Quick Fix: Conjunctions

I don’t know about you, but I’ve had Schoolhouse Rock’s “Conjunction Junction” stuck in my head since third grade. People have a tendency to overlook conjunctions; like prepositions, they’re the boring (song exempt!) building blocks of our language. We usually don’t pay a lot of attention to them in writing and editing. But conjunctions help to make ideas flow smoothly. When conjunctions and prepositions are used incorrectly or oddly, they often alert me to an issue with the writing on a syntax level. I’m going to focus on just two conjunctions—”and” and “but”—in today’s post.

Please enjoy my simple examples I obviously put a lot of thought into!

“And” joins two related things

“And” appears everywhere in our writing. On a stylistic level, I love a repeated “and” to increase emotional intensity (“beautiful and lovely and smart” in lieu of “beautiful, lovely, and smart”) or the inverse with “and” eliminated (“beautiful, lovely, smart”). But “and” also serves an important function, especially when combining two independent clauses. Those clauses need to be related. For example: “She sat at her desk and the dog went to get some water.” This would be better separated into two sentences. They have two different subjects. Her sitting down at her desk doesn’t affect whether the dog goes to get water. Consider another example: “She sat at her desk and her eye caught the mirror.” This could be better rephrased as “She sat at her desk and caught her reflection in the mirror.” (Or whatever it is her eye caught.) There are lots of additional options to replace “and.” A semi-colon can be remarkably effective in connecting two phrases that don’t appear related on first glance. For the most part, “and” functions perfectly well and doesn’t necessarily need a second look. But if you do a search and spot an unusual number of them on the page, consider whether they’re working to their full potential.

“But” requires conflict

How many times did I begin a sentence in the last paragraph with “But?” I have no issue starting a sentence with a conjunction. It can be remarkably effective in creative, stylized writing—don’t quote me on formal writing! You should remember, though, that “but” must appear in opposition to something. For example: “she wanted to sit at her desk, but thought better of it.” This is particularly important when discussing competing ideas. They have to be in conflict with each other. “She loved him, but she found him spectacular.” These two things are not in conflict. Now, this is not a complex example of competing ideas. I see issues with this more commonly spread out over several sentences or a paragraph. When using “but,” make sure you’ve clearly identified the antagonist, as it were, earlier in the sentence (or in a close preceding sentence). Again, most people have a firm grasp on the use of “but,” but it never hurts to remain vigilant when editing!

If you have questions about pesky issues like these, please feel to suggest topics for this series in the comments below or on Twitter.

Quick Fix: An Editor’s Tips

After a long hiatus, I’m back to updating my blog and starting a new series: Quick Fix (thank you to The Huntswoman for the name).

In reviewing submissions and editing novels, I see the same small issues pop up again and again. We all have what I refer to as “writing tics.” In fact, I often end editorial letters to my authors with a summary of their most used. These range from overuse of “just” to POV issues signaled by italics to too many em-dashes. I myself am prone to too many parentheses; overladen, overwritten sentences; and repetition.

A large part of my job involves making good writing better. So how do you do that? Establish a voice, consistently apply POV, and eliminate redundancies, among other things.

Above all, good writing requires clarity.

The good news is, there are lots of quick and easy tricks to improve your writing. This series will provide a summary of what I look for as I read, along with issues that pop up consistently over the course of longer edits.

So let’s dive right in. 

Yes, No, Fix It So

“He nods his head ‘yes.'”

“She shakes her head ‘no.'”

Can you guess why I would flag these sentences?

The “yes” and “no” in these examples can and often should be eliminated. These are redundant. The “yes” and “no” are implicit in the action. You don’t nod your head “no” or shake your head “yes” in most cultures (I use “most” only because I don’t know what I don’t know; if this is a common practice in other cultures, please tell me!).

Peak/Peek/Pique 

An agent I work with posted something about this on Twitter the other day. Misuse of peak/peek/pique comes up all the time. I’m often guilty of it. I second-guess peak/peek all the time. But I’m most concerned when I come across a peak/peek used instead of pique. I don’t mind a letter mistake, but I do become concerned at usage that requires a different root and spelling.

All definitions (the most applicable ones) c/o Merriam-Webster:

Peak (noun)- 1. Promontory; 2. A sharp of pointed end.

(adjective) Being at or reaching maximum.

Peek (verb)- 1. To look furtively; 2. To take a brief look; glance

Pique (verb)- 1. to excite or arouse especially by a provocation, challenge, or rebuff; 2. to arouse anger or resentment in; irritate.

(noun) A transient feeling of wounded vanity; resentment

You see the difference? You reach the peak of a mountain or peak productivity. You peek around a corner. His comment piques your interest, which leaves your friend in a fit of pique.

In other words, you peek at the peak of a mountain, the height of which piques your curiosity.

We all make mistakes! I’m sure I’ve made a number here. We all could use an edit. Good writing contains mistakes; the best we can do is be smart about them. I hope Quick Fix will help you do just that.

Join me on Twitter, where I share more writing advice and publishing industry news.

An (Overdue) BookExpo TBR

BookExpo happened two months ago, but it’s still fresh in my mind thanks to my recent reading choices. For those who don’t follow New York publishing as closely as some people track, say, baseball stats or college football rankings, BookExpo has become the industry’s de facto trade show. It highlights fall books, the publication season for many publishing heavyweights–particularly in literary fiction–and buzzworthy debuts.

BookExpo (and I struggle here not to use its old abbreviation, BEA) has become something of a phenomenon, particularly since the addition of BookCon, a consumer-facing weekend for fans. Bloggers, media professionals, and publishing professionals now compete alongside librarians, booksellers, and distributors for advance editions of coveted fall titles. It’s become, well, something of a circus.

Last year, BookExpo occurred in Chicago, and I missed the opportunity to go. But I made it to Javits the previous two years to attend for a few limited hours. This year I had my own badge, and so I decided to take advantage of it.

BookExpo is best experienced with a plan. If your goal is to accumulate books, you need to find out when signings and giveaways will occur, some of which can be found online in the days leading up to the show (I had located some dates/times for giveaways from sources like Publishers Weekly, then found a helpful Google doc a couple days before the show). I mapped out a game plan the night before the show started. I printed out a list of giveaways and signings, highlighted the ones I was interested in, found dates and times, and arranged them all in a color-coded Google doc. Since many happened at the same times, I bolded my priority titles.

This year, I decided, I would only get books I really wanted to read. It didn’t exactly work out that way, but I managed to snag copies of almost every ARC I set out to get.

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A peek at some of my ARCs on Instagram @breakfastatkaits

Here’s what I’m looking forward to reading (asterisks denote that I’ve already read):

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng*

I loved Everything I Never Told You, so I had high hopes for this one. It did not disappoint. Celeste Ng is a master of complicated mother/daughter dynamics. (Side note: my signed copy was swiped from our editor-in-chiefs desk, and I am devastated.)

Forest Dark by Nicole Krauss*

If anyone else has read this yet, I’m eager to discuss!

Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan*

Fine, I didn’t actually acquire this one at BookExpo, but I’m obsessed. I don’t think anyone else can construct a narrative like Jennifer Egan, and my investment in some of these characters caught me off guard. I admire the risks she takes with every book–especially her fearlessness in taking on something new, like historical fiction.

Sourdough by Robin Sloan*

This has all the hallmarks of his debut novel Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore: quirky characters, futuristic technology, cult-like groups of those with narrow interest. Set again in the tech scene of San Francisco, Sourdough was a delightful read that had me constantly Googling the latest in food tech. Also, it’s inspired me to find a San Francisco-worthy sourdough loaf in New York.

The Misfortune of Marion Palm by Emily Culliton*

I just finished this today, so still processing my thoughts about it, but this is a perfect read for people who loved Where’d You Go, Bernadette.

The Last Mrs. Parrish by Liv Constantine

Code Girls by Liza Mundy

The Girls in the Picture by Melanie Benjamin

The Twelve-Mile Straight by Eleanor Henderson

Buzz Books:

The Buzz Panel, which usually occurs Wednesday afternoon for adult fiction, has become something of a tastemaker. Every year, six books–usually a mix of fiction and non-fiction, although all fiction this year–are selected as buzzworthy titles. They are presented by their editors. The only requirement is that the author not be well-known, which means that many are debuts. They often include some of the year’s biggest breakouts (Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven or Ruth Ware’s In a Dark, Dark Wood, for instance). At the end of the Buzz Panel presentation, attendees can grab advance copies (if you can fight your way through the sea of people). I managed to get all six books this year.

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Buzz Panel books on Instagram @breakfastatkaits

Unravelling Oliver by Liz Nugent

Stay With Me by Ayobami Adebayo

The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin

My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent

The World of Tomorrow by Brendan Matthews

The Woman in the Window by A.J. Finn

If you want to read/are reading/have read any of these, please let me know!

On Keeping a Quote Book

Maybe it’s just my milieu, but just about everyone I know has read Joan Didion’s iconic essay “On Keeping a Notebook.” I keep many notebooks, which means they all have a different purpose, all spend much of their lives half-filled, and all fight for space in my (very heavy) purse or my (very crowded) shelves.

But of all of these, my quote book is my favorite.

It started as a Word document on my computer nearly a decade ago, a collection of lines I loved from the books I read for English class. The first entry came from The Sorrows of Young Werther. Later, full passages from Sense and Sensibility, The Virgin Suicides, and The History of Love. Movie quotes began to sneak their way onto the (figurative) page. I tucked these phrases away like a squirrel with an acorn, storing them for when I needed them most.

But as I added and reviewed and reread my Word document over and over again, it began to feel like I hadn’t taken all the care these words deserved. And so I started a quote book, painstakingly copying the lines I had collected over the years into a somewhat standard notebook I owned. I used colored pens, a different color for each source, my cursive loopy.

I am both careful and impulsive with my entries. I have added lines from movies, musicals, articles, even Tumblr I cannot get out of my head. I have included every phrase I’ve highlighted from a particular book read on my Kindle, even if I can’t remember why I called it out in the first place. There are months where I make a dozen entries; there are many months where I make none.

But I always feel better after copying those words down. Some of the quotes have begun to feel like old friends.

Sometimes, my quote book feels like an extension of my diary, an odd charting of my moods and ages, my successes and disappointments. Reading over some of my favorite passages take me right back to where I first read them; I recall my emotional response to them as much as the words themselves.

There’s a line from Almost Famous (which, conveniently I copied into my quote book):

“I always tell the girls never take it seriously, if you never take it seriously you never get hurt, if you never get hurt you always have fun, and if you ever get lonely just go to the record store and visit your friends.”

I feel that way about my quote book.

Reading is, in my ways, a radical act of empathy. For a successful reading experience, you have to step outside your self and connect with someone else. Writing, too, requires the same effort. You never know what could resonate.

On a Kindle, you can see the phrases people highlight most often, which is sometimes fascinating and sometimes annoying. In either case, the underlining draws your attention. In a few cases, I wonder why anyone would mark that portion. Other times, I’m grateful other readers have pointed out a beautiful line I might have otherwise missed. It feels like cheating, like I am just going along with public opinion.

Mostly, though, I love that my quote book feels sometimes like a scrapbook of my life, all these past version of me accumulating into a whole. The lines I loved 10 years ago aren’t necessarily the lines I love now. I can see myself change, see myself grow, within these pages. I make sense of the world in words, and sometimes the only way I can work through a problem is by repeating the words of someone else. These lines are like a magnifying mirror, something that reflects your image in a way you might not have seen it before.

There’s something beautiful about having a physical manifestation of the things you loved, the people you were, the ideas to bolster you as you move on to other things. I have lines I can recite from memory and lines I can’t remember copying. Every so often, I’ll reread a book and find new phrases that knock me out. So I’ll grab my pen and write them down in the same color as the original.

I’m a big believer in everyone having a quote book. Not just because I am a person who loves to remember, not just because I have an odd fascination with the subject of permanence, but because I believe that words provide comfort, and I like to see how that translates and transforms as the years go by. I may not be sixteen any more, but I can flip to the front of my quote book and remember exactly what that feels like.

4 Quick Tips to Improve Your Writing

In my day job, I spend a lot of time getting into the nitty gritty of a writer’s prose. Here are habits I see all the time that can be easily avoided to strengthen your writing.

1.Prune adverbs

This is advice novice writers always hear. It’s sometimes mistaken for “use no adverbs,” which is not what this suggests. Take a look at your adverb usage and look for places where adverbs compensate for weak writing. For example, “she said softly” could become “she whispered” or “she murmured.” Make sure that the adverbs you use are necessary to your meaning. The same advice goes for adjectives.

2. Take a closer look at was + ing

The was + ing (was walking, was talking, was writing, etc.) can often be replaced with a past participle. Unless it’s vital to the understanding of a timeline, this should be rendered in past tense. Many ongoing and continuing actions can be understood in past tense. For example, “he was looking at her throughout the night” can become “he looked at her throughout the night” with little loss to the meaning.

3. Keep an eye out for stage directions

When writing, authors like to visualize a scene in their head, parsing it out step by step. But sometimes those steps aren’t eliminated in the revision stage. A reader rarely needs all the detail about a character that strides to the door, places her hand on the doorknob, turns the knob to the right, pushes open the door, steps into the room, swings the door back, and shuts the door. Use only what’s necessary for the story.

4. Make sure you know whose head you’re in

If you’re narrating in close third person, don’t slip into another tense or POV without reason. I see many authors writing in close third person switch into first person italics without considering the perspective. If we are in a character’s thoughts, we don’t need tags like “she thought.” In the same vein, “I heard someone knock at the door” is not as strong as “someone knocked at the door.”

250 Words a Day, One Year

In October, I wrote about my goal of writing 250 words every day for the entire year. It had come up as a project of mine for my “25 at 25” list, a manageable daily goal with big returns (91,000 words) by the end of the year.

A few weeks ago, I made my 26 at 26 list, and that 250 words per day goal is still there.

The problem is, I’ve hardly even started on my 26 at 26 list. The perils of creating your yearly list of goals on vacation. So far my word count has been minimal.

But to back up for a second to the first year of 250 words per day.

I didn’t manage 250 words every day. I strived for it, which made a difference. If I knew I had limited time one evening, I tried to make it up the next day. The goal did get me in a pattern of writing more often. As with anything that requires habit and practice, it got easier the more I did it.  By August, I’d written a 91,000 word novel, which fulfilled my yearly word count goal.

And then I kind of took a break. I edited the novel, which counted for something. But I got busy and fell out of the habit. I think I should feel guiltier than I do about it.

So I’m trying 250 words again this year. I’m not going to beat myself up if I skip a day or week, but it’s reassuring to have the goal there; to know that a little bit each day translates to big rewards by the end of the year.