if I opened the document and it was a wall of red. I squirmed.

I should add, everything Shelby said in the email itself made perfect sense, and some of it confirmed quiet suspicions I’d had about some of my characters (one in particular I neglected as the book went on, and I probably shouldn’t!).

I wasn’t able to open the file at first. I was still in the process of setting up my PC, and hadn’t installed Word yet (a long story that involves a product key not kept with the disc, because it was in my email, which I couldn’t access until my ADSL had been set up, which I couldn’t access because my network card wasn’t wireless—ok, not that long a story).

This is basically me, without the glasses. (Source)

This is basically me, without the glasses. (Source)

But I got my Word and email set up on Sunday night. It’s now Wednesday, and I probably qualify for Chicken of the Year.

I told myself that, since I was part-way through a beta-read of Stacey’s manuscript, I really should finish that first.

I finished it yesterday evening.

Now I’m telling myself that I’ve got guests tonight, so I couldn’t possibly have time to have a quick look at Shelby’s comments. Thursday. I’ll do it Thursday.

Although I do still have to unpack the rest of my books, and sort out the garage so I actually have room to use it as a, you know, garage.

Maybe by the weekend?

You may commence making chicken noises in three, two, one—GO!


He said, she said: dialogue tags

Source: wiki commons

Source: wiki commons

I mentioned dialogue tags briefly a while ago in a post about “crimes” I commit when drafting—I tend to leave out the name of the other actor in a conversation between them and my first-person main character. It’s one of the things I edit in later.

Here’s a more comprehensive set of thoughts on dialogue tags. Anyone who’s read On Writing by Stephen King will know his advice, but here’s a summary:

  • Don’t underestimate the power of “said”. Readers usually don’t notice it, and it lets you anchor the identity of the speaker in the reader’s mind with a minimum of fuss.
  • You don’t have to attribute every single line of dialogue. In a back-and-forth conversation between two characters, it’s usually pretty obvious who is speaking for several lines after you include a dialogue tag. And if you have “X said” at the end of every quote, your reader will get annoyed.
  • Dialogue tags other than “said” should be used sparingly (see example one, below).
  • Consider using character action as part of the same paragraph that contains the dialogue. The action then identifies the speaker.

Example one: too many dialogue tags

This excerpt is taken from Isla’s Inheritance, although I’ve edited it to demonstrate how jarring excessive dialogue tags can be.

“It’s me. Dominic,” he said.

“Dommie?!” I squealed.

“If you must,” he replied dryly.

“I didn’t know you were back!” I exclaimed.

“Got back a few days ago; been catching up with the folks. Hence the lack of effort,” he laughed, indicating his Halloween costume with a wave of his sheet.

“It could have been embarrassing—I almost wore the same thing,” I admitted.

I’ve actually seen poorly edited books that read like this. I sit there wondering whether the author used a thesaurus to avoid repeating the same descriptive word—which means I’ve stopped paying attention to the story and am paying attention to the poor craftsmanship instead.

To make it clear: I’m not saying to never use these words. But I avoid any dialogue tag that doesn’t describe something the reader wouldn’t have gotten from the dialogue itself. For example, “shouted” and “whispered” are okay in moderation, as are “murmured” and “muttered”. But there’s never a reason to use “exclaimed” (because the punctuation mark already indicates that the dialogue is an exclamation), and if you’re using words like “flirted”, consider instead describing the flirtation. (“Hi there,” I flirted doesn’t tell us much; “Hi there,” I said with a wink is much more descriptive.)

Example two: a mix of tags and action

Here is the same sample text as in example one, with minimal dialogue tags, and action used to anchor the reader in the scene. (I also used fewer adverbs.)

“It’s me. Dominic.”

“Dommie?!” I sat up straight.

“If you must,” he said, voice dry.

“I didn’t know you were back!”

“Got back a few days ago; been catching up with the folks. Hence the lack of effort.” He indicated his Halloween costume with a wave of his sheet.

“It could have been embarrassing—I almost wore the same thing.”

Because there are only two characters, I don’t need to attribute every line. It gets more complicated when you’re dealing with multiple characters, but that’s where use of action really comes into its own.

Know the rules before you break them

One technique I noticed Aussie bestseller John Marsden use is not bothering even trying to attribute the dialogue. He used this particular technique when he had a bunch of teenage characters chatting excitedly and it didn’t really matter who was saying what. Stripping all the dialogue tags and action out sped the dialogue up to a sprint, which conveyed the conversation’s sheer chaos.

This is definitely a case where you need to understand the rules before you disregard them, though—the same technique wouldn’t have worked in any of the other dialogue scenes in his book, so he didn’t use it there.

Variety is key

As with most things in life, the best guide for dialogue tags is “everything in moderation”. If you mix up “said” with other dialogue tags, no dialogue tags and action, you’ll have a pretty solid foundation for conveying your dialogue and furthering your story.