The writing tip that ruined me: Just use ‘said’

he said she saidOnce more into the breach! Let’s face our snootiest fault-finders! Let’s brave their cutting remarks, their prickly barbs, their scorching criticisms! Ouch! Gird your literary loins!

They warn, “An unreasonable aversion to the word ‘said’ is a sure sign of an amateur.”
“Fancy synonyms just distract from your dialog,” they declare.
“The word ‘said’ is so inconspicuous, it’s like a punctuation mark,” they opine. “You cannot overuse it.”
“And using an adverb to enhance your dialog is an unforgivable sin,” they snidely decree.
“You can’t ‘chuckle’ out a phrase,” they guffaw.

OK, I get it. Expert advice says that writers should just use the word ‘said,’ or use nothing at all. Here. And here. And in many ways it’s liberating to have permission to overuse a word that is so easy to overuse. But I think that a more moderate approach is needed. In my opinion, there are many alternatives to ‘said,’ that, if used correctly, help add some color and specificity to a passage. And they’re also unobtrusive enough that most readers won’t consciously notice them. Words like state, demand, bark, warn, and scoff all have their place (usually in close proximity to a quotation mark).

I get the fact that a line like: ‘“Get on the floor,” he demanded’ is a bit redundant. I understand the idea that if your dialog properly pops off the page, then it doesn’t need to be cluttered with extra attributions or descriptions. But I’m not Cormac McCarthy. I think I’ll choose to shoot for some middle ground, if leaning a bit toward the ‘less is more’ line of thought.

And as I’ve thought about it, I agree with the critics who say that substituting ‘said’ with a action verb can get a bit awkward, and sometimes physically impossible. Sentences like:
“They’re coming,” he grimaced.
“You can’t wear white after Labor Day,” she laughed.
“I’ll be right there,” he grunted.

It’s hard to grimace, laugh, or grunt while talking. These lines probably work better reordered:
He grimaced. “They’re coming.”
She laughed. “You can’t wear white after Labor Day.”
He grunted. “I’ll be right there.”

I just read: The Book of Strange New Things

bookofstrangenewthingsThe author, Michel Faber, came up with a cool premise for this book. It’s essentially a ‘first contact’ story. Mankind has made it to a planet called Oasis, and on that planet we’ve found other sentient beings. When it comes to sci-fi, I think it’s an intriguing conceit to flip the usual assumptions, and make the aliens less advanced/more needy than mankind. These aliens are farmers—and that’s about it. Other than their extremely disturbing faces (I won’t spoil Faber’s descriptions by recapping them here), there’s nothing too notable about them. Except for what they want from us.

They want more Jesus.

Enter Peter Leigh, who has been hired as an interstellar missionary by USIC, which is the corporation that has established an HQ on Oasis. USIC wants to keep the natives happy so they won’t disturb their various, nebulous projects on the planet.

I really loved the beginning of this book. Peter is driving to the airport with his wife. It’s nighttime, and the mood is very mysterious and detached. The couple is averse to listening to music in the car, so instead they discuss the aesthetics of electric light. They kvetch over their loved one, Joshua. How will Joshua deal with Peter’s absence? Can Peter stand being away from Joshua for so long? Eventually we learn that Joshua is a house cat. Just when you begin to assume that these two have never consummated their marriage, Peter’s wife instructs him to pull over and they bone in the backseat.

But this air of mystery doesn’t last for more than the first thirty pages or so. We learn more about Peter, who seems like a very well-grounded, open-minded man—if sometimes high-strung. I wouldn’t have expected a devout Christian to be presented so sympathetically in a science fiction book.

Although Peter is presented as a likable guy—at first—his faith and his marriage are sorely tested as he continues his stay on Oasis. Faber treats us to page-after-page of Peter’s wife’s emails (in a tiny font with super wide margins), in which she goes on and on about her life and every dismaying story in the newspaper. There is a point to these long passages. Faber is showing the reader how distance and isolation can so effectively alienate us from the ones we love. Still, I don’t know if we need so many pages to illustrate that fact. As Peter gets more and more involved with his missionary work, he is less and less engaged with what’s going on in his wife’s day-to-day life. (And honestly can you blame him? Aliens!)

There’s another purpose to these long email exchanges: to show how quickly life on Earth is turning to crap. Meanwhile, all of the USIC employees on Oasis go through their days without seeming to care.  One of Peter’s co-workers begins to crack up under the pressure of all of the good-natured ambivalence. (Peter is going a little wackadoo himself.) And Faber begins to build a nice bit of tension. What is the ugly truth behind the aliens’ desire for spiritual deliverance? What’s the dark secret behind the USIC’s workaday purgatory? As the book progressed, I started to expect a final shocking twist, worthy of The Twilight Zone or Lost.

I’ll let you decide for yourself if you think the book delivers on that tension. For me, I’d have to say the last 25% of the book left me cold.

Descending Soon!

Line of DescentVoila! Finally ready to reveal the nearly-final cover design for LINE OF DESCENT, along with a blurb. Woo-hoo! If anyone’s interested in a free advance copy of the book in exchange for your honest feedback on the book, let me know. I’m giving away a limited number of free ebooks, once they’re ready! (Hopefully by February 1st.)  Here’s the blurb:

“Some women dread the idea of turning into their mothers. For heiress Elise Gardener, that dread has become all too real.

Elise has always been the spooky misfit of her wealthy family—and a disappointment to her overbearing mother. Elise’s problem is that she’s supernaturally sensitive. She’s an empath who can’t help seeing and feeling the intimate emotions—sometimes painful and shameful—of every person she meets. While her cousins are starting glamorous and lucrative careers, Elise is happy working as an unseen housekeeper at a camp for underprivileged children. But Elise’s cloistered life is shattered when her mother seemingly drowns herself.

Elise invites her tenuous best friend—Mallory, a girl she’s only known for two months—to the memorial at the Gardeners’ private isle on the Georgia coast. Together, they discover that Elise’s family have a sinister secret that they’ve been keeping for generations.

They are in the thrall of a dark spirit—a powerful, primordial ancestor who lives eternally by possessing the bodies of its descendants. Elise’s own mother was its last host…and the Gardeners’ inner circle have been raising Elise to be next.

As the entity invades her mind, Elise is haunted by the memories of its past victims (including a Khmer princess and a mesmerist in pre-Revolution Paris). Through these visions she may find salvation, but her chances are slim. In 8,000 years no heir has ever broken free of the Gardener’s Line of Descent.”


If you’re interested in one of a limited number of free copies, please contact me at jderrywriter at


Should I Change the Name of my Book?

rose_name_62540860One of the major caveats that critics level against self-publishing is that without the weight of a big publisher behind you, your book is likely to get lost among the hundreds of other indie ebooks that come out each week. Now, I agree that getting noticed in the clutter is a major concern, but the advocates of traditional publishing seem to be stuck on this old-school idea that Amazon is a gigantic warehouse storing billions of books—or the online equivalent of a hoarder’s bonus room. There’s a better way for authors to view Amazon. Not as a warehouse—or even as a bookstore—but as a search engine. Think about how a consumer shops on Amazon, versus browsing at a Barnes & Noble outlet. What’s the first thing a consumer does when she goes to She clicks on that search bar and starts typing.

There’s plenty of great articles that discuss how to ’Search Engine Optimize’ your book to be more discoverable on Amazon. Here. And here. And here. Through proper selection of keywords and categories, you can draw in potential readers who are actively seeking your type of book. And isn’t that more effective than placing your book in a bookstore, where 90% of the customers are just there to browse or drink coffee?

This search engine democratization is another way that Amazon is leveling the playing field between indie and traditional publishers. In fact, you could say that a indie author has an advantage when it comes to Amazon search results…as long as the indie can present their book with a cover and blurb that is engaging and professional. Consider this: a consumer searches for a very specific type of sub-genre (historical fiction supernatural beach-read featuring leprechauns), and she finds two ebooks that strike her fancy, is she more likely to buy the traditionally published ebook at $10.99 or the indie ebook at $2.99?

With all this said, I recently took a good hard look at the title of one of my books, Turning, and started a self-debate about the ‘discoverability’ of that title. When I searched ‘Kindle ebooks’ for ’Turning,’ Amazon spat out 1,934 results. At least twenty of those ebooks were called ‘Turning,’ or some variation of the name that was very, very similar. I had to ask myself the question: If a potential fan found out about my book (through my blog, through Twitter, or some other way) and searched for its exact title on the Kindle store, what would they do if they couldn’t find my book on the first page of search results? Granted, I’m not sure how often this scenario is likely to come up. Hopefully most readers would find out about Turning through a source that would provide a direct link to the book on Amazon. But it’s a big enough issue to consider seriously.

So I started to think of names that would be more unique and more engaging on the Kindle store. It was tough, because I really liked the title ‘Turning.’ My wife did too. It’s simple, it’s short, it would stand out well on a cover. I especially liked the way that the word has a double meaning that obviously implies a transformation (it’s a story about a spirit who reincarnates itself inside bodies of its own descendants) and more subtly implies a theme of cycles and the passage of time. I played with that second meaning a lot throughout the book, with imagery of circles, cycles of the sun and moon, the tides, the idea of reincarnation and Samsara, repeating patterns from one generation to the next, on and on.

First I brainstormed new words that were more specific to the story. I liked words like possession, scion, inheritance, legacy, lineage, vessel, and perennial. I really liked the word ‘succession’ because it has a royal connotation (the evil spirit in the story is named Regina—as in Queen), and it has a ‘hostile takeover’ sort of feel to it. Line of Succession. Yeah, I thought that sounded pretty good. But then, ‘Succession’ is kind of a hard word to say. And also, there were several suspense/thrillers with the same title. In the same vein of royal lineage, I liked The Living End. A historical phrase that sounds like a creepy oxymoron. But apparently there’s a popular band with the same name, which would cause a major issue with Google results, and also at least one other interesting ebook with the same name. I’ve always liked the phrase Vicious Circle, but it was also fairly popular. And I was afraid it sounded too… vicious. I liked the name Law of Possession, which I pulled from the old adage ‘Possession is nine-tenths of the law.’’ But my wife really hated that one.

So what next? My wife suggested the word ‘descent,’ which also has a nice double meaning. But there were a lot of media products with that one-word title, including a horror movie called The Descent. (The first half of that film, which shows spelunkers squeezing through tiny gaps between giant boulders, was way more anxiety-inducing than the half with the cannibalistic subterranean humanoids.) What about Line of Descent? I liked the idea of a inexorable, unceasing line that’s always moving forward (or maybe downward in this case) because I think that’s a good way to describe the reincarnating villain. Although it’s a definite departure from the cycle/circle theme… Anyway, the more I thought about it, the more I liked it. I think it’s more descriptive, more meaty—and less likely to be confused for a vampire or werewolf story. Line of Descent! Yeah! Cue the latter-era Trent Reznor music!

And I’m mega-excited about getting the book out there to be discovered! I expect that I’ll soon change the ‘Turning’ tab and the blurb-page on this blog. And keep an eye out for a Line of Descent promo image that I hope to use as my blog header. Here’s hoping that Line of Descent will be available for purchase by February!

The Writing Tip That Ruined Me: “If I was”

fear is the mind killer catFrankie says ‘Relax.’ And Frank Herbert wrote ‘Fear is the mind killer.’ Both of them had a point. Fear—or more in this case, self-doubt—can definitely be fatally counter-productive. So what do you do when you discover a grammar rule that strikes fear into your writer’s heart with its cruelly ambiguous and arbitrary nature? You face your fear…Joe Rogan style! Let’s do this.

Today’s writing tip that ruined me involves “if I was.” As in, “If I was to write a sentence using the subjunctive mood, I would go insane.” That’s because sometimes it’s proper to use “was” and sometimes it’s proper to use “were,” even when the subject is singular.

Let’s analyze the differences between the usages:
You use “was” in an “if” clause if the conditional event is something that could be true:
“Keri walked through the crowd as if she was in a hurry.”
In this sentence, Keri could very well be in a hurry. It’s not meant to be a certainty, but it’s certainly possible.

Compare that to this sentence:
“Keri walked through the crowd as if she were a rhino charging to a campfire.”
This “if” statement, although more colorful, could never be actually true.

Look at this post from Grammar Girl. She can explain the inanity far better than I can:

Here are other correct usages from that post:
“If Bill was to come over, we’d talk football.” With this usage, the speaker is indicating that it’s possible that Bill will come over. So bone up on your fantasy-league stats.

“If Bill were to come over, we’d talk football.” With this usage, it’s implied that Bill is most definitely not coming over. He may be dead or in a coma.

or how about this:
“I wish I were more perceptive.” In this usage, the person is saying they cannot be more perceptive. That the state of being more perceptive is an impossibility for them.

So there you go; hopefully that makes things as clear as mud. Check out this post for more on verb moods: The indicative, subjunctive, imperative, or conditional. Or if you’re feeling really brave, check out these posts of other writing tips that ruined me. Here. And here.

I Just Read: Fourth of July Creek

Fourth_of_July_CreekThe word ‘forewarned’—does it need to exist? Or is it an example of slapping an unnecessary prefix on a verb that was already functioning quite well on its own? In my opinion, the most annoying example of this is ‘preheat.’ I want to write a letter to Marie Calendar and ask her what’s the difference between preheating an oven and just heating it. Then I’ll end the letter with my patented catchphrase, “If it ain’t broke, don’t prefix it!”

Anyhoo… Be (fore)warned, if you actively avoid stories about abused or neglected children, then you’ll probably want to steer clear of Fourth of July Creek. In my case, I was intrigued by a review of this book in Entertainment Weekly, and decided to check it out despite the depressing premise. The $1.99 price tag was also a big selling point.

The novel tells the story of a social worker, Pete Snow, who gets wrapped up in seditious happenings in the outskirts of Montana in the early 1980s. The book read like a modern Western to me, which was what I was hoping for. The beautiful descriptions of the Montana landscape, and the cast of brink-of-the-law characters helped to contribute to that feel. And the author, Smith Henderson, occasionally sidles in a stream-consciousness-through-choppy-waters style that made me think of a more narrative version of Cormac McCarthy.

Henderson also employs an interesting style while the narrative follows Pete’s daughter, Rachel. Her story unfolds in as a sort of Q&A that she’s having with herself.

“And does (her mother) keep Rachel home now, say for her to cut class and stay home?
And do they watch TV all day and go for long drives and was it like they were always just waiting for Rachel to get old enough so they could be friends and tell each other everything?
That’s what her mother says.
And what is the everything Rachel tells, on the porch in the cooling of the evening?
Nothing. Her mother does all the telling.”

Appropriately unsettling, and there’s something about it that gives off a sort of rebellious teenage rhetorical style (navel-gazing, back-talking). Or is this a rendering of an interview that Rachel’s giving to another social worker, explaining how crappy her parents are?

The main character, Pete, is definitely a crappy parent—and a hard protagonist to root for in the traditional sense. He reminded me of George Clooney’s character in The Descendants. I’ve never read that novel, but during the movie adaptation I kept wanting to yell at his character, “Stop galavanting around Hawaii and help your daughters deal with the fact that their mother is brain-dead!” At least Pete’s flaws are obviously and unsympathetically presented, and Pete suffers and learns from his mistakes.

Overall, Fourth of July Creek is a bleak book, but I’m glad I read it. I think it will probably make my Top 5 reads of the year.