Posted in Craft, The Nitty Gritty of Children's Writing

Three Commonly Overused Words in Fiction

Overuse of “look” or as Deborah Halverson aka DearEditor says, “Stop Looking!” A character looks up, looks down, looks around, looks another character in the eyes, looks at his watch, looks in her mirror. Some try to replace “look” with “gaze,” “stare,” etc. But the problem is deeper than that.

Looking is not as descriptive as other possible actions. It’s fairly passive. It doesn’t provide sensory details. Sometimes, it is distancing the reader.

Here are a few examples:

  1. John looked out the window.
  2. Leslie glared at her daughter.
  3. I looked at the paper on my desk.

Stronger possibilities:

  1. Out the window the Ponderosa pines were swaying in the wind. If John is the main character, we will assume he sees this.
  2. Leslie’s eyes narrowed emphasizing the hated wrinkle between her eyebrows. If her daughter is present, it will be pretty obvious that Leslie’s not exactly pleased with her.
  3. The paper on my desk said, “Don’t come back.”

I always suggest using Find in Word (Control F for PC, or Command F for Mac) to see how many “look”s there are. Usually it’s a surprisingly high number.

Then start replacing them with more dynamic content. Of course, you don’t have to get rid of all of them, but changing many and getting out of the lazy “looking” habit will definitely power up your writing.

Too many feelings. Using “feel”, “felt,” and “feels” often are telling instead of showing.

Here are a few examples:

  1. His legs shake and he feels an overwhelming blanket of anxiety stifling his mind.
  2. She felt sad. What does that look like?
  3. I felt sweaty and the mosquitoes were biting. Definitely telling!

These could become the stronger:

  1. His legs shake and an overwhelming blanket of anxiety stifles his mind.
  2. Her shoulders drooped to match the shape of her mouth. Now that I can picture.
  3. I licked sweat off my upper lip and smashed a mosquito on my jeans.

The fix. I do a search in Word (Control F for PC, or Command F for Mac) for the correct verb tense of “feel” in my story.

I change them one of two ways:

  • Rearrange the sentence to share the same info without the word “felt.”
  • Make it more active by helping the reader experience what is happening.
  • Show and add sensory details.

You may ignore it in dialogue.

Write seemlessly (pun intended). Avoid “seem,” “seemed,” “seems.” Often used with “to.” You are the writer and creator of the story, so you know whether something happens or not. You should be sharing what happened—not guessing what happened. “Seemed” indicates uncertainty.

Here’s a simple example: It seemed to be raining. It’s either raining or not raining, isn’t it?

Look at these two:
She seems to remember many of the other cousins and there were a lot of them.

The walls seemed to lean toward me.

The fix. Remove “seem” forms in your narration and correct the verb tense. Tighten if necessary. The two above could become:

She remembers many of our numerous cousins.

The walls leaned toward me.

A possible exception. Sometimes a character expresses an opinion in dialogue or even in their thoughts. “You seem unhappy,” Jon said. If that’s how Jon talks, fine. Or perhaps he might say, “You look unhappy” or You sound unhappy.” But if Jon has an attitude and is more concerned about appearances that actual unhappiness, he might say, “Wipe that frown off your face!” It depends on Jon’s personality and the situation.

Of course, there are other commonly overused words and you may have some unique to your own writing. But go on a search and destroy mission with these three and it’ll give you a good start on self-editing.

Posted in Business Side of Writing, Market Prep, The Nitty Gritty of Children's Writing, The Publication Process

Exciting News for Jasmine and Advice

Guest post on querying.

One of the Facebook groups I enjoy is Sub It Club. I learn from others, help others, and share in the ups and downs. I’m sharing this January 7th post by Jasmine A. Stirling with permission.

Hi everyone! I’m excited to announce that after querying in December, I received ten offers of representation, and am now represented by Alyssa Eisner Henkin at Birch Path Literary, the force behind books like Wonder, The Lovely War, and The Right Word.

Someone asked me on this forum if I have any suggestions for querying. One thing I would suggest is that you mention some recent projects the agent has done which you’ve read and enjoyed, and which fit well with your work, before you begin your pitch. It’s important for agents to know you understand who they are as an individual, and the kinds of projects they are passionate about. To get this information, I use a combination of Publishers Marketplace and Twitter. On Twitter, I get a sense for what projects the agent is enthusiastic about at the moment. 

Many of the projects listed in Publishers Marketplace are not yet out, so you don’t want to laud a book you obviously haven’t read. Sometimes I mention I’m looking forward to a book that has been announced in Publishers Marketplace but is not yet out. This shows the agent that I’m not just looking at Twitter or their website. They get the sense that I am familiar with industry news.

Take extra time and get familiar with the books the agent is publishing. Agents can tell if you are just querying everyone who might be remotely interested in your work.

Composing a good query letter and strategy takes time and research. Think through anyone you know who might be able to make an introduction. Don’t be afraid to network on Facebook. I did get an introduction through a cold request on Facebook to a very successful, closed agent, who subsequently made an offer.

And finally, this might not make me popular here, but I would take the advice you receive on groups like this with a grain of salt, even if they come from agented authors or moderators. The truth is, the rules of querying, receiving offers, and making choices, are more flexible than you might think. Everyone wants to make sure you find the right agent for you, including agents who are offering to work with you. 

Be respectful, be communicative about your timeline, be honest, but follow your gut and keep trying if you’re not getting the offers you want. There’s no secret police of agents who are going to kick you out of the club for anything you do. Just be a professional, and things will work out fine.

Good luck to everyone and Happy New Year!

Read more about Jasmine and her books on her website. You’ll definitely want to check out her delightful picturebook: A Most Clever Girl: How Jane Austen Discovered Her Voice.

Posted in Craft, The Nitty Gritty of Children's Writing

Chronology in Fiction

I always have to laugh at myself when a critique partner points out something in my writing that I usually catch in others’ writing. In this case, it was sentence chronological order. (Or time-order sequence.)

Usually it is clearer to write in a cause and effect order. Examples: The car behind us honked and Dad let up on the brake and drove off. When the dog barked to be let in, she opened the door. In each of these cases, the first action resulted in the person doing the second action. Pretty obvious.

But sometimes when we write, it’s easy to mess up. Here’s what I wrote in a picture book text: She started with Grampa Joe. She fixed up her hair special, put on her best outfit, and popped into his room. I told what the character was going to do—start with Grampa Joe—but showed what she did first before going into his room. My critique partner* wisely suggested: She fixed up her hair special, put on her best outfit, and popped into Grampa Joe’s room. Chronological order not only made the story stronger by reducing telling, but reduced word count from 21 words to 17. (Definitely an important factor in a picture book.)

I think chronology can especially become a problem when using the connecting word “as.” Example: He waved as the school bus pulled away. A reader will assume this is a simultaneous action. But look at this one: Snow fell from the tree as the wind blew. It could be simultaneous. However, thinking cause and effect, probably the wind made the snow fall. In a short sentence like this it may not make much difference, but I think it’s always worth considering whether a sentence or paragraph should be in chronological order.

Does that mean we should never write out of chronological order? Of course not. You’ll see beginnings of novels that foretell terrible things are going to happen. There will be flashbacks, especially in novels for teens and adults. Sometimes stories are written in multiple viewpoints and we see what happens in one character’s life, then move on to what happens in another’s life at the same time. Nonchronology may be used for the purpose of suspense, to reveal character backstory, or for worldbuilding.

But I think for the most part a sentence or paragraph should show the sequence of events in the order they happened.

*Thanks, Carol!

Posted in Craft, The Nitty Gritty of Children's Writing, Writing Life

Quitter or Go Getter?

Which label would you prefer to chose for yourself? Quitter or Go Getter? Most of us would probably prefer to be listed in the latter category. But quitter isn’t always negative. Let’s get the negatives out of the way first.

            Quitter – this person quits writing when…

…writing is hard
…he receives negative feedback
…marketing is work
…she doesn’t follow the guidelines and everything is rejected
…life is too busy

            Go Getter – this person persists in writing, but…

…she thinks feedback doesn’t apply to her
…is unwilling to make changes
…doesn’t keep adding to knowledge of the craft of writing
…he doesn’t read material for children
…may rush into submitting before ready

Neither camp is a win. But the positive side of each is.

            Positive Quitters – know when…

…a short story, article, picture book, novel just isn’t working and are willing to start over or set it aside
…the story they are working is not one for them to write. (E.g. cultural appropriation)
…they’ve queried/submitted a story with no takers and it’s time to move on
…it’s time to take a break from a project

            Positive Go Getters – know…

…to take feedback and revise
…to try a new genre or audience or category
…to be willing to rework and revise to make a story better, again and again
…to keep learning more about the craft of writing in various ways
…to read material written for children, especially in areas where they write
…when it’s time to submit or resubmit and will do so appropriately
…not to give up too easily

Being positive quitters and positive go getters will help writers continue forward on their paths.

Posted in Craft, The Nitty Gritty of Children's Writing

Moment-by-Moment

I was recently reminded of the importance of being in the moment. If a scene is important enough to write, shouldn’t the reader get to feel as if they are with the characters while it is happening? I’d say a big resounding YES!

But what does that look like? It’s showing what is happening with action, sensory details, dialogue, thoughts, etc. No glossing over or summarizing, but being on scene with the character. Think immersion experience versus someone telling a story.

Say a fifth grader is walking into his new school cafeteria for the first time. Is this a good, bad, or neutral experience for him? What is he thinking? What sensory details are striking him? How is he reacting? Is he going to meet the guy who’s going to be his best friend or his enemy? Is he going to be invisible or draw everyone’s attention? There are so many possibilities and a generic: “He walked into his new school cafeteria” isn’t going to cut it.

Let’s try a few possibilities:

Or how about this one?

Similar situations, right? But so different because we have a clear picture of what each individual character is experiencing. They and their situations are unique. We learn more about each character than that they are eating lunch in a school cafeteria. Readers want those specifics.

Leave summarizing for transitions or things that aren’t important. For example: He got undressed and went to bed. The next morning after breakfast…

To end, I’d like to share this reminder from Kathryn Sant, “Strong action verbs actually allow our minds to feel the action as if our bodies had performed it.” So, don’t forget to include strong verbs in your moment-by-moment scenes.