Don’t think, don’t feel

In my article on Show, Tell and Narrative Summary, a reader kindly pointed out to me that using words such as thought/felt/saw/heard are a form of telling. They are ‘filtering’ words in that the experience is filtered through the MC rather than coming to the reader direct.  Filters add distance between the reader and the story.

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Dang, Rebus thought, the Sheriff’s going to be able to smell that mash all the way out to the highway. He ran in the moonlit woods like a deer through corn. He didn’t know what he would do, but he had to try.

A strong arm gripped his shoulder and pulled him back from where he saw the still steaming in the stark white light. The hand over his mouth felt like old leather and steel.

Rebus relaxed and watched the inevitable. His uncle John wasn’t a man to be messed with, and he’d lay a beating on Rebus soon as look at him.

The Sheriff crept into the clearing gun in hand.

Rebus heard a rumble of laughter from behind him.

“See what happens to anyone who crosses me,” Uncle John said.

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When you’re writing you want to avoid the words in bold they weaken the immediacy of the story. That isn’t to say you never use them, but it is worth looking at each one and deciding if that is the way you want to leave it. Let’s have a go at removing the filter words.

________________________________________________________

Rebus’ eyes watered.

Dang, the Sherriff’s going to be able to smell that mash from the highway.  He ran like a deer through the moonlit woods. Likely it was too late to do anything about the still, but he had to try.

The still steamed in the stark white illumination. A strong arm gripped Rebus and pulled him back. The leather and steel of Uncle John’s hand covered his mouth. Rebus gagged and the leathery palm moved slightly.

“You be still, boy,” Uncle John said, “Pay attention to what happens to them that cross me.” Laughter shook the crazy old man.

The Sherriff crept into the clearing, gun in hand.

________________________________________________________

That’s better. You want more interaction with the senses, but without labelling the sense. We get the smell from Rebus’ watering eyes. We don’t need to label who’s thinking as the POV is Rebus, so he’s the only one we should be able to hear thinking. When he gets to the still, we know he’s seeing it. So you don’t need to tell the reader he’s seeing it, watching it, noticing it, or any of the other ways we try to make it clear that our character is taking in the scene in front of them. The feel of the hand and laughter works the same way.

I’m not happy with the scene yet, but at least I’ve removed the screen between the reader and what is going on.

Like everything else in writing this is not a hard and fast rule. You can’t just go through your book cutting every filter verb. Sometimes you need the filter verb to maintain the rhythm of the prose. Sometimes they aren’t truly filters but deliberate action. Telling us someone remembers a scene from the chapter before is filtering. Give us the scene and we know they’re remembering. But if the character is trying to remember something, then you need to tell us when they succeed. The rest of the filters work the same way, when it is a deliberate action, not a flag post for the reader, you need to keep it.

You’ll know which are which when you find you can’t possibly write around the verb.

Show, Tell and Narrative Summary

Here’s a scene I wrote some time back.  A scene is a little bit of the story. You string a bunch of them together like pearls in a necklace to make your story.

Harry walked into the party with his wife on his arm. Sculpted beauties gazed at him. He was out of place with his middle age sag and his wrinkles. If he didn’t fit in, Faye stood out like a minivan at a Porsche convention. Since the death of their youngest son she had taken comfort in food. You could make dresses for any two other woman in the room from what she was wearing. But Harry knew what it was like to lose yourself, only he had chosen drink over food. She saw the buffet and gave Harry’s arm a squeeze and headed for the food.

Harry shook his head and smiled. He started to mingle with the others. He held a drink and pretended to drink from it. He was just thinking that it was time to leave when a woman came up behind him and took his arm. He knew immediately that she was three parts intoxicated.

“Hey, handsome,” she purred, “How about you and me find some privacy.”

“I’m married,” he said trying to turn away.

“So am I, what of it?”

“Not interested,” Harry said starting to get annoyed.

“What, you prefer her?” the woman sneered.

Harry looked at his wife. For a moment he saw what everyone saw. A fat woman with an over full plate surrounded by the best Hollywood’s surgeons could produce. Then he looked deeper and saw the woman who still struggled with her grief, and helped him struggle with his. The woman who had brought his four children into the world. He saw the woman who on the day he married her outshone any two woman in this room.

“I do.”

“What does she have that I don’t have?”

“Me,” said Harry and he went to join his beautiful wife.

I’ve highlighted the parts of this story that are telling rather than showing. You can see that they are most of the parts that are meant to show emotion. The problem is that the emotion is being pushed at us. They aren’t attached to Harry, rather they are about Harry.

Here is the scene rewritten to show rather than to tell.

Harry walked into the party with his wife on his arm. Everywhere he looked sculpted beauties gazed back at him.  I don’t belong here, he thought, not with my wrinkles and sagging body. If he didn’t fit in, Faye stood out like a minivan at a Porsche convention. He figured he could make dresses for any two other woman in the room from what she was wearing.  She gave Harry’s arm a squeeze and headed for the food.

Harry shook his head and smiled. He fetched a drink and pretended to drink from it as he  mingled with the others in the room.

Maybe it’s time to leave, he thought a short time later, I shouldn’t have to work this hard to smile.

A woman came up behind him and grabbed his arm almost spilling his untouched drink. The smell of alcohol on her breathe hit him like a wave.

“Hey, handsome,” she purred, “How about you and me find some privacy.”

“I’m married,” he said trying to turn away.

“So am I, what of it?”

“Not interested,” Harry said.

“What, you prefer her?” She pointed at his wife; a fat woman with an over-full plate surrounded by the best Hollywood’s surgeons could produce.

For a moment he saw what he guessed everyone else saw, but he saw things that no one else in this room could see. On the day he married her, Faye had outshone any two woman in this room. She’d brought his four children into the world and stood beside him as they buried their youngest. She still struggled with her grief, and helped him struggle with his. Harry blinked away tears that tempted him to sip the drink in his hand.

“I do,” he said as he carefully put his drink on a nearby table.

“What does she have that I don’t have?”

“Me,”  Harry said. He walked over to the buffet and picked up a plate. He put his arm around Faye and gave her a smile and a hug.

I can hear you saying, “But you didn’t change that much!” I didn’t add much to the scene. It was written for a contest with a word limit of 300 words. I wanted to stay within that limit. What I did do was attach the emotions and memories to Harry.  Instead of narration, they become Harry’s internal thoughts. I dropped the extra words on the attributions since they weren’t really necessary.

Now say this is a scene in a much larger work. A novel about Harry whose novel has been picked up and is being made into a big budget movie. It is all about his experiences in Hollywood. There are lots of parties in Hollywood. Do we need to show each and every one of them? That would get old fast. Even though we were showing rather than telling, we are showing  the same thing each time. So we use narrative summary. Narrative summary is the string that holds the pearls together and helps the reader move from one to the next.  It could be as simple as:

Harry attended an endless string of parties, each one filled with the same sculpted beauty and the same empty conversation. He could feel the siren call of the booze that would let him fit in. He could see the self-loathing on Faye’s face as she tried and failed to stay away from the buffet tables.

That little bit gives the reader a sense of time passing, but also of the cost of that time. So when I write the next scene I don’t need to tell the reader about Harry and Faye’s despair.

So, there is no hard and fast rule to never tell, but your story does need to mostly show. And it MUST show the really important developments. To go back to Harry and Georgia, you can’t later in the book talk about Harry starting to drink at the parties or having an affair without showing that particular party.

So quick summary, showing is letting the reader experience the story through the thoughts, words and actions of the characters. Telling is dumping information that is unconnected to the characters into the story. Often, but not always, telling is in the passive voice and often, but not always, involves a lot of adverbs. Narrative summary is a form of telling that smooths the movement from one scene to the next, but you want to make sure that it doesn’t replace necessary scenes in your story.

To get more of the picture of show, not tell, Go read Don’t Think, Don’t Feel

The Joy of Nuance: 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/

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

Testimonial from Molly Zucknick

The rough draft and first and second passes were behind me. Still, frustrated with the manuscript, I sought advice from an online writing group and received some great tips. The best of which was a suggestion to contact Alex McGilvery at CelticFrog Editing. I was honest with Alex; my greatest fear was having my voice edited out. He quickly settled that worry – his job was to help improve my story, not rewrite it. Because of this, I accepted a no obligation offer to edit my first 5000 words. The results sold me. As a content editor, the comments and advice Alex offered ranged from specific to general and focused on weak plot points, character development, and consistency. The suggestions and appreciations Alex made encouraged a deeper insight into my work and provided enough of a push to help strengthen my voice. I’m so glad I found Alex and CelticFrog Editing.

Molly Zucknick

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.

Fall Editing

DSCF0054While you gear up toward NaNoWriMo, or recover from the 3DayNovel Contest, you may want to have another pair of eyes look at the next book you plan to release. Content editing works best just after you’ve knocked the rough edges off the story. I’ve been known to completely rearrange books, so doing a lot of polish before you get the book to me is not needed.

I’ve working on a new system where I read the book in entirety first, then go back to comment in detail. It doesn’t cost any extra, so let me know if you’d like me to do this. I find it works very well if you have major questions about structure and character.

My fees remain steady at $300 for a 100k novel, and I will do a free, no obligation test edit of your first 5000 words. I’ve worked in all genres and all lengths.

Summer Writing

Summer is a great time to work on that novel. If you’re feeling stuck, I can work with your outline and/or work-in-progress to help you decide where to go next with your book. If you’re finished the first draft I can help you develop your plot/character/tone and more to take your book to the next level. My focus is always on helping you create your book, so I’m open to questions and consultations over Skype or other video conferencing network. I have slots open in August and into the fall, but they will fill up quickly.

If you’ve never worked with me before, I offer a free 5000 word test edit with no obligation.

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.