Style Improvement

A Quick Comment

Recently, I’ve been reading more self-published books than traditionally published ones. Trying to scope out the market, see what everyone else is up to, stuff like that. Also it’s a cost-effective way to get a good story sometimes, if I can weed through the bad ones. I know the pitfalls of self-publishing as well as the next guy, and the lack of a professional editor is one of them.

That’s not to say that everything out there is bad, just that much of it could use work. I don’t want to start a habit of talking grammar all the time, but there are a few things I’ve noticed while reading independent novels (even ones with perfect spelling, punctuation, etc.) that irk the shit out of me. (NOTE: I may be the only person who is bothered by these things. But I doubt it.)

The one I’m going to mention today isn’t really a grammar mishap at all–it’s more along the lines of a style slip-up, and it’s something that every writer (including myself) is most likely guilty of. The magic words of the day are: Participle and Appositive. I’ve seen participle and appositive phrases used to the point of abuse lately in many of the indie books that I’ve read. Mostly, I think, because they’re grammatically correct–even useful, sometimes.

I’ll do a small recap on their definitions here. I’m sure most of you have heard of these, but it may have been quite some time before you’ve actually gone over what they are. Don’t worry. I plan to keep it simple.


A participle, in layman’s terms, is a word you’d normally use as a verb which you are using as an adjective. (They usually end in -ed or -ing.)


Verb: burn

Participle: A burning branch fell to the ground.

Burning modifies the noun branch, but doesn’t act as the verb. The verb here is fell.

So far, so good? All right. Here are a few examples of participle phrases.

Wandering around, Charlie saw several people he recognized.

Heading straight to the back of the line, she hoped to avoid confrontation.

Note that there is nothing technically grammatically unsound about the participle phrase (although it can often lead to dangling modifiers if you don’t watch your step). Its use can add necessary variety to a writer’s style, and I can think of several instances in which they are the right choice. There is definitely a time and a place for it. However, that time is not ALWAYS and that place is not EVERY PARAGRAPH. Reading too many sentences loaded with these can become tiresome for the reader and mess with the flow of a story. And flow, as we all know, is very important.


The appositive, in layman’s terms, is a noun or pronoun used to explain another noun or pronoun.

Example–In this sentence:

My friend Charlie was there.

The appositive is friend, which further explains Charlie.

Cool? Okay. Like participles, appositives often come in phrases. Often, the appositive will be modified as well in its phrase. Here are a few examples of appositive phrases.

The train, an old steam engine, was rusted to the tracks.

A competent neurosurgeon, Adam was the ideal candidate to perform the operation.

See where I’m going with this? There’s nothing technically wrong with the appositive phrase either, and they are also useful in the right situation. However, like the participle phrase, it can be tiresome when used in excess. Many times, it’s just easier to state the two nouns separately, or figure out a way to leave one out if possible. As any editor will tell you, sometimes less is more.

Wrap Up

–Watch out for participle phrases that come after your speech tags. They’re the most annoying and the easiest to fix. They look like this:

“Don’t forget about the soup,” Mary said, turning back to the television.

This is much better said:

“Don’t forget about the soup,” Mary said. She turned back to the television.

It may not seem like much on its own, but after five thousand of these in a row, your reader will be sick of them. You should avoid overuse of participle phrases so you can use them when they truly enhance the clarity of your scene. Like I said, the ones after the speech tags are the easiest to clean up.

–Watch out for appositive phrases that might sound better as two separate sentences (or at least two completely independent clauses).

I like to think of participle phrases and appositive phrases as drops of water. One drop of water on your forehead once in a while can be cool and refreshing. Thousands of drops of water on your forehead is the recipe for Chinese water torture.


Sample Sunday #2

Wow, it’s been a week already? Sample Sunday time!

This one is also from my current WiP, Ethan. Enjoy!

Ethan sat down at the table again, did a quick count to make sure he hadn’t lost any of his cards, then started shuffling. He’d shuffled exactly two and a half more times when his mother’s voice sliced out.

“Ethan, I’m trying to count stitches here, and it is not easy to do with you making so much noise. Could you please find somewhere else to do that?”

Ethan sighed. That was a joke. Even if he went into the closet in the bedroom and shut all the doors in between, she’d still be able to hear him shuffling. He thought about voicing this thought, but made the wise decision to keep his mouth shut instead. He put the deck back in its box and went into the bedroom, where he pulled out the small knapsack of cards he’d packed for the trip.

Cards were nearly all he’d brought, actually. There was no sense in bringing his Gameboy–on a full charge he could make it last maybe one day if he was frugal, but with no way to charge it after that it would be dead and useless. To have brought it would have been a tease. He had a few books that Dr. Davis had insisted he bring, but he didn’t have much interest in reading lately.

So he’d brought cards. Lots of cards. Seven decks of cards.

Ethan was built like his father for the most part. He was in an awkward skinny phase right now, but people always told him that he had the makings for the muscular firefighter his dad had been. Given the opportunity to time travel, Ethan probably could have passed for his father’s twin brother at age twelve. The only features he’d inherited from his mother were her hands and long, nimble fingers. Evan Everrett couldn’t have shuffled a deck of cards at age twelve, but he’d been able to teach his son how to do it at that same age.

That was three months in the past already, though, before Evan Everrett had taken it upon himself to get killed fighting a fire in central Bend.

Ethan had never taken any particular delight in playing card games, but there was little he loved more than the feel and the sound of a deck of Bicycles shuffling under his fingers. It reminded him of his father now, but that never seemed to make him sad. It was like shuffling kept him frozen in a time when his father had been alive and happy and playful. When he shuffled, he would listen to the sound and he would be Little E again, because there was still a Big E to complement him.

Could he still be Little E now that Big E was dead? Ethan didn’t think so. Big E had become the Big Empty, and it was a void that swallowed Little E up with it. He was just Ethan Everrett now. The kid with a dead dad and a static mom.

He didn’t realize he was crying until two teardrops fell from the tip of his nose and landed on the deck of cards in his hand. He packed away the deck and crawled into the sleeping bag that was going to be his bed for the summer. Within five minutes he was asleep.

Here I Am

I have crossed over into the land of Self-Published e-Book Authors.

Check out Catch at Amazon or Barnes, download the sample, see if it’s what you’re into.

By the way, Barnes has yet to make my cover art available–I read on the forums that they’re “backed up” in that department, so we’ll see how that goes. It isn’t my fault.

By the way, the synopsis on Amazon has a typo. I know this. I saw it riiiight after I pushed the “Go For It, You Can’t Change Anything For A Few Days Now” button. It’s my fault. I’ll fix it as soon as they let me.


Sample Sunday

I’ve seen Sample Sunday here and there around the writers’ Blogosphere for quite some time now, and I’ve always wanted to take part. Here’s a little excerpt, straight from my WiP, the working title of which is Ethan.


After a while, Ethan realized that the old man was only keeping such a slow, hobbling pace for Ethan’s own benefit. The man never stuttered or paused, but Ethan became winded easily even at their sluggish progression, and had to take regular breaks.

“So,” Ethan said during one such break. “My name’s Ethan.”

“You told me that already,” the old man said.

“Right. Well, what’s your name?”

The old man seemed startled by the question, and he thought for a long moment before he responded. “Miles,” he said at last.

An awkward silence followed, and when it started to wear on Ethan he said, “So…how far is this place we’re going, anyway?”

Miles stiffened and glared at Ethan. His eyes widened until it looked like his eyeballs might roll right out of his face if they opened up too much more. Then he said, “Miles,” and he burst into tremendous gales of his gravelly, whooping laughter again.

You Don’t Know Who You Know

Story time!

When I finished writing my second novel a week or so ago, I went into my workplace (my paying job is a grocery store) and told most of my coworkers–with much delight–what I’d done. I wasn’t expecting too much, just wanted to tell my work friends about what’s been going on. It also gave me something to say when they asked what I did on my vacation.

One of my coworkers, a silly and lovable lady named Marilyn, gave me what I think was the best response to “I just wrote a book.”

“Get it published!” she said.

I laughed and said, “Marilyn, it’s not that easy.”

A few days ago at work, Marilyn said, “Scotty, did you get that book published?”

And I said, “Marilyn, it’s really not that easy. Getting published takes a lot of work and a LOT of time. Even after I edit the damned manuscript four times over, I still have to find an agent and be able to pitch the story to a publisher in such a way that it stands out from the rest of the slush they have to consider. I have to do this, I have to do that, I have to do the other thing.”

Half an hour later, Marilyn called me to the front end and told me that she’d had a customer–one who was a regular–go through her line. She told me that the woman said something along the lines of, “I’m thinking of going back to work soon. I’ve been out for about four years.”

Marilyn told me she asked the woman where she worked, and the woman said, “I worked in publishing.”

Marilyn told me that she then proceeded to tell the woman about how I’d written two books and was working on my third, and that I’d told her getting published was a huge fiasco.

Marilyn said that the woman told her she would bring in some sort of contact information regarding the publisher she worked for.

I think I peed a little.

I’m not saying it will lead to anything. I’m not anywhere near naive enough to assume something will actually come of this. All I’m saying is, you never know. If it DOES ever lead to…I don’t know…something…it will be because I work in a grocery store, and because I have a coworker who talks too much.

They say everyone in the world is connected by an average of six degrees of separation. You know more people than you think.

Added a Works Page

So far I’ve only put my first novel, The Fire Itself, in that section, but I’ll be adding the synopses for my recently completed novel Iris and my work-in-progress Ethan quite soon.

(NOTE: The names of those last two are the working titles–my working titles are always just the names of my MCs. Both Iris and Ethan will be renamed in the future when my muse delivers better ideas for titles.)

(ANOTHER NOTE: After final revisions and dependent upon cover design options, The Fire Itself may also undergo a name change. The tentative future title is Catch. Just so you know.)