Paragraphs (Part 2)

Paragraphs…they do more than you think. Last time, we stacked sentences to make a paragraph by focusing on rhythm. This week, we’re going to stack paragraphs to emphasize pauses.

Have you ever been in a class where the teacher asks for each student to read one paragraph aloud? Embarrassing for the students who have trouble with public speaking. I was one of those students, and eventually, one of those teachers.

Ironic, no?

There was always that one dreaded paragraph everyone hoped not to get. It was the longest paragraph, usually filled with complex words that took up half a page or more. As a student, you’re not aware of the reason why that particular paragraph is so long and the others so short. I didn’t understand back then but I do now. I even use it in my writing.

Generally, the longer paragraphs slow the pace of the story. Shorter paragraphs speed up the pace. Without longer paragraphs interspersed throughout the story, reading becomes as tiring as running a marathon.

I’m glad I’m aware of this now but at the same time, it also has me very worried. I’m old enough to remember dial-up tones on the computer, floppy disks, and rotary phones, yet young enough to appreciate YouTube, spark notes, and Netflix.

My future readers will always be of a younger generation. That may be a “Duh!” thing to say, but it’s actually hard to keep in mind, especially while writing. Longer paragraphs often demand more attention, yet so many of us readers tend to skim them. Our attention span is shortening.

Sad, but true.

All that world building, the foundation for plot twists, all the foreshadowing – if it’s skimmed, the world becomes duller, that insane plot twist is given an “Eh” by readers, and when something crazy happens in the story, a troll types a scathing blog post about major plot holes that aren’t actually plot holes.

So how do you stop a reader from skimming?

One way to do it is by adding humor at the end of a long paragraph. If a joke doesn’t fit, try an imaginative analogy or metaphor. Keep the paragraph as serious as you want, but give the reader something to latch onto. A skim reader usually reads the first sentence and the last. If you catch them at the end with some quip, there is a 50/50 chance they will go back to the beginning and give the paragraph their full attention.  

I tried to find a good example of this in my prologue, but this is the best I could do. The paragraph doesn’t end on a joke or a clever quip. It ends on a question.

First, try skimming it – read the first and last sentence.

James was instantly thrown back to the first time he had seen Captain Inglehart’s airship. Did he remember the way around a Kahiki? That was laughable. Buttons and levers, and a wheel that went tuk-tut, tuk-tut tuk when it was free to turn at will. Warmth from firestones and the crew who teased him as he watched the kukoo’s float around in the balance barrels. The porous rocks had fascinated him at the time. Setting them with firestones produced a gas strong enough to make a ship fly. What sixteen-year-old wouldn’t be impressed by that?

The Lost City of Al-Kimiya, Prologue

Did you find yourself interested in reading the whole paragraph? Was it an enticing enough end to the paragraph to make you consider going back?

One of my biggest insecurities of publishing is having a reader say, “Oh, I skipped that part,” or a review stating that chapter such-and-such was tl;dr (that’s too long; didn’t read for us old folks). With that said, let’s make one thing clear. Re-reading something that was skimmed is a mark against the reader. Re-reading something for clarity is a mark against the writer.

What are some ways you prevent readers from skimming your long paragraphs?

Paragraphs (Part 1)

Within a paragraph, there must be variety. And by variety, I mean sentences in different forms. Different forms of sentences create rhythm. We want rhythm for flow, but we also want to vary that rhythm to create contrast.

Why is contrast good?

Contrast creates emphasis. Punctuation helps, but don’t rely solely on that. Too many commas weigh down a paragraph. Not enough limits the imagination. And there are only so many times you can use a dash or colon before a reader gets frustrated. I’m guilty of excessive dashing.

One great way to add contrast to rhythm is to toss in a sentence fragment.

Sentence fragments are short bits of information. They are to the point and create a forceful break in rhythm. Fragments imply, giving the reader the joy of using their own imagination. It’s important to give the reader just enough information and then let their minds fill in the rest. If you don’t allow for this, then your technique is more in line with Victorian Realism writing. And that style bores the reader fast.

A story is externalized thoughts of a writer – their creativity in ink on paper – but those thoughts are then internalized by readers. Describing every detail is like holding a reader’s hand from cover to cover, but not just holding – gripping so tightly they can’t stray an inch. (Did you notice this paragraph has varied sentence forms, but too many dashes?)

Let’s take another glance at my prologue and find where I broke my rhythm with a sentence fragment.

“Vagabonds and thieves were placed under surveillance for every kind of election, but for one of this prominence, they were rounded up and arrested for the smallest infraction. All eyes would be on the capital from now until the election. The government wanted to keep the streets clean and the city safe until the scrutiny eased. A waste of resources.”

The Lost City of Al-Kimiya, Prologue

By ending with a fragment, I’ve broken the rhythm to emphasize the negative impact an election has on a city. My fragment implies a lot: taxation, constable’s time and energy, inconvenience to city residents, etc.

In natural conversation, we often speak in fragments. It would only make sense that dialogue would be full of sentence fragments too. Here are some in the prologue:

One hundred million tollárs. That’s enough to travel around the world on a first-class airship a thousand times. Enough to buy a small city. She’s set to inherit the rest, which is rumored to be ten times as much, on her twenty-fifth birthday.”

Ricky Dickson, The Lost City of Al-Kimiya

In that example, there are two sentence fragments. The beginning of the paragraph sets the tone for Ricky Dickson’s dialogue as well as the subject: money. The second fragment is in the middle and implies that a thousand first-class airship tickets cost as much as a small city and that Zenetra Noire could afford both. The longer, varied sentence that follows explains that the “one million tollárs” is just a fraction of what Zenetra will inherit in the end.

Writers are imaginative. So are readers. Give them the opportunity to use their own imagination.

Stack Those Words (Part 2)

Last week we stacked words within a sentence. Now, let’s look at stacking sentences within a paragraph. It’s basically the same: put the most striking imagery at the end to make the passage memorable.

Our last example was about a bear. “A brown large bear” was not stacked correctly. We changed it to its natural order of “A large brown bear.” Then we explored why the last word was the most vivid with the following sentence.

“Almost everyone knows what a bear looks like, so leaving a reader with the image of sharp teeth, dark claws, and a hairy body is powerful.”

But that was wrong too, so we restacked that sentence. Why? Because “hairy body” was not as powerful an imagery as “sharp teeth.”

Now let’s take the essence of those two example sentences and make a paragraph. We will probably need at least another sentence or two to fulfill the beginning-middle-end rule. Remember though, we want this paragraph to be just that – memorable. Here’s what I came up with. Can you put these sentences in order?

  • The blackberry bushes were ripe for picking.
  • It was summer.
  • It had a hairy body, black claws, and sharp teeth.
  • As I plucked berry after juicy berry, I realized I was not alone.
  • With me was a large brown bear.
  • I grabbed my bucket and headed off into the thicket.

Does your paragraph match mine? (Also, notice that my sentences begin with different words?)

“It was summer. The blackberry bushes were ripe for picking. I grabbed my bucket and headed off into the thicket. As I plucked berry after juicy berry, I realized I was not alone. With me was a large brown bear. It had a hairy body, black claws, and sharp teeth.”

Ending the paragraph with a vivid image of a bear and its sharp teeth is good, but how can we make it even more memorable for a reader?

Adding a bit of humor should do the trick.

Your readers’ mind is, at this point, thinking of all the possible ways your character is going to get away from this bear. If you throw in some humor, your reader may remember this specific passage better. Keep in mind, an author wants their readers to continue reading, so the end must be good.

Here’s how I would end that paragraph:

“It was summer. The blackberry bushes were ripe for picking. I grabbed my bucket and headed off into the thicket. As I plucked berry after juicy berry, I realized I was not alone. With me was a large brown bear. It had a hairy body, black claws, and sharp teeth. If my grandmother were here, she would have dropped her bucket of berries and hugged the beast.”

How would you end the paragraph? Let me know below!

Eloquence Over Fanciful

As I stated in my previous post, words are important. Are your choice of words effective? Do you see a mundane word in your writing and instinctively right click to see a list of more fanciful synonyms?

We’ve all been there. I get it. I’ve done it. But is it better to try to replace perfectly good words with flowery, out-of-use ones?

Not necessarily.

Eloquence is not synonymous with fancy words. Eloquence is knowing – and understanding – which word is perfect for your subject, audience, and setting. With that said, there is a time and place for fancy words. Consider dialogue.

“I will commence at my earliest possible convenience” is not something you or anyone you know would say, unless you are a time traveler (in which case–carry on). In everyday life, “I’ll start as soon as possible” is more eloquent than the previous example.

If you don’t use this in your everyday life, why put it in dialogue? Because it reads better?


There are exceptions of course, but don’t assume you are the exception. Take The Lost City of Al-Kimiya for instance. It’s set in the industrialized age of my world; a century flooded with mechanized inventions, woven with alchemy and magic, and which begins not even a century after a great war. Words like “gubbins,” “ninnyhammer,” and “tootle-loo” would be spoken by the older generation of characters, and thus, they’re added into dialogue. Sparingly, I might add.

Include old-fashioned words cautiously. Oversaturation of out-of-use words will pull a reader from the story. Your audience may roll their eyes. As the writer, you are supposed to be the one who decides when the reader should roll their eyes.

So how does an author become eloquent? They broaden their vocabulary by listening. I like to keep a pocket-sized notebook or my phone nearby for this exclusive purpose. It helps when creating a “voice” for a character. Reading, watching T.V., eavesdropping on a stranger’s conversation, all add to your vocabulary, but knowing when and how to use words distinguishes time travelers from modern eloquence.

I still struggle with using the word “for” after a comma. “Elivia knew no other way, for she had studied the classics at her university and could not break this terrible habit.”

What “terrible habits” of writing do you struggle with?

Choosing a Title

Forget the cover. Titles are key.

Think about it. The title is the first word(s) of your story. People read a title before they read the back blurb. They are the unsung hero that draws in a reader.

Titles stir the imagination. A single word can invoke a sense of power. As a phrase, they can be as catchy as a jingle. Take the newly released Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi, or something classic like The Grapes of Wrath. Catchy, aren’t they? They leave an impression because the words chosen for the titles were vivid.

Consider the alternatives. Kids of Blood and Bone doesn’t sound all that alluring, does it? Neither does Fruit of Retribution.

A single ill-chosen word can put a reader off, either by disinterest or offense. That’s not good for the awesome story you just wrote. Or sales.

Let’s talk about my title, The Lost City of Al-Kimiya. Originally, it was called Renavolena’s Floating Island, but “Renavolena” is tough to say, and there it was as the first word of the title! Not good. The previous title also didn’t convey one of the main elements of my story, which is alchemy. Instead of a floating island, I changed it to a lost city, implying a sense of adventure and mystery rather than magic (although magic does exist in my story).

When I researched already published titles with the word “alchemy” in them, I ran into a huge problem. There were too many. I had the shovel in my hand and a hole already six feet deep. My story was on its way to being buried under all those other titles. Hence the shift from “alchemy” – a word most everyone is familiar with – to a word linked specifically to my world. “Al-Kimiya” sounds exotic. It sounds like an ancient city lost to time. It sounds like it’s meant for only my story.


So we’ve established that the right words are paramount to capturing a reader’s imagination, but what do you do if you intend to turn your first title into a series?

Think of continuity. Your following novels are a continuation of your first. The same can be (and dare I say it, should be) applied to titles. If, like me, your first title starts with “the” then the following titles should likewise begin the same. J.K. Rowling did this with both her Harry Potter series and Fantastic Beasts series, although the latter is a film franchise.

That isn’t to say you can’t start with a new word, but each title should play off the one that came before it in either style or imagery. Take George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series for an example that merges the two points I’ve made. Most titles begin the same: A Game of Thrones; A Feast for Crows; A Clash of Kings; A Dance of Dragons; A Dream of Spring. Then, out of nowhere, we get one variation in the series with the upcoming release of The Winds of Winter. I don’t know why the sudden change, but it doesn’t put me off because it keeps in line with the fanciful imagery.

Suzanne Collins also relies on imagery with her series. The Hunger Games, Catching Fire, and Mockingjay seem unrelated, but to those who have read the series, they know the titles follow a theme. Titles can be a neat little clue for what’s to come, after all. An invested reader will appreciate that.

The importance of titling can also be applied in a micro fashion. Lately, I’ve noticed many authors forgo including chapter titles, but I don’t. The Lost City of Al-Kimiya is a fantasy-mystery, so chances are that the people who pick up my book may enjoy deciphering the hidden meaning behind my chapter titles.

Let’s look at my prologue. The title of that chapter is “The Heist,” and it stands for the future event James agrees to join. The title has a double meaning, but a reader will only find that out when they get closer to the end of the story. Most, if not all of my chapter titles have a double – or even triple – meaning. I enjoyed creating them as well. Strange as it is to say, it made me feel that much closer to the readers.

There’s one more thing I’d like to mention, although this is more a personal issue than a general rule. Gender-heavy pronouns for titles just don’t fit in this day and age. You may lose half your readers at the title. The Swedish mystery series, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is amazing, yet I can’t get over the use of “girl.” Why not use “woman” instead? That is what the character is, isn’t she? A woman. The issue I take with it is that the title alone belittles Lisbeth Salander. As a reader, we’re automatically set against her, set to demean her like most of the characters in Lisbeth Salander’s life. Although, who knows? Maybe that was the intention.

Do you feel the same about gender-heavy pronouns? Can you think of other examples? We have the aforementioned series plus Little Women, another novel I grew up loving but hating at the same time.

If you are doubting your current title, or are having trouble making one up, try compiling a list of your favorite novels and change one or two words. How do they sound? Did the imagery alter?

Repetitive Words

We all have a tendency to use the same words to begin back-to-back sentences. As a rough draft, that’s fine. When it’s in the final editing stage, it gets tedious to correct.

Last week, I mentioned my easy trick to clean up my manuscript by deleting “that” where necessary. Another trick, or rather a habit I do, is making sure I begin sentences with a new word. So if I begin a sentence with “the,” I won’t begin the next sentence with “the.”

By doing this, my sentences automatically start to become more concise. Concise is good. Writing is clearer, less wordy.  Less to edit.

Unfortunately, I’ve also noticed that I’ve started to use the same collection of words to start my sentences. The, Though, They, That, Then, It, He, She, Although, However, A, When – These words are fine, but to me, they were becoming a bit too repetitive, and repetitive get’s boring fast. I want to have a voice, but I don’t want the reader to guess what I’m going to say next.

I’ve gotten better at using nouns and such to get my sentences rolling, but if you’re having trouble, a good way to do this is by rearranging the sentence you currently have and putting the most striking imagery at the beginning.

Here’s an example from the prologue:

Vagabonds and thieves were placed under surveillance for every kind of election, but for one of this prominence, they were rounded up and arrested for the smallest infraction. All eyes would be on the capital from now until the election. The government wanted to keep the streets clean and the city safe until the scrutiny eased. A waste of resources.

The Lost City of Al-Kimiya, Prologue

Back to back sentences beginning with the same word works sometimes, but it should be done sparingly. Here’s an example of that:

“That was all the money I had saved,” came Rosemary’s watery retort. “Everyone around here already knows what happened to us. They heard me screaming when Stig broke down the door. They heard me, but they didn’t come en’ help. Mr. Alvyn wants us to leave by weeks end. Where are we going to go? Can’t he see we’re victims?”

The Lost City of Al-Kimiya, Prologue

I used “they” twice in a row. A few paragraphs down, I did it again.

The whites of Rosemary’s eyes were bloodshot. “They fired me, Jimmy. They fired me for having skinny fingers, but then they went en’ hired two foreigners. Split the salary they were giving me between them, I bet. It’s not fair. I was good at washing. The steam never bothered me.”

The Lost City of Al-Kimiya, Prologue

Why did I decide to do that (or rather, keep it that way)? Simple answer: it’s dialogue. More than that, it’s dialogue from the same character. It keeps in line with Rosemary’s unique voice.

Self-editing is frustrating and time-consuming. I recently had a literary critique/non-professional editor friend look at my manuscript. Thinking I had done well with my final edit, I was surprised (and frustrated) to see that I had made this repetitive mistake a few times. It’s true that a writer never fully thinks their work is done editing, but when you believe you’ve done it well enough to publish and find out you haven’t, well, that’s why everyone needs an extra pair of eyes before releasing it out into the world.

As a quick reminder, Wednesdays are going to be all about self-editing. Do you have any tips and tricks for self-editing that you find works really well for you?

Delete that unnecessary “That”

Imagine clutter. Now imagine it in writing. Who wants to read wordy sentences? No one. And no, I don’t mean “no one” as in Arya Stark or the Faceless Men. I mean no one as in your readers.

There’s one easy way to change this. It may be a little tedious, but it’s good to do it before you start your final – final – editing phase.

Here’s what I do. Once I’ve finished writing and have done a quick edit, I go to “find all” and type “that” into the search bar of my manuscript. Then I sift through that bottomless pit of a list and delete the word “that” wherever I can. Sentences become much more memorable when they are condensed. Wordiness is a sign of an unsure writer. Don’t be trigger happy on that delete button though. Sometimes a sentence needs the word “that” for clarity.

Let’s take a closer look at a section of my prologue. Can we delete both, or should we keep one for clarity?

Captain Inglehart adjusted his stance. The cane lifted off the pavement and dipped back down. “If I give you half upfront, then I need some kind of insurance that you’ll show up.”

“Name it.” There was a hint of desperation in James’ voice that he was sure the captain noticed.

The Lost City of Al-Kimiya, Prologue

I could probably get away with deleting the first “that,” but I’m going to keep it for clarity and also because I feel that it keeps in line with Captain Inglehart’s overall voice. The second “that” was unnecessary and has since been deleted.

Do you think that I should keep the first? Mayhaps it’s fine for you, but for someone who strives to be a minimalistic writer, I don’t think that it’s necessary.

This is my way of becoming a minimalist, and I’ve found that it really helps clean up my manuscript before I begin that long, long, final edit. I think it’s hard to find “that” when you’re re-reading your manuscript as a whole. It doesn’t jump out at you as a spelling error would. Singling out known problematic words works well for me, but maybe it’s not your thing. What are some things you do to declutter your manuscript?

An Editing Guide

It’s taken me a while to figure out what content I want to post on this website (other than information about my debut novel), but now that I’m in my final editing stage and have been looking for advice on that, I thought, “Well, why not add what I know to the mix? Maybe there is someone on the interwebs who also seeks editing advice.”

I’m not just an avid reader, after all. I graduated with a degree in English Literature. I should know some things about what makes a book good enough to read.

Let me make it abundantly clear, however. A degree in English Lit. is not a degree in editing or grammar and I’ll be the first to admit to it. It’s unfortunate that my debut novel is NOT going to have a professional editor, but the more the challenge the better. I know, I know. Not hiring an editor is terrible. But if you knew my current circumstances and knew it will cost around $3,500 to edit one book, then you’d understand. So that leaves me with scouring the internet and relying on friends and myself for editing advice.

I’ll try to keep my postings short and to the point and update every Wednesday. My prologue will be sacrificed for examples, and the closer my publishing date comes, the more chapters I’ll release.

Look out Wednesdays!