Suzan Lauder’s Learning from My Mistakes: Show, don’t tell

I’m a “tell” kinda gal. I’m better at narrative than dialogue, and after all the experience and practice on “show, don’t tell” writing techniques, my beta (unpaid editor) stills calls me out on my on blunt statements where I should have immersed myself in description. It’s not that I can’t do it or do it well, it’s just that being straight and to the point worked well for me in business and academic writing, and I got used to it. Well, in fiction writing, we must get over that bluntness!

So what does this mean?

Suzan Lauder’s Learning from my Mistakes Lesson #9: Show, don’t tell: Describe the feelings and senses to show your readers what is happening rather than stating them in plain language.

The writer wants to make the reader feel like they’re in the moment, and descriptive phrasing is more engaging. This style issue ties in well to Deep Point of View, which will be discussed in a later post.

I find there are three places which benefit from this rule: in comments about observing senses and feelings, in dialogue instead of boring old dialogue tags, and in scene-setting.

Example 1: Observations about senses and feelings (good for Deep POV).

Original:

She smelled it before she saw how embarrassed he was. It must have been him.

Show, don’t tell:

The air became heavy with a distinctive odour. Someone had passed wind, and she’d bet it was the fellow whose face was now crimson to the tips of his ears. His lack of eye contact confirmed it.

Example 2: Basic dialogue with a boring old dialogue tag.

Original:

“Oh, I wondered about that,” he said angrily.

Show, don’t tell:

He clenched his fists at his side much the same as he set his jaw. His full lips were turned down in a decided scowl. “Oh, I wondered about that.”

Example 3: Dialogue where you think you’ve been pretty descriptive already is a combination of the two above examples.

Original:

She was distraught about the situation. “Why would you do such a thing?”

Show, don’t tell:

Her eyes filled with unshed tears and she swallowed deeply to prevent a sob, moving away before anyone could see her reaction. How could this be happening? “Why would you do such a thing?” Her quiet voice broke at the end.

Although there’s nothing wrong with the original, can you see how much better the revised version is from a reader’s viewpoint? How could you further improve on the paragraph?

Example 4: Scene setting.

Original:

The boy seated himself on the grass in the dog park to eat soup from a Styrofoam cup on this sunny afternoon.

Show, don’t tell:

He spent little time considering the place where he dropped himself down on the lawns of the dog park, just a short perusal of the ground to make sure there was no shit there. No assessing how close to sit by the path, whether to go nearer to the trees or farther from the street, or considering watching the other kids in the skate park as he ate, even if it was noisy over there. He just plopped down, crossed his legs, peeled back the lid to the fragrant soup, and sipped its hot goodness.

As he adjusted himself in his seat, the parched grass crunched and crackled below him and scratched him through the hole in his jeans. He squinted into the sun.

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Notice how the senses are used in the latter example, and more deeply than “he smelled” or “he heard.” Describing these features is “show, don’t tell,” and it’s one of the most powerful tools a writer can use.

As an author, this may not be your problem. Some writers use helpful descriptions with ease, but it’s a theme some of us are constantly working on improving, and it’s another way you can learn from my writing mistakes.

 

Disclaimer: I’m not a writing expert. I’m just a writer who learned some stuff other writers might like to know instead of learning the hard way. My approach is pragmatic, and my posts are not professionally edited!

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LfMM Suzan Lauder’s 100-Word Editing Checklist

I said in an earlier post that I’d share my list of words to search for if you want to un-muddy your writing to help you self-edit. (Lesson #2 and #3 at end of post). This list is a golden gem of mine that started after I read a book called Editor-Proof Your Writing by Don McNair. I’ve used the ideas he suggested in the book and added many of my own to create a list of 100 words to search for to improve your writing.

“100 words?” you ask, “Isn’t that tedious?”

Yes it is. And if you don’t use these words, or get in the habit of it after having searched for the 100 a few times, your writing will shine. It’s worth tedium of a few rounds to get better as a writer. In addition, if you, like may authors, want to shave some word count off your novel, this review can often cut 5% of word count at first. Yes, my writing was 5% muddy before it ever got to an editor!

My over-used words at one point or another: that, look, act, then, such, all, as, about, turned, smile, scowl, however, in fact. What are yours?

But there’s more: I like to pare down adverbs to the minimum by rewording (including considering the adverb as the verb or adjective instead) or cutting, but I don’t believe in removing them totally, as they do have their purpose. A good rule of thumb is an average of no more than one -ly adverb per page of text. Adverbs like really, totally, only, and just can almost always be cut.

There are words I’ve taught myself to limit use, and the top of that list is another adverb: very. Most of the time, this adverb is your story begging for a better adjective. Very small: diminutive. Very old: antiquated. Very pretty: beautiful. Very late: tardy. Very lazy: lackadaisical. You get the idea. Get to be friends with a good thesaurus for better word use.

Some word formations can signal passive tone, such as a verb ending in –ed with to, or some –ing words, or had with another verb. Keep it active.

If you want to be a good POV (point of view) writer in third person deep point of view, you must get rid of “filter” words. More on that in a POV post, but I mention it because it’s on the cheat sheet.

If you’re like me, and write period fiction, you’ll also want to find words that were not in use during the period and exchange them for something more appropriate to the times. For example, the word “high-tech” is from the 1970’s, so you don’t want it in your Second World War story or older. Since I write Regency, I’ll have a post on Regency language later in the series.

How to use the checklist? In MS Word, there’s a function called “Find” on the “Home” tab. Type in the letters of the checklist item, then use the arrows in the pop-up box to go from one to the next. Evaluate each case, and if needed, reword, watching not to get into the rut of using another muddy style. You don’t have to change them all, just the ones that are easy to change. Soon, you’ll recognize your style and which words are never a problem for you.

After using the list a few times, you’re bound to customize the 100-word list for yourself, adding words your beta reader has indicated are over-used and crossing off those you have no issues with. These change from time to time, so be flexible with your checklist.

Suzan Lauder’s 100 word Editing Checklist

The applicable lessons to this post:

Suzan Lauder’s Learn from My Mistakes Lesson #2: Several full author edits are the preferred norm for ensuring quality writing.

 

Suzan Lauder’s Learn from My Mistakes Lesson #3: Keep a checklist of your most common errors and use a “Find” function to clean them up during your later editing process.

I hope a few of you share some words that would be on your list in the comments for this post. Enjoy your self-editing experiences!

~~~

Please note the new widget on the right panel of my blog main page at the bottom. It takes you to my newest story posting for free at AHA, A Most Handsome Gentleman (formerly known as “Hot Collins”). It’s funny!

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Learning my punctuation mistakes is more of Lesson #5!

Betas (unpaid editors) can be a blessing and a curse: some have taught me my best tricks, and some have taught me their own mistakes. One told me the wrong rules for punctuation for dialogue. This is not that complex. As in Lesson #6, look it up!

A recent survey complained that authors over-use the em-dash, and I believe it’s because many writers don’t take the time to learn to properly use the colon and semicolon and to understand when commas can be used for subordinate and parenthetical clauses.

I like semicolons, as they join two similar ideas; however, they are rarely used in fiction, so take care when deciding to use one as opposed to a conjunction or a pair of separate sentences. Colons are great for elaboration, explanation, or clarification of a thought, but they’re not used in dialogue.  Commas should be used if the “aside” statement is of less importance than deserves dashes. Parenthesis are not used in fiction, so commas or the em-dash are the best alternative for this type of situation.

The em-dash should be saved for “WOW” situations or important “asides.” That is, this punctuation is best used for abrupt changes, clauses that are far more important than the rest of the sentence, and to add drama to a clause. Otherwise, learn to use the appropriate alternative punctuation or consider rewording your sentence to make it simpler.

How to make an em-dash in MS Word: Consider a pair of words that you want an em-dash between. After you type the first word, leave no spaces, type two hyphens back-to-back, type the next word with no spaces. When you hit the space bar after the second word that frames the em-dash, it will appear. In other words, you replace the space between the words with two back-to-back hyphens.

I have trouble with too many commas, and a future post will be on some easy tricks to remember some situations for this. I bought a few books on grammar and punctuation, and I’m learning. And an editor cuts the extra commas I still include!

Learning from my mistakes would recommend taking advantage of outside reviewers like betas and editors to check punctuation!

 

Disclaimer: I’m not a writing expert. I’m just a writer who learned some stuff other writers might like to know instead of learning the hard way. My approach is pragmatic, and my posts are not professionally edited!

 

 

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Who gets to talk first? #LearningfromMyMistakes by Suzan Lauder

Today, you’ll hear all about how I had to do a complete re-write of four chapters and learned from it.

When my latest novel, Letter from Ramsgate, was accepted for publication, but before I submitted the manuscript, I was asked by my editor, Gail Warner, to make some changes. No big deal. The same thing happened with Alias Thomas Bennet. In that case, I cut the verbatim letter from Mr. Collins, a rehash of the Lucas Lodge party, and minor redundancies with Austen that added no value to the novel.

This time, Gail asked me to shuffle and reword the first few chapters of the book to try to get more face time for Darcy and Elizabeth, the protagonists.

In Letter from Ramsgate, our dear couple don’t meet for several chapters in the novel, so their early scenes are separate. Gail explained that this could be the reason I found my AHA readership slow to grow when I was posting a year ago: not enough D&E at the start of the story.

“Eureka!” moment! Readers want D&E and are dead bored without them. No author wants dead boring in their first chapters! Yeah, I know readers want more D&E than any book can handle! So we’ll give them D&E!

Portrait of Léon Riesener as Mr. Darcy in LfR. Artist: Eugène Delacroix.

I thought about it for a while, and decided to write a short new scene. The basics of the scene had been originally told from a minor character’s point of view (POV): one Mrs. Isabel Younge. Mr. Darcy got to tell the story instead, and the novel now opens with that scene. (Click on the thumbnails to see a better view of the artwork for the “casting” of the main POV characters in Letter from Ramsgate.) We carried on in a linear time line—more about that in a minute—and I rewrote the bulk of the first three chapters into Elizabeth’s POV, with minor scenes going to Georgiana starting in Chapter 2.

 

Suzan Lauder’s “Learning from My Mistakes” Lesson #8: Avoid telling too much of your story through the voice of a minor character, particularly in the early chapters. Let your lead characters’ voices shine through.

Now, exceptions to Lesson #8 will take place when a skilled author attempts a complex approach to POV by showing the protagonist through the eyes of a lesser character as a narrator who will never be important. In that case, the narrator is often omniscient and carries their POV through the entire novel. I’m going to talk about POV choices and my own learning curve with POV in a later post.

Caroline Murat, Queen of Naples, 1812 as Elizabeth Bennet in LfR. Artist: François Pascal Simon, baron Gérard.

Amélie du Bois, wife of Lt.-Gen. Emile Joseph Frison, aide to King Leopold II, as Georgiana in LfR. Artist: Alexandre-Jean Dubois-Drahonet

As for Letter from Ramsgate, once I’d established with my readers that Elizabeth was the protagonist, then and only then did we have Georgiana’s minor scenes. The flashback from Isabel’s POV was all in one chapter later on rather than in the beginning of the novel.

Marie-Denise Smits née Gandolphe for LfR Isabel Younge. (Courtesy Christie’s)

With Alias Thomas Bennet, there were a half dozen flashbacks within the main story, and a few reviewers gave feedback that they didn’t care for flashbacks. To find that others find something I enjoy reading as a confusing style was a surprise, but rather than question their position, I decided to learn from the knowledge of their preferences. So Letter from Ramsgate has a very linear time progression in comparison.

Suzan Lauder’s “Learning from My Mistakes” Lesson #9: Take care with the use of flashbacks or “in media res” as some readers are confused by details that are “out of order” of a linear time line.

 

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t lament the style for ATB. I recently read it for pleasure for the first time (after a couple of dozen times reading it as a writer and self-editor!) and I like the way it turned out, how the flashbacks doled out the hints for the mystery at a slow but steady pace. It wouldn’t have been the same without them, and the mystery is a gem of that novel.

I’m going to talk about how to choose point of view in a later post!

Disclaimer: I’m not a writing expert. I’m just a writer who learned some stuff other writers might like to know instead of learning the hard way. My approach is pragmatic, and my posts are not professionally edited!

Writers, Betas, and Editors: all top Writing Resources for Learning from my Mistakes

Who taught me the best writing lessons, hard indeed at first, but most advantageous?

First, I have to ask: where do you as an author learn to become a better writer? Like most others, I try to read to find ways to improve. I find it easier to read short articles or blog posts than a book. The books recommended to me are written by well-known authors, and the writing advice I’ve heard quoted from them seems a bit fishy, so I don’t trust that their book is going to be helpful. In fact, many sound like marketing and vanity tools.

The best lessons for me personally came from other individuals, including other writers, beta editors, and my Meryton Press editing team. I think the best talent to help a writer grow and excel is a willingness to listen and change, even if it’s hard at first.

Learning from other writers by extensive reading goes back to Lesson #1: As an author, your goal is to provide a reading experience with the greatest level of satisfaction that is within your control. I evaluate the pluses and minuses of other books and try to improve my own work based on that reading experience. I also act as a beta editor for other authors, which is a great way to learn, as I have to look up items such as in Lesson #5: If in doubt, look it up.

A not-so-secret technique is to have several friends review my chapters as I write.
Beta readers help keep me on track by critiquing all aspects of the story. I’ve learned a lot of techniques to help me grow as a writer from listening to these cherished advisors, who are generally writers and readers in the author’s genre.

Usually by the time I’ve finished incorporating their suggestions, the plot flows well, the style is consistent, no glaring continuity problems remain, anachronisms (errors in history and language in a non-modern novel) are corrected, the characterization is consistent and will please readers, good habits are employed with the storyteller’s point of view, the spelling is error-free, most of the punctuation follows rules we as well educated persons can agree upon, and so on. Different authors have different weak spots, and a trusted beta can help from brainstorming prior to writing to final cold reading for typos and everything in between.

Suzan Lauder’s Learn from My Mistakes Lesson #6: Beta readers can help an author at all points in the writing process.

They’re also free help, and with love and respect for the huge leaps and bounds my betas have taken my stories through, I must stress that, unless the story is not all that complex, problems will remain within the novel that none of us have experienced before.

That’s why I need professional editors for my work, and I strongly encourage all authors to consider this valuable resource. That impoverished journalism student, the English major who offered to help, a teacher you know, or your sweet Aunt Sally may be free or almost free help, but they’re not necessarily aware of all the details of proper copy editing and proofreading for a novel, which has rules and conventions of its own, never mind how to fit them into the layout for an e-book or print book.

My viewpoint on this is strengthened by experience reading novels written or edited by teachers and English majors that contained numerous simple errors like we discussed in our “Lesson 5” last post, never mind editing conventions they had no clue about! I read a novel by a professional editor who should have hired a professional editor. We just don’t see our own mistakes, and amateur editors don’t recognize them.

Another important issue is that writers must listen to their editors and not disregard their good advice. There’s no use in getting good advice if you sell a book full of problems that you could have avoided, but your vanity wouldn’t let you modify. Amazon readers like to attack those problem areas, and a disclaimer is insulting to both you and your editor.

Suzan Lauder’s Learn from My Mistakes Lesson #7: Every author listens to and incorporates the advice of one or more professional editors who know the conventions specific to their style, content, sub-genre, etc. There are no exceptions.

My sympathy goes out to those who have hired poor quality editors. As in any job situation, impartial references and entrance exams are important. Most editors will give you a few free pages to see if they are a “fit.” Also, read a published book they’ve edited.

Next post: some examples of when I had to suck it up and listen to my editor.

Disclaimer: I’m not a writing expert. I’m just a writer who learned some stuff other writers might like to know instead of learning the hard way. My approach is pragmatic, and my posts are not professionally edited!

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Learning from my Mistakes: What’s Chunking?

Writer’s block.

Editing block.

What do do?

block-ok-comm-smallerSome recommend handwriting out your scene to get it out of your head. Blocking out the future sections with ideas on post-it notes can help if your problem is flow or outline. Printing out what you have, cutting it up, and moving it around can help as well. Bullet point notes on the scene help if you can’t even get to writing whole sentences or you’re dealing with broader issues than basic prose.

I’ve written shorter works by the seat of my pants (with no outline) but for a novel, I’m a big fan of the flexible outline: one or two paragraphs a chapter through the conflict and climax at the very least. It’s okay to change an outline as you get closer to the next set of outline chapters. The author can still move scenes or sets of chapters around in a novel to make it flow better or repair continuity problems along the way.

Most authors write in a linear fashion, and others write major scenes (conflict or turning points) and fill in (write bridging scenes). I’ve had success with both. If you’re blocked, sometimes you can go ahead a few scenes and then return to the problem area. Sometimes you have to “Kill your darlings” as Stephen King says. Keep cut scenes in a word processing file for later use.

Many authors know their ending at the beginning of writing, or at least part way through, but I tend to write the end after the story arc is complete. None of this is wrong, and there are other methods that work, too.

Chunking the big fears

Sometimes all the best plans, outlines, and techniques don’t save an author from being blocked.

I procrastinated several times while writing my novels, particularly when continuity issues muddled me. Procrastination continued during editing, as things wouldn’t work out in the linear fashion I wanted, and I had to think them out. At times, I had too much on my plate in real life or wasn’t well enough to write. These are reasonable times to procrastinate.

But there are blocked times that aren’t typical procrastination. I know I’m not the only author who has the story in their head but can’t get started because it’s almost like a fear of opening a file and typing. Artists have the same problem, and it’s known as “Blank Canvas Syndrome.” I learned a technique for this problem that works in some situations (but not all).

parasol resized for bullet pointsSuzan Lauder’s “Learning from My Mistakes” Lesson #4: When you’re stuck, break the task down into chunks. Write each chunk down on paper and schedule them.

oreo-pop3-okay-comm-smaller

 

First chunk: read the current text. That way, you haven’t said you’re going to get “Wow” written today, just a manageable chunk.

Next chunk: Write down what chunks you’d like to use. Don’t make them too big. Refer to the techniques at the beginning of this post.

Continue in small, achievable chunks, one day at a time, or one sitting at a time.

When the writing chunk comes, aim for a fixed number of words per day—no more than 500 to start. It may be hard to start, but push for that 500, even if you have to start writing in outline form. It may become more!

That’s today’s chunk.

 

Disclaimer: I’m not a writing expert. I’m just a writer who learned some stuff other writers might like to know instead of learning the hard way. My approach is pragmatic, and my posts are not professionally edited!

 

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