advice

Tips from the Editor

Time Goes By – But It’s Tough to Measure Without a Clock

Most of us can’t get through a day without measuring time somehow. We need to be on time for work or school, to pick up kids, or meet a friend for lunch. Lucky for us, keeping track of time is easy. We’ve got clocks at home and in the office, and on the dashboards of our cars. Our cell phones can give us the right time at a glance.

But if your characters live somewhere (or are stranded somewhere) without those conveniences, there’s a problem.

Not for them; for us, as authors.

We waited two hours for the prince’s party to arrive.

It took us nearly ten minutes to climb the stairs to the tower.

Does the character have a pocket watch he relies on? Are the characters waiting for the prince’s entourage judging time by the movement of the sun?

We waited until late in the afternoon for the prince’s party to arrive.

Let the reader know how your characters are figuring things out. Make the situation real for them. Otherwise, you risk pulling them out of the story.

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advice

Tips from the Editor

The Itchies and the Twitchies: Oh, For Heaven’s Sake, SIT STILL!

Mary tapped her lips with her fingers. “I’m not sure what to get Susan for her birthday.”

“I know what you mean.” Kris twirled her coffee cup around. “It’s really a problem.”

“Mary tucked a lock of her hair behind her ear. “I know.”

Kris took a bite of her sandwich. “Maybe we should ask Tom.”

A lot of newbie authors are frightened by stretches of dialogue that aren’t broken up by some sort of action. Rather than simply letting the characters talk, they fill the scene with so many insignificant gestures that the characters seem completely unable to sit still—as if they’ve been chugging Red Bull all day.

But, really, it’s okay to let those folks talk.

Tell us who they are, and who initiates this chunk of conversation. Then stand back and let ’em fly.

“I’m not sure what to get Susan for her birthday,” Mary said.

Kris nodded. “I know what you mean. It’s really a problem.”

“Maybe we should ask Tom.”

That works just fine.

advice

Tips from the Editor

Pieces and Parts: Nope, You’re Not Frankenstein’s Monster, All Sewn Together

My hand grasped the doorknob.

My eyes gazed around the room.

Years ago, I saw a horror film where the lead character’s hand was possessed by an evil entity. The poor guy then spent half an hour doing battle with his own hand, which was doing its best to kill him. (Which you’d think would be counterproductive, but… whatever.)

Lucky for us, our body parts don’t operate independently—and your characters’ pieces and parts shouldn’t do that, either.

I grasped the doorknob.

I gazed around the room.

Pay special attention to your characters’ eyes. They shouldn’t be doing more amazing maneuvers than the Olympics gymnastics team.

My eyes zipped around the room, taking in the fancy drapes, the stuffed moose head over the fireplace, and the long hall leading to the back of the house before finally settling on the wingback chair in the corner.

I’m exhausted just reading that! I hope those poor eyeballs didn’t get bruised doing all that bouncing around.

advice

Tips from the Editor

Left Hand Blue, Right Foot Green: Things Only Stretch So Far

Remember the game Twister, where you had to contort your body into impossible positions?

As determined as you might be to win, your body will only stretch just so far.

That’s especially important during action scenes, and steamy romantic encounters. If Rob’s left hand is there, he probably won’t be able to reach there with his lips… unless he’s Elastic Man.

Get out of your chair and measure.

Grab a willing partner.

Make sure those parts will go where you want them to!

advice

Tips from the Editor

I Feel Like I’ve Been Here Before

Or at Least, I Googled It

It’s been years, but I still remember sitting down to read Stephen King’s Firestarter… only to discover that he had completely mis-described Albany Airport, the location of his opening chapter.

Most of his readers probably didn’t know, or care. But I did.

When Firestarter was written and published, the Internet didn’t exist. King wasn’t able to use Google Maps and Google Earth to take a long-distance look at an airport in another state, and he couldn’t go to the airport’s website to find a map of the terminal.

We can.

In just a few minutes, we can take a virtual tour of almost any place on Earth. We can fly in overhead, or “drive” down the street and look at the shops and homes.

The majority of your readers may not know that you can’t see the lake from the end of the football field in Anytown, Missouri—but doing the research is easy, and that one reader who does care might be pleased enough that you got it right that they’ll buy your next book. Do them, and yourself, a favor! Take those few minutes to do your research. It’s a definite gift to your readers.

advice

Tips from the Editor

Let’s Get Progressive

If It’s Ongoing, Go for the “ing”

Most of my friends had already gathered in Mike’s family room. Mike wore a Steelers jersey, and Doug—who really didn’t care who was playing, or who won—wore his favorite Zeppelin tee.

Jen wore a gorgeous blue dress to the prom last week.

How’s that look to you? Okay in both cases?

There’s a difference.

The prom is over. The narrator’s looking back at it from some point in the future. So, yes: Jen wore a blue dress. It was a limited event that’s finished now.

But the big game is happening now. Everybody’s gathered in Mike’s family room now, from the narrator’s point of view, and what Mike and Doug are wearing is an ongoing situation. It’s not over yet.

Most of my friends had already gathered in Mike’s family room. Mike was wearing a Steelers jersey, and Doug—who really didn’t care who was playing, or who won—was wearing his favorite Zeppelin tee.

Similarly,

I got to the pub around three o’clock. Dan was sitting in a booth, nursing a beer.

All the women at the garden party were wearing fancy hats.

If the scene is happening now for your narrator, and the part of it that you’re focusing on is ongoing, go for the “ing”.

Ongoing = ing. Simple!

advice

Tips from the Editor

Here’s Lookin’ at You, Baby… Because I’m Talking to You

I looked at him. “I really think it’s important.”

“Well, sure,” he said.

“Don’t you think so?”

He looked at me. “I guess so.”

Yes, if you’re a cop on stakeout, you’re probably looking at something other than the guy sitting beside you in the car. If you’re a guy who’s focused on the playoff game, which has just gone into extra innings, you’re probably not looking at your wife, even though she’s talking to you. If you’re a super-busy mom trying to keep track of two toddlers, you’re probably looking at them and not at your friend Katie, who’s trying to tell you about her impossible boss.

But if you’re having a quiet, important conversation with your S.O., sitting out on the back steps or on opposite sides of a little bistro table, you’re probably looking at the other person more often than not. That’s also true for your characters. If they’re having a game-changing conversation, they’re going to be focused on each other.

It’s a given. You don’t need to keep telling your readers, He looked at me. Really, what else would he be looking at?

Newbie writers often fall into the trap of trying to fill those awkward spaces between lines of dialogue with small actions: He looked at me. He blinked. He smiled. He nodded. Those bits of information are okay… IF the action adds something to the scene, something you want your reader to take notice of. But if your characters are looking and nodding and smiling several times per page, you won’t draw your reader deeper into the story. You’ll be taking the chance of boring them and pushing them away.

Ask yourself, Am I including something important, or just filling up space?

Avoid stating the obvious. Make every word important!