I’ve done it myself and seen other writers do it too–have characters look up, down, around, at someone or something, etc. Many, many, many times. And changing the words from look to gaze, stare, watch, or what other synonym you can find, doesn’t improve the writing much. On a discussion board a writer said, “Just did a search of ‘look’ on my main story, and I’ve used it 600 times across 200 pages.” That’s three per page! Unfortunately, the writer didn’t get much helpful advice. (You can read the conversation here if you’re interested.)
Deborah Halverson of DearEditor.com taught me, “Stop looking.” Instead we can show setting, character, etc. by using other actions.
What is something your main character does habitually? Or what nervous habit does he have? A character might play with the zipper pull of his jacket (indicates something about what he is wearing, jingle her keys or coins (which gives us a nice sensory detail), or twist his long hair and tuck it up under a beany (character description plus clothing item).
What can a character do besides look at what’s around them? React in some way. She might bark a cough in the dusty air (sensory and setting detail), run his thumbnail over the rough spot on the surface of the table (sensory and setting, plus possibly revealing the character’s attention to detail), or sniff at the fragrance of cinnamon and apple from the pie cooling on the counter (sensory that might indicate hunger and makes my mouth water versus someone simply looking at a pie cooling on the counter).
Writing a novel should not include stage direction. I suspect in screenplays that minor aspects such as “looking” are left to the actor to figure out. Your readers will figure this out, too. For example: My dog just asked to go out. I looked at her. I looked at the lock on the slider door to unlock it. When I opened the door to let her out, I looked outside. When I closed the door, I looked at the lock to lock it. Argghh. It’s all true, but painful reading. Instead I might write something like this: My dog whined to go out. I unlocked the slider and opened it for her. Cold air rushed into the house from the gray fall morning. I used some sensory details, so it is more interesting. You know I looked outside because I told you what it looked like, but I didn’t use the word look. I didn’t need to.
Avoid the mundane in our writing. When a character talks to someone, unless we point out that they can’t or aren’t doing so, they are probably looking at the other person. The assumption doesn’t need to be reinforced. It’s ordinary. And even if the character isn’t, is it important enough to say so? Similarly, in my last example, a reader will assume that the dog and I walked to the door without me stating it.
Does that mean a writer should never use the word look? Of course not. But like in many areas of our writing, we don’t want to be lazy. Use it where needed. But you’ll probably find on close examination (during revisions) that the verb isn’t needed near as many times as you have used it.
Recently I was asked to judge a writing contest.
Some of the common problems I found were:
- The story didn’t fit the genre
- Confusing or awkward beginnings
- Unclear who the main character was
- Unclear how old the main character was (some hint would have been nice)
- Overuse of other dialogue tags besides “said” and “asked”
- Punctuation errors
- Telling, telling, telling (I’m not talking about transitions or other appropriate places to tell)
- Poor proofing
- Too much description
- Head hopping
- Large chunks of backstory
- Inconsistent verb tense
- No sense of setting
- Overuse of “as”
- Main character was only an observer
- Too many characters which caused confusion
- Dialogue punctuation errors
- Sentence fragments
- Unclear audience
- Not following directions
There was usually more than one of these problems. The result was I didn’t want to read on.
Here’s how I work at avoiding these kinds of issues:
1. Set my writing aside for several weeks. When I come back to it, I can read what it actually says, not what I think it says, and revise.
2. Know the rules of punctuation, point of view, verb tenses, etc.
3. Know what my weaknesses are. Whether it is overuse of words, not including enough introspection, etc., I search for them in my writing. I know I have trouble with some rules and refresh them periodically.
4. Read my writing out loud to my critique group. Sometimes I hear my own errors. Often, I find something I thought was perfectly clear in my writing is not clear to my critique partners.
5. Revise again.
6. Set it aside again. Edit again. Take back to critique group if necessary.
7. Do specific market research. (Have been doing general market search all along.)
8. Read the submission guidelines and make sure I’m sending appropriately. If my piece, story, or book doesn’t fit, I go back to market research.
Rushing to submit, whether it is to a contest, a magazine, an editor, or an agent, usually backfires. At the best, it is a waste of your time and the time of whoever is receiving your piece. At the worst, they may never want to look at what you send again.
The right title feels so perfect. Delicious even. But if you don’t have a perfect title, maybe you’re struggling to have any title. (Yes, I know titles are often changed before publication, but you have to call your manuscript something before you can submit!) What do you do if you’re stuck?
Here are some ideas. If one idea alone doesn’t work, try a combination.
Think about the theme of your book or magazine piece. Can you narrow it down to a few words? Does rewording it work for a title? Is there one word that is especially strong in your theme? Maybe the main character’s name and that word (or a synonym for that word) would work as a title for fiction.
Summarize the plot in one sentence and see if you can pull a piece out of that for the title. Or what is some interesting action that happens in the story? Sometimes a single verb makes a good title. Or use the character’s name and an action verb.
Look at short quotes, sayings or clichés. Could one become a title with a slight twist? Once for an article about a science writing contest, I used “It’s Not Just Rocket Science.” Or could a partial saying work? A recent book I read was called What Goes Up (by Katie Kennedy). The end of that adage might be an interesting title as well.
Is there something special about the setting? Could that be part of your title? I think of the song Rocky Mountain High. It’d be a different piece replacing High with Low. My friend’s book combines setting, main character, and action–Mrs. McBee Leaves Room 3 by Gretchen Brandenburg McLellan is a picture book.
What about your main character? Does she have a nickname? It might be his own personal one for himself. Or your quick summary of that character. I once titled a story “Ice Princess” since the main character was hiding a weakness by trying to appear perfect. Does your character have a motto? Could that be the title? What’s the character’s main problem? Once a publisher sent a book to me for rewriting. It was called What’s that Smell? which sounded too much like nonfiction. I changed the title to The Smell of Trouble which hinted at the problem in the story and both the editor and I were happy.
Could your title ask a question? Once I called a short story “Who Do You Tell?” Or quote a line or piece of dialogue in your book or story. I’ve used this often. Some examples are “No Way!” and “Just a Minute.”
I like titles that are puns or have more than one meaning. A student titled a story “In the Dog House”–not only was the main character in trouble, but the story included a dog. Perfect.
Think about descriptions in your book. If you have an analogy or metaphor that might make an interesting title.
What have you been calling your book privately? Could you play with that?
What about your antagonist? Would his name or title or label make a good title?
Perhaps try rhyme or alliteration with some of the title ideas you do have. Does that freshen it up? Give it a twist? Or try assonance.
Make a list of as many ideas as you can come up with. If you don’t find one that you like, try taking half of one and putting it with half of another. If you’re still frustrated, I suggest sleeping on it. I often find my subconscious plays with ideas while I’m asleep.
Have other ideas for title brainstorming? Feel free to share in the comments.
“Sometimes I’m guilty of lumping continuous verbs into the same category as passive verbs because both types, used incorrectly, create wordiness and cause slow, turgid writing that could be much livelier.” Pearl Luke
Raising my hand to say, “me, too!” I’m always circling “was walking,” “am running,” “was throwing,” etc. and telling my students to use a simple past tense: walked, ran, threw. My advice to writers is often, “Search for those ‘ing’ endings and see if the verb can be straight past tense.”
Leah McClellan says, “When overused, -ing words in the progressive forms (whether past, present, or future tense) introduce too many weak, little words like am, are, is, was, were, been, have, has, and had–and more.”
You may remember the term “helping verbs” from grade school. The italicized verbs above are helping the main verb. However, those main verbs are strong enough to live on their own.
Let’s look at a few examples with the “ing” removed:
“They were standing on the corner by the high school.” – “They stood on the corner by the high school.”
“She is brushing her hair.” – “She brushes her hair.”
“He has been walking his dog.” – “He walked his dog.”
Does that mean you never use an “ing” on a verb? Of course not. But if it is the only verb in the sentence, limit the use. Sometimes it is necessary in context.
We need it in phrases. “While walking the dog, Mandy called her best friend.” “Shaking his head, Mike set his books on the table.” In both of these cases, we are indicating two actions that are happening at the same time. If they are not simultaneous, they might look like this: “Mandy walked the dog, then called her best friend.” “Mike shook his head and set his books on the table.” Just make sure the actions are possible to do at the same time when using a phrase.
We use it correctly in examples such as this one: “They were eating dinner when I arrived.”
It’s necessary when using the verb as a gerund. “Skiing is my passion.” Or “Reading is how I relax at night.” Leah McClellan says, “Gerunds are useful because they point to the essence of an action–the concept or thing-ness of it–rather than the action in performance.”
But, remember, in simple sentences less “ing” is clearer and more concise.
I have a tendency to be an underwriter. I’ll write brief summaries, or transitions, of things I shouldn’t. My critique group will say they want to know the details of what happened. It’s usually a “doh” moment for me. Of course I should write that out as a scene.
Also, I often don’t go deeply enough into my characters or into my characters’ emotions. What are they thinking, feeling, experiencing? What are their dreams and hopes and worries? What are their flaws and bad habits? How is he/she reacting to what the other characters do and say? Am I only showing the outward stuff? The obvious stuff? C.S. Lakin says, “Every emotion we wear on our skin is an outward manifestation of something deeper.” And “By skipping the obvious feelings, you can catch your reader off guard.”
I’ve made the mistake of trying to use flashbacks in the opening of a novel to show more emotion, but these simple words from a roundtable critique in October–stay in the scene–will definitely be a help to me. Once the editor said it, I knew she was right. In the beginning of a book especially I need to remember to stay in the scene. Now to go back and fix that novel opening and others.
Underwriting can be generic writing. The events aren’t happening any specific place with its own quirks, with a unique cast of characters, with problems that will be solved only the way these characters can solve them. The reader also might not have any clues to the time period of the story.
Some underwriters might leave out taglines and beats making it difficult to know who is talking in a conversation. This also means the characters can appear to be standing in front of a white board. The reader doesn’t know what the characters are doing while they talk or what’s around them.
If a writer fails to give characters the tools or skills they need to solve the problem that’s another form of underwriting. When the character pops out with the tool or skill, the reader isn’t prepared and the scene doesn’t ring true.
The same for decision making. Readers want and need to see the process the character goes through when making a decision. Rachel Starr Thomson says, “We feel in response to things we’re thinking. So do our characters. If you can show what they are thinking, nine times out of ten you can make an emotional connection with your readers.”
I read where Elizabeth Silvers said, “sketch out the skeletal” and that made sense to me too. Put some muscle and skin and hair on the skeleton of a story if you’re an underwriter.
Any other underwriters out there? If so, what are your tricks and tips? I’d love to see them in the comments.