4 Danger Signs To Search For, Before Sending Off Your Novel

Congratulations! Your epic space-opera novel is finished, and you're preparing to fire off your query letters to agents. But even though you've read your manuscript a hundred times, you still may have missed some weaknesses. Here's how to find them.

I've been struggling with this very issue for the past few days, as I prepare to inflict unleash my epic fantasy novel on the publishing world. At this point, I've pored over every sentence several times, and I've gotten two rounds of detailed feedback. And yet, when I started doing a word-search to try and identify some potential trouble spots, I was shocked to find how many puny sentences still lurked in my text, leaching the vitality out of the writing.

And in case it needs saying yet again — this is advice, based on what seems to improve my own writing. I know of no ironclad rules for good writing, other than "Tell the story the most excellent way you can."

That said, here are some word searches that seemed to uncover the greatest sins:

4 Danger Signs To Search For, Before Sending Off Your Novel

1) Adverbs.

In a nutshell, you do a search for "ly" in your manuscript. This won't find every adverb — several of them don't end in "ly" — and you'll get some false positives, like "fly" or "sly." But it's close enough for government work. And if you're getting overwhelmed, you can always add a space after "ly" — that way, you only get "ly" at the end of a word. (You'll have to do separate searches for "ly" followed by a comma or period in that case.)

I already did a whole post about adverbs before — but in a nutshell, not all adverbs are bad, and you don't have to eradicate them all from your work. But you may find that adverbs serve as signposts that lead you to some terrible writing. One example I found my in my own novel was the word "obviously," which usually signaled that that someone was stating the obvious. As in:

When we dropped out of hyperspeed at the rendezvous coordinates, we found nothing but rubble and trace radiation where the planet Karma V was supposed to be. Obviously, the Bad Uncles had gotten there first.

You know what? It's obvious enough that you don't even need to explain it. Cut cut cut. The same goes for "clearly." (That's not an excerpt from my novel, by the way.) I also found that I had an unhealthy addiction to "impossibly" — which is fine to use once or twice, but can get really old. ("Impossibly big" is a contradiction in terms — which is fine as a stylistic point once or twice, but after a while you just sound like you're full of crap.)

I found a surprising number of adverbs in my supposedly finished novel. I wound up keeping about half of them.

4 Danger Signs To Search For, Before Sending Off Your Novel

2) Sentences beginning with "It."

Just like adverbs, this can be fine sometimes. "It" is kind of a bland word, with no personality of its own, but it has plenty of uses. The main problem with "it" is that it's a pronoun, so you must be absolutely clear about what "it" refers to. And when a sentence begins with "it," that can be another red flag pointing to bad writing. Here are a few examples of problem sentences, which I'm making up on the fly, beginning with "it":

  • It was worse than I'd feared. (What's it? The situation? The predicament? Instead of telling us it's worse, why not dramatize?)
  • It bothered me that I had to watch my best friend die. (Why not, "I couldn't bear to watch my best friend die?")
  • It made sense that the Dark Legion would want to deploy their planet-crusher weapon to Earth next. (Again, what's it? Why not just start the sentence with the planet-crushing, or the reason why this is a good strategy? Or put an actual person into your sentence — "I could see why the Dark Legion would want to deploy their planet crusher.")
  • It caught me by surprise: A laser snake, fangs dripping with deadly photons. ("The laser snake caught me by surprise" is way better, because then your reader is surprised too, instead of being told there's a surprise, followed by finding out what the surprise is.)

4 Danger Signs To Search For, Before Sending Off Your Novel

There's loads more where that came from. In general, when you have an "it," there should be a clear antecedent, and that's less likely if "it" is the start of your sentence. At least some of the time, any sentence that begins with "it" will turn out to be something you can safely cut from your book: an instance of spoon-feeding the reader information that he or she can already glean elsewhere, or a bit of throat clearing. ("It made sense that blah" is almost always going to be spoon-feeding, for example. If it really makes sense, you don't have to insist that it makes sense. If it doesn't, then well... Saying it won't make it so.)

At least half the time, you may decide that "It" is a perfectly fine way to begin a sentence. But you may be surprised by how many times "it" can't justify its existence once you zero in on it. (You may also want to do a word search for the phrase "it was," which could be lurking in the middle of your sentences somewhere, and could also be a sign of rot.)

4 Danger Signs To Search For, Before Sending Off Your Novel

3) There was, or there were.

Most people will tell you to keep your use of the verb "to be" to an absolute minimum. But you can't avoid using "is" or "was" altogether, and like everything else, "to be" has its place in your prose. Other verbs will always be more dynamic and exciting, although they also risk being more purple. (For example, "The Dark Fortress was on top of a large-ish mountain" is bland, and "The Dark Fortress loomed over a large-ish mountain" is more thrilling. But "The Dark Fortress vibrated with dark ominousness, over a large-ish mountain" is perhaps too much.)

The point is, you absolutely should not do a word search for "is", "was" and "were" in your novel — you will go nuts and start clawing your face off before you get a tenth of the way through. Unless you're the Zen master of verbs, armed with total verb mindfulness, you will have used the verb "to be" a fair amount, and you just can't slog through every instance to see if it's carrying its own weight.

But you absolutely should do a quick search for "there was" and "there were" — which are pretty clearcut instances of the verb "to be" flopping around when a stronger verb could be flexing its muscles. Here's an example:

There were a couple of Evil Nephews guarding the Outer Inner Sanctum, and they looked like the horn-toothed kind.

You can change that to "Two Evil Nephews paraded in front of the stone door to the Outer Inner Sanctum" — notice how as soon as the verb is active, you start seeing the scene a bit more. Once they're parading, you want to know what they're parading in front of, and that means you see the stone door. Instead of "paraded," you can also go for "stood at attention" or "stood watch" or "brandished their Uru spears" or whatever. They don't have to be dancing a jig — but making them the subject of the sentence instead of "there" turns them into living, breathing Evil Nephews. They're automatically more formidable and threatening as a result.

4 Danger Signs To Search For, Before Sending Off Your Novel

You might not need to eradicate every single instance of "there was" or "there were" in your novel — but most of them should probably be thwacked with an Uru spear. And if you find a lot of them, it's a wee warning sign that your use of "to be" might remain a bit too generous.

I found a surprising number of examples of "there was" and "there were" still skulking around my novel, and I pretty much exterminated them all. They seemed to crop up most of all in the descriptive or scene-setting passages, which is where lazy writing often hides. A few sentences in a row of description make a cozy nest for a bland verb construction to crawl into and hide.

4 Danger Signs To Search For, Before Sending Off Your Novel

4) Was being, or were being.

Just as most experts will tell you to avoid the verb "to be" as much as possible, they'll also warn you away from passive verbs. It's the difference between

Captain Samson was being thrown off the catwalk by a Bad Uncle

and

A Bad Uncle lifted Captain Samson over his head and hurled her over the edge of the catwalk.

You want the subject of the sentence to be the person who's actually doing something — not the person who's having it done to them. Sure, we feel bad for Captain Samson in this instance, but that doesn't make her the subject.

If you're like me, you've probably been indoctrinated pretty heavily with the hatred of passive sentences. This loathing has been drummed into us — so you've probably already made an effort to slash and burn any sentences whose main actor wasn't the subject. But what if some of these passive verbs have been overlooked? How can you find them?

There's no way to do a word search to eradicate passive verb constructions altogether (unless you really want to look at every instance of the verb "to be" in your book, in which case see above.) But you can do a lot of trouble-shooting by looking for "was being" and "were being." These aren't just passive verb constructions — they're also the verb "to be" twice in a row.

Not only is something being done to your character, but it's also in the process of being done. So we don't even get to see the action happening, we sort of see it as a frozen tableau of passivity. It's getting done, and at some point, it'll be completed, but there's no rush or anything. You could, you know, go get a sandwich and come back, and Captain Samson would still be in the middle of being tossed off the catwalk.

Update: Anindita on Twitter has a great suggestion for another set of phrases you can search for. Try doing a word search for "he saw" or "she saw" and "he felt" or "she felt." These are instances where you're dampening the impact of what's going on by filtering it through someone else's perceptions, which is automatically less compelling.

4 Danger Signs To Search For, Before Sending Off Your Novel

And that's all I've got, in terms of last-minute bug-hunting. The purpose here isn't just to be nit-picky and OCD, though — it's to get you to look at your novel in a different way, one last time. That's why I mentioned that these searches are for people who've already read the nearly-final draft a zillion times. Once you single out one particular sentence construction and start looking for it throughout your novel, you'll break up your usual reading pattern and you may find yourself noticing other little problems that hadn't jumped out at you before.

Maybe reading a bunch of sentences in a row with "was being" in them will make you think about how you portray action. Or maybe you'll skim through all your different descriptive passages and notice some ticks that you are prone to, which you hadn't noticed before because they're always spaced a few pages apart and buried in descriptive prose. Anything that gives you a new awareness of what you're doing, at the sentence level, can only brighten your novel, even if you end up not changing some stuff.

And in the end, zippier writing is Captain Samson's best ally in the fight against the Bad Uncles. If the readers' eyes aren't glazing over, the story will race by faster, and Captain Samson's inevitable victory will be that much juicier.

Ron Turner cover art images via Gems From The Collection on Flickr.