For Writers

Before becoming an author, I spent nearly two decades working as an editor. Below are some tips I've put together. (These tips appeared as blog posts on my original blog.)

Pet Peeves from a Voracious Reader

Being a former editor, I suppose I am a picky reader. However, I know from discussions with non-writer, non-editor friends that I am not alone in noticing certain anomalies in the books I’ve been reading lately. All of us writers want our readers to get swept up in the story instead of stopping and scratching their heads or flat out balking at our prose. Below, I’ll talk about a couple problems I’ve noticed and how to avoid them in your own work.

One thing I've observed recently is a rash of mixed-up and misspelled words. To help out the editing staff at your publishing house, look for the following and make sure you use the correct one:
  • amuck/amok—the former is a variant spelling of “amok,” meaning “a frenzy,” as in “running amok.” “Amok” is generally considered the standard spelling; using “amuck” is bound to raise eyebrows.
  • midrift—no such word. You want "midriff" (meaning the abdominal area).
  • peak/peek/pique—the first one means “a point”; the second means “to look furtively”; the third, when used as a verb means “to arouse,” (as in “to pique one’s interest”); when used as a noun, “pique” means a fit of anger (as in “she stomped out in a fit of pique”).
  • reek/wreak—the first one means "to smell"; the second means to carry out or inflict (as in "wreak havoc").
  • retch/wretch—the first means “to vomit”; the second means “a miserable person.”
  • vise/vice—the first is a clamp; the second is a moral failing. Note that British English uses “vice” as a variant spelling of “vise”; if you’re in the United States, use “vise” when you mean a clamp.
  • vise versa—no such phrase. You want “vice versa.”
Those are all I can think of off the top of my head. I’ll post more as I encounter them.

Another distraction I’ve run across is the same word or variants of it used over and over in a book. A book I read last week used “echo,” “tug,” “arch,” “quiet,” “loud,” “hard,” and “soft” or variants of them so many times that I began to be jarred out of the story—never a good thing. At one point, “arch” and its variants were used about a half dozen times in three pages. Although I enjoyed the story, I would have enjoyed it much more if I hadn’t been paying so much attention to the writing.

To catch this kind of repetition in your own work, read your manuscript aloud. My critique partner and I do this, and we’ve found it be quite effective. Of course, you will repeat common words, such as “he,” “she,” “it,” “and,” “the,” and so on; it’s the less-common words that you’re looking for. Once you start reading aloud, repetitions of those words will practically smack you in the face!

Happy Writing!
Dana Delamar

Too Much Information -- Enough Already!

Sometimes as writers we forget that our readers don’t love our subject as much we do. They read our books to go to different places and have different experiences, but unless you’re writing nonfiction or hardcore historical fiction, they probably didn’t pick up your book to learn all the intricacies of your research. It’s certainly tempting to tell your readers every single cool little detail you unearthed about your subject, but this leads to the dreaded info dump. It’s just as stinky as it sounds. And I’m as guilty of it as anyone. I’ve tried to hide it in dialogue, but that’s just barely disguising the lump of undigested info. Readers know it when they see it, and they skip it. They want a good story, not a history lesson.

However, readers do need to understand the world your characters inhabit and the rules of it. The best way to present this info is to explain it as you go—give them what they need, when they need it, and then stop! If you have something you’re just dying to share but that readers don’t have to know to enjoy your story, you can put it in an author’s note or on your website.

Likewise, backstory is another stinky critter that likes to jump into your story and leave behind big ugly wads of boring prose. Just say no. You don’t have to answer every question upfront; readers need a little mystery to keep them engaged and turning pages. Think breadcrumbs—drop in a line here or there, in narrative or dialogue, to give readers a relevant morsel of info. For example, as characters are talking, certain parts of the discussion may naturally spark a reminiscence or some thought from your POV character, and you can include that bit (as long as it’s not more than a few lines) interspersed with the dialogue. But be careful—you can definitely overdo it and make a conversation hard to follow and dull to read. Again, I’m guilty of this (that’s what revision is for, right?). A clue that you’ve got too much backstory is when you have a page or two where nothing is happening other than your character thinking. Take a hard look at those sections and decide what info you actually need and then how you can more actively present it.

But beware of sticking this info in dialogue in a clumsy way by having one character tell another something they already know. For example:

“As you know, Sergeant Jackson was fired yesterday.”
“Yeah, I wasn’t surprised. He was always going overboard in the pursuit of justice.”

Bleah! Better:

“Did you hear the news? Jackson got canned yesterday.”
“It’s about time. Zeke was a good cop, but damn, I got sick of warning him about hitting perps during interrogations.”

For an excellent writing exercise that will help you smoothly incorporate backstory, see http://fictionwriting.about.com/od/writingexercise1/ht/fowardmoving.htm.

Happy Writing!
Dana Delamar

Sneaky Cases of Telling When You Should Be Showing

I recently ran across an excellent tidbit from The Wordplay site about how to kick the telling habit with your verbs. Go read it now. Done? Good! I won't repeat what K.M. Weiland said here, but I'm throwing my two cents behind her. This advice helped me fix several flat spots in my book--scenes of high emotion that just weren't quite coming across for some reason. That reason, it turns out, is that I was telling the character's thoughts and feelings instead of showing them.

Other common "tells":
  • Adverbs in your dialog tags. If your dialogue is well-written, you usually don't need to tell the reader how to interpret it. If you find yourself using a lot of adverbs to describe your dialogue, go back and rework the dialogue. Often the problem is blah dialogue that doesn't convey meaning on its own. Sometimes the problem is a lack of nonverbal body language ("Dan crossed his arms," "She shrugged," or "Dennis eyed her up and down") to give the reader the context for what's being said--or what's not being said.
    • Bad: "I hate you!" she said angrily.
    • Better: "I hate you!" she shouted. (use tags other than "said" sparingly)
    • Best: "I hate you!" (the dialogue and exclamation point tell you how this delivered; if only two people are talking, you may not need to identify the speaker)
  • Too many adverbs or adjectives in your prose. Be on the lookout for adverbs (words ending in "-ly"). Frequently these words signal an imprecise choice of verbs. For example, instead of "walked slowly," try "ambled," "strolled," "shuffled," or (for a Western) "moseyed." These more precise verbs paint a picture, whereas the verb/adverb combination lies flat on the page. "Walked slowly" isn't exciting or interesting; it's commonplace and not that descriptive. 
    Likewise, adjectives can tell instead of show. An adjective I see used far too often in romance is "erotic." Too often if the writer tells me something is erotic, guess what? I'm not feeling it! But if the writer
    shows me that something is erotic, that's a whole different story. 
  • Characters who think something, then say it in dialogue. One or the other, not both. Better yet is when the character thinks something, and says something else.
Keep in mind there are times to tell rather than show. Show the things that are important, summarize the ones that aren't. For more on this subject, I refer you once again to the most-excellent Wordplay site and the article, "Show and Tell." 

Happy Writing!
Dana Delamar

2 comments:

  1. Very useful guidelines for the writers. Thank you for sharing for the world of writing.

    ReplyDelete
  2. You're welcome, Rathnashikamani! I'm glad you've found them useful.

    ReplyDelete