by Sue Coletta
Yesterday marked my deadline for completing the pre-edits for Marred. “Pre-edits” seems like it would be an easy task. It wasn’t. Once the track edits begin in two weeks, I’m not allowed to change anything other than what the editor points out. So I wanted to go through the manuscript…one…more…time…and improve it to the best of my ability.
I went word-by-word, line-by-line, scene-by-scene…and checked scene structure, MRUs, and overall suspense, chose stronger verbs, deleted filler, etc. etc. And I learned something about myself. I am a perfectionist who is never happy until I’ve ripped everything apart, drove myself crazy, pulled out half my hair, beaten myself into exhaustion, and then rebuilt. Now, I’m satisfied…for two weeks…until the cycle begins again.
Is this a flaw? I think so, but it also drives me to improve.
In the pre-edits I looked for writing tics and things that dragged down the writing and/or slowed the pacing. The phrase “Show, Don’t Tell” is some of the oldest and most misunderstood advice in the industry. Show, Don’t Tell does not only mean to show a character’s action instead of naming an emotion; it goes way deeper than that.
When you write in Deep POV, like so many books today, even your narrative must Show, Don’t Tell. It should read as though the character is speaking rather than author intrusion. Years ago, books used an omniscient narrator, but today readers expect more. It is at the editing stage where you can amp your writing to the next level by concentrating on these changes.
Telling words are:
- S/he thought
These words pull the reader out of the story. Think about it. We don’t think, “I wondered if the windshield could stop a bullet.” Or, “I wished I hadn’t gone down this dark alley alone.” We just think it. As such, our stories need to reflect that.
Instead of the first example “I wondered” we need to write “When I saw the gun I ducked under the dash. Could the glass stop a bullet?”
See how more immediate it sounds? The reader remains in the story.
Let’s take the second example. Which is one of my writing tics by the way.
Instead of: “I wished I hadn’t gone down this dark alley.”
Try: “If only I had traveled my regular route home.”
Instead of: “She realized he was a creep.”
We are in the character’s head. Cut the fluff.
Phrases like Seemed to, Tried to, Began to…are also telling phrases. I once read a blog post where the author was ranting about characters “trying to” do things, and he rambled on and on about “Why is everyone only trying? Just do it already!” The post, comical as it was, always stuck with me. The author also happens to be correct. We can’t have our characters “trying” to do something. They do it.
While editing, I was amazed by how many times I used “tried to” or “started to”. For me, this took time to master.
For instance, in Marred I have a section of a scene where the deputy sheriff, Frankie Campanelli, shoves the sheriff while he’s rising from the sofa. My first instinct was to write, “As he started to rise, she shoved him back down.” There are several things wrong with this sentence, but let’s concentrate on the action. I rewrote the sentence as “He rose halfway and Frankie shoved him onto the sofa.” Less words, more immediate.
We all have our tics. Lord knows I have many. The trick is acknowledging what they are so we correct them during editing. Preferably before you submit to publishers and/or agents. I never was one to do things the “right way”, but I’m paying for it now. Now, I have a ticking clock. Whereas before I could move at my own pace. This becomes even more important if you decide to go the self-publishing route, because once you push that publish button your book is out there. Well, I shouldn’t say “more important”. You could save yourself headaches from reading rejection letters if you tighten your writing before you submit, but that is an entirely different post.
Here’s a writing tic that always cracks me up: “His eyes shot to her little black book. Was that man’s number in there?”
Body parts cannot move independently from the rest of the body. While working with my critique partner we used to laugh about this all the time. It’s easy to write this way in a first draft. Reading the above sentence makes me envision eyeballs shooting across the room and landing on a little black book. Unless you’re writing science fiction where the protagonist is a lovely robot like Lisa, my friend Craig Boyack’s creation, body parts need someone to move them.
Instead of: “His eyes shot across the room.”
Try: “His gaze shot across the room.”
Instead of: “Her arm raised and she waved.”
Try: “She waved.”
Which brings me to…
When someone waves, they obviously have their hand “raised”. Same with “reach”.
Instead of: “He reached out and grabbed the candle.”
Try: “He grabbed the candle.”
Better: “He swiped the candle.”
“Grabbed” is so overused. It’s always better to find a specific action that paints a more vivid picture in the reader’s mind. “Swiped” shows us he moved quickly like he didn’t want to be seen.
- She heard
Instead of “She heard a van outside her house and froze.”
Try: “A van rumbled outside her window. She froze.”
Instead of: “She saw a dark-haired man slip through the back gate and into the yard.”
Try: “A dark-haired man slipped between the gates, into the backyard.”
Less is more.
Instead of: “She tasted his blood on her tongue and gagged.”
Try: “She gagged, choking on his blood.”
It may not seem like a big deal to use a few telling words, but it is. After you make these changes, read through your manuscript start to finish, and you’ll see a marked improvement in your writing.
Guest post contributed by Sue Coletta. Sue is a member of Mystery Writers of America and Sisters In Crime and has a passion for crime fiction writing. Check out her blog for more of her articles and information about her books.