Dear Writer Revisited: Letter Eleven

Cause of Death

Following on from the previous post about titles, I'd like to just take a moment to appreciate how fantastic the headings for each chapter are in this book.  Cause of Death would have to be one of my favourites to date.  It's perfect because the form and style of this chapter are a little bit like a lecture on how to diagnose your novel and what exactly is stopping it from being the amazing entity you originally envisioned it as.

Virginia tells Writer that the act of writing can sometimes be a bit cyclical in nature, which makes it a little tricky.  Lack of passion for the material can lead to mistakes that are fatal for prose.  Luckily, treating these 'symptoms' can actually revive passion.  Blogger's note:  I actually think that the making of these mistakes can't purely be blamed on a lack of passion.  I know a lot of writers who do these things when they write and they are driven as they come.  It's just that along the way, we pick up bad habits.

If we are able to develop a sensitivity to these faults, it is easier to eradicate them.  So without further ado, I present you with Virginia O'Day's Field Guide to the Identification of Writing's Seven Deadly Sins.  (See what I mean about me not being very good at titles?)

1) Cliche

Cliches are figures of speech which have been worked too hard in too many stories and they have basically become meaningless.  Examples:

flaxen hair
bulging muscles
glistening sweat

2) Jargon

Industry words that obscure clear meaning and lack emotion.  Examples:

'Liking' something on Facebook
Living on a 'sub-divided' block

3) Pathetic Fallacy

This is a bit tricky to explain, but it's saying that something does something when it clearly doesn't.  Virginia uses the example of trees and wheat 'sighing'.  I think this has a place, for example, in historical fiction, or if your character is a complete hippy/ possibly high.  Use your judgement.

4) Passive Voice

Ahhh my old nemesis.  All my creative writing assignments used to come back with passive passive passive scrawled all over them, because I tried to write a little like Salinger and a little like Zooey Deschanel when she wrote lyrics for She and Him.  My teacher didn't really get this.  She was right to caution me.

Your subject must be active in making things happen rather than having things happen all the time.  Slightly related, but I personally hate it when charaters "find themselves" doing things.  Examples:

Anna picked up the broken shard of glass.  NOT   The broken shard of glass was picked up by Anna.  AND DEFINITELY NOT Anna found herself picking up the shard of glass.  (I think it goes without saying that you definitely should never consider writing "The shard of glass found itself being picked up by Anna.")

5)  Mixed Metaphor

Know exactly what you mean and follow through with it.  Unless you're PG Wodehouse, then be masterful in mixing your metaphors and enjoy the humorous effect.  Examples:

The night was dark like a cloak in a room where all the lights had been turned off.

"Lol.  Not even close."

6) Stilted Dialogue

Create the impression that your reader is actually listening to a real conversation.  You can practice this with Writing Exercise 12, in which you are encouraged to eavesdrop on some real conversations and write them down.  Remember, it's better to use 'said' than other speech words because said is virtually invisible.  Keep it clear who is speaking, and definitely NO ADVERBS.

7) Overwriting

Keep it simple, stupid.  Go easy on the adjectives.


8)  Latinisms

Don't use a fancy French or Latin word when a simple English one will do.

9)  Abstract Nouns

Be careful with these.  They are used when you want to deliberately NOT conjure an image into the mind of your reader and are full of rhetoric.  Concrete nouns have accompanying mental pictures and are much better for prose.  Of course, you can't ignore Abstract Nouns forever.  You must become the master of them.

You must become the master of all these things.  Like Wodehouse.  But remember, you are not Wodehouse.  Control yourself.


  1. I don't have to buy this book anymore. I just have to read your reviews of each chapter! Sounds like you're having fun ...

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  3. Oh dear! I don't think it's a very good review if it makes you NOT want to buy the book. I'm leaving LOTS out, everyone... what I am basically conveying to you is my opinion as I work through the book chapter by chapter. You're missing out on great quotes and insights if you don't read this book for yourself.


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