Many thanks to the awesome Kristen Lamb who shares writing tips on her blog and lets folks re-post her entries. This is one of her recent posts and I thought it was a good one to share. We all can benefit from some thoughtful self-editing before turning our babies over to an editor, so get out your red pencils.
#1 The Brutal Truth about Adverbs, Metaphors and Similes
I have never met an adverb, simile, or metaphor I didn’t LOVE. I totally dig description, but it can present problems.
First of all, adverbs are not ALL evil. Redundant adverbs are evil. If someone shouts loudly? How else are they going to shout? Whispering quietly? Really? Ah, but if they whisper seductively? The adverb seductively gives us a quality to the whisper that isn’t already implied by the verb.
Check your work for adverbs and kill the redundant ones. Kill them. Dead.
Metaphors and similes are awesome, but need to be used sparingly. Yes, in school, our teachers or professors didn’t ding us for using 42 metaphors in 5 pages, but their job was to teach us how to properly use a metaphor or simile, NOT prepare us for commercial publication as professional novelists.
When we use too much of this verbal glitter, we can create what’s called “purple prose.” This glitter, while sparkly, can pull the reader out of the story or even confuse the reader. A while back, I edited a winner’s 20 page entry. The story began on a whitewater river and the rafters were careening toward a “rock coffee table.”
Oh, the boulder is squarish shaped!
Thing is, the metaphor made me stop to figure out what image the author was trying to create. If the rafters had merely been careening toward a giant flat rock? Not as pretty but I could have remained in the story without trying to figure out how the hell furniture ended up in the river.
Go through your pages and highlight metaphors and similes. Pick THE BEST and CUT THE REST. Look for confusing metaphors, like rock furniture in the middle of a river.
#2 Stage Direction
She reached out her arm to open the door.
He turned to go down the next street.
He picked up the oars and pulled a few more strokes, eager to get to his favorite fishing spot.
We “get” he’d have to pick up the oars to row his boat, or that is a seriously cool trick.
Be active. Characters can “brush hair out of their face” “open doors” and even slap people without you telling us they reached out an arm or hand to do this. We are smart. Really.
#3 Painful and Alien Movement of Body Parts…
Her eyes flew to the other end of the restaurant.
His head followed her across the room.
All I have to say is… “Ouch.”
Make sure your character keeps all body parts attached. Her gaze can follow a person and so can her stare, but if her eyes follow? The carpet gets them fuzzy with dust bunnies and then they don’t slide back in her sockets as easily.
#4 Too Much Physiology…
Her heart pounded. Her heart hammered. Her pulse beat in her head. Her breath came in choking sobs.
After a page of this? I need a nap. After two pages? I need a drink. We can only take so much heart pounding, thrumming, hammering before we just get worn out. That and I read a lot of entries where the character has her heart hammering so much, I am waiting for her to slip into cardiac arrest at any moment. Ease up on the physiology. Less is often more.
Get a copy of Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi’s Emotion Thesaurus to help you vary physiology. Also, if someone’s heart is pounding, that’s okay. We assume until they are out of danger it’s still pounding. No need to remind us.
#5 Backing Into the Sentence/Passive Voice
In an effort to break up and vary sentence structure, many writers will craft sentences like this:
With the months of stress pressing down on her head, Jessie started ironing the restaurant tablecloths with a fury.
Problem? Passive action. When we use the word “down” then “on” is redundant. Either she is ironing or not ironing. “Started” is overused and makes sloppy writing. That actually goes back to the whole “stage direction” thing.
Jessie ironed the restaurant tablecloths with a fury, months of stress pressing on her shoulders.
The door was kicked in by the police.
Police kicked in the door.
If you go through your pages and see WAS clusters? That’s a HUGE hint that passive voice has infected your story.
#6 Almost ALWAYS Use “Said” as a Tag
“You are such a jerk,” she laughed.
A character can’t “laugh” something. They can’t “snip” “spit” “snarl” “grouse” words. They can SAY and ever so often they can ASK. Said becomes white noise. Readers don’t “see” it. It keeps them in the story and cooking along. If we want to add things like laughing, griping, complaining, then fine. It just shouldn’t be the tag.
“You are such a jerk.” She laughed as she flicked brownie batter onto Fabio’s white shirt.
And I would add to this last one that using an action to designate the speaker is much better than the “he said” “she said” dialogue tags.