Getting Down and Dirty…with Sentence Mechanics

You thought this was going to be fun and sexy for a hot second, didn’t you?  Sorry to disappoint, but this is important! I want to save you hours of rewrites down the road. If you’ve gone through the editing process with a good editor, this post might not apply, but if you haven’t–or maybe even if you have– then pull up a chair…

boredI’m going to talk about two bad habits I am still learning to shake—Autonomous body parts (Abp’s) and Simultaneous actions (SA). I’ve learned these abbreviations by heart because I saw them so much in the editing process. I still struggle with this in my first drafts, but at least now I can recognize and fix them before shipping them off to my editors.

Some of you are shaking your head and tutting because you learned this in your Creative Writing classes or English 101. I was an engineering major—which means I can pretty much plug every logical plot hole in my manuscript, but I was never taught the intricacies of grammar beyond what I learned in high school. My Samhain editor (that poor, patient, saintly woman) has taught me so much I dedicated my second historical to her. No lie.

It wasn’t until I received first round edits on my first historical, An Indecent Invitation, that I recognized the true extent of my issues with Abp’s (Side note: BadGirl Heather had very gently pointed out this problem in a novella she read for me, and I had half-heartedly started to break myself of the habit then. Listen to your CPs!). My editor had almost no plot-type changes for me to make, but I had Abp’s everywhere, especially during sexy times, and it led to some serious re-writes. It stemmed from an earnest, new writer desire not to start too many sentences with He/She, which certainly is something a writer should avoid, but it led me into other mistakes.cpine hands

  • Autonomous Body Parts are basically when parts of the body act with no oversight from the person. The easiest way to recognize Abp’s is with examples. Everything here is from An Indecent Invitation. Are they the best examples? Are they how you would write/rewrite them? Maybe not. I just want to illustrate what Abp’s are and ways to fix them.

Example 1: Simple fix of two Abp’s

Not good: Her head tilted back and her eyes closed with a small hum of pleasure.

Better: She tilted her head back and closed her eyes with a small hum of pleasure.

Example 2: Here’s one where all sorts of Abp’s came out to play…

Not good: He rolled her to her back and notched a leg between hers. His tongue flicked her parted lips, and she opened willingly. She explored the width of muscles through his damp lawn shirt. His questing tongue skimmed her teeth and rubbed shamelessly against hers. Her hands battled his shirt, trying in vain to pull it out of his breeches and up.

Better: He rolled her to her back and notched a leg between hers. He flicked her parted lips with his tongue, and she opened willingly. She explored the width of muscles through his damp lawn shirt while their tongues played. His shirt became her nemesis as she tried in vain to pull it out of his breeches and up.

*Notice how eliminating the Apb’s forces you to tighten prose and/or find more interesting ways to phrase things to avoid a litany of He/She’s.

Two caveats—because every rule in the English language has to have exceptions, right?—is instinctive/visceral reactions and using Abp’s outside of POV.

Example: Instinctive/visceral reaction

She stroked him, and his hips jerked.

In my opinion, when it’s a response that doesn’t involve conscious thought, I like Apb’s. I think it would sound weird, with “…he jerked his hips” substituted in this case. But, there’s lots of wiggle room here, and it really depends on your style (or maybe your editor’s style.)

Example: Rarely, I’ll use Abp’s when describing a non-POV character’s movements.

His hand inched closer to her hiding spot. Black dirt caked his fingernails.

Again, this is my opinion, but making his hand autonomous in this case lends the scene a dread that saying… “He moved his hand closer…” doesn’t quite impart.

  • Moving on! Simultaneous Actions (SA) are another of my weaknesses. I fell into this bad habit to avoid starting too many sentences with He/She as well. Generally, this is all about using an -ing clause at the start of a sentence.

Example 1:

Not good: Slipping off his sodden coat, he sat in the nearest chair to pull of his dirt-caked boots.

Better: He slipped off his sodden coat and sat in the nearest chair to pull of his dirt-caked boots.

Can you slip a coat off while sitting? Debatable. Cleaner to connect with a conjunction.

Example 2: Can’t push and pull at the same time…

Not good: Pushing her dress down to ride on her hips, he pulled at the laces of her stays.

Better: He pushed her dress down to ride on her hips and pulled at the laces of her stays.

Example 3: Don’t be afraid to link more than two actions…

Not good: Dressing quickly, he flipped the sash up and climbed onto the narrow ledge.

Better: He dressed quickly, flipped the sash up and climbed onto the narrow ledge.

*You could slip in an “After dressing quickly…” but I think it’s cleaner to link with conjunctions. Especially when it’s something simple you’re trying to convey. I need my hero dressed and gone. That’s it. No need to get fancy.

Example 4: Here’s a super messy sentence that could qualify for Abp’s and SA’s and a dangling participle to boot.

Not good: Spinning her legs off his, only his banded arm at her waist kept her seated.

Better: She spun her legs off his and tried to stand, but his arm at her waist kept her seated.

Maybe even better: She spun her legs off his and tried to stand, but he kept her on his lap with a strong arm around her waist.

*The Better fix in what is in the book, but if I could go back…

Slipping in an occasionally Abp or SA is okay, but be conscious when and why you are doing it. If you already know better than to use Abp’s and SA’s then…well, I might hate you just a little:), but if you’re starting out, try to avoid the mistakes I’m still making!

Happy writing!

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