Bad Words: Badder Writing That I am Too Madderer!

Hello and welcome to another installment of “Bad Words” (actually, I just made up that name – the first installment didn’t have a series title, but guess what? It does now!) where we take a look at some common mistakes many writers make and how YOU the reader can learn to identify them for fun and profit. Just kidding. There’s no profit here for you. About the best you can hope for is to get a laugh or two and look at the pictures. On the other hand, if you’re an author, you might see something you do from time to time that you never knew bothered me. And, OF COURSE YOU’LL WANT TO CHANGE THAT BEHAVIOR! Pleasing me should be of paramount importance in your everyday life and so it is a matter of course that your writing should also take my tastes into consideration.

I have wants, people! Needs! They must be satisfied or… or… they will continue to be unsatisfied! And that is unsatisfactory!

But seriously, some of the stuff I point out below is just me making mountains out of molehills, but I thought I’d take the time to explain what bothers me about them because I’m seeing them a lot lately. I’ve been doing some intense reading of other self-published works in my chosen genres (mystery, fantasy/sci-fi) and although most of the stuff out there is garbage, there are a few writers who are quite good and I’d like to read more of their work. However, even though they are clearly talented and can make words do pleasing things on the page, they still make very aggravating mistakes that make me want to pelt them with Cheetos and slap them with deli ham! I want to grab them by the nipples and shake them and scream into their faces “Don’t you know how close to awesome you are? Don’t you know how many truckloads of ham and Cheetos I want to dump on you? DON’T YOU KNOW I LOVE YOU?”

But I’d likely get arrested for that, so instead I’ll just tell you how I think some writers could be soooo much better if only they’d stop doing dumb shit like…

The deus ex machina: You’re probably already familiar with this term, but for those of you who may have slept through a few too many English classes, I’ll explain. It’s a Latin term meaning “God from the Machine” and it refers to any sort of resolution to a conflict that seems to come out of nowhere. This is easily forgivable if an author just uses it to tie up loose secondary plot threads, but is unforgivable when it appears in the main action of the story.

Ridiculous Example: Our swashbuckling hero is busy bravely fighting the forces of doom and destruction at the climax of the book, but things take a turn for the worse and he finds his back against the wall and his feet in the doo-doo. His every strength has been countered and now the enemy is about to destroy him by exploiting a known weakness! Lament! Oh, lament! But wait? What’s this? Our Doubting Thomas of a hero can reach down deep within and summon the strength of a god? One of the allies he thought lost suddenly and inexplicably bursts in and aids him? The spirits of his ancestors distract the enemy just long enough to provide an escape? The evil-genius villain decides to walk toward the hero instead of just shooting him from across the room? Our sword-wielding hero can suddenly cast magic missile?

And on and on. You see what I’m getting at. A final confrontation only ends satisfyingly when our hero uses the tools and experiences he picked up through his journey to defeat the final boss. Nothing should suddenly appear. The reader should be able to trace the solution to the problem to something (or things) that happened earlier in the book or else it all just falls flat.


Just like this guy!

Just like this guy!


Getting lost on a tangent: This is where the author attempts (as all good authors should) to weave a multi-threaded plot line, but ends up losing the main thread, either for too long or permanently. This is incredibly easy to do, but is also fairly simple to spot on revision. While you can afford to spend perhaps a whole chapter devoted to a secondary plot point, any more than that and you risk confusing the reader regarding what’s actually important. Unless you use those one-sentence chapters, then I suppose you could spend a chapter or two or nine. God, don’t get me started on one-sentence chapters. What an arrogant waste of reader attention.

Ridiculous example: Our hero is hired to rescue a kidnapped princess. After investigating for a chapter or two, he finds she’s more or less a willing prisoner of her captors. She tells him to get lost. Unsure what to do, he spends a day thinking it over and during that time he receives a message from an old friend in need of some help. The hero shrugs and leaves to go aid his friend and for the greater part of the book, the action revolves around that new plot point. After more or less resolving the problem, the hero eventually comes back to convince the princess she shouldn’t hang with the bad guys and that brings the story to a close. Maybe the author makes some loose connection between the two conflicts, but FAR too much time was spent away from the “rescue the princess” plot to have it be at all meaningful anymore.


"...if you still care about that sort of thing, that is."

“…if you still care about that sort of thing, that is.”


Stretching suspension of disbelief to the breaking point: There’s a lot of suspension of disbelief in genre writing. The reader is often expected to believe in time travel, instantaneous communication through space, magic, fantasy worlds, etc. All of this is generally accepted as de rigeur, but I’ve noticed in one area – specifically dystopian sci-fi – authors seem to take just too many liberties. If you’re dealing with Earth or even an Earth-like planet with human-type peoples, you have to keep in mind that your readers will have certain expectations that can’t be disregarded.

Ridiculous example: The world is going to die within a handful of generations and humanity’s only hope is to gather up its smartest people and lock them away so they can tech our way out of it, hopefully. But the organization behind such a noble effort turns out to be nefarious in its designs. When the smartest people enter its secured compound, they are never heard from again! And… nobody wonders why. Not one single lonely boyfriend or worried mother picks up the phone to call. Nobody. Everyone just simply accepts that the smarty pants people need to “concentrate on their work.” Our hero only finds out that something is amiss when one of the smarty-pants finally manages to sneak a message out… YEARS LATER.

Seriously? You’re talking about humans here. Humans on Earth. No one would accept such an obvious kidnapping for any length of time much less for years. Well, unless there is already a clearly established system of gulags and work camps in your world. That might pass inspection. Or maybe everyone has been pacified with some sort of chemicals in the contrails of planes or something. Or perhaps a really taste brownie mix tainted with hallucinogens that trick family members into believing they’re still in contact with the smarty-pants relatives could work… Anyway, the point is – don’t forget the human condition. Never forget that. No matter how much your writing revolves around zombies or vampires or robots, your readers are all very human.


I don't care how many dragons you birth, you're still just a lost little girl looking for a home. Fuck you, George R.R. Martin, you brilliant bastard.

I don’t care how many dragons you birth, you’re still just a lost little girl looking for a home. Fuck you, George R.R. Martin, you brilliant bastard.




Well, that’s all I’ve got for you today, except to announce this week’s winner of the T-Shirt giveaway.

John Cataldo!

Congrats, John! Look for the newsletter in your inbox (or possibly junk folder) and reply with desired size and mailing address.

So long everyone! Don’t forget to review a good book and tip a nice delivery driver!


Author Interview: Auston Habershaw

Today I’ve got something special for you: The First Official Author Interview conducted on This Tone of Voice! And the author I’ll be interviewing is none other than Auston Habershaw, a new and exciting voice in fantasy fiction. His first book, The Oldest Trick, is now available in e-book as well as paperback. It’s a story of revenge, morality, greed, guilt and good old fashioned sword and sorcery. I highly recommend it. Pick up a copy today!

A bit of full disclosure before we begin. I first met Auston back in 2001, when we were both employed by Sierra Entertainment as Quality Assurance play testers on a computer game called Empire Earth in development at a Cambridge developer called Stainless Steel Studios. We worked together for about eight months before being unceremoniously laid off. Auston took the hint and looked for greener pastures. It would take me another six or seven years to do the same.

Anyway, I always knew he was a funny and creative intellectual, but was surprised and pleased to discover years later, when through the magic of Facebook I was reunited with him, that he had become an accomplished writer. He’s been an inspiration to me and I hope he will be to all of you as well.

OK! Bring in the Interrogation Nazi!


"Now... What shall we talk about?"

“Now… What shall we talk about?”


Let’s start off by learning a bit about you and your professional life so far. What have you done and what are you doing now? A/S/L? Are you ready to party? Are you interested in meeting dudes who like meeting other dudes? Wait… Actually, I think I copy/pasted from the wrong questionnaire. Oh well, just go ahead and answer what “feels” right.

Have you always wanted to be a writer? When did you start writing “in earnest?”

In retrospect, I always wanted to be a writer, but it took me a while before I realized “writer” was the profession I was looking for. I’ve always loved telling stories, but it took me years before I figured out in what medium best to do that. I think it probably crystallized in high school at some point, though the exact moment would be hard to pin down.

As for when I started writing in earnest, that depends on the definition of “in earnest.” I wrote my first novel as my senior honors thesis at BC (it was awful, don’t worry), but I don’t think that counts. I don’t think it counts until you actively start submitting things for publication–until you start getting rejection slips, you’re still just a hobbyist. That happened after I got out of grad school around 2005. I had written a lot of stuff by then, but I really started working at the career end of things following that.

What did you study in school? Were there girls there? Did you talk to them? What was that like?

I went to Boston College undergrad and I got my MFA in Creative Writing in grad school.

If you’re looking to meet smart, creative women, an MFA program is probably the best possible place. I was already spoken for at the time, so I can’t claim any grand romantic encounters as a result of my grad school experience, but I’d highly recommend it as a girl-meeting environment. 😉 


A Portrait of the Author as a Middle Aged Man... AND a Middle Ages man. HAHA! See what I did there? That's comedy. Seriously, it is.

Above: The author actively withholding his dapper charms from swarms of smart, creative females.


Where has your writing taken you so far? What else have you published? What have you written that you’d most like to see published some day?

I’ve published about (counts on fingers) eight short stories or so in various markets and now a novel. The things I have written that I’d most like to see published are probably the half-dozen or so short stories I have on submission right now (fingers crossed). Barring that, I’m hoping I can convince my publisher to extend the Saga of the Redeemed for two more books, just so I can finish it off.

What are your favorite things to write about? Genres, character motivations, world building, etc.

I love character building and world building equally. My work specializes in character-focused stories borne out of complex alternate worlds (be they in the future or in a secondary world). Since I think where we come from is a pretty big slice of who we are, I think world-building and character relationships and motivations are tightly related things.

What’s your writing process like? Explain how you get some writing done during a typical day.

I write in two modes. Mode One (Default) is during the Fall and Spring Semesters (I’m a college professor) when I have scarcely any time. During this period I mostly do revision, write short fiction, and manage my submissions. In Mode Two (Summer), I get to write for most of my day. I go into my office at the university, lock the door, and write for six to seven hours (give or take, counting procrastination, banging my head against the wall, and random arguments on Facebook). I write an average of 3000-4000 words a day this way, sometimes more if things are really cooking, sometimes much less if it isn’t. I do that until the end of August, when Mode One takes over again (sadly). This summer, I wrote/revised a total of 168,000 words or so. Most of it, if not all of it, was utter garbage, but it was a good foundational series of drafts for a novel that I hope to polish up by this coming summer and have ready to sell.

What’s your chair situation? Explain to me your chair situation. I’m getting some great writing done on a Staples Turcotte Luxura High Back Managers Chair (Brown), but I know everyone is a little different when it comes to things like this.

I have a chair that leans back and has wheels. That is literally all I can tell you about it. (Looks) Oh, and it’s gray.

I will sit on anything to write, so long as it has a back. Writing on stools is for monks.

Who are your inspirations, past and present?

Growing up, the work of Robert Jordan inspired me a great deal, along with Frank Herbert, Neal Stephenson, and William Gibson. Currently, my favorite authors are probably Scott Lynch and Patrick Rothfuss, as they are two of the best the fantasy genre has to offer right now. Oh, and Chuck Wendig, if only for his fabulous writing advice he gives out on his blog.

Do you have any tips for aspiring authors who want to go the traditional publishing route?

Patience. Iron-clad, glacial patience is essential. Everything in traditional publishing takes a long time. It’s probably worth it in the long run (probably–your mileage may vary), but there is no rushing the machine. While waiting, work on other stuff. Always be working on other stuff.

Let’s talk about The Oldest Trick. What was the first thing about it that inspired you to write the book? Was it the world? The characters? Something else?

The Oldest Trick came into being from two different directions. The character, Tyvian Reldamar, came into being independently on some level (I first started writing stories with him as a main character in high school). The world crystallized somewhat later than that, in the early 2000s. The world and the character fit into each other nicely, so here they are. As for the source of my inspiration, I wanted to write in a post-medieval fantasy world that wasn’t static, but rather was always changing socially, economically, and so on. The world reflects that–it is in the middle of a massive social upheaval as magical stuff (magecraft) is becoming more and more available to the lay population.


A good book, but don't expect the author to reveal how the oldest trick works. I think you have to pay extra for that.

A good book, but don’t expect the author to reveal how the oldest trick works. I think you have to pay extra for that.


How long did it take to get The Oldest Trick published, from concept to contract?

Hmmm…hard to say exactly, since the book sort of congealed gradually. I’d say from the moment I started writing the MS that would become this book to the time I got the deal, it was probably 5 years, with me working primarily during the summers. So, call it less than that if you count each year as 3 months. The publisher did sit on the MS for 18 months before giving me a yes or no, though, so that was a big chunk of time.

Tyvian Reldamar. What’s his deal anyway? What made you decide to work with such a prick for a main character? Seems like a challenge. Was it?

Tyvian? Oh no–he’s a joy to write. He’s always been the nasty little voice on my shoulder, so letting him come out and be a jerk is really more cathartic than anything else. Maybe that speaks ill of me–I don’t know–but I’ve always loved the antihero and the scoundrel and always been disappointed when they stopped being scoundrels just because. Tyvian is a villain, but he isn’t a monster. And he can get better, if somebody presents him with the right argument. That was the real challenging part, actually–how do you get a selfish prick to realize he’s been selfish? That takes some doing. It’s a learning process.

Hool. What a great character. She’s clearly the heavy brawler of the story, with few people being able to face her in a stand up fight, but she’s also intelligent and highly motivated. What made you want to create such a character? And why a Gnoll?

The gnoll part is easy–I love dogs, I was a professional dog walker all through grad school, and Hool is a humanized (and weaponized) talking dog. As for her personality, well a lot of that is just dog stuff and a lot of the rest of it is my wife, who actually played a character named Hool in an RPG I ran. She was very impatient but also really, really smart and it was a ton of fun. I’ve sought to reflect a lot of that in her personality.

Not to be critical, but Myreon and Arlan seem a little under-served in the story. Can we expect to see them get a little more room to grow in future Tyvian adventures?

Arlan? Who the heck is that? Artus, I assume you mean. I’m sorry if you think they are underserved (and I happen to disagree). That said, Artus in particular has a lot more planned for him. Myreon does, too, but she’s not in as much of book three as I wanted.

The story is, of course, about Tyvian primarily, and on Tyvian I tend to remain focused. I get frustrated with the tendency in epic fantasy to abandon the main character in favor of following the ins and outs of all the minor supporting cast. As long as I’m writing this series, Tyvian’s exploits and his transformation will be center stage. The other characters are important, of course, but they aren’t the main character.

(Interviewer’s Note: You probably won’t believe this, but I actually HAD it as Artus when I first wrote out the questions for Auston and then I second guessed myself, because it had been a couple of months since I finished the book. So, I googled Oldest Trick to make sure. Of course, the first link I clicked on was a review – Goodreads, I think – where the reviewer called that character “Arlan.” Let that be a lesson to you all! Stick to your guns… but only when you’re right, of course.)

Any hints about what’s in store next for Tyvian and his band of reluctant accomplices?

Well, Tyvian has made a lot of very powerful enemies by the end of the first book and the ring basically forces him away from his normal profession (namely scheming with pirates and smugglers to fence stolen magecraft to unsavory persons). Tyvian is going to experience a long fall from quality of living he’s used to. He isn’t going to be happy about it, either.

What’s it been like working with Harper Voyager Impulse? Is it true they require you to sacrifice kittens in their name during unholy rituals of ancient eldritch sorcery before they agree to publish your work? How many kittens so far?

My contract dictates I owe them a kitten a week, but I’ve been slacking a bit lately. That reminds me–where’s my kitten-sack? (rummages around office)

Working with HVI has been good. I’m very small potatoes over there, so I don’t exactly get everybody’s undivided attention, but it has been a good experience overall. I mean, drowning kittens is not exactly fun, but you get used to it, you know?


"Will I dream?"

“Will I dream?”


Have you done any independent marketing of The Oldest Trick or has Harper handled all of it? What marketing has been done by you and/or them?

Harper did a fair amount of publicity for the first book (The Iron Ring, which is the first half of The Oldest Trick), a little bit for the second part, but the third part I’ve been mostly on my own. Being associated with a major publisher is a boost all by itself, of course, so that has helped and I’ve probably sold a lot more than I would have had I gone indie. One thing I was told (I think by the great Kevin J Anderson) was “you are the very best advocate for your own work.” That doesn’t change when you’re working with a big publisher–you still need to press the flesh, ask for reviews, write guest blog posts, do interviews, etc. You can’t wait around for them to do it for you. I did that with the second book, and it was a bad idea.

When you’ve finished re-watching Conan the Barbarian, built a model of the Devil’s Tower out of mashed potatoes and walked naked around your backyard at midnight, what else do you do to stir the creative juices when they’ve run a bit dry?

I don’t do anything specific, exactly. I try to take inspiration from daily life–people I see on the train, a story somebody tells me about their boss, music I listen to. In terms of hobbies, I still run RPGs all the time and I have a pretty substantial Warhammer 40K habit, but those are less points of inspiration and more ways to unwind. I do lift some concepts I come up with for my RPGs and stick them in stories, but Gamemastering isn’t that far off from being an author, anyway, so I don’t think that’s unusual.

You just bumped up a level and you get an extra attribute point. Where’s it going? NOT SKILL POINT. I know you’re dumping that crap into Spot. Everyone does that. NO. Attribute point. Dex? I’m betting Dex.

Charisma. I don’t need to dodge a lot of falling rocks, but I *do* need to make friends in this industry, and a big pile of charisma would do me some good at those meet-and-greets where I stand by the wall and drink my Sprite like a chump.

How will people find you when they reach the astute conclusion that this mere taste of you is not enough?

Twitter: @AustonHab
Lnkedin: No thank you.
Pinterest: Nope
Amazon Author Page:
Smashwords: Whuzzat?

Book Links: (* American, UK, etc.)
Harper Collins:


Well that’s all the time we have folks! Thank you to Auston Habershaw for stopping by and playing nice with my goofball questions. Thanks to all of you for reading. Before we go, here’s a bit more about The Oldest Trick. Seriously, check it out:

Compiled for the first time, The Oldest Trick comprises The Iron Ring and Iron and Blood in the Saga of the Redeemed.

Tyvian Reldamar has just been betrayed by his longtime partner and left for dead in a freezing river. To add insult to injury, his mysterious rescuer took it upon himself to affix Tyvian with an iron ring that prevents the wearer from any evildoing.

Revenge just got complicated.

On his quest to get even, Tyvian navigates dark conspiracies, dodges midnight assassins, and uncovers the plans of the ruthless wizard Banric Sahand. Tyvian will need to use every dirty trick in the book to avoid a painful and ignominious end, even as he learns to work with—and rely on—his motley crew of accomplices, including an adolescent pickpocket, an obese secret-monger, and a fearsome gnoll.

Bad writing that I am to mad!

Have you ever been reading along in a book that you are thoroughly enjoying and suddenly, shortly after you have decided “yes, this author is one swell fella and/or gal and I approve of this book,” the writer does something that just ruins it for you? Do you feel like hurling the book across the room, only you can’t because that’s how you broke your last kindle? Well, don’t feel bad. You’re not alone! I’m here to help you cope with such disappointing events.

You see, there are some common mistakes and shortcuts many writers make in order to wrangle their stories into coherent narratives or to address the themes they swore they would discuss when they first sat down to put thoughts on paper. These things don’t necessarily make the author “bad.” No, I would argue that you could take any of your favorite authors and find one or two mild examples of each of these things in any of their books. Maybe you didn’t notice them and they never bothered you. That’s fine! Great, even! You should probably stop reading this post, because if that’s the case, I’m going to make you very unhappy.


"This better not be about me or you will be getting a crossbow bolt at a very inconvenient time."

“This better not be about me or you will be receiving a crossbow bolt at a very inconvenient time.”


Now, bear in mind, speaking as an author, these are not things we do on purpose (I hope) but in the course of an 80,000/100,000/120,000 word manuscript, we make little deals with ourselves while writing which perhaps we’re not always entirely aware. I could cite actual instances from real authors, but since I do not wish to start flame wars with my brothers and sisters, I’ll try to come up with abstract examples writ large for shock and guffaw effect. So, without further preamble, let me dive right in to the aforementioned offenses…

Ditching an inconvenient plot point: This is probably the most common offense I see among authors of every talent level. It’s not really a plot hole, or if it is, it’s not nearly big enough to leak too much suspension of disbelief out of the story before we get to the conclusion. Instead, this is something the author usually puts into the story early on in order to facilitate another plot point. Unfortunately, when the author gets the second plot point developed, that’s all he/she wants to talk about, leaving the earlier “proto-plot point” hanging out to dry.

Ridiculous example: A village is ruled over by a baron who happens to be a tyrannical despot. The only way the villagers can appease him is to perform their ceremonial dance nightly for his amusement. The dance attracts our hero and during his stay he becomes involved in a plot among the villagers to overthrow the baron. All fine and good, right? Certainly, except for the fact that the author quickly loses interest in the ceremonial dance and only talks about the overthrow. So, at points in the story when the villagers should be dancing, they’re meeting in secret to plan or they’re actively, you know, doing the whole revolt thing. The reader is left to wonder… didn’t the baron ever notice no one was dancing for him anymore?

Now, that’s an over-the-top example and I’ve never seen anything that obvious, but I think you get the idea. It’s forgivable (I was never that interested in the dancing anyway) but irritating, because now I strongly suspect the baron is an imbecile and therefore not a very interesting villain.


"Let's see, I've terrorized the defenseless, defiled the innocent... I just feel like I'm forgetting something..."

“Let’s see, I’ve terrorized the defenseless, defiled the innocent… I just feel like I’m forgetting something…”


The military mind is the only sane one in the world: This offense is committed by every military sci-fi/fantasy/fiction/history author I’ve ever read and it annoys the great googly-moogly out of me. Look, I understand the main plot revolves around how the army/navy/spacefleet heroes come together to save the country/alliance/planet. I get that what’s cool about military stuff is the sense of teamwork and valuing the unit over the individual. Additionally, I even understand that the plot needs to have tension beyond simply facing down the enemy threat. But, for the love of Ulysses S. Grant, does EVERY one of these books need to depict civilians as bungling nincompoops who, if they are not actively trying to undermine the military, are doing so by accident?

Ridiculous example: The earth is being threatened by an alien armada! The heads of the military forces, after chiding the silly civilian administration for not building enough ships/weapons/bases to defend the world magnanimously consent to take over war production and decide general strategy. When the war doesn’t go so well, those meddling administrators try to usurp authority back because they dare to question the war goals, but are too stupid to understand what needs to be done. Finally, when the war is almost over, the bumbling politicians gather enough popular support to force the wise and all-knowing military to spare the enemy’s last planet so that a foolish peace treaty can be signed, setting the stage for the next book… errr, war, I mean. Apparently, civilians are so dumb they would have destroyed the world a thousand times over if it weren’t for the benevolent and watchful patience of generations of gifted and blessed-from-on-high generals and admirals. For fuck’s sake, it’s like civilians are the Maggie Gyllenhaal to the military’s James Spader in The Secretary.


"You may have one scoop of creamed potatoes, FOUR PEAS... and as much ice cream as you'd like."

“You may have one scoop of creamed potatoes, FOUR PEAS… and as much ice cream as you’d like.”


Failing to disguise the author’s bigotry: Look, nobody is perfect. Everyone is a little racist. Everyone is a little sexist. What matters is that we at least try to put our prejudices aside and live well together. Usually, in literature, especially genre writing, you see authors intentionally poking fun at bigotry or trying to ignore it altogether. Sometimes, however, an author makes an effort to disguise his or her own feelings by having their characters loudly and repeatedly claim to value equality, tolerance and diversity, while at the same time writing the action of the plot to be exactly opposite that.

Ridiculous example: A character makes a statement about racial group X being mostly hard working, well behaved folks he didn’t mind at all sharing his neighborhood with. He says this a few times in both dialog and inner monologue. However, every instance where a member of racial group X is encountered in the book, they are acting badly. They pick fights, destroy property, steal things – you name it! So, the protagonist, after  heaving a heavy sigh of regret, proceeds to bash as many heads in racial group X as he can fit his large, industrious, hard working and loyal hands around. He laments to his friends about having to do this, because he really loves and respects their culture.


Honestly, it's just a story about Christian values...

Honestly, it’s just a story about Christian values…


Well, I’ve got a few more things that bother me, but I think I’ll save them for another rant at another time. I’m over a thousand words here and that’s about the length I want to keep these blog posts. I appreciate you hanging around and letting me decry and harangue. You’ve been great! It was fun for me. I hope it was fun for you.

And don’t miss out! Spy for a Troubled King is on sale for $0.99 this Wednesday, September 23rd until next Wednesday, September 30th. Check it out on Amazon,  Kobo, Barnes and Noble, Apple, and Smashwords.

Don’t forget to tip your driver, everyone!