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So You Wanna Write A Book: The Art of Arc (Part Five)

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It seems so simple, right? Invent a compelling character, develop a problem he or she needs to solve, and then solve the problem. Preferably in three hundred pages or less. But what if you could intensify tension, create graver conflicts, and surge suspense in your story? What if you could keep your reader on the edge of his or her seat by upping up the stakes using character and plot as your main tools?

Let’s try this today. Right now. No excuses.

*I will be using “they” and “them” to signify “he” and “she,” “her” and “him.”

What is a character arc?

Think about a rainbow. It begins somewhere in the distance, out of sight. Although the beginning may seem indistinct, it exists. Consider this spot as your character’s background: all of the events in their life that brought them to this moment in the story.

The rainbow in the sky is the part of the character that we see. The character travels along the story’s plot, its color blending with the story arc’s color. The crescendo of the rainbow is the climax of the story, where change must occur for the character to continue their journey.

And finally, the dip into an indistinct location because we can only imagine where the rainbow ends. The part we can see is in the story itself. We have a good idea where it ends, but the pot o’ gold lies within the imagination.

The rainbow’s hue is constant from one end of the arc to the other. This should remind you that the character must remain vibrant and memorable. The person in the beginning should be as interesting as the person at the end. This doesn’t mean you can’t have a negative outcome or a dead protagonist. But the character must keep the reader engaged all the way through.

Writing Exercise: Who is your character at the beginning of your story?

Jot down:

  • Strengths and weaknesses
  • Likes and dislikes
  • Who do they trust/distrust?
  • What are they not scared of? What do they fear?
  • What is the one thing your character believes about him or her self that is NOT true?
Example: Chase Kennedy
  • Great with numbers; efficient and smart
  • Protective of his ego; thus not easy to get along with
  • Likes reading business magazines and drinking coffee outdoors
  • Hates being wrong or criticized
  • Trusts his brother, who is his best friend
  • Distrusts beautiful but flirty girlfriend
  • Not afraid to be loud, egotistical, and persistent in the boardroom
  • Very afraid of losing girlfriend to a “better” guy

Belief: that he should be the Vice-President of the company he works at, but he continues to be turned down for management positions because everyone is against him. They’re all afraid he’ll do too good a job and show them up. So no one wants him to get ahead.

Belief: That his brother cares about him and is out for his best interest. That he can depend on his brother.

Writing Exercise: Who is your character by the end of your story?

Jot down:

  • What has changed?
  • Why has he or she changed?
  • What lesson(s) have they learned?
  • What emotion do you wish to evoke from the reader?

EXAMPLE: CHASE KENNEDY

  • Chase realizes that in order to be respected as a leader, he needs to rely on the help of coworkers.
  • He understands that his insecurities make him unlikeable, especially to himself
  • He discovers that the person he has looked up to all these years (brother) is a manipulative, insecure man, and Chase runs the risk of becoming the same type of person if he doesn’t change.
  • He knows that love is about trust and respect, and if he does not have that in his relationship with his girlfriend, then the relationship is doomed.

Relating to Character:

Why is important for your reader to relate to your protagonist (and in some cases, relate to the antagonist)?

Ex: to make the character likeable, so the reader can feel empathy, human connection to the character, even if the character does something we would never in a million years do.

In what ways can we help the reader identify with this character?

Ex: Give the character a psychology we can understand, allow the reader to “hear” the character’s thoughts as they muse over problems, show the readers how the character feels through allowing them to observe recognizable traits such as wringing of the hands or snapping of the fingers.

EXAMPLE: CHASE KENNEDY

Chase Kennedy: how to make him likable when he comes off as a pompous ass.

Ex: show him feeling self-conscious. Maybe he looks into the bathroom mirror and criticizes some part of himself. Show him taking car of a pet, maybe this may show his loneliness if he puts the pet ahead of even himself. Almost as if it might mirror a best friend or spouse. Show him trying to do the “right” thing, only it does not bode well for him.

External Conflict vs. Internal Conflict

External Conflict: Caused by an outer problem and the solution is blocked by the internal conflict

Internal Conflict: Caused by the inner problem and the solution is blocked by a misguided goal and made worse by the external conflict

  • Why is your character incomplete on the inside?
  • What needs do they have that they aren’t aware of?
  • What are they aware of wanting?
  • Do their “wants” interfere with their “needs”?

Internal driving forces may include:

  • A need for personal fulfillment (ex: looking for love or friendship)
  • Fear or peer-pressure (ex: living up to the expectations of others)
  • Guilt or insecurity (ex: wanting to be forgiven)
  • Curiosity (ex: exploration of unfamiliar territory)

Ex: think of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

1. Biological and physiological needs – air, food, drink, shelter, warmth, sex, sleep, etc.

2. Safety needs – protection from elements, security, order, law, stability, etc.

3. Love and belongingness needs – friendship, intimacy, trust, and acceptance, receiving and giving affection and love. Affiliating, being part of a group (family, friends, work). The need for interpersonal relationships motivates behavior.

4. Esteem needs – which Maslow classified into two categories: (i) esteem for oneself (dignity, achievement, mastery, independence) and (ii) the desire for reputation or respect from others (e.g., status, prestige). Maslow indicated that the need for respect or reputation is most important for children and adolescents and precedes real self-esteem or dignity.

5. Cognitive needs – knowledge and understanding, curiosity, exploration, need for meaning and predictability.

6. Aesthetic needs – appreciation and search for beauty, balance, form, etc.

7. Self-actualization needs – realizing personal potential, self-fulfillment, seeking personal growth and peak experiences. A desire “to become everything one is capable of becoming”(Maslow, 1987, p. 64).

8. Transcendence needs – A person is motivated by values which transcend beyond the personal self (e.g., mystical experiences and certain experiences with nature, aesthetic experiences, sexual experiences, service to others, the pursuit of science, religious faith, etc.).

Fundamental needs!

Writing Exercise: Identifying with Character

Jot down:

  • Why is your character incomplete on the inside?
  • What needs do they have that they’re not aware of?
  • What are they aware of wanting?
  • Do their “wants” interfere with their “needs”?
Example: Chase Kennedy

How to help the reader identify with Chase?

Why is your character incomplete on the inside?

  • Alienates people through his behavior towards them
  • Low confidence stemming from competing with his older brother all his life
  • Introverted personality trying to be an extrovert

What needs do they have that they aren’t aware of?

  • To have his own identity (self-esteem)
  • Love and mutual trust and respect from a female partner (intimacy)
  • To see his brother’s imperfections: the womanizing, the greed (cognitive)

What are they aware of wanting?

  • Sexual gratification (biological)
  • Attention and respect from others (Safety and esteem)

Do their “wants” interfere with their “needs”?

  • Chase has a difficult time distinguishing his true self from his brother’s persona
  • He wants to be like his brother, but he’s much too sensitive and introverted

What we know about Chase:

  • Envious of his brother who seems to have it all – beautiful wife, fascinating career, charm, charisma, money
  • Chase is NOT like his brother in personality
  • Chase doesn’t really like his brother; therefore he doesn’t end up liking himself

Types of Character Arcs

  1. Positive Change Arc
  2. Flat Arc (Static Character)
  3. Negative Change Arc
  4. Disillusionment Arc
  5. Fall Arc
  6. Corruption Arc

Positive Change Arc: Character believes lie à overcomes lie à new truth is liberating

Flat Arc: Character already has strong sense of self, they don’t overcome a core flaw or fear, they don’t realize a necessary inner truth or fall victim to a limiting belief

  • Brings transformation to the world around them (detective solves crime)
  • Face conflicts and stakes that test their rooted beliefs; inner journey is more about resistance than change (Harry Potter’s adventures)

Negative Change Arc:

  1. The Disillusionment Arc: in which a character overcomes a false belief but finds the truth to be tragic.
  2. The Fall Arc: in which a character desperately clings to a false belief despite the presence of a positive truth, thus leading them further into tragedy and sorrow.
  3. The Corruption Arc: in which a character lives in close proximity to the truth but ultimately rejects it in order to willingly embrace a false belief.
Example: Chase Kennedy

How would these look with Chase’s arc?

Positive Change – (ex: Chase believes it’s in his best interest to follow in his brother’s footsteps à Chase realizes he is not like his brother, and it’s a good thing à Chase accepts his shortcomings and flaws but realizes his strengths and gifts.)

Static Change – (ex: Chase accepts who he is, however, seeing his brother has had more success, begins to wonder if he should change à Chase listens to his brother’s advice and ends up in hot water à returning to his own ways, Chase fixes everything he screwed up)

Negative Change:

  • Disillusionment – (ex: Although Chase’s brother ends up in jail from his wrongdoing, he tells Chase that the only mistake he made was getting caught. Chase vows to continue his unethical, immoral ways, but promises to be smarter than his brother.)
  • Fall – (ex: Certain that the path to enlightenment is to see things through, even knowing it’s all going horribly wrong, he continues with his goal and like a captain on a sinking ship, he goes down.)
  • Corruption – (ex: Chase has to make a decision between getting what he wants — the climb up the career ladder, power and prestige – and what he needs – the loyalty of his girlfriend and friendship from people without materialistic desires. But watching his brother once again receive accolades from his family, he rejects the girl and friends for a “promise” of success and the complete acceptance of his manipulative brother.

Act One (The Beginning)

  • First 15-25% of book
  • Introduce protagonist in their normal, daily life
  • Throw in a minor conflict that integrates us immediately into the story

Psychologically speaking:

Let’s get into the character’s head. Whether you write in first, second, or third POV, the reader needs to understand your character and what drives them to do what they do.

Writing Exercise: Ch-ch-ch-changes

  • What is your character’s every day life like? Jot down some ideas. You won’t use all of them in your story, just brainstorm for now.
  • What is it your character wants to change?
  • What is it your character needs to change in order to get what he/she wants?
Example: Chase kennedy

Chase Kennedy…scenes can include his interactions at the office where we see that he has been vying for a managerial job that he ultimately doesn’t get. We see his frustration. Maybe he takes this bad news out on a lower colleague.

Key to this: still has to be likeable.

How to do this: make him someone people can identify with.

Other additions: He can be kind and caring to his mother. Or have a great sense of humor. Or tons of optimism. The important thing is that we root for him!

Other scenes can include a conversation with his girlfriend. Or a night out at the bar with his brother. In all of this there should be a HINT at a change about to occur.

Example with girlfriend: He calls her to say he can’t wait for their date that night. He’s had a bad day and he’s looking forward to unwinding with her. Minor conflict: But then she backs out of the date, apologizing that she has a huge deadline and needs to finish up a project for work.

Example with brother: He’s out at the bar, drinking, explaining how he didn’t get the promotion, his girlfriend blew him off. His brother is busy flirting with the cute bartender, he’s not completely listening. But our character doesn’t notice. He looks up to his brother. When his brother gives him a half-hearted suggestion, Chase is more than ready to accept it, even though the reader can tell this won’t be a great idea.

Things we know about Chase…he trusts his brother. He thinks his brother has it together, and he wants to be that way, too. He’s a little envious of his brother’s success with his job and with women. He doesn’t understand why his brother has gotten so “lucky,” and he’s the “same ol’, same ol’.”

Act Two (The Middle)

  • Runs through the 75-90% mark of the story
  • Character is learning and growing through obstacles and challenges

Psychologically speaking:

If something happens to your character, make sure they have a reaction to it, both externally and internally. What they think and what they say may be in contrast to one another. What someone says and then conveys through body language may contradict each other.

Writing Exercise: Obstacles and Challenges

Jot down:

  • What obstacles will your protagonist face?
  • How do they think they can handle these challenges?
  • How do they really handle these challenges?
  • How do they want to be perceived? Why? What will they do and how far will they go to appear more in control than they really are? Or will they pretend to be weak and modest? What is your character’s motivation in each scene?

Every scene must have a reason to be there, either to show conflict or characterization. And we must understand the character’s motivation regarding every step they make.

Example: Chase Kennedy

Chase confronts his boss with the opinion he has been deserving of a management position. On the half-hearted advice of his brother, he threatens to leave the company if they don’t give him the promotion he’s seeking.

Sooooo….they let him go.

Let’s up the stakes here:

  • He’s just purchased an expensive sports car
  • His girlfriend expects an engagement ring
  • He’s already a month behind on rent

Things he can do:

  • Move in with his brother
  • Sell the sports car (for a loss) or lose it to the bank
  • Avoid discussing engagement/wedding with his girlfriend

How can these make more problems for him? The more complications, the better for your character development and storyline.

  • He moves in with his brother and sees that his brother and his wife have marital problems that his brother is desperately trying to hide
  • He depends on taxis or Ubers to get him place to place, and this can be a great place to add characters that help give him hope or give him more problems
  • His girlfriend decides he’s not serious about her and so she leaves him (or maybe she discovers he’s lost his job and she was looking for a man with money, not someone broke, so she leaves)

Now he is lonely, jobless, angry, and is beginning to see the world from a different angle. Remember to keep his psychology in mind. He won’t change his views overnight simply because he realizes his girlfriend is a gold-digger and his brother is an asshole. He has to have a personal reason to change.

Midpoint

  • Occurs at the middle of the book
  • Protagonist realizes true danger or threat from antagonist or antagonistic force
  • Protagonist shifts from reacting to conflict to actively pursuing it

Act Three (The Conclusion)

  • Runs through the rest of the story (last 25-10%)
  • Reveals how the character overcomes their flaw or fear
  • Rights the wrongs they’ve committed along the way
  • Achieves goal (or learns lesson after failing to achieve the goal)
  • Defeats the antagonist (in a series, the antagonist is defeated for the time being)

Psychologically speaking: Your character may not be consciously aware of the changes they’ve made or how they’ve grown as a person. But their actions should show these changes so that the reader is aware.

Writing Exercise: Writing the end

  • How is your character different from the way they were at the beginning of the story?
  • What does the character learn about their self?
  • Is the character aware of their personal growth? If not, why not?
  • In what ways can the reader notice this change?
Example: Chase Kennedy

Climax of story:

  • Chase’s brother pursues ex-girlfriend
  • Chase discovers the manager who fired him is mentally unstable

It’s at this point Chase now sees these people for who they really are. As he saves his ex from getting involved with his manipulative, womanizing brother, he shows his ability to stand up for himself and his principles.

As for the manager, he finds a way to get even for the unjust firing, however has a change of heart when he realizes the manager suffers from paranoia and identity issues. He shows empathy and discovers he prefers to be kind and tolerable versus angry and show-offy. Because of this, the company’s CEO replaces the unstable manager with Chase.

He’s able to discuss the issues with his girlfriend and apologize for not admitting his flaws earlier. She forgives him and they get engaged using a plastic ring he wins from a bubble gum machine.

In Conclusion:

This is just a brief overview with examples. I’m sure your story line and character arc will be much better than Chase Kennedy’s. And my apologies to anyone named Chase Kennedy who thinks this character is a sad use of his name.

The takeaway is this:

  • Your protagonist (and antagonist) need a goal.
  • Something must get in the way of achieving this goal.
  • Every scene must have a reason for being in your book, whether as a catalyst for the next scene (moving the plot along) or to show characterization.
  • There are several types of arcs your protagonist’s story can fall under.
  • Make sure your ending ties up your character’s story, even if it is part of a sequel.

Happy writing! And this concludes our “So You Wanna Write a Book” series.

Posted in Revisions on My Teen Work

Princess Revision: Chapter One, Scene Four

SEPTEMBER 6, 1966

I was standing in the rain in front of his car as he was fixing the flat. I noticed his high cheekbones, and watched the way his lips moved as he talked. I thought getting a flat in the rain in the middle of nowhere was romantic., but he was a little edgy.

“God! You’d think that these damn tires would last a year without blowing! I don’t think I’ll ever trust that Larry again. Real good deal he got me. You don’t know Larry, but last year I bought some tires off him and…shit!” he got up quick and kicked at the black rubber, leaving a messy smear of mud against it.

“You know, if you want, we can wait to do this when the rain clears.” I said, putting a hand on his shoulder.

“Don’t.” he said simply. At first, I didn’t know what he meant, but then he looked at me and a cold, hateful look passed over his face. It was as if something had taken him over; something evil. I found myself shivering, despite the warm weather.

I let go of him, and stepped back, until he finished changing the tire. I didn’t say a word.

When we got back into the car, he started to smile again, as if nothing happened to spoil his mood.

“You know, I’m really excited about going camping next weekend. You’ll have lots of fun. I’ll try to keep the bears away. He laughed, and turned to look at me. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing.” I tried not to look at him. I felt better, almost to the point of not remembering how his stare made me feel so icy. Almost.

“No, something’s wrong. I can tell. You can tell me.” and he reached to take my hand.

“Whwn you were changing your tire…you gave me this look.”

He looked at me curiously, then turned back to the road. “What kind of look was that, Nora?”

“Like you hated me.”

“Oh, honey! Forgive me, I was just angry at the tires, and at Larry for selling the junk to me. How could I ever hate you? I love you.” I foolishly forgave him, not realizing that Jake could never love anyone. Not ever.

So, I can tell I’m trying to make this creepy. But it falls flat. Why? For one thing, it’s full of “telling the reader information” instead of “showing it.” Second, I think I was trying to make Jake seem jumpy and dangerous. But instead he comes off as nuts and angry. So, I have to work on his delivery and her response.

I also noticed that I again tried to build suspense by ending the scene on an ominous note: Jake could never love anyone. But I have already set that up earlier, so this is redundancy. Ending each scene with a hint of “Watch out, I’m setting up Jake to be evil” is a little much. As a reader, I want to yell, “When am I going to find out why???” As I writer, I’m saying, “I’m just stringing you along so you keep reading.”

So, instead of stringing, I’m going to focus on creating tension and increasing conflict between the two characters. I won’t NEED to tell the reader Jake is some kind of monster. It will be apparent through what happens.

My revision:

September 6, 1966

Rain pelted the windshield, the wipers sloshed side to side in rhythm. Even though Jake had the defroster turned up full blast, it didn’t do anything for my foggy passenger-side window.

“You know where to turn off, right?” I looked for street signs, but between the rain and the poor visibility out my window, I saw none.

“Yeah.”

“How late do you think we’ll be?”

He glanced at me. “Really, Nora? You’re going to start this again?”

“I’m just asking.” Don’t press his buttons, I reminded myself. Just shut up.

“It’s not even one of your close friends. You’re just there for the dinner. That’s what you told me. So why do you keep making a big deal out of this?” He peered through the windshield and slowed down the car.

We rolled past a street sign, but I couldn’t make out what it said. “I’m not. But…it’s a wedding reception. It’s not like we can just waltz in any time we–“

“That was the turn,” he said. “Crap.” He maneuvered into a driveway and turned around. “And calm down, will you? You’re messing me up.”

“Sorry.” I glanced down at my rhinestone clutch. “I don’t want to show up late and come off rude.”

“You don’t want to be rude to some people you barely know, but you’ll mouth off to me, your boyfriend? Makes a lot of sense, there.”

“I’m not trying to mouth off…” Shut up, Nora. My stomach twisted. I licked my dry, cracked lips. The car lurched to the right and my side of the car seemed heavy and unstable. “Did we hit something?”

“Shit.” He pulled over, his jaw hard. “No. But the car’s driving funny. I’m gonna go check it out.” He opened the car door. The whoosh of heavy rain rang in my ears until he slammed the door shut again. I peered through the windshield. He bent down in front of the car, then popped back up. His mouth had become a firm line. He opened the door again. “We got a flat. Dammit.”

“Can you change it? How long will it take?”

“Nora, seriously, stop with all the time checks. I’ll change it. I got a spare in the trunk.” He slammed the door shut again. Seconds later, the trunk flew open, jolting the car a bit. I looked down at my nails. They’d been bitten to the quick.

He appeared on my side of the car, a hazy shadow. I wiped the condensation from my window to get a better view. He bent down and started working on jacking up the car. With every twist of the jack, I rose a few inches.

As he worked, I admired his strong hands. The way his cheekbones stood out. His mop of rain-soaked hair. He was my hero in this moment. Changing our tire so we could still make Fran’s wedding reception. Maybe he was an ass every now and then, but he loved me.

I closed my eyes and imagined what our wedding would be like. Baby blue decorations. We’d serve pot roast, his favorite. Neil would be his Best Man, Susan would be my Maid-of-Honor. We’d write our own vows, of course. Write about the romantic way we met. “He paid my tab,” I’d tell the congregation. “If that’s not love at first sight, I don’t know what is.” And everyone would laugh and cheer.

A knock on my window startled me. I dropped my clutch bag. Jake’s face stared at me, and he made a motion for me to roll down my window. I complied.

“Are you falling asleep while I’m changing this damn tire?”

I chuckled. “No, just daydreaming.”

“I’m almost done.” He bent down again, and I shut the window. The inside of my door had become wet. I used the edge of my coat-sleeve to wipe it dry. Jake wouldn’t want his car smelling like mildew.

It wasn’t completely true, what I’d told him. Fran and I had been close once. But now it seemed like most of my friends had drifted away into better lives. Grown up. Become adults. And I was left behind.

But at least I was attending a life-changing event for her. It didn’t matter that we hadn’t stayed in touch, she’d invited me. I’d accepted. And Fran would understand when I explained why we were late. I relaxed a little and picked my clutch up from the floor where it had fallen.

The driver’s side door opened and Jake jumped into the seat. Rainwater dripped down his face. Dotted his eyelashes. His now-translucent dress shirt clung to his pecs. Sexy. He started the car. “This sucks. Your friend’s wedding is costing me a new tire.”

“Maybe your tire was flat before we left.”

“Do you know how stupid that sounds?” He passed the turn we’d missed earlier.

“Wait, that was the road.” I pointed behind us.

“No shit, Sherlock.”

“We need to turn around.”

He scoffed. “Seriously? Look at me. I can’t go to a reception looking like this.”

“But if we go all the way back to your place so you can change, we’ll be ridiculously late.”

He glared at me, then stared back at the road. “Nora, let me put this in a way you’ll get it. We’re not going to the reception.”

“What? Why not?” Although I knew why. But I wanted him to say the words. If he was going to play this game, I would make sure it was played to the end.

His hands gripped the steering wheel tighter. “You’re already complaining it’s rude to be late. Why would we show up even later? This mishap set us back at least forty minutes.”

My face torched hotter than a bonfire. Speaking up would make things worse, but he was being unfair. It wasn’t my fault his tire blew. “They’re paying for our meal. We can still make the dinner.”

“Frankly, I don’t feel like going anymore. I’m freezing, my fingers are numb, and all I want to do is go home, sit under a blanket, and drink a beer.”

The wipers slashed through the rain and the car bumped along on its doughnut tire. I contemplated driving to the wedding by myself. I could show up at Fran’s wedding alone. “Jake came down with a cold,” I’d explain. “I’m late because he wanted me to run to the store for aspirin.”

Except I knew Jake wouldn’t want me driving in the rain. He’d be concerned I’d get lost. Or drive into a ditch because visibility was so bad.

So, I seethed in silence all the way back to the apartment. When he dropped me off at my front door, I wouldn’t even look at him. I wanted him to know I was upset. That this was unfair to me.

As I opened the car door, he said, “What? So you’re just going to ignore me because of a flat tire? That wasn’t my fault, y’know. If you wanna blame anyone, blame yourself. Why were we late in the first place, Nora, huh? Why? Since you’re not talking to me, I’ll tell you why. Because you couldn’t decide what to wear. And then you didn’t like your hair, so you had to do it all over again. And then you misplaced the invitation and didn’t remember where we had to go, so you had to call someone. So, if anyone’s to blame for us not getting there tonight, it’s you.” He reached over, pushed me out of the car, and shut the door. “Call me when you want to apologize.” He revved the engine and took off.

He was right, of course. I’d been indecisive. Anxious. I’d probably thrown out the invitation when I cleaned off my kitchen table last night. And he was out in the rain changing that tire all on his own, he didn’t make me help him. I never offered.

Maybe I shouldn’t have been so angry and defensive. Besides, Fran would understand when I called her tomorrow to explain why we didn’t make it to the reception. If I called her. Which, maybe I wouldn’t bother doing. She’d be on her honeymoon. I doubted she’d even notice I hadn’t been through the receiving line or whispered congratulations to her on the dance floor.

Meantime, I’d made an idiot of myself tonight. I didn’t know how to keep my mouth shut.

Still, something in the pit of my stomach didn’t feel right. Something felt as off-kilter as the car had when our tire had gone flat.

But the tire had been replaced, we’d made it through that issue. We could make it through this one in my heart, too.

Posted in Revisions on My Teen Work

Princess Revision: Chapter One – Scene Three

Susan applied her last bit of makeup just as the doorbell rang from downstairs.

“Oh, God…it’s Bobby. How do I look?” She turned around in a circle, “You know, I look good, and he’s going to go nuts…no, he’ll do more than go nuts…”

“Hey, let’s open the door, okay?” I sprayed my hair one last time, then descended the stairs.

“Are you sure my hair looks best down?” she whispered as I reached for the door.

There was Bobby, a wide grin on his face. His neck looked raw from shaving, and his hair looked wet…probably from too much gel.

“Hi there.” Susan smiled seductively. “You look nice.”

“I should! I spent all day trying. You know, it took me an hour to get this damn tux on. Let me tell you, I will NEVER try and get a job where you have to look nice all the time. It’s hard enough to make me look good just once a year. Where’s Jake, Nora?” Bobby stepped inside, and took a brief glance about the room.

“Oh, he’ll be late.” I tried to smile. “You know Jake.”

“Listen, let’s go out after this stuffy ol’ party. I got some vodka that needs to be sipped. I’d say drunk, but somehow that word make insinuation too simple.” Bobby plopped himself on our couch, and played with his jacket lapel.

“Hey — that sounds like fun. Doesn’t that sound like fun?” Susan looked at me for approval.

“We’ll see. It depends on…” Suddenly the phone rang.

“Hello?” Susan picked it up. “Sure, sure…That’s okay, Jake…Yeah, she’ll understand. Do you want to talk to her? Okay…yeah, see you later.”

She hung up and looked at me. “He said something happened to Neil. He said he’ll have to meet us later.”

“What did he say happened?” I asked.

“He didn’t, really. He just said something happened, and he can’t make it right away.”

I remembered the eerie shadow out in the moonlight, and gave an involuntary shiver. No one noticed.

“Okay, then I guess I’ll be escorting two fine looking young ladies to the annual Peterstown Dance.” He did some sort of hop that made us laugh, then took both of our arms, and we were off.

THINGS THAT NEED CHANGING:

  1. The dialogue. It’s stilted and doesn’t showcase a lot of personality.
  2. Susan can’t say hello into a phone she has not yet picked up.
  3. Why doesn’t Susan hand the phone over to Nora right off the bat? Why does she take a message? Seems odd.
  4. We need a cliffhanger. The three of them going to the dance is SO ho-hum.

I believe I was trying to set up a possible creepiness relating the figure in the moonlight that dragged something beside it and Jake’s inability to show up at Susan’s to attend the dance with them. However, it falls flat because the thought is forgotten and everyone’s happy and laughing. Tension – POOF! – gone. We need to build on this idea of Nora feeling uneasy. And Nora needs to give us more emotion throughout the scene.

My revision:

Susan leaned over my dressing table and stared into the mirror. “My lips need color. I don’t think I can pull the nude lipstick look off.”

“You look fine.”

“No.” She untwisted a tube of red lipstick. “I still think red works better with my skin tone.”

I wished my brain could focus on something as simplistic as what color lipstick I should wear. Instead, it was going a mile a minute. What had I seen outside? And what was going to happen at the dance tonight? How would Jake act? And did I really see what looked like someone dragging a body bag across the lawn?

The doorbell chimed.

“Bobby and Jake are here!” Susan squealed. She finished rubbing red into her lips, then grabbed my hand and led me downstairs. “Do I look okay? Are you sure my hair is better down?”

“Too late to change your mind now. The guys are right outside your door.”

She eyed me up and down. “You’re so lucky. You could look like a bag lady and Jake would still love you.”

I scoffed.

“Not that you do!” She put a hand to her ruby lips. “I’m just saying–”

Raps on the door interrupted her, thank God. I didn’t know what she’d been insinuating, but she had it all wrong.

She whipped open the door. Bobby stood on the step, grinning like a mad man. His neck was raw from a fresh shave and his hair was shellacked with too much gel. “Hey, you two beautiful things.”

Susan blushed. “Oh, you probably say that to all the girls.”

“He does,” I said. I glanced around behind Bobby. “Where’s Jake?”

“I went to pick him up, but his dad said he wasn’t back yet. Guess he’d gone to help Neil with something.” He brushed Susan’s cheek with his hand. “I like the hair, dollface.”

“Neil?” I didn’t like Neil. Nor did I trust him. Why Jake befriended him, I had no idea.

“Yeah, but no problem. I told his dad to have Jake meet us there. Meantime, I get to walk around with two cute chicks on my arms. Yeah, man, I’m a stud.” He brushed at his suit and pretended to make a muscle. Susan laughed, but I couldn’t stop thinking about Jake.

Nothing good could come from Jake being with Neil.

BETTER, but could still use some work. However, I don’t know where this story is heading, so I made a couple of leaps. One being that she doesn’t like Neil, and another that something bad might happen. Not sure if that’s where I was going with this. But it definitely ups the tension.

I also chose to have Bobby deliver the message that Jake wasn’t coming. That made the most sense. Why would the guys drive separately anyhow if they were picking up both the girls at Nora’s house? And why would Susan answer the phone at Nora’s house, anyways? That made no sense, either. The I solved two problems with one fix. Ingenious. Maybe. We’ll see.

Posted in Revisions on My Teen Work

Princess Revision: Chapter One – Scene Two

I had met Jake two years before. He was a junior in college, and worked at this fancy restaurant as a bartended. He told me that it was love at first sight.

The light was dim, and I was being escorted by a young man named Tim, who was the son of my father’s friend. Tim was also the most annoying person I had ever, up to that day, encountered. He thought he was suave and sophisticated, he even ordered our dinner in French. It would have been wonderful if we had been in a French restaurant. But the restaurant was Italian and I was very embarrassed for my dimwitted date.

He ended up spilling wine on his tie and, and excused himself for the restroom. I decided to go up to the bar, and order a drink.

I sat down on the stool, and was prepared to wait for my turn, but the bartender went past all the men waiting to get their orders, and introduced himself to me.

“Hello, I’m Jake. Can I get this pretty girl a drink?”

A man at the bar started yelling, “Hey. HEY! You know, I was here first…C’mon Jake, y’know I was waitin’.”

“Where’s your manners, Nelson? It’s ladies first. She’s a lady, and she’s going to be the first.” Jake said, smiling at me.

The other guys were mumbling, and sounding pretty annoyed, and I overheard one of them say, “Yeah…he’s got the hots fer her.”

I smiled, trying to look confident, and I said, in a voice as deep and sexy as possible, “I’ll have an amaretto sour.” I wanted to sound older than my seventeen years. It sort of came out sounding like I had a cold, however, because he looked at me and, smiling, said, “You should take care of that. It sounds nasty.”

He made up my drink, then handed it to me, “This’ll fix you right up. My treat.” He winked, then walked over to where the overweight man named Nelson was seated, “Okay, soldier, what would you like?”

I watched Jake for awhile, sipping my drink and thought of his voice, soft and gentle, asking if he could get me a drink.

Then, Tim was there, tapping me on the shoulder. “Nora, let’s go. I feel like taking a walk.” He smiled, the corners of his mouth all pinched up, making hm resemble Howdy Doody. He glanced at Jake, saw my drink, and threw down two dollars, “Let’s go.”

I left with him, but looked back to see if Jake was watching me. He wasn’t. He was engrossed in telling two steely looking men a joke.

It came to me as a surprise, when, a week later, Jake was waiting outside my school for me. He was propped up against the wall near the doors where I came out, his hands stuck in his pockets.

I wasn’t sure if he was really there for me, or if there was another girl he was waiting there for. So I walked by him to test the waters.

“Whoa! Hey, wait up!” he came up beside me. “Remember me? Jake. From the bar.”

“Ah, that’s right. You served me first.” I smiled, and tried to look confident.

“I never got to ask you your name. Your…uh…boyfriend pulled you away.” He eyed me carefully.

“That creep was not my boyfriend.” I said coldly.

“Ah ha! I knew you had better taste than that!” he jumped around to the other side of me, and put his arm around me. “Yes, you look too intelligent to go out on a date with such a fastuous person as he.”

“You know Tim?” I asked, forgetting about trying to appear cool.

“Nah, he just seems like a class one jerk. So, do you want to do something tonight? See a movie? Grab a pizza? Anything but go to a bar.”

After that day, we were inseparable. All of my friends thought he was the nicest guy in the world. All of them, except me. I knew all the secrets behind those dark, stormy eyes. It took me two years, but now I knew everything….I knew things about Jake that would make people shiver. Now I forced together with him by sin. We were sinners, he and I. I used to love him…now, In was terrified of him.

SOOOOO…interesting, interesting. I’m trying to place when I wrote this…I did have a boyfriend that frightened me when I was in my early twenties. I wonder if this story was possibly my way of getting my fears and confusion out on paper? Hopefully, as I delve deeper, I’ll have the answer to that question. But for now, let’s look at the story and its problems.

There really are so many. Again, my commas are little ants spilling all over the page. And it appears I understand where to place commas before dialogue when my character speaks, but not afterwards. But those are simple to fix. The more difficult parts of this are: If that restaurant was so fancy-schmancy, why do the men at the bar all sound like farmers? And why does Tim disappear to the bathroom for sooo long? And what the heck is “fastuous” doing in my story? Who uses that word in regular speech? I must have just bought a new Thesaurus that day.

Also, Good Lord, this entire scene is written in “telling” mode. PLUS, the conversations are so…NOT interesting. And apparently, Nora thinks of herself as her own friend. (You did catch that awkward sentence, right?) This story needs an overhaul. Pronto.

The Revision:

I met Jake by chance.

I’d been on a date with my father’s golf buddy’s son. I was single by choice. This guy was single by natural selection.

The date with Tim Bernstein the Third wasn’t my idea. I had hippy-girl sensibilities. He planned on a military career. The conversation was certain to turn awkward. But Dad wanted to make a good impression on his pal, so I more or less became a commodity. Anything for the Patriarch of our family. Especially one that equivocated “family” with “burden.”

Tim’s doughy face turned pink when he laughed, which was all the time. Even when nothing was funny. He had a crewcut, which only dorks wore, and I guess he figured he’d impress me by wearing a monkey suit, like maybe he wanted a reason to wear a tux once in his life since no chick would want to marry him.

But the worst part of Tim Bernstein the Third was his cigarette breath. Every time he leaned in to speak to me, the stale stench of nicotine wafted from his mouth. After the calamari appetizer, he looked me in the eyes. I swear he was going in for a kiss. I wanted to gag.

“I need to find the ladies room.” I tossed my napkin onto my seat and left. Then, I sat in a stall, holding back laughter. This Tim Bernstein the Turd actually thought he’d get a kiss. From me. I was hardly hard up for a date. Didn’t he get that I was doing everyone a favor here? The laughter turned to a sob, and soon tears set fire to my eyes. I was so sick of going along with things that made me miserable. I was seventeen in a few months. Old enough to have a job. Old enough to get married and have kids if I wanted. So why was I going on blind dates with gross guys and jumping at every chance to please everyone?

I spent a few more minutes feeling sorry for myself, and when the pity party was over, I left the stall, patted my face with cold water, then reapplied my mascara and lipstick. I was just going to have to tell this Tim dude we had nothing in common.

Composed enough to walk out with some dignity, I left the bathroom and headed for our dinner table. But Tim wasn’t there.

I glanced around, thinking maybe he’d gone up to the bar for a drink, or maybe he bumped into someone he knew. Maybe he’d gone to the little boys’ room.

I sat down, flustered, pretending that I was waiting for my date to return, pretending I knew where he was. I glanced up at the bar again, and caught the bartender’s eye. He smiled. Waved me over. I looked behind me to make sure he wasn’t motioning to anyone else. Mollified, I left my seat.

I stepped up to the bar. “Yeah?”

“Your boyfriend left.”

“My…who?”

“The man in the blue frilly tuxedo. He got up and left. He even left you with the check.”

I shook my head. The Turd wouldn’t have left me. He drove me, I’d be stranded. “He probably stepped out for a cigarette.”

“Why didn’t he just light up at your table, then? We don’t keep ashtrays there for the decor.”

“I think he’ll be back, but thanks.”

I sat back down and noted the check for sixteen dollars. I pushed it closer to the Turd’s plate. And waited.

A half hour passed. My Coke was ice water. The calamari had gone cold. I looked inside my purse, but all I had was a five-spot. I couldn’t even afford to pay for the food we’d started to eat.

Oh my God. The Turd left me.

I dropped my head into my hands and tried to think what I should do next. I’d have to ask for the manager. Explain my plight. “Yeah, my date dumped me after the appetizer. I know he looked bad and smelled worse, but I’m still pretty miserable over it. Okay if I come back tomorrow to pay for the bill?”

Managers didn’t usually let anyone go home fed if they hadn’t been paid.

Someone tapped on my shoulder. The Turd had returned! I whipped around, but it was just the bartender from earlier.

“Hey, you okay?” he asked.

“I can’t pay the bill,” I whispered. I opened up my purse and showed him what I had.

The bartender sat in the Turd’s seat. “Don’t worry. I’ll cover it.”

“I-I can’t ask you to do that.”

“You didn’t ask. I offered. Listen, you’re better off losing him. The minute he walked in here, I knew he was an asshole.”

I brightened. “You did?”

“Hell, yeah. All puffed up like he was doing you a favor bringing you in here. I know the type. They feed off Daddy’s money. Think it’s impressing girls.”

“Not me,” I chuffed.

“Course not. Hey, I’m leaving work in an hour. What’s say we get you a real meal. Burger joint down the street.”

I laughed and looked him over. He actually was pretty cute. Tall. Brown, shaggy hair. Mustache. And big blue eyes so bright they probably blinded people in the sunlight.

“Two burgers?” he asked, upping the ante.

I grinned. “Yeah. Sure. That’d be great.”

“Great. Name’s Jake.” He winked and went back to the bar.

I didn’t even get a chance to tell him my name. But it didn’t matter. From that day, Jake and I were inseparable. Hardly ever saw us apart. People thought we made the cutest couple. And we really did. For a long time.

And for a while, I thought I was in love with him. But now, I was terrified of him.

So I kept the cliffhanger. But I made sweeping changes to the rest of it. I left out all other characters. They aren’t important to the story. And this time my MC used the bathroom and was in there a long time. So long, her date left. Which gave Jake the perfect time to sweep in and save this damsel in distress. It feels so much more natural. Plus, depending on how things go in this story, maybe he had something to do with Tim the Turd leaving. (That name came up unexpectedly. But it fits perfectly.)

So now I have set the plot in motion. We know Nora is with a man she is afraid of, but we don’t yet know why. Although, we might wonder if it has something to do with the person dragging something across the yard in the prologue. After all, why include that if it wasn’t related? We also know that she has a history of being “the nice girl,” which also must be important to the story, or why have her ruminate about it?

I’ve set up clues for what’s to come. Let’s see if, as a younger writer, I thought this out enough for everything to come together. Because right now, I have no idea what’s about to happen. Stay tuned!

Posted in Revisions on My Teen Work

Princess Revision: Chapter One – Scene One

Ah, here we go. Chapter One, the first scene. The first scene of any chapter is supposed to set the stage. Give us insight into the key players and their goals. Every scene must contribute to building the story and help us understand the character(s). So before you take a look at what my younger self wrote, think about these three questions. 1) What does the Main Character want? What is her goal? 2) How does she try to get to this goal? 3) What gets in her way of getting what she wants? If you can’t answer any of these questions soon into reading the story, then perhaps it needs to be rewritten.

July 26, 1967

The moonlight made me giddy, as I donned my pale pink gown for the dance. Susan and I were playing our favorite record by the Rolling Stones, and dancing about madly, excited and happy.

Note: My commas have gone crazy. Punctuation wasn’t my strong suit. Also…”donned” is a really old-fashioned word, even for the late 60s. Some “telling” in this paragraph that could be revised.

“Hey, should I wear these?” she asked, laughing, holding up some garters.

Note: Where did she come up with garters? Did she take them out of her pocket? It’s not as if people leave them lying around their homes on a regular basis.

“Oh, yeah…like you’re gonna need to wear those with Bobby tonight.” I said, yanking them out of her hand.

Note: This was written before I learned that a comma separates the quotation from the speaker.

She slid over to the mirror and started fiddling with her hair. “I don’t even know if he likes me.” she said.

Note: Mirror? Where? I never informed the reader of setting. That was a common feature I used to leave out in my stories. I sometimes still do. After all I know where my characters are! But it’s so important to set up the scene so that your reader has no doubt where it’s taking place. Subtle hints work. Mentioning sitting on her bed, maybe. Or her friend could take a blanket off the bed and wrap it around herself because she’s chilly. Although maybe not in July…but, you get the drift. Clues that help us identify where the story is taking place.

“He asked you to this dance, didn’t he?” I opened up the window, and stared up at the moon. A cloud drifted past it, casting an eerie shade of grey upon it, seeming almost to grow silver.

“Yeah, well, when you talked to him did he sound like he really wanted to go with me, or did he act like he was just desperate…well, not desperate. I don’t mean that, but…”

I was focusing on the cloud, but suddenly something else caught my attention. Something on the ground in the distance. It was like a shadow moving, slowly and meticulously. And something was being dragged beside it. I tried squinting my eyes to see the figure more closely, but it was too far away.

Note: This description sucks reptile eggs. “Like” a shadow moving? Squinting eyes to see figure more closely? As if eyes could be adjusted like a telescope. Also, get rid of all -ly adverbs. This could be written so much better without them.

“Earth to Nora. Come in Nora.” Susan’s voice mocked.

Note: Men didn’t visit the moon until 1969. Not sure this was even a saying back then.

“Well, I think he was genuinely interested.”

“I asked you if you think I should wear my hair up. What’s with you? Weren’t you listening?

“I…I wanted to answer your first question first. Um…wear your hair down.” I shut the window, and sat down on the bed.

“Geez, you’d think you were self-posessed or something. You know, maybe Bobby is interested…but maybe not in my mind. I mean, you know how I am. I have to have a guy like me in every way, and especially he has to be interested in what I have to say.” She shook her head, and her hair swayed around her shoulders.” I think you are lucky. You must be the luckiest girl in the world to have Jake.”

I ended the scene here, but really I should mention how Nora feels about this statement. Does she feel lucky?

Also, We really need to make Susan’s dialogue shorter and more intense. It doesn’t sound like someone speaking. It sounds like she’s reading an essay. Dialogue is essential to a story. The reader understands who the character is by how they speak, how they put things, and how they interact with the other characters through speech. So much is conveyed through dialogue. But, it also needs to have action attached. Sometimes what someone says does not coincide with what they’re doing as they speak. And this can give us even more clues to the character. remember, the more interesting the characters, the more interesting the story becomes.

My rewrite: So, I have quite a few ways I can rewrite this to make it stronger. Remember, we want someone to want to keep reading. And although the part about Jake could be a cliffhanger, it might be even more intense if we see hints about Jake not being the “perfect boyfriend.” Now, I haven’t read this story in thirty years, so I really have no idea if this is the case. But knowing the type of stories I used to write (and still do), all is not well for our naive Nora. And that keeps things interesting. I still don’t know my main character’s goal, either, but we can create one and make changes if it doesn’t work for this particular story.

I could read my story and rewrite that way. I might have a clue what the story is about. But nope. Let’s have fun with this, shall we?

July 26, 1967

The Rolling Stones’ “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction” warbled from the record player. I swayed to the music, watching my soft pink gown swish around my ankles in my full-length mirror. Susan jumped up and down on my bed, still in her bra and underwear, her freshly-pressed dress slumped over the bedpost.

“Oh my God, my palms are so sweaty,” I gushed. How was it possible to be this worked up over a stupid, meaningless college dance?

Your palms are sweaty? What have you got to be nervous about? You already know Jake is over the moon about you. I’m the one who needs to be freaked out.”

“No, you don’t. Bobby is your soulmate, remember? That’s what you’ve been saying for weeks.”

She dropped down onto my bed and sat on my now-rumpled quilt. “Well, yeah, Nora. He is. Completely and utterly. I just don’t think he knows it yet.”

He probably didn’t. And most likely wouldn’t. Susan went through guys like an alcoholic goes through beer. Only with less dignity.

“Should I wear my hair up?” She ran to my mirror and bopped me out of the way with her hip. “And maybe have tendrils down my cheeks? Guys like sexy tendrils, right?”

I needed air. My nerves left me light-headed. Sick to my stomach. What is wrong with me? I slipped over to my window, parted the curtains, and opened the sash. I gulped in the cool evening air. A cloud cast an eerie gray shadow across the full moon.

“Or do you think I should wear my hair down?” Susan asked, oblivious to my plight.

Something moved in the corner of the vacant lot behind my apartment. At first, I thought it might be a loose dog. Or maybe a coyote. But it moved too slow. as I focused on the figure, I realized it was a person struggling to drag something on the ground beside him or her. My breath caught in my throat. Who would be out there at this time of night? And what would they be doing?

“Up or down, Nora? Are you even listening to me?”

I backed away from the window and gave Susan an up-and-down glance. “Um…maybe if you put on your dress we could figure it out…” I returned to the window and looked out, but the figure was gone.

“You’re so lucky,” Susan said. “You already know you and Jake are going to end up together forever. Why can’t I find that type of love?”

I turned back to her and gave a tight-lipped smile. “Yeah. Lucky me,” I said. It came out more sarcastic than I’d meant it to, but Susan was too busy struggling into her dress to notice. She managed to squeeze into it somehow, even though it belonged to her much tinier sister.

“Think Bobby will be all over me?” She gave me a wicked smile.

“No doubt,” I said. “Keep your hair down. It’ll hide the hickies.”

She giggled like a giddy little girl and grabbed my hairbrush from the vanity. “Oh, Nora. You’re so funny sometimes.”

I’d been serious, but I laughed with her. My palms still felt damp. I didn’t want to see Jake tonight. Or ever again.

Cliffhanger! Now we know that despite pretending things are great, Nora is unhappy in her relationship. We also know she saw something odd outside and assume it’s connected to the story in an important way. We can also deduce Susan and Nora are close friends, hence Susan feeling comfortable jumping around half-naked. And they’re obviously in Nora’s apartment bedroom. So setting has been established. All this in just a bunch of paragraphs! Much better than my draft. Next up, scene two and bringing in backstory.

Posted in Revisions on My Teen Work

Princess Revision: The Prologue

Oh, do I have a treat for you! I found 41 pages of a novel I wrote when I was in college. It doesn’t have a date on it, but it was written on a word processor (remember those???) and that’s when I owned a word processor. Since this had to be over thirty years ago (egad!), I don’t remember much about this story at all. So that should make it fun for me to read. And even more exciting to edit my former self. Hmm. I wonder if it will give me insight into who I was as a young adult. Double hmm. Will I even want to know her?

All grammar, spelling, etc. is as originally typed. Although, as I retype it I am using one space after a period instead of two, which was common back then. I’m also leaving out indents. Let’s begin:

I remember it as if it were yesterday. I can even recall the smells of that morning…the pungent odor of rain beaten grass, and the sweet, angelic aroma of wind blown flowers. It was the day after the big storm that sent many of us scurrying to our houses in a panic. Sometimes our storms can be very severe, and it takes a real effort to remain footed to the ground. But that next morning, I had this sense of peace, as if the storm had only been an illusion, and the uprooted small, fragile trees were only a mirage.

That day, as I walked past the flooded ditches, I had a fleeting glimpse of the Virgin Mary, and she was reaching out to me as if to give me comfort. But she had only been a momentary sighting, so I couldn’t say if it was my imagination, or some strange, ghostly reality.

I know that now all this means nothing…and if I could just have that day back, I would change the way everything happened, and I wouldn’t be here now. I wouldn’t be stuck here like some caged animal, hurting from the inside out. I would be able to smell the mornings again, and watch the storms grow wild. I could appreciate that now. I don’t think storms could frighten me anymore…not like they used to.

Okay, not a bad start! Prologues are tricky and a lot of “how-to-write” books beg people not to use them. But, as you will see in Chapter One, the next part of the story starts in the past, so I can prologue-it with the best of ’em.

These three paragraphs are basically the worm dangling on the hook. The biggest issue here, besides the common commas, is that we really have NO IDEA who this character is or why we should care about her. Also, the descriptions are…well….lame. I like “pungent odor of rain-beaten grass,” but “angelic aroma of wind-blown flowers”? Not doing it for me. Though, bless her heart, the young author tried to be romantic. I think I was, once. A long time ago.

Here is what I’d do to make this story have a stronger start:

My room smells like rotting fish and copper. The cracked, peeling paint on the windowless walls reveals what was once Victorian style wallpaper. It may have been a beautiful closet once. Large enough to hang hoops, bustles, velvet wraps and all the embellished bonnets a woman of privilege could collect. Perhaps a mirror sat propped in the corner. A lady-in-waiting preparing to help the elegant woman with her cumbersome attire. A light bulb attached to the ceiling…no, a small chandelier.

The light bulb, I have. The only luminosity I’ve seen in countless months. But now I picture the chandelier as its soft light picks up the shine in the mistress’s eyes. Her gaunt servant buttoning up the lavish, fur-hemmed coat. An emerald glistens from the rich woman’s ring finger…

I am going mad.

My cot squeaks and rattles beneath my body as I lay across the threadbare quilt and squeeze my eyes so hard I see stars. A rumble shakes my room, and my heart seizes. I open my eyes and stare hard at the wall, holding my breath, straining my ears. Another rumble trembles the room.

Thunder. I can only imagine the lightning that precedes it. I used to be afraid of these types of storms. The sound deafening, my entire body jolted as if by electricity. But no, that was just my fear. A fear I no longer hold. It died along with my soul that day; the day the wind blew so fierce it lifted our feet, stole us from the ground. Women dashed to their homes, screaming for their children. Men rushed to pull shutters closed. The entire world was gray, the storm had chased away all color. Like the Wizard of Oz. Except, unlike Dorothy, I’d made it inside. Safe. Unharmed. Home.

The next morning I’d left the house to find uprooted trees, their snarled roots like angry snakes. The pungent odor of rain-beaten grass. Flooded ditches and puddles wide as cars. I walked through our town, the sun beating against my pale skin, birds chirping sweet songs, the breeze a caress across my cheek. It seemed impossible that just hours before we’d all run through the streets in a panic. Last night felt like a bad dream.

As I crossed the street, I caught a fleeting glimpse of the Virgin Mary. She reached out her arms, as if to comfort me. I gasped, and she was gone. A miracle. A mirage. A mirror, perhaps. But, definitely not a comfort. I blinked and shook my head. She didn’t return.

If only I could get that day back. Rewind and replay. I’d do so many things differently. Then I wouldn’t be here, like some caged animal, daydreaming about the people who used this room as its proper function. If I could just have that day back, I’d be able to smell the air again. Feel the grass beneath my feet. Feel loved again. Feel a man’s breath against my neck. So many things I no longer had and missing the one thing I took for granted: My freedom.

If I could just have that day returned to me, I would never be scared of storms again.

What I changed: We now know a little more about this person. We know she’s a woman (at least, we can assume it pretty easily). We know she is in a room. Solitary. And it’s small enough to be a large closet. And it hasn’t been kept up. We know she has been there a while and she’s feeling as if she’s losing her mind.

We want to know what happened that put her in this place. What was it that happened to her that took away her freedom. We’re curious about the person she was when she was frightened of storms.

I kept quite a bit of what I’d previously written, and maybe that would change if I read the story in its entirety. Is the Virgin Mary going to play a part in this story? What is the significance of her seeing such an iconic religious symbol? How does it tie into the story?

What do you think? Is the Prologue better now that it’s been rewritten? What might you have done differently? Feel free to share in the comments.

Posted in The Creative Life

Five Things Writers Do to Ruin Their Stories

Photo by Viktoria Alipatova on Pexels.com

Even seasoned authors make mistakes. We’re all human, right? But what if I could share with you five ways you might be doing a disservice to yourself…and to your coveted reader?

  1. Too many cooks in the kitchen

This is always a recipe for disaster. And what I mean by this phrase is that it’s possible to too many opinions. Not everyone has the same taste. One person might prefer a lot of spice, another may feel the meal is too salty, and some might find it hard to swallow. In other words, when having your work critiqued, keep in mind that this is your story. If you take everyone’s advice, you’ll edit your voice right out of your story.

I’ve learned a way to determine if the advice is warranted. First of all, I stick to seven critiquers (or less). If I take advice from too many people, my crust becomes soggy and dense instead of light and fluffy. Second of all, I check to see if more than one person agrees with a particular issue. If, for example, only one person has an issue with naming twins Cassie and Corey and no one else is confused by the ‘C’ names, then I will keep it. But, if three or four people tell me that they kept getting the two confused, I might check to see if it’s the names that are the problem, or if I have made the twins too similar in personality.

When people read your work, they may have suggestions that stifle your character’s voice. Or slow down the pacing at a critical moment. Or want you to give up too much information too soon in your story. (I’m sure you’ve all been there!) Yes, it’s important to keep an open mind when evaluating critiques, but just like with any choice you make in life, you want to be sure you agree with the advice you ultimately accept.

Here’s a personal example: Years ago, I took a writing course through Writer’s Digest (highly recommended if you need help with motivation). The short story that came out of it needed critiquing, and I had a group I went to on a regular basis. I trusted the members and felt they usually had great comments to make. But after they read my story, one of them had an issue with the plot. This woman, a well-meaning friend of mine, hadn’t read teen fiction and didn’t understand what I’d been trying to say in this particular story. She had many ideas on changes I should make. I listened, as I know best to do, but the advice didn’t resonate with me. Had I made changes based on her feedback, my story probably wouldn’t have sold to Cicada. It wasn’t that she was a poor reviewer, she just had a different perception of how the story should go. She wanted to turn my boeuf bourguignon into beef stew. And substitute chicken.

2. He said/she said dilemma

We’re told to give description and supply information so we can watch a scene unfold. But I cannot tell you how many times a writer has done this by simply changing up a dialog tag. Here is an example:

“You must be joking,” said Wendell.

“I’m not,” said Leslie.

“Who wants a hot dog?” asked Peter.

“This is preposterous,” said Wendell.

So, a writer might think, I know how to make this more interesting! And he fixes it to look like this:

“You must be joking,” gasped Wendell.

“I’m not,” Leslie said, flat-toned.

“Who wants a hot dog?” interrupted Peter.

“This is preposterous,” muttered Wendell.

It’s basically a list of who said what and in what tone. And now, instead of sliding through “said” with ease, we’re stuck on each sentence, imagining the tone while not seeing the scene. Very disconcerting. There’s nothing wrong with using “said.” However, action should break up the pattern. Which brings us to point three…

3) Get active!

Writers are told to include action to help move the story along. But you can further wreck your story by doing this. Let’s use our previous example and add action:

“You must be joking!” Wendell picked up his hamburger.

“I’m not.” Leslie took a sip of Limeade.

“Who wants a hot dog?” Peter waved a weiner on a stick.

“This is preposterous!” Wendell threw down his hamburger and it spilled across the table.

This is really just a laundry list of things occurring. Sure, we’ve increased interest, after all, food is flying around. Some people might say, “Well, then, let’s do all of that…use “said,” more descriptive dialog tags, and action tags. Here is what you might come up with:

“You must be joking,” gasped Wendell, picking up his hamburger.

“I not,” said Leslie. She took a sip of Limeade.

“Who wants a hot dog?” interrupted Peter, waving a weiner on a stick.

“This is preposterous,” muttered Wendell. He threw down his hamburger and it spilled across the table.

Better? Sure, except it still sounds like a list. Time to break up the sentence structure. Let’s move some things around:

“You must be joking,” gasped Wendell, picking up his hamburger.

Leslie took a sip of Limeade. “I’m not.”

Who wants,” interrupted Peter, waving a weiner on a stick, “a hot dog?”

Wendell threw down his hamburger and it spilled across the table. “This is preposterous!”

Okay, better, still. However, it still isn’t giving us a clear picture of the scene unfolding before us. If you continue “fixing” your story this way, it’s going to sound forced and contrived and the reader is distanced from the characters’ psychology. Which brings me to point four.

4) All your dirty laundry in a heap

To combat this issue, writers might decide to share everything we need to know about the characters upfront. One of the problems with this is that it becomes a mass of “data dump.” And why is “data dump” frowned upon? Because it takes us out of the story. The reader might lose track of what’s occurring in the scene and be confused as to what is happening. But writers decide this is great filler material. And now the reader will understand why the characters are acting they way they do. Brilliant, right? Here’s an example:

“You must be joking,” gasped Wendell, picking up his hamburger. He’d always been a meat-eater. Always enjoyed beef, chicken, pork. Grilling made everything taste better, and this backyard barbecue was a perfect time for him to argue with Leslie. In front of witnesses. So they could see what a little bitch she really was.

Leslie took a sip of Limeade. “I’m not.” She would remain calm. Unflustered. This was so like Wendell to make a mess in front of mixed company. Well, she would show him. The day they were married, she knew they’d be bumping heads. Especially since he kept correcting her on the way she chose to say her vows. People noticed, but Leslie, who was an expert at appearing relaxed, prattled on, ignoring him.

Who wants,” interrupted Peter, waving a weiner on a stick, “a hot dog?” Tiffs like this made him nervous. Everyone should be able to get along. The world needed more peace. And yet, two of his best friends, warmongers, couldn’t stop arguing for two seconds. Not even at his son’s graduation party. His son almost hadn’t passed high school, so this was a momentous occasion. Didn’t these two understand that?

Wendell threw down his hamburger and it spilled across the table. “This is preposterous!” As soon as his hamburger hit the filthy table, he regretted it. That beautiful hamburger in all its meatiness. And it was all Leslie’s fault for getting him so upset.

Besides this being what’s called “head-hopping,” and often frowned upon in literature, it also carries us in so many different directions. Sure, we’re learning more about the characters, but we’re flying off in so many directions, we don’t know if we should care about Wendell’s anger at Leslie, their wedding, Peter’s son, or Wendell’s odd attachment to his hamburger. Like, couldn’t he just ask Peter to cook him up a fresh one?

5. Explaining everything through dialog

Occasionally, we’ll hear advice on how to prevent data dump, and one effective way to do this is by using dialog. But let’s explore this. If we took that to task in our example with Wendell and Leslie, it might look like this:

“You must be joking,” gasped Wendell, picking up his hamburger. “At least you’ve chosen a perfect time to argue with me. In front of witnesses. So they can all see what a little bitch you are.”

“I’m not.” Leslie took a sip of Limeade. “And yes, this is the perfect time to spill our tea. From the day we married, I knew we’d bump heads. Especially since you kept correcting me on the way I chose to say my vows. People noticed, you know. But I took the high road and ignored you.”

Who wants a hot dog,” interrupted Peter, waving a weiner on a stick. “Come on, guys. You know tiffs like this make me nervous. The world needs more peace. And yet, my two best friends can’t stop arguing for two seconds. Not even at my son’s graduation party. which is a momentous occasion. He almost didn’t graduate, remember.”

“This is preposterous!” Wendell threw down his hamburger and it spilled across the table. “Damn it! Leslie, see what you made me do?”

So, we’ve improved this a little because now we see the psychology behind the characters. Compare this to our first draft:

“You must be joking,” said Wendell.

“I’m not,” said Leslie.

“Who wants a hot dog?” asked Peter.

“This is preposterous,” said Wendell.

We’ve gone far, haven’t we? But now, we need to know, whose story is this? Which character are we rooting for? Do we root for Leslie, who is standing up to her brute of a husband? Or Peter, who just wants to enjoy celebrating his son’s success? Or Wendell, who has a problem controlling his temper and needs to find a way to communicate better? When writers don’t have a particular protagonist in mind, it’s a difficult story to wrap up. Sure, we could have more than one protagonist. Perhaps it’s a story of how Leslie and Peter fell in love, told from Peter’s and Leslie’s different POVs. Or it’s a story about how Leslie murdered her husband to get away from his overbearing presence, told by Leslie’s POV. Or it’s Wendell’s journey into understanding himself and what’s led him to this angry place, told through Wendell’s POV. Sure are a lot of options. But, you probably want to narrow it to one. Will it be romance, mystery, or literary? This decision alone will improve your story.

So we’ve gone over five ways a writer can ruin his or her story. The first being taking advice from too many critiquers. The second, overusing dialog tags to show how a character responds. The third, overusing action tags so something occurs in each sentence. The fourth, giving us too much information upfront that isn’t dealing with the issue at hand. And fifth, using too much dialog to explain what characters are feeling or thinking, and missing out on an opportunity to present the protagonist to the reader.

I am happy to answer any questions. 🙂

Posted in The Creative Life

So You Wanna Write a Book: Pacing Problems (Part Four)

black tortoise standing
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

What is a Pacing Problem?

Have you ever read a book where you wanted to skim through long passages to get to the meat of the story? Maybe your mind wandered to the laundry that still needed to be put away. Or you remembered you hadn’t eaten dinner. All these little moments going through your head while the author prattles on and on about an itchy patch of skin on a character’s leg. Meantime, you’re screaming, “Get some cortisone cream already, lady!”

Or maybe an event occurs immediately following a scene that has nothing to do with the mentioned event. One moment, a character is wondering why the murder weapon is in her friend’s hand, the next, she’s tackling her and turning the weapon on this friend. It all happens so fast, we have to read the passage again to see if we missed a paragraph somewhere. But nope. The author put the cake in the oven without blending the ingredients.

Both of these situations point painfully to pacing problems.

Let’s discuss how to fix pacing issues that either slow the story down or rush a scene into confusion.

Slow Sammy

A “Slow Sammy” is when the pacing moves at a snail’s pace. Let me give you an example:

Daniel’s heart hammered in his chest as he raced down the sidewalk to his apartment. He knew Jeremy was right behind him. Oh, sure, he couldn’t see him, but he could hear him. Jeremy’s breathing was like Darth Vader on steroids and the thump-thumping of Jeremy’s sneakers on the concrete echoed through the dark streets. 

Just as Daniel reached the front door, a hand gripped his shoulder. The hand was all hard muscle with all five fingers pushing into his soft flesh. It was similar to the days when Tim and Ben used to beat him up on the playground. They would grab him by the collar and push him to the ground just like Jeremy was doing now. Only Jeremy was bigger and angrier and would probably hurt him pretty bad. 

What’s wrong with those two paragraphs? They’re not terribly written. They conjure up some suspense. We get an idea that Daniel is scared. But…something isn’t quite right. It still feels, well, dull. Why? Because the sentences aren’t written to sound urgent. In fact, Daniel seems pretty preoccupied with his thoughts. Fear is overshadowed by detailed thinking.

So what can the writer do to make the pacing stronger for this passage?

  1. Shorten some of the sentences. (cross-out)
  2. Avoid misplaced humor.
  3. Get rid of the “conversational tone.” 
  4. Delete any “information dump.”
  5. Give us more of the five senses and some internal dialog.

Let’s take a look at some changes to the scene:

Daniel’s heart hammered in his chest as he raced down the sidewalk to his apartment, Daniel raced down the sidewalk to his apartment, heart hammering in his chest, He knew Jeremy was right behind him. Oh, sure, he couldn’t see him, but he could hear him. Jeremy’s breathing was like Darth Vader on steroids and the thump-thumping of Jeremy’s sneakers on the concrete echoed through the dark streets. 

Just as Daniel reached the front door, a hand gripped his shoulder. The hand was all hard muscle. with all five fingers pushing into his soft flesh. It was similar to the days when Tim and Ben used to beat him up on the playground. They would grab him by the collar. and push him to the ground. just like Jeremy was doing now. Only Jeremy was bigger and angrier and would probably hurt him pretty bad. The stench of Jeremy’s body odor overpowering. I’m done for, Daniel admitted. Why was I so stupid?

New and improved:

Daniel raced down the sidewalk to his apartment, heart hammering in his chest,  Jeremy right behind him. The thumping of Jeremy’s sneakers on concrete echoed through the dark streets. 

Just as Daniel reached the front door, a hand gripped his shoulder. All hard muscle. Fingers pushing into soft flesh. The stench of Jeremy’s body odor overpowering. I’m done for, Daniel admitted. Why was I so stupid?

See how much more immediate that is? You want to find places where Slow Sammy has arrived to sabotage your writing and quicken the pacing when necessary. It’s especially helpful to keep the pacing fast-paced during stressful, panicky, or fearful moments and when employing most flashbacks.

Fast Freddy

A Fast Freddy, however, is when the pacing moves so quickly that something is lost in the moment. An example:

Daniel raced down the sidewalk, Jeremy right behind him through dark streets. 

Daniel reached the front door. Jeremy grabbed him. I’m done for, Daniel admitted. Why was I so stupid?

We’ve lost an emotional connection with Daniel. The five senses are missing. We don’t know where he’s headed or understand how he knows he’s being chased. Jeremy grabs him, but we aren’t getting the full effect of it because there isn’t enough information, and certainly not the kind that keeps us glued to our seat wondering what will happen next. When a scene feels too rushed, consider adding to the subplot, including more details, or preventing too much from occurring all at once.

One place where I find writers often have Fast Freddy issues are in the denouement of the story. The climax has been completed. Now the loose ends are resolved and the story comes to a close. A writer might spend twenty pages setting up the plot, and now this same writer spends half a page ending the story. Most of the time, the writer is trying to tie everything up in a splendid tight-fitting package so he or she can type “the end” and get on with his or her life. But often here is where the novel can be stretched just a tad. Maybe something happens to show that the protagonist learned a lesson. Or maybe it shows the protagonist didn’t learn a lesson after all. Or maybe it’s just a poignant moment that lives in the reader’s heart long after the book’s cover has been closed.

Slow Sammy and Fast Freddy issues are two pacing problems that are easily fixable with some editing know-how. The best way to determine where your pacing has become too slow or moved too fast is to have someone read it and mark places where he or she’s lost interest or become confused about what’s happening. Or you can put away your work for a month or two and read it with fresher eyes. This works best if you read several well-written books in your genre in the meantime.

This is a five-part series developed by K.L. Gore for Lilac City Rochester Writers, presented on October 27th, 2018.

Coming Up:
-Discovering where your character’s arc has flattened

Posted in The Creative Life, Writing Advice for Everyone

So You Wanna Write A Book: Find Repetitive, Redundant, Reoccurring Words

abstract architecture auditorium boxes
Photo by Scott Webb on Pexels.com

When you put on that editing hat, one of your jobs is to locate dull, repetitive words and cliché phrases that put readers to sleep.

We All Have Our Faves

I have a short list of words I love so much that I have to be cognizant of them in my manuscripts. My apparent favorite is “just.” As in, “I just don’t get it.” Or “I was just ready to run inside when…” Or “Just as I suspected…” I might have used that dang word five times on one page. So I use the “Find” tool on my computer to highlight all the “just” words in my manuscript. Then, I conquer and delete them as needed.

But how did I realize my fascination with the word “just” in the first place? After all, these overused words are sneaky and know how to hide. One way to discover them is to have someone read your first few chapters and highlight words that pop up frequently. We all have them, but they’re tough to find on our own.

Another way to locate overused words in your writing is to Google “most common overused words in writing,” then use that handy “find” tool to see if you’re guilty of overusing those words yourself. One article I found helpful is from Grammarly.

Words that will seem overused, like “says, the, and” don’t count. I know, you’ve probably already figured that out, but I’ve been asked that question, so I figured I’d share the answer.

Dull Words Are So Boring

One of my pet peeves (and anyone who has received one of my critiques knows this) is when writers use phrases such as “She went to her car” or “He went north on Church Street.” Went is such a nothing word. Even saying, “He veered his car up Church Street” is better than banal ol’ went. And maybe she slips into her car. Descriptive words help the reader visualize your story better.

Others that annoy me:

  • “She noticed something in the bushes.” – way too general. What does her eye catch in the bushes? A flash of pink? Branches shaking? Something is a useless word that can almost always be replaced.
  • “Sat, look, saw” – all of these words are okay used once or twice…but let’s get more creative if characters are going to be sitting, looking, or seeing often in your story.
  • “He didn’t say anything.” – Okay, we know he’s not speaking, right? Because, you know, dialog is missing. Maybe his facial reaction is all we need. “His eye-muscle twitched.” There you go. The sentence is now descriptive rather than redundant.
  • “She began to smile.” – Um. No. She smiled. End of story. Pun intended.

Clichés are so…clichéd.

Please, please, please…unless your character speaks with clichés because that’s the sort of person he or she is, don’t use them. Find a more clever way to say “sliced as easy as a hot knife through butter” or “scared the hell out of her.” They’re overused, they’ve lost their originality, and a reader will scan through it without much notice. And if you want to argue that these are tried and true sayings, feel free. But editors and my agent have pointed out clichéd phrases in my own work…phrases I didn’t catch because I was so used to using them!…and politely asked me to find a fresh way to give my point. Use that creative brain of yours to turn a new phrase. Then, pat yourself on the back for being so awesome.

Let’s Talk About Weasels

Not the cute, wily animals, but the words. Examples include: very, suddenly, that, basically, like, quite, practically…the list goes on.

So what makes them weasel-ish? They’re sneaky. That’s right…they aren’t noticeable at first. But they’re there…and guess what? They know how to take over your writing. I like this post on Weasel Words by Keli Gwyn. She does a great job pointing out how Weasel Words are ineffective.

Cutting out these useless words can tighten up your prose. It turns a long, drawn-out passage into a succinct, clear one. The trick to finding them is going through each sentence with a fine-toothed comb. (Did you spot my cliché?) If you can take a word out of the sentence and it doesn’t drastically change the meaning or context of the sentence, you’ve eliminated a Weasel Word. Now, go ahead and use the “find” tool to locate that word throughout the rest of your script. Decide whether or not that word should stay. Edit accordingly.

Cut Out the Repetition

Okay, so you’ve found your overused words, scrapped the clichés, and destroyed the weasels. Now, it’s time to find words that live too close to the same words, even though they have different meanings. For example:

Her mouth twisted into a sinister smile. She watched the twister as it swirled and twisted through the sky. It would hit the ice cream shop next. Where she and Ben both ordered twist cones. And now it would be gone forever. She laughed, realizing how twisted that sounded.

Yes, I exaggerated for effect. Anyone in their right mind would realize they’d overplayed on the word “she.”

Haha, kidding. But you get the idea. The word “twist” needs to be replaced so it’s only used once. It’s amazing how easy it is to use the same word several times on a page in different contexts and not realize it. In this case, I suggest putting away the manuscript and coming back to it with fresh eyes in order to locate repeated words.

Writing Exercises:

Edit these paragraphs so that they’re no longer redundant, repetitive, contain clichés, or too wordy.

  1. Theresa stood outside in the cold, practically freezing her butt off. Her boyfriend had told her off, but she stood her ground. Which was why she was standing outside in the cold watching him drive away, her suitcase by her really frigid feet.
  2. Matt went toward the yelping dog, holding out a friendly hand. He hoped the dog’s bark was worse than its bite, he really didn’t want a gash in his palm. The dog bared its fangs and growled. Obviously, this wasn’t a friendly animal. But maybe he could get on its good side.
  3. Robots make much better pets than animals. For one thing, they clean up after themselves. Even though you can’t exactly pet or cuddle a robot, they’re still a more easier option. And definitely cleaner.

This is a five-part series developed by K.L. Gore for Lilac City Rochester Writers, presented on October 27th, 2018. Articles:

  • Fixing pacing issues that either slow the story down or rush a scene into confusion
  • Discovering where your character’s arc has flattened
Posted in The Creative Life, Writing Advice for Everyone

So You Wanna Write a Book: Replacing -ly Adverbs

Once upon a time, my literary agent found the one -ly adverb I snuck into my manuscript and made me ditch it

What?!? Why Shouldn’t I Use -ly Adverbs?

I know, I know. Many favorite novels have -ly adverbs up the ying-yang. (One fine example is the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling). I think she gets a pass, however, because her books are so long that if she were to take out every -ly adverb and substitute it for something else, the novels would be so thick they’d no longer fit in our hands. So believe me when I say there are a time and a place for using them.

The reason why we writers are told to strike them from our work is that often it’s considered “lazy” writing and contributes to “telling” versus the ever-loved “showing.” For example, take a look at the two sentences below. Which one is more interesting to read?

Sandra set down the sword carefully while Frank wildly flailed his around merrily.

Sandra placed the sword on the ground as if it were made of glass while Frank flailed his weapon in choppy slices through the air and whooped with laughter. 

Both sentences say the same thing, but one is much more descriptive and places an image in the reader’s mind. When we give the reader a strong description of what’s happening, the reader develops a picture in his or her mind and thus we are “showing” the reader what’s happening.

 However, as you can see, one sentence is much shorter than the other. This is great news if you need to make your book longer, but unfortunate if your book already has more words than an unabridged dictionary. Luckily, you are in editing mode, which means you’ll be cutting a whole mess of words from your manuscript. This means you can use the highlight approach to -ly adverbs.

The Highlight Approach to -ly Adverbs

The “Find” function on your computer should be your best friend during the editing process. It most certainly will be when you enter “ly” into it and locate all those sneaky adverbs you hadn’t even realized you’d used. You may find your manuscript speckled with them! So…time to get down to eradicate most, if not all, of them.

First of all, examine your sentence. Is there a way to say it better? If not, move on. But here are a few secrets:

  1. Most of the time, “suddenly” can be obliterated altogether. It can feel redundant. For example: Suddenly, Captain Hawk burst into the room. “Burst” already shows us that this movement is sudden. So writing Captain Hawk burst into the room has the same effect, only more succinct.
  2. Maybe you’ve used a clichéd phrase such as “Slowly and deliberately…” Like any phrase that’s been overused, people just read over it and move onto the fresh part of the sentence. Marianne walked to the podium slowly and deliberately. Ok. So I can tell she’s not moving very quickly and perhaps that she’s doing it to make some kind of impact on the audience she’s about to acknowledge. If she is your protagonist, it would be more exciting to understand why she is walking this way to the podium. Marianne placed one foot in front of the other, legs heavy as cement, as she gauged how many people were in the audience. Here we see she is nervous. But let’s say she’s angry and determined to make an impact with her speech. Marianne took her time as she made her way to the podium. Nervous coughs and muffled whispers came from the audience. She failed to hide her smile. Now we see Marianne enjoys the audience’s discomfort. See how we can make “slowly and deliberately” become more specific?
  3. You might be able to take out the -ly adverb without impacting your sentence at all. Angrily, she frowned. Do we need that adverb? She frowned. Nope. How about She pushed her way quickly through the crowd. What if we shorten it to She pushed through the crowd. Same thing, right? So try taking out the -ly adverb before changing your sentence. You may discover that’s all you need to do.
  4. Using them in a dialog is okay! People occasionally use them in their speech (see what I did there?). “I really don’t like you.” or “Basically, I make pancakes that way.” If your character has a certain way of speaking, those -ly adverbs may come off as sounding natural. Just read the dialog out loud to make sure it doesn’t sound…well…weird.

Help! I Don’t Like Getting Rid of my -ly Adverbs

If you’re attached to those pesky but helpful adverbs, by all means, keep them. Will taking them out improve your story? YES! Will taking them out change your life? NO! A good story is a good story no matter what, and not all agents and editors detest them. In fact, you may find they work better in your story…maybe they add humor while shortening the sentence. Maybe it’s a one-word sentence to create an impact. For example: She spit out the sandwich. She didn’t like it. Obviously. This especially works well in first-person because you are using “internal dialog.” And remember, -ly adverbs are acceptable when a character is speaking. Even to him or herself.

I Need Practice

Don’t we all? Here are three sentences where I use -ly adverbs. Can you find a better way to say these sentences by eschewing the -ly adverbs?

  1. He touched her face tenderly.
  2. “I never loved you,” she said bitterly.
  3. The child smiled sweetly and lightly pecked her cheek.

What can you come up with? Feel free to let me know in the “comments” section.

Now What?

Now start using that “find” function on your computer to locate the -ly adverbs. Go through each sentence with care (or “carefully,” haha) to see if there’s a better way to describe what you’re letting the reader know. If there’s a stronger way, bravo! Most likely you’ve shifted into “showing” mode. Compare the old sentence with the new sentence. Can you feel the energy emanating from the fresh sentence? Course you can! Now get out there and see how many -ly adverbs you can discover. And watch your prose come alive.

This is a five-part series developed by K.L. Gore for Lilac City Rochester Writers, presented on October 27th, 2018.

Coming Up:
-Locating dull or repetitive words and cliche phrases that put readers to sleep
-Fixing pacing issues that either slow the story down or rush a scene into confusion
-Discovering where your character’s arc has flattened

Photo 805

Oh no! But…I really, really, really love my -ly adverbs.