The “Great Idea” Concept

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It happened again.

I went to a party, struck up a conversation with a very nice guy, and when he found out I was a writer, he said the inevitable: “Really? I have a great idea for a book.”

I wish I had a pen for every time someone said that same sentence to me. I would never run out of ink again. Anyone can come up with a “great” idea. Most of the time, that idea has already been done. And if it hasn’t, a variation of it has. Listen up…your idea is not genius.

The genius lies in how you construct your idea. In other words…how you implement that idea into a story.

Let’s take an example…an easy one. Harry Potter. Boy has a special gift. Only he can destroy the enemy. In the end, he wins.

That plot has been around for centuries. (David and Goliath, anyone?) But J.K. Rowling masterfully creates an entire hidden world of witches and wizards around it. And she sprinkles mythology throughout…bringing the familiar into the fold.

The other part I love about people who want to let me know they have a “great” idea for a book…most of the time they add, “Tell you what. I’ll give you my idea, you can write it, and we’ll split the profit.”

Really? You will come up with an idea…maybe spend ten minutes on it…then I can spend the next two years crafting it into a publishable book…and we can split the money 50/50? How lucky for me I bumped into you!

I suppose we could make a deal. If you build houses, how about I design one, hand you the picture, you build it, and then we split the profit after it sells? Or, wait, how about this? If you own a restaurant, I’ll mention what should be on the menu, you make sure the chefs make those meals, and we will split the profit!

Sounds silly? Then how about this? Instead of sharing your “great” idea with me, you spend the next ten years learning how to write a book, then write the dang thing yourself.

Ninety-five percent of those people with “great” ideas won’t even try. Four percent will give up before they finish the story. But one percent will make a go of it. And perhaps a handful of those people will succeed.

But a full 100% will understand…writing is demanding. Having an idea is only a fraction of the work involved. Making that idea work throughout the entire novel and finding a satisfying conclusion involves patience, research, and many hours of sitting at a computer screen praying loose ends can be tied up and readers will find the story plausible.

So when people tell me they have a “great” idea for a book and maybe they should have me write it (and split the profits), I tell them that I have more than enough ideas in my head, thank you very much. But that if they truly believe in their idea, then they should sit down and start writing that book.

It’s not going to write itself.

This post can also be read on the LCRW site.

Structuring the Personal Essay

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One of the most difficult parts of writing a personal essay is learning how to craft a piece using proper structure. With my editing business I help people understand how structure works and how they can develop and maintain a thread or idea that pulls all of their paragraphs together. Here is an example of work by a writer who wants to break into essay writing. With his permission, I have included his original essay and my notes to him. The bold type portions are what I wrote in order for him (and you) to see where the paragraph transitions and subject matter can be improved. It’s his second draft.

Make Yourself
Written by: Aaronpaul
Dedicated to my aunt Julie

Have you ever wondered what it would be like for the world to go on without you? One day you’re here the next you’re gone. We all lose sleep thinking about death and what happens next. I want you to vision your very own wake and funeral. Take a look around what do you see? Lastly I want you to look beyond your burial and think about who you’ve inspired throughout your life. About: The imprint you are leaving behind.

I was recently driving home from an early evening workout at a local gym. I ended up taking a different route than normal for scene change. I drove past a cemetery that I knew quite well. A family member passed away and was buried in this particular cemetery. I noticed that the big gates at the entrance were still open; and I decided to pay my respects. About: Intention of visiting the grave of a relative.

It seems that in life we all make excuses that we are too busy for certain things and I felt that my excuse as a busy twenty four year old in 2013 has ran dry. So I proceeded to drive in through the gates in search for my aunt’s grave It’s a well-known fact that I tend to be incredibly forgetful so with that being said I couldn’t locate my aunt’s grave within this large Rochester cemetery realizing that it was starting to get late I abandon my search that evening and geared up to head home. About: Being unable to locate the grave and abandoning the idea of paying respect to an aunt.

Without realizing when the cemetery closed I realized that the two large gates at the entrance were now closed shut and locked. It was just my clumsy self to disregard a large sign saying “Cemetery closed at dusk” I let out a long and annoyed sigh followed by what I feel is an excess of swear words allowed in a cemetery. For whatever reasons beyond me the grounds keeper and maintenances personnel decided to drop the ball when it came to closing up that night and also completely disregarded a blue moving metal object with lights franticly driving around a park with relativity NO other significant movement Irony anyone? About: Feeling annoyed about being locked in a cemetery.

I often find myself in weird awkward situations so it was only fitting to post about my current situation on Facebook. We live in the social media age so might as well have a laugh about it but the realization of being along set in. I called my girlfriend and also let her know what just happened, with a few laughs and smart remarks I told her I would call her as soon as I was able to find a way out. About: Dealing with the situation using humor.

I began feeling that butterfly feeling not the “I just fell in love” feeling but the other one where you know you fu*ked up, like when your speeding and you see a cop behind and you don’t really know if there about to pull you over, The “Oh Shit”moment if you will. I realized I was alone in a park yet there were so many others surrounding me they just happen to be six feet lower. Never the less all of us we were all in the same predicament, caged in with the world moving around us. About: Addressing feeling uncomfortable and frightened. Comparing self to the dead.

I started to really think long and hard about my life and those who I’ve inspired and those who I’ve hurt along the way. I can admit that I am no angle and I am certainly no devil, I’m simply human and so are you. We’ll never really know who visits our grave; we can only inspire and leave behind positive energy and good vibes. I don’t think I need to say spoiler’s but spoiler’s I’m going to die and so are you, I don’t need to add a contrived “Webster Dictionary” definition of what death is for you to understand how valuable life is. About: Wondering about who you’ve inspired and addressing the audience in the same manner. Telling the reader he or she will die someday.

Whatever you design yourself to be is entirely up to you. Rather than changing to fit into whatever trends are current available why not make your own and let others follow. The world we live in needs more moral and decent leaders not followers. I’ll go on record saying F*ck Twerking, but however Miley started a movement, however you define her she got the world talking. About: Advising the reader to march to his or her own drummer. Bringing in Miley Cyrus as an example.

All we can control is who we inspire and what we leave behind. Our personalities and inspiration are two amazing tools we all have inside and those two things can drives a good creative culture so just remember inspire those around you. Even if certain people never will visit your grave your inspiration will never dissipate within them so speak freely, live dangerously and please above all… MAKE YOURSELF… About: Inspire people.

This is much better than what you wrote before because at least you are trying to achieve a goal in your essay, which seems to be advising people to become inspirational. However, if you read my summary of each paragraph, you will see that you aren’t sticking to one theme. I will lay it out for you here:

1) The imprint you are leaving behind.
2) Intention of visiting the grave of a relative.
3) Being unable to locate the grave and abandoning the idea of paying respect to an aunt.
4) Feeling annoyed about being locked in a cemetery.
5) Dealing with the situation using humor.
6) Addressing feeling uncomfortable and frightened. Comparing self to the dead.
7) Wondering about who you’ve inspired and addressing the audience in the same manner. Telling the reader he or she will die someday.
8) Advising the reader to march to his or her own drummer. Bringing in Miley Cyrus as an example.
9) Inspire people.

You will notice that you have not fulfilled your essay’s promise, which at the onset seems to be getting people to think about who they have inspired. You have actually worked much too broadly, and not given us an idea about what specifically you want to tackle insofar as the advice you wish to share goes. Also, who is your target audience? A 20-something has a limited audience when it comes to discussing life events, since most people older than you have already been through these emotions and thoughts and they are going to be further along in their discoveries than you are. Therefore, your target audience is likely to be teens. Now you will want to pick up teen magazines and see how the articles are written and how topics are handled.

Now you will probably want to re-organize your essay. Everything you write after your introduction needs to stick with the topic at hand. I don’t see why your dead aunt or being lost in a cemetery has anything to do with being an inspiration (unless you’re inspiring people to find out when the cemetery they’re visiting

1) An introduction about what you will accomplish in this essay regarding why it’s important to be a good role model.
2) Who has been a good role model for you and why.
3) How you have tried to model that person’s behavior.
4) What it did for you, both inward and outward.
5) How you tried to emulate that person, and how it inspired someone else.
6) How that made you feel.
7) Conclude by tying into the introduction by restating how important role models were to you, your role model, and the person you inspired.

That’s part one. Cleaning up the grammar, punctuation, sentence structure, etc. would come next. But first, see if this is an essay that would find a home somewhere. Go to the library or bookstore (or Internet, though most of those articles are written for very little, if any, money) and read the magazines that might take personal essays such as this. This is a good practice article for you, but you will probably want to write at least thirty more practice ones until you begin to get the hang of it. PLUS, you really need to read the articles that are being written right now. Pick up a few magazines. Review the subject matter, the way it’s written. Study the theme, the focus, the moral…whatever it is the author is trying to convey. Print it out and do what I did with your article. Break it down into what each paragraph is relating and see how it’s structured. Writing is a lot of work, and sooooo much goes into it.

5 Writing Myths

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As a writer, you’ve probably heard plenty of advice along your journey to publication. Advice can be very handy. It gives novices a framework of rules so they can improve on the craft. It gives intermediate writers a challenge. It even makes people feel as if they have come a long way in their writing once they’ve successfully followed the advice to the letter.

But I’ve found at least five pieces of advice that are thrown around like so much confetti. And what I’ve realized is that authors…popular, never-have-to-work-another-day-job-again authors…break these so-called rules, and no one says a thing! That’s right.The very rules editors, agents, critique buddies are claiming to be chiseled in rock I have discovered is really written in sand. So why have these rules been made when they can be swept asunder by frothy waves?

I’ll explain as I submit to you five of the biggest writing myths I’ve read about.

MYTH NUMBER 1: Never use -ly adverbs. That’s just lazy writing.

WHY IT AIN’T NECESSARILY SO: Middle grade authors use many -ly adverbs. As for other genres, I can pick up any book from my book shelf and find an -ly adverb lingering on one of its page, oblivious to the fact that it’s despised by so many in the writing industry. The truth of the matter is, so many novice authors overuse -ly adverbs to the point where the book sounds as if it’s all “telling” and no “showing.” By throwing that rule out there, it prevents wanna-be authors from giving a ho-hum narration. But can the occasional -ly adverb be used? Certainly! Especially if it prevents a sentence from becoming cumbersome or lasting longer than the taste of Wrigley’s Spearmint gum.

MYTH NUMBER 2: Always “show.” Never “tell.”

WHY IT AIN’T NECESSARILY SO: Most books contain some form of “telling.” A narrator might explain why they did something. Or an earlier event might need to be summarized quickly. (Note my use of the -ly adverb here.) The reason why this is a rule…and one that is repeated often, I might add…is because novice writers tend not to understand the difference between talking about what is happening and describing what is happening. The important point to remember is to use descriptive language that engages all of the senses, especially the part of us that becomes visually attuned to the action happening on the page.

MYTH NUMBER 3: Write what you want to write and don’t follow trends.

WHY IT AIN’T NECESSARILY SO: This is great advice if you don’t want to be published. The truth is, publishing houses are looking for the tried and true. If stories about talking octopuses become the next big thing, that is what editors will be buying. If you love to write about lesbian astronauts but lesbian astronauts are not a big hit in the industry, even if your story is amazing, no editor is going to hand over an offer. Sure, there is the Trend Setting Starter…and that may be you and your lesbian astronaut. But more likely than not, your manuscript will see nothing but rejection. If you want a more likely chance to find a home for your novel, you are going to write what has traditionally sold well, or something that is breaking into popularity.

MYTH NUMBER 4: Write what you know.

WHY IT AIN’T NECESSARILY SO: You think Stephen King really brought people back from the dead? Or that J.K. Rowling was a sorceress? Of course not. This is another rule that was made to prevent people from writing stories that have glaring errors. For example, someone might write a story involving politics, but not know the first thing about how government works, thus ruining the story’s credibility. Nowadays, information is at a writer’s fingertips via the Internet and with many hours of research and locating sources for interviews, anyone can write about any subject…and make it sound like an honest portrayal. So even if you’ve never flown an airplane, feel free to make your main character an airline pilot.

MYTH NUMBER 5: Throw out your first chapter.

WHY IT AIN’T NECESSARILY SO: Not every first chapter is terrible, yet the advice is to toss that first chapter out because “the real story begins at chapter 2.” Again, this advice is great for the newbie writer. So many first-timers begin their stories when the main character wakes up in the morning, rubs his or her eyes, and glances at the nightstand clock. The character then has a revelation, and the rest of the chapter explores this revelation. By chapter 2, things really pick up, and usually that’s when the reader feels a stir of interest. It’s no wonder the advice to toss the first chapter is so common. However, if you have started your novel at a place that introduces the problem, the character, and what is in the way of the character solving his or her problem, there’s no need to junk the first ten pages. In fact, the first ten pages may be crucial to understanding the story’s stakes.

So there you have it. 5 writing myths. Sure, every one of these tips can help you write a stronger, more suitable story or novel. But don’t let well-meaning critiquers blast you with these words of advice if you feel you know exactly what your doing and that some rules are all right to break as long as there’s good reason to do so. Remember, each of these rules have been etched in sand. As long as the tide is high and strong, they can be washed away.

(This post was originally published on the LCRW site.)

Your Friends Told You Not to Tell

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As a freelance editor and professional critiquer, I have discovered that most beginning writers struggle with the concept of “show vs. tell.” They nod, say, “Yeah, I get that.” And then still write: “She was sad and lonely.”

That’s “telling” language. “Showing” language would be: “Her eyes grew damp as she hugged her husband’s photograph to her chest.” And even that could be made more vivid. But notice I’m conveying her sadness and loneliness through action and description. That’s basically all you need to do to to prevent your story from feeling flat. Because “telling” is two-dimensional writing. The reader receives no payout from a story that’s written like a summary.

Hints that you are using telling include, but are not limited to: using –ly adverbs, using the words “feels like,” “seems to be,” “appears as if,” telling us what the person is feeling instead of showing their facial reactions, or explaining something the reader could deduce through dialogue or reaction.

Here’s an example of flat, summarized writing taken from something I wrote a long time ago:

I cried and tried to push her away, tried to kick her off, but it just made things worse for me until Mom finally came into the room and yanked Stacey off and sent her to her bedroom.

So what’s wrong with that sentence, besides being long and cumbersome? For one thing, it isn’t very interesting. “…it made things worse…” is a very generic statement. How did things become worse? What was the character thinking or feeling? And as for Stacey being yanked off the protagonist…How did Stacey react? Was their mother fed up, or astonished? We know nothing about anyone’s true emotional state throughout. So how would I change it?

Stacey grasped my hair, curled it around her evil fist and yanked. I howled, scratched at her face, tore at her neck. She screamed and let go, her face red, eyes big as those damn Peppermint Patties she was always cramming down her throat.

“You fat freak,” I hollered, trying to catch my breath. Her eyes narrowed, and she gave a tribal scream before head-butting me in the stomach, sending me backward onto my bed. My head thwacked the headboard. I gasped, kicked at her chubby belly.

Mom came through my bedroom door and growled, “What’s going on in here?” 

Stacey leaped on me, slugging me in the head, yelling, “You filthy piece of trash! You ugly moron from hell, go back to the hole you came out of!”

Mom grasped Stacey around the stomach and pulled her off me, the creases in her brow deeper than I’d ever seen. Her voice and Stacey’s fought for domination, I couldn’t decipher one from the other. I touched my head, felt for blood, but found none. meanwhile, Mom shoved Stacey out the door, threatening to call the police.

Although there’s more I could do to improve that text, you get the idea. It shows how things become worse. It shows the fight in detail. So much more interesting, don’t you think?

Look through your sentences. Are you informing the reader what he or she needs to know by stating it in a two-dimensional way? Or are you adding details and action to make the scene come alive for the reader? The first way will have the reader putting down the book to do something else. The second way will keep the reader rivted well past his or her bedtime.

Which type of writer would you rather be?

How To Start a Personal Writing Blog

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Many writing friends are interested in starting a blog, or maintaining one, and aren’t sure how to go about this. I read people’s blogs. Many, many blogs. I subscribe to very few, most of them being my friends’ blogs. But I will also follow blogs I find interesting. Here I will relay what, in my opinion, makes a great blog.

1) It has pictures. For some reason, it makes the blog less intimidating when blocks of wording are broken up by illustrations or photos. You’d think I’d incorporate this into my own blogs…hm. I do with some, but not others. If you don’t know how to add pictures to your blog, do the research on it. It’s a little tricky at first, but once you get the hang of it, it will be like falling off a bike. Yes, that easy.

2.) There is accurate, relevant information pertaining to the subject matter in which I’m interested. In my case, I love reading about authors/agents/editors, writing craft advice, new technology that can improve my writing career, and information on current trends with books and articles. For example, if someone has a column on writing contests, I will bookmark that blog site, or join it. Which leads me to my next point.

3) Post regularly. Some people post every week, others more often. In all honestly, I only read blogs sporadically, so I don’t care if you post every three months. But from what I’ve been reading regarding blogging tips is that posting on a regular basis can drive more traffic to your site. One of my blogs has nearly 8,000 hits, and I blog semi-regularly. But that’s because it has hard-to-find information on several topics. All food related. But if I posted more often, I’d probably have double, or even triple, that amount. Keep that in mind.

4) Some people have personal blogs that are more like a diary than information about a topic. That’s fine. Just know that unless you are living an extremely interesting life (mob wife, anyone?) people won’t be that drawn to it. The sad truth is that no one is as interested in you than you are. Although if you’re another David Sedaris and can write humorous essays about your life, then you may find a large audience. And perhaps a book deal. My point is, feel free to write whatever you like, but realize that the blogs with a larger following often have information that helps the reader understand something better, or provides loads of information on a specific subject.

5) Good writing is essential. I cannot stand when a writer consistently messes up tenses, doesn’t know the difference between their/there/they’re, can’t spell (even when spell-check is available). I’m not alone. If grammar is not a strong suit, have someone else with this skill look it over for you before you publish your post.

6) Use tags to help people find your blog. The tags I will use on this are: writing advice, blogging advice, and personal blog.

7) Include a bio of some sort. Even if you want to remain anonymous. Why? Because it introduces your background, gives insight on the type of blog you’re writing, and provides credibility. Make it short and to the point. Too long and you’ll lose your reader.

8) Know the audience for whom you’re writing. If the blog is for teens, you need to relate to a teen audience from their viewpoint. If you’re a fifty-year-old man and you reach out like a fifty-year-old man, you are going to lose your teen audience. (I am not talking pedophiles here, folks. I’m talking about someone who writes teen novels and wants his fans to read his blog so he can sell more books. Had to get that straight.)

9) Most importantly, you want to engage the reader. This means using lively verbs, doing away with passive sentences, avoiding lengthy explanations, and only posting your best, most fascinating stories/essays/articles.

10) Last, but not least, make sure you tell your friends you have a blog. Make sure there is a place for people to comment on your posts, and check back frequently to respond to people’s comments. I cannot stress this enough. People like interaction. They want you to know they read your blog, and in turn, that you read their comment.

So there is my advice for blogging. If you have any other advice, feel free to add it in my comments section. 😉

Details That Increase Interest

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Cristina Wilhelm sent me this scene to revise. In response to a few questions I had regarding the piece, she told me that:

 

1) This scene takes place in the middle of the story

2) The character, Andrea, is in the 2nd grade and she has a stuffed bear named Kevin

3) Her brother, Rusty, is in his early teens

 

Here is the original scene:

Kevin and Andrea stood in the foyer of their house.

                  “Thanks for getting Kevin back for me.”

                  “Sure. I couldn’t stand my little sister complaining about it anymore.”

                  Two headlights shined passed the window as a car pulled up in the driveway.

                  “Oh no, mom and dad are back from the movies. You’re supposed to be asleep.”

                  “I don’t care what mom and dad say: you’re the best babysitter ever.”

                  She kissed his cheek. Before she ran up the stairs, he pulled off her afghan so she

wouldn’t trip on it.

                  Thinking fast, Rusty tossed the afghan over the back of the couch and grabbed his laptop

from the dark wooden table in the living room. Leaning back on the couch, he started to play

solitaire.

                  “Nice to see you’re still up,” said his mother.

                  Rusty looked up from the screen.

                  “How was the movie?”

                  “It wasn’t as good as I expected, but we still had a good time. Was Andrea much

trouble?” asked his father.

                  “No, she calmed down once she roped me into playing with her dolls. Please don’t tell

anyone about that or no one will ever speak to me again.”

                  “You’re secret’s safe with us,” his father said.

                  “Andrea told me that you guys think I’m not a good babysitter. What do you think of me

now?”

                  His mother looked around the room before she answered his question.

                  “Well, things aren’t scattered all over the house and you didn’t call us asking us to come

home as soon as you started arguing with your sister,” said his mother.

                  “Plus your voice isn’t hoarse from arguing, so I think you’re making progress.”

                  His mother nodded and said goodnight, with her husband following her upstairs.

Let me break this scene down into bite-sized chunks. Since I only know some details, I may be adding information that may not be in the original story. But this is for educational purposes only, and Cristina can revise her work with different features/description if need be.

Let’s start with the beginning of the scene. Clearly, something important has happened for Andrea. What I learned through Cristina was Andrea’s friend, Fiona (I love that name!), pretended to lose Kevin so she could keep him at her house longer. (I actually have a true story about something like this that happened to me when I was a kid that I will be posting on my author blog soon: www.klgore.com.) Andrea no longer trusts Fiona.

Okay, here’s the scene’s beginning:

                   Kevin and Andrea stood in the foyer of their house.

                  “Thanks for getting Kevin back for me.”

                  “Sure. I couldn’t stand my little sister complaining about it anymore.”

Here is our first dilemma: Whose story is this? Does it belong to Rusty or Andrea? Most middle grade or YA contemporary fiction uses one POV (point of view). If this story is from Andrea’s point of view, it will be written a lot differently than if it’s from Rusty’s point of view. Why? Because your audience will differ. A teen won’t likely want to pick up a book with an eight-year-old protagonist. And a middle grade reader won’t be reading a book about a teenager…especially since most teen fiction is rather edgy and I’d like to think most parents aren’t ready to let their munchkins read passage upon passage of teen angst and hook ups.

Because one of the problems seems to be about Andrea losing her stuffed bear to a friend, it could be Andreas’s story. Teens aren’t interested in reading about an adventure dealing with toy trouble. An exception would be if Rusty was, say, eleven or twelve and this was a middle grade story about his proving himself to family and friends. A teen book would center on friendship, romance, the problems teens face (drugs, alcohol, sex, etc.) and/or serious family issues (alcoholism, divorce, adultery, etc.).

I have a feeling that Cristina intended for this to be Rusty’s story, though. So in order to make the story age appropriate, my first suggestion is making Rusty twelve or even twelve-and-a-half. Now I need to give him a voice that makes him sound like a pre-teen boy. I happen to know many boys this age personally, and I happen to know somewhere around eight boys learn the art of sarcasm. They also have a need to prove themselves, and sometimes say inappropriate things because they’re sense of humor is beginning to develop.

Second dilemma: The first sentence doesn’t tell us much. We could really enliven this with a few active verbs and description. Also, there is dialogue, but we can’t tell what tone this dialogue is in. Things could really be different if Andrea says thanks sarcastically, and Rusty gives it back to her equally snide. But I have the feeling this is supposed to be a sweet moment. So here is how I would change this section (note the pre-teen voice):

Andrea clutched her bear to her chest so hard I thought the stuffing might poop out its rear. “Thank you, thank you, thank you, Rusty. I thought Kevin was gone forever.”

                  She stared up at me with her big brown eyes. Even though getting that stupid toy back for her was about as fun as catching my thumb in a car door (which only happened twice and wasn’t my fault either time), I felt pretty good. No, scratch that. I felt awesome. I patted the bear’s head. “Don’t worry about it. Just doing my job.”

I added personality to Rusty’s narrative voice by using first person. I made Andrea sound younger. More thankful. On to the next part of this scene:

                  Two headlights shined passed the window as a car pulled up in the driveway.

                  “Oh no, mom and dad are back from the movies. You’re supposed to be asleep.”

                  “I don’t care what mom and dad say: you’re the best babysitter ever.”

                  She kissed his cheek. Before she ran up the stairs, he pulled off her afghan so she

wouldn’t trip on it.

                  Thinking fast, Rusty tossed the afghan over the back of the couch and grabbed his laptop

from the dark wooden table in the living room. Leaning back on the couch, he started to play

solitaire.

Nice detail about the headlights shining into the window’s glass. But my first question is, didn’t they shut the drapes? Or was the light coming through sheer curtains? Then again, they’re in the foyer…maybe it has those long windows on either side of the door? Next to characterization and plot, the setting needs to take center stage. We need to know details…but yet not burden the story with too much description. It takes a steady hand, my friends. It’s a balance of proportion. Think of it this way: the amount of description needs to equal its importance. In a detective novel, you may need to describe a room that the inspector enters. The more important the observation needs to be, the more time one needs to spend on what it looks like. Here, we only need to give indication of how the kids know their parents have arrived home. But we also need to see what it looks like to the characters, and what it does to them after this harrowing evening of hide and seek with a stuffed bear.

Headlights passed through the sheer curtains on our side windows, striping Andrea’s small face with their glow. “They’re back!” I grabbed Andrea by the shoulders. Pushed her toward the hallway. “You’ve got to get into bed! Pretend you’re asleep!” I yanked the afghan off her shoulders. “Hurry!”

                  She started toward the stairs, but then she wheeled around, reached up, and pecked me on the cheek, which is something I wouldn’t normally let her do. But I guess this time was okay, seeing I nearly cost myself some serious babysitting money. Not to mention my parents’ trust.

                  Andrea pulled away and ran up the steps calling over her shoulder, “You’re the best babysitter ever, Rusty!”

                  “Yeah, whatever,” I said. My face grew hot, but to be honest, I was pretty darn proud. I was the best babysitter ever.

                  Andrea’s bedroom door slammed shut upstairs. I tossed the afghan across the back of the couch and turned on the Wii. I had just started up Star Wars III when Mom and Dad rushed through the door.

You’ll notice I gave him a boys’ game to play. I have yet to meet anyone under the age of thirty who plays Solitaire. Plus, we feel how Rusty is trying to rush Andrea to bed by the punchy, swift sentences. And I gave Rusty emotion (embarrassment, humbleness) that he quickly tried to cover up. Typical boy stuff. Small details that bring the piece to life. Here is the last section:

                  “Nice to see you’re still up,” said his mother.

                  Rusty looked up from the screen.

                  “How was the movie?”

                  “It wasn’t as good as I expected, but we still had a good time. Was Andrea much

trouble?” asked his father.

                  “No, she calmed down once she roped me into playing with her dolls. Please don’t tell

anyone about that or no one will ever speak to me again.”

                  “You’re secret’s safe with us,” his father said.

                  “Andrea told me that you guys think I’m not a good babysitter. What do you think of me

now?”

                  His mother looked around the room before she answered his question.

                  “Well, things aren’t scattered all over the house and you didn’t call us asking us to come

home as soon as you started arguing with your sister,” said his mother.

                  “Plus your voice isn’t hoarse from arguing, so I think you’re making progress.”

                  His mother nodded and said goodnight, with her husband following her upstairs.

Here is where Cristina interjects humor…the way Rusty quickly informs his parents not to let anyone know he played dolls with his sister. The way his mother jokes about the place remaining tidy and how he didn’t call them to complain. But I think we could punch this up, plus give his parents real dimension. Let’s start with finding personalities for his parents. Let’s start with his dad. Fathers and sons have a unique relationship. Men are typically boys’ role models. His father might be the type to joke around and tease his son. Maybe ruffle his hair and punch his shoulder. Moms are usually much more serious. They’re the ones to grow impatient with fart jokes and armpit burps. If this is a book about his relationship with his parents, I would recommend making the parents non-typical stereotypes. Mom might be a fortuneteller, always trying to read Rusty’s mind but getting it wrong. Dad might be preoccupied with songs because he writes jingles for commercials. How can you make the parents fit your book? What kind of personality can you give them? Here’s the non-typical parents dealing with coming home from a night out after putting their pre-teen son in charge of their young daughter:

“You’re still up?” Dad asked me, closing the door behind him. He raised an eyebrow. Turned around to stare at the door. Opened it again. Shut it. “Did that sound off to you?” he asked.

                  I decided to say something before Dad got out the sander. “I got caught up in Wii.” I yawned so they’d think I’d been playing for a while.

                  Dad opened and shut the door again. “Too much moisture, maybe,” he mused, opening the door and stroking the doorjamb.

                  “Henry, you open and close that door one more time, and I swear…” Mom held up a fist. “To the moon.”

                  Dad laughed. “Nice one. The Honeymooners, right?”

                  Mom patted his arm. “Yep. But I’m serious. No more playing around with the door.”

                  I turned off the Wii and dropped the remote on the coffee table. “Now that you’re home, I can go to bed.”

                  The door made a muffled thump as Dad closed it. “Sometimes humidity swells the wood. You didn’t turn off the air conditioning, did you Rusty?”

                  If only he knew what I’d been through, he’d know I didn’t have time to play around with temperature controls. “No.”

                  Mom reached into her purse. “Okay, everything seems in order. The house looks clean. I’m going to assume Andrea is fine since there are no police cars in the driveway.”

                  “That was earlier this evening,” I joked.

                  Mom eyed me, lips a narrow line.

                  “Kidding.”

                  “Uh huh.” She withdrew a bill from her purse. “Before I hand this chunk of change over, go over everything that happened tonight, starting with the second we left.”

                  I groaned. Only Mom would want to know every detail. “Andrea and I played with her dolls…”

                  Dad frowned. “Dolls, Rusty?”

                  “Okay, pretend you didn’t hear that one. And then we read books. Had a snack. Then a big time adventure after which I sent her to bed.” A no-lie account of the night. I hoped Mom wouldn’t press for more information about the adventure.

                  Dad turned away and reached for the doorknob. “Let me just listen to the door one more…”

                  “The door is fine, Henry.”

                  “Common sense tells me this will only get worse. What if it gets stuck?” Dad jiggled the doorknob.

                  Mom winked at me. “Common sense has nothing to do with it. When I say he’s wrong, he’s wrong.”

                  Dad stopped fiddling with door to think. “Beverly Hillbillies?”

                  “I love Lucy.” Mom grinned. “Ha. I stumped you. And enough with the door, it’s late.” She dropped a twenty into my waiting palm. “Good job, sweetie.” She kissed the top of my head.

                  Dad patted me on the back. “I knew deep down you’d be able to handle the job. Your mom? Not so much.”

                  Mom gave him a playful kick in the butt. “You stop filling his head with silly ideas.”

                  “But I did okay, didn’t I?” I asked, wanting to hear the affirmation one more time.

                  “Anytime we come home and the house is still standing, I’d say yep, you did great.” Mom slipped past me to the stairs.

                  “Sure. No fire trucks in the driveway. And no stitches. Proud of you, son.” Dad followed Mom upstairs.

                  I glanced at the twenty in my hand. The teddy bear fiasco was totally worth it.

I have rewritten this assuming the parents have an important role in the story, which they often do in middle grade stories. IF, for some reason, they didn’t play a big role, I wouldn’t put in so many details about them. But giving parents eccentricities can a) add to the protagonist’s problems b) add humor c) give the story depth and strengthen the overall message and d) make it fun for both you and the reader. But use caution…don’t stick a few funny parental moments in your story without good reason. Every scene must have a reason for being in the story, or else take it out, no matter how lovely it may be.

So here is the improved (in my opinion) scene:

                  Andrea clutched her bear to her chest so hard I thought the stuffing might poop out its rear. “Thank you, thank you, thank you, Rusty. I thought Kevin was gone forever.”

                  She stared up at me with her big brown eyes. Even though getting that stupid toy back for her was about as fun as catching my thumb in a car door (which only happened twice and wasn’t my fault either time), I felt pretty good. No, scratch that. I felt awesome. I patted the bear’s head. “Don’t worry about it. Just doing my job.”

                  Headlights passed through the sheer curtains on our side windows, striping Andrea’s small face with their glow. “They’re back!” I grabbed Andrea by the shoulders. Pushed her toward the hallway. “You’ve got to get into bed! Pretend you’re asleep!” I yanked the afghan off her shoulders. “Hurry!”

                  She started toward the stairs, but then she wheeled around, reached up, and pecked me on the cheek, which is something I wouldn’t normally let her do. But I guess this time was okay, seeing I nearly cost myself some serious babysitting money. Not to mention my parents’ trust.

                  Andrea pulled away and ran up the steps calling over her shoulder, “You’re the best babysitter ever, Rusty!”

                  “Yeah, whatever,” I said. My face grew hot, but to be honest, I was pretty darn proud. I was the best babysitter ever.

                  Andrea’s bedroom door slammed shut upstairs. I tossed the afghan across the back of the couch and turned on the Wii. I had just started up Star Wars III when Mom and Dad rushed through the door.

                  “You’re still up?” Dad asked me, closing the door behind him. He raised an eyebrow. Turned around to stare at the door. Opened it again. Shut it. “Did that sound off to you?” he asked.

                  I decided to say something before Dad got out the sander. “I got caught up in Wii.” I yawned so they’d think I’d been playing for a while.

                  Dad opened and shut the door again. “Too much moisture, maybe,” he mused, opening the door and stroking the doorjamb.

                  “Henry, you open and close that door one more time, and I swear…” Mom held up a fist. “To the moon.”

                  Dad laughed. “Nice one. The Honeymooners, right?”

                  Mom patted his arm. “Yep. But I’m serious. No more playing around with the door.”

                  I turned off the Wii and dropped the remote on the coffee table. “Now that you’re home, I can go to bed.”

                  The door made a muffled thump as Dad closed it. “Sometimes humidity swells the wood. You didn’t turn off the air conditioning, did you Rusty?”

                  If only he knew what I’d been through, he’d know I didn’t have time to play around with temperature controls. “No.”

                  Mom reached into her purse. “Okay, everything seems in order. The house looks clean. I’m going to assume Andrea is fine since there are no police cars in the driveway.”

                  “That was earlier this evening,” I joked.

                  Mom eyed me, lips a narrow line.

                  “Kidding.”

                  “Uh huh.” She withdrew a bill from her purse. “Before I hand this chunk of change over, go over everything that happened tonight, starting with the second we left.”

                  I groaned. Only Mom would want to know every detail. “Andrea and I played with her dolls…”

                  Dad frowned. “Dolls, Rusty?”

                  “Okay, pretend you didn’t hear that one. And then we read books. Had a snack. Then a big time adventure after which I sent her to bed.” A no-lie account of the night. I hoped Mom wouldn’t press for more information about the adventure.

                  Dad turned away and reached for the doorknob. “Let me just listen to the door one more…”

                  “The door is fine, Henry.”

                  “Common sense tells me this will only get worse. What if it gets stuck?” Dad jiggled the doorknob.

                  Mom winked at me. “Common sense has nothing to do with it. When I say he’s wrong, he’s wrong.”

                  Dad stopped fiddling with door to think. “Beverly Hillbillies?”

                  “I love Lucy.” Mom grinned. “Ha. I stumped you. And enough with the door, it’s late.” She dropped a twenty into my waiting palm. “Good job, sweetie.” She kissed the top of my head.

                  Dad patted me on the back. “I knew deep down you’d be able to handle the job. Your mom? Not so much.”

                  Mom gave him a playful kick in the butt. “You stop filling his head with silly ideas.”

                  “But I did okay, didn’t I?” I asked, wanting to hear the affirmation one more time.

                  “Anytime we come home and the house is still standing, I’d say yep, you did great.” Mom slipped past me to the stairs.

                  “Sure. No fire trucks in the driveway. And no stitches. Proud of you, son.” Dad followed Mom upstairs.

                  I glanced at the twenty in my hand. The teddy bear fiasco was totally worth it.

Next, I’d go over this to tighten it wherever possible. There are places I could rearrange the sentences, find better word choices, etc. But the gist of what I needed to do for improvement is there. I created stronger characterization by putting this story in first person POV and adding personal details and giving Rusty’s narration a boy’s voice. I introduced parental figures that had their own personalities and idiosyncrasies. And I increased the emotional impact between Rusty and his sister, but also with his emotions around wanting his parents to see him as a responsible kid. Cristina wrote a good first draft. By fleshing out setting and characterization, I’ve provided a decent second draft. The next few drafts will improve it further. If you have any scenes that have not been changed or revised, consider returning to those scenes and ask yourself: 1) What can I do to strengthen a character’s personality? 2) Are there any “dead spots”? (Places that could use some oomph.) 3) Are the supporting characters important? Have I given them depth, differing personalities, and a reason for being in the story? 4) Is the setting obvious? What would my character notice about the space around him? How can I use that space to my advantage?

As they say, it’s all in the details.         

 

 

Pacing Problems

Standard

I came home from school with a headache. The kids seemed to be getting rowdier everyday.

I suddenly remembered I’d have to get Rellie’s homework to her, so I grabbed her books and headed for her house, not really looking forward to going. Things had changed so much and so fast.

I strolled slowly to Rellie’s house, then knocked hesitantly on the door. Her grandmother answered it.

“Why, hello there…uh…Kris? Yes, Kris, it’s been such a while, I almost forgot your name!” she said.

I wasn’t sure if she was being sarcastic or not.

“Um, yeah, well, I brought Rellie’s homework.” Then I added, in case she was wondering, “she asked me to bring it over.”

“Ah, yes. Well, why don’t you take it up to her.” she smiled. “Rhematism.” was her excuse.

I took it as a hint.

“No, no, no.” I dropped the books on a chair and turned to leave, but then she spoke.

“Oh, please, couldn’t you talk to Rellie. She’s been so out of it recently. I’m very worried.” She was wringing her hands.

Now, in any other situation if someone had tried to change my mind for me, I would have stuck to my grounds and portly refused, but there was Rellie’s grandmother, looking horribly old and fragile just begging for my help. What else could I do but grab the work and trudge upstairs.

I knocked on Rellie’s bedroom door, waited for a reply, then, when I got no reply, opened the door.

Rellie was sitting in a rocking chair looking out a window. Her back was to me, so I said her name, softly at first, then a little louder.

She didn’t move, so I walked over to her and placed a hand on a shoulder.

She had that blank, unseeing look on her face again, and she was clutching a stuffed animal. A baby lamb with a pink bow on its head.

Ah, my teen self was trying very hard to set a mood. I can tell by the way I tried to give the characters some hesitancy. But I flopped, because my pacing really sucks. First of all, why so much set-up in the beginning? We can clean it up. Let’s change the first part. Here is the original:

I came home from school with a headache. The kids seemed to be getting rowdier everyday.

I suddenly remembered I’d have to get Rellie’s homework to her, so I grabbed her books and headed for her house, not really looking forward to going. Things had changed so much and so fast.

I strolled slowly to Rellie’s house, then knocked hesitantly on the door. Her grandmother answered it.

My first problem is the “rowdier” part. Sounds too adult…and remember, I was a kid when I wrote this, so something is amiss, and I’d make bets it’s the books I’d been reading. Back in the 80s, literature didn’t often cater to people under thirty. I’d been reading The Call of the Wild and The Heart is a Lonely Hunter at school. These were my influences. Nowadays, teens read books filled with characters that think and act like teens. So we need to give this story more of a teen feel and leave “rowdier” out of it.

Next, why did I spend so much time explaining about needing to get the homework and heading for Rellie’s house? Why not start the scene at Rellie’s doorstep? So here is how I’d change this portion:

Why did I agree to bring Rellie her homework? God, what an idiot. What if she answered the door? What would I say to her? Could I just hand her the worksheets and leave, or did she expect me to stick around for a while?

I felt dumb just standing around on Rellie’s porch staring at the door, so I sucked it up and pressed the doorbell. Maybe I’d get lucky and Rellie wouldn’t be home. Sorry, I’d tell her teachers, she wasn’t around. I tried.

But then the door opened.

Now I’ve created a little tension, I’ve shown characterization, and gave it some teen vibrancy. The pacing feels quicker because I’m showing how the character feels, not telling the reader what Kris (my character’s name) is going through.

Okay, the next passage:

“Why, hello there…uh…Kris? Yes, Kris, it’s been such a while, I almost forgot your name!” she said.

I wasn’t sure if she was being sarcastic or not.

“Um, yeah, well, I brought Rellie’s homework.” Then I added, in case she was wondering, “she asked me to bring it over.”

“Ah, yes. Well, why don’t you take it up to her.” she smiled. “Rhematism.” was her excuse.

I took it as a hint.

“No, no, no.” I dropped the books on a chair and turned to leave, but then she spoke.

“Oh, please, couldn’t you talk to Rellie. She’s been so out of it recently. I’m very worried.” She was wringing her hands.

The first problem I have is that the dialogue sounds stilted and unrealistic. Obviously there are problems with grammar and capitalization as well, but my teen self wants to remind everyone this was a first draft written on paper, and it wasn’t something I went through and tried to fix. Okay, now that my teen ego is soothed, let’s change the pacing by showing character emotion and some strong dialogue.

You might think that the best way to quicken pace is to make this part shorter, but not so! Pacing is not determined by length. It’s determined by what is happening within the story. You can make a story drag by putting in too many details, or repeating information. In this case, the pacing lags in some places, is too quick in others. Let’s even it out.

“Kris!” Rellie’s grandmother stuck her hands on her hips and leaned back. Looking me up and down, the way old people like to do when they’re checking out how much you’ve grown, she said, “Feels like I haven’t seen you in ages. What have you been up to?”

Mrs. Whitfield’s over-eagerness sent goosebumps up my arms. “Uh…I have Rellie’s homework.” I pushed the worksheets at her, hoping she’d take them and I could get the hell out of there. A stink like rotting oranges drifted to my nostrils, and my stomach wanted to rebel.

She didn’t take the papers. Instead, she opened the door wider. “Go ahead and bring them to her. She’s in her room. I know she’d love to see you.” The catch in her voice betrayed her intentions.

I know, I wanted to tell her. You don’t want to be alone with her, either.

“I don’t think so. I have stuff to do.” I pressed the papers into her hand. This time she took them. “Sorry.”

She grasped my arm before I could turn away. “Please,” she said, voice so low it was barely audible. “Please go see her.” Her eyes watered. “I don’t know what to do anymore. I don’t know what to say. If you could—”

“I can’t.” I shook off her hand. “I don’t know what to say either.”

A tear slid down her face, disappeared into the folds of her cheek. “Yesterday she stole my blood pressure pills. Took them right from my purse, as if I wouldn’t notice. It’s the first cry for help, you know.”

The rotting oranges filled my throat, my stomach. My head began to throb. “She’s not going to commit suicide,” I said. Though what did I know? I couldn’t even talk to Rellie anymore. I didn’t have the words to make her feel better. How would I know whether or not she’d take her own life?

“She needs friends,” Mrs. Whitfield continued as if she hadn’t heard me. Her voice became hard. “She needs you.”

I added more to this part of the scene, and yet it feels the pacing works better than my previous attempt. There’s tension. Emotion. A greater understanding of each character’s motivation. And that keeps the pacing from lagging.

Here’s the next part I need to revise:

Now, in any other situation if someone had tried to change my mind for me, I would have stuck to my grounds and portly refused, but there was Rellie’s grandmother, looking horribly old and fragile just begging for my help. What else could I do but grab the work and trudge upstairs.

I knocked on Rellie’s bedroom door, waited for a reply, then, when I got no reply, opened the door.

Rellie was sitting in a rocking chair looking out a window. Her back was to me, so I said her name, softly at first, then a little louder.

She didn’t move, so I walked over to her and placed a hand on a shoulder.

She had that blank, unseeing look on her face again, and she was clutching a stuffed animal. A baby lamb with a pink bow on its head.

First of all, I can’t help but laugh at my word choice. Portly? Maybe if this story was set in the eighteenth century that would work, but modern teen language does not contain odd phrases such as “portly refused.” Although I’m impressed my teen self used such a term.

Next to consider: In my first draft I was definitely establishing motivation as to why Kris decided, against her better judgment, to visit Rellie upstairs. And it really isn’t written all that terribly, though in my revised piece I’ve made the motivation stronger because the word suicide is hanging in the air between Kris and Mrs. Whitfield. Certainly Kris can’t back out now. She’d be a jerk to do so. And we can’t have a jerky protagonist. Who wants to spend hours with a callous, unlikeable, rude character? Not the reader (unless you give your callous, unlikeable, rude character a redeemable quality, but more on that another time).

So we can move onto the scene where Kris visits Rellie. Notice the repetition: “waited for a reply, then, when I got no reply.” Repetition slows pacing, remember? We need to streamline that part. Let’s also up the stakes for our protagonist and the tension within the scene. How? Let’s give our protagonist good reason to not want to open the door.

She was right. Rellie needed a friend. I couldn’t pretend she was going to get better by remaining alone. I took a deep breath. “Okay. I’ll see Rellie.” I took the worksheets from Mrs. Whitfield.

She clasped her hands to her chest and glanced toward the ceiling. “Thank you,” she whispered. I wasn’t sure if she was thanking God or me.

I trudged upstairs. The banister was sticky. Like it had recently been waxed. I pulled my hand away. Wiped it on my jeans.

When I came to the landing, I stopped to listen. There was no sound. No television blaring, no music playing. Eerie silence. An old sticker with a smiley face grinned at me from Rellie’s door, one eye torn in half. It was winking at me, daring me to enter.

What if I walked in and found Rellie lying on the floor, bleeding from a gash in her wrist? Or hanging from the ceiling with a belt?

My half-digested lunch threatened to come up. I squeezed my eyes shut. I couldn’t do this. I couldn’t walk in and see my best friend dead.

I opened my eyes. The smiley face mocked me.

She’s not dead, I tried to tell myself. She wouldn’t. She’s stronger than that. Remember when the guy she was crushing on stole her lunch and tossed it in the garbage? She didn’t freak out, didn’t cry, bitch, or moan. She plotted. After school she slipped into the boys’ locker room and drew his naked likeness on his locker, making sure to feature his tiniest parts. That’s not the sign of a weak person.

But was suicide for weak people? I didn’t know. Seemed to me you had to have guts to go through with it.

Damn it. Why was this so hard?

I knocked on her door. When there was no answer, I opened it, holding my breath and bracing myself for the worst.

The room was cold. Like death. I shivered. The window was open all the way, the curtains waving with the harsh breeze. Standing in front of it, her back to me, was Rellie.

She wasn’t dead. I let out the air my lungs held and felt the blood drain back into my face. “Hey, Rellie.”

She didn’t turn around.

I moved closer. Stepped beside her. She clutched a stuffed lamb. Her lips were tinged purple.

“Have you been standing here long?” I asked.

She blinked. Continued to stare out the window. I glanced at her nightgown. Her matted hair. The dull look in her eyes. She didn’t look like Rellie. She looked like her ghost.

It was almost as bad as finding her dead.

I upped the stakes by making Kris fear that she’d find her friend dead. Would you want to open that door? I also added a hint as to who Rellie was before the tragic accident that killed her family. And then I gave the reader hints as to Rellie’s state of mind. The clothes, the hair, the stuffed animal. I did not say: Rellie looked as if she hadn’t taken a shower in days. I showed it. And this creates more tension. More suspense. The reader wonders, is Kris going to be able to get through to Rellie? Can she save her friend?

I don’t know. Can she? We’ll see what happens in another installment of my story revision.

Pacing makes a huge difference in your writing. Some places you need to sow things  down, create suspense and up the tension. Other times you need to speed things up. Use snappier dialogue. Show things happening one after the other during an action scene. It takes a few tries to get it right. I could further tighten this piece, find places to make sentences smoother. But this is a good second draft; a good revision. It will work well enough for my needs, which are to both show character emotion and make things more difficult for my protagonist. Two essential parts of storytelling.

How will you fix your pacing problems? Try these techniques and see if they work for you.

Important Tip #2 Watch for Unnecessary Words

Standard

Unnecessary words. What does this mean? Words that make your work cumbersome. Disrupt the flow of the language. Get in the way of the story. I’ve heard one writer call them “weasel words.” So what are these unnecessary words? Let me give you a brief list:

  • just
  • some
  • really
  • many
  • that
  • though
  • well
  • so
  • then
  • anything ending with -ly
  • “but” or “and” at the beginning of a sentence
  • quite
  • very
  • several
  • only

There are others, but this gives you an idea of what to look for in your own work. Here is an example of why these words are better off being left out of your work.

So many times Lindsey felt she just had to call her friends to tell them that she and her boyfriend had another fight. And each time her friends would say something like, “Well, why don’t you break up with him if you’re so unhappy, then?”

Taking out the Unnecessary Words:

Many times Lindsey felt she had to call her friends to tell them she and her boyfriend had another fight. Each time her friends would say something like, “Why don’t you break up with him if you’re so unhappy?”

Words taken out: so, just, that, and, well, then

To tighten further, revise by moving words around and rephrasing:

Lindsey called her friends every time she and her boyfriend fought. Exasperated, they’d say, “If you’re not happy, break up with him.”

See how much I’ve shortened the sentence? It’s much cleaner, much easier to read. Sometimes words can be cumbersome. Start by finding weasel words that can be removed. Then (and I’m aware I’m using the word “then,” sometimes it’s a necessary word) see if you can  reword the sentence to make it feel more polished and readable.

Take your work sentence by sentence. Use the “Find” tool to discover which of these weasel words you have developed a fondness for (mine are “just” and “though.”) If it’s a word that can be removed without making the sentence confusing, then do so. And another tip? When someone talks, they might use weasel words. A lot. You can get away with it in dialogue. Though make sure the character isn’t using it so often it drives the reader bonkers to “listen” to them.

If you have an unnecessary word you love to use, let me know. Perhaps we can form a longer list.

Drawn-out Dialogue

Standard

          Tina, the airhead, the complete fool. She’s wearing some ugly sweater today.

          Mark noticed her face looked as if someone had mistaked it for play-doh.

          Yeah, he laughed to himself, she’s a complete imbecil.

          She turned around and met his eyes, then she smiled.

           Mark nudged Jon and mouthed something to him and they laughed.

          “Isn’t she so stuck up?” Mark added to his first insulting message.

           “Oh yeah.” John said. “Yeah, she thinks she’s so pretty and all. She’s a dog.” Then he cupped his hands over his mouth and whispered “woof woof” loud enough for Tina to hear.

            She turned back around in a huff as the two boys laughed heartily.

            Mrs. Michaels looked from the test papers she was correcting and told them to get back to work.

            As they walked out of class, Mark and Jon yelled, “woof woof” at Tina. She held up her head and met Kris and Donna at the stairway.

            Mark then turned to Jon, “Hey, how come that other girl with the blonde hair isn’t with them?”

            “Who? Rellie?” Jon asked.

            “Yeah, I guess so. She’s always hanging around Kris. Or at least, she used to.”

            “I don’t know. Maybe she got smart and left the group.” Jon laughed.

            “Tina’s the worst, Kris and the rest aren’t so bad.”

            “Okay, you got a point there. That Rellie girl, she’s a depresso-maniac. I heard that one day she had a fit and broke five windows in this dumb school with her fist.”

            “Is that true?” Mark asked, shocked.

            “Well, that’s what I heard.”

            “No way!” Mark exclaimed. “With her fist?”

            “Real smart girl.” Jon said sarcastically.

            “Yeah.” Mark laughed.

            “Smashed five windows…” Mark mused as they walked to their next class.

 

First off, I need to point something very important out. When writing a story, every scene must serve a purpose. This scene doesn’t seem to serve much purpose, except for relaying that two boys in Rellie’s school are jerks and they think she’s nuts. I could place these boys in another scene that has a true purpose and relay the information that these boys bully Rellie there instead and snip this scene from the story. And as far has telling the reader that these guys think Rellie is nuts…well, a lot of scenes in the story inform us that the kids in the school think Rellie has a screw loose, so this one isn’t necessary. But I could also give this scene a purpose, and keep it in the story. Decisions, decisions. Truly? I’d chuck the scene. But I’m here to use this as a teaching tool, so here is how I’d revamp the scene.

First, let’s take a look at the scene’s introduction:

Tina, the airhead, the complete fool. She’s wearing some ugly sweater today.

Mark noticed her face looked as if someone had mistaked it for play-doh.

 

My Big Mistake? I have the first sentence coming off as either first person or close third. But the next sentence sounds more like distant third or even omniscient. There are a couple ways I could fix this. Here is how I’d write this in close third:

Mark had to swallow a chuckle. Airheaded Tina, whose brain could fit inside one of her bras A-cups, had on something that could only be described as trash meets vomit. And what was with the makeup? You’d need a spatula to scrape it off.

Distant third:

Mark had always considered Tina to be one stop sign short of a car accident, but now he eyed her up and down, taking in the unflattering sweater, her God-awful makeup. Stupid is as stupid does, he thought as he suppressed a chuckle. If there was one thing Mark was talented at, it was sizing people up.

           

The second example sounds more like a narrator talking to us, doesn’t it? That’s the big difference between close third and distant third. Close third puts us right in the character’s head. Distant third is a watchful observer explaining a story and its characters to us.

Okay, next on my list of changes is this passage:

           Yeah, he laughed to himself, she’s a complete imbecil.

          She turned around and met his eyes, then she smiled.

          Mark nudged Jon and mouthed something to him and they laughed.

          “Isn’t she so stuck up?” Mark added to his first insulting message.

           “Oh yeah.” John said. “Yeah, she thinks she’s so pretty and all. She’s a dog.” Then he cupped his hands over his mouth and whispered “woof woof” loud enough for Tina to hear.

            She turned back around in a huff as the two boys laughed heartily.

            Mrs. Michaels looked from the test papers she was correcting and told them to get back to work.

Besides the grammatical and spelling errors, which as I reader I want to have corrected, the setting hasn’t been established until the teacher looks up. I’d thought they were in the school hallway up until this point! Plus, what’s this knowing what Mark is thinking and saying up until he mouths something to Jon? What the heck did he mouth? Why not tell the reader? We get that it was rude with the next sentence, when he “added to his first insulting message,” but why put it that way? Why not just tell the reader what Mark said? Perhaps I wanted to frustrate the reader? Or, more than likely, I couldn’t come up with something nasty enough for him to say so I figured, let the reader do the hard work and come up with it him/herself. Not a good strategy, by the way.

           Mrs. Michaels looked from the test papers she was correcting and told them to get back to work.

            As they walked out of class, Mark and Jon yelled, “woof woof” at Tina. She held up her head and met Kris and Donna at the stairway.

The biggest problem? The teacher tells them to get back to work and they walk out of class. Uh…huh?

          Mark then turned to Jon, “Hey, how come that other girl with the blonde hair isn’t with them?”

            “Who? Rellie?” Jon asked.

            “Yeah, I guess so. She’s always hanging around Kris. Or at least, she used to.”

            “I don’t know. Maybe she got smart and left the group.” Jon laughed.

            “Tina’s the worst, Kris and the rest aren’t so bad.”

            “Okay, you got a point there. That Rellie girl, she’s a depresso-maniac. I heard that one day she had a fit and broke five windows in this dumb school with her fist.”

            “Is that true?” Mark asked, shocked.

            “Well, that’s what I heard.”

            “No way!” Mark exclaimed. “With her fist?”

            “Real smart girl.” Jon said sarcastically.

            “Yeah.” Mark laughed.

            “Smashed five windows…” Mark mused as they walked to their next class.

Here is where the boys’ conversation goes majorly downhill. It’s tedious. Dull. The boys have the exact same voice, I can’t differentiate them. And this part: “No way!” Mark exclaimed.  Um…I think the exclamation point already tells us Mark is exclaiming. It’s redundant to follow up with this narrative.

Plus, why wouldn’t Mark know Rellie’s name? He acts like he doesn’t. But a) the name is unusual and b) if Rellie is a nut job and kids gossip about her, of course he’d remember her name. Him not remembering doesn’t ring true. And wouldn’t Mark have heard that Rellie smashed the school’s windows? Even if it wasn’t true? I mean, his buddy Jon knows about it. Why wouldn’t he? Makes no sense.

Back to the dialogue. What we need here is a purpose. What information might they relay to the reader that could turn this scene around and give it a reason to stick around? Here’s a possibility:

           The bell rang, dismissing Mark and Jon from their class. They gathered their books, dumped them into their backpacks, and headed for the hallway already crowded with students.

            Tina slipped past them, and Mark breathed in the vanilla musk she always wore. A scent that made him heady. He took in her long, lean legs shown off by a short skirt. Despite being the beginning of spring her gams were tanned. Stunning. Not that he’d let anyone know he wouldn’t mind touching them. “Woof, woof,” he called after her. He nudged Jon. “What a dog, right?”

            “Oh yeah. Definitely.” Jon wasn’t looking at Tina, though. His head was turned toward the drinking fountain where Kris Taylor was leaned over, gulping away like a thirsty fish. “Wonder why she doesn’t hang with Rellie no more?”

            “Kris? So what? You got a thing for Rellie these days, man?” Mark snickered and stole another glance at Tina. She was at her locker, turning the combination. He wondered what those fingers would feel like on him. She always wore light pink nail polish, a huge turn-on.

            Jon socked him in the gut, and Mark was forced to turn his attention away from Tina. “No way,” Jon said. “Rellie’s bi-polar, dude.”

            “For real?” He’d learned about people who were bi-polar in psych class, but never knew one.

            “You think if someone goes smashing her fist through a window she’s normal?”

            “I put my fist through a door, and I’m not messed up,” Mark said. It was over a girl and his mother grounded him for two weeks.

            “We’re talking about Rellie here, dude.”

 

The purpose of this scene is two-fold. We learn that Mark has a big-time crush on Tina but won’t admit it even to himself, and we learn that Rellie smashed a window at school, and notice Mark knows about it. I didn’t have to tell the reader this. It’s obvious in the conversation. We also learn that Kris and Rellie don’t seem to be close anymore. Oh, and I changed five windows to one because it’s highly unlikely a person could go through with putting a fist through more than one, their hand would be shredded and the pain would be excruciating. Could it happen? Maybe. But one smashed window has a big enough effect, I don’t need to overdo it.

The dialogue has been broken up by thoughts and action. One kid uses “dude,” the other uses “man.” Their voices are slightly different. Their attitudes come through: Jon sounds savvy, Mark not so much. And we learn a lot through their dialogue, even though they say less than they do in the unedited piece I wrote as a teen.

So here is the lesson: remember setting (note how I had them leave the classroom and watch the goings-on in the school hallway), give the conversation a purpose (relaying important information to the reader), and throw in action and thought to make your scene come alive.

Scene Clarity

Standard

Here is another scene from the novel the teen me wrote about Rellie. I’m cheating a little because the scene is not complete, but the original scene went on for pages and pages, and it was tedious to read, much less type. As usual, the entire scene sounds more like a summary. And the characters are two-dimensional and unrealistic. And I don’t know who is telling this part of the story because I don’t mention it until page three (and then I discover it’s Rellie’s friend, Kris). So this is very confusing. Here is how I have it originally written (including a couple of spelling errors. Can you find them?):

As quickly as it began, it disappeared. All the talk about Rellie faded away and Rellie resumed her place in school.

But alone.

She spoke to nobody unless spoken to first, and even then it was in short phrases or sentences. She always looked as if she never got any sleep, and she began to get dizzy spells in classes.

But, nobody seemed to care after awhile. They had their own problems. If Rellie did something unusual (like walk out of a classroom for no reason at all) it would be spread around, but most people just passed it off as soon as it came to them, and soon, people began to take for granted that Rellie was just a little off the wall and no one would do anything about it.

Except for Mr. Thomas. He took inventory of everything that was happening to Rellie. He was interested in it. Even when he noticed nobody payed any attention to Rellie’s moods anymore, he continued his research on her.

One day, when he saw her in the hall, he asked her what happened to all the “attention” she had before.

Angrily, she walked away.

Otherwise—everything was fine.

Until…

I heard that waters are very calm just before a violent storm.

Let me tell you, this is true, especially for Rellie.

Some say Mr. Thomas started it. They say he became ruder and ruder to her everyday, asking her how her parents died and if she was glad because of all the attention she was getting now.

Others said that she couldn’t take the students in school ignoring her, and her now frequent failing marks on her test papers.

Still others say she was really on drugs the whole time, and this time it became worse.

I think it was because everything was still bottled up inside of her, like her grandmother was saying.

Whatever became of those tests, I don’t know, but I don’t think they could have ever prepared anyone for something like this.

Let’s go over this piece by painstaking piece. The first paragraph doesn’t make much sense. The writer must not assume that the reader knows what he/she is talking about when they write the scene’s introduction. Here is the paragraph in question:

As quickly as it began, it disappeared. All the talk about Rellie faded away and Rellie resumed her place in school.

As quickly as what began? We can assume the author means “all the talk,” but if that’s the case, why not write: “As quickly as all the talk about Rellie began, it faded away.” Even better would be more information from the POV character so that we know a) who is speaking (if there are multiple viewpoints in the story) and b) the scene’s setting. Also, what does it mean when Rellie “resumed her place in school”? Was she not attending school up until now? Or does this mean she returns back to her former self, doing all the things she used to do? This is not clear to us at all. Let’s move on to the next portion of the scene and see if we will receive a clue:

But alone.

She spoke to nobody unless spoken to first, and even then it was in short phrases or sentences. She always looked as if she never got any sleep, and she began to get dizzy spells in classes.

But, nobody seemed to care after awhile. They had their own problems. If Rellie did something unusual (like walk out of a classroom for no reason at all) it would be spread around, but most people just passed it off as soon as it came to them, and soon, people began to take for granted that Rellie was just a little off the wall and no one would do anything about it.

Okay. First off, this doesn’t sound like she’s resumed her place in school so much as she’s changed her persona. Plus, this whole “they had their own problems” is very vague. People have “their own problems” all the time and are still quite invested in other people and their troubles. I do like that the character says that Rellie walked out of a classroom for “no reason at all,” because that is a great personal POV. The author understand why the character walks out of the classroom, but not the character who is telling the story. It’s tough to separate author from character, and here I have to applaud the younger me for seeing this through.

My biggest complaint about this scene, however, is that I could be showing all this happening, and it would create a much bigger emotional impact for the reader.

Except for Mr. Thomas. He took inventory of everything that was happening to Rellie. He was interested in it. Even when he noticed nobody payed any attention to Rellie’s moods anymore, he continued his research on her.

One day, when he saw her in the hall, he asked her what happened to all the “attention” she had before.

Angrily, she walked away.

Okay, I hate this part of the story. Yes. HATE it. Why? First off, this doesn’t sound like a teacher at all. Of course, if I want the teacher to behave this way I need to convince the reader by establishing Mr. Thomas’s character and have a dialogue occur between him and Rellie that is subtle enough for the reader and Rellie to pick up on his distrust and annoyance with Rellie, but his words not sound so childish. Also, since we are in Kris’s POV, and she is a teen, how does she understand Mr. Thomas is taking “inventory” of everything that is happening to Rellie? She couldn’t know unless she was Mr. Thomas. Also, I’ve used an –y adverb when I could do a much better job by showing Rellie’s anger. Even writing “Rellie stormed off” does a better job than saying she angrily walked away.

Otherwise—everything was fine.

Until…

I heard that waters are very calm just before a violent storm.

Let me tell you, this is true, especially for Rellie.

I laughed when I read this. I think I was being dramatic when I wrote it, but it comes off as strange. Otherwise everything was fine? You have a girl who hardly speaks, a teacher trying to get under her skin, kids whispering about Rellie and then ignoring her…and otherwise everything is fine? Isn’t all that enough to show that things aren’t fine?

The part that really got to me was the over-the-top “Until…” Ooh. I’m getting nervous. Until what? Do tell before I fall off my chair in anticipation.

The “until” does nothing for the reader. Oh wait. I take that back. It does. It confuses the reader because if you add the next sentence it sounds like: Until I heard I heard that waters are very calm just before a violent storm.

Ah. Everything was fine until the character heard that saying. Uh, right.

The last sentence gives us good character voice, but we’ve gone from third person to omniscient (with Mr. Thomas’s motivations well known) to first person talking to an invisible listener. (The reader?) Wow. This scene is full of confusion.

Some say Mr. Thomas started it. They say he became ruder and ruder to her everyday, asking her how her parents died and if she was glad because of all the attention she was getting now.

Others said that she couldn’t take the students in school ignoring her, and her now frequent failing marks on her test papers.

Still others say she was really on drugs the whole time, and this time it became worse.

I think it was because everything was still bottled up inside of her, like her grandmother was saying.

Whatever became of those tests, I don’t know, but I don’t think they could have ever prepared anyone for something like this.

So now we have other students taking note of Mr. Thomas observing Rellie. Would he really say all those things to Rellie? Especially in front of witnesses? I could understand it if another student acted that way toward her, and in my rewrite, that’s what I would do. All the gossip I would handle through either Facebook posts or text messages. More overt, less public. The sentence about the drugs doesn’t make sense. On drugs what whole time? Her whole time at school? The whole time she started to act strangely? Not clear. And what became worse? The way she was acting? It really leaves interpretation wide open, and as an author, I don’t want to do that. I’ve heard so-called artists say, “Well, I’m leaving it up to the viewer/reader to decide what it means.” It’s a bunch of bull. Whenever I hear that I think, “You don’t know what it means, either, so-called artist.” You, the creator, must know what idea you are relating to the viewer/reader. It can be subtle or hit-‘em-over-the-head, but the idea must be available to understand.

Okay, off my soapbox. Next in this piece is a mention of the grandmother and something she said. We sure could use reminding. What was it the grandma was saying that relates to this? Don’t make us go back several pages to locate the quote ourselves. Tell us. Now.

The mentioned tests confuse me. Why does it matter? Don’t students usually see their grade and recycle those papers (maybe keeping the best ones to prove to their future children they aren’t inept after all)? How are they to prepare others for what might come? I wish I could get into y teen mind to understand what I meant, but unfortunately I can’t. So I’d get rid of that last paragraph altogether when I went to do my revision.

So here is what you, the writer, needs to consider: 1) Is my setting clear? 2) Is my POV character obvious? 3) Does everything make sense? 4) Are the other characters in my story acting appropriately? 5) Am I showing what’s happening in the scene instead of simply informing the reader?  6) Are there any –ly adverbs I can remove? 7) Does the reader need any information reiterated from previous chapters because it may have been forgotten? 8) Am I using the wrong vocabulary to effectively dramatize my scene?

When you check your scenes for clarity, remind yourself that the reader will not automatically understand your characters and their motivations. You must make it clear without being too obvious. Your characters may not understand why they do the things they do, but you need to know and make sure they act accordingly. Good luck!

Spelling error answers:

Even when he noticed nobody payed any attention to Rellie’s moods anymore… (should be paid.)

They say he became ruder and ruder to her everyday(should be every day.)