Check that sentence

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Check that sentence

I'm new to Oxford and Jericho Writers, and thought it might be helpful to have a place where we can submit sentences that we would like feedback on, whether we are struggling with them, proud of them, or just testing them out. Critiquing a sentence is certainly less daunting than a paragraph or chapter, encouraging more of us to chip in. While the Elements of Style and Google can answer many of our questions, nothing beats feedback from a fellow writer!

As with the other groups, there's no judgement here; we're all learning.

Just a quickie:

A) Joe buried his hands in his trouser pockets, in an attempt to neutralise her urgency with patience.

B) Joe buried his hands in his trouser pockets, attempting to neutralise her urgency with patience.

Just changed A to B. Is this okay? Or am I breaking some forgotten rule... does that imply that the pockets are making the attempt??

(Also having issues with 'his'... Joe buried hands in his trouser pockets...?)

Thoughts? And if anyone else is editing please do post sentences of your own, the last few have all been me and I'd gladly reciprocate :)

Hey, just seen this. What a great idea! Hope both these sentences work! Lol. 

Another grammar-based query from me that's tricky to Google...

A) The fire inched down the wood toward the petrol-soaked panels that lined the floor of their cabin.

B) The fire inched down the wood toward the petrol-soaked panels lining the floor of their cabin.

In a continued effort to remove unnecessary words, I've been changing a lot of 'that ...ed' to '', as above. (Sorry, I'm sure there's a term for this verb change, but I can never remember the words...) Does B still work, or am I better off keeping 'that'?

Many thanks!

Apologies - two sentences below! I'm trying to convey that sense of recklessness felt when we are over-tired (almost like being drunk), that makes it easier to face something you fear. I haven't quite got it... any ideas? I also think it's a bit of a mess grammatically, which is why I'm (gulp!) posting it here...

The fatigue that followed the sleepless night was not unwelcome. His senses laboured underwater: sound muffled, vision blurred, dampening his fear at facing his neighbour.

I've started a final edit of my manuscript and am trying to kill some 'felt's! It's proving easier in some sentences than others... any suggestions on the below:

Robert took a glance at the pristine, navy Surrey Police uniform that his uncle wore and felt like he might be arrested for possession of dangerous goods.

Here's another couple of sentences to have a go at. again all feedback much appreciated.

Typically, Michael was up and dressed by seven and was poking Percy with an umbrella from the cloak room at ten past. 

“Get your things and get out,” he said turning away as Percy woke with a shock, covering his eyes with the sheets as the curtains flew open and the light streamed in. Michael sucked on a cigarette, threw the umbrella onto the bed and left the room.

A couple of sentences I know, but like the way they work. all feedback welcome...thanks.

The train left the town and a scarecrow appeared, standing in the centre of a large, ploughed field. Surrounded by birds, it was sodden and beginning to rot, with It’s head hanging forward and its arms outstretched like some sort of agricultural crucifixion.

A bead of sweat slipped down his forehead, along the crease between his brows and into his eye.

- I struggle with eyes, arms, hands, feet... I don't want to write 'into his left eye', as it seems odd to specify which eye. I don't want to write 'into an eye', which sounds as though there is a random eye lying around. But does 'into his eye' suggest that he only has one?

Hello all.  This is an extract from a 100 word story.  I'm looking to find a non-telly sentence that shows Mr Harper's character.

‘Good morning, Mr Harper,’ I chirp, loud enough to twitch next door’s curtain.  His good ear is slightly forward.  The other never recovered from the blast.  He refuses to use his stick, so his left knee trembles as he fights to straighten.  He insisted they leave the bullet in.

Or the alternative, They left the bullet in, apparantly, much to their disapproval.

Any other suggestions are most welcome.

I'm struggling with the opening sentence to my first novel. I've rewritten my introductory paragraph probably over thirty times now and still can't quite get it right. This is the closest I think I've been to something I'm totally happy with, but I need to get some feedback on the below:

"Tom hated flowers; they seemed so normal and unaffected - nothing had changed for them."

"Tom hated the flowers; they seemed so normal and unaffected - nothing had changed for them."

In the second version, the addition of the definite article, I feel, makes the sentence flow better. But now it runs the risk of being ambiguous. Which flowers? All flowers? A bunch of flowers near Tom? Something else?

The first version, in comparison, is more technically correct, but I feel it falls a bit flat and has less impact. 

It could be that neither of these really work and i'll have to rewrite this sentence entirely, or perhaps even forget about using this as a book opener.

A) Which was the original and which the reconstruction?

B) Which was the original and which was the reconstruction?

Googling this has left me flummoxed... can I write (A), without the clunky second 'was', or is it required grammatically?

Thanks in advance!

Of all the writing habits I have, one of the worst – the worst from good financial sense point of view – is that I like writing LONG books.

My first novel was a spine-breaking 180,000 words. Not one of my novels has ever been less than 110,000 words. The first “short story” I wrote was 8,000 words, which is to say miles too long to be an actual short story. Heck, even this email is likely to be far longer than any other email you get in your inbox today.

Ah well. There are some things you can’t fight, and my addiction to length is one of them.

But that also means that when it comes to short-form copy, I’m at a loss.

I’m not especially good at book blurbs, which want to be about 100-120 words (depending a bit on layouts and where you’re expecting them to appear.) Since titles need to be short and punchy, I’m not especially good at those either.

In a word: I’m pretty damn rubbish when it comes to coming up with titles … and this email is going to tell you how to write them.

Which means if you want to ignore the entire contents of what follows, on the basis that I obviously, obviously, obviously don’t know what I’m talking about, then I have to say that the evidence is very much in your favour.

That said, I think it’s clear enough what a title needs to do. It wants to:

  1. Be highly consistent with your genre
  2. Offer some intrigue – for example, launch a question in the mind of the reader
  3. Ideally, it’ll encapsulate “the promise of the premise” in a few very short words, distilling the essence of your idea down to its very purest form.

The genre-consistency is the most essential, and the easiest to achieve. It matters a lot now that so many books are being bought on Amazon, because book covers – at the title selection stage – are no more than thumbnails. A bit bigger than a phone icon, but really not much. So yes, the cover has to work hard and successfully in thumbnail form, but the title has more work to do now than it did before.

Genre consistency is therefore key. Your title has to say to your target readers, “this is the sort of book that readers like you like”. It has to invite the click through to your book page itself. That’s its task.

The intrigue is harder to do, but also kinda obvious. “Gone Girl” works because of the Go Girl / Gone Girl pun, and those double Gs, and the brevity. But it also works because it launches a question in the mind of the reader: Who is this girl and why has she gone? By contrast, “The Girl on the Train” feels a little flat to me. There are lots of women on lots of trains. There’s nothing particularly evocative or intriguing in the image. I don’t as it happens think that book was much good, but I don’t think the title stood out either. (I think the book sold well because of some pale resemblances between the excellent Gone Girl and its lacklustre sister. The trade, desperate for a follow-up hit to Gone Girl, pounced on whatever it had.)

The third element in a successful title – the “promise of the premise” one – is really hard to do. I’ve not often managed it, and I’ve probably had a slightly less successful career as a result.

So what works? Well, here are some examples of titles that do absolutely nail it:

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Brilliant! That title didn’t translate the rather dour and serious Swedish original (Man Som Hatar Kvinnor / Men Who Hate Women). Rather it took the brilliance of the central character and captured her in six words. She was a girl (vulnerable), and she had a tattoo (tough and subversive), and the tattoo was of a dragon (exotic and dangerous). That mixture of terms put the promise of the book’s premise right onto the front cover and propelled the book’s explosive success.

Incidentally, you’ll notice that the title also completely excludes mention of Mikael Blomkvist, who is as central to that first book as Salander is. But no one bought the book for Blomkvist and no one remembers the book for Blomkvist either. So the title cut him out, and did the right thing in doing so.

The Da Vinci Code

Brilliant. Dan Brown is fairly limited as a writer, but it was a stroke of genius to glue together the idea of ancient cultural artefacts with some kind of secret code. Stir those two things up with a bit of Holy Grail myth-making and the result (for his audience) was commercial dynamite.

And – boom! – that dynamite was right there in the title too. The Da Vinci part namechecks the world’s most famous artist. The Code part promises that there are secret codes to be unravelled.

Four words delivering the promise of the premise in full.

I let You Go

This was Clare Mackintosh’s breakout hit, about a mother whose young son was killed in a hit-and-run car accident. The promise of the premise is right there in four very short words … and given a first person twist, which just adds a extra bite to the hook in question. A brilliant bit of title-making.


So that’s what a title wants to do. A few last comments to finish off.

One, I think it’s fair to say that it’s quite rare a title alone does much to propel sale success.

Because there are a lot of books out there, and because everyone’s trying to do the same thing, there’s not much chance to be genuinely distinctive. My fifth Fiona Griffiths novel was called The Dead House, but there are at least three other books on Amazon with that title, or something very like it. That didn’t make my title bad, in fact – it did the promise of the premise thing just fine – but I certainly couldn’t say my title was so distinctive it did anything much for sales.

Two, if you’re going for trad publishing, it’s worth remembering that absolutely any title you have in mind at the moment is effectively provisional. If your publishers don’t like it, they’ll ask you to change it. And if they don’t like your title #2, they’ll ask you to come up with some others. In short, if, like me, you’re bad at titles, you just don’t need to worry too much (if you’re going the trad publishing route, that is.) There’s be plenty of opportunity to hone your choice well prior to publication.

Three, you don’t want to think about title in isolation. There should, ideally, be a kind of reverberation between your title and the cover. That reverberation should be oblique rather than direct. Clare Mackintosh’s I Let You Go had for its cover image a butterfly trapped against a window – a metaphorical reference to the anguish of the book’s premise. If instead it had shown a mother obviously distraught as a car struck her son, the cover – and title – would have seemed painfully clunky and ridiculous.

If you get a great cover image that doesn’t work with your chosen title, then change the title. If you have a superb title and your cover designer’s image is too directly an illustration of it, then change the image. That title/cover pairing is crucial to your sales success, so you can afford no half-measures in getting it right.

That’s all from me.

My kids are making elderflower cordial and singing as they do so. They are also wearing helmets for no reason that I can possibly understand.

Till soon


PS: Want to know what I think of your title? Then I’ll tell you. Just pop your title (plus short description of your book) in the comments below. I’ll tell you what I think.