QueryTracker Blog

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Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Filler Words, Grammar Nerds and Fun with Line Edits

As the saying goes, I don't necessarily like writing as much as I like having written something. The editing phase should be easier, right? After all, you've just written a whole book. You dreamed up characters, gave them dialogue, threw in some plot twists and probably did it all while holding down a full-time job. So editing, in theory, sounds less time consuming, maybe a bit tedious, but not hard.

Au Contraire.  Exit out of your spell checker and come sit a spell. Let's talk editing strategies. I like to think of editing as sort of a food pyramid (before USDA went to the whole My Plate thing, which I don't get). At the bottom of the pyramid are these basics:

Start with spelling and punctation. Have handy your CMS or whatever style manual you use. Don't trust your computer. The programs can be wrong, and they definitely won't fix your homophones. So if you typed "brake" instead of "break," you will have to catch it by hand. Other things to look for on this level of editing include getting your capitalizations and commas correct in your dialogue.  While you're already looking at your dialogue, scan the dialogue tags to make sure you haven't used overwrought phrasing like "terrifyingly shrieked" when a simple "yelled" will do.  "Said" is always a safe bet because characters can't shrug or snort words.

Moving up the pyramid are high-end items, such as, is high-end hyphenated? Is it anyone or anybody? Is that participle dangling? Now is the time to weed out phrasing like "Barreling into the room, I thought he looked like a tiger ready to pounce," when what you mean to say is that he was barreling into the room, not you. This is the time to look for one of my downfalls: the "flying eyes." I can't stop writing characters whose eyes fly open, or dart around the room, which obviously, they can't do.

Next stop on your way to the top is elimination of filler words.  Your Find and Replace function will assist you weeding out useless words like just, then, about, almost.  Make your own list of filler words, and words or phrases you tend to overuse. For me, my characters roll their eyes and shrug constantly. By using find and replace, I can either substitute a different gesture or delete it entirely.  Look for other useless phrases like, "I could see." We know you could see it because you're telling us. Just saw "I saw" or better yet, just describe what is being seen. As the earlier QT blog on adverbs mentioned, searching for "ly" words will help you weed out excessive adverbs.

Scan the page for repeated names and words. If your main character is "Joe," it stands to reason his name will appear often. But have you started nine paragraphs in a row with his name? Did you use the same word multiple times in a single paragraph? Here is where you fix it. Despite my best efforts at writing the best first draft I can, I still find words repeated in close proximity to each other. That's why it's a draft.

Watch those gerunds. This is another of my first draft frequent offenders. I often have draft sentences such as "Raising her glass, she thought of her absent friends." These predicating "ing" clauses make editors twitchy and, when oft repeated, really make your writing come across as uninspired and amateurish. Find and Replace is your friend here. The sentences can easily be polished and tweaked.

Now were are getting past the nuts and buts and into content. Here is where you make sure you haven't gone from Tuesday to Wednesday and then back to Monday over the course of a few chapters, or called a character Kate and then called her Karen. If a character had a beloved pet in chapter one, did it disappear for the rest of the book?

Themes, plot, and clues and backstory. If revenge is the driving force of your story, it should be woven in throughout the story. If your villain is revealed at the end to be a master counterfeiter, is there some small hint of this earlier or did you just drop it in, deus ex machina? Is your backstory spewed out in a multipage information dump, and if so, can you take bits and pieces and spread it out with a mixture of dialogue, flashbacks, action, and narrative? Is there a massive plot hole about how a character could possibly have known a piece of information? Do characters disappear for large chunks of time and then re appear for no apparent reason, or worse, never get mentioned again?

Next up: How is your pacing? Do your action or high conflict chapters pack a punch, only to be followed by pages of mundane dialogue and no conflict? Identify where your story sags and be merciless cutting out the parts that don't work. Conflict should be present on every page, even if it's internal.

Voice. Ah, Voice. What do agents and editors mean when they say, "Voice"? My take is that it is the narrator's unique way of telling the story.  John D. McDonald's Travis McGee had a bohemian philosopher's way of describing his adventures. Holden Caulfield  practically leaps off the page with his disdain for phonies. Ginny in A Thousand Acres is both resigned and defiant. Whatever your storytelling style is, keep it consistent. Darkly funny is great. Don't let your edits turn your darkly funny story into a faux literary tome.

Finally, time to fire up the printer. I really recommend doing this instead of relying on your computer because a book in hand is a different reading experience. You can read it all and make casual notes, or comb through it with a ruler, or both. But having the printed word in hand should reveal only minor issues, since you've already eliminated plot, pacing, and grammar issues.

I now use the Chicago Manual of Style, Merriam Webster Dictionary, and occasionally Strunk and White when I do this pyramid editing.  Don't hold me to editorial perfection on this blog because I am dashing it out at the last minute (sorry, Patrick)  and it's likely got a few errors. Keep in mind that this article is geared toward those who are doing their own editing and not relying on a content or copy editor. Getting your manuscript in the best shape possible will help set you apart from the crowd.

And mind those gerunds.

Kim English - is the author of the Coriander Jones series and the award winning picture book 'A Home for Kayla.' Her latest picture book, 'Rolly and Mac' will be released in 2016. Her website is Kim-English.com. She is represented by Gina Panettieri.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Titles, Titles, Titles!!!!

In a query, the first thing your future agent sees is the title. Think about it:

Your title needs to do a lot of heavy lifting. Make it strong.

(Yes, in theory the agent sees your name before the title, but unless your name is Nora Roberts or James Patterson--both of whom I assume have agents already--you're not really going to make an impression with your name. You could make a lousy impression with your name, but it's harder to make a positive impression.)

Your title, however, is the first place your book gets to show off, and it needs to be awesome. It needs to fit the story. It needs to convey genre. It needs to be intriguing.

Titles aren't like naming your baby. Titles are marketing tools. That's all. And in some ways, the title is the last thing the author gets to say about the story.

I'm a lousy titler. I know this, and it was only confirmed for me after an agent wrote me a long email requesting pages but asking for a new title please along with a bunch of suggestions as to how I could go about this. She didn't know this was the fourth title the story had already gone through. She also didn't know I'd see it two days later when she posted a cleaned-up version of that letter as a blog post. (Minus my name, which as we've already said is nonmemorable.)

Two of my novels have come right down to the last minute where the cover artist couldn't proceed because she kind of sort of needed the title before she could design the cover. That's Olympic-grade lousiness. (And we're not even going to talk about the face that two of my children didn't have names for the first 24 hours of their lives. "Honey, she's bringing the birth certificate paperwork. We really need to decide.")

I'm a lousy titler, and therefore you can assume I'm a pro by now at picking out ineffective titles.

1) Does the title fit with your genre? Occasionally you can make a title work across genres, but that's for later in the game, when you're an established crime writer and want to throw in a fantasy-esque title for flavor. Right now, reserve your fantasy titles for your fantasy novels.

2) Can this title work for half the books in your genre? If it's "To Love Again" or "Magical Lineage," try again. You need something specific enough that no one else's story truly fits your title.

2A) Does Amazon already have five pages of novels using exactly this title? This especially happens when someone uses a cliche or a quote as their title. Your title needs to stand out.

3) Is your title incomprehensible? I hate asking this, but sometimes in the heat of the moment, we latch onto a tiny element of the story; it becomes outsize in importance, and it makes perfect sense after you've read the book. Unfortunately, everyone else is seeing the title before reading the book, and the title gives us enough of a "huh?" feeling that we don't then read the book. I've seen this happen a lot in critique groups, where I'm obligated to read the story, and generally someone will tactfully raise the idea that perhaps the title needs an adjustment.

Keep in mind that the first thing an editorial board does is decide whether to change your title, so unless it's spot-on, you may not keep it. But that doesn't mean you should avoid doing the work.

My suggestions:

1) Go to Amazon and look at the top hundred titles in your subgenre (free and paid.) Read the titles and nothing more. If there's a series name, look at that too. Just get a flavor for how the books indicate their genre in rough strokes.

2) As you edit and re-read your novel, look for a key phrase that encapsulates the through-line of your story. This is my favorite way of finding a title, although it doesn't always work.

3) Write down twenty ideas, good and bad. In fact, make sure you include plenty of bad ideas just to get the juices flowing because sometimes the fear of "getting it wrong" means we freeze up on our creativity. Instead, do what Gavin DeBecker suggests: make one of the qualifications for success that you have to be wrong more often than you're right. Once you've got that, you can brainstorm properly. Make sure to laugh at yourself.

And as a corollary: these are just for you, so go crazy. Try that twenty-word title. Use just your main character's first name and call the book John. Title it in French even though you don't know French. Pull out Roget's Thesaurus and derive alternate versions of ho-hum titles. Make puns. Make lots and lots of puns.

4) Draw up a list of themes underpinning the book and see if any of those resonate with the titles you've already played with.

5) Call your friend who always has awesome titles and sob into the phone for twenty minutes, hoping she'll say, "Well what if you turned the title backward and called it Half Missing?"

It's only a few words, or maybe even only one word, but the title carries the first burden of selling your work. Ensure it's a good one.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

The Truth About Adverbs

“The road to hell is paved with adverbs” – Steven King

“I have a character in one of my books tell how she used to write historical romances ‘full of rape and adverbs’” – Elmore Leonard

What’s an adverb? Adverbs are words that modify other words, typically (hehe) verbs, to show degree or circumstance or provide more explanation about the word. Adjectives are basically (hehe) the same thing, with respect to nouns. That’s not a technical definition, it’s my shot at a good-enough definition to understand the issue.

Adverb usage is something worth looking at in our writing, because they tend to be overused. If that’s where the conversation began and ended, I’d probably just send out a bunch of bookmarks that say, “Adjectives tend to be overused” and call it a day. As the above quotes indicate, however, some people adopt a more orthodox (which is to say jihadist) view. The tongue-in-cheek advice above stems from a general truism. When I edit a first draft, I cut at least half of my adverbs, often replacing them with a stronger verb. Counting the adverbs I auto-edit between the first glimmer of a thought and my fingers touching keys, it’s safe to say that I avoid adverbs most of the time. I have no doubt deleting every one of those adverbs makes my writing better. After all, that’s the point behind editing – to make one’s writing better.

 Here’s the problem: Even looking at every single adverb as a target for deletion, fully (hehe) intending to get rid of every one that does not make the writing better, I still leave about half of them in. I have no doubt that including every one of those adverbs makes my writing better.

At best, if I were to try to formulate a “Rule” with respect to adverbs, it would be this: We should look at each adverb to see if it’s necessary. About half the time it will be. Get rid of the other half. Sensible advice, right? It’s probably (hehe) true.

So, what’s the big deal? Let’s start with the reason the advice "avoid adverbs" is right half the time:

  1. “Show don’t tell.” Many writers, particularly novice writers, lean too heavily (hehe) on adverbs to convey emotion and emphasis that they should convey through stronger verbs or better dialogue. “She angrily hung up the phone” is no substitute for “She threw her phone against the wall.” The verb phrase “hung up” does not come close to showing the woman’s fury at the end of the conversation. 
  2. “Stronger verbs.” One of the easiest ways to see your writing improve by paying attention to adverbs is to look at sentences where the adverbs are masking the need for a stronger verb. “He quickly jumped from the carriage” says the same thing as “he sprang (or leaped, flew, vaulted, etc.,) from the carriage,” though not as well. Getting rid of those is like giving your draft a tune-up. 
  3. “Makes no difference.” This group includes at TON of the adverbs we can lose. It’s a little embarrassing, because they’re just sitting there, not really doing anything. If a bell is clanging, we don't need to know it's doing so noisily, and if a burglar is creeping across a rooftop it goes without saying she's doing so quietly. 

 Then why is there a problem? Like all zealotry, the problem comes from taking a good premise (we should use adverbs sparingly, making sure they strengthen, rather than weaken, our writing) and proclaiming a stupider, simpler form of that rule as irrevocable truth (“Write with nouns and verbs, not with adjectives and adverbs.”). That last quote came from Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style, often referred to as the Writer’s Bible. I’m on a bit of a jihad of my own against Messrs. Strunk & White, but that particular quote, and those from Elmore Leonard and Steven King, lay out the basic problem.

King and Leonard were somewhat tongue in cheek about their absolutist advice--first throwing out advice that looks quotable and can be put on T-shirts and faux motivational posters, then clarifying with more accurate advice that explains why there are a reasonable number of adverbs in their books. Unfortunately, people often read the T-shirts and internet memes, ignoring the fine print.

Strunk & White, on the other hand, were more than happy to proclaim absolutist rules like “do not use adverbs” and preach them as gospel. By the way, the following sentence in The Elements of Style uses two adverbs. The title of the first chapter of the book has an adverb in it. In fact, the second word in the book (in the first sentence of the foreword) is, you guessed it, an adverb. This gives me heartburn on a few levels.

  1. The bad advice makes the good advice impossible to follow. The mere fact that Strunk & White couldn’t go one sentence after pronouncing the prohibition against using adverbs without using an adverb shows where trying to follow their advice will get you. It’s impossible. So don’t sweat it. White certainly didn't -- a linguistics professor did a study of white’s work and found that it contained more than twice the number of adverbs as the average work of that time. A whopping thirteen percent of White’s words are adverbs. 
  2. The good advice, while less sexy, is extremely important. It is so important that I need an adverb to explain its degree of importance. OK, maybe I could have used “imperative,” but you get my point. Any part of speech that you get rid of 50% of the time (often by using stronger descriptions and verbs) is critical to our writing. 
  3. My personal favorite: They're awesome editing tools. On my first draft, I regularly throw an adverb I plan to get rid of later into a sentence I know will need fine tuning later just to keep the writing going without agonizing over the best way to show my burglar "silently creep." It's like writing "Note to Self: show this better" without leaving the text to write myself that note. 

I make every adverb in my writing beg for its life. I try to look at them with a presumption they should be axed. Even when I think I’ve done that, I use the search function to look for “ly” (because adverbs have a lovely habit of ending in “ly” a majority of the time) and look at each use again. As I mentioned, I end up getting rid of half or more of them. That strengthens my writing. The fact that I got rid of half also makes the remaining adverbs twice as powerful.

More than anything, I’ve made sure that any adverb that remains is the best tool for the job in that particular sentence. Not with religious purity, but with common sense.

One final note: If I were looking for an absolute prohibition, I might be able to find it in sentences where the adverb modifies a dialogue tag. If an adverb modifies a verb associated with dialogue (usually “said,” but including “yelled,” “asked,” “admitted,” “panted,” or anything else), there is almost certainly a better way to structure the sentence. When I see that in my writing (and it's not uncommon) I know I've done something wrong with either the dialogue or the actions accompanying it. Since I don't believe in absolute prohibitions against anything in writing, I almost hope someday to find the exception to that rule.

Michael McDonagh lives outside Boise, Idaho, with an assortment of barn cats, chickens, turkeys, and horses, as well as a cadre of stray dogs and daughters who melt his heart. A charter member of the Humor Writers of America, his personal motto is: I write dystopian fiction, but everybody else thinks it's contemporary fiction. That's what makes it satire.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Stop Explaining Your Story (And Start Showing It)

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy
At some point, nearly every writer struggles with show, don't tell. It's just one of those aspects of the craft that's integral to good writing and difficult to explain well. Which is funny, since explaining is part of the show, don't tell problem. The more you explain, the more told your story feels. 
Anytime you stop the story to explain why a character is doing what she’s doing, or how something came to be, you’re probably telling. People rarely halt their actions to think about the why—they just do it. This is why simply putting the information into an internal thought doesn’t work.
Not only does explaining risk telling, it frequently kills the tension of the scene because you’re not leaving anything for readers to figure out on their own. Rare is the person who will watch a sporting event after hearing the final score.
Writers frequently add explanations for fear their readers won’t understand why the characters are acting or what something means. But more times than not, if you have to explain it flat out, you haven’t laid enough groundwork for that reason to be clear. That’s an issue with the writing, not the told prose, so just "fixing" the told prose doesn't always fix the problem.
For example:
·      When she couldn’t stand it anymore, she slapped him.
·      Kim ran from the room because she didn’t want to see him with another woman.
These explain the situation and reasons behind the actions, but it wouldn’t take much to show enough details for readers to understand what’s happening and why. Let's add just a few details to show what we're explaining: 
·      Stop it. Stop it stop it stop it. She trembled, the words a mantra holding back her fury. “Enough!” she screamed, slapping him.
This allows readers to see the character's frustration build until she "couldn't take it anymore" and acted. They don't have to be told that's how she feels, they can figure that out by what she thinks, says, and does.
·      He stood by the fountain, smiling at the woman who’d replaced her in his life. Kim frowned and turned around. No way was she walking in there.
This shows Kim acting like a person struggling with seeing an ex with a new girlfriend, and letting readers figure out why. It also allows you to show Kim's emotional state and use that to connect with readers. The emotional impact of, " she didn’t want to see him with another woman" is much different than Kim's defiant refusal to look at the new couple. Readers can wonder what she's feeling and what will happen next.
Storytelling is all about dramatizing, while exposition is about explaining, which is why you typically find a lot of it in the beginning of a story. Exposition is necessary to tell a story, but it hangs out with some pretty unsavory characters—infodump and backstory. Unless handled carefully, they can be story killers.
The basic definition of exposition sums up the pitfalls nicely: writing or speech primarily intended to convey information or to explain.
That’s also a solid definition for told prose. In writing terms:
·      It’s when the science fiction protagonist gets into an anti-gravity car and the story stops to explain how it works and what it looks like.
·      It’s when the romance protagonist has a bad date and the story stops to explain why this guy was particularly rough on her due to her past.
·      It’s when the young-adult protagonist visits her dad at work and the story stops to explain how unhappy he is in his job and why this is upsetting her.
Notice the key phrase in all of those: the story stops. When the characters stop acting like themselves and your author-ness sneaks in to make sure readers understand some aspect of the scene, you’ve probably dipped into the telling type of exposition.
This is so easy to do (and so common) that Mike Myers even named a character after it in his Austin Powers movies: Basil Exposition, whose job is to come on screen and explain the relevant plot information in that scene. Need a summary of what the bad guy’s been up to? Just ask Basil and he’ll explain it all. While this is a clever way to spoof the cliché in the movies, it doesn’t work the same for a novel.
In the worst cases, explaining the story can insult your readers' intelligence. It can look as though you don’t think they can “get it” unless you explain it, and that can be a little condescending. If you’ve ever had someone explain a joke to you, you know how annoying that is. Trust your readers to get it.
However, sometimes you do need to explain things to readers so they can understand and enjoy the story, and there’s no natural way to write it without spending pages dramatizing something you could just explain in a line or two. In these cases, there's no harm in a little telling. Just make sure it's the best thing to do for the story.
Knowing when to show versus tell can be a challenge, but if you look at what you're explaining, and think about what character actions and thoughts get that same idea across to your readers, you avoid a lot of unintentional telling.
Do you struggle with show, don't tell? Have you ever explained too much in your story?
Check out my new book, UnderstandingShow, Don't Tell (And Really Getting it), and learn what show, don't tell means, how to spot told prose in your writing, and why common advice on how to fix it doesn't always work.

Win a 10-Page Critique From Janice Hardy Three Books. Three Months. Three Chances to Win. To celebrate the release of my newest writing books, I'm going on a three-month blog tour--and each month, one lucky winner will receive a 10-page critique from me. It's easy to enter. Simply visit leave a comment and enter the drawing via Rafflecopter. At the end of each month, I'll randomly choose a winner. a Rafflecopter giveaway

Janice Hardy
Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of The Healing Wars trilogy and the Foundations of Fiction series, including Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, and the first book in her Skill Builders Series, Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It). She's also the founder of the writing site, Fiction University. For more advice and helpful writing tips, visit her at www.fiction-university.com or @Janice_Hardy.
*Excerpted from Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It)