Today's tip is about plot revisions and character agency. Sometimes, as writers, there's a path that we particularly want our characters to go down, or a way we want them to solve a problem. But when we get too wrapped up in our pre-decided ideas for the plot, we sometimes deprive our characters of their agency.
Remember, believable characters will react in believable ways.
What that means is, if there's a simple solution and a complicated one, most characters will try the simple one first. For example, imagine I have a MC named Sarah, and her mom is sick. The doctor says Sarah's mom needs a special medicine that can only be found in two places: the local pharmacy, or deep inside the dark forest behind Sarah's house.
Sarah's probably headed to the store, right?
If I wanted to tell a story about Sarah going off on a quest for the medicine through the dark forest, I'd need a good reason why she's making that choice.
The key to keeping your character's actions believable is for them to be consistent. Lay the groundwork that will affect their decision-making in advance.
In Sarah's case, maybe there's a clerk at the store who terrifies her. Maybe Sarah has agoraphobia, and the thought of going to the store is much more stressful to her than hunting through the woods for some plant. For either of those reasons to feel believable, though, they need to have come up in the story before this moment. Otherwise, it feels to a reader like exactly what it often is - an author coming up with excuses to close a plot hole.
To sum up: when you present your character with a problem, make sure there isn't an easy, obvious solution that they need to try first. If there's a reason they can't try that solution, introduce it early enough in the story that it feels like a natural part of the character's identity when they reach that crucial point.
There's a plague in author land, and that plague is Was-itis. Overuse of the word was has spread far and wide, to the point that the three-letter word is about to become a four-letter word. And no writer, no matter how experienced, is immune. At least not in first drafts.
But what's the big deal with using "was" all the time?
Good question. There are two main problems with overusing what I call "was constructions" in writing. The first type of construction looks like this:
I was cold. I was lost. I was hungry.
It's boring, right? This type of was construction leads to boring verbs and simple adjectives, along with telling the reader everything instead of showing them and engaging them in the story. When we change it up, the story becomes more interesting:
I shivered. The trees around me all looked the same; nothing stood out to mark which way to go. As I scanned my surroundings for clues, my stomach began to grumble.
"I shivered" provokes a physical memory in the reader much more strongly than the plain statement "I was cold" does. Choosing a stronger verb takes more work, but it's worth it.
The second type of "was construction" looks like this:
I was walking through the woods. I was whistling like a bird.
These constructions are easier to fix. Most of the time you can simply eliminate the was and change the participle - the -ing verb - back to its regular form. Like this:
I walked through the woods. I whistled like a bird.
Kate did an excellent guest post a while back where she suggested switching the sentence into present tense if you aren't sure if you need to eliminate your "was" verbs. Watch what happens when I do that with the examples:
I am walking through the woods. I am whistling like a bird.
It becomes pretty obvious that these are silly things to say. There are certain cases, especially in dialogue, where you might still want to keep the was -ing form, but in general narration, most of them can be cut.
So help cure the plague of Was-itis. Cut it out wherever you find it, and pass the cure on to all the writers you know!
Hello, readers! Did you miss me? Sorry about missing Wednesday's post, but it was one of those weeks. Sometimes I wonder, will things ever slow down again?
Probably not. Maybe next week will be a little calmer, though. One can always hope, right?
(Are you wondering what's up with all the questions?)
Today's post is about avoiding questions in internal dialogue. If your characters have ever wondered how they could possibly escape from some terrible situation, or how anyone could expect them to carry on after a major setback, then this post is for you.
You see, questions are by nature a conversation tool. Asked and answered. A question, even a rhetorical one, is meant to express something to the listener and usually demands a response. But when your character is inside their head, that conversational tone can backfire. When there's no one else there for the character to address, the character starts to feel like they're addressing the reader, which breaks the suspension of disbelief.
My kids do this thing when they listen to the radio, or occasionally to TV commercials--when they hear a question asked and the narrator assumes their answer, it irritates them. So they come up with something snarky to say back, or they argue with Mr. Narrator. (Life is always interesting in my house, at least.) Because when they hear the one-sided conversation, they want to interject themselves into the dialogue.
Unless you're purposefully creating a dialogue between reader and narrator, try to go easy on the questions. Let the reader sit on the MC's shoulder quietly and observe what's going on, without dragging them into the conversation as well.
Let's talk about how brutal editing can be sometimes. Every author, published or not, has flaws. Favorite crutch words, flowery prose, overuse of metaphors, twitchy characters whose eyebrows have a life of their own...you name it, an author somewhere is addicted to it. And if we could look at their first drafts, we could see those flaws.
So we edit. In commercial fiction, we clear away the unnecessary. Prose can be beautiful, but it ought to have meaning and importance as well. An author or editor takes those rough spots and refines them. But not everything can be saved. And more importantly, not everything is worth saving. That's where the concept of "killing your darlings" comes in.
In editing, killing your darlings doesn't mean killing off characters you like--although sometimes murdering off a side character might be necessary. Think of it like gardening. Your first draft is a tree that's grown out of control, and you want to trim it back into its intended shape. Cutting out crutch words is like trimming off leaves, one by one. It doesn't do much for the overall shape, but the plant is healthier for it. Toning down rambling, flowery passages or strings of metaphors is like cutting back some of the branches that are poking out of the top, going every which way. (And yes, I see the irony of using an extended metaphor here.)
Hopefully that type of editing isn't too painful, because we haven't gotten to the real pruning yet. Sometimes, you'll look at your story and realize that a subplot is taking away from the story, instead of adding to it. Or maybe a favorite scene isn't doing anything to move the story along. Or that nifty solution your character was going to use to get past their crisis point has a gaping hole in it, but your heart is still set on the original idea.
This is when you need to harden up your heart a bit and kill those darlings. (ALWAYS save your work before you start; save the pieces you cut in a separate document, because they might be useful in another scene later.)
If you're keeping a story element only because you like it, and it doesn't further the plot action or the character's emotional arc, then it's probably time to cut it.
It hurts to give up those pieces. But when you do, it opens the real story up. To go back to the tree metaphor, this is when you chop off the diseased branches, or the ones that are splitting off from the main trunk and pulling strength away from the roots. Once you cut them, the tree can grow strong and straight again, and flower or fruit. Do your story a favor. Dive in with your editing gloves on, and look at each scene to see if it really belongs in the story. If it doesn't, it might be time for murder.
Commas are tricky for every writer. We all have our problems with them, whether it's overuse, underuse, or dropping them in random places where they just don't belong. Today's tip is about how to join two independent clauses with a comma.
A clause is a chunk of a sentence that contains a subject and a verb (or a predicate, if you want to get technical). Clauses can be extremely short and simple (she left, I am, etc), or they can be longer and more complex. An independent clause is something that can stand by itself as a simple sentence and still make sense. (I went to the store. I took a nap. I read a book. My life is boring.)
So what does that have to do with commas? Good question.
As authors, we often like to stick two short sentences together to make a longer, more interesting one. Instead of that string of short, boring sentences I wrote above, I could link some of them with conjunctions. And, but, or, nor, for, yet, so.
IF you link two independent clauses together with a conjunction, you usually need a comma before the conjunction.
Which looks like this:
I went to the store, and then I took a nap. I want to read, but I have work to do. I could finish my work, or I could watch my favorite show.
However, if the clauses both have the same subject and one of them is shorter than five words, you can skip the comma.
I went to the store and I bought some milk.
But if the clauses have two different subjects, then you still need a comma, even if one is shorter than five words.
And that would look like this:
Mary puked, and Tom gagged at the stench.
To be completely, shockingly honest, I don't remember all these rules word-for-word off the top of my head. They're great to know, and to have cheat sheets for, especially if you struggle with a particular usage. And sometimes publishers and editors will have different preferences for comma usage. So write down the rules you struggle with the most. Then keep rhythm in mind as you punctuate, and remember that a comma typically marks a small pause. And if you still struggle with your commas, it's okay. That's what editors are for!
If you're revising, there's a good chance you've heard writing professionals talk about cutting out filter words. Filter words are words that authors insert that distance the reader from the scene. Instead of telling a reader what the character is seeing, for example, an author has the character stop the action to tell the reader what they're seeing. Filtering might look like this:
I saw the cat race through the hallway.
See how instead of describing what I saw in the moment, I'm stopping to talk to you as if you're here? That's part of why filtering words are such a problem. They can break the flow of the narrative and break that fourth wall, if you'll pardon the metaphor, reminding the reader that they're reading a story.
So how can I fix it? Start by eliminating the "I saw" portion and focus on the character's perceptions instead. That might look like this:
A white and gray blur tore down the hallway, leaving shredded blue strands in her wake.
Not only have I eliminated the filtering language, I used much more descriptive language, which is hopefully more interesting than the original. And as a bonus, you might get the impression that I'm a bit annoyed with my cat tonight. Emotion+description makes a more interesting passage and engages the reader, which is always the goal.
An easy way to find filtering words is to look for the 5 senses, as well as things like "she thought/realized/understood."
To fix up filtering passages, eliminate the "I saw/heard/etc" portion and simply tell the reader, in the POV character's voice, what they saw or heard.
Personally, I don't believe you have to eliminate 100% of filtering language. Most of it, yes. But there are times where a straightforward, shorter sentence is better. Try to use filtering language sparingly, and mix it up with more interesting and active language to keep your readers engaged.
Writers talk a lot about silencing the inner critic, and for good reason. Self-doubt and imposter syndrome plague most of the writers I know. And many of the agents and editors, too. Learning to push past that inner critic and keep writing is important.
But sometimes, writers forget how to deal with the outer critic.
Their critique partners and beta readers, editors, mentors, agents, or fellow authors who offer to give them feedback. Because as much as most writers carry around a lot of self-doubt, it's also a part of human nature that people don't like being told they've done something wrong. It's embarrassing. But don't let that knee-jerk reaction set off your inner jerk.
Here are some tips on how to handle critique of your work:
1. NEVER respond immediately. Especially if you don't agree and are feeling hurt or angry. Give those feelings a little time to pass before you say or do something you might regret. Read a book for fun, binge a Netflix show, have some ice cream, go run a mile, whatever your coping method is. All writers need a good self-care routine for handling rejection.
2. Try to separate criticism of your words from criticism of you as as person. This is hard, I know. But it's a writing survival skill. If you can't handle a critique of your draft, you aren't prepared to handle reviews from blunt readers (and trolls).
3. If you disagree with criticisms or suggestions that you received, let them sit for a few days. Hurt pride has stopped me from seeing the validity of criticisms initially more than once, but after a few days, I could separate my feelings from what was being said, and I saw the criticism was right.
4. If you don't like a suggestion, you don't have to take it. A critique partner or editor may point out a problem that's legitimate, but offer a solution that doesn't fit your writing or vision of the manuscript. You can have a conversation with them about it--what if I tried this instead? It's your story, after all. You're in charge.
5. DO appreciate the positive comments. A good, constructive critique should point out things you're doing well, because those things need reinforcement just as much as problems need correcting. Don't brush off the compliments. Trust me, as an editor--we're not lying when we say we like something. That doesn't help anyone.
6. Don't attack the person who offered to read your work and help you. That's not how you repay someone. (Unless you encounter genuine gaslighting/abuse, which is different from simply being upset someone else didn't like your work.)
If you disagree strongly with their criticisms, or don't understand what they said, ask to talk about it. But leave your feelings at the metaphorical door so you can have a productive discussion.
7. In the event that you receive terrible news and find out you have written something offensive, take a deep breath. Remember two things.
First, sensitivity issues aren't about political correctness or ideology. They're about not using words or stereotypes or tropes that cause harm to marginalized readers. This is especially true in the case of MG or YA literature.
Second, it's not about what you intended to write, or whether or not you personally are a racist or whatever other type or -ist. No one is saying you are. What they are saying is that you've slipped up, but you have a chance to fix it before your story ends up in the hands of some kid who's already being picked on because they're "different." It comes down to which is more important; an author's personal pride, or not causing harm to their audience.
So that's a lot to keep in mind, but what it really boils down to is this: before you dive back into editing, take a breath, step back, and consider someone else's point of view.
Every Wednesday and Saturday we bring you an edit tip of the day. Be sure to check out the archives for our popular summer series of SHOW DON'T TELL workshops!