advice

Tips from the Editor

Yes, You Do Need to Kill Your Darlings
It’s Just So Very Important

Oh, how I loved that story. I thought it was the shiniest thing in town, and I presented it to my creative writing teacher with great pride.

The next day, she handed it back to me.

She’d red-circled every time I used the word “so”—dozens and dozens of the darn things.

Ouch.

We’re all guilty of having favorite go-to words, and often, they’re the same ones other writers dearly love.

So. Just. Very.

Or we’ll fall in love with a pretty new adjective and will unconsciously use it over and over.

Trust me: you’re doing it.

How do you find them, other than by racking your brain, or scanning the pages over and over?

Use a word cloud. Within a few seconds, you’ll have a multi-colored picture of the offending tidbits. Just Google the words “word cloud” to find a site that will generate a cloud for you. Then, do your best to stop saying things like:

He just really wanted to show her his new car.

Your readers will thank you.

Okay, maybe not, but you’ll know you’ve taken another step toward better storytelling.

advice

Tips from the Editor

Which of These Things Is Not Like the Others?
An Orange in a Bowl of Apples

Jen spent the whole morning worrying about the job interview. Choosing the right outfit was a nightmare; she changed clothes five times before she settled on a dark blue skirt and a white blouse. Downstairs, her younger brother was watching TV. Her shoes were another problem. The slim, sexy pumps she’d splurged on went best with her outfit—but were they too much for a job in a quiet office in a small town?

Jen’s brother may play an important part in the story. He may offer some encouragement during breakfast, or drive her to the interview.
But in this paragraph, what he’s doing isn’t important.

Don’t switch gears mid-paragraph, and then switch back. Finish telling us about Jen’s wardrobe choices, then shine the spotlight on her brother (or not).

 

advice

Tips from the Editor

Mack and Mark and Mike and Matt
The Guy She Likes Is… Which One?

You’ve found the right names for your main characters. That’s Job One out of the way—but it’s just as important to choose the right names for your supporting cast.

If a character doesn’t appear very much, don’t worry about picking a name that will endure through the ages. But do worry about setting that character apart from the people who surround him or her. Readers will grow frustrated at having to remember who’s who if the names are too similar: Matt, Mark, Mike, Matt…

You don’t want your minor characters to be more interesting than your “stars.” But when Mike walks into the lunchroom to find Kelly nuking her leftovers, if your readers remember that Kelly’s the one who encouraged him to ask Michelle out, that bond will help drive the scene.

advice

Tips from the Editor

Precision Counts – Unless Nobody’s Counting

I opened the door to find a stranger standing on my porch. He was 6’2” tall.

There was a redhead sitting on the couch. She was 32 years old.

The room was 18 feet long and 15 feet wide.

There’s no yardstick built into the doorframe. That redhead doesn’t have her vital statistics printed on her shirt.

Tell your reader you’re estimating. Extra points if you tell them how.

I opened the door to find a stranger standing on my porch. I had to look up at him, so he had to be over six feet tall.

I opened the door to find a tall stranger standing on my porch.

That tells the reader what they need to know, without being overly (and awkwardly) specific.

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.

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.