Category Archives: Writing Articles

Shades of Nuance: 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 Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide To Character Expression

The Blurb, life or death in 50 words or less.

I was once a book reviewer as well as an author. Many sources for review books post a thumbnail of the cover and perhaps a sentence or two. That sentence or two is what is going to convince me to click on more information to read the rest of the available information.

So you have a great novel. You’ve edited and polished until you and your beta readers are happy with the words. You have a great cover. Now you need a blurb that will convince me, the reader, to investigate further.

I like reading indie books. That’s the cool way to say self-published. The review site I used to write for accepts indie books. It’s a fairly significant investment. About $400 to get posted and in the emails. That’s two hundred books at $2 profit.

Unfortunately a lot of the books have blurbs like this;

Wolf is a warrior and he goes to where Rolph’s gang hides out in a post-apocalyptic city. Will Wolf defeat the alien monster that is killing Rolph’s warriors? What will happen when Wolf’s leader wants him back? Will he find love?

The answers are yes, yes and yes. You basically given me the whole story in brief. Because you ask questions, I think of the answers. When I know the answers, I don’t want to read the book.

This might be a slightly better blurb for the same story (one of mine, so you don’t think I’m picking unfairly on someone)

Rolph has a problem. Some thing is breaking into his hall and killing his men. He doesn’t trust this Wolf who has shown up looking for trouble, but it the Thing gets Wolf, it will be one less of his own men who die. Yet if Wolf destroys the Thing, that will be just another kind of trouble.

This is by no means a great blurb, but what it tries to do is create questions that reader wants to answer. Now that I have the reader asking their own questions, I have the chance that they will click through to find the answers that they need.

Another common mistake with blurbs is to try to fit too much of the story into the blurb. Something like this:

The Wolf is a warrior whose been kicked out of his gang for daring to love the leader’s girl. Now he is going to fight an alien menace and maybe find love. This is the beginning of a retelling of Beowulf, but you don’t need to read that to enjoy this story.

The third most popular mistake is to talk about your story instead of hooking the reader into it.

This is a kickass retelling of Beowulf in a post-apocalyptic world. My mom hated it so it must be awesome!

The blurb is your first, and maybe your last chance, to hook your reader. Use it well.


For more advice on how to write that killer blurb go to Michael Sullivan’s Tips.

I will also accept a limited number of clients per month to help write their blurb/back matter. The fee will be $25 USD for one hour of consultation. By the time we’re done you will be much more comfortable writing that all important blurb.

Send me an email to request a slot. In the email, include your present blurb. If I have space to help, I will ask for the first chapter and synopsis of your book. In addition sum up your book in ten words. This is your elevator pitch, it isn’t so much about your book as about why I should want to read it.

My email is available on the right side panel.

Break Dancing, or Where to End your Chapter

Some people like long chapters that pull them deep into the world that the author is weaving around the the story. Others like short chapters. To say that all chapters must be long, or that all must be short would be similar to saying that you have write all long sentences or all short ones. Chapters, like paragraphs and sentences come in different lengths and evoke different feelings in the reader. Short chapters, as with paragraphs and sentences, move the story along briskly. Longer ones slow things down and allow time for the feel of the world you are creating to settle in the mind of the reader.

It is up to the author to decide where to break for a new chapter. That decision needs to be based on the needs of the story at that particular moment. It is a trap to simply start a new chapter whenever you start a new day of writing. It will make your story feel unbalanced and unfinished.

So where do you make the chapter break?

There are a few different reasons to end a chapter. The first and probably most over used is the cliff hanger. This is a hold over from the days when books were published a chapter a month in magazines. You needed something to get people to buy the magazine next month to see what happens. Comics still do this. A few cliff hangers are good, but too many just gets tiresome. The best place to put a cliff hanger chapter ending is just before a POV switch to another character involved in different action. A good cliff hanger doesn’t have an obvious or easy solution. It doesn’t have to involve physical danger, but there has to be something at risk.

Which brings me to the next reason for a chapter break. POV switch. I prefer writing entire chapters in the same POV. I don’t like reading stories where there is a lot of head hopping. So when you’re going to switch POV, start a new chapter. This is especially important if you are also changing the site of the action. An exception to the POV chapter break is if the characters are involved in the same action at the same location and you have a very good reason for switch POV. There is a discipline to staying with one POV for an extended time, but it will help you develop at a writer when you need to work out how to let your character learn what they need to learn to show the reader.

Natural breaks in the action are another good way to end a chapter. Everybody goes to bed. Instead of wasting time describing your characters sleeping. You end the chapter and start the next chapter with the characters awake and once more involved in meaningful action. Another form of this natural break is where you want to make a shift from quick action to more reflective thought. A major battle has been won (or lost) and your MC want to mourn the foolishness of war. A chapter break will signal and highlight the change in mood. That will allow you to follow the character into less ardous tasks and provide some contrast. This doesn’t mean that you can’t have a variety of moods in one chapter. Let your story decide.

The last chapter break is a minor conclusion. Plot lines don’t go up evenly to the climax. Rather they should look a little like the graph on a seismograph. When your story has reached a point where a smaller obstacle has been resolved it may be a place to break. Just make sure that it doesn’t feel like the action is done. The above example is also an example of a minor conclusion. The characters get to live another day, but there is still the unfinished task hanging over their heads.

Knowing where to put chapter breaks is similar to knowing whether to write long or short sentences. It is about emphasizing parts of your plot and staying in control of pacing in your story. It is a skill that will mark you as an accomplished author. It is like dancing with your story. You need to feel the rhythm, but still stay in control.

How to add words without bloating.

So you have a killer story and want to send it to a publisher who you know will love it. Only they insist submissions be a few thousand words more than what you have in your book.

Here are some ways of adding in words without making your story feel like it’s been padded.

The order you apply them depends on how you write, but this is the order I use.

Go through the book scene by scene. Have you placed the reader into the scene through description? Do they interact with their surroundings? Shifting from simple description to the characters walking through touching, smelling etc will add words. The advantage of interaction is the setting becomes part of the plot, instead of stopping the action while we look around.

Again looking at your scenes. Do you have your balance of narrative summary and showing right? Showing is using action, dialogue, internal thought to create a scene. Narrative summary is talking about the scene. Showing takes more words, so converting a few key scenes from narrative to showing will add words and depth. The trick is to pick scenes which will deepen your characters and plot, so don’t expand scenes which are repetitive or don’t have any weight in the plot.

Now, dialogue. If you’re like me, you get typing those words so fast you forget to add speech tags-that is ‘he said’ etc. I once added a thousand words just with speech tags. Then I took them all out again and used beats. Beats are lovely sentences which show expression, emotion, setting, action and more. In one review of an early book of mine, they made the comment that my dialogue became talking heads a couple of times. Beats will prevent talking heads from overtaking your book.

While we’re on the subject of beats and emotion, work your emotions on several levels. The first level is the words the character says. Next are the things the character thinks. Deeper yet are the physical sensations of the emotion.

Say you have a character who is sad. Having them say ‘I’m sad’ works in some contexts, but it doesn’t connect us to their feeling. You could have them say. ‘I’m fine.’ but think I wish someone understood me. This difference between thought and speech sets up a dynamic tension. Take it even further by giving the reader the physical sensations.

“I’m fine”  I wish someone understood me. John’s stomach sent a stab through his body, but he’d perfected his ability to hide all pain from the world.

If you need more than a few thousand words, you’ll need more than these tricks. At this point you’re looking at developing minor characters and side plots and maybe adding more twists to the plot, but that is a subject for another day.

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.

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.

Weight, or Keeping things in Balance

Weight is the term I use to talk about how important something should be in a story. In a lot of stories authors feel that the only way to make their characters real is to create some tragedy that they have to survive. The problem with this approach is that some things are heavier than others.

Killing a parent or a sibling is not something that a character will get over in a few days, weeks or even months. The same is true of other physical and emotional traumas. If you put some tragic in your story for effect, but then don’t deal with its lasting consequences your story will be out of balance. Instead of making your character look tragic it will make them appear uncaring. That can be a useful tool if you want to portray someone as a sociopath, but for the average character you need to think ahead about how the pain/grief/anger is going to change the way they interact with the world.

Conversely, a relatively minor occurrence shouldn’t be the case of a drastic change in the character. The exception would be the use of imbalance for comic purposes. The example would be a cheerleader who wanders blithely through life until she breaks a nail and goes thermo-nuclear. Exaggeration is one of the mainstays of comedy.

The other way that weight comes into play in a story is more important in longer works. This is how much time the author spends on something early in the story should be balanced by that thing’s importance in the conclusion of the story. If you spend six pages describing a log floating in the ocean, that log better have some importance toward the end. If it doesn’t the reader will be unconsciously watching for it and will get increasingly impatient. It is better if you don’t make it obvious that you are giving a lot of weight to something early on, but it can be a simple as giving it an extra adjective, or mentioning it more than one or two times.

It is amazing what the unconscious mind will store away for later. An example would be the bow in Hunger Games. A lot of words in different places go into showing what a great shot Katniss is with the bow, yet early on in the Games, she doesn’t have the bow. Then when she does, she hardly uses it. That way when it does come into play the reader thinks, “Ah, now that’s more like it!” and you have a satisfied reader willing to stretch their imagination just a little further.

The corollary of spending too much time on something of no importance is not giving a vital bit of information enough time. If you are going to have your heroine slay the werewolf with a silver knitting needle in the final battle of your book, you had better have made more than a passing reference to that needle in the second chapter. Again you don’t have to make it obvious, but mentioning it a few times or giving it some extra description will set it apart enough that the reader will think “Of course, she had it the whole time!” and be satisfied.

It is possible to use weight to misdirect the reader. I’ve read a few stories in which great time and care was spent describing a sword that was to be the hero’s salvation in the final battle.  Only to have the thing shatter so the hero needs to scramble to get the real magic sword. The interesting thing was there were also a couple of clues scattered here and there to hint that the hero had the wrong sword.

Mastering the concept of weight in writing will make it easier to guide your story and your reader to a satisfying conclusion.

Getting Conversant with Conversation

If you have more than one character in your story you will have to write dialogue. Even with just one character dialogue is possible. One of my favourite resources on dialogue is Dave King’s Self-Editing for Writers. Actually, it’s a terrific book all round.

Here’s a brief dialogue.

“Ayyoop, them stars shur is purty tonight,” said the grizzled old cowboy.

“Bah!” Bob snapped whitheringly, “Stars are just gas, like some people I could name.”

“Sorry,” said Cookie as he let loose another fecund cloud of gas. “Beans always gets to me.”

“Then why does you only cook beans?” Stan coughed. The fire burned blue as the three men held their breath. “Is that there star gettin’ bigger?”

Wait a minute, three men? I was sure there were four. The problem is that Stan and the old grizzled cowboy are the same person. It’s important in dialogue to keep the attribution consistent. If you are having an old grizzled cowboy talking, then he needs to stay an old grizzled cowboy through the whole dialogue. If you had, Stan, the old grizzled cowboy, then you’d be OK. The exception to this rule would be if the character is introduced during the dialogue.

“Just call me Stan,” the grizzled old cowboy said. And you can safely do so for the rest of the dialogue.

While I’m talked about Stan, let’s talk about dialect. Dialect is fun to right. We hear the character’s odd speech patterns in our head. This is just how he sounds. Just be aware that it may work differently for the reader. The reader may have no clue what Stan just said. I read a book in which one characters speech was translated as “scottish sounding noises” in my head. It was just too much work to translate. If that character ever had something important to the plot to say, it was lost on me. Dialect can be achieved with rhythm and a few subtle shifts in spelling.

So what’s Bob’s problem? First it is the snapping. Most people I read on dialogue suggest that you use ‘said’ unless you use ‘asked’ because the speaker is asking a question. The reason is that said becomes like punctuation. The reader only sees it to attach the speech to the right person. The habit some writers have of trying to come up with ever more clever ways of saying ‘said’ forces the reader to pay attention to the words instead of the dialogue. Always use the ‘he said’ order. “Said he” sounds archaic and forced. Only use this order if you want to sound archaic and forced.

The same holds true for adverbs that intend to describe how the sentence was spoken. Mark Twain is supposed to have advised writers to substitute ‘damn’ for ‘very’ so the editor will remove it at no detriment to their writing. I would expand that to remove just about every adverb that you would care to use. If you want to put emotion into the dialogue, put it into the words that are being spoken. Don’t write boring dialogue and try to spice it up with adverbs.

The last bit about attribution is using non-speech words to attribute speech. People don’t cough up sentences, or laugh them, or weep them. If you are writing about a certain age of boy, they may burp them. Stick with said and use a beat to add the coughing, laughing or weeping. The bit about the three men holding their breath? That’s a beat. A beat is action in the midst of dialogue that helps pace the dialogue. In this case it gives a break between the first part of the sentence and the second.

The punctuating of dialogue seems complicated, but it isn’t that difficult.

“Look,” he said, “only lower case for the attribution unless you’re using a name, or something that would normally be upper case.”

“Hey!” she said, “remember that exclamation points and question marks are treated like commas.”

“I was getting there,” he said. “How about those Yankees? You see how I used upper case since I was starting a new sentence in the second segment of the speech?”

That’s a primer on dialogue. I may put some more advanced suggestions up at a later date.