Category Archive: Editing

How to Straighten Your Story’s Spine

Sometimes I write a story where lots of exciting stuff happens, my protagonist is proactive and has a goal, and I’m hitting all the right beats (if you don’t know what those are, check out this post on the 15 Story Beats), yet the story still feels flat. What’s wrong? What am I missing?

The truth of the matter is often I’m not missing anything. I spend a lot of time developing my stories and I know all the story parts that I need to make a story sing, but effectively implementing those parts into a manuscript is a whole other challenge. In a manuscript, those parts can get out of whack or lost or muddy. So how do you fix it?

By doing something we screenwriters often call “tracking the story’s spine.” A story’s spine is the character arc woven into the plot; the two should always go together just like your vertebrae and your spinal cord. Tracking a story’s spine means making sure the protagonist’s transformation (arc) is addressed in EVERY SCENE of the journey (plot). Because after all, as I’ve said before (specifically in this post about character journeys), every story is about change.

So let’s get started…

To track a story’s spine, you need to know these 3 Basic Story Parts:

  1. What’s the Character Change?

  2. What’s the Inner Conflict?

  3. What’s the Big Story Question?

Part 1: In order to have a character arc, the protagonist needs to change. They have to start out one way (flawed and not the best person they could be) and end up another (flaw overcome and better because of the journey – that is if the story follows a positive arc; negative arcs are the opposite). For example, in my WIP the heroine starts out doing bad things like using people to try to get ahead. By the end of the story she needs to change into someone who doesn’t do bad things to succeed.

Part 2: Because of their character flaw, the protagonist will have an Inner Conflict. For a detailed explanation of what that is, read this post. In general, Inner Conflict is a desire for two things the hero wants (one of which is their outer Goal), but the catch is the hero can’t have both. So the whole story the protagonist must constantly choose between these two wants. Back to my WIP example, the heroine wants to be a better person (stop doing bad things like using people) but also wants a better life (her Goal is to escape the cycle of poverty by getting a college scholarship), yet she believes she needs to do bad things to achieve that. So yeah, she’s conflicted.

Part 3: The Big Story Question is the will/won’t issue based on the Inner Conflict. Basically, in my story the question is: Will the heroine get a better life? The writer must make the protagonist face that question in every scene, and alternate between scenes that make us and the protagonist think they WILL succeed, followed by scenes that make us think they WON’T. And this question always pivots on the protagonist’s Inner Conflict.

Not lining up the story’s spine is an easy blunder for writers to make, mainly because though we may KNOW the character’s arc, we don’t SHOW it in the plot. Note that I said “show” it, not “tell” it. You can’t solve this problem with internal monologue alone. The character transformation (arc) must manifest itself through actions (plot).

In conclusion, to straighten your story’s spine, check each scene for these 3 things and make adjustments accordingly:

#1 – Change. How does this scene influence your character’s arc? It can be a step forward or a step back, as long as something changes.

#2 – Inner Conflict. Which “want” is your hero leaning towards in this scene? Make sure to alternate this from scene to scene. After all, a hero who favours one desire over the other isn’t very conflicted.

#3 – Big Story Question. Does this scene ask the big, overall question? If not, your story has probably veered off course. Either cut the scene or revise it to make it relevant.

You can test your own manuscript, or a book you’re reading. I bet a million smiley face emojis that books that aren’t very engaging don’t have straight spines! Let me know in the comments what you find out. 🙂 Now I’m off to straighten my story’s spine…


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6 Ways to End a Book in a Series

6 Ways To end a book in a seriesIt’s not surprising that many writers want to create a book series. A series will often sell more books, and they can be faster and easier to write. Writing a series is such a big deal it’s not uncommon to hear aspiring novelists, many of them still working on the first draft of their first book, already talking about books two, three and beyond. There are many resources for plotting a series, but few on how to transition between series books smoothly.

Here are six ways to end a book in a series.

  • Make it a forgone conclusion:

    Weave clues about the follow-up books from the opening chapters of the first book and never stop. Even if a reader had no background knowledge of the Harry Potter universe, they would still realize there are more books to come. One clue the books end at the natural transition point of summer vacation, and all the characters mention returning for the next term. Although we don’t know what adventures Harry will face in the next book, we know he has many years of schooling to have these adventures in.

  • Harry Potter setLeave the boss villain in play:

    This is something else the Harry Potter books use as a clue. Voldemort and his minions are still alive. When Sherlock Holmes defeats a plan of Moriarty’s, or James Bond defeats one of Specter’s agents, the source of the conflict, the evil mastermind, or the agency that controls the criminal element, often remains alive. The hero has won the battle, but not the war. It’s only a matter of time before these forces are ready to launch a fresh attack.

  • Catching_fireCliffhanger it:

    I love a good chapter cliffhanger, but in series books, not as much of a fan. However, the cliffhanger ending is super popular. There are two prevailing methods of doing a series cliffhanger. The first is to maintain a single story arc that bridges over many volumes. Lord of the Rings is a perfect example. For this method the author will try to select an exciting part of the story and stop. The second way is to resolve the main plot of the book, but throw in a last-minute ending twist. This critical new plot development leaves the characters in fresh conflict and often still in peril. Catching Fire has a fantastic cliffhanger, and it creates the perfect transition into the last book in the Hunger Games trilogy.

  • Narnia SetShut the door, but open a window:

    This method gives the reader a full experience: there is a completed story arc, and it includes a satisfying conclusion. However, there is also a lurking loose end, something that doesn’t promise of another book, but leaves a lingering possibility of one. My favorite example of this is The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. Although the Professor seems sure no one can return to Narnia by way of the wardrobe, he seems equally sure (with good reason) that there are other methods still available. After all, once a King or Queen of Narnia, always a King or Queen of Narnia.

  • Include the first chapter of the next book:

    This works great when book one is fully resolved, but there will be a subplot or secondary character from book one that will spark the action of book two. It’s an increasingly common method, and can be highly effective, especially if the next book has a strong hook in the opening pages. To use this method, the author sometimes conceals the first chapter of the next book as the last chapter or as the epilogue in the current book. Other times the chapter is clearly marked with the name and future release date of the next book. Both methods work, but using the first chapter of the next book method means the next book needs to be completely done. If not, there is a risk the first chapter will need changes.

  • Don’t transition, create a standalone with close ties:

    This method is popular with mystery writers. Agatha Christie favored it and created several highly popular series by making sure readers could jump around within each series and not feel confused. It’s also very popular with Sci-fi writers who build huge universes. This method works best for stories that feature strong external plotlines.

Many of the most popular authors, both traditional and indie, founded their success on the strength of a series. A successful series takes on a life of its own, and often spawns its own fan community. The stakes are high, so finding the right method for closing each of your series books might take some extra effort, but it’s well worth it.

I think everyone has read a series book with an unforgettable ending. Please share your favorites in the comments below.

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12 Tips to avoid Overwriting

Overwriting imageOverwriting is a common problem for new writers. Even experienced writers can fall victim to the issue. It’s something, as a reader, that drives me nuts. It’s also something I’m guilty of needing friendly reminders about in my own early drafts.

Overwriting is defined as: a tendency to write too much, or too ornately.

A classic sign of overwriting is passages that read heavy, or require rereading to understand. It’s not something you want in your writing because those extra words obstruct the meaning, and lead to readers giving up or skimming. Overwriting can also read as stale or forced, like the writer is trying too hard.

Here are things I consider when I’m editing for overwriting:

  1. Start Right: The beginning of a book is often the most overwritten part. Many writers draft the first chapter several times, and infodumps and too much backstory creep in during that process. Either these extra bits need to go or they can be reworked into other chapters as needed.

  2. Trust the Reader: Readers are smart and they can remember what they read. Cutting out repetitions and leaving some aspects of the story to their imaginations is something all great writers do.

  3. Dump the Drama Queens: When every emotional nuance of a character’s inner journey ends up on the page they can sound like melodramatic crazy people. Most real people have emotional filters, and so should characters.

  4. Pull the Purple Prose: A well-placed new word is fun, even a touch of flowery language (if the character and the scene call for it) might work, but no one enjoys reading thesaurus vomit.

  5. Watch the Jargon: When an unusual word is the only one that works, it’s a good idea to make sure it’s clear from the context, or it’s defined in simple language.

  6. Curb the Metaphors: Prose should enhance the plot, not detract from it. Writers don’t need an overload of symbolism, alliteration and other prose devices to tell important stories. Emotions, characters and plot are just as important as prose.  Well-placed metaphors are also more memorable.

  7. Show, Don’t Tell: Common items need no explanations. If the character took his handgun out of a drawer and set it on his bedside table, we know the bedside table is next to the bed. Duh! (Yes, I have seen this happen.) I’ve also seen dining room tables put in dining rooms, and jeans made of fully described blue denim.

  8. Use It or Lose It: I used a gun in the above example because of Anton Chekhov’s law: Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, it must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there. The only exception to Chekhov’s rule is when you intended to mislead, for example to create a red herring. I slightly disagree with Chekhov, I think the gun can be there for setting, but shouldn’t get any major description unless it’s going to come into play.

  9. Keep the Dialogue Meaningful: If two characters shouted for five lines of dialogue, neither character needs to say “I’m upset.” Their actions tell us they’re upset. Much overwriting comes from unnecessary on-the-nose dialogue. This is also true of overly obvious dialogue tags.

  10. Don’t Accessorize the Ordinary: Extra adjectives often expose weak sentences. Save word embellishments for the places where they can add value to the story instead of clutter.

  11. Intrusive Narration:  A narrator should work with the character dialogue and action, not replace or override it. This is often problematic when the author is breaking the fourth wall.

  12. Remember the Reader: Think about the audience and genre and write with the ideal reader in mind. Some genres are more accepting of overwriting than others, but it still pays to keep the story tight.

To get rid of overwriting, cull ruthlessly. Never give the reader the opportunity to skim, or to wonder if they just read the same line written in a slightly different way. Overwritten stories are a clear symptom of a writer who can’t kill their darlings.

Do you ever overwrite? If so, please share your strategies in the comments.


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5 Reasons to Track Questions & Answers in Your Novel

This week while flushing out my novel’s outline, I decided to track where I raised and answered questions in the story. Why? Because questions are crucial to a good story; they ensure it has enough intrigue and suspense to keep readers reading. Have you ever set down a book and not been compelled to pick it back up? That’s probably because you weren’t dying to know the answer to a question! Questions and their elusive answers keep us reading. For the A to Z Challenge, I blogged about big and little story questions and gave tips for how to make these questions engage readers all the way to The End. Check out the full post here. For today’s post, I will illustrate how tracking questions and answers can improve your story.

To start, I created a numbered list of questions raised and questions answered alongside my outline. I used Document Notes in Scrivener so that this list is in the Inspector right beside my outline and I can see both simultaneously. I numbered each question (Q1, Q2, Q3, etc.) and the corresponding answer (A1, A2, A3, etc.). Then I went through my outline, tracking where questions were raised and how quickly/slowly they were answered. As I did this, I came up with a bunch of reasons why this exercise is helpful…


1. To avoid info dumps. During the set up scenes of Act I, it’s easy to think you need to explain everything or the reader will be confused. However, when I sat down and asked myself, “What will readers be wondering in this opening scene?” it became clear that a lot of the stuff I thought I needed to tell readers wouldn’t even be on their radar yet! The takeaway? Don’t give away answers to questions your readers haven’t even asked! That’s a sure sign you’re info dumping.

2. To check story pacing. When I started tracking my questions, I noticed that the first few scenes, especially the opening scene, raised many more questions than other scenes. This is normal. After all, questions make for intrigue, and we all want intriguing question-laden openings! But all good things have limits. So I decided to delay asking some questions and added them to later scenes, and to answer some more quickly to get them out of the way and make room for new questions. That resulted in a more evenly paced story.

3. To make sure each scene has suspense. No matter what genre you write, stories need suspense in the form of questions to keep the reader wondering and engaged. So every scene should raise at least one new question. If a scene doesn’t have a question in it, you risk boring your readers. And don’t think that if you raised a question in the previous scene, you don’t need to include one the next scene. That’s hogwash! Every scene must ask a question to keep the story moving and the readers engaged.

4. To keep track of The Big Question. This is the overall question that the reader will wonder throughout the entire novel until the very end. The big question is fed by dozens of little questions that are brought up throughout the story. Here are some examples:

The Hunger Games Will Katniss win the Games? In training, will Katniss get a low ranking? In the arena, will Katniss get her hands on the bow and arrow? Will Peeta betray her? Will Katniss find water or die of thirst? Will Haymitch send medicine?
Harry Potter Will Harry defeat Voldemort? In each book, the little questions of whether Harry will make the right decisions, or trust the wrong people, or get in trouble, etc., all connect to the big question of whether he has what it takes to defeat Voldemort.
Eleanor & Park Will their high school romance last? Will Park accept Eleanor’s weirdness? Will Eleanor learn to trust Park? Will Eleanor’s stepdad find out about Park and forbid her from seeing him?

Once you know your Big Question, you can track it and make sure each little question connects to it in some way. In other words, all the little questions must have the power to affect the big question. If you have a scene where a question is raised that doesn’t connect to the big question, you either need to make it relevant or cut it. Never lose sight of The Big Question, lest you veer off the goat path into boring territory (as I talked about in this post on Mushy Middles).

5. To make sure you don’t leave questions hanging. And finally… sometimes we lose track of all the little questions asked along the way. If you find out that you raised a question and never answered it, you have two options: 1) Answer it, or 2) Cut it. After all, if you forgot about it, maybe it’s not important and is just cluttering up your story.

So that’s what I’ve been up to this week. Do you track your story questions? I feel like this is something that mystery writers probably do all the time, but could be helpful for writers of all genres. Let me know in the comments!

PS – Next Monday I’ll have another Audiobook Pitfall post coming up.

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Solutions for Common Writing Mistakes: Runaway Word Counts

Writer Sulutions: Word Counts

“A lot of first-time children’s novels are too long.” Charlie Sheppard, editor of Bone Jack by Sara Crowe

Recently I read a post in the Guardian. They interviewed some of the top editors in children’s fiction to discover the most common mistakes made by new writers.

{I’ve included a few of the Guardian quotes here, but I recommended reading the full piece.}

The article is illuminating, and it turns out almost every single issue they mentioned I’ve battled in my own writing.

Today, I’m starting a new series: Solutions to Common Writing Mistakes. I’ll be examining a common writing mistake and explaining why it’s a problem. Then I’ll lay out a step-by-step plan for dealing with the issue in your own work.

First Common Mistake: Word Counts

Although the Guardian interviewed children’s book editors, this one is for everyone! While book lengths are fluid in self publishing, they are fixed in all but the rarest of cases for those looking to break into traditional publishing.

Why are word counts such a big problem? The costs of printing and distributing longer books has just gotten too high, and most new writers can’t garner the necessary level of confidence from a publisher to gamble on a 150,000 word tome. Not when the publisher can increase their chances of turning a profit by printing two or three shorter books.

“First-time writers commonly mistrust their own writing…. First drafts are often too long and prone to repetition.” Kirsty Stansfield, editor of Cow Girl by GR Gemin

Since agents and small press editors know the score, they all expect to see your word counts in your query letters, right next to your genre and target age range. And they will reject your query without reading a word if the word counts are missing, or if they are unrealistic. This holds true for counts that are too low as well as too high.

If you don’t believe me spend some time reading any one of the many agent hashtags on Twitter, like #TenQueries, #500Queries, #1000Queries, #MillionQueries or #QueryLunch, and you’ll see just how common this complaint is.

Publishing pros (rightly so) feel the word count is one clue to a writer’s industry acumen. They don’t have the time or the interest in teaching new writers the basic skills anymore. Especially when there are thousands of writers in the slush pile who are meeting their word count expectations.

There is lots of information out there on ideal word counts; but here’s what Writer’s Digest has to say on the score.

If your project is too long, you can follow this step-by-step plan to revise your manuscript down to a realistic word count.

Step 1: Start by crafting a beat sheet outline.
This system of outlining is from Save the Cat by Blake Snyder, and it’s the perfect tool for any revision editing. Heather wrote directions for creating your own beat sheet here. This method helps you see exactly were your novel hits (or misses) all the plot point milestones. If any milestones are missing, stop worrying about your word count and start figuring out how to plug your plot holes. You can find some help for that problem here. However, if your plot checks out, this step should help you pinpoint if your novel is structurally too heavy in one of the acts.

Remember perfect novel structure is approximately:
First Act: 25%
Second Act: 50%
Third Act: 25%

Step 2: Chances are in step 1 you realized you front loaded your book. Don’t worry, this is a common mistake. Remember that second editor’s comment? New writers tend to include too much repetition, and it’s usually up front in the form of an info dump or an unnecessary prologue.  Excessive backstory and world building is not helpful to the pace of any story. Tips for revising your opening here. And revamping a prologue that’s not working for you here.

Hopefully, once you have your book’s beat sheet and the beginning in shape, your word count is in the normal range and you’re ready for a fresh beta reader or two. If not, it’s time to create a plan for clearing out any remaining dead wood.

Step 3: Any scene that’s not included in your beat sheet outline is a prime prospect for cutting. Heather recently taught all of us how to test scenes for their value to the story. Turns out, there are some pretty simple litmus test for if a scene works to advance the plot or if it’s extra and it needs to go. Every scene should move your story forward in two different ways, find out more here and here.

Step 4: Create a new beat sheet for your revised novel and use it for any final edits. If you followed this plan, you should be well on your way to a trimmed, healthier novel.

Trimming your story is not easy. You worked hard to craft every sentence and each one feels important to you. I do understand. The longest historical novel I’ve written was over 140,000 words and I needed to cut it down to around 90,000 to pitch it to agents. It can be done.

What about you? Do you have a great tip for reducing your word count? Or are word counts something you never lose sleep over?

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Test That Scene – Cut or Revise?

A month ago I wrote a post called Test That Scene – Is It Essential or Filler? The basics of it are this:

No Filler Test

Question #1 – If deleted, will the reader still be able to follow the story? If yes, you’ve got filler!

Question #2 – What is different by the end of this scene? If nothing, it’s filler!

Question #3 – What/Who does this scene affect? If nothing/nobody, it’s – you guessed it – filler!

If even one of these questions results in “filler”, the scene should be cut or revised. But how do you know which option to choose?


That’s the issue I’ve encountered as I write and revise the outline for my WIP. I never create totally inessential scenes, and if a scene is two-thirds of the way there (i.e. satisfies two of the three test questions), my instinct is to revise not cut. Sounds reasonable, right? Sure, but I found my story dragging anyway. If I’d revised them into fully fleshed-out essential scenes, why did they still feel like filler?

And then it hit me, in screenwriting terms of course: not every plot point needs to happen on screen. In novelist terms, the reader doesn’t need to experience all plot points in real time; sometimes it works best if they experience the aftermath. The trick is to know which plot points need to be scenes and which don’t. After studying my own mistakes, I’ve come up with three questions to help figure this out…

1) How important is this scene to the hero’s goal? Does this scene address the main story problem? For example, in my WIP the heroine is cheating to boost her grades high enough to get a college scholarship. After she gets caught, I had a scene in the Principal’s Office where her punishment is doled out. However, the heroine doesn’t care what her punishment is; all that matters is that she was caught and can’t use her conventional methods of cheating anymore and has to find another way to succeed. So though this plot point (getting punished) needs to happen, it doesn’t have to happen onscreen, so I cut it and covered the information via some quick exposition in the next scene.

2) Does this scene hinder the story’s pacing? Something else I noticed about the above scene is that it delayed the story’s Inciting Incident. Even as I was writing it, my inner critic was like, “Get on with it! Get to the Inciting Incident faster!” Cutting this scene facilitated that.

3) Are you trying too hard to make this scene essential? This is my downfall. As I mentioned, if a scene is two-thirds of the way there, my instinct is to add something to make it complete, and I found myself creating an unnecessary subplot in order to add more conflict and change to the Principal’s Office scene. At first I thought this was brilliant, and a day later I realized it violated question 1 and 2 of this list – it was not important to my heroine’s goal and it slowed down the pacing.

So what I’ve learned this week is that if a scene fails the No Filler Test, more often than not the scene needs to be cut not revised, and its important information redistributed to other scenes.

Now to go apply this to my WIP!


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Writing Tips for 1st Person POV

1st Person POVFirst person POV has its advantages and its drawbacks. If you love it, and many writers do, you know one of the biggest issues is the overuse of personal pronouns. If you’re not paying attention, you can end up with long passages where every other sentence starts with the same word. In those rare instances you didn’t use “I”, you probably used “my” or “mine”.

Reading passages with a perfusion of the same sentence constructions is no fun for your reader, and it might have the undesirable effect of making your lead character come off as an egocentric jerk.

Here are five ways to beat the “I, me, my” dilemma and create some diversity in your sentences:


The Hunger Games Trilogy

1. Don’t include every thought in the main character’s head: Working in first person POV can lead to characters spending too much time thinking and talking about it. Avoid long passages of inner narration by getting your protagonist to interact with the other characters. If your story calls for your protagonist to spend chucks of time alone, try to focus on what they are doing while alone, aka their physical actions.

2. Work from the perspective of what the other characters are doing: Just because you’re writing in first person doesn’t mean the other characters aren’t doing interesting things. You can also open a sentence with the another character’s name. This revision helps minimize the need for extra dialogue tags.

The Great Gatsby

The Great Gatsby

3. Use a statement of fact: There’s no reason your lead character needs to give an emotional response to everything! Some things in life are just there. They need description, but no commentary. In fact, commenting on everything your character sees and feels is often a sign that you’re telling, not showing.

4. Setting often needs no pronoun: Just as statements of fact need no emotional interpretation, sometimes settings just exist. Clocks chime and air conditioners hum all without anyone around to say they heard them. You can use sounds and smells as your lead in to describing a setting without explicitly saying the protagonist heard or smelled them.

To Kill a Mockingbird

To Kill a Mockingbird

5. Use more body language to show emotions: You don’t want to combine every feeling the character has with a pronoun. Again, this is a sign of telling language. Avoid “I felt sad” “I was hurt” or “I cried.” One good point to remember is first person is only your narrator’s voice. This eliminates the need to constantly remind the reader “who” is sad! Instead, try showing the tears!


I know digging in to revise those easy, comfortable “I, me, my” sentences is a huge job, but it’s worth doing. Making these kind of changes might help separate a good book from a great book.

I prefer third person and I think it’s easier to use. However, I use first person when I think the story calls for it. What do you think? Are you a fan of first person POV? Do you have a tip I missed? Please share in the comments.


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X is for X-Ray

BLAST_XWhat does “x-ray” have to do with writing craft? I didn’t choose it just because I needed an “X” word for the #AtoZChallenge, or because I already used “x-rated” for last year’s post (X-Rated: Should YA Books Have a Rating System?), but because all writers need to be able to check the spine of their story. Hence, we need to x-ray our novels to see the bones.

Stories are about transformation, a journey that changes the hero. In screenwriting, “checking the spine” means making sure every scene in the story informs and affects this change. I do this at the outline stage when I have all my scenes laid out and summarized into paragraphs. If you don’t outline, you can make a scene list based on your draft, writing one line for each scene.

3 Tips for X-Raying Your Story

  • Check for spine scoliosis. Is there a bend in your story’s spine? A place where you went off track and lost sight of the hero’s journey? Straighten it up by making sure every scene contributes to the journey.

  • Look for slipped discs. This is a scene that, though it began as a crucial point in the plot, now (after many revisions) has slipped out of the main plot and is hurting your story. Either bring it back to where it used to be or cut it out.

  • Assess bone density. Is every scene solid and dense and packed with intrigue regarding the hero’s journey? Look for weaknesses, like scenes without active goals or conflict or stakes. If just one of these is missing, it weakens the entire story spine.

2 Examples of Straight Story Spines

These are supposed to be short posts, so I’m not going to break down an entire novel for you and show you how every single scene informs and affects the hero’s journey, but take my word for it that THE HUNGER GAMES and THE FAULT IN OUR STARS both do this extremely well.

1 Link for more help

I talk in more detail about how every scene needs conflict, stakes and change in this post: 3 Things that Keep Your Story on the Road (not the Goat Path).

Well that’s it for me in this Blogging A-Z Challenge! Robin has the last two letters! Coming up:

Y is for Young Adult

Z is for Zymurgy

It’s been a blast! 😉


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Tired Sentences? Put Your Prose To The Test

Exhausting reader CC 2.0  photosteve101

Exhausting reader CC 2.0 photosteve101

Every writer wants to create prose packed with energy and vitality. They know dull, lifeless writing disappoints the reader. Tired sentences are often the cornerstone of bad prose. They disrupt the flow and bore the reader.

Take these tests and find out if your sentences pass, or if you’re writing tired sentences.

  • Same Sentence Starts:

The Problem: This one shows up a lot first person point of view, too many sentences will begin with and my. Opening the bulk of your sentences with any single word (she, he, a character’s first name, or anything else) is tiresome for a reader. Also, it can take on an unpleasant listing quality.

The Test: Print out some pages of your writing and highlight the first word of every sentence. Now read just the highlighted words. Did you see a pattern? If every third word is the same word, you have a problem.

The Fix: Even if you’re writing in the first person there is no reason for every sentence to start the same way. Use items, emotions, colors, just about any word can start a sentence. Find respected authors working in first person and take note of the words they use. Don’t be afraid to try something new, you might like it.

  • Pesky Verb Preferences:

The Problem: New and experienced writers alike fall into the habit of using the same stale verbs. No writer needs to use the same verb 20 or 30 times in a single page, and yet some do. Yes, I have counted. Overuse of to be verbs is a pet peeve of mine.

The Test: Use the pickle trick we taught everyone last year.Take a copy of your work (never the original) and use the search and replace function to change every occurrence of an overused verb for the word pickle. If your manuscript looks like relish vomit, you have a problem.

The Fix: Rid your work of dull verbs by rewording and replacing them with a better verbs. If you are having trouble thinking of fresh verbs, I recommend reading Vex, Hex, Smash, Smooch: Let Verbs Power Your Writing, by Constance Hale. Although written for nonfiction writers, Hale hammers home the senselessness of sticking to a small assortment of verbs when so many other verbs are hungry for your attention.

  • The Long and Short:

The Problem: Most writers know you slow down readers with longer sentences. That’s great for delivering emotionally packed prose. So super short sentences must make your manuscript read faster, right? Wrong! Lots of short sentences stacked up like dominoes, can make your work read as simplistic and monotonous.

The Test: Nothing beats reading aloud. I even wrote a post about it last year, Reading Aloud: Why Hearing your Book is Important. In an ideal situation short and  long sentences should work together to create pleasing tempos, almost like music. If you start sounding singsong, or like you’re droning, you have a problem.

The Fix: Length preference is influenced by personal style, and modern readers favor shorter sentences. The genre you write in can help you find the right balance. Thrillers favor shorter sentences, whereas literary writers favor longer ones. There are programs to help you count and chart each sentence length, but I think editing by ear is still best.

Special Note: Longer sentences will impact the readability index and give your novel a higher score. This is an important consideration for children’s writers.

  • Structure Sabotaging Pace:

The Problem: Related to sentence length is sentence structure and complexity. A writer needs to know when to keep it simple. Making good decisions about sentence style will help a writer control the pace and the tone.

The Test: Print some pages of your writing and using three different colored highlighters mark each type of sentence construction. I use yellow for simple, orange for compound and red for complex sentences. If your pages look like a pleasing mix of all three colors, leaning toward the yellow/orange range, the chances are good you’re on track. If you have too much yellow (and you don’t write for young children) or too much red, you might have a problem.

The Fix: Look at the type of sentence structure you overuse. If your dialogue is mostly red, you need to break those ups. Real people use back-and-forth bursts of conversation. Simple sentences (the ones marked in yellow) work great for dialogue and will lend extra punch to something shocking. Use complex sentences to slow the reader down and make them think.  Again, the exact mixture is influenced by style and genre.

Special Note: Compound sentences are fantastic, we all love them. But beware; don’t rely on and as your main conjunction. Any repeated pattern starts to get monotonous after a while.

Hopefully you took the tests and didn’t find a single area to improve. Congratulations! Or maybe you didn’t pass. Sorry about that. At least now you know which good sentence villains you need to vanquish!

I’d love to hear your good sentence tips in the comments.

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Self-Editing Redux: Spot Checking

Oops!I’m in the final stages of polishing my latest manuscript and going through my checklist for those tiny little nits that always manage to slip through. Rather than doing a complete read-through for like the millionth time (which at some point becomes counter-productive because you know it too well), I pick random passages and scrutinize them for errors. I use the search function on Word (a total lifesaver) to see how many times I’ve walked on the dark side and which allows me to clean up blunders quickly. I’ve collected these little nits over many years, not like lice, which crawl across your skin surreptitiously and require toxic chemicals to banish. This is easy peasy, albeit a tad tedious.

Here’s my Quicky Checklist:

  • How many –ing and as phrases do you use.
  • How many –ly adverbs?
  • Too many short sentences? Trying linking them together.
  • Too many long sentences when you’re writing a dramatic scene? Break them up.
  • Are you using a lot of italics? Use them only when a character is speaking to him/ herself and when you really want to emphasize a word or phrase. If the writing is good you shouldn’t need italics for added impact very often.
  • Overuse of profanity? It loses its effect if used too frequently.
  • Overuse of: that, very, suddenly, really…you know your bad words… (check my list from the post below.)
  • Cliches? Use sparingly and in character dialogue only.
  • Too many passive verbs? Search for “was” “were” and phrases like “started to” “hoped to” “began to”. They’re the mark of weak writing.
  • Only one punctuation mark allowed when ending a sentence!!!
  • Overuse of dialogue tags. Abandon them when only two people are speaking and it’s obvious who it is. And make sure the name always comes first. Michael said, not, said Michael.
  • Make sure none of your dialogue tags use an action. He sighed, he laughed. They’re not dialogue tags.
  • Overuse of the ellipsis… Know the difference between hesitation, interruption and just drifting off. Look it up online if you don’t know.
  • Read aloud random dialogue sections to see how they sound. Or have a friend read with you. Wherever you stumble, revise. Did you use enough contractions? Because that’s how people speak. Is the dialogue indicative of that particular character? Assign certain expressions to individuals to set them apart which helps your reader easily identify them.
  • Flip through your manuscript looking for white space. Is there a lot? Hardly any? A paragraph that runs for a half page, or maybe even the entire page? Do you have pages where there are no paragraphs at all? Just dialogue? You’re looking to vary the beats and rhythm.
  • Are all your chapters approximately the same length?
  • Look for repeated words. Only one per page, please. Several pages is even better.
  • This final one is a biggy. Every writer learns this as the first rule of writing. SHOW DON’T TELL. And yet, I’m repeatedly reminded of this by my editor. It sneaks in, just like those pesky little lice. One of the best ways is to search out the word “felt” or “was” or variations of “to” as in: I was angry. I was sad. I felt morose. I wanted to cry. I tried to smile. None of these show us the emotion, they tell us. You’d be surprised how often this creeps into your writing. Frequently, I feel those are powerful statements, emphatic and simple. But they’re not. They’re never as powerful as showing the body language or inner monologue: the blood rushing, the pulse quickening, the sweat forming, the hands fisting, the teeth clenching, the jaw set; the glass crashing into the wall, splintering into tiny shards of angry light.

I’ve written on self-editing before, so for more detail check out these posts, one from October 4th and one from October 11th.

You probably won’t catch them all, but you’ll catch a lot. And then your editor will hit you with a hundred more. Just hope he doesn’t use a big stick. (That was only half a cliche, so it doesn’t count.)



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