Turkey City Lexicon
The Literary Rebel Crew has been getting a lot of requests for reviews. So many in fact that we are all too busy either reading, writing, or releasing books to do any reviews over the last few weeks, but fear not, we’ll start posting our thoughts soon. It is because of this influx in submissions, we felt obligated to offer up our own, slightly modified, version of the Turkey City Lexicon for those hopeful, bright eyed authors out there who request our seasoned opinions on their work.
What in the name of Sam hill is the Turkey City Lexicon you might ask? Simply put, the Turkey City Lexicon is a list of fiction writing sins which all authors should avoid.
Feeling Confused? Some context might be in order.
Aspiring science fiction authors running a writer’s group in Austin, Texas found that new members often committed the same sins over and over again. In order to expedite the diagnosis and avoid having to constantly repeat the same tired advice to new attendees each week, they drew up a list of the worst offenders which could be handed out and referenced: a cheat sheet for why your writing sucks and what you can do to fix it.
The original Turkey City Lexicon was aimed primarily at SF writers, but it holds true for any genre. Literary Rebel has endeavored to update and expand on the original for modern purveyors of fiction. If your goal is to write books, publish them on Amazon, and actually make money, then avoid these amateur mistakes at all costs. These sins will earn you bad reviews on Amazon, you won’t sell any books and you’ll die broke and alone, under an overpass, drunk on fortified wine. Or maybe you’ll just have to keep working your day job. Either way, you’ll be sorry you didn’t take our advice.
Part One: Words and Sentences
Brenda Starr dialogue
Long sections of talk with no physical background or description of the characters. Such dialogue, detached from the story’s setting, tends to echo hollowly, as if suspended in mid-air. Named for the American comic-strip in which dialogue balloons were often seen emerging from the Manhattan skyline.
The opposite of the Brenda Starr is stage direction overkill. Some writers take this advice too far. They feel every single line of dialogue must be bracketed with stage direction. Their novels are full of characters nodding, frowning, smoking, drinking, sipping, pacing, waving their arms about and generally upstaging the dialogue with too much unimportant fluff that doesn’t move the story along and does nothing to reveal anything about the characters. A good rule of thumb: stage direction in dialogue should reveal something about the character’s emotional state. If it doesn’t, skip it.
Ex: She raked both hands through her hair. “My G.P.A. is ruined.”
“Burly Detective” Syndrome
This useful term is taken from SF’s cousin-genre, the detective-pulp. The hack writers of the Mike Shayne series showed an odd reluctance to use Shayne’s proper name, preferring such euphemisms as “the burly detective” or “the red-headed sleuth.” This syndrome arises from a wrong-headed conviction that the same word should not be used twice in close succession. This is only true of particularly strong and visible words, such as “vertiginous.” Better to re-use a simple tag or phrase than to contrive cumbersome methods of avoiding it.
Brand Name Fever
Use of brand name alone, without accompanying visual detail, to create false verisimilitude. You can stock a future with Hondas and Sony’s and IBM’s and still have no idea with it looks like. Amateurs are particularly prone to making this mistake. They think they are helping the reader to see the action. In reality, they sound like they are trying to sell something and it pisses readers off. I’ve read a few novels that used brand names so often, I swore the author was getting a kick-back from the company.
Imitators of Tom Clancy take note: Just because you can name the model firearm, or the defense contractor that builds the helicopter, doesn’t lend believability to your narrative. If the only thing you know about the military is what you see on television, then you don’t know jack. I’m not saying you can’t write a novel about the Army Rangers. But I am saying you’d better do your homework and interview a few Rangers. Get some time in at the range with actual guns so you know how they work. P.S. Everything you learned watching CSI, NCIS, Law & Order, NYPD Blue, or anything by Jerry Bruckheimer is complete bull crap. Don’t make me get the hose.
“Call a Rabbit a Smeerp“
This one is particularly relevant for sci-fi, but military/thriller writers are often guilty as well. It is a cheap technique for false exoticism, in which common elements of the real world are re-named for a fantastic milieu without any real alteration in their basic nature or behavior. “Smeerps” are especially common in fantasy worlds, where people often ride exotic steeds that look and act just like horses. (Attributed to James Blish.)
I see this one in books where the author failed to do their homework. They labor to describe a concept for technology never knowing that the technology actually exists and it is common knowledge. I recently had the misfortune of reading a military thriller where the author took pains to describe a “new” kind of helicopter that could fly sideways or backwards. Hint: Most helicopters can fly sideways and backwards.
Useless ornament in prose, such as fancy sesquipedalian Latinate words where short clear English ones will do. Novice authors sometimes use “gingerbread” in the hope of disguising faults and conveying an air of refinement. (Attr. Damon Knight) This is a big one. Often, new authors choke their writing with words they culled from a thesaurus. It stems from insecurity. They think big words impress readers. Don’t fall into this trap. It doesn’t impress the reader. It pisses them off.
Most offenders of Gingerbread pose fall into the hard-boiled detective noir genre. These authors have never read Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Ross MacDonald, or even Robert B. Parker. Their knowledge of Hard-boiled detectives comes from Stacey Keach’s ham-fisted portrayal of Mike Hammer and they honestly believe that fifties detective fiction actually sounded like that.
Ex: It was another dark night in the heart of a cold, cruel city. The beautiful body stretched out in the rain soaked gutter of an alley strewn with the detritus of a thousand sins was only the second body I had seen tonight.
The mis-use of the present participle is a common structural sentence-fault for beginning writers. “Putting his key in the door, he leapt up the stairs and got his revolver out of the bureau.” Alas, our hero couldn’t do this even if his arms were forty feet long. This fault shades into “Ing Disease,” the tendency to pepper sentences with words ending in “-ing,” a grammatical construction which tends to confuse the proper sequence of events. (Attr. Damon Knight)
This one is tricky. You should never follow your present participle with past. However, many successful authors often transition into present.
Ex: She kicked her would-be killer in the nuts and started running.
Let’s keep it simple. That sentence starts out with ed and moves into ing. The best sentence ever? Nope. Does it work? Sure. Creative writing instructors would frown on it, but most readers won’t bat an eye. The important thing to ask when you are constructing sentences is: is it clear? Does the reader see what happened first, second, third? In this case, the sentence passes the litmus test. The reader clearly sees that the woman kicks her assailant in the balls, then runs.
Ex: Kicking her would-be killer in the balls, she turned and ran.
Our second example fails the test because it implies that she kicked her assailant in the balls at the same time as turning and running. Which we can all agree is impossible.
Words used to evoke a cheap emotional response without engaging the intellect or the critical faculties. Commonly found in story titles, they include such bits of bogus lyricism as “star,” “dance,” “dream,” “song,” “tears” and “poet,” clichés calculated to render the audience misty-eyed and tender-hearted. Ex: Song of Ice and Fire anyone? Every piece of YA doggerel published in the wake of Twilight is guilty of this. Offenders should be prosecuted and imprisoned for life, without writing paper.
The ludicrous overuse of far-fetched adjectives, piled into a festering, fungal, tenebrous, troglodytic, ichorous, leprous, synonymic heap. (Attr. John W. Campbell) This relates back to the Gingerbread syndrome. Lovecraft fell victim to this sin. His stories are full of arcane verbiage that will have you groping for a dictionary.
An artificial verb used to avoid the word “said.” “Said” is one of the few invisible words in the English language and is almost impossible to overuse. It is much less distracting than “he retorted,” “she inquired,” “he ejaculated,” and other oddities. The term “said-book” comes from certain pamphlets, containing hundreds of purple-prose synonyms for the word “said,” which were sold to aspiring authors from tiny ads in American magazines of the pre-WWII era.
The venerable Mickey Spillane was guilty of this, but then, he was Mickey Spillane. The guy practically invented Hard-boiled. When you are cool enough to create your own genre, you can damn well do as you please. Until then, heed the advice of Literary Rebel and leave these out.
An unseemly compulsion to follow the word “said” with a colorful adverb, as in “‘We’d better hurry,’ Tom said swiftly.” This was a standard mannerism of the old Tom Swift adventure dime-novels. Good dialogue can stand on its own without a clutter of adverbial props.
The said Bookism and the Tom Swifty are story killers. Every once in a while I allow one of my characters to mutter, mumble or groan out a bit of dialogue, but only on the rarest of occasions and even then, it usually gets the ax in the editing phase. So do yourself, and your hapless reader, a favor and leave off the Tom Swiftys. Whatever you do, please don’t allow your characters to ejaculate dialogue.
Need a good example of how to write razor dialogue? Pick up any book by Robert B. Parker.