Today's tip is about a common error we see authors making, and it will come in handy as you practice your showing skills during our summer workshops.
Blocking that is attached to dialogue typically becomes a separate sentence.
(Quick reminder: "blocking" is when you describe the action that's occurring during a dialogue scene. It's a great way to remind your readers who's talking without using dialogue tags, as well as to demonstrate emotions and conflicts.)
WRONG: "I'm tired of school," she scowled.
She scowled is a separate action from the dialogue, so it doesn't belong in the sentence.
RIGHT: "I'm tired of school." She scowled.
WRONG: "I can't do it," she stepped back.
RIGHT: "I can't do it." She stepped back.
Sometimes it can be tricky to decide if you're using blocking or a dialogue tag, since some verbs can function either way. Words like groaned, laughed, cried, sighed can potentially describe how something is said, or an action taken in addition to the dialogue. When you run across one of those types of verbs, ask yourself if it's describing the way the words were said or the action taken by the character to decide which style of punctuation you need.
Here's Rebecca to walk you through today's very first Show Don't Tell Workshop!
Mimi felt angry as the attic door closed and locked. “Please don’t do this to me, Mom, I didn’t mean to leave the bathroom light on,” she pleaded.
“When you learn how to follow my rules, I’ll stop locking you in the attic,” her mother said with spite.
Mimi heard footsteps getting further away until the sound disappeared. How could any mother do this to their child? Feeling defeated, she went crazy and demolished the room. She slumped to the ground to calm down. After a flood of tears and even more swear words, she felt a cold draft. She was wearing shorts and a tank top and had no shoes on. And it was only going to get colder with the setting sun. She would have to find a blanket or something and settle in for the evening. A smelly blanket was found in a box. There was an old couch in the corner and she decided to sleep there.
Now let's analyze this...
Mimi felt angry.
The word “felt” is considered telling, robbing the reader of the experience that one goes through when angry. Body language, visceral reaction, inner monologue, tone, and speech should be considered when emotions are expressed.
Dialogue tags are some of the most common places where telling is used. Use only said, says, etc. and use an action beat which shows the emotion instead.
Her mother said with spite.
Same as above. Keep the dialogue tags to said, says, etc. and use an action beat, showing the emotion instead.
Mimi heard footsteps.
Since we are in the point-of-view character’s head, “heard” is telling and unnecessary. Just show the reader what they heard, without using the word.
Feeling defeated, she went crazy and demolished the room.
This entire sentence is telling. First we have that “feeling” again, and then, instead of showing the reader what she does, allowing them to experience her frustration, we are told what happens, the visual scene robbed from the reader of what she did to the room and what it now looks like. Expound on this, and let the reader experience it with Mimi.
to calm down.
This is another common mistake when writing, which is the use of “to” instead of “and.” By switching out the words, it is the simplest fix to change telling to showing. “She leaned in to kiss him.” Or, “She leaned in and kissed him.” Unless the action will be stopped or interrupted, change out the words. “She leaned in to kiss him, but he backed away.” Also, show us how she calmed down.
After a flood of tears and even more swear words, she felt a cold draft.
While sometimes we need to use telling to move a story forward, this isn’t the place. Elaborate on this scene and allow the reader to connect with the emotions that should be present. Again, we have “felt” that pesky telling word which lends nothing to the scene but rather denies the writer from creating a strong setting and the ability to show the character’s reaction to the cold. As far as the swear words, add those in where it seems natural.
She was wearing
When it comes to describing clothing, this is typical telling in manuscripts. Instead, omit the “was” and give the reader the description in an active, showing sentence.
And it was only going to get colder
While this sentence is telling, sometimes it’s okay to use “was,” especially if the sentence is surrounded by active verbs and sentences. But make sure there’s no other “active” way to write the sentence before moving on.
She would have to find
Show her searching for a blanket instead of telling us she needs to find one.
A smelly blanket was found in a box.
Instead of allowing her to rummage through a box until she locates a blanket, we are told she found one. Also, what did it smell like? Maybe mildew, moth balls, etc.
There was an old couch in the corner and she decided to sleep there.
Don’t tell me what she sees and what her decisions are, show me. Again, this is an opportunity to create setting and give the reader an idea of the odds stacked against our protagonist.
Now to put it all together with the above recommendations:
Mimi’s hands balled into fists and her chest thumped against ribs as the attic door closed and locked. “Please don’t do this to me, Mom. I didn’t mean to leave the bathroom light on.”
“When you learn how to follow my rules, I’ll stop locking you in the attic.” Ice laced her mother’s tone, hateful and ugly.
Footsteps grew fainter and disappeared. How could any mother do this to their child? Her chest heaved and her body stiffened as rage flooded her veins. “Damn you to hell, Mother!” Grabbing a stack of outdated magazines, she screamed and ripped them apart, scattering the torn pages at her feet. Boxes flung from high stacks, and empty canning jars smashed against unfinished walls.
With tears flooding her face, she slumped to the ground and inhaled deep breaths. A shiver stitched her spine, and she rubbed her arms as a cold draft whistled through cracks between boards, her pajama shorts, tank top, and bare feet offering no protection against winter. The setting sun cast long shadows across the room, bringing with it the promise of plunging temperatures.
Bouncing up and down, she rummaged through an antique chest, moving aside a stack of musty letters and yellowed crocheted doilies until a faded green sleeping bag emerged, the word Slumberjack embroidered into the nylon outer shell. Mildew spotted one corner, the stench so strong she gagged. But the cover would have to do.
Careful to avoid broken glass, she inched her way to the other side of the attic and curled up on a thread-bare settee. She sighed and bit her lip, willing herself not to cry another tear. Burying her head under the bag, she blocked out the cold world and pretended to have a mom who loved her, imagination offering the only escape from the reality of having a monster for a mother.
Was that helpful? Let us know in the comments!
This is a quick blog to let you know we're going to start posting a regular Show Don't Tell Workshop every Monday, beginning tomorrow. We begin each blog by sharing a paragraph or two, highlight the parts that are telling, talk you through why they're telling, and then show you how you can easily flip them over to showing. It's so not as hard as you think!
This is such a common issue we see in manuscripts and, honestly, it's an important one to master because it makes an enormous difference to readers being able to connect and immerse themselves in your fictional worlds.
So, stay tuned!
I looked in the mirror and practiced flipping my long, blond hair over my shoulder. My blue eyes had a sea-green tint to them today--a side effect of my favorite chocolate brown sweater. When I smiled, my rose-tinted lips formed a perfect Cupid's bow.
You've probably read a passage like this before. Describing a character with a visual trick like this is tempting. For one thing, it's easy. Hopefully you can see from the (overdone) example above how false that description reads to the audience.
Generally, you want to avoid the "mirror" cliche, or anything similar, as an easy out to describe your characters. That means no mirrors, still ponds, metallic surfaces, twins, photographs, etc. But the fact that the mirror is an overused cliche isn't the only reason to skip the looking glass. The bigger problem is that it isn't authentic.
Your characters' internal dialogue needs to be realistic, just like regular dialogue.
When a character looks at themselves in the mirror and describes themselves through inner dialogue, we're riding inside their thoughts. And I don't know many people who look in the mirror and catalog their traits like this. I might think, "Wow, my hair looks good today!" But I'm not going to think, "Wow, my straight blond hair looks really good!" because I already know what my hair looks like.
(And please, if you're writing about a character who is a different ethnicity than you, don't use the mirror as an opportunity to point that out. A Black person doesn't look in the mirror and think about how dark their skin is; a Chinese person doesn't look in the mirror and think about the shape of their eyes. Because those are parts of their everyday reality.)
So, while you try to avoid cliched situations like the mirror, think about what's underneath. Dig into what your character really sounds like and how they think of themselves, and then spread the details out to develop your characters more naturally.
Tackling revisions can feel overwhelming, but if you head into your manuscript with a plan, you'll save yourself a lot of time. Everyone's revision process is going to look a little different, and that's okay. Some authors go through more drafts than others before they feel ready for querying. Some authors overwrite, and some underwrite. Find a process that works for your style, and you'll be happier when revising.
But even though authors' revision processes can look different on the outside, today's planning tip works for just about everyone.
Don't try to fix everything at once.
For one thing, you'll likely wind up in a never-ending loop of fixing one domino, only to realize you've knocked over a dozen other ones. And after you bury yourself in that mess of dominoes, finishing your revisions can seem impossible. So take a breath. Let some of the mistakes go. Give yourself permission to do multiple revision passes, and take as many drafts as you need.
Try focusing on one or two major things that need to be fixed per pass. Start with the deepest, most widespread problem first.
For example, if I'm revising a manuscript where I know I need to flesh out my main character more, I personally would tackle that before doing a dedicated pacing edit. If I want to add in more sensory details and visual scenery, that comes after dealing with bigger issues like making sure my character's voice is consistent. Because as I fix the characterization, many of the pacing problems get smoothed out as well. Nailing down the voice might deal with how the MC describes the world around her, and so I've already dealt with senses.
But if I tried to write those descriptive passages before I figure out her voice? Chances are I'm going to have to go back and revise those again, after doing the voice edit. If I alter the pacing before I figure out how my character responds to problems, I might have her reacting in ways that no longer make sense.
So before you start revising, figure out what your biggest problem is first.
Otherwise you might end up spending hours nudging random dominoes into place, only to realize that you've been building them into the wrong shape all along.
When I say rhythm, you probably think of drums and counting beats. Possibly poetry and meter. But all language has rhythm, whether it's spoken or written or signed, and you can use variations in rhythm to keep your reader interested.
Most authors have a "default" sentence length they tend to write. (I tend toward longer sentences with lots of clauses, if you hadn't noticed.) There's no one length that's right or wrong. But if all your sentences are long, you wear your reader out. If they're all short, your reader can feel like you're shooting rapid-fire sentence bullets at them.
Varying your sentence lengths is key to keeping a reader interested and refreshed.
There's a classic example of how this works, written by Gary Provost:
Isn't that amazing?
Provost could have tried to explain sentence rhythm til the cows came home, but this demonstration is so much more effective.
Now, bland rhythm can be a hard thing to catch while editing. But never fear, because we have two tips to help you.
First, READ YOUR WORK ALOUD.
Have you ever read much Dr. Seuss to kids? He did a lot to encourage kids to read, but some of those books can be torture to read, because of the repetitive rhythm. If you find yourself falling into a metered pattern while you read, or you notice that you're always breathing in the same place, you probably should tweak some sentences for length.
Second, there's a cool add-on for Google Chrome called "Highlight the Music." You can run it on any Google doc, and it will color-code your sentences by length. It's free to download, and you can find it here.
*I, assistant editor Bethany, have never had any difficulty with this add-on. However, please do always save and backup your work before using any new word processing type programs.*
Someone already ran Provost's rhythm paragraph through the Highlight the Music add-on. So this is what it looks like in use, for those of you who are visual like me:
I find it helpful in my work to be able to look at it and see where I have massive chunks of one color that I need to break up. Not every page needs to be a rainbow, but if it's all one solid color, you probably want to change things up.
So take a look at the rhythm in your own manuscript, and see what kind of music YOU can make. Happy editing!
If you've ever stared at the words affect and effect so long that they turned into nonsense before you could figure out which one you ought to use, this post is for you. We have two quick mnemonic devices that will help you remember how to use these almost-homophones properly--most of the time. We'll talk about the rule-breakers at the end.
A is for ACTION and AFFECT.
To affect something is an action. I might affect a chain of dominoes by tipping the first one over.
Cause and effect becomes CausEffect. You can also think of it as ChangEffect.
An effect is a noun.
He made the kids smile; he had that effect on everyone.
So I affected the dominoes by pushing them; a side effect was the clatter and the mess.
An effect of reading this blog is better editing skills.
You affect your chances of being published by working hard.
These are the standard ways of using affect/effect, so most of the time those tips will steer you in the right direction. HOWEVER. Because English is such a fun and exciting language, effect occasionally is used as a verb and affect as a noun.
Effect is still always a part of cause and effect, though, so when it becomes a verb, it basically becomes a stand-in for "cause". And it's usually used with "change" or "solution" as its direct object. So someone can effect change (cause a change) or effect a solution (cause/create a solution).
Affect as a noun is even rarer in contemporary English. It means "a feeling, emotion, or specific emotional response." It's often used in cases where the attitude or emotion the person is displaying seems false, or affected.
So to sum up: A, Action, Affect (verb). Cause and effect go together to become CausEffect (noun).
And I'll admit that after typing all of this, I don't want to see the words affect OR effect again for a very long time. That's quite the effect!
It's time for a quick tip! One of the most common, simple spelling/grammar mistakes we see is the misuse of its and it's. And if your autocorrect is like mine, sometimes even knowing which one you want to use isn't good enough.
Always double check its/it's by thinking if it should be expanded into "it is."
Every single time I use either form, I check. (As an added bonus, that way, when my auto "correct" messes it up for me, I catch it.)
"Its" is the possessive form: The dog chased its tail.
Double-check: does The dog chased it is tail make sense? No? Then I want the form without the apostrophe, and I'm good.
"It's" is the contraction of it is: It's cold tonight.
Double-check: does It is cold tonight make sense? Yes? Then I want the apostrophe.
The reason this is confusing is that with other nouns, we add an apostrophe+s to indicate possession. But we don't do it with pronouns, and that's what "it" is.
So let's practice a few:
Its beginning to look a lot like Christmas.
Double-check: It is beginning to look a lot like Christmas. So I would want to add in the ' here.
Once there was a cat who loved its owner.
Double-check: Once there was a cat who loved it is owner. So no ' is correct.
Hopefully this quick tip will help you next time you want to use its--or was it it's?--in your writing!
Today's tip is for when you're ready to query your manuscript, also known as "when you'll likely start raking in the rejections." Most authors hear "no" many, many times before they finally hear "yes!" In fact, our very own Kate Foster posted a little bit about her story of how she signed with her agent last week here.
But even though all authors will receive rejections--my personal favorites are the stories of agents writing back years later to reject a book that's just gone on sale--there are things you can do to limit your number of rejections somewhat.
The first step is thorough editing, of course. A clean manuscript is more appealing than one that's riddled with errors.
But the second step, where a lot of authors stumble, is doing their homework. Agents are inundated with queries. Most of them post guidelines about what they represent and what sort of stories they're currently looking for. Research anyone you're interested in, and respect those preferences. Agents might enjoy reading stories outside their wishlists, but they know what they can realistically sell.
If an agent lists triggers that they personally have and do not want to see in manuscripts, respect that. Don't traumatize someone; you won't get an agent or make any friends that way.
Respect agency guidelines. Always send materials in the proper format, whether it's in an email or as an attachment; ten pages, or twenty, or fifty. If an agent I queried asked for my submission via snail mail, in purple Comic Sans font, I'd give it to them. Yes, it can be inconvenient having to format things differently for each agent. But they ask for formats that suit their reading devices and preferences. And showing that you can follow a simple request is the beginning of a good business relationship.
Lastly, and most importantly, always be respectful. Queries can be lighthearted, but not rude. If you receive a rejection, move on. If an intern is helping an agent read subs, be grateful, because it means that agent got to your query quicker. Bad behavior gets talked about, and you don't want to earn yourself a reputation as someone no one wants to work with.
Today, instead of focusing on how to take care of your manuscripts, we're going to focus for a minute on how to take care of you. As writers, it's easy to get too absorbed in our work at times. No matter what stage of writing you're in, it seems like there's always something to worry about. Deadlines, bad reviews, querying, CPs to keep up with, personal and work responsibilities...it never ends.
All that pressure can contribute to a bad case of writer's block or mental and emotional fatigue. When that happens, you need to find a way to rest and recharge your inner battery. Plowing on through and ignoring that fatigue will catch up with you sooner or later, so finding a self-care routine that works for you is vital to relieving stress.
If you ask any group of writers online for their stress-relieving, writer's block-breaking tips, you'll get a lot of this: enjoy some junk food, go out drinking, binge on Netflix, etc.
Those are all good ideas that can be helpful. But I'd like to suggest that indulging in bad habits maybe shouldn't be our "go-to" move, especially when a writer's life can be so constantly full of stress. I asked around for some "healthier" suggestions, and here's what writers had to say:
When you get a rejection letter, write down anything nice they had to say. Keep a document of compliments to read when you're feeling down.
Use those compliments to make fun graphics and make them your screensavers or put them on your desktop. Print them out and hang them in your writing space.
Alternatively, you can take bad reviews or insults and pair them with "motivational" type pictures to make them sting less. Mean words just don't hurt as much when they're being said by the "hang in there!" kitten.
If you're having writer's block on a particular project, try switching to a back burner project for a few days. Let your subconscious brain work on the problem for you.
Try writing something in a completely different style or medium. Do freeform poetry. Write to music. Write a sensory passage. Change up your routine to shake up your thought process; it helps break through whatever you're stuck on.
If you have a manuscript problem you can't figure out (and you have time to do this), don't get up right away in the morning. Think about the story before you go to bed, then again when you wake up. Listen to your mind; your subconscious may have solved it for you while you slept.
Go for a walk or a jog, or whatever type of exercise you enjoy.
Try a creative activity with an outcome you can control, like baking, music, gardening, or crafting. Engage your creative energy without the frustration of writer's block, and it may help loosen up your creative muscles.
Try mindfulness techniques, such as meditation, yoga, or simply taking a bath.
Read for fun.
Any physical activity with rhythmic movement is good for relaxing your brain and stimulating thought. Often you're increasing bloodflow and endorphins without having to focus on what you're doing. Walking on a treadmill, crocheting or knitting, running, etc.
Coloring, painting, or other artistic activities.
Baking or cooking, especially something new and interesting.
Talking any story problems out with a friend or family member. Often someone who doesn't know your story very well (NOT your CPs) can offer you simple solutions to whatever's wrong. They aren't bogged down by preconceived notions of how the story ought to go. You don't have to take all the advice, but talking it over can get your brain going in new directions.
Hopefully you all find these tips as helpful as I did. Take care of yourselves, and happy editing!
Every Wednesday we bring you an edit tip of the day and on Mondays throughout the summer a series of SHOW DON'T TELL workshops!