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.
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.
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.
Having an outrageous word count is one of the fastest ways to get your manuscript rejected by an agent. But how long should your manuscript be? As long as you need it to be to tell the whole story, right?
Readers expectations for pacing and lengths vary depending on the genre and age category. There's always a range, and there will always be outliers, but if you're trying to get your first manuscript published, it's generally safer to stay pretty close to the established norms.
You want to research what standard length is for the age category you're writing for (picture book, early reader, MG, YA, Adult, etc) and what standard length is for your genre (non-fiction, fantasy, adventure, contemporary, romance, etc) within that age category.
Here are a few of our favorite resources for checking on word count standards:
This excellent post by agent Jennifer Laughran covers kids up through YA: http://literaticat.blogspot.com/2011/05/wordcount-dracula.html
Another great post by agent Jessica Faust here, dealing more with YA and adult fiction: http://bookendslitagency.blogspot.com/2009/07/word-count.html
Blake Atwood breaks down word counts here: https://thewritelife.com/how-many-words-in-a-novel/
And for those of you writing children's books, whether early reader, MG, or YA, there's a handy (free!) online tool you can use to see how long your comp titles are. If you go to http://www.arbookfind.com, you can plug in titles of children's books and it will tell you what level that book is considered to be, as well as its word count.
One last key thing to remember: these are word counts for final drafts. Your first draft may come in way under or over, and that's okay. I've taken 16,000 word drafts and turned them into 90,000 word novels. And 120,000 word novels and trimmed them down to 80,000. It's possible. So don't despair if you aren't on target right away. That's what editing is for!
Today's tip is all about decision making - your characters', that is. You know that stereotype about how characters in horror movies always make really poor choices that they wouldn't make in real life? Unfortunately, this is something we see fairly often in manuscripts (and even query letters) that need some TLC. So ask yourself:
Are my characters' decisions realistic and true to their motivations?
If a character misses her older brother she doesn't get to see very often, she's not going to ignore the phone when he calls. If a character is a scaredy-cat, you'd better provide them with a good reason to go investigate that bump in the night. If a character is trying to get from point A to point B as fast as he can, he isn't likely to stop and smell the roses.
Too often we focus on what we as authors want to have happen next, and we force our characters to make bizarre choices that don't make sense. Doing this reminds the reader that the character is nothing more than a construct in a story. If you need a character to do something out of their normal, established behavior, then you have to give them a believable push in that direction. We're human beings; we're resistant to change at a fundamental level. Even if you're writing non-human characters, we expect internal consistency. Either you give your character a push, or you need to listen to your character and figure out what they would really do in that situation. Sometimes their natural reactions make for an even better story.
Have you ever received the feedback from a critique partner or an agent that they "just didn't connect with the character"? It's something most of us have heard, but it can be hard to understand how to use that feedback to approach revisions.
If agents aren't connecting, try adding emotional depth.
When someone says they didn't connect, it's often a symptom of rushed pacing. You need to let readers into your main character's emotional state if you want them to form a connection. You do that by showing their reaction to what's happening around them, to what is (and isn't) being said. If you rush through all the intense action scenes without giving the MC a chance to show us how they feel, then all the reader gets out of the scene is the action without the emotional connection. The action is vital and fun, but the emotional resonance is what makes it stick. Make sure you have a good balance of both.
Today's editing tip addresses a common problem we see at several different levels, within queries, scenes, acts, and manuscripts.
Make sure your stakes are clear.
Here's a simple formula I use with my own work as well as my critique partners. Hopefully you'll find it useful as well. If you aren't sure what your stakes are, or if you've laid them out clearly enough in your manuscript, try asking yourself these four questions:
1. Who is the main character?
2. What is their goal/what do they want?
3. What is preventing them from getting what they want?
4. What happens if they don't get it?
This is the heart of your story; who it's about, and why it matters. I recently had a 4th grade class I volunteer with do an exercise where they analyzed a novel they'd read as a class, using these questions. They answered these four questions for me, and we thought about what would happen if we removed any single one of those elements, or lessened the tension. They promptly realized the story would have been incredibly boring.
If your readers aren't connecting with your story overall, or a scene is lacking tension, or your query isn't getting any nibbles, see if it's answering these questions.(In the case of a query, it doesn't have to explain every goal and obstacle, but you do need a strong set for tension if you're going to hook an agent's interest.)
Is a character too vague or stereotypical? Is the goal clearly laid out? Avoid making obstacles too easy to solve, or completely insurmountable. And the last one is the one I most often see a problem with - does it matter? If the character goes on their quest, and could fail, learn nothing, and nothing would change, well, you've probably got a problem on your hands. Their action needs to make a difference, somehow, whether they succeed or not.
Today's editing tip is a twofer, so hang onto the seat of your pants. This one will help you deal with showing vs. telling, and it will also improve your dialogue. Are you ready?
Use blocking instead of unnecessary dialogue tags.
Blocking, in case the term is unfamiliar, is how you describe the characters' movements within the scene, rather like stage directions in a play. Most people don't stand or sit completely still when they speak; they fidget, they move around. If someone were to stay motionless, rigid, that would probably indicate some sort of internal distress. Letting your characters move a bit can make them feel more natural.
You can try giving characters habits, like poker "tells", to indicate specific moods. But you don't want to overdo it, and use the exact same movement every time. Verb choice can also show a reader how your characters are feeling. Jogging, running, and fleeing all have different connotations, but describe similar movements.
Within dialogue, you can use blocking to show a character's mood, or the relationship between two or more individuals. Here's an example of what that might look like:
“Hush, baby girl, it’s all right, everything is all right,” I told her, reaching out to sweep her up in a hug.
She scurried back, away from me, pulling her blankets up tighter. “I want Mama." A steady stream of tears began carving their way down her dirty cheeks. "Want MAMA!"
Without any other information, just the blocking, a reader should be able to tell a lot about the dynamics between these two. Hopefully this mini-scene should also create an emotional response in the reader, and a lot of that labor depends on the blocking and not on the dialogue. (And notice there's only one dialogue tag.)
Today's Editing Tip is a quick example of how to switch telling to showing. (There will be lots of these posted sporadically throughout the year as we know it's something a lot of writers can find tricky!)
Jacob felt sad after he read the letter.
The letter fell from Jacob's fingertips, landing by his feet. He hunched over, head in hands, and closed his eyes; that way he wouldn't have to see any of those devastating words again.
Jacob shook his head, back and forth, over and over. "No, no, no no." This couldn't be right. He read the letter again, those last few words once more. A sob released from his throat, and he crumpled the paper in his fist, succumbing to the sadness.
Now you try!
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!