Words to avoid when writing fiction

When I am reading slush there are a few words which indicate I may be dealing with a novice.  Admittedly, this may be my own misconception but I tend to see a correlation between the quality of the writing and the use of the list of words below:



This is often used as a material for a weapon, like sword of knife and particularly a magical weapon.  I believe the black glassy nature of the material stirs up darkly romantic notions about it in the author’s mind. In reality it is a terrible material to use for a weapon and almost impossible to mold.

The other use of this word tends to be a fancy synonym for “black”, or at best “shiny black”.

Suggested alternative: Black



I think it is the X sound that gives this word an allure.  It’s got a near onomatopoetic quality to it and even sounds kind of alien. I get why someone would be attracted to this word but to me it gets overused and often feels forced.

Suggested alternatives: Alarm, Horn, Buzzer, warning



Often used to describe blood. In my opinion crimson is usually slightly off from the color of blood – not that I see a lot of blood, I actually try to avoid it.  Google the word and there tends to be a continuum of hues that constitute what could be called crimson.

Suggested alternatives: Red, Maroon


I suspect people want to use words that sound cool, to make their writing sound like good writing, but the use of these words tend to have the opposite effect on me.



This one is more of a maybe. It can be the best word to use for the situation, but I also often see it forced into prose to flower it up. I will also see it used where I think the author wants to indicate shimmering, which isn’t exactly correct.

Suggested alternative: Pearly, color-changing, or shimmering if that is what is intended.


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The Resignation

Fine white powder

Ironsoap.com just published my flash piece titled   The resignation.

This story originated from a writing challenge a friend and I had. We used a writing prompt generator to come up with the story constraints.

You can check it out here:


  • James


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Writing Process Tips



There is a huge “Ass In Chair” factor to writing. I don’t do it well myself. At home it is too easy to turn on TV or get distracted, etc.  I also fall victim to the mindset that I have to have an idea before I can sit down and write, yet the times I have sat down with no ideas and forced myself to write, something always got written. It’s like priming a pump.

I am not sure if you will find this useful or interesting, but I have written enough to sort of have a process to much of it now:

1. I use strike-through to cross out the parts I am considering removing, but haven’t committed to.

2. I keep notes inline in my story so I can get a feel for where I am going with it, or if I have an idea, etc. I section these off by using: <notes inline in story> I will even put in hyperlinks to information/sites that may be pertinent.

3. I tend to write in small chunks and do a lot of re-reading over the story to iron things out & get the flow of it.

4. I find that most of the time I will throw away the first part of what I have written.

5. I will often write the story out of order, particularly if I know how I want a certain part of it to go.

6. Many times I write sections I know are terrible in order to get the gist of it down. I recolor these on the successive passes.  I think of this as “writing through” the difficulty.

7. I always keep a browser open and in Google type  “define: word”  to quickly get the definition of word I want to use, but am not sure I know exactly. This also shows me synonyms which I will sometimes opt for.

8. I save several dated copies of a story as I write it. This is partially in case it ends up being corrupt or gets deleted, but also in case I don’t like where the current version is going and want to back track.  I have five old versions of my current work in progress.

9. I use both my desktop and my old laptop to write. I keep my writing folder in Dropbox which is shared between these devices, so the story is always up to date in both places.  I find I like to write on the laptop more than the desktop. I often write while standing in my kitchen. I think moving around helps the creative process.

10. A lot of what I do tends to be little tricks to get myself to write.  Like, I will say to myself that I am just going to write a short scene or paragraph — but that always leads to more.  If I am empty, I will often just read over an undone story. I always catch errors or will rewrite sections that don’t flow smoothly.  A lot of times just reading what I have of a story gives me the ramp up to continue on with it.

11. I spend a lot of driving time with the radio off thinking about stories. This is one of the most productive parts of my process because it usually gets me to a point where I want to get the idea written down.

12. I am subscribed to Grammarly.com ($60/year) which plugs into Word and flags grammatical problems with my stories. It’s much cheaper than an editor, but probably only 80% as effective.


Hopefully these tips help you, but if nothing else they may trigger you to think about the mini-systems and habits that could be useful for your process.


James A. Miller

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The stickiness of cotton candy

cotton candy

I landed a piece at Four Star Stories. You can check it out here.




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Getting sucked in.

Rabbit hole

The internet does a great job of sucking you into its vast uncompromising realm of interesting crap.  Most of the time you end up wondering why you just spent eight hours looking at super cars when your driver’s license is suspended, but tonight I found posts that really spoke to me — the virtual equivalent of hitting a vein of gold. (I’m not sure if there even are gold veins in mining, but you get what I am going for here.)

Reading Ken Liu’s interview on Fantasy Scroll Magazine, I followed a link to Tobias Buckell’s post on Writer’s and pellets.  Considering my own adventure with parsing rejection letters, Tobias’s post really spoke to me.



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I received this sweet e-mail from Daily Science Fiction:


We have good news and we have bad news. The good news is that 
your story has made our second round, rarified company that 
more than 90% of submissions do not reach. While half 
or more of our second round stories will not ultimately see 
publication under the DSF rocket, this story has reached the 
final go/no-go before launch.

The bad news--and I promised you some bad news--is that it 
will take us time to make that final decision. Expect an 
additional two weeks or so, but don't be surprised if it's 
a month from today. Thanks for your continued patience, and 
thanks for sending us this worthy submission.

 - Daily Science Fiction Staff

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Traversing the slush pile

The insight I have gained reading slush for Allegory has been amazing.   I already have a list of common mistakes from the story submissions I have read.

Here are things you shouldn’t do if you want me to move your story along for further consideration:

1. Telling instead of showing.


Sarah liked Michael.


Michael was in the hall. Sarah felt the same lightness in her stomach she had the first day he talked to her. If only he would come talk to her now.

Ok, so I am no romance writer, but hopefully you see the difference.  The first one is a report of what is going on. In the second example, we get to experience what she is feeling.

Telling is not inherently bad, unless you are going to write the whole story that way.  The strength of telling lies in its ability to cover a lot of ground quickly.  Showing typically can’t do that.

The strength of showing is the ability to immerse your reader in the world you have created.  It takes a lot more work, but the reader will enjoy the ride so much more.


2. Lack of clarity

There are too many stories that try to be cute and whimsical by hiding essential information so they can build suspense or use the lack of information for a surprise reveal.

Guess what? the protagonist is actually a ghost!

It’s even worse when syrupy sweet prose clogs up clarity so bad that sentences become barely understandable.  It takes a long time to get to the point where you can turn out high-brow literary prose (I can’t).  In my opinion, there are very few pros who can do it well. The best bet is to focus on clarity and brevity.  Tell me the story and don’t let your words get in the way.

3. It’s not a story.

There is this whole concept of a story arc that is often omitted. I want a story where there is conflict. This usually (but not always) involves a protagonist and  antagonist.   And in the end, I really love it when the protagonist wins by some method where he has grown in some way, or figured something out, or done something clever that I didn’t expect.   This all may sound a bit formulaic, but it works to keep a story interesting. It doesn’t always have to happen this way, but when the main character gets out of a scrape by just running away, or by defeats evil via sheer luck, I can’t help but feel a bit cheated.  I am also not a big fan of  slice-of-life type stories, unless the character is particularly interesting.  If they are just lying on the bed doing their nails, I am probably going to start fast forwarding until I get to something that piques my interest.  If I don’t see it in a few pages, I am going to click the little “x” to close the document.

4. Unrealistic character actions or dialogue

I usually see this when there is a need for something to happen with a plot point. A character will do something like murder another character for a very weak reason, like “they never liked them.”  If that were true to life, I should go on a gun-toting rampage because I have a whole lot of people I need to take out. I would start at the DMV and work my way through to every shitty waiter who has left me with an empty drink glass through my entire meal. Real life  just doesn’t work that way. Unfortunately.

I am also put off by anything unrealistic for the world the author has set up. If your story takes place 1000 years from now, and people are still using Facebook, you may not have the best grasp on how quickly technology can change.

If you absolutely insist that your character to do something atypical, all you have to do is give a sufficient reason or motivation for them to do so.  A God-fearing Nun won’t shoot someone, unless she is already questioning her beliefs, and her life is in danger.


 5. Not beginning at the right place.

I think a lot of pantser writers need a bit of a warm up before they get into a story. Most of the time this warm up can be cut completely without lessening the story.   Here is one of my examples of this:

Searching or creating, that’s all we really want. Even if we don’t know it, it’s what we are working for. We all want enough money for that new car, or new life, enough money to go someplace else, someplace new.

Three million seemed new enough for me, even if they were old bills.

Jen was driving, and I sat in the back. On each side of me were two duffel bags full of cash. There was another bag in the front seat with her, and one more sittin’ between my legs – that one had the guns.

If we were to cut everything before “Jen was driving” nothing critical is lost.

Other times I see stories where I have to go through several unnecessary pages before the plot or conflict becomes clear.  Most of the time these pages can be cut.

6. Not following the submission guidelines.

This is a no-brainer.  If you can’t take the time to read and apply the rules for submission to a publication, how can you expect the publication to take your story seriously?  I won’t penalize a story for improper formatting, or an undesirable font, but I can’t promise you that others won’t, so why even risk it?  My advice is to take the time to properly format one story for submission, then cut and paste other stories into that format for the next time around.

7. The handy plot point.

This occurs when an author needs something to happen, but is so in the middle of the flow of writing that they grab the first thing that comes to mind.  It’s similar to those times we use a steak knife to excitedly cut open a package we have been waiting for, because the knife is right there on the counter and the scissors is all the way inside the junk drawer. For example:

Sarah wasn’t wearing her glasses because she had lost them earlier that day.

If this is the first time in the story that I hear about Sarah’s lost glasses, or her poor eyesight, it will read like this was sloppily tacked on because the author needed a convenient reason.  If authors take the time to think about these seemingly insignificant parts of the story, they can use them to develop their characters much further.  If instead, Sarah choose to not wear her glasses because she thought they made her feel ugly, and we were told this in well in advance of the event that required her to have blurred vision, then it would seem as though the whole thing evolved naturally. It would also tell us how Sarah feels about the way she looks.

The above are just a few from my list of slush reader pet peeves. Please take these with a grain of salt as they may not hold true for other slush readers.


– James


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Blog Tour: #My Writing Process

I’ve been tagged by the immensely talented and utterly unstoppable Alex Shvartsman, Fiction writer extraordinaire. If it seems like I am kissing up to him, yes, I totally am. I feel I have to. He is the man who took my virginity, so I feel I have to thank him for that.

You should probably also know that I mean this is in a literary, as opposed to, literal sense.

You see, Alex is the first editor to purchase one of my fiction stories. In October, my story The right answer will appear in the UFO 3 Anthology of humorous Science Fiction

Alex is, so far, the only one who has published one of my stories. But like all aspiring writers, I hope to change that.

So what is this “tagging” I speak of? Well, according to Alex’s site, I need to answer some questions about my writing then, in turn, I get to pick two poor souls to do the same.

Here are the questions with my answers:

What am I working on?

I am currently writing a Sci-fi short about a female insurance investigator who goes to check on a suspected fraud claim. Since this is sci-fi, the claim is on a wrecked spacecraft and takes place at a repair station in space. While I enjoy the idea of the story, I find that it is proving to be more difficult than expected.  I usually crank out a short story draft in one sitting, then review it several times to give it some polish. This story, on the other hand, I have to pry out of my head  in constipated out-of-sequence chunks, making me question my process, ability, and general sanity.


How does my work differ from others in its genera?

Since I get a lot of rejection letters, I am guessing the answer to this question is that my stories differ because they are much worse than others in the genera. I am hoping to change that through a subtle increase in my work ethic and relentless dogmatic plagiarism.


Why do I write what I do?

I write because I like the idea of someone enjoying my stories.  It is also a challenge to myself, because if you have ever tried writing, you know you can bang out what you think is a masterpiece, only to find that nobody likes it– like, mom won’t even put it on the fridge kind of thing.  At first there is this idea that all those idiots you let read it don’t understand your craft, but then, you set it aside for few months, come back to read it to find out that the pacing is terrible, and you are tripping over all these sentences that used to seem buttery smooth, and that you somehow missed the fact that you accidentally changed the name of the main character from “Sven” to “Mike” and back again within the span of two pages.


How does my writing process work?

Hmmm… that question seems to assume I have a process.  I kind of liken it to guitar. People come over and see my guitar and they go “Oh, you play guitar?” and I go “I own a guitar, what I do with it cannot yet be called ‘playing’.”

I also own a computer and a word processing program.


This is the point in the post where I get to tag two other writers.

I am immediately tempted to tag Ty Drago of Allegory fame.  Ty is another person I am grateful to, as he is the first editor to publish my non-fiction writing.  I would also love to see his responses to these questions, but I know the man is working diligently on a book, so I won’t task him with it.

Instead, I call upon:

The Curious Farmer


The Book Mechanic

To follow in our footsteps and Blog their answers to the questions above.

– James





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Why word count matters when submitting a story

Word Count for stories

I used to think that putting the word count on a submission wasn’t that big of a deal, as you can look it up in Microsoft Word as soon as you have the document open.

Once I started read slush for an online e-zine, I realized why having the word count was important to Editors; they need to know how much time to set aside to read the story.

Having a word count on the upper part of the first page tells them this right away. If you have it on the cover page (or wherever their submission page asks for it) then you are probably fine.

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A blog post from this very site has been picked up by Allegory.  Ironically, Cracking the code, the first piece that I have ever gotten published, is a rant about not getting published.

Thank goodness the editor has a sense of humor.



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