Category Archives: Says the Editor

The Things Characters do to Themselves

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Graphic of a crossed sword and a pencilLike every other editor — every other human being, probably — I have opinions. Fortunately, I have a blog and a way to express those opinions, especially when they’re food for thought about the craft of writing, and might therefore help someone work toward mastering the craft.

Today’s rant is all about a phrase that’s ubiquitous. Ready?

They thought to themself.

I mean, hello? Unless you’re telepathic, you can’t think to anyone BUT yourself.

There are a lot of phrases that, as an editor, I’ll immediately change or delete. That’s because it’s not that awful a phrase. I mean, I don’t see it and cringe, like I do other phrases (they nodded their head, for instance. Or the famous shrugging of the shoulders). But I do smile.

Because, seriously. Who else would the character be directing their thoughts toward? Like… I can’t even.

Now, this is different from the also ubiquitous They smiled to themself.

Know why? Because even though your mouth is on the outside of your body (and I knew that without taking an anatomy class!), and therefore on display to the public, sometimes, those smiles are for your (or your character’s) sensibilities only. Not every single one, unless your character’s got a hell of an internal social life, but… yeah. It happens. Characters smile to themselves. People smile to themselves.

I think that one’s pretty normal.

But if there are too many, the words get highlighted and my index finger meets the delete button and yes, yes I do smile evilly.

That doesn’t negate the fact that They thought to themself is redundant and a waste of two words. While there’s more room to use words carelessly in a novel, why do it at all? Save those words for when you need them!

As a reminder, I’m here to work as your editor if you need me. Or if your friend needs me. But please, don’t send that person you don’t like. That’s really not very nice.

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Trend Alert! Everyone drives a Jeep

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Graphic of a crossed sword and a pencilI see this one come and go. It’s a popular one.

Yep, the headline says it all. Everyone drives a Jeep.

Oh, I get it. They’re iconic. They have that look. They have that feel, that lifestyle. People leave rubber duckies on them for each other! It’s a community! Let’s meet in Moab, Utah for JeepFest!

(They also don’t have great repair records, and at the least the ones I looked at aren’t great for tall people. Headroom, folks. It’s something to consider, both for yourself and your family AND your characters.)

Believe it or not, this isn’t always the good thing you want it to be. While a Jeep conveys a certain something about a character, make sure that you’re not using it as a way to define your character instead of doing the hard work yourself. The sort of car one drives should be a complement to your character, not their definition. Let it be one tool in your arsenal of showing the reader who your characters are.

Also, make sure your character fits the social shortcut you’re creating — either by leaning into the stereotype or by consciously bucking it. This isn’t much of a problem with Jeep-driving characters, but I’ve seen it be a problem with other vehicles. A billionaire CEO shouldn’t be driving the constantly breaking down, twenty-year-old bucket of bolts they are too sentimental to get rid of. Park it in the garage, drain the gas, preserve that baby. You have the means, Billionaire CEO type. Use them. Be as smart as we know you are.

But that goes for all of us: Be as smart as we know you are. Don’t let a car define your character, but DO be aware of what a car says about your character.

And yes, everyone loves Jeeps.

Remember, I’m open to new editing clients. Or if you just want to have a conversation about cars and how they help define character, I’m open to that, too!

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The Kindness in Women Characters

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Graphic of a crossed sword and a pencilWhat is it about us women? We talk about sisterhood and kindness and helping lift each other up, but…

Okay, so here’s the story. I’m in the middle of trying to read through the TBR Mountains that have been in my bedroom for the past ten years or so. And I’ll tell you, a lot of these books haven’t held up well over the years. Society has changed a lot. I’ve wound up DNFing six books in a row.

One of them was a chick lit style book, about two women who absolutely loathe the other women around them. There’s no kindness in them, I don’t think. I don’t know because I gave up around page 30.

But it’s that lack of kindness in women characters that got me. I’ve noticed it before, both in books that I’ve read and books I’ve been hired to work on. And I call it out then, too.

Kindness in women characters… but that’s maybe not the best way to describe it. Oh, in this particular book’s case, it is, as the women characters bitched and moaned about hating where they lived and the women around them and the lack of fashion and it wasn’t London and on and on and on. Sheesh. Give it a break. Who wants to spend 300 pages with people who are so freaking unhappy?

But in the other books, the ones I’ve read and the ones I’ve worked on, all too often, the only character showing kindness in women characters is the main character. The other women, the support cast, are… well, not nice. They’re not always people you want to be around.

Another really good example of this is Netflix’s Virgin River — but the second season. Those women were so awful to each other that I’d look at my daughter and say, “This is getting really awful to watch” and at first she asked me why. When I pointed out that the women weren’t nice to each other, she thought about it and said, “Yeah, you’re right.”

We’re not sure if we’re going to come back for Season Three, because of it. Because every time these women appeared on the screen, we’d cringe.

How is that fun?

I ask my clients to think about their characters carefully. Are you cutting down other women in order to make the main character look better? Can there be kindness in women who aren’t the main character? What does it serve to make the women surrounding the main character — and sometimes, these women are the main character’s tribe — bitchy or nasty to each other, or to the main character? Is this the sort of portrayal of women that you want people to associate with you?

Just some food for thought as you look at your own main character. Are you showing kindness in women characters? Do you think maybe your manuscript would be better if you did?

If you’re stuck or need help, reach out. The joy of doing what I do is that I’m here to help.

Kindness in women… Right? I’m trying to practice what I preach. Join me?

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Lessons Learned!

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Graphic of a crossed sword and a pencilHere’s a good one for you. At least, it’s a story that ends with me grinning in pride at my clients. It’s a story of lessons learned.

There’s a tendency among writers to basically disembody a character’s parts from the whole. He reached with his hand. Or Her eyes ran across the faces of the people in front of her.

It’s a problem on many fronts. And it’s one I always ask my clients to be aware of. The body works as a whole, after all. And eyes don’t run or slip or do many things other than see. (Note the many other here, as I know a couple of those legit other things personally.)

While working on a manuscript a few weeks ago, my client left me a note. I know this disembodies his hand, but I didn’t know any other way to word it. Help?

I… jumped for joy. I did! THIS is what makes the editor-client relationship so amazing. When I can say, “Lessons learned.” When I know my clients listen to my words of (hopeful) wisdom and realize they’re there to help improve your craft. Because really? That’s the best part for me.

Oh, don’t get me wrong. It’s gratifying when clients come back with manuscript after manuscript. Bring it. I love long-term clients maybe a little more than I love one-book wonders. I love the chance to get to know an author’s writing (and, often, the writer themselves, but that’s up to the writer), and the chance to go deeper in my work with it.

Lessons learned with this one.

Don’t disembody your characters. But most of all?

Ask for help when you need it. This is what I’m here for, after all. To be your helper, your ally, the one you can show your uncertainty to. I’m here to help you work through it, grow, improve, excel.

Lessons learned?

Hope so!

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Says the Editor: Editor Speak Versus Review Speech

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Graphic of a crossed sword and a pencilSo I wrote a brutal, scathing review of a book I attempted to read a few weeks ago.

Doesn’t matter what book.

And yes, I am one of those awful, horrible authors/industry professionals who leaves scathing reviews. That’s another topic for another time.

Today, though, I want to talk about the way it struck me that if this book review were actually an edit, how different my approach to it would be. Oh, I’d still have hated the draft handed to me, assuming this published book was the final draft — and assuming that earlier versions were even more problematic.

But there’s a difference when you’re working with an author and when you’re reading and reviewing a book once it’s been published. A big, huge difference, in fact.

The reason is that when I’m editing, it’s a time to identify all these problems, and to work with the author to fix them. Hey, this wording has a really sexual connotation to it. Did you realize you’d done that? Hey, let’s take a look at the main character a little bit. She’s got a ton of self-loathing, and look how it’s operating. Are you seeing how she undermines herself here? How about there?

And one of my favorites, which I do use fairly often: Believe it or not, the story is stronger when you start on page 36. Look at all the backstory in the first 35 pages! What’s the conflict in that opening? How does this hook the reader when they get all this information about a character they haven’t made an emotional connection to? Keep your eyes open because as I see spots for all this backstory to come out, I’ll point them out. It’s good that you know so much about your characters; you should always know more than shows up on the page…

It’s so much more pleasant to catch these issues in the editorial stage.

Stop for a second and think about it. The editorial stage is where you get to pause and make things better. To catch these errors that really don’t belong in a published book.

But in a review? Well, that’s where people like me get frustrated. Because we can see the potential for the book, if only the author had been able to work with someone else who saw that same potential. Who had the experience and time to put into catching and fixing these problems.

So bear in mind that if you are thinking of working with me as your editor and you come across one of my reviews, I’m not like that in the editorial process. Ugh. Absolutely not. Because the challenge in the editing stage is to find the problems and help you fix them.

When the book’s published and out of our hands?

It’s too late then. And all we can do is rant in frustration at the lost potential for this poor book. And that lost potential, my friends, is a travesty.

Give yourself the gift of time, if you are able. Find the best editors you can, people who can bring out the best in your work of fiction. No one wants to read a bad book. No one should have to.

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Says the Editor: Details and Character Development

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Graphic of a crossed sword and a pencilSo last week, I brought up the idea of using the wrong details in the wrong places. I probably owe you a better example, but when you’re yanking something out of context–let alone writing it from scratch!–it’s hard to do.

So much of editing and revising depends on context. On narrative voice, on the narrative character… There are so, so many things to consider.

Let me add one more to the pile, and I consider this one to be one of the few golden rules of fiction: The author should always know more about their characters than what appears on the page.

Why?

Because the deeper the well of your knowledge, the more authentic your characters appear on the page. You don’t need to tell us Justin is afraid of spiders. There may never be a spider in your entire manuscript. (Really. Spiders? Don’t appear all that often in fiction. Charlotte was a total unicorn, I’m tellin’ ya.) Justin’s fear may never be discussed, brought up, hinted at. But you, author, you know this simple detail: Justin’s got this fear.

And that, right there, makes him more complex. He’s not invincible. He’s not perfect. He screams worse than I did the day I saw a Daddy Long Legs on my front porch and climbed up my sister. (True story!)

Knowing this means that when you write about Justin, you yourself don’t think he’s invincible. You know he’s got a chink in the armor.

That knowledge means Justin can surprise you. He can show you another one.

Or maybe it means that the characters around him know, even though it’s, again, not voiced on the page. But they know their hero here? Will go running into the sunset, abandoning them to their fate if a spider appears. And that’ll change the way they interact with him–not necessarily in a negative way. Maybe in a better way. Maybe, instead of thinking he’s the be-all, end-all hero to solve the story’s problems, the supporting cast has more agency. They help protect Justin while he protects them.

This gives your characters depth, which in turn allows them to feel more real on the page. I can always tell when an author hasn’t done this work, when they don’t know much, or enough, about their characters.

Make the commitment. Do the off-the-page work. Heck, buy yourself a pretty pen*, fill it with pretty ink, grab some paper, and brainstorm. Create your character’s personal details. Maybe be like me and use different pens and different colors so your ideas don’t run into each other, and each one instead stands out, visible and ready to be referenced.

Whatever your choose. Do the work. It’ll pay off in the end, I promise.

And, as always, remember: If you need my editorial help, I’m here! When my comments are more directly pointed at your own words, you’ll get it. I promise.

*I, myself, now own a TWSBI Eco and can vouch for what a nice pen it is!

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Says The Editor: It’s all in the Details

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Graphic of a crossed sword and a pencilSo. What’s with the focus on details? And why is there so much to say about them?

Well, the fact that there’s a lot to say means that they’re important. Details can make or break your story — the pacing, the worldbuilding, even where the reader puts their energy. You want to make sure you get your details right.

Get them right? Susan, what are you talking about? How can details be wrong?

Let’s start with the issue of focusing your reader on the right stuff. I see this a lot: authors who are trying to do the right thing by setting their scene. So we get lots of details about the scene: the furniture, the surroundings, the clothing the characters are wearing… and that’s all good. It’s important. You want the reader to not just have a feel for the fictional world they are immersed in, but you want them to be able to picture it in their minds. Their own private movie.

The problem enters when you spend a lot of time describing things that don’t matter, things that we only see once in a book and things that aren’t important at all. For example, the amateur sleuth goes to the house of someone who may be able to provide details about the case. The reader gets to see the contact: Ms. Myrna was old, stooped over, wearing a light blue cardigan with a button missing and black orthodpedic shoes. Her skirt was navy and didn’t match either the cardigan or the shoes, and when she smiled, she revealed three missing teeth and deep lines around her eyes, as if she smiled often and enjoyed doing so.

(Can someone help Ms. Myrna? She could use a caretaker.)

But then, here’s where we go off the rails. She invited Genie in, graciously, shuffling three steps out of the way and letting Genie have a glimpse of her home. There was no entry, so they were immediately in the living room, with its worn brown carpet, which was threadbare in spots in front of the old peach-colored three-person sofa. A glass and brass coffee table sat in front of the worn spots, a pair of bright yellow slippers underneath and three magazines — Genie looked at the titles, surprised to see one was the bass pro fisher’s association monthly magazine, one was the Smithsonian magazine, and one was a catalog of geeky gifts. The catalog had a water mark on it, or maybe it was a coffee stain; Genie couldn’t be sure.

The walls were a basic white, the ceilings smooth, the windows framed by curtains in pastel colors that compromised between the peach sofa and the brown carpet. A few paintings hung on the walls along with four photographs. The paintings were all landscapes, sunsets or maybe sunrises, and all done by an amateur hand, and the photographs were of people, but Genie couldn’t figure out a polite way to get close enough to look to see if any of them featured the woman she was looking for. They looked to be full of people who might have been related to Ms. Myrna, although even that was hard to tell because from what she could see, no one had a completely white head of hair. Nor were they wearing fashionable clothes. Or clothes that had been fashionable in the past twenty or even thirty years. Maybe, Genie thought, she ought to Google what fashions had looked like fifty years ago, well before her time. Those pictures were possibly, probably, that old, and that made Genie wonder what had happened to the people in them. Were they still alive? Did they talk to Ms. Myrna? Take care of her? Write her letters? Send her email? Help her figure out the Internet? Did they live nearby or had they dispersed? Why? Why not include this old lady, who so far seemed lovely, in their lives? Why were there no recent pictures on the walls?

Expecting an invitation to sit on the couch–which, as she got closer, she realized was full of stains and even a hole–she resolved not to sit, and to keep it short.

She turned to Ms. Myrna. “I wanted to ask you if you know Grace Gold.”

“Never heard of her. I don’t know anyone named Grace. Now, why don’t you produce your medical bag from wherever you’ve hid it and take my pressure? I ain’t got all day.”

Genie paused. “I’m… I’m not here for that. I’m here to ask if you know Grace Gold.”

“I just told you I don’t know no Graces. Now if you ain’t here to take my pressure, and you ain’t here for any reason other than to ask me about this mystery Grace I ain’t never met, maybe you should go back out through the door and come back when you are ready to take my pressure for real.”

Genie apologized to the old lady but stopped herself from asking if Ms. Myrna was okay. She wasn’t Genie’s responsibility. Then again, maybe that was what her family said, too, as they abandoned her to her old decor and her old pictures and her old lady-ness.

Did you catch it? All that detail about the photographs.

Now, maybe this doesn’t seem so outlandish to you, but what if I tell you that Genie has twenty-four hours to track down Grace Gold? That before this scene, our hearts were in our throats and we were joining Genie in hoping beyond hope that Ms. Myrna would have the answers.

And all that came crashing to a halt as we learned about people in photographs. People who don’t matter, who won’t return to the story at all, even as a fleeting thought in Genie’s day.

Sometimes, it’s good to slow the pace. To get the reader to calm. But it’s usually better to do it in ways that the story can build on.

Often, I’ll find myself commenting to an author, “This is a lot of detail about a teapot. Can you show me something else instead? Something that’ll be a key to the story?” And, as you revise, that’s what you want to think about. Does this advance the story? How does this detail function? What’s its purpose? How does it affect the pace? The reader’s mindset? The character’s arc? The plot? The mood?

A lot to think about.

I’ll be back with more next week.

Remember, if you’d like to have some of my fun comments on your own manuscript, reach out! I’d love to chat about your editing needs.

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#SaysTheEditor: Two Observations. New Trends?

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Graphic of a crossed sword and a pencil

It’s not that I’ve lost the blogging bug, it’s that my clients keep me so busy, I haven’t had time. So, as a result, I’ve got a list of stuff I want to talk about. A very long list. That spans multiple pieces of paper. And is threatening to overwhelm me and get thrown out.

Instead of letting that happen, it’s time to talk to you more often. I do kind of miss it. (So be sure to leave me comments and check back for replies!)

Today is just a quick little observation I’ve been making of late. Two things actually. Are two things enough to make a trend? I think so.

First: Characters listening to jazz. In their cars, at home. Doesn’t matter, but a couple authors have done this across multiple books now, and so jazz seems to be one of the hot musical trends of the moment (I say as Stone Sour pounds on in the background over here). Also, don’t ask me what the other hot musical trends might be. Stone Sour’s not exactly trendy or trending. Or even active at the moment.

Why not check out some jazz? I will the next time I sit down to chill and work on my own writing.

The second observation is an abundance of Physician Assistant (PA) careers held by characters, main and secondary. PAs are showing up in fiction, and I am here for it! I have a lot of respect for PAs; I have a PA friend and saw the PA at my old doctor’s office more than I saw the doctor himself. I’d have followed her when she left the practice, but insurance. You know the game.

So there you go. Two observations that may or may not be trends. Noticed any? Tell me about them!

And, of course, tell me what music you’re jamming to. I’m always game to explore something new.

As a note, if you need an edit, get in the queue now for May! June’s looking a bit tight and like the $200 rush fee will be applied again, as it currently is for any emerging April needs. Drop me a note ASAP, and never ever be afraid of money. We can work it out.

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The Med Bay! #SaysTheEditor

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Graphic of a crossed sword and a pencilIt’s been awhile since I’ve made the time to have things to say!

But it’s the weekend as I’m writing this, and it’s something I thought of as I am working — yes, working on a weekend, but hey, it’s ninety degrees outside and what else is there to do and don’t say clean my house — and thought I’d share right now.

For those of you who write scenes set in a med bay, usually within a fantasy setting, take a second and think. Do ALL of the illnesses your characters come down with require them to be in a bed? Have you ever had an illness or injury that could be dealt with while sitting… in a chair? On a table?

So often, we see hospital wards — and I’m still talking fantasy, primarily — that only have beds. A person gets sick, they’re taken to the med bay, they’re tucked into a bed. You assume the diagnosis is done there, as is anything invasive, and then any and all recovery needs to happen in bed, as well. But… does it need to?

Oh, I’m not pointing a finger at writers who will shrug and say, “That’s how it’s always done. It’s a fixture of fantasy.” To be honest, for all the fantasy I’ve read and edited over my lifetime — and it’s a lot, as it’s a genre I love — I’ve never thought about it until now, mostly because the sick character who triggered this thought doesn’t really need to be tucked into a bed.

As I think about the tradition of med bays and beds, it makes sense that we don’t think about chairs or tables to sit on and that we do think of beds. Most illnesses confine a person to bed, especially before the age of modern medicine. How often do you deal with a migraine by going to bed? And then think about how you feel when your body’s busy fighting off a virus. Pretty lousy and exhausted, and you only want to be in bed. And for things like stitches in your leg, I found out last year that hanging out in bed instead of on the couch… well, it would have kept those stitches from pulling.

Beds in the med bay make perfect sense. I don’t fault a single writer who creates a med bay with only beds in it, especially when that med bay is somewhere with limited space, like on a spaceship.

But then I think about being confined to a hospital room after I had my kids, and how I wanted to sit pretty much anywhere other than the bed. I wanted a chair! Thankfully, I was in a hospital that let me have both a private room and a chair (and that only expressed surprise when I ordered takeout for all my meals; I ate well, especially after the birth of my oldest). I could sit in my chair! And I did! I have the cutest picture of me, my son, and his day-old sister seated in that ugly, wide chair in my hospital room. No, you can’t see it. It’s not digitized, for one, and for another, the kids haven’t given me their permission to post it.

Just something to think about as you work on your worldbuilding. Does your med bay need only beds, or is there room and purpose for a chair or two?

Yes, I’ve got room for new clients! If you’d like to work with me, drop me a line, tell me about your project, and let’s see if we’re a good fit for each other.

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Says The Editor: Something Sounded

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Graphic of a crossed sword and a pencilEver been reading along, happy as anything, and suddenly A knock sounded at the door?

Ugh. I can’t tell you how badly I hate that phrase.

First, it’s not even a word, sounded. Not really. Sure, if you go over to Webster’s and search for it, you’ll be taken over to the word sound, which includes it as a form under its verb forms. But notice something? There are no examples of it in use. This is because while they recognize that people use it, all the examples are problematic. There’s no good way to showcase this word, sounded. Maybe She sounded scared — but that’s an entirely different use of the word, isn’t it?

Here are some to look at. The first one is the perfect example of today’s rant. The others are legit uses of the word.

And here’s why I hate it so badly. The knock sounded at the door is passive as anything. Like… super-duper passive.

Because knocks don’t just happen. In the example I linked to, alarms won’t just magically be sounded. You’re not just sitting there and bam, a knock appears out of the blue or an alarm magically goes off. Oh, maybe that’s how it sounds since you’re on the other side of the door and all you hear is the knock. But something, someONE makes that knock happen. SomeONE sets that alarm. It’s an active, planned action, not a passive one. In order for your character to hear that sound, a series of events had to take place. That’s all action. It may happen off the page, but it still happens.

And how many of you have been taught to use the active voice, not passive, when writing?

Yeah. Do that here.

No more knocks, explosions, voices sounded. Take the time. Write in active voice.

Your mastery of craft will thank you.

Remember, I’m always taking new clients. First-time authors, please have gone though a critique group or partner before a round of beta reads. Learn as much as you can about your craft; this lets your editing budget stretch further and benefit you more deeply.

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Dialogue Tags Other Than Said

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As a line editor, over the years, I’ve developed a real love for two dialogue tags: asked and said. They are sneakily powerful, serving a variety of functions. And they aren’t narcissistic words, either, like some dialogue tags can be. You know: dialogue tags other than said.

I hadn’t really thought about dialogue tags other than said or asked much. I’d been too focused on the job said and asked do. But one day recently, I had a client – we’ll call her Stevie – and she used a crazy amount of dialogue tags other than said. I’m talking… well, about 99.5% of the tags were other than said.

And I realized something. Something important.

She was using words like commanded, appealed, soothed, admonished, challenged, criticized, questioned, countered, chided, contested. And many, many more (I actually wrote almost all of them down!)

And okay, a lot of them start with the letter C. A lot of them start with S, as well: scoffed, smirked, scolded, shot back, stated, sympathized, and more.

That’s not what I noticed. Nope.

 

 

What I noticed about dialogue tags other than said

I noticed that many of these words are aggressive words. They are words of verbal warfare, of one-upmanship, of hostility and anger.

And beyond that, I noticed two other things:
1. They were making me very very angry and I had to take frequent breaks and actually leave my office for a few minutes, until my blood stopped pounding in my ears and the black cloud over my head broke itself up.
2. No matter how calm the characters were supposed to be, those aggressive words made them seem as if they, too, were arguing and had a contentious relationship. And you know what? When you’re trying to write two people coming together and maybe having feelings for each other, that doesn’t work so well.

 

 

Are dialogue tags other than said bad?

In short, no. But use them sparingly. A lot of them tell what the dialogue shows. Questioned, for example. Stop and think. Can the reader tell that the character is questioning the other? Does the content of a character’s speech show us that they are sharing a secret? Then there’s no need to use confided.

But sometimes, you need that extra oomph. Sometimes, using he countered in a spot helps the reader understand the dynamic between the two characters. Maybe that helps the reader understand that a negotiation is happening. That’s a valuable spot in which to use a dialogue tag other than said.

So my takeaway for you today is to take a good hard look at your dialogue tags. Look at the tags used in the book you’re reading—because of course you’re reading, right?

Take a step back. Change that tag to another word. See how it affects the reader, the characters, the tension in the scene, the dynamics between the characters who are speaking.

And never, ever, be afraid to use said. Or asked. They are good little words.

 

This is one of my favorite subjects!

Check out this older post, about a time when I encountered tags other than said in a published book.

Or this one, which came about because one of you had a question about that post.

And then you gotta wonder about the difference between asked and said, right?

Another reader question about asked and said, and here’s a bit more in-depth answer to that question.

 

Don’t believe me?

This is the spot where I’m supposed to link to a bunch of other posts that reinforce this idea. But most of them… I don’t like. They are either too elementary (What is a dialogue tag?) or kinda insulting to those of us who believe that you can use both types of tags – said/asked and the fancy stuff – just with caution and an eye toward good craft. You, my reader, are savvy enough to toe this line. You really are.

So here’s one good one about the subject. It’s from Litreactor, which is a new-to-me site, so expect me to poke around there some more and see what they’re all about.

 

One caveat:

Look out for sites like this. It’s Reedsy, and yes, I’ve got a profile there and you can see it and hire me through it (but why when I’m right here and you’re right here?). But this… isn’t good advice for a young writer. The implication is that you only want to use dialogue tags other than said, and we know that’s not how this works. SAID. ASKED. These are magic words. Use ’em.

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Says the Editor: Respect The Reader

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I had picked up a book while it was on sale. No big deal; I do it all the time when the book sounds good. As a single parent who runs a microbusiness and has a mortgage and one college tuition staring her in the face, plus needs a second car and to fund a second college tuition, these sales — and I’ll admit it, the freebies — are a gift.

Yes, I leave reviews to say thanks. I suggest the really good ones to my friends, too. Why do you ask?

But this isn’t about the debate over free and sale books, and it’s not about the need to leave reviews. It’s about the responsibility of the author and/or publisher to respect the reader.

Now, this book had a number of big red flags. In the first four percent, we learned twice, in depth, about the main character’s need for anonymous sex. We spent a couple pages of info dump about the other main characters. And there was no clear opening to the book; I could have sliced off the entire four percent and the book would have been better for it.

So… already, it’s suffering from poor editing. Not a good sign.

And then, the grammar. And there’s a difference between uneducated — lots of him and me went together to that place — and sloppy.

I get that lie/lay is a hard construction. I still struggle with it, and I’ve been editing for HOW many years now? (The answer: about as long as my son’s ultimate coach has been alive.) But I’ve learned, because that’s what an editor does. She learns and grows and gets better at her craft.

Just like writers are supposed to.

So we had rough grammar, which didn’t completely complement the author’s voice and stuck out and made me wince. We had grammatical errors.

Clearly, no professional editor worth their salt was involved with this book.

But when I got to the place where a zero was used in place of the letter O, I was done. Now you’ve crossed the line from ignorance, which can be fixed, to a refusal to respect the reader.

Respect your reader.

At this point, it’s not even about editing. It’s about respect. It really is. Because if you can’t be bothered to at least run spell check to make sure something this massive hasn’t crept in, what else can’t you be bothered to do? Learn the craft of writing? Put your best effort on the page? Care about your project, your consumer, your future career?

It’s about respect. Respect the reader. Bring your best. Every chapter, every scene, every paragraph, every sentence, every word. Even if you can’t afford a professional editor, you owe it to yourself and your reader to run spell check and make absolutely certain that you’re not going to leave in an error that shows you don’t care about the product you are selling. There’s a difference between him and me stood there and stared and thr23 people approached. What does that last even say? How many people are involved in this approach?

If you can’t respect the reader, maybe you shouldn’t be publishing.

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Says the Editor: The Hard Work

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Been doing a ton of samples lately. Prospective clients. Summer approaches.

Noticed a trend. Big one.

Sending a lot of samples back with message: “I can work on this now, but I think your money’s more wisely spent if you take some time and fix these sentence fragments. If you’re stuck and need help, let’s talk about a pricing structure and coaching sessions that’ll help you improve this area of your craft.”

I don’t know where this trend is coming from, what’s fueling it. If authors are in such a rush that they aren’t paying attention to the simple formation of a sentence (and really, there’s rarely anything truly simple about a sentence). If their beta readers or critique groups or partners aren’t calling them out on this, whether from expediency or because they think it’s not their job (it is), or from simple ignorance of what constitutes good writing.

I can come up with a million reasons for why this is happening.

Ultimately, I don’t care what those reasons are, to be honest.

I want to see good writing crossing my desk. The kind that the author has worked on, paid close attention to, done his/her/their absolute best by, and then they’ve taken the time to learn some more, rolled their sleeves back up, and went deep yet again.

It’s not because I’m a snob. That I only want to work with the best. That’s not it at all.

Far from it. Some of my favorite clients are the ones who bring me a rough manuscript and then, as we work together, their craft improves. They do the hard work, and their pages reflect that, and the story reflects that, and then their readership reflects it, too.

Do you see the key? Have you picked up on what I’m stressing here?

Doing the hard work. Learning the craft. Doing the hard work.

Doing.

The.

Hard.

Work.

That means writing in full sentences. Sentences are powerful things, but if you cut them off at the knees, if you truncate them, you’re taking their power away. And in a novel, sentences are all you’ve got. They are the everything. The only thing more important are the words, themselves, that make up those sentences.

So yes. I’m trying to give these authors choices. I’m trying to save them some money — editing isn’t cheap, and I am a not cheap editor within the field. If you want to work together in a coaching situation, I’m more than glad to. Not because it’s lucrative for me, but because it’s important that you learn these skills, especially the basic ones. And because as you master them, your money is better spent when my editor’s eye can turn from the basics of writing to the more nuanced use of words and other elements of fiction: Plot. Setting. Pacing. Characterization. And the detail work, the timeline, the grammar, the echo words, your character’s eye color, the unusual spelling of your main character’s father’s name…

Slow down. Take your time. Don’t rush to publication; that never goes well.

Do the hard work. Work on your craft.

But if you need help, ask for THAT. Don’t pay me for an edit in which I have to call out 75% of your manuscript because the sentence fragments don’t work, even stylisticly. It’s a poor use of your money and a poor use of my time.

Do the hard work.

If you need help understanding how/why sentence fragments are a problem, ask. I’ll answer. I’m glad to work with you and teach you how to spot them, how to remove them, how to write better prose that readers will love.

Do the hard work.

Good luck.

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Says the Editor: Half the Story

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So here’s the scenario, ripped right out of my own life.

Student goes to the head chef at dining services. Asks if the dining staff will be making Kosher for Passover food next week.

He says no.

Doesn’t say anything else.

The student is, not surprisingly, upset. How can the dining hall not honor one of the major religion’s major holidays?

It’s a valid question. And a lot of people, especially the parents, quickly become upset.

But a little bit of digging reveals the answer: the chefs won’t be cooking Kosher for Passover food because the university is having it catered off-campus and brought in.

The chefs had been truthful. But they’d only had part of the truth.

So what’s this got to do with fiction?

Think about it. Think about how characters routinely ever learn only part of the whole picture. This is what fuels Big Secret plots, for instance, where part of the obstacles facing the characters’ relationship is what isn’t said.

Think about how withholding part of the truth can influence the direction a mystery takes.

You with me?

Take a look at your WIP. Are your characters being TOO forthcoming? Are they holding too much back? How does what each character chooses to say — or NOT say — influence and affect the plot?

It seems simple, but… it’s not. We authors often have impulses to tell what we’ve shown, and sometimes, we let that spill into the words that tumble out of our characters’ mouths. On the flip side, we think our characters are being oh, so clever when we have them withhold certain stuff. But are we doing justice to our fiction when we do either?

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#SaysTheEditor Why Isn’t Hell Proper?

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So I’m reading a book. It’s a good book. It’s a crazy book, actually, full of slapstick comedy and subtle humor and there’s a LOT to like about this book. It turns out to have been the third in a four-book series, and you bet I’m going to go back and find the first two, and then probably the fourth.

It is not a book I edited. It’s one of the approximately 35 I’m going to so-called leisure read. But when you’re wired the way I am, leisure is an odd choice of words.

And that’s the problem with this book. I’d recommend it in a heartbeat. I would. I have been, in the few days since I finished it.

But… I’m wired the way I am.

And in this book, Satan’s a character. And Hell is that place for immortal souls and suffering and all that.

Hell is a place. An actual place.

Now, Disneyland. That’s a place. Mars. That’s a place. Paris. Pittsburgh. Carnegie Music Hall. Buckingham Palace. The Louvre. Miami University of Ohio. Costco.

See anything about all these words? Notice anything at all?

That’s right. You use capital letters at the start of each of them. They are what we call proper nouns. They identify a specific place.

In this novel I was reading, Hell was a specific place.

But not once was Hell capitalized.

Drove me up the freaking wall. Three hundred pages of Hell being an important location in this novel, and never once was it accorded the dignity and propriety it deserves.

Hell is a place. In this use, it’s a proper noun. Give it a capital letter.

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#SaysTheEditor Functional Fitness

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I was reading an article the other day. It said that triceps dips were an exercise no one should do because they aren’t a move replicated in real life, and therefore aren’t functional fitness. And if it ain’t functional fitness, don’t waste your time doing it.

That’s like telling a writer not to write in first person if everything they’ve ever written and published is in third person.

And… I don’t agree with that advice.

First off, I kinda like doing triceps dips. When you do them right, your whole body is being propelled up and down by these three skinny little muscles in your arms, and that’s pretty damn amazing to think about. And when you do them right, they are hard. Really hard.

I don’t know about you, but I like them just for the pure fact of the challenge.

Same for writing. Rise to the challenge. Don’t focus on the outcome.

Push yourself. Try new things. Stretch yourself — physically, mentally, and creatively.

Because when you focus only on the outcome, you limit yourself. You focus on the destination, not the journey. You never get to sit back and smile and tell yourself you’re amazing; that you’ve just done something you’ve never done before, and dammit, you CAN.

Maybe triceps dips really aren’t your thing. That’s okay. Try them anyway. See where the journey takes you.

Same for your writing. Maybe this isn’t directly going to get you published.

What you’re seeking is the indirect.

Go for it.

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#SaysTheEditor It’s December First!

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If you’re a writer, today, the first of December, means one of a few things:

1. Nothing special
2. Something special that has nothing to do with writing
3. A return to social media of a lot of writers you follow
4. A win
5. A loss

If it’s that last one, let’s talk about why it’s a loss.

Did you show up on November 1, intending to write 50,000 words last month? Are you kicking yourself for being a failure because you didn’t hit that 50k mark? Now that it’s December first, is all hope of winning gone?

Be kinder to yourself. You tried.

Yeah, sounds lame to me, too. So let’s talk about the REAL value of National Novel Writing Month — showing up to the page.

Kudos to you if you showed up for thirty days straight. Even if you wrote one word on a few of those days, you showed up. That’s what forms the basis of habits, and now that it’s December, just a generic month in the writing world, you shouldn’t stop. Keep that habit going.

Maybe you burned yourself out during November, struggling for those 50,000 words. You’re probably glad it’s December. If that’s the case, take some time off to recover and come back as soon as you can. Your fictional friends need you.

I remember when NaNo started and they’d tell you to go ahead and write garbage words, include stage directions for yourself – whatever it took to hit that 50,000-word mark. The intent was to show yourself what it would take to write a short novel.

But then NaNo changed, as everything does, and it became about being the month in which you’d draft a book you intended to publish. Hopefully you learned all about the art of revision.

Now, I think the value of NaNo is that it establishes (or RE-establishes) the habit. That practice of showing up every day, of staring at a blank page, of thinking about your characters, their struggles, their growth, the consequences they face.

And if you sat down on November 1, intending to write every day, but you found that because you’re a child, a parent, a friend, a lover, a boss, an employee, a coach, a mentor… a WHATEVER, you can only write on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Fridays… that’s great, too! Make sure you show up on those days. Sit down. Stare at the page. Write at least one word. Two’s better. Ten’s an improvement. So’s eleven.

You get the idea.

Just because it’s December doesn’t mean you need to stop writing for the next eleven months.

Winning, in terms of being a writer, isn’t getting 50,000 verified words written on a page. Winning is showing up and doing the hard work of writing. It’s making a habit of working on your craft.

That said, though, while December tends to be a slow month for editing projects for me, don’t send me your NaNo attempt this year if you haven’t revised it extensively yet. Always send your editor your best work, so that s/he (I!) can give you the best feedback possible. The idea is to get yourself as far along the path as you can, and then bring in the big guns.

Good editing ain’t cheap. Remember that.

But maintaining your writing schedule? Rolling through the bumps that invariably pop up, interrupting your sacred writing time?

That costs you nothing — but will pay off down the road.

Keep writing. THAT is what makes you a winner. Not some random word count that is, to be honest, short for a good novel.

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Says the Editor: Authenticity

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You guys know I love Rock Fiction.

But lately… I have found myself disillusioned. Disgusted. Annoyed. Frustrated.

Because the authors aren’t bothering to do their research. There’s a HUGE difference between a band manager and a tour manager. Massive headlining tours don’t come together in days or weeks. And for crying out loud, know the difference between poetry and the structure of song lyrics. My favorite was the band who slept in their dressing rooms in the arena — umm… WHAT?

There really isn’t any excuse for this lack of research. And sorry, but, “I copied what someone else did,” or “I asked someone on Facebook” isn’t doing research. You need to talk to people who’ve worked in the industry, people with hands-on experience, people who’ve been there and seen it. Make sure what you want to have happen is plausible. If your star is the darling of the moment, can he REALLY take off to the beach and have a bonfire? Won’t there be security issues? No one notices and posts it to social media? He’s not too tired from all the touring, which is hard, exhausting work? If his alcohol problem is really truly that bad, can he spend that time without a bottle or can at hand?

Notice how my issues of authenticity begin to sway away from only the details of the music world.

That’s because, having found a string of errors, the author has broken the contract between us. I can’t trust what the author is presenting.

And therein lies a bigger problem, doesn’t it?

If you, as the author, can’t be authentic and therefore credible in your writing, why should I, as the reader, spend time with your book?

Think about it. A few small details is one thing. But the bigger issues… that’s undermining yourself. Your career. And, unfortunately, it hurts the entire genre or category, too.

If you love something, don’t hurt it. Build it up. Take the time. Do the research yourself. Check the facts. Build your authenticity. Get firsthand knowledge, even if firsthand knowledge means watching YouTube videos that established bands post of their tour busses or finding articles that describe busses that strain believability before you network your way to the people who can confirm and/or deny what you’re seeing.

Put the time in. Because if you don’t, why should I, as a reader, put the time into your book?

Increasingly, that’s the question I’ve been asking myself.

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Says the Editor: A Million Words of WHAT?

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If you’ve followed me for these past 12 years, or if you’ve ever taken the time to wander through my archives, you may get an inkling of one thing about me that I don’t overly try to hide: I live life large. I’ve done all sorts of crazy and not-so-crazy things in my life. Of course, that leaves me with a lot of scars, a lot of painful memories I don’t talk about. Most, I don’t like to revisit. I’ll be honest about that.

Sometimes, something comes out of the buried ether to torture me, amuse me, or give me perspective.

What happened recently was the latter: all about perspective, baby.

It was right after I’d graduated from Pitt with my BA. I was taking graduate-level classes, trying to figure out if grad school was what I wanted or where else I might turn my face to a new path. We were meeting in the professor’s house because, hey, we were grad students and this is what we did. (Come to think of it, all these years later, that was the only time I had class at my professor’s house, which was quite a shame) We were a small group. Diverse, but not in the way you might think. One of Chuck’s favorite students had paid for her undergrad degree as a phone sex worker. Her writing never met my expectations, which was that I wanted to see that she’d lived life large.

Anyway, we were sitting around one night, and I’d put up a few chapters of a novel I was working on. It… got panned. Like really bad. That was the day that Chuck told me he wanted a German satellite to drop on my main character. And as much as it stung, I had to jab my tongue into my cheek — I still remember this moment clearly — and nod and agree. “When you put it like that, so do I,” I told him.

And then Simon spoke up. Simon was a Brit, he was a few years older than most of us, he had long brown hair, and I can’t remember if he had bangs or not. He was both scruffy — a ton of razor stubble, but not in the sexy way men wear it now — and polished. He would sit cross-legged on the floor and when he wanted to speak, he’d straighten out of his slouch and somehow rock on his crossed knees, raising himself up a good six inches. It always reminded me of a cobra, uncoiling from the basket the charmer kept him in. He’d tuck his hair behind his ears. His eyes would sparkle, and he’d weave his torso, purse his lips, move his hands (when they weren’t tucking his hair, which he’d do repeatedly while he waited for a break in the conversation) until he got to speak. We always liked it when Simon spoke; he was smart as hell. I bet if I could remember his last name (which I maybe never even knew, so maybe there’s nothing to remember), I’d discover he’s got a backlist of publications that puts my 15 to shame and he’s probably got some awards on top of all that.

Needless to say, I respected Simon. I was a little scared of him, but I respected him. When he spoke up in workshop, he tended to be right on.

“I believe,” he started cautiously, and I steeled myself, “that all of us writers need to write a million words of crap before we find our writer souls. You’re clearly talented, Susan, but…”

I winced.

“I believe this is part of your million words of crap.”

Ouch. And, like always, he was right.

“You are young,” he continued. “Get your million words of crap out of you. Write as much as you can. All of you,” he said, eyeing the room. “We all need to write as much as we can. Make sure those million words of crap are out of you. I know mine are.”

That was many years ago. I am not sure I believe that all writers have a million words of crap in them. I’ve met too many really good writers who knock it out of the park on their first attempt. (I’ve edited a number of them, too.) And while I agree that the project I was working on at the time was a mere seventy thousand of my million words, I’m not sure I ever hit a million. (Although, of course, there are some who’ll gleefully disagree.)

That memory got dredged up a few weeks ago, and hasn’t left me yet. I was working with a new author who didn’t take kindly to the realities of the editorial process.

But even now, all these years later, Simon’s words and assessment were right on. Even when I’m not consciously aware of it, his words are the basis for my belief that authors have to give ourselves permission to write utter crap for our first draft. Feel out the work. Get to know the characters, the setting, the message. Embrace the million words.

Not everyone can do that. It’s hard to embrace crap. I learned that day in Chuck’s house, sitting one person over from him and with Simon about five more to Chuck’s left. Because the comment about the German satellite, and Simon’s comment about the million words — they weren’t meant to be mean. They were meant to tell a writer to cut her losses and move on to something better. That if I could admit this was bad — which I did, right there, because everyone who’d spoken up had made great points about how and why it was crap — I could let go of the emotional attachment I had to the work and move on to something better.

I know I did, although I don’t remember what that was. It, too, wound up being trashed, stuck on a floppy disc somewhere, maybe a hard copy stuffed away in the cabinets here in my office. (I think I have the one that was so roundly trashed, too.)

The point is that it’s okay to write a million words of crap. It’s okay to write a million words of not crap.

But be a big enough person to realize that writing is a craft and it’s not a waste of an editor’s time to hire him/her/me and ask for help — but you gotta take that help that you’re given. Even when it hurts. Give it time. Go write something else. Live a little bit larger than you had been. And then come back to the page and make it better.

That’s the beauty of writing: for every million words of crap, there’s ten million of good stuff.

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Says the Editor: Righty or Lefty?

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Are you a righty or a lefty? And why does it matter when you write fiction?

I just realized this, as I’m communicating with a client. The sentence was something along the lines of The blast came from one side, causing him to fall over to the other side. (Wow, is that a horrible interpretation of what’s on the page, but you get the idea. I hope.)

Now, yeah, it’d help if we knew which side things came from. Maybe this isn’t an issue of righty or lefty in terms of which is your dominant hand, but maybe it’s an issue of righty or lefty in terms of which side you skew toward. Maybe handedness and eye dominance plays a role. I’m not sure!

So. On the page, I’m envisioning that the blast comes at the character from the left, and s/he falls to the right. I’m also envisioning that the character is right handed.

The question I have for you is twofold:
1. Do you envision it the same way I do?
2. Are you a righty or lefty — both handedness and eye dominance?

Let’s see how this shapes up.

In the meantime, when you’re writing action scenes and things are coming at the characters from the sides, maybe throwing in a left or a right every now and then isn’t a bad idea.

Make note of the every now and then in the above sentence. That’s important, because if you overdo it, you wind up in the realm of information that’s important for you as the author but not so important for us as the reader.

Getting back to Steve, my client whose character got hit from one side, I suggested he change it up to let us know which way the character falls. Thinking more about it, I’d like to know how that fall affects her, too. If she falls toward one side or the other, does it change her reaction, both physical and mental? Does it change the flow of the action scene? The outcome? Would it be different if she were a righty or lefty? And most importantly, how does knowing these few simple details — which is her dominant hand, and which way did she fall — affect how the reader interacts and absorbs what’s happening here? Does it recast their mental picture of the scene? Or does it shore up what they’d envisioned up until they got to that word?

Lots to mine in here, huh?

That’s what you guys pay me the big bucks for. To sit and think these things through, so I can help you enrich your fiction and help paint those mental pictures that readers need.

As always, I’m here when you need me, so never be afraid to speak up.

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