Thayer Literary Services ~ Book Editing

Q. You have marked this sentence as a fragment: Eyes that reached deep inside my soul and showed me many truths, none more important than the truth about myself. Isn’t eyes the subject and reached the verb?

A. With all those words, this looks as if it's a sentence, I know. But it's a fragment because that reached deep inside my soul and showed me many truths is a restrictive clause that modifies the noun Eyes, not an independent clause with a subject and a verb, which is what you need for a complete sentence. Attached to your restrictive clause is none more important than the truth about myself, which is just a phrase that modifies the preceding noun, truths. Neither the clause nor the phrase is an independent clause; they’re just modifying elements that should follow an independent clause. If you changed this fragment to She looked at me with eyes that reached deep inside my soul and showed me many truths, none more important than the truth about myself, then you would have a complete sentence and not a fragment (She is the subject, and looked is the verb).


Q. What about a sentence like, "Give it to whoever arrives first"?

A. This is correct because whoever is the subject of an embedded clause, and subjects take precedence over objects in the case hierarchy. It's the whole clause whoever arrives first that's actually the object of the preposition, and the object case rule does not apply to whole clauses (because clauses aren't case-marked). That's why writers often hypercorrect to whomever.


Q. Do I have enough raw skill to be a writer, in your opinion? Stephen King said in his book On Writing that it is very possible to make a good writer out of a competent one, but impossible to make a competent writer out of a bad one. You were very complimentary in your critique. It felt good. But my insecurity begs the question, “I bet you say that to all the girls.” Sorry if I’ve put you on the spot.

A. I agree with ol’ Steve. The goal of making good writers out of barely competent ones is part of my own mission statement. Is it possible to make a good writer into a great writer? No, I don’t think so. But both good writers and also many competent writers get their books published all the time, so even competency is a worthwhile goal—and an achievable one, especially for writers who begin at your level. Then going from competent to good is just one more attainable step, which normally involves lots of practice and further reading, study, and guidance.


The “raw skills” you speak of I would file under “Craft.” That’s why you need an editor, like every other writer. You need to add to your list of skills—or to what King called your “toolbox” in On Writing. That’s certainly doable, if you have the time, energy, and inclination to acquire the necessary tools.

One more point, if you’ll indulge me: Be careful how you use the expression begs the question. The concept of “begging the question” is a fallacy that comes from the discipline of logic and the art of formal argument, where it’s known as petitio principii. In a debate, if someone begs the question, he is assuming in the premise some truth that he seeks to establish in the conclusion. For example, in Alice in Wonderland, during Alice’s wacky conversation with the Cheshire Cat, the cat uses certain assumptions (including his own madness) to conclude that everyone in Wonderland is mad. In other words, “Well, I’m certainly crazy; therefore, everyone here is crazy.” Instead of writing “begs the question,” write “raises the question” or “prompts the question” or “forces one to ask.”


Q. How do I format my manuscript for you?

A. See instructions here.


Q. What do you mean by “forecasting”?

A. This is another form of pure omniscient narration—one that you really should steer clear of. Forecasting tells readers something about the future. Example:


He didn't know then how much this decision would come back to haunt him.


When the narrator speaks of the future, readers know that a godlike omniscient author exists, and they are blasted out of the present of story time. This kind of narration goes beyond reporting what a character is sensing, thinking, and saying, which is what the third-person limited narrator should confine himself to.



Q. I’m confused about scene-setting. If this takes place from the writer’s POV (point of view), I understand. If it happens from a character’s POV, I’m having difficulty. Any suggestions, examples, hints, clues, or references would be greatly appreciated.

A. I’ll try to clarify this point for you. First and most important, I think your safest course is to set your scenes from a character’s POV every time. If you do so strictly from the author’s POV, then you’re using an omniscient narrator, which isn’t necessarily the best technique to adopt in a modern novel, although many published authors get away with it. The disembodied POV of the omniscient narrator increases the psychic distance between narrator and reader by using the author’s anonymous voice, which causes the reader to lose the sense of immediacy—of place, time, and setting—and that blasts him/her out of the “now moment.” A better course is to keep the reader grounded in your story by offering the whole sensory world of your fictional environment as it is experienced by one of your characters. Therefore you, as the author, must step aside and report how that character experiences that world, using his/her senses, intelligence, and emotions.


You should write in that character’s unique voice and not in an authorial voice that always sounds the same. If you have to relate some information to readers that can’t be reported about the current scene, your POV character must already know that information and think about it. Then you can pass the info to readers by writing something like:


He knew that the town had been settled just after the Civil War by the Smith family.

John Smith had left his farm in Virginia to start a new life in the west, and blah, blah, blah . . .




Chatty old Mrs. Arbogast had told him all about Mr. Dillon. The sheriff was a man who blah, blah, blah . . .


Don’t forget that you can also use dialogue to feed all kinds of info to readers. I suggest that you browse through a few novels to find places where the author has done what I’m describing here.


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