For the last few years in L.A. we’ve been invaded by a nettlesome pest called the No-See-Um. That’s because, as the name implies, they’re hard to see. Of the family ceratopogonidae, they are tiny flying demons who bite and suck your blood.
Actually, it’s the femme fatale of species who do the biting, leaving itchy welts. The male is content to seek nectar from flowers, then lounge in a hammock with a good book. The females, on the other hand, need protein for their eggs, and seek it in our precious bodily fluid. As one site explains, “Their mouthparts are well-developed with cutting teeth on elongated mandibles in the proboscis…The thorax extends slightly over the head, and the abdomen is nine-segmented and tapered at the end.”
I mean, ick, amirite?
When summer rolls around, these creatures come out in force, like hormonal high schoolers at Zuma Beach. I don’t know if they’ve replaced the larger mosquito, but I haven’t seen the latter lately.
When the weather’s warm, I like to do morning typing outside, with a nice cup of joe at my side. But if I’m not protected in some way, like long sleeves, my skin becomes an epidermal Home Town Buffet for these airborne spawn of Hell. Indeed, I’m typing this in my backyard, and these devilish creepies are buzzing around me. It seems that when I breathe out, the CO2 attracts them, and they become ravenous for a meal.
Mrs. B has concocted a peppermint essential oil mix that we spread on our exposed skin. That frustrates the little buggers. They’re really fast, though. I try to swat them, usually to no avail. But dang it all, this is my yard, and I will not concede it to them!
You know what else? They’re small enough to get through normal screens. So when we have our windows open, a few manage to get inside our house. This has to be a bio-plot. Were they developed in some lab and unleashed upon the world? (Like that ever happens.)
Anyway, so as not to waste this unnerving experience, I extend to you a writing metaphor. There are some little pests that pop up and fly around the page, such as:
Elmore Leonard said, “Never use an adverb to modify the verb ‘said’ . . . he admonished gravely. To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin. The writer is now exposing himself in earnest, using a word that distracts and can interrupt the rhythm of the exchange.”
While I’m not an absolutist on this, I think the use of adverbs should be as rare as a solar eclipse. Therefore, cut as many as possible. You can use the “end of word” Find feature in Word for this (see Terry’s explanation of that function).
Look always for a good, strong verb. Instead of He walked softly across the room use He padded across the room.
We’ve had this discussion before. I haven’t changed my opinion: “The semi-colon is a burp, a hiccup. It’s a drunk staggering out of the saloon at 2 a.m., grabbing your lapels on the way and asking you to listen to one more story.”
In nonfiction, the semicolon serves a good purpose. It ties thoughts together. You use them to make an argument and add evidence. But fiction is not an argument (unless your name is Ayn Rand). It’s an emotional ride, and semicolons are speed bumps. Eliminate them. Use a clean em dash or period instead.
I see this all the time in manuscripts by new writers. In dialogue, the attribution is often in the wrong place. The simple rule (yes, rule) is this: put the attribution after the first complete clause, or in front of the sentence. Not this:
“I don’t think we should case the joint. We should just go in with guns blasting. Then we can take the money and get out. Shock and awe, right?” said Maxwell.
“I don’t think we should case the joint,” Maxwell said. “We should just go in with guns blasting. Then we can take the money and get out. Shock and awe, right?”
Maxwell said, “I don’t think we should case the joint. We should just go in with guns blasting. Then we can take the money and get out. Shock and awe, right?”
Or an action beat:
Maxwell slapped the table. “I don’t think we should case the joint. We should just go in with guns blasting. Then we can take the money and get out. Shock and awe, right?”
And speaking of dialogue, you don’t use ellipses for interruptions. Not this:
“I don’t think…”
“Shut up, Max!”
Our friend the em dash is for interruptions:
“I don’t think—”
“Shut up, Max!”
Use ellipses for a voice trailing off.
“I don’t think…” Maxwell shook his head.
It’s its when it’s possessive, and it’s when it’s “it is.”
It’s not that hard! Use it’s only when you’re putting it and is together. The apostrophe is telling us there’s a letter missing. Every other time, use its. People get this wrong all the time because everywhere else the apostrophe is used to denote possession.
Which brings us to another bit of confusion. When should you use the possessive ’s for a name ending in s?
Is it: That’s James’ car or That’s James’s car?
The leading style guides recommend the latter. My personal preference is to use ’s as well, except when it sounds odd. So I use Dickens’ instead of Dickens’s.
Of course, you can avoid the whole issue by not giving your characters names ending in s.
Okay I’m tired of repeated attempts to suck my blood, so I’ll go indoors now and leave it to you to talk about any other writing pests that bother you.
Also, what’s the mosquito or no-see-um issue where you live? How do you handle it?