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editing

Quick Edits: A Look at “Show Don’t Tell”

Craft of Writing, Quick Edits, Writing

Quick Edits is a short feature where I give quick editing advice on how to handle common problems in fiction writing.

Show Don’t Tell

In my capacity as an editor, I’ve written “This is telling. I want to experience this with the character, not be told about it,” countless times. And the soundbite is “Show, don’t tell.” We’ve all heard it.

But the problem with soundbites is they’re meant to be short, so if we embrace them as rules, rather than guidelines, we lose the nuance.

“Never use adverbs.”
“Don’t use passive verbs.”
“Don’t use exclamation points.”

All of those items that are verboten by soundbites are valid, useful parts of speech. The issue the soundbite is trying to address is that they’re all overused, so the general guideline is not to use them at all. The guideline is really to keep us from overusing them (or using them wrongly, which is usually the case with adverbs) and to make us think about the instances when we do choose to use them.

“Show don’t tell,” is similar. Authors should mostly show. But it doesn’t mean authors should never tell. The “show don’t tell” soundbite drops all the nuance and all the reasoning of why authors should show, rather than tell. And because of this skipped nuance, many authors, particularly novices, adhere to the soundbite as if it is set in stone.

It isn’t.

Below is a list of instances where telling could be appropriate, where you can and sometimes should violate “show don’t tell.” Note that you don’t always have to tell in these instances, and sometimes shouldn’t. As writers improve, they learn when each is appropriate. Generally guideline is still: if you’re unsure, go with showing.

When to Tell

  • when transitioning from one scene to another – often Telling can happen at the beginning of a chapter or a scene when setting up for the action to come
  • when the action doesn’t matter – if your character is traveling from one place to another and nothing happens during the travel, the reader doesn’t need to know every turn and stop the character makes
  • when there is repetition – if a character has to tell another character about something the reader has already heard or experienced, Telling the reader that the character conveys the story is better than rehashing everything the reader already knows (an exception to this is if the character is misrepresenting or misunderstood what happened; that can be important for the reader to know)
  • when time passes – similar to above, if time is passing and nothing important happens, you don’t need to Show us that
  • in short stories – because short stories have a word limit, Telling is often necessary to summarize events that may not be as important to the plot as others.

There are also some instances in which you should rarely Tell. Obviously things that are the opposite of the list above. For example, any time the action does matter, it should be Shown and not Told. Another instance is action scenes. Action scenes should always be shown.

So there you go! A quick guide on when not to use Show Don’t Tell. Can you think of other times when you should Tell rather than Show?

Are there any editing issues you run into that you’d like covered in the Quick Edits series? Drop a comment below!

Keep writing,

Quick Edits: Don’t Blink

Craft of Writing, Quick Edits, Writing

Quick Edits is a short feature where I give quick editing advice on how to handle common problems in fiction writing.

Don’t Blink

We’ve all read it. Some of us have probably written it.

Some surprising thing happens. And, in response, a character blinks.

This is a problem. Why?

Because blinking is not an indicator of surprise. If it were, we would be indicating surprise more than twenty five thousand times in a day. Blinking is a mostly involuntary bodily action. It happens all the time.

In face-to-face life, it isn’t blinking that shows a person’s surprise. It can be wide eyes, a shocked expression, raised eyebrows, a flinch, a mouth agape. There are any number of things that actually show surprise. Blinking is never one of them — unless it’s a melodramatic blink for effect. And even then, I’d argue that’s deliberate, not as a result of a surprise.

Blinking, like breathing, is a natural thing that the body does over and over again each day. In order to justify mentioning it on the page, there should be something special about that particular blink. So I find blinking to be acceptable when there’s something in the character’s, eye or when he’s trying to hold back tears.

As an editor, I see the use of blinking as an indicator of surprise to be a wasted opportunity. There is so much more that could be described to really push the surprise across to the reader to make it vividly drawn in her mind. Using blinking seems lazy.

So don’t blink.

Are there any editing issues you run into that you’d like covered in the Quick Edits series? Drop a comment below!

Keep writing,

Quick Edits: Action Scenes

Craft of Writing, Quick Edits, Writing

Quick Edits is a short feature where I give quick editing advice on how to handle common problems in fiction writing.

Let’s talk about writing action!

What Is Action and What Makes a Good Scene?

Action scenes are any scenes that require high tension and lots of movement by the characters. Obvious sorts of action scenes are fights and chases, but they’re not the only types of action scenes. Sex scenes are also action scenes.

Clarity and high tension are the hallmarks of an effective action scene. The reader should have absolutely no opportunity to put the book down. She should be grabbed and pulled through the scene with so much need that turning the page takes too long.

Action Scene Toolbox

Clarity

The reader must understand exactly what’s happening in the scene, so clarity of language is very important. You don’t ever want him to have to stop and reread things in order to envision who is doing what.

You want to use concise and vivid words. No wishy-washy descriptors, like “fast” or “large.” Instead, use “breakneck” or “colossal.” While a thesaurus will be useful in the case of substituting a word, don’t limit yourself to that. Consider whether rewording the sentence altogether would make for a more exciting and memorable description. Stretch yourself. Don’t take the easy way out.

Active and evocative verbs are your friend, but don’t go overboard and use so many or so unusual words that the pacing of the scene gets bogged down.

High tension

Writers have much more in their tool boxes than just words. One of the most effective tools for getting readers to feel what you want them to feel is sentence structure. When writing action scenes, you want to use shorter, punchy sentences. Simple noun-verb-object structures with the occasional phrase at the beginning or end.

Why? Because shorter, simple sentences are very easy to parse, and we can read them faster. Complex sentences make us slow down to make sure we understand what’s being said. In an action scene, you want the reader to read faster and not have to slow down. This serves the purpose of raising the tension. Used in conjunction with your actual writing — ie, how you describe what’s happening and the words you use — you get a bonus on top of the natural tension of the scene.

As a writer, you should use all the tools at your disposal to get the reader to feel what you want him to feel. 🙂

Are there any editing issues you run into that you’d like covered in the Quick Edits series? Drop a comment below!

Keep writing,

Quick Edits: Distancing

Craft of Writing, Quick Edits, Writing

Quick Edits is a short feature where I give quick editing advice on how to handle common problems in fiction writing.

Distancing is when you are using 3rd person limited or 1st person point of view and then use language, usually in descriptions, that distances the reader from that POV. Here’s an example:

She watched Thomas get out of the car.

If we are firmly in our character’s POV, we don’t need to be told that she’s watching. All we need is:

Thomas got out of the car.

We will know she watched that happen, because if we’re in her head and she didn’t watch him getting out of the car, we wouldn’t even get the action at all.

Another example:

As he closed the car door, he felt the chill of the metal on his palm.

Instead, consider:

As he closed the car door, the metal chilled his palm.

The first sentence is the author telling the reader what the character is feeling. Do you notice how we are pulled out of the character’s head? It puts a degree of separation between the reader and the character that you, as the author, may not want. In the second sentence, we are invited to experience the feeling along with the character, which, in my experience as reader and a writer, is infinitely preferable.

Words you can search your manuscript for that might identify distancing sentences:

  • Saw
  • Watched
  • Heard
  • Felt

There are others, but that is a start. Now, of course, not every instance of these words will need to be removed, but they should each be evaluated individually. Push yourself to think outside the box, to think about how a sentence can be phrased differently.

Pulling these words out of your writing encourages you to create better, more vivid and interesting sentences. This will make you a better writer.

And isn’t that the point? 🙂

Are there any editing issues you run into that you’d like covered in the Quick Edits series? Drop a comment below!

Keep writing,

Writing Groups, Critique Groups, & Masterminds, Oh My!

Writing

A couple weeks ago, I attended a new writing group. Not just new-to-me, but brand spanking, first meeting kind of new. Granted, I know all of the folks involved and call them all friend, but this configuration, this purpose, was new.

I’m always a little apprehensive of getting involved with writing groups or critique groups, because I’m often the one giving a lot more than I’m getting, simply because I’ve been working in publishing for a decade. But my challenges aren’t what I wanted to write about.

It used to be that the only way you really connected with other writers was by going to writing conferences or taking writing classes. And if you wanted to put together a support or critique group, you had to find a few people local to you. And just finding those people didn’t mean you’d have a good, quality group. There were still other obstacles, such as skill levels, personalities, scheduling, etc. It was easier just to find one writer and mail pages to each other.

But obviously now, things are a lot easier. There’s still the struggle of skill levels, personalities, and scheduling, but getting together as writing groups is a lot easier, because there are many different ways to “get together.”

Great Technology

I currently run a group called The Writing Tribe on Facebook (feel free to join, if you’re a writer who’s serious about your career 🙂 ). They don’t know this, but one of the things I want to do in 2018 is start a monthly chat (probably by video), where we teach each other things and have focused discussions and learnings about different aspects of writing.

And that leads us to one really powerful aspect of technology: the ability to communicate in real time over great distances. We no longer have to rely on whomever is in our area for writing groups. We can pick and choose the people we really want to work with, having regular online meetings and chats.

Not only can we get the support and camaraderie, but we can do critiques electronically, as well. And, really, electronic critiques and edits are the standard now, versus paper critiques. I don’t really know anyone who does paper critiques anymore.

How do you organize your group?

First, decide how often to meet. Once a week? Once a month? In person? Online? Some mix of cyber and meatspace?

Next, figure out what you want to do with the group. Will you just get together to work in the same room, everyone writing together and then taking short breaks to chat, get coffee, etc? Is it a focused critique group, where each person turns in pages well before the meeting and everyone critiques those pages? Is it a mashup with a little of both?

Our new writing group has decided that we will meet monthly and critique 2 people each meeting, and then use the rest of the time to write. However you choose to do it in your group is fine, so long as everyone is getting something they need out of the group. There’s no right way to do this.

What I’m kicking around for TWT is to have monthly online meetings and then planning a weekend retreat where people come in from all over and we learn, work, and play together. (This is all still in the very early stages of brainstorming, so don’t hold me to it! 😉 )

The biggest benefit to writing groups, whether they’re work groups, support groups, critique groups, or masterminds, is that it keeps us writing. It’s more difficult to “do it later” when we have a critique deadline coming up. We get inspiration from others of our tribe, which keeps us at the keyboard. The biggest benefit of a writing group is simply being among other writers. The automatic outcome is that we write more, we write better, and we achieve our goals.

In the end, how the writing group is structured matters less than the idea that everyone involved is getting what they need out of it.

Are you involved in any writing groups? How does it work for you and your peers?

 

 

 

Unless attributed otherwise, all images are CC0 licensed.

Quick Edits: Word Echoes

Craft of Writing, Quick Edits, Writing

Quick Edits is a short feature where I give quick editing advice on how to handle common problems in fiction writing.

This week we’re looking at word echoes. Word echoes can be used as a writing device to emphasize some aspect of the scene, character, or plot. Therefore, you don’t want accidental word echoes. You always want echoes to be a deliberate choice.

There are a couple different types of word echoes.

One type is crutch words. These are words that, as a writer, you lean on heavily, usually in first drafts. I keep a list of my crutch words (which includes “actually” and “smile,” also “so,” among others) and when I finish a first draft, I search on each of the words to see where I can change them up. Notice I didn’t say “find a different word.” We’ll talk about word choices in a minute.

A second type is words that commonly connect with each other in some way. This is an echo I began to recognize as I edited professionally. Words that have a natural opposite, like “up” and “down,” “in” and “out,” often find their opposites within a few lines. In my experience, it’s very common that if I see “on” somewhere in a sentence, “off” shows up, usually within three lines of it (and vice versa). And that pairing is usually repeated two more times within the next page or two.

A third type is simply when we use the same word too many times in too short a span. I find that I do this most often when I’m not in the zone of writing and just trying to get the words down on paper. I will usually mark it and come back to it later.

But the bigger issue is when we don’t see those echoes on the page. This is where beta readers can come in. I wrote a post on how to best utilize beta readers. One of my suggestions is to give beta readers specific things to watch for or comment on. So you can task one of your beta readers with watching for echoes. That is probably the easiest way to catch them. If you hire a professional editor, they will definitely catch those echoes. (If they don’t, you need a new editor 😉 )

A word about word choices

See what I did there? 🙂

When looking at word echoes and deciding how to fix them, don’t always go for a synonym to substitute for the offending word. Look at the entire sentence. When we echo, it’s a good indication of sloppy writing. Not necessarily bad writing, but when we wrote, we went for the easy words, the expected words. That’s why we echoed.

If you look at the sentence and can work out a way to revise the sentence itself so that the echoed word is no longer necessary, I will bet that the sentence you come up with is much better than the original sentence.

Why? Because the sentence was built with intent, rather than just tossed together in the midst of a writing sprint. Intentional writing is almost always better than off the cuff writing.

My advice: try not to think in terms of synonyms. Think in terms of recreating the sentence to get rid of the echo.

~

Are there any editing issues you run into that you’d like covered in the Quick Edits series? Drop a comment below!

Keep writing,

Okay, I lied! One quick post…

Writing

I know I said I wasn’t going to post til next week, but I just wanted to take a second to mention NaNoWriMo prep! If you’re going to be participating in National Novel Writing Month this year, come join us at The Writing Tribe for NaNo prep!

We just got started today. We’re talking about figuring out what we’re going to be writing and there will be a bunch of prep exercises in the coming weeks to get us poised to win NaNo in November.

So come join your tribe! 🙂

My Top 5 Most Useful Books About Fiction Writing

Craft of Writing, Writing

Let’s face it, writing a good story is hard. It’s entirely different from telling your best friend the story about what happened Friday night. Face to face stories are easier, because you have tone of voice and inflections, as well as body language, to help convey your meaning. With a novel or short story, you only have the words.

I am an addict. I admit it. I have more books on the craft of writing than my local library does, I’d bet. I use these books for my writing, of course, but also for when I’m editing or teaching other writers. I learn a lot from reading the stories of authors, but there’s also a place for an educational slant — for having an explanation of why something works.

To that end, I’m listing my Top 5 craft of fiction writing books. These books sit on the shelf right beside my desk. They’re always right there.

Now, these are the top 5, but they’re not in any specific order. You can’t really say that a book about creating character is better (or worse) than a book about writing a synopsis. They’re about different things. So while this is a Top 5 post, it’s not a ranked top 5.

Also, a while back, I wrote a post about my two favorite books on revision. Since I’ve already mentioned those, I’m not going to include them here.

And with all that said, here we go!

Writing the Breakout Novel

by Donald Maass

I got this book relatively early on in my fiction writing journey and it really opened my eyes to the idea that a book can be planned. Not in an outlining sort of way (which it can, of course, and which I was highly resistant to doing at the time), but in a larger-scale sort of way. From a 30,000 foot view, so to speak.

The purpose of the book is to write a novel that pushes past the mid-list and becomes a breakout seller. Think Harry Potter, The Martian, 50 Shades of Grey. A book that captures the minds of millions of people, rather than thousands or hundreds.

Donald Maass, who is a very successful agent who owns his own agency, identifies the things that he observes as pillars of a breakout novel. With section headings like Premise, Stakes, Time and Place, Characters, etc, this is a high-level view of story creation that every author can benefit from.

Beginnings, Middles & Ends

by Nancy Kress

What author hasn’t struggling with slogging through the middle of their novel? We’ve lost the bright, shiny feeling of the beginning and we’re not yet at the exciting, climactic end. There’s a reason many novels are abandoned in the middle. Fiction writing isn’t always easy.

Nancy Kress addresses all these things — the bright, shiny, the exciting, climactic, and the slogging — in her book. She gives authors tools on how to stay on track in their fiction writing, especially in the middle, which is arguably the longest part of a novel.

Each chapter ends with exercises designed to give writers practice in implementing the author’s suggestions. Some of the exercises involve reading and identifying things she’s discussed (such as reader expectations after the beginning), some involve writing, both new and assessment of current writing.

If you have trouble finishing your stories, you might find this book especially helpful.

Writing the Fiction Synopsis: A step by step approach

by Pam McCutcheon

If you’ve ever struggled with creating a synopsis, this book will be your savior! There are actually very few books on writing a good synopsis (compared to other writing topics). Mostly, writers are just expected to figure it out, maybe from talking to other writers, maybe by osmosis. In recent years, there have been a few more books (but only a few), yet this one, written almost twenty years ago and for most of that time the only book on synopsis writing, is still the gold standard.

McCutcheon takes you through the steps of writing a synopsis using three relatively well-known movies as her test subjects. She provides a number of worksheets to help you along, but that are also useful in the writing process, as well. She focuses not just on what should be in the synopsis, but also on tone and voice, as well.

This book also has exercises at the end of each chapter, but the result, if you do them all, is that you’ll have a synopsis by the time you’ve finished the book.

Characters & Viewpoint

by Orson Scott Card

This is probably one of my most recommended books. A lot of newer writers don’t understand the difference between omniscient point of view and 3rd person limited point of view, and so I often see a lot of what is called head-hopping: jumping from different points of view within the same scene, paragraph, or even sentence. This book explains those points of view very clearly, using a camera lens as illustration. I’ve seen more than one writer have an “Ah-ha!” moment after reading the section on viewpoint.


The guidance about character creation is also valuable, especially in conjunction with the character creation advice in the other books on this page. Card gives information about where characters come from and what makes for a good fictional characters. And then goes into more in-depth things, such as how the reader should feel about the character, what the stakes are for the character within the story, and transformations.

This is one of those books that I believe should be on every writer’s shelf!

Many Genres, One Craft: Lessons in Writing Popular Fiction

edited by Michael A. Arnzen & Heidi Ruby Miller

I’m a bit biased about this book, I admit, because I have an article in it called, “Demystifying What Editors Want.” However, even if I didn’t have work in it, I would still have this book by my desk.


It’s a collection of over eighty essays about everything about writing popular fiction, from craft topics to life balance topics to promoting and marketing. Contributors include authors from all over the genre spectrum, from smaller published authors to mid-list authors to heavy hitters like David Morrell (First Blood [Rambo] and others), Tom Monteleone (Borderland Books), Nancy Kress (her name should look familiar 😉 ), and Tess Gerritson (Harvest and others). I’ll sometimes pick it up and just choose an essay to read when I’ve got 5 minutes. There’s always something to learn.

I often joke that this is my MFA program in a $30 book (the Kindle version is only $10!). 🙂 This is a really comprehensive collection of experiences and advice from authors and editors working within the commercial fiction publishing industry.

Okay, so those are my Top 5 books for fiction writing. I’ve tried to choose books that run the gamut of information that authors need to know about, from character creation, to doing the writing, to stuff needed to get published.

What fiction writing books do you find indispensable? Drop a line down in the comments!

Keep writing!

Quick Edits: Pronouns

Craft of Writing, Quick Edits, Writing

Quick Edits is a short feature where I give quick editing advice on how to handle common problems in fiction writing.

Pronouns

If you have two or more people of the same gender in the same scene, it’s easy to use pronouns in a confusing way. (I’ll be using male/female pronouns in these examples, but neutral and non-gendered pronouns are also subject to this issue.)

Say Tina enters a room and sees her sister, Marcy, who has been missing since the day before.

She ran over and gripped her in a bear hug, and her bag fell onto the floor.

We might assume that the subject (she) is Tina herself. And that the first “her” is Marcy. But think for a moment. Couldn’t the subject (she) also be Marcy? The sentence works that way too. And then the first “her” would be Tina. And we have no idea, either way, which of them dropped their bag. See how that can be confusing?

I generally advise, at the very least on the sentence level, but it’s probably even more effective on the paragraph level, to choose one character for whom you’ll substitute pronouns.

So pick either Tina or Marcy as being the one that can have the pronouns. And the other, you’ll use her name. This doesn’t mean you can only use pronouns for that character.  You can still use the pronoun character’s name. Just don’t use pronouns for the non-pronoun character.

So the sentence could be changed to look something like this:

Marcy ran over and gripped her in a bear hug, and Tina’s bag fell onto the floor.

Or this:

Tina ran over and gripped her in a bear hug, and Tina’s bag fell onto the floor.

Or this:

Tina ran over and gripped her in a bear hug, and Marcy’s bag fell onto the floor.

See how the same sentence with ambiguous pronouns could be clarified to mean a lot of different things? We should shoot for clarity in our writing, and this is one that is really easy to flub up! But it’s a pretty simple fix, as you can see.

Are there any editing issues you run into that you’d like covered in the Quick Edits series? Drop a comment below!

Keep writing,

Quick Edits: Passive to Active Verbs

Quick Edits, Writing

Quick Edits is a short feature where I give quick editing advice on how to handle common problems in fiction writing.

Changing a passive verb to an active verb is pretty easy. Have a look:

She was sitting on the barstool.

She sat on the barstool.

 
Drop the “is” or “was,” take the -ing verb, make it an -ed verb, and you’ve got an active sentence.

He was laughing at the clown’s antics.

He laughed at the clown’s antics.

 

Which one would you be laughing at?
My answer: Neither. I’d be running! 😉
(Photo from the documentary, Pennywise: The Story of It)

Advanced tip: Once you’ve made your passive sentence into an active sentence, you might consider revising it to use an even more vivid word. Usually when we’ve written a passive sentence (often without realizing it), we haven’t chosen the most interesting verb, so it’s worthwhile to reassess when you’re rewriting the passive to active verbs.

Happy writing!