Wednesday, August 24, 2022

Forbidden Words

Aaron Paul Lazar

From"Write Like the Wind" volume 1 


One of the most surprising rules I learned in my early writing days was the realization that there is a phantom list of “forbidden” words that writers should try to avoid. 

Don’t misunderstand; these aren’t lewd words, or sacrilegious words. Instead, they’re everyday words we use in speech. 

When I discovered this, I began to shake in my proverbial writing boots. Would I reveal my novice status by inadvertently using these forbidden words in my writing? How many more unacceptable words are out there? How long would my own list become? Would I become so tongue-tied that I’d never be able to write again?

I never saw a compilation of these suspect words in print. Nor did I discover a secret website where they existed. Instead, I compiled the list, one by one, with the help of writing mentors and critics. 

Has it happened to you yet?

At first, you may experience an online frown when someone spots the word “suddenly” in an excerpt you posted. There may be a hint of sneering involved. Or perhaps you enter a writing contest, and someone with very little tact and a hint of glee points out your “as” affliction. 

It can be paralyzing. 

Every time you use a gerund in your prose, does your heart beat wildly? Do you worry and think, “Does this belong here? Does it make my work sound amateurish?”

It’s almost impossible to avoid the words on the list. You can’t completely eliminate them. And it’s especially true with dialog. You want your characters to sound as natural as possible. 

Following is a list of some words to consider:

1) “To be” verbs. 

This is one of the hardest lessons to learn, and you’ll find many examples of it not being followed in bestsellers and classic literature. However, as a rule of thumb, instead of:

“Quinn’s hair was black and curly, and it was dripping with water. He was lunging at Tiramisu and his head was like a battering ram.” 

You might consider:

“Quinn’s curly black hair dripped with water, obscuring his vision. In spite of this, he lunged at Tiramisu, using his head like a battering ram.”

In general, it’s best not to describe a character’s appearance with “was” or “were” type words. Try to sneak in these descriptions in a more innovative fashion. However, and there always will be exceptions to these cases, using “to be” forms to describe people is very natural in patterns of speech. You want to strive to make your writing sound natural, but not amateurish. There’s the balance we all need to seek.

2) “Down” and “Up”

“Horatio sat down at the kitchen table and stared down at the congealed eggs on his plate.” 

May sound better this way:

“Horatio sat at the kitchen table and stared at the congealed eggs on his plate.”

This rule of thumb is almost universally applicable. In America, we use “up,” all the time in natural conversation. 

“Bubba ate up all of Cat’s French Fries.” 

“Nancy stared up at the ceiling, searching for the right word.” 

“Sonya ripped up Veronica’s report card and jumped overboard.” 

Most of those “ups” could be eliminated without loss of understanding. The sentences would read more smoothly. Be careful not to cut them in your characters’ dialog, however. You don’t want them to sound stilted. It’s perfectly okay to use common phrases such as: 

“Margaret, get down here! Your toast is up.”

3) Minimizing “ing” verbs. 

One of the first pieces of advice I received as a new writer was to avoid the use of “ing” verbs. “It’s much stronger,” I was told, “to use the simple past tense, or ‘ed’ verbs.” So, like a good student, I went through my first four books (at that time not yet submitted to publishers or agents) and scoured them for “ing”s. I was merciless. Barely an “ing” survived. 

A few years later, I realized I went too far. The words sounded robotic, stilted. I needed some of those “ing” verbs to vary the rhythm of the sentences, to make them sound more natural. So, with diligence, I returned to my growing list of novels and revamped them. 

Keep in mind in might be better to write, “Mabel watched the plane land,” than “Mabel was watching the plane land.”

Examine verbs ending in “ing,” especially in conjunction with “was” and “were.” Sprinkle them into your prose to vary the rhythm, but avoid cases like “I was watching the birds while drumming my fingers on the table.” You might consider breaking it up. “Watching the birds, I drummed my fingers on the table.” Or: “I watched the birds and drummed my fingers on the table.”

4) Using “had” in flashbacks or past perfect applications

Most of us learned the proper way to conjugate verbs and use tenses, such as the past perfect. When something happens in the past, like a flashback in one of your stories, it’s taking place before the current action, which is already in the past tense. Therefore, the flashback needs to be cast into the past perfect, using the word “had.” 


Not always. It is grammatically correct to write the following paragraph when referring to a recap of an event in your story:

“A pang of sorrow hit me. I thought back to the dreadful day two years ago when I had lost him. He’d fought the cancer as bravely as he had stood up to the Germans on D Day in Normandy. Just before we’d learned the dreaded disease had returned to claim him, we had shared one final, peaceful day of fishing on Hemlock Lake.”

However, it could read more smoothly like this:

“A pang of sorrow hit me. I thought back to the dreadful time two years ago when I lost him. He’d fought the cancer as bravely as he stood up to the Germans on D Day in Normandy. Just before we learned the dreaded disease had returned to claim him, we shared one final, peaceful day of fishing on Hemlock Lake.”

Can you see how a few well-placed “hads” retain the meaning of the memory, but don’t bog it down? Of course, there’s always the opposite viewpoint. My editor added in a number of “hads” in my current manuscript, because I’d gone too far. So there’s a lesson to be learned in over-applying one’s new skills. 

Don’t pepper your backstories with “hads,” and use contractions to make your writing sound more natural.

5) Remove unnecessary adverbs and instead, use stronger verbs. 

After I read Stephen King’s, On Writing (highly recommended) I realized I’d been over-using adverbs. The great adverb purge followed. I became an adverb Nazi. No “ly’s” would sully my prose. I’d search for the choicest verbs. They’d glow from my pages because of their utter perfection. 

After this phase, I backed off a bit, allowing a few adverbs here and there. Sometimes, it just sounds better with them, doesn’t it? It’s all a matter of balance.

It’s always best, however, to change sentences like “Judy looked sullenly at me” to “Judy glowered at me.” 

6) “Then”

In my first novels, my characters were always doing something, “then” going onto the next action. I preferred it over joining the phrases with “and.” It seemed to fit better and also sounded more natural. 

Several years ago, while participating in an online writers’ critique forum, I was surprised to learn when the host editors spotted the word “then” in submitted manuscripts, they immediately pronounced it amateurish and went on to the next piece in the slush pile.

Still aching to learn the “rules” that would graduate me to “professional writer status,” I dutifully reduced the instances of “then” from my current work in progress. It seems to have made them read more smoothly. But I still use the word “then” a fair amount, because it just seems natural. See which you prefer:

“Inspector Barnaby ordered the suspect to halt, then read him his rights.”

“Inspector Barnaby ordered the suspect to halt and read him his rights.”            

7) Eliminate the extraneous “the” 

When the word “the” precedes a noun that could stand alone, it is superfluous. 

“The guilt rode heavily on my shoulders, slicing through my self confidence.” 

Consider: “Guilt rode heavily on my shoulders, slicing through my self-confidence.”

“The frigid water swirled around our ankles,” can be just as effective without the “the.” “Frigid water swirled around our ankles.”

8) Minimize contiguous prepositions 

In speech, we commonly use words like “over” and “back” in series.

“Mary threw the ball back over to Tom.” 

Instead, try this:

“Mary threw the ball to Tom,” or “Mary returned the ball with a vengeance.” 

Avoid constructions like “The boy ran over to the counter,” or “I trotted back along the trail.”

9) Avoid using “that” (except in dialog). 

We use “that” as a connecting word far too often, and we don’t always need it. I’ve already removed a number of “that’s” from this chapter. It really does smooth out the prose. 

“The President discovered that his agent was a spy.” 

Instead: “The President discovered his agent was a spy.”

In contrast, the following use of “that” can’t be avoided. 

“I wondered if I would actually escape the reminder that I’d been a penny-pinching idiot.”

Go through your current manuscript and do a search for “that.” See how many you can eliminate.

10) “Suddenly” 

In my early writing days, I used “suddenly” interchangeably with “without warning,” “instantly,” or “in seconds,” yet was chastised for its use in a forum run by agents. I’m still confused about the legitimacy of this one. A good friend whose manuscript is currently being scoured by her editor (a big New York publisher’s editor) said she’d removed all of the “suddenly’s,” only to have her editor put them back in. It’s not always cut and dry. It recently happened to me as well. My Twilight Times editor put back in a “suddenly” that I’d culled. Remember, much of this is subjective, so don’t get too married to any one rule and let yourself be flexible. If your editor likes “suddenly,” then by all means, use it, but sparingly. 

11) “Very” and “Just”

Two words we use a great deal in conversation are “very” and “just.” Try not to use them in prose. Find a better way to emphasize your words.

“The giant was very tall,” works better as “The giant towered over us.”

“Mary just barely fit into the dress,” can be improved as: “Mary barely fit into the dress.”

12) “Because” 

This word can be used sparingly, but not in the following way: 

“She craved the hamburger because she was hungry.” Find another construction to show how hungry she was, such as a growling stomach or feeling of faintness.

The following example of “because” works: “Because of his history, he avoided the cops.”

In Summary

You’ll probably find more words to add to this list. And if you’re totally confused by now, join the club. This whole game of “rules” can be daunting, and frequently the “experts” don’t agree on their usage.

Don’t be too concerned if any or all of the “forbidden” words pepper your prose. Take heart. You will find every single example of “what not to do” in the classics and best sellers. 

My advice? Don’t go crazy each time you learn a new “forbidden” word. Simply do the best you can, write from your heart, and try to tighten your prose without squelching your own style.

 Aaron Paul Lazar

Sunday, August 14, 2022

For Keeps: A Green Marble Mystery (Green Marble Mysteries Book 3) by [Aaron Lazar]

Writing the Tough Stuff (Or Killing the One You Love)
copyright 2022, Aaron Paul Lazar

It’s not easy writing a scene where you kill the one you love.

Of course I don’t mean your actual spouse or lover. I mean the wife, husband, or sweetheart of your main character.

I’ve done it in FOR KEEPS. Thinking about it tears my heart out every single time.

That’s what I mean by “writing the tough stuff.” Sam Moore—a retired family doctor who is our resident hero in Moore Mysteries—is very much like me, except he’s twelve years older and retired with enough money to putter around in his gardens all day. Let me repeat that. All day!

I hate him for that.

Okay, so maybe that’s a little extreme, considering he’s fictional. Shall we say, I am exceedingly jealous of his lifestyle? Although Sam was a family doctor and I am an engineer, we’re still a lot alike. We both love to plunge our hands into the soft earth and grow things. We both love our grandkids so much it hurts. And we both have spouses with multiple sclerosis. There are plenty of differences, too. I cook, I write, and I take photos. Sam doesn’t. But of course, it’s not a competition. At least I don’t think so…

In spite of the fact that he’s not real (at least not in the traditional sense, LOL), I relate to this man and feel his pain when he’s hurting. Sure, you say, writers should feel ALL their characters’ pain. We have to, to get into their heads and nail the characterization. Don’t we?

But I’ll bet some characters are closer to your heart than others.

Sam’s wife, Rachel, shares many qualities with my dear wife, Dale. They both endure MS, they both love to read, they are both chair-caning artists. Some of their symptoms are the same, but that’s where they split apart. Rachel loves to cook (that’s my job in our marriage), she’s in a wheelchair, and she stays pretty upbeat, considering her challenges. They both adore their grandchildren and both love to read. Rachel’s a tribute to Dale, in all honesty. But she also has morphed into her “own woman,” too, and I love her deeply. Er... through Sam, of course. (Honey, don’t be jealous!)

In the first two books of the Moore Mysteries series, Rachel sticks by Sam’s side, supports him when he’s overcome with grief and is plagued by strange paranormal events, and loves him deeply enough to keep him sane.

That’s why it really hurt when I had to kill her.

In For Keeps, the third book in the series, life takes an awful turn. When Rachel is murdered by a serial killer, it puts Sam back in the psych ward, the same place he was thrown when his little brother disappeared without a trace fifty years earlier. Desperate to fix things, he calls on the power of the green marble, the talisman his little brother Billy controls from afar that whisks him back and forth through his past.

Unlike those of us in real life, Sam gets a “do over.” He flies back in time to desperately try to fix the problems that lead to this gruesome act, and over and over again, he attempts to tweak the past to bring his dear Rachel back to life.

How do you write such a scene without losing it? How do you make it feel authentic to your readers? How much is too much? And how can you be certain that your character’s reaction will ring true?

It’s not easy. Matter of fact, since I loosely base Rachel on my own wife, and since Sam and I are really quite alike, it was close to torture.

I called upon my darkest, most powerful emotions experienced when my father died and also when my own dear wife almost died several times in the past few years. I’ll never forget the time the nurse in the ER called the nun on duty to bring me to a little room where no one would see my reaction to her impending news that Dale might not make it. She carried a box of Kleenex under one arm and a bible in the other. She was so sweet. Yet it was one of the scariest moments of my life. Thankfully, my wife pulled through and is doing okay today.

That hollow-gut, black-sludge-in-your-heart feeling is horrible when you lose someone dear to you, isn’t it? It’s all encompassing. Sometimes you just want to deny that awful truth, and pull away—far away—like Sam does in the following excerpt. I tried to channel those feelings when getting inside Sam’s head. Let me know if you think it worked.

Here’s the setup. Sam just picked up his son, Andy, from the airport and they enter the house after arriving home. Andy’s just arrived from his second tour of duty in Iraq, and this is his long-awaited homecoming. Rachel’s been cooking all morning to welcome her boy home. All day, Sam has ignored the insistence of the green marble, which has been pulsing, glowing, and searing his leg all day from his pocket; little brother Billy—who communicates from beyond through this talisman—was trying to “warn” him that something was terribly wrong.

For Keeps is book #3 in Moore Mysteries, and is now available through The series can be read in any order.


Sam raced toward the laundry room in a panic. Rachel’s wheelchair sat abandoned in the hall, and his son froze in the doorway, hands clenching and unclenching at his side.

Andy’s voice thickened. “Maybe you shouldn’t come in here.” He spun and tried to hold Sam back.

One of Rachel’s shoes lay beside the doorjamb. The brown clogs. Slip on. With lambswool lining. She loved them so much she wore them even in summer.

Sam drifted closer, terror pooling in his stomach. As if in anaphylactic shock, his throat tightened and threatened to close off his air. His heart beat wildly now, in his throat, ears, chest.

Sam barreled past his son and stumbled into the room, his voice hoarse. “What happened?”

Rachel lay on a basket of laundry, her eyes wide open, looking with blank surprise at the ceiling. Sam’s garden shears protruded from her heart. The image danced before him like heat waves on tar, shimmering with unreality. Blood ran from Rachel’s floral print blouse to the sheets stained red in the basket, pooling on the white linoleum floor.

The room tilted. A series of screams of No No No No No resonated in his head. Or maybe he yelled it aloud. He couldn’t tell as he shoved Andy aside and collapsed beside her, checking for the pulse that evaded him like a cruel tormentor. Neck. Wrist. Ankles. No beating met his probing fingers.

“NO!” He drew the shears from her chest, sickened by the soft sucking sound it made, then wadded up a compress of pillowcases and held it over the wound to stem the flow. More blood dribbled from the wound and curled around her pearl buttons. He realized with a start that she was still warm.

He looked wildly about the room, as if a solution lay beneath the neatly folded piles of towels and linen. “Call 911. Hurry!” He cradled Rachel in his arms, smearing the blood between them, and feeling her arms dangle away from him, as if she didn’t have the strength to return his embrace.

Andy cried out, his anguish pinging across the small room. He squeezed between his mother’s body and the washing machine, holding his hand out to his father. “Dad. It’s too late. She has no pulse. I checked, too.”

“NO!” Sam’s mind reeled, his vision clouded, and the scent of blood tasted metallic on his tongue. “Who did this? Is he still here? She’s still warm, Andy. Find the bastard!” He stiffened when his brain repeated a phrase he’d heard during some of Rachel’s favorite shows.

Don’t disturb the evidence.

Panic slewed over him, boiling inside his head, freezing his arms and legs.

My garden shears. The killer took them from the barn. Used them on my Rachel. And my prints are all over them.

A great gulping scream filled his throat, tearing out of him like a primal scream. “RACHEL!”

Her head slumped sideways when he moved away, as if she was rejecting him. He checked her pulse again, muttering under his breath. “No way. No. No.” In a sudden manic thrust, he stood and reached for the marble, searching his pockets, patting madly at his pants and shirt. “My God. Where is it? What did I do with it?” Sam asked aloud. “Billy! Why didn’t you warn me?”

Inside the double-stuffed world that batted him between reality and nightmare, he remembered the marble’s insistent throbbing all morning. Billy had tried to warn him, had tried hard.

“Dad, come on. You can’t help her now.” In spite of Andy’s two tours of duty in the heat of battle in Iraq, the bodies he had seen and possibly created, and his soldier-toughened soul, he wept. Loud and strong, he wept and choked on his words. “Dad. Please. Leave her be. It’s over.”

Andy pulled him to his feet. Sam stared at his son as if he’d never seen him before. His eyes widened, trying to piece together a puzzle. Who is this nice young man? And why does he look so familiar?

Andy took him by the elbow and started to shuffle him toward the living room.

“Come on, Dad. Let’s go sit down.”

“No. Please. My wife needs me. She has multiple sclerosis, you know.”

Andy’s eyes popped open. Tears still streamed from them, and he shook his father’s shoulders as if he could not only snap him out of it, but maybe bring back his mother, too.

“Dad! Come on. Hold it together. Don’t do this.”

Sam stopped and stared at his bloodied hands. His legs weakened to jelly. He stumbled, then braced himself against the wall as sobs wracked him in waves of increasing amplitude. He slid to the floor and buried his face in his hands.


Dear God.

Not Rachel.


Thanks for reading! I hope you were drawn into Sam’s world, and that you might want to see how our favorite retired family doctor gets out of this one.

Aaron Paul Lazar