All posts by Alex McGilvery

The Joy of Nuance

The slow death of boring beats

One of the things I see over and over again as an editor and critiquer is the two word beat. It looks like this:

“Hello,” John said, “how’s it hanging?”

“Mmmhp.” Bill shrugged. “Not so good these days.

John nodded. “I know what you mean, girl troubles right?”

“Not really.” Bill shrugged. “It’s complicated.”

“C’mon.” John smiled. “How complicated can it be?”

If you look at this, you will note that the beats don’t tell us anything about Bill or John. Sure Bill shrugs, we all know what shrugs look like. Because we know what they look like we insert our idea of a generic shrug into the picture in our mind. Every shrug is the same. After the twenty-seventh shrug it gets boring. Imagine the same for glance, smirk and the rest. This is what I call an empty beat. It shows who is talking, but nothing about the characters, setting, or action. We might as well use a speech tag and be done with it.

One option is to expand the beat by using ‘and’ or an adverb to try to spice it up.

“Hello,” John said, “how’s it hanging?”

“Mmmhp.” Bill shrugged and scratched his head. “Not so good these days.

John nodded wisely. “I know what you mean, girl troubles right?”

“Not really.” Bill shrugged and stuffed his hands deep in his pockets. “It’s complicated.”

“C’mon.” John smiled and patted Bill on the shoulder. “How complicated can it be?”

This is a little bit better, but we still have the problem of twenty-seven shrugs, even if they’ve been modified. We are better off if we stop trying to make all those beats interesting by adding more stuff to the same beat. This is where nuance comes in.

Nuance is all about shades of meaning. What is the difference between this smile and the next one? There are plenty of synonyms for smile. Smirk is a slightly nasty smile, useful for bullies just before they do their bully thing. Smirk doesn’t work for friends teasing each other. Grins are wider and goofier smiles. You get the idea. But we can move past synonyms to use the setting and action to achieve even more shades of meaning.

“Hello.” John tied his horse to the hitching post. “How’s it hanging?”

“Mmmhp.” Bill hung his head and plumped himself on the step of the saloon. “Not so good these days.

John sat beside Bill and put his arm around his buddy. “I know what you mean, girl troubles right?”

“Not really.” Bill shrugged off John’s arm and stuffed his hands deep in his pockets. “It’s complicated.”

A tumbleweed rolled down the street. Twangy notes from the saloon’s piano floated out the door. The drink in the saloon promised, if not a solution, at least a way to forget for a time.

“C’mon.” John stood up and clomped across the wood boards to the door. He looked back at Bill and gave a twisted grin. “How complicated can it be?”

Now we know a lot more about who the characters are, what the setting is, and where the action may take us. With a little tweaking the generic dialogue we started with could be all kinds of things. Playing with the beats can shift the tension in the scene too.  We can make it anything from the revelation of murder to a precursor to Brokeback Mountain. It all happens in the nuances of what you write between the words the characters say.

You try it now, pick a section of your story which lies there like roadkill. Think about the nuances of what you want to show. What is the reader learning, what are the characters learning? What are the different levels of meaning in the dialogue. What are the tension points?

It is true that writing nuanced scenes takes more work. One must stop and think, even look up new words in a thesaurus. But the result is a scene that will grab your reader and pull them in.

Shades of Feeling

Everyone knows feelings are essential to evocative writing. Without emotions there is little reason for the reader to care about what is going on in the story or what happens to the characters.

So we write how our characters are angry, or sad, or furious, or happy or any of another dozen or so standard emotions.

Take a second and try to imagine how many different emotions we humans have.

Give up?

I saw a list of emotions that listed 101 emotions, and it stated explicitly it was not a complete list. There are emotions for which we have no words in English, but other languages do.

So how do we write all this myriad of emotions? Do we dig out the Emotional Thesaurus and expand our emotional vocabulary. This is a great book by the way. It gives you an emotion, then the corresponding physical sensations and body language. This is a good start. Using words like cranky or grumpy, or ecstatic to describe feelings will add depth to your writing. Even more so when you start using the corresponding body language to match the words.

When I was studying to be a therapist, one of the things we were trained to watch for was body language that didn’t match what the client said or expressed as feelings. Clients whose bodies said one thing while their words said another were extra challenging. When you asked questions based on the body language, you tended to be more successful working through the issues at hand.

Imagine what you could do with a character whose body language didn’t match their expressed emotions? Your reader knows something is off, but they don’t know what. It is a great device to create distrust toward an otherwise bland character.

The next step is to get beyond the basic four emotions, mad, sad, glad and scared along with their hundreds of synonyms to feelings which are further off the chart. How do you write humility? Loyalty? Disgust? How do you use an emotion which has no name? We use the physical sensations and body language without identifying the emotion we are trying to portray.

This is where the real nuance starts coming in. Stop and think for another minute and list all the physical sensations you use to show character emotion to the reader.

How many did you come up with?

From my editing these are the favourites:

Sinking or rising heart/stomach

Some form of fire/heat/cold/ice

Shaking legs, hands

Of course the smile/smirk/eyebrow and other facial movements and movements of the head

Various forms of crying/laughing

Blushing/heat in the face

and of course the ever present Sigh

As there are hundreds of emotions, so there are at least as many ways we experience the emotions. We experience them intellectually and mostly write about them intellectually. The problem with writing emotions from the intellect, that is describing them through naming and categories, is the reader will process them the same way.

If we use the standard ways to show emotion, we never get below the surface and more to the point, we don’t pull the reader below the surface either. Moving away from the usual ways of showing emotion makes the reader think about the physical experience and label the emotion for themselves. While they may end up with a different word than we had in mind, they will be pulled into the experience.

I suggest that one start with the usual expressions and gradually shift to more unusual ones as the book progresses. In essence we train the reader to dig deeper into their own emotions to understand the emotions of the characters. They feel every emotion the character does.

Writing deliberately nuanced emotions, physical reactions and body language gives us the opportunity to affect the reader in powerful ways.

A fantastic resource for writing emotion is The Emotional Thesaurus

The Dreaded Thesaurus Rex

A thesaurus can be a writer’s best friend, but like all good friends it can lead us into trouble. When we gleefully substitute synonyms for the word we’re overusing it is essential we pay attention to the nuances of meaning. Let’s look at smile as an example.

Here are some synonyms:  beam, grin, laugh, smirk, simper

In context beam is a broad smile, especially delighted. A child might beam when given a new toy, for example. But if you simply replace smile with beam, you could end up with a something like this:

Mary greeted John with a tight-lipped beam. “You’re late, again.” She spoke in a fake, cheery voice to hide her anger from the kids.

Even if you take out tight-lipped it doesn’t make sense.

Grin is a wide happy smile, and is probably the closest synonym.

The most commonly used synonym is smirk. It is one of my most loathed words because it is used so often and so often wrong. A smirk is a nasty smile. There is an edge of meanness to a smirk. Synonyms of smirk include sneer and leer. A bully smirks when they know they have you trapped. Yet I have seen sentences like this:

Patrick lifted Lucia’s veil and smirked at her. Married life with her was going to be fun.

Ouch, I wouldn’t want to be Lucia.

Simper isn’t a word we use a lot these days, it is a weak, kind of manipulative smile. A debutante might simper at an eligible bachelor.

All this is not to say don’t use synonyms, but use them with the nuance of meanings clear in your mind.

Let’s take another word;  look. Characters are always looking at things, under things, inside of things. We can’t use look all the time. So off to the thesaurus we go, and we hit the jackpot. There are a couple of dozen words we can use in place of look. Most people use three or four of them: glance, notice, stare, and occasionally peek. 

As with the synonyms of smile, there are nuances a writer needs to pay attention to. A glance is a brief thing, a second and it’s done. So, if your hero is checking the street for wandering zombie ninjas, he’ll need more than a glance. He may want to inspect the street, or survey it.

You need more than a sparse handful of synonyms to add punch to your writing. Don’t be afraid to use the Thesaurus, but at the same time consider the shades of meaning in different words. Why write ‘He took a quick look.’ when ‘He glanced’ works as well. If your character stares into the depths of a pool, and she’s been doing  a lot of staring lately, perhaps she contemplates the depths.

One of the things I find myself saying a lot is to trade in your adverbs for stronger verbs. When you are spitting out a first draft the adverbs are easy. She walked elegantly. He walked stiffly. So you end up using walk a hundred times or more in your story.

When you start the editing process, whether you go chapter by chapter or finish the draft and edit the book as a whole. Do a search for ly which will catch most of the adverbs in your story. For each adverb look at some synonyms for the verb it is modifying to find one that will send the same message without the adverb. She swept into the room. He clumped to the barn.

While I’m here in the land of synonyms and verbs, there are a couple of verbs you don’t want to mess with. Said and asked. As we covered in Boring Beats, modifying said and asked may lead to a condition known a Swiftisms. Named after Tom Swift who pranced across the pages many years ago. Tom is mostly remember now for the perhaps intentional humour of his modifiers.

“We must run!” Tom said swiftly. Google it, laugh, then deep six the modifiers you used to make said more interesting.

Now, resist the temptation to have your characters announce, state, scream, retort etc. This is one area where the Thesaurus is going to bite you. There are six pages of synonyms for say. Use them when you are in narrative summary or a character is talking about talking.

“…and so Jerry just announces he is taking charge, but Hank stated I would take over in his absence. Jerry screamed when I wouldn’t do what he ordered. ‘I’ll just call Hank,’ I retorted. That shut him up.”

There is no need to be afraid of the Thesaurus, with proper use and daily exercise it will strengthen your writing, filling it with subtlety and power.

http://www.thesaurus.com/

Writing Emotionally Gripping Text

At the beginning of Romancing the Stone, Kathleen Turner’s character is banging away on her typewriter as she bawls her eyes out over the conclusion of her story. A nice scene and one I heard other writers talk about playing out in their own writing life. Here they are finally able to let their little darlings live happily ever after, or maybe it’s more of an Old Yeller ending.

The notion is that authors cry while writing emotional scenes. Some do, some don’t, but in reality their tears have nothing to do with their prose’s ability to evoke tears in their reader’s eyes.

Authors are often too close to the big scenes and the weight of the emotion overwhelms them. So while they weep, they pull back from the scene and mistakenly think their emotions will evoke the same emotion in the reader. It won’t.

Susan looked over the wide spread of her father’s ranch. How sad it was that she’d never see it again. Her love for Bart meant she’d follow him to the cold and dirty streets of New York City. Heaving one last sigh over the sunset on the mountains she turned back to the house to finish her packing, and maybe win a farewell word from her father.

So there you have a nice emotional scene. Susan is leaving her beloved western home to follow true love to the big city. In the process her father stops talking to her, adding to her sorrow. Who wouldn’t shed a tear?

Pretty much anybody who reads it. There are several things wrong, but I’ll stick with three that haven’t shown up in other articles.

First, there is no context. In order for a big scene to be a big scene, I have to build up to it. Susan must start feeling ambivalent about the move long before this paragraph. Showing how much she loves the ranch (and dear old dad) in earlier scenes will prepare a fertile ground for the evocation goodbye. If you never show how dear her home is, there is no reason why she should be sad to leave it.

Second, there is no emotion. Sure you say she’s sad, but that’s not emotion. Emotion hits us as a physical thing. Our bodies have different sensations when we’re sad, angry, happy etc. (See the article on nuance). She’s standing there, but there’s no physical component to the emotion. We don’t feel her tears because we don’t know what they feel like.

Third, it’s too short. If this is really a climactic scene, you need to give is some room to develop and bloom. One paragraph, however evocatively written will not do the job. Look at the paragraph and block it out.

Susan is looking out at her father’s ranch for the last time.
She feels sad – where in her body does it live, what are the physical signs, etc.
She loves Bart
You guessed it, where is that feeling located etc? How does it conflict with the sadness?
She isn’t looking forward to New York City.
Again, feeling, physical sensation, interaction with other emotions.
She heaves a sigh – about as cliched a showing of emotion as there is.
What is unique about this sigh? How is it different from her sighing over her love of Bart? Generic word will not evoke emotion.
She bravely returns to packing.
What emotions are conflicting here? What memories as well as things is she leaving behind?
Her father isn’t talking to her.
Why not? How does she feel about it. Write a scene in which they don’t talk.
Each of these bullets are at least a paragraph. I want to have the physical sensations of her emotions as connected as possible with the thing which evokes the emotion. I have it blocked out so I see the description/action piece interwoven with the emotional part. They should be inseparable. I don’t want the emotion to stop the plot, nor the plot to short change the emotion.

As I comment in the article on Weight, the things which are important to the plot in the past need to be important here, and the things which are important here, must carry through to the conclusion. It isn’t much good writing a beautifully evocative goodbye to the ranch if she never thinks or speaks of it again. Think of it as a wave. There is a slope up the wave which builds imperceptibly to the point where the wave breaks and all is turmoil, but then there is a slope down from that turmoil as it carries forward into the rest of the story.

So how do you achieve all this? Plan the scene. Don’t let your emotions force you to skim over the emotions of the character. Dig deep and and show what is beneath the surface. Don’t pull out and narrate the scene. Pull in tight. Show the emotions as much as possible without explaining them. Be specific, avoid the generic emotions and responses. Make sure the scene is true to her character.

Last bit of advice on this one and it’s a doozy. Don’t let one emotion rule the day. She’s not just sad, but sad, and hopeful and determined and a bit peeved. Humans are complex and we’re used to layers of feeling. If you can create those layers in your work, you will have the reader eating out of the palm of your hand.

And reaching for the tissue box.

 

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Ready for your close-up?

Jim Bondo rolled under the table with his gun. He always had his gun handy for situations just like this one. He squeezed the trigger and a carefully controlled stream of glue was forced into the space between the loose leg and the rest of the old wooden table. He knew Sara loved this table and fixing it was the best chance he had of repairing their relationship which was a wonky as this leg.

“What are you doing under there?” Sarah dropped her keys on the table with a clatter that made Jim’s head ache.

“Fixing your table,” Jim said.

“This old thing?” Sarah kicked the table and a drop of glue fell onto Jim’s eyelid, gluing it shut. It stung a bit too.

He sat up too quickly and smacked his head. He heard a laugh which either meant Sarah had been possessed or there was a man in the room. His one remaining eye saw a pair of size twelve cowboy boots.

“Bubba’s going to need the space on your side of the closet,” Sarah said, “so be a dear and grab a couple of garbage bags and clean your stuff out. Just leave the key on the table.”

Tears ran down one side of his face, while they built up behind the sealed eyelid forcing it to bulge out painfully. He crawled out knocking the keys to the floor. He gathered what things he wanted. He walked out with a bag over his shoulder and the sight of Sarah and Bubba necking on the couch burned into his brain. He dropped his key as  he closed the door behind him, he heard the table crash to the floor along with a moan from Bubba and a giggle from Sarah.

Jim swung up his gun. Even one-eyed he could deal with this. He squeezed the trigger and glue gushed into the crack all around the door. He figured they wouldn’t find it until they got hungry. Plenty of time for it to set.

***

Poor Jim, the reader has to feel sorry for him, getting dumped like that. The problem is that likely the reader doesn’t. There are a couple of decent images, but most of it feels narrated. It is describing Jim doing things, fixing the table, banging his head etc. There are fifteen pronouns starting sentences or clauses, four filter verbs and one passive voice. If you were writing a movie, this would be good, as we get the visual part of the scene.

Only we aren’t writing a movie, we are working with a book or a story. One advantage print has over the silver screen is we can get into the character and show their feelings. This scene is written in wide angle. We’ve pulled back from Jim and we’re watching him act.

What would it look like if we pulled in tighter and got into his head?

***

Trusty gun in hand, Jim Bondo rolled under the table, ready as always for this kind of situation. A gentle squeeze of the trigger sent a thin stream of glue into the space between the wonky leg and the rest of the table. Sarah loved the ricketty old thing. Pain skewered his heart. Truth was, fixing her table might be his last chance to repair their relationship. After a deep breath to steady his hand, he added another layer of glue to the first. Slow and steady, build it up in layers.

“What are you doing under there?” Sarah dropped her keys on the table; the clatter spiked into his temples.

“Fixing your table.” Another breathe, another layer and done.

“This old thing?” Sarah kicked the table and a drop of glue fell onto Jim’s eyelid, gluing it shut. Damn it stung. The smack of his head against the table as he sat up added stars to headache and burning eye. Still didn’t hurt worse than the twist in his gut.

A bass laugh meant she’d been possessed or another man was in the room. Blurry size twelve cowboy boots said man. Not that she wouldn’t sell her soul for the right price – one far beyond his ability to pay.

“Bubba’s going to need the space on your side of the closet,” Sarah said, “so be a dear, and grab a couple of garbage bags and clean your stuff out. Just leave the key on the table.”

Tears burned one eye and cheek. The glued eyelid dammed the tears forcing the eyelid to bulge out. The gun clicked into its holster. The table tilted as his back scraped against the top. Keys slid to the floor. The garbage bag crinkled and stretched, but held everything it needed to.

The weight of the bag magnified the stone crushing his chest. Bubba had his hand up Sarah’s blouse as she sucked on his lips. Like I need to see that.  The key dropped from his hand as he pushed the door open.  As it closed behind the table crashed to the floor with a moan from Bubba and a giggle from Sarah.

The stone in his chest caught fire. Only need one eye for this. No gentle squeeze of the trigger this time. Glue gushed out of the gun to fill the crack around the door. They wouldn’t find it until hunger distracted them.

Plenty of time for the glue to set.

***

The first thing you’ll notice is that I haven’t got rid of all the pronouns. Some of them I shifted into first personal to make direct thought, and there are pronouns for Sarah and Bubba. The goal is not the eradication of all pronouns, but to write closer to the character. If you need a pronoun to avoid a clunky sentence, go ahead and use it.

The other thing is the action is only part of what is going on.  We read a lot more about what is happening inside Jim. I’m a firm believer that the less you name emotion, the more evocative it becomes, but that may be a subject for another article.

Lastly, the goal is to be so close to Jim we feel what he feels, no standing back to watch the action unfold. There is no narrative voice here.

The truth is writing this way is a lot more work than writing the first version. It takes a lot of concentration and attention to nuance (another article too). You don’t want to write your whole book this way. My experience as an editor and reviewer is just when an author needs to pull in tighter, they step back. The multiple pronoun starts and the rest are warning signs – here is where you need to decide how key the scene is to your story.

There are times you need a good bit of narrative summary, and others when you want to get close enough to hear a heart break and feel the heat of revenge’s flame.

Testimonial from Carisa Wells

Hey, everyone. I just wanted to say thanks to everyone who referred Alex McGilvery to me when I asked some questions about editing a couple months ago. He’s exactly the editor I needed for my book. I’d sent samples to many editors prior to him. He’s the first person who hurt my feelings and that’s precisely why I hired him. Don’t worry. He wasn’t mean at all, just honest. There’s no way I could have found anyone better. No offense to the other lovely editors. This was a right place/right time thing. I’m so glad his prices are affordable for some of us po’ folk. He could easily be charging a bundle. It’s been an absolute privilege and a pleasure to work with him. So again, Thank you!

Other Editorial Services

As I have said, I’m not a copy editor, but if you are looking for a copy editor I have a couple of people that I use for my work.

Dean C. Moore has worked on three of my four published books. He is an efficient editor and is fussy about the details, which is exactly what you want in a good copy editor. He spends a lot of time making sure my punctuation and the rest is correct and consistent. His prices are as reasonable as mine. Contact him through his web site here:  http://deancmoore.com


Sarah Brown is new on the scene, but she too is meticulous with her work and will make your manuscript look good. She is a blend of copy editor and proofreader. She worked on my soon to be released collection of horror stories Sparkles and Blood You can find her here: https://unexploredboundaries.wordpress.com/need-an-editor/

It is also true that not everyone will work well with my style, or will need something faster or focused differently. Here are a couple of fine editors who can help you polish your book.

Gail Williams is another Structural Editor. This is how she describes her services:

I can tell what a good story is, and I can help others make their stories better.  I offer competitive rates based on word count and timeframe.  Along with detailed comments, questions and suggestions in the edited manuscript, clients get a full critique document giving an overall review of the manuscript.  I specialise in crime and science fiction, and my particular penchant is for getting timelines straight, a timeline that doesn’t hold water brings me out in a veritable rash, but don’t worry I can cope with time travel so no fears there.  Because I recognise that the relationship between an author and editor is a mutual choice and needs to be natural fit, I am also prepared to offer a free sample edit of up to 3,000 words so that the author can decide if I’m the right editor for them.   For  general calculations I charge £9/$13 per 1000 words on a four-week turnaround for up to 100k words, anything else (faster time greater word count) just ask. 

Contact me if you have questions or a want a quote.

If you want to work with a editor with years of experience and who works with a publishing house, you can’t do better than Penny Freeman.

She works in all kinds of editing but here are the summaries from a couple of editing stages

Developmental Editor:

Publishing companies make use of developmental editors, particularly if they are working with known authors with whom they have contracts for a series of books. These editors help authors formulate their ideas and draw a road map for the direction they want their story to go. At pennyfreeman.com LLC, we have developed highly specialized exercises for authors in their outlining process which give them very clear direction and break up any log jams. In the creation of novels, developmental editors guide the author through the production process until the manuscript goes to print.

Copy Editor:

A copy editor focuses on the language arts: proper sentence structure, communication skills, language and punctuation. Is the writer getting their point across? Or, are the words getting in the way? If the project were a house, the developmental editor would be the builder who commissioned the structure, the author would be the general contractor, and the copy editor would be the inspector who ensures everything is up to code. The proofreader is that essential, unsung hero who brings up the rear with the broom.


A.P. Fuchs

Editing Services:

As an author of around 40 published books, as well as the editor and publisher of over 110, I’ve had extensive experience bringing a manuscript to a polished state. My mission with each book I take on is to keep the author’s voice and vision intact, while also making sure there are no grammar or spelling mistakes. I also keep an eye out for continuity and anything else the reader might find jarring. However, my main thing is to side with the creator and do my best to make their story the best it can be.

My rates are affordable and are broken down into the following categories, prices in US funds.

Short stories (1,000 – 7,000 words): 1¢ per word

Novelettes (7,001 – 15,000 words): $120

Novellas (15,001 – 40,000 words): $200

Short novels (40,001 – 60,000): $300

Novels (60,001 – 80,000 words): $375

Blockbusters (80,001 – 120,000): $425

Doorstops (120,000+): inquire for quote

As a comics writer and fan, I’m also available for comic script editing at $1US per page.

Formatting Services:

As mentioned above, I’ve had experience formatting around 150 books for print and eBook. Your paperback will be prepared to accommodate whomever you’re using as a printer. Your eBook will be formatted three ways: PDF, Kindle, and Smashwords. Once the project is complete, I’ll send you the print/eBook-ready files.

Paperback formatting – $150

eBook formatting – $100

Paperback and eBook formatting bundle – $225

Cover Services:

Coming soon.

Turn around time varies per project, but it would be within a week or two depending on where you are on the schedule.

Thanks for your interest. I hope we can work together. Please send me an email via the contact page on this site and I’ll promptly get back to you.

Editing is $300 for a 100k book

I’m planning to stay at the $300 mark for the time being. It is paying me a decent wage for the work while it remains affordable for authors. Anything much over or under the 100k, contact me and we’ll talk price. As always the first 5k for new clients is free as a test edit so you know what you are getting.

Keep in mind that I am a content editor. I work at the foundational level of your story with plot, character and tone. I do make comments about style and technical issues, but I’m not a copy editor.

If you’d like more information, just comment here, or send me an email through the link in the side menu.

Control F is your friend. A really annoying friend – Learn to Loathe Search

I’m primarily a content/structural editor. So I’m looking for a consistent plot, characters revealed through action and dialogue, and tone that doesn’t change whenever you get to the harder parts to write.

But while I read for content, there are some common mistakes writers make that will save you time on your edit and give me more time with your story if you fix them yourself. Many of these problems are fixable using the search feature.

Lets start with filter verbs. Filter verbs are words like think/feel/see/hear and their synonyms. What happens is you write.

Dang, its hot. Joe thought.

If were in Joe’s point of view, it isn’t necessary to tell us he thought. Who else is going to be thinking in his POV?

So put thought in the search box, then look at every time you use the word. Do you really need it, or is it clear from the context?

When you’re done reviewing thought, put saw there. When you tell us Sally saw her parents waltz through the kitchen.  You give us a nice visual,  but it comes to us through Sally. If were in her POV, you don’t need to tell us she saw it. Having her parents waltz means she saw it or you couldn’t write it in her POV. Most time you can cut saw and have a stronger scene.

When you’ve finished with saw, do watched noticed heard listened felt and synonyms you use for them. Keep in mind, your goal is to cut where you can. Sometimes you need the verb for clarity. Until you get used to writing without filter verbs, you will find you can cut at least half of them.

Now that we’ve got rid of filter verbs, you want to work on writing in a more active voice. Search for was and look hard at every was + verb construction you find. Most of the time you can use simple past instead of was. One exception is when you need the passive voice the passive is used when action happens to the character rather than by the character.

Bob was mugged by zombies on the way home.  is passive

Zombies mugged Bob as he walked home.  is active. Notice the zombies are the actors in both sentences, but you will want to decide what works best for that place in the story you are writing.

This will be places where characters are being acted upon rather than acting. The other is where you are describing an action in process that is interrupted by another action.

John was kissing Sally when her husband walked in.  This sentence shows us that they were still in full lip-lock when the hubby walked in.

After you’ve done was check were.

Since we are looking at tenses, let’s look at past perfect. The past perfect is an action in the past that is completed in the past. This is the had + verb construction.

He had kissed every girl in his school.

The past perfect shows up in flashbacks, especially unplanned ones. You know what I mean, where you introduce a character in the midst of some action, then go back to tell us why they are there. Time is best when it flows smoothly. The past perfect may alert you to those mini flashbacks.

The next set of words are what I call weak modifiers. We need an extra word for rhythm. Rhythm is vital, but you don’t want filler words. Every word needs to carry its own weight.

Search for that, if you’re like me you can cut eight out of ten uses without any problem. You want to use that when you are picking one out of a group that cat when it is a specific animal amongst a herd of cats. Even when you can’t cut that look to see if you should have used which or who instead. If you aren’t sure, check a grammar site to learn more about the words’ use and misuse.

Now you are going to search for seem in all its forms. Properly used seems is counter to reality.

It seems hot, but it is actually cold.

Most people use it in describing non-POV character emotions.

He seemed angry. You are always better to show his anger or other emotions without labeling them. Nine out ten times you don’t need seemed.

Do similar searches for just, then, very, virtually, really actually and any other word you tend to over use. All writers have catch phrases they use a lot. If a reader points one out, add it to your list.

The last group of words I am going to talk about are the emotional words. If your character is angry, show the anger through body sensations and body language. If you want your reader to feel what your character is feeling don’t name the emotion. Naming the anger shortcuts the process of reading the words and attaching them to our own experience of anger. So the reader nods their head, the character is angry and on they go. You haven’t evoked any emotion in them.

Sad, happy, angry, afraid and their synonyms go into that search box and you assess each use. Find a way to show the emotion whenever you can.

I am sure by the end of this process you will loathe that search box, but your writing will be immensely stronger. The good news is as you work on it, you will stop using these words so much. I will tell you, you never get past needing to double check.

One last trick, and it doesn’t use the search box except to set it up. Open a duplicate file then open the search box. Type in a period (.) then in the replace box hit the enter key. This maneuver will make every sentence start on a new line. Skim down the page and look for groups of sentences that start with the same word. Two is Ok, three or more consecutive sentences starting with the same word needs to be re-written. While you are looking, pay special attention to pronouns. You want to aim for no more than forty percent pronoun starts. Since pronouns will account for most of your multiple starts, fixing one often fixes the other.

 

These tips will get you started, but don’t stop here, would and could might be words to examine, About is often over used as is some. You will find others. The search box is a great tool for self-editing because you aren’t reading the words in the context of the story. Now, you will see them clearly and be able to decide if you want to leave it or change it. I expect you already know most of what I’ve said about show not tell, active vs passive etc. What these tricks do is let you see the areas you need to work on so when you hire me or another editor,  their comments are about characters and plot, not things you can fix yourself.

Testimonial by Katy Huth Jones

Even after editing with my talented critique group, I knew my fantasy wasn’t ready for publication, but its length was prohibitive in finding an affordable editor. I heard praise for Alex McGilvery’s editing in an online writing group and decided to send him a sample. I really liked his method and hired him. It has been money well spent! Alex is thorough and professional, and he focuses equally well on the macro and the micro; he analyzes story arc, character arcs, and themes while he notes technical flaws and weak writing habits. I like that he points out what works as well as what needs overhauling or tweaking. He even helped me “choreograph” a climactic fight scene. I wholeheartedly endorse Alex McGilvery of Celticfrog Editing and hope we can work together on future projects. Thanks, Alex!

Katy Huth Jones

Testimonial by Ora Smith

I feel Alex put a lot of time and thought into the content edit of my historical fiction manuscript. His comments were thorough and helped give me the information, knowledge and understanding needed to make important changes to the story and characters. He also gave a multiple page evaluation at the end, guiding me to where I needed to make additions, deletions, how to strengthen the plot and so much more. I also really appreciate that he complimented the writing in various places throughout the manuscript. What writer doesn’t need a little praise to drive away those negative demons in our head? I would definitely have Alex edit a manuscript again. I feel like I received a lot for the price. I almost feel like I was taking advantage of him! Sorry Alex, but thanks again!

Testimonial from Valerie Howard

“My book needed some work, but I didn’t know how to fix it. I couldn’t afford $1,000 or more for the usual professional editor, so I thought I was going to have to rely on friends and family to read the story and give me their best suggestions of how to tighten up my writing. Then I found Alex McGilvery at Celtic Frog Editing. His rates were unbelievable and I’d heard excellent things about his process, so I jumped on the opportunity to hire him to edit my book. I’m so glad I did! Alex not only has the ability to pinpoint exactly what needs fixing, he can give you great suggestions and ideas on HOW to fix the problem areas that are holding your book back. He also tells you what you’re doing right so you know what not to change in your final draft. I’m indebted to him for giving my so-so book the potential to be a great book! Thank you, Alex for offering a great professional service at a fraction of the cost!”

Link to Valerie’s book Carry Me Homeon Amazon.

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