Character Development Do's & Don'ts

Don’t… open your story with a hero/heroine that pities him/herself.

Readers have to believe in your hero/heroine’s ability to forge ahead, to conquer good over evil, to find their one true love, to win the race, etc. If we don’t believe in them on page one, then there’s no need to turn to page two.

Do… allow your hero/heroine to show a deep sadness or need that must be fulfilled as a baseline for their character arc.

At the same time, reveal their strengths and talents, which tell readers the hero/heroine has the ability to change, to fight back, to grow stronger. To become the hero/heroine they are meant to be.

Good luck, Angels!
Your Editor Devil

Free Class Tonight!

I'm teaching at the Kirkland, WA, libary tonight (7-9pm) the short version of my class "11 Edits You Must Make to Look Like a Pro." Come on down if you're in town and ask me questions in person!


Let Dialogue Replace Narrative

Sometimes dialogue replaces the function of narrative in conveying action. This is less often used by authors, but in my opinion, is the playground of mature authors. The best way to explain this is through example. Here’s the “before”:

Cathy, bubbling for her share of fresh-cooked brownies, set her china plate atop the stove.
“Hey, don’t set that there,” said her grandmother. “That’s my wedding gift. And I’ll beat you raw if it shatters.”

If we let the dialogue tell us what’s happening, and keep it sounding natural and ‘in character’, the information is more engaging. This also leaves space to add more interesting narrative afterward. Here’s the “after” version:

Cathy pushed ahead of her brother for her share of fresh-cooked brownies.
“Hey, don’t set that on a hot stove,” said her grandmother. “That’s my good china. My wedding china. And I’ll beat you raw if it shatters.”

We learn from the charming grandmother that the girl is setting something inappropriate on the stove, and not just china, but grandma’s wedding china. The reveal is more impactful when the character is doing the telling because the layers of sentences better build toward her threat to beat the child. Getting yelled at (even as a reader) by the grandmother is more tension building than reading the same information through neutral narrative.

Of course, you should not use this technique constantly, or it will become cliché within your own work.

Good luck, Angels!!
Your Editor Devil

Creating Characterization through Dialogue

Here's an excerpt from my Dialogue class, which starts tomorrow (Tues, Nov 30):

Characterization is the painting of a character in a story through narrative, dialogue and action. Done well, the character will come to life on the page as if they are a real person.

Done poorly, and the author has succeeded in creating cardboard. And the reader will never forget it.

As Noah Lukeman puts it in his book, The Plot Thickens, "...character is the basis for all further talk of journey, conflict, suspense—and is the cornerstone of plot..."

Characterization is achieved by the author through the careful delivery of external (descriptions of how the character looks, walks, drinks their coffee) and internal information (how they act in any given situation, who they interact with, the decisions they make, the decisions they don’t make). Note that these do not break down the same as internal and external dialogue.

Nouns and verbs chosen for dialogue directly affect the intensity of tone and the reader's perception of the character. These words can reveal whether the character is dominant or submissive, passionate or dispassionate.

Also, the choppiness of dialogue sentences and whether the character speaks complete sentences may tell the character’s attitude or even education level. Consider how terse dialogue is spoken by a character who is combative, how sensitive phrases might be used by a caretaking character. Doing the reverse can be even more interesting. Consider how jokes from a bank robber make his/her character more interesting.

Remember: In fiction, what they say IS who they are. Even and especially when the character is lying.

Dialogue Do's & Don't's

Before we jet off to Cancun for a little R&R (our first real vacation in 4 years!), here's some dialogue do's and don't's to consider from my upcoming dialogue class (see:

Don’t… use a lot of dialogue tags, such as “he/she said” or “he explained” or “she asked.” They are not as invisible when used en masse. Use them sparingly.

Do… Make it clear who is speaking by attaching dialogue to the character’s action. But don’t overdue this either. Again, moderation and variation of pattern is best to maintain reader interest.

Don’t… Use alternate dialogue tags too much, such as “he muttered” or “she prattled” or “he eviscerated.” The more unique the tag, unfortunately, the more attention it calls to itself. You don’t want to reader stumbling over something that should be invisible. These break the reader out of the story.

Do… Sprinkle a few variations in the manuscript when they are the best and/or the only way to show specific behavior, such as “he whispered” or “she growled” or “he mumbled.” When it naturally matches the action or plot events, then it will blend in better.

Don’t… Attach adverbs to dialogue tags, such as “he said wistfully” or “she asked regretfully.” This is a sure sign to agents and editors that the author is an amateur. Use action to show these emotions instead.

Do… Use verbs and nouns instead, such as “she said, her face blushing.”

Go forth and conquer, Angels.
Regards, Your Editor Devil

Sprinkle, Don’t Douse with Punctuation

Punctuate Appropriately
Let’s start with the simplest markers for drama: exclamation points. Rarely are exclamation points needed, and rarely should they be used.

Like TNT, they are alarming, even to the point they can jolt the reader out of the story. Some editors and authors say use them only once per chapter or a handful of times for the whole book. And some say, “Never!” (Don’t worry, I’m not one of those.)

The exclamation point neither makes a character louder or angrier. That’s the job of language, both in the narrative (She yelled till her voice cracked.) and dialogue (“You lousy SOB, of course I found out you were cheating on me.”)

That’s the difference between showing (words) and telling (punctuation). Punctuation doesn’t convey how the action was committed, so don’t lean on exclamation points to do the word for you.

Set Limits
Limit your em-dashes (—), which interrupt narrative sentences for a non-linear thoughts or, in dialogue, for actual interruptions to speech. Too many interruptions and you risk overextending the reader’s patience.

Likewise, the fair-weather parenthesis () and brackets [] can halt pacing. (I’m a sucker for both of these and an editor, so forgive me. You know to do as I say, not as I do, right?) The ellipses (...) is like hearing characters sigh all the time (please don’t do that either). Authors use them when characters don’t want to finish a thought, or don’t need to because the reader can fill in the blank. They’re also used to express character doubt, secrets, or lack of trust. But used too often and the ellipses becomes cliché.

Genre of course affects how often you use these. Suspense, Thriller, Mystery, and even Comedy often use this device. But moderation is key to using any punctuation in any genre. But again, your word choice, narrative and dialogue are responsible for creating these effects. Otherwise, agents and editors will consider your work lazy.

Good luck, angels!
Your humble Editor Devil

10 Traits of Successful Writers

Here is a list from a past class I taught years ago to aspiring technical writers and editors. But I've recently used it for fiction authors, because I think it applies to all writing professionals/artists. Hope this helps someone out there who needs to believe in themselves again!

Top 10 Qualities of Successful Writers:

10) Value Themselves Appropriately
• At home
• In the market
9) Have Heroic Personalities
• Graceful under fire
• Sense of purpose in life
• Deep loyalty to others & self
• Centered confidence
8) Are Always Building & Adapting
• Network
• Resources
• Skills
• Goals
7) Play the Game Strategically
• Simplify tasks
• Regular writing formulas
• Financially savvy
6) Have Immense Stamina
• Mental more than physical
• Associate with high-stamina people
5) Are Can-Do People
• Find solutions
• Find others with solutions
4) Are Not Afraid to Be Uncomfortable
• Change doesn’t intimidate them
• Know when to ask for help
• Can venture into unknown territory
3) Know Their Talents
• Area of expertise
• Editing areas & strengths
• Writing areas & strengths
2) Know Their Limits
• Money
• Time
• Energy
• Resources
1) Have an Indomitable Spirit
• Outlast and outpace
• Work despite fears
• Never give in to “no”

Your Ever-faithful Editor Devil

Back by Popular Demand...

Dialogue is my favorite subject. So I'm happy to announce that I'm bringing back my dialogue class for those who've been asking for another opportunity to take it.

And to make it more fun, here's a SPECIAL OFFER (I LOVE giveaways!!): Everyone who registers for the class before Nov 15 will receive a bonus lesson on character development and be entered into a drawing to win Donald Maass' book, "The Fire In Fiction."

Be warned! This class will challenge your socks off. Nobody gets by with plain, everyday dialogue in my class, so be ready to bend your brain and get creative. Here's the scoop (more info and registration at

Make your words pop on the page! Dialogue is one of the most important elements, of any work of fiction. It’s equal to action, because, when written well, DIALOGUE IS ACTION. So if you want readers to salivate for your character’s every word, then you must know how to:

• Make your characters radiate and your story move through speech.
• Build tension on every page using dialogue.
• Throw curve balls in conversations.
• Reveal characters' hopes/needs/fears through what they do/don’t say.

You'll learn to create interesting, compelling dialogue to reveal your characters internal and external journeys. We'll examine internal vs. external communications and primary vs. secondary character dialogue maps. Students may share a scene from their work for feedback from the instructor and/or the class.

Changing POV Like You Change Underwear

Hopefully most writers change their underwear more often than they change POV in their story. A recent inquiry asked whether changing from 1st person POV (the dreaded "I" voice in the publishing world--lots of agents/editors don't like it) to 3rd person POV (the "he/she walked and talked" voice that everyone loves) was acceptable.

Can't say that I recommend it, because it TENDS to jar the reader out of the story, but there's no rule saying you can't do it. Like all writing do's and dont's in the publishing arena, you have to choose which ones work for you, which ones don't. I wouldn't even call them rules, but hints as to tactics a lot of writers tried to pull off but didn't, so agents and editors came to discuss the tactics as no-no's.

To be fair, I recently read a book called "Infamous" by Suzanne Brockmann that changed POV from the start from 3rd to 1st and back again. The 1st person POV was a ghost, the great-grandfather and assumed outlaw of the hero. So the story was basically told from his point of view overall. Though jarring at first, I got used to it (though it's still not my preference). In the end, the quality of the story helped me overlook the POV and other writing issues (more editing, please, for less dragging scenes).

If your story is absolutely made BETTER by switching POV's then by all means go for it. The point is to be thoughtful of why others have not pulled this trick off, why they've made a bad name for it--then avoid their mistakes.

Good luck, Angels.
Your Editor Devil

Back from cross-country trip....

For those who have not taken my 11 Edits class and have a manuscript (whole or partial) ready to edit... I'm teaching it again, this time for the Carolina RWA group. Here's the information:

*** Permission to Forward Granted and Encouraged ***
11 Edits You Must Make to Look Like a Pro
Instructor: Christine M. Fairchild
When: November 1st- 15th, 2010
Cost: $10 for HCRW and Carolina Romance Writers members/ $15 for non-members
Deadline for Registration: October 31st
To register:

This editing class includes tips and tricks you won’t find in books or other classes. We'll look at common line edits differently, and we'll discuss conceptual edits, such as character arcs, that will help your book be the great read it's meant to be.

The goal of the course is to give you some editing advantages that you would get if you hired a skilled editor to improve your manuscript. This is not a copyediting class, but what we call developmental-editing. Editing emphasis will be placed on 1) tight scene structure and 2) no unnecessary words.

The edits you’ll learn will help you:
* Strengthen character development.
* Tighten and intensify dialogue.
* Polish character introductions.
* Improve pacing, voice, and style.
* Create greater emotional response from readers.

This is a self-paced class. Whether you apply the edits to an existing MS during the course or not is up to you.

Bio: Christine M. Fairchild has over 20 years of experience as a writer and editor. Though trained as a journalist, she spent the last two decades working for publications (XFiles,, technical giants (Microsoft, AT&T), and consumer product companies (DHL, Hitachi). She now helps fiction writers improve their use of language, timing, and perspective to deepen their work. Christine has written 2 historical fiction women’s fiction manuscripts as well as a Romantic Suspense. As a writer, editor and ghostwriter, her experience ranges from novels to screenplays to non-fiction, from science fiction to romance to memoir.

To register:

5 Tips for Improving Goal & Motivation

Here are 5 tips for handling goals and motivations in your story (this is excerpted from my Sensational Scenes class that starts tomorrow, Wed 9/22):

1. Choose goals/motivations that are human. The more emotionally based they are, the more compelling. In the advertising/marketing world there are only so many core human needs to appeal to: Love, hope, power (sex, money, status), and youth/beauty. Mercedes sells power, while VW sells youth.

2. Be sure your goal/motivation is crystal clear. You don’t need to restate it in every scene, but it should be clear to the reader that we are either progressing toward or regressing from goals at hand. Motivations likewise may ebb and flow according to urgency of the current situation, but should always be present and accounted for.

EXAMPLE: The character is locked in a mortuary with no cell, but needs to get to her wedding that you’ve been setting up for four chapters. We understand the goal, so doesn’t need to be stated that she needs a key, or a sledgehammer.

3. Make your conflict/tension count. The argument your characters just had should either move them forward in their relationship, or set them back – both must occur in ways that are appropriate to where the scene plays in the story overall (NOTE: Act I vs. Act III arguments should be different). Don’t throw a gun in the scene just for titillation.

4. Vary the conflict/tension at the core of your goals/motivations. If your married couple is fighting about sex in every scene, the reader is going to tell them to call their divorce attorneys and set the book down. If we are running from the bad guys every second, we’re going to get a headache and wish we’d been shot already.

5. Vary your motivations. Internal (I need love) or external (I need a gun). Dysfunctional (I need love with a gun) and healthy (I’ll take the love, leave the gun). Personal (I need a job to make money for my operation) or vicarious (I need to make money to send that foster kid to school). Passionate (I’ve got to have that man in MY bed) or dispassionate (I’ll take out the garbage to please my wife, just to keep her out of MY bed).

When goals and motivations ring loud and clear for the reader, and ring TRUE to them on a human level, readers will connect to your characters and story more intimately.

Good luck and get motivated reaching your goals!

Turn Tone on Its Head

Turning tone on its head can prove effective in creating more engaging stories, but difficult to achieve. One area to try this is character voice.

Consider the naïve narrator in Platoon. He's young, un-tested, unhardened in the opening. His soft voice sets up the audience to be wary, because we immediately see the juxtaposition of his tone/experience against the violent situation of the Viet Nam war. So we know he’s about to have a wake-up call.

Later he talks like a philosopher, lilting like a melancholy diary passage, as the screen shows men being gunned down. He's graduated to a spiritual voice, but viewers are still experiencing violence. This tells us he's numb.

Or consider Hannibal Lector, who was at times is romantic and whimsical about his descriptions of eating humans. Turning his POV tone on it's head and juxtapositioning it with context made him that much creepier.

So go play with your characters and see how you can turn their tone on its head and surprise your reader.

Spruce Up Dialogue with Subtext

Masters of dialogue compel the reader to keep reading, pulling the truth just out of their reach, like a carrot on a stick. Then surprise the reader: the carrot turns into a pickle. In other words, engaging dialogue that leaves us questioning creates expectations. And that creates suspense.

When characters always speak their mind exactly, whether through internal or external dialogue, that’s called “on the nose” dialogue. And it’s dull. Predictable even. Not suspenseful.

As Robert McKee says in his screenwriting book, Story, “The text cannot be about what the text is about.”

Subtext is the path of most resistance. This is dialogue that refuses to spill the beans, keeps your reader guessing as to what’s actually being said, keeps them engaged. When done well, it’s secretive, but sexy.

When characters are not saying what they really mean, but their words allude to something altogether different, that’s subtext. Like saying “Lovely day” to your boss, who terrifies you, when what you really mean is “Please don’t fire me.” Subtext is the meaning behind the message. The code that your reader has to break to feel not just engaged, but included in the story.

Two characters may not ever say they are in love with each other. That would be too direct, too everyday. Too dull. And cliché, frankly. It’s been said over and over and over… Instead, they may converse in code. Examples:

1) In the Princess Bride, the farm boy, Westley, says to Princess Buttercup “As you wish” to say "I love you." This the code that he later speaks to reveal his identity, for she’d thought he’d been killed years earlier.

2) Likewise, Lauren Bacall’s character, Marie, in To Have and Have Not, tells Humphrey Bogart’s character, Harry, “You know how to whistle, don’t you? Just put your two lips together and blow.”

Can you guess what she’s talking about? This, of course, was in a heavily-censored movie era, when the explicit discussion of sex was not allowed. And why change that? Talking explicitly about sex is almost always less interesting to a reader (excepting erotica, of course).

Subtext is about carefully crafted subtlety, and that’s just sexy.

Dialogue Sample for a First Meeting of Characters

This scene comes from one my students in my current dialogue class... my comments at end of post...

"Is this seat free?" his clipped British accent caught her attention. He motioned to the seat directly across from her.

"I'm sure it's not free. It's not mine, but it could probably be had for the price of fries," Georgia muttered.

This was really not what she had envisioned when she hid in the McDonalds. She hardly felt or looked her best. Bad boy laughed, and sat across from her.

"Your McDonald's chips are my weakness. Married?" he asked her.

It did not seem like the type to care. Georgia looked over to him thinking this was probably the oddest pickup she had ever had. Maybe she had gotten lucky and this one truly did not know who her family was and was actually interested in her. It would be a first.

"Not this week," she told him hesitantly. She still was unsure of his angle.

"American citizen?"

"Why and who wants to know?"

"Listen love I'm in a bit of a pickle. Seems like I gotten me a green card problem and I need to find me an American wife". He picked up her hand and looked deeply into her eyes.

"Sorry, I'm Chinese." So much for someone being interested in her as person.

"Oh I get it that’s your cheeky American sense of humor. Don’t you know who I am?" He seemed incredulous.

"Sorry, I have no idea who you are." She pressed her lips together and shook her head.

"I can offer you money. Lots of money, more money than you could ever use, love."

Wow, that probably would have worked on most. Poor Bad Boy had found the one person in the world that could have laughed at that.

"You just have to sign a pre-nuptial and stay married for 5 years. In that time I will give you two million up front and five hundred thousand for every year we stay married. For an additional five years after that, a further hundred thousand a year." Bad Boy had the naiveté to look smug.

"Very generous," Georgia said. She could wipe her nose with that much money and still not even dent what she was worth. "So who are you?"

"Miles Apocalypse. Of the Apocalypse Traders."

"How unfortunate. That can't be your real name."

"You have really never heard of the Apocalypse Traders?"

"I could Google you if it made you feel any better." Her father had always loved that saying considering he owned a large chunk of Google. "Is Miles at least your real first name?" Oddly she really did want to know.

He smiled. "Kozlowski, Miles Kozlowski." He extended his hand toward her.

"You thought Apocalypse was better last name than Kozlowski?"

She stood, hiding behind a big window sticker of Ronald McDonald she covertly watched the angry lawyers argue in front of her car. Miles came up behind her. He molded his muscled body against her back.

"I'm not sure if you realized this, but I am already standing in this spot." She threw him an icy smile over her shoulder.

The female character is very funny, a smart ass, very strong. Good dialogue here for her. You're clearly in her head. Some tweaks here and there would bring her words up a notch.

Mostly the tension between the two should rise. You've got to have chemistry on the first meeting of two romantic characters. And not "he smiled into her beautiful eyes" kind of chemistry. Here you have the makings of verbal jousting. That would arouse our interest in seeing them pair up.

Him, not as much. The accent/brit talk is fine, but the timing and lead up to his proposal seems sudden. You need to get in his shoes a little more, let him seduce us as he ramps up to the offer. Several of his lines are "throwaway" lines. They could be substituted with anything else and still not be unique. And even once his intention is made clear, he comes on way too fast with the information dump (the how and how much paragraph). Let tension build. So we are salivating to know what he's really after.

Also, you need to edit the narrative more. Besides the copyediting issues, I want you to look at lines that "tell" not show. And sometimes you point out what is obvious. This is common not just in early writers, but in early drafts, so don't feel bad about any of it. Writing is all in the REwriting. You have to massage the words to mature them. Every draft is a step forward in inches, so don't expect that you'll get it all perfect the first pass through.

Frankly, I think you have the making of a very interesting story because your characters are engaging. At this point I think you need more editing around your narrative to help you see alternative routes to conveying action, emotion, response and timing. But this is a great start.

Keep going!

Get On the Dialogue Train

Editing Dialogue class starts today...still time to sign up (ask for discount or scolarship if money is an issue -- don't let that stop you from learning!)

Dialogue Class starts tomorow...

Tomorrow's the big day! The day I get to teach my favorite subject in fiction: dialogue (see link above). So, in the spirit of the class, let me give everyone a dialogue tip that's fun.

Cussing and swearing. Lots of editors and writers will tell you not to use foul language in your manuscripts. I say when the genre is appropriate (say a thriller or mystery), and the characters fit the bill, go for it, as long as it serves a purpose. Gratuitous swearing won't (or shouldn't, depending on the editor) hold up to editing.

We'll discuss the myriad reasons to use foul language in my dialogue class, but for now let's focus on one: CUSSING AS EXCLAMATION.

Writers shouldn't use so many exclamation points. They are overdramatic and should be used sparingly. Maybe once a chapter, if that. Don't use them as crutches to express the intensity or emotions of the character, because exclamation points are just punctuation. THEY DON'T ACTUALLY SAY ANYTHING.

Instead, make the dialogue tense, thick, toe-curling. And when you need to show how intense, use an occasional swear word to throw a last punch instead of the exclamation point.

"Damn it" is an obvious cuss word with umph that typically comes at the beginning or end of sentences. The minute it's used we can assume the character is not happily praying in church. And it's an automatic exclamation, so the extra punctuation isn't required.

So when your hero is telling the heroine, "I can't protect you if you don't listen!" try instead "I can't protect you if don't listen, damnit."

The more you let language (word choices, placement, flow) do the work, the less you need the punctuation to take up the slack. Don't believe me? When was the last time you quoted a character saying, "Go ahead, punk, make my day, exclamation point" ?????

Good luck, and happy swearing.

Harder Critiques Than Mine?

If you think I'm hard, check out book agent Nathan Bransford's critique Mondays...

Taking a break from critiques... and offering some direction

For those writing mystery and/or any type of suspenseful fiction, this is a fun read: Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories. The list at the end regarding cliche/passe techniques is important enough that all fiction writers should read them.

I particularly love #7. "There simply must be a corpse in a detective novel, and the deader the corpse the better."

Note to self: go back through manuscript and make sure bodies are dead. Really stiff. Pokeable. Maybe oozing.
Optimize Your Opener #6: The Labyrinth

Maggie Duncan searched through her mind for survival skills. She gripped the sink’s edge and leaned into the counter of her country kitchen [GOOD SHOW OF TENSION IN HER]. Sunbeams through the window landed on the stacked soiled dishes. Unwashed laundry overflowed the wicker hamper in the open laundry area. [GOOD SHOW OF HER LIFE OUT OF CONTROL] She stared, unfocused, through tears at the soft hills and fruit trees of the acreage [SHE'S SAD ABOUT THE LAND/HOME?]. Maggie let go of the counter and paced, arms wrapped around her abdomen. The first time she failed to comfort her squalling newborn son, the words “bad mother” tumbled from the rooftops of her mind. Stomach burning self-accusations——no patience, anger, self-pity——repeated, like stuck recordings. [SEEMS TO ME THIS TYPE OF "LOOKING BACK" IS BEST FOR LATER PARAGRAPHS/CHAPTERS BECAUSE IT'S NOT ACTION, IT'S PERSPECTIVE, GAINED FROM EXPERIENCE - AND WE DIDN'T GAIN IT WITH HER, SO IT'S NOT OF VALUE TO THE READER]

She rose out of the rocking chair and wandered, still clutching her middle, through the connecting rooms of the old-fashioned farmhouse. She imagined the muscled arms of her husband wrapped around her, stroking and kneading her back as he whispered, ‘Maggie, my wonderful Maggie...’ before skimming his lips down her neck to capture her mouth [DOWN HER NECK TO HER MOUTH? MOST HUMAN'S HAVE THEIR MOUTH ABOVE THEIR NECK, SO THIS SOUNDS FUNNY]. She shook off the dream. When she tried to tell him how she felt, he glanced at her for about as long as a TV commercial, before backing away and continuing the priorities on his agenda, the newspaper, TV, yard work.

This piece is really emotion-packed and clearly covering a delicate issue -- either she lost a child or was bad to a child. Regardless of subject matter, I still have to treat the story as a story.

1) Show is better than tell. Despite all the details of her home being in chaos, her obvious mental/physical pain, it still feels like you're telling us information instead of walking us through a story. Despite all the scene details, and comments on her body, nothing else is happening, so you're left just telling us how unhappy she is.

2) This leads me to the lack of storyline. The best scene has action, dialogue, and characters in tension-building situations. Here we have a woman pondering, looking at her surroundings with sadness, guilt, but still just pondering. That's not action. You have to lead the reader to water, not drink it for them. You have to give us a situation to "be in" so we can feel the pain for her. There's a concept in the screenplay world that says never let your characters cry; just put them through hell and let your readers cry for them.

3) Careful on letting a character feel sorry for him/herself. Self pity is unattractive when we don't see that it is earned. Because we haven't been led up to this point, we enter the story with a character that is being "pitiful" and that's not as engaging as if we'd seen how she got there. It's important to show why we should care about your character, to give the story a heart right away, but pity is not the means to that end. Shoot for empathy, not pity.

4) Considering the above comments, I suspect that you've begun your story too late. That's tough news. Most writers start too early and just have to edit out the first paragraphs to get to the right starting point. You may have to write the start from scratch. Which can also be loads of fun. But whatever you do, start with a story. Something happening.

Good luck!!!
The Editor Devil
Optimize Your Opener #5: MAKANI'S SERENITY
genre: YA Sci-Fi Coming-of-Age
The price was too high. Makani didn’t have enough money to get everything Grant had asked for, but they needed the supplies. Which left her with only one choice.

She darted between the aisles of the large, brightly lit department store, [BLAH DESCRIPTION -- COULD BE SEARS OR NORDSTROMS] arms almost full [OF WHAT? I CAN'T SEE ANYTHING], trying to keep her black shoes from squeaking [WHY?] and still get the things on her list quickly [IMPLIED BY DARTING, DO DROP THE ADVERB]. The sun would be on its way down before long, and that meant trouble [AGAIN, VAGUE -- TROUBLE AS IN LIFE-THREATENING OR GETTING GROUNDED?].
Okay, let me start by warning the author how tough I'm going to be on this. Even though you have fine sentence structure, good rhythm and beats, and POV established early (all excellent, by the way), your voice/style isn't coming through because of the issues listed below. Work on these, and you'll see your voice emerge.

1) This opening focuses on--though not very effectively-- circumstances (character is at store and needs to buy things, but no money) and motivation (character has to take alternate measures to get more money? or get things?, and needs to hurry for sun). Everything is vague. Both the conflict of circumstance and motivation are weak. If someone asked me what the story was about, I would say I have no idea. There's a female (girl, woman?) with sneakers in a store hurrying.

2) This opening tells us very little. When you are too vague, too evasive, the reader cannot enter the story. Many writers think that being highly mysterious makes the work more suspenseful. Skilled authors know that you have to give enough details and story and character to get the reader through the door and then hold back 1 or 2 pieces of plot information to keep the reader on the hook. Not all of the information. Here are the questions the reader is left with (too many questions)
a. The price of what is too high?
b. She didn't have enough money, but how much did she have (so we know the goal -- getting $50 is not the same stakes as getting $5,000)?
c. What did Grant want her to buy?
d. Why did they need them?
f. What kind of store is she in?
g. What types of supplies are in her arms?
h. Why does she care if her shoes squeak?
i. What remains on the list?
j. Why should I care about the sun going down?
k. Who the hell is Grant?
l. Why should I care about her or any of this?

3) Finally, let's talk about characterization. There is nearly none. Only her darting, feeling desperate (or in a hurry, neither is clear). Makani is immediately a cardboard character: nobody. That's a big problem. Yes, jumping into the fray of events is good tactically, but you have to marry that with giving us a character to care about right away. You have to introduce us to someone whose shoes we can use to walk through the danger ourselves.

So the author needs to see this as an early draft and start layering in details. Vague items need to be specific. Add information about the situation so we better understand the stakes and motivation. Not heavily, mind you. The best approach is to sprinkle info here and there.
More than anything, give us a specific, clear character to care about. Even though it's YA, you need to give today's sophisticated youngsters more information. They read all kinds of characters, so make yours really unique and tantalizing and you'll sell the work. Good luck!

The Editor Devil
Optimize Your Opener Entry #3, from my guest-editing blogger, Kimberly:

Marianne said...
The Summoner of Seven Falls
genre: YA Paranormal
No one in the lecture hall noticed the crack near the bottom of the glass tube containing the virus culture. The middle-aged and slightly gray bespeckled professor stood behind the podium giving the day’s lecture in a loud and animated [M1] voice of a [M2] scholar excited about his field of study. Occasionally Professor Stone would step [M3] away from the podium during his lecture to stand behind the table upon which the rack of culture tubes sat. As if divining magic through the air[M4] , the professor would gesticulate wildly above the tubes while describing the concept of cytopathic effect through which viruses eventually destroy tissue. In this case[M5] , the tissue was primary monkey kidney, and the destroyer a Coxsackie virus.

In an attempt to emphasize an important point, [M6] Professor Stone banged his fist down upon the table. The impact caused the tubes to leap slightly, and the cracked tube faltered under the stress of the downward landing[M7] . Instantly, fluid welled up [M8] against the inside of the crack. A second pound on the table then forced the fluid across the crack’s opening, and a drop of culture media began to [M9] pool on the outside of the crack. Finally, as the Great Orator’s voice died down he began[M10] walking back to reclaim his spot at the podium. However, along the way his foot caught on a leg of the table and he tripped, slightly jerking the table a few inches and all that sat on top. Now propelled by a sudden new force, the drop succumbed to gravity[M11] and began [M12] to fall down the tube onto the table. At that point, the drop’s final journey sealed the fate of everyone in the room[M13].
[M1]Can you think of one spectacular word to describe both loud and animated?
[M2]Indicative of an enthusiastic scholar
[M4]I like this description but I think you could tighten it or use a simile…”like a maestro”
[M5]Leave this out to say the tissue in the cracked tube struggled to contain a coxsackei virus eating away at primary monkey kidney
[M6]If he’s banging his fist, we know he’s emphasizing. That is classic show don’t tell and you did both!
[M7]Landings are usually downward. Just say landing
[M9]try pooled
[M10]don’t begin to do action verbs, just do them. In this case he walked back..
[M11]Was it gravity of was it succumbing to the jiggle
[M13]Lovely ending!

These first few paragraphs will put the reader in a state of agitation if you properly convery that the virus is deadly and it MUST NOT ESCAPE! Under any cirrcumstances! I love this idea and I think you are on a very good track here. I’m definitely interested and you just need to tighten up a bit. And avoid would do this and would do that as well as begin to do this and begin to do that. Watch those verbs. Make it happen in the here and now as if we are witnessing it in the present.
Kudo’s and Good Luck!
Optimize Your Opener Entry #4: Trade Deficit, by Annette Drake


When father left us, he took what pride mama had with him. She took in dirty laundry, but it was never enough. Then there was the money Mr. Meany gave us, but that didn’t last. I was the man of the house, so I tried to get paying work, but I was too young. Mama would fret about “how to feed her brood.” One day, we moved in with a Mr. Thomas Cook. He lived in a dirty hovel one hour north by buggy, in the Melbourne Woods. His house had dirt for floors, but mama would sweep them with vigor twice a day, at least in the beginning she did. He was a trapper—beaver pelts—and they would pile up in the cabin, leaving a musty smell. We would wrap them around ourselves during the night, until we all smelled like them—dirt encased between our toes, and dank sweat under our shirts. We stopped bathing. Mama was going to teach us our letters, but that didn’t happen either.

When Mama’s younger sister came to town—“Just visiting” she said, AND? she brought my cousin Ned with her. Ned was older than I, but quiet and timid. We would spend our days in the forest, skipping stones and whittling pine into figurines. He promised to teach me chess, and he scraped letters into the dirt: C A T. Do you see? [INSERT QUOTE MARKS FOR HIS COMMENT, AS YOU DID ABOVE] He would say, in his soft voice. My Aunt never left,. Iinstead, she moved into the back bedroom with Mr. Cook, and Mama moved out. She [YOU SWITCHED 'SHE' -- AUNT TO MOM -- CONFUSING] slept in the kitchen on a too-small cot with Annabelle. [WHO'S ANNABELLE? THE SISTER IN THE FIRST SENTENCE? THEN WHY NOT NAME HER ABOVE]

1) A lot of great details here. While the style is trying to stay simple/colloquial, the author has so heavily relied on the "to be" verb that it makes the voice not just passive, but bordering on dull. That seems like a waste when there's all this good material. Insert a few more active verbs and the reader would benefit. I crossed out all the boring verbs to challenge the author to come up with more intersting ones.

2) My hardest comment is that, despite the interesting material, the author has chosen to the dreaded backstory opening. Albeit really interesting backstory. If the 3rd paragraph cuts to current action, the author could probably get away with this. If not, there's a big problem. Debut authors can't get away with backstory as openers. It reeks of amature writing. Agents and editors complain that you should NEVER open with backstory. If you are not sure why, read the Query Shark blog or Janet Reid's blog. She pounds this message hard. We need to start a book in CURRENT ACTION/SCENE.

3) I forgot to mention that the author did a good job helping me care about people in this story, especially the narrator. He has simple needs -- wanting to read and write -- and has to watch his mama get displaced. Still don't know the POV character's name, though (boy or girl?). But to open with heart in your story is very difficult, and you've succeeded.
Optimize Your Opener Entry #4 (I skipped #3, as my colleague is doing that one as a guest editor on this blog)

The shriek that exploded from the little [LITTLE COULD BE 1 OR 6 -- YOU SHOULD BE MORE SPECIFIC THAN VAGUE IN FIRST PARAGRAPHS] girl’s lungs was one most parents would describe as ‘loud enough to wake the dead.' It didn’t work this time. [SORRY, BUT I DON'T KNOW WHAT THIS PREVIOUS SENTENCE IS SAYING.] The screeching jolted her mother out of a seat on the park bench nearby. Bundled up against the cold in clunky winter boots and a bulky down coat, she whirled around like a Michelin Man ballerina [WHILE CUTE, WHAT DOES THIS METAPHOR HAVE TO DO WITH THE SCENE? IS IS SUPPOSED TO SOFTEN THE TENSION BY ADDING HUMOR? IF YES, OK, BUT IF NO, RETHINK YOUR METAPHOR -- PERSONALLY, I THINK IT FALLS FLAT], her eyes searching the park for her daughter.

“Ashley?” The woman’s head snapped toward the river, unsure where the sound had come from. No answer, just more screaming from that direction. [BUT SCREAMING IS AN ANSWER] Adrenaline surged through her body as she sprinted for the riverbank as fast as her [NOPE. DON'T SAY 'AS FAST AS' IF SHE'S ACTUALLY STRUGGLING DUE TO CLOTHING. SHOW HER TRIPPING OR SOMETHING THAT SHOWS US THE CLOTHING IS IN THE WAY] cumbersome clothing would allow. “Please God, don’t let my baby drown,” she prayed in a frantic whisperED.[YOU'VE DONE A GOOD JOB 'SHOWING' SHE'S FRANTIC, SO YOU DON'T NEED TO 'TELL' US]

1) I think this is supposed to be a suspenseful opening, but the author has shot him/herself in the foot in a few places:
a) The first line is written in a passive voice, as if looking back on the incident, which removes us, not embeds us, from the story. The action is thus watered down immediately. Worse, this style is common to humor, so sets an expectation. In fact, the first 2 lines made the story sound more like a comedy to me.
b) The second line is vague. Frankly, I don't what it means. Does the "it" refer to her screaming for help? Or waking the dead? The latter would imply a paranormal story.
c) The metaphor is awkward, if not silly, for this type of work. You have to choose metaphors to play to your genre, the action, and the character. This metaphor implies humor/ridiculous, which I doubt the author intends. Although it's supposed to set us up for mom's inability to move quickly in paragraph 2, where we again get info on her clothing, it just stands out awkwardly. Like a giant Michelin Man in a crowd. We really only need to hear about the clothing issue once. Save the precious space for something more important.
d) The mom is sprinting toward the river, but the sentence is dragging. You always want your sentence and your action to match. Fast action means short, direct sentences with verb/noun construction. You're close, so just edit more. See comments above.
2) The story opens implying POV is with the kid, but it's really with the mom. That first sentence should be reworked to be told from mom's POV. YOu should establish a clear POV for the book from the first paragraph.
3) Overall, I think it's smart for this author to open their book with an action scene of the daughter being abducted (if this is really the case). But don't rely on the kid/mother relationship to impart "heart" into your story -- most readers have seen this situation in movies/books a million times. We have to care about the characters, not the situation. What unique characteristic would make us care about either the mom or the kid immediatley?
Optimize Your Opener challenge: submission #2

I regarded the old man at length. Wizened and beset with ailments, he was a study in modern life—extending medicine. Fluids from plastic sacks inverted on chrome plated stands, and gases from heavy green oxygen tanks stationed nearby, dispensed sustenance to the decaying body via a tangle of tubes. Tubes also drained bilious fluids into other bio-hazard receptacles. A tangle of wires stretched from a bank of gizmos to key points on his body. Each had a computer screen with multiple tiles reporting a different vital sign. Collectively, they mindlessly (THE DOUBLE ADVERBS COMPETE. GET RID OF ADVERBS WHENEVER POSSIBLE.) monitored their patient for any hint that something might be awry. Medicaments were machine-pumped automatically (ADVERB BORDERS ON REDUNDANT, SO I DOUBT IT'S NECESSARY), and with great precision, through flaccid skin marked with great purple splotches: Dark, ugly bruises that would not heal; would not have time to heal.

1) Because I don't know the genre or title, I'm not sure where this is going: could be thriller and this is a killing scene for all I know. But I can say that I've been pummeled with too much information about his medical treatment to even remember that there was some conversation re: power.
2) The "I" introduces the POV character, supposedly the hero/heroine. Then this character dissapears behind the tubes and machines. HOW this character sees these objects goes to characterization, yes, but don't let them get lost in the picture. You have 2 paragraphs to give me a feeling for them and make me care about them. I cared more about the machines. I doubt that's your intent.
3) Dialogue in first paragraph was good except the last. Dying man talking of power as his mouth is wiped like a baby is great juxtaposition. But again, it got lost with 2nd 'graph.

Yes, I'm sure the 3rd graph got more into the other character or plot or whatever. But this challenge is about hitting the key notes up front, not delaying them. You can do this!
HOUND IN BLOOD AND BLACK, genre: dystopian fiction
Thanks for adding the title and genre, as this affects editing comments.

Last tank of gas, Kumari thought as the engine spit out a black cloud before picking up speed. It meant one thing: last chance to make a catch. Last chance to eat, drink. Last chance to stay alive

"Harder!” Kumari screamed over the howl of the battered engine.
break here because we have a different person talking that acting.


1) Visceral is good for this genre, so this gritty opening is heading the right direction. But note that most of the grit is related to the car and environment. Not the characters. Shades and bandana are good details, though. What else you got?
2) "It" is a weak word, and not one that should lead a sentence in an opening paragraph, especially here because you have the "last tank of gas" and the "black cloud" to which "it" can refer. So which is it?
3) We can't see Kumari and are left with more of a sense of the vehicle than her/him. That vehicle better be important enough you spent your opening on it. And it better reappear in the book. Only open with your key characters and devices that thread through the rest of the book.
4) "Picking up speed" is cliche, which is definitely to be avoided for your genre. Be "in character" when you comment on movements, inanimate- or character-related. How would a dystopian future call this? Consider creating a list of your world's sayings/idioms.
5) My biggest concern is the lack of feeling we have for either person introduced. They have to make some "catch, eat, drink, stay alive." We know their external goal. But personally, I don't give a wit for either person. I've no reason to. And this is a key issue in most openers. Give the reader someONE (not someTHING) to care about immediately.
6) A freind of mine writes sci/fi and some dystopic, and she's always sure to include something in that opening that tells you that you're in another world. This opening could be modern-day Vegas for all I know. Add at least one element of surprise.

Introducing heart from the first page, the first 'graph is very hard. But that's the challenge. Given the good writing here, I know the author is up to the task. Good luck!

Optimize Your Opener

Okay, I'm tired of seeing long-time published authors do everything in the book that debut authors would never get away with.

Currently reading Carla Neggars' book "Cold River" for research. The opening is nearly all backstory. In 8 pages I put the book down 6 times. Irritated is an understatement.

So, authors, get your manuscripts out. I'm feeling generous. You deserve to be helped and get published!

Post your FIRST 2 PARAGRAPHS of your FIRST CHAPTER here, and I'll give you my undeniably devilish feedback.

Please, no prologues. First chapters only. I'll review as many folks as I can. Your participation in comments is welcomed, too. Game on!

Restrain Your Characters, Please

***Excerpted from my editing class (Lesson 6: Turn Down the Volume)

Sometimes drama works. And sometimes it’s just loud.

Hyping up the drama in fiction is not the same as creating dramatic conflict or believable tension. The latter is built on successive challenges and obstacles to the character, the former on emotional flash.

Gone are the Hollywood days of a good face slap, when the heroine spits venom at her hero lover and he plants a big kiss on her afterward. Touché, amour!

Nowadays, that’s called abuse and generates restraining orders. Not that a character can’t get so riled they let fists fly.

But consider how cliché and passé such a scene has become. My theory is let the tension drive your readers to want to throw the punch for you. And only let it happen once in a book, after a long-time coming.

Too much gunplay can also numb a reader. Heroes who go around shooting everyone is too Arnold Schwarzenegger for books. In screenwriting, there’s a philosophy that says “when a scene gets boring, throw a gun in the room.” Been there, seen that.

Hollywood has numbed us to the presence of weapons, and writers often use such tricks without believable reasons or intent.

What readers will believe is the emotional buildup and tension that we’ve seen a character endure through constant struggles, receiving blow after blow in life. No person, real or fictional, can “take it” forever. Such a build-up means one thing: a blow-out.

When the character becomes the loaded weapon, then entrance of a gun (or knife, sword, poison, etc.) makes readers tense. By now, they anticipate a showdown.

While we’re on the subject of characters throwing a fit, don’t let them constantly storm off, stomp their feet, scream, hit walls or have full-fledge panic attacks (unless they have condition like clinical anxiety or PTSD).

You’re supposed to put your characters in a pressure cooker, so if they are blowing their top all the time, then the reader has nothing greater to expect. You’ve spent your wad.

Why We Love & Hate Articles

Today in my editing class I was asked why articles (a, an, the, this, that) are weak words since they are so necessary in sentence structure. Great question!

My reply was that in any given situation, you have to make the choice regarding which words are most appropriate and most powerful and best lend themselves to the effect you are trying to create in text.

The issue is that articles are vague. That's what makes them weaker than more specific words.

"A glass" could mean one of many off the shelf and is less specific than "the glass," which presumably is the one glass in a scene, maybe one that was previously identified. Likewise, "his glass" is even more specific. "Joe's glass" even better.

Of course, using "he/his" instead of saying "Joe/Joe's" all the time is also appropriate. Yet I've also seen folks overuse the pronouns. This can be a sign of lazy sentences. And it's not always about substitution, but sometimes the sentences need to be rewritten for more interest.

I had this great mentor, DeWitt H. Scott (Scotty), the head copyeditor for the SF Examiner for 20 years. He also taught at UC Berkeley. Scott taught us to be more critical of weak words , such as articles, instead of always letting them slide by and fill up the page.

We were taught in journalism not to start paragraphs with certain words, articles being high on that list. In "How to Write," Scotty gave this reasoning a funny spin: "When you begin a book, a chapter or a paragraph with 'the' or 'a', it probably will be dull -- or at least the first sentence will be."

Underscoring his point, Scotty assigned point values to words (better than my system in my previous post), so you could add up the value of all your words and see if you had a low score (too many low-value words) or a high score (lots of high-impact verbs and nouns) per page.

When I teach at the University of Washington Extension for the Editing Certificate Program, I tell students the Dick and Jane books are some of the best editing books available. They laugh. I explain: "See Dick run." Verb/noun/verb. So precise. Little else is needed to communicate.

No one's saying you should eliminate ALL articles. Heaven forbid. They are my friends, though I may invite them less readily than their verb and noun cousins.

Again, editing is about the making choices to fit the context of the situation. But better to have the critical eye than not, right?

Enter Late, Leave Early

NOTE: Excerpted from my SENSATIONAL SCENES class, May 14-27, 2012 via Savvy Authors (reg/info at

Writers tend to include a lot of preamble to their stories. It’s like listening to a speaker “ahem” a lot before they start their speech, or like, “before I start my story, let me tell you about why this story is happening and why this character is so special...” Do this, and you are wasting the reader’s time. Readers will put the book down. This includes the agent and editor, who are your first readers.

Of the many techniques I learned from studying film and scriptwriting, my favorite is “enter late, leave early.” This means your scene is really just a middle slice out of a sequence of events (i.e. it does not contain all the events).

Let's consider a suspense genre book with a crime scene for an example...

Entering late means you jump into the middle of the action, leaving obvious elements, such as how people drove to the crime scene, for the reader to self-diagnose. At the other end of the scene, you leave before the characters dissolve their action/interaction and preferably on a high note, or ‘aha’ moment.

Another way to look at it is this: don’t show the hero waking up, brushing his teeth, getting dressed, locking the door, getting into his car, then driving to the murder scene, parking, spotting his partner, and asking if there’s coffee... Just let the detective be there already, in the middle of the most important dialogue about the crime scene. That is entering late (the action is already in progress).

Likewise, don’t show him getting back into his car and driving home. Just stop the dialogue when his partner points him toward the victim to be questioned. Then show the detective turning to see his wife. That is leaving early (the action will continue without us), so the reader gets a “whoa, what happens next” moment.

With the advent of Hollywood, the Internet, and multi-media sources of storytelling, readers are more sophisticated than ever. They are also more impatient. They want to jump into the middle of the mayhem. So get them there faster.

“Sol Stein on Writing” by Sol Stein.

Don't Ask, Don't Tell

No, that’s not exactly what we’re talking about today. We’re talking about questions in a manuscript (lines literally ending in “?”) that slow pacing. Yes, questions slow down reading.

So here's my message to writers: stop asking.

Did you already know this? (Sorry, had to do it.) Questions cause readers to stall. It’s a natural response by the brain to switch gears when we are asked a question and start searching for an answer. The computer inside your noggin translates the question then flips through relevant files, even when there isn’t really a need to answer the question. Unfortunately, this brings the story to a halt, however brief.

Many genre writers, especially romance and thriller/suspense writers I’ve been reading lately, use questions in the course of their story in 2 places: dialogue and narrative.


When questions are used in the narrative (even if it's internal dialogue), they can help relay the characters confusion or the necessary motivation/conflict that is driving the character and/or situation.

For example (this is made up, of course): “....his chest armor was bulletproof, so which would I go for, the blade to the throat, or a club to the head?”

Silly, I know, but useful in exemplifying where one could simply show the scene playing out without all the internal squabble. When you truly put a reader in the scene, embed them in the action and in the throes of danger, and then just show the reader their options (blade or club)...they will be asking the question for the character. That’s the difference between showing and telling.

But let’s say that we must keep this internal squabbling for clarity. Then state it, don’t ask it: “.......his chest armor was bulletproof, so only two options remained: a blade to the throat, or a club to the head.” This keeps the story moving forward.

Don’t believe that questions stop a story? Here’s another example... You’re reading a story about a young boy. He gets on his bike and rolls down the driveway, turns into a lane, and races toward a stop sign. Which way will he turn? Worse, will he stop? And did dad fix his brakes?

The minute the questions began, the bike stopped moving. Often writers believe it creates more suspense or tension, but only rarely is this effective or necessary. There are other, better ways to achieve tension. Have him daydreaming. Show another vehicle approaching the intersection. The driver spills coffee. Then we will be asking the questions for the writer. That's what you want: the reader to ask the questions, not the manuscript.


The other place writers shouldn’t use so many questions is in dialogue.

When characters ask each other too many questions, it sounds like the writer is using the characters to prompt for storyline. “So, Barney, how did you become purple? Well, Ed, let me explain it to you...”

New Rule: don't let the reader see the seams of your novel.

I’m reading a thriller where the detectives are asking repeated questions. The constant questions make me feel like I’m reading a job application more than a thriller. First of all, most humans don’t work this way. Secondly, I don’t get much of a sense of these characters because they sound like mindless automatons. People typically remark/comment more than they ask/question. And detectives often bait their subjects without asking direct questions. This is more interesting, more suspenseful.

And remember this: asking is weak energy, whether it’s in narrative or dialogue. So if you have an alpha character, only have them ask questions when they are revealing their weakness or vulnerability. Then a question can be wildly effective.

So hunt and destroy, dear writers. Search for every “?” in your manuscript and see if you can change it into a statement or action. It’s a challenge, but typically a productive one.

Killing Writers Block Before It Kills You

My cousin, Nikolus, who’s in Scotland earning a Masters in poetry, asked me what technique I used for overcoming writers block. “Which type?” I replied.

Since there’s no ONE cause, there’s no ONE answer. As I told Nikie (he'll always be little Nickie to me), I need to know the cause to know the cure. Here are the top 3 types I’ve coached clients on overcoming...see if they sound familiar.

1. CAUSE: Burn Out. You’re exhausted by either working too many hours, straining over a creative project too long, stress in your personal life or just tired of life in general. Thus, your brain has shut down all auxiliary functions beyond survival: no creativity allowed!

CURE: Rest, Rejuvenation and Invisibility. How to achieve this varies per individual, your preferences, your time. Your wallet! Sleep is number one for healing. Spending time being still with nature is another. You have my permission to have NO AGENDA. None. Say no to friends, to appointments, to taking on more responsibilities. Try this for one week. Learn to be invisible to anyone non-critical who wants your time and energy. Save it for yourself.

2. CAUSE: Creative Stewing. You’ve decided on a project or a direction, and now the creative parts of your brain are mulling over the possibilities. This happens periodically during a creative project, as we cycle through chunks of creative inspiration. It often occurs during editing, when you’re trying to assess root problems and best solutions. You can’t *yet see the answers, because your brain hasn’t *yet discovered them.

CURE: Step Away from the Knife. No more slicing and dicing. Your creativity has become a dangerous weapon and you could do harm (to yourself, the work, and maybe to others getting in your way). Better to walk away from the project altogether. Distract yourself with other creative (like music or movies), physical (like gardening or exercising), or mental (like reading a science book) ventures. By expanding your awareness and experience in other areas, you will unconsciously expand your creative ingredients.

3. CAUSE: Creative Paralysis. You’ve worked a piece to death. You have energy and drive and ambition, but absolutely no idea what to do. Stumped, dumfounded, stuck, lost... are common terms to describe how you feel.

CURE: Walk Out. Get up, turn off the computer, or set aside the pen/pencil, and aim for the door. Apply the cure for Creative Stewing. At the same, seek outside input, such as colleagues, critiques, friends. Children. Yes, you heard me. Ever hear that expression “out of the mouths of babes?” Well, kids have unique perspectives and creative impulses that adults have beaten out of themselves while growing up. Animals and nature are also good for shifting your brain back into a creative gear. My favorite prescription for this one: go to the ocean. Water is both healing and relaxing, and it has a way of flooding the energy of the universe into your soul with each wave.

And here's my bonus type of writers block....

4. CAUSE: Not Knowing What to Write.
CURE: Take my writing class. Yes, shameless promotion. So flog me.

Illegal Stacking Ahead

Writers, stop stacking!!

You know what I’m talking about – those long strings of useless words that bring readers to a halt. It’s like a ten-car pile-up of Minis on the freeway, when you could use a semi-truck verb or noun to push through the sentence.

Need an example?

“Quickly, she took it from him, so it ripped.”

Yes, the adverb and verb choices are icky, and the sentence is stunted by commas during an action moment. Editors call this lazy writing (if not untalented).

But I’m pointing to another culprit that editors and writers often miss: the stacking: “ from him, so it...” Not only does stacking tell me it’s not a mature piece, it makes me grind my teeth.

Consider this rewrite: “Trish snatched the envelope from Joe, ripping it.” You could even replace “it” with “the linen,” depending on the surrounding material. Or add more details for greater involvement and intensity: “Trish snatched the envelope from Joe, ripping the white linen to expose a black .9mm Glock.”

Here’s an especially heinous one:

“She went away more often than she needed to, so she would not be there if he came.”

Arrggh! That’s not writing. That’s talking. Don’t write the way you speak, unless of course you are writing dialogue that MUST be colloquial sounding. (Even then I caution you to tighten sentences and use dialogue space carefully.)

Still don’t see it? Look at the sentence written this way: “Pronoun / Weak Verb / Preposition / Adverb / Conjunction / Pronoun / Weak Verb / Preposition / Conjunction / Pronoun / Weak Verb (would not be) / Article / Conjunction / Pronoun / Weak Verb.”

Considering the lack of solid verbs or nouns, I wouldn’t even count this as a sentence. Just another stack of cardboard boxes ready to tilt and fall.

Still don’t understand?

Let’s backtrack. Despite being a democratic nation, we are classist in our language. There are high-value and low-value words. Below is a point-value system for words. Consider using this when you analyze your sentences / writing, so you can add up the numbers and let math tell you where to focus your editing efforts. Higher point sentences will more likely be packed with action and details (and hopefully still make sense and have good flow and pacing).

Verbs = 10
Proper Nouns (name of person or place) = 9
Regular nouns (ball, toothbrush) = 8
Weak Verbs (To Be / Will / Come / Go / May / Might / Could / Should) = 7
Pronouns = 6
Adverbs = 5
Adjectives = 4
Articles = 3
Conjunctions = 2
Prepositions = 1

The reason Verbs get the highest score is that the mind reads them easier and faster. It’s primal. “Run” makes our mind envision running (especially when there's a bear growling). Nouns are next. "Fire" makes us want to run, because we envision getting our "Victoria Secrets" burned off. Proper nouns, even better: “Joe” evokes more personality than “that guy” and, if the writer has written the character well, triggers an emotional response (positive for protagonists and negative for antagonists).

My point is this: when editing your work, look for strings of Articles, Prepositions, Conjunctions, and Pronouns. Search for the ones you use most and notice how often you string them together or add them to a weak verb, such as the "to be" verb variations (was/were/is/are). Three or more indicates editing is necessary. Don't stop using these words altogether, just minimize their appearances and groupings. They have their place, but not at top billing.

My trespasses in this area vary per manuscript, but for romantic suspense I search for my most likely culprits: so, and, but, toward, back, up, down, in, out, if, then, than. When I’m writing historical, I tend toward these: but, rather, very, toward, un/likely, certainly, awfully, backwards, upwards, downwards, alike, besides, fore, aft.

You can do a separate search for weak verbs: is, are, were, will, may, might, could, should, would....etc. and see how you combine these with weak words. Such as "It's not as if he were there." Ick.

For those who like a challenge, try rewriting that heinous sentence above, or just share with us the words you commonly use that get you all stacked up with no place to go...Otherwise, go forth and edit!

Creating characters who are "real characters"

One of the things that authors love about writing fiction is that it's all made up. We can create really crazy people doing wacky things.

Yet recently I realized some of my characters are more sedate on the page than the "characters" I know in real life. Time to 'up the anty' on my fictional characters, I said to myself.

In fact, when I teach students about Character Development, I ask them to imagine their character from the inside out. Not just how the character looks and dresses and walks, but how they act in any given situation. How smart are they? Yet what are they stupid about? How blind they are to their own flaws? Or how aware and trying to hide them? What are their ticks and tells? When do they show off versus stay quiet.

From now on I'll also ask: what's the craziest thing your hero or heroine has ever done?

Go ahead and ask this question of your characters.

No, not just between the pages of the manuscript when the character's under pressure, but on a normal day. Maybe in the character's past, like when they were in college (we all did wacky things then, right?). Maybe in public or at a family get together. Maybe when they were alone and thought nobody was looking.

Then feel free to post your answers so we can all enjoy the "real characters" you're writing!

Re-inventing yourself

Rebooting your career after a long absence is no easy task. The word "depressing" comes to mind.

Two years ago, my 63-year-old mother-in-law moved in with us. We were one year into our marriage. She'd lost everthing: her home, her job, her memory of what she did with all her money or what city she lived in now. She was so skinny, so palid, she looked deathly ill.

Working from home as a freelance writer/editor (my business of ten years) allowed me to watch out for her as we pursued a diagnosis: stroke-based dementia from drug and alcohol abuse. She'd quit drinking, so we got her to quit smoking, too. Still, I couldn't stop resenting that she'd "given" herself an illness that now made my peaceful home into a hell-zone -- an awful perspective I never thought myself capable of, but I've come to discover it's common among caretakers.

By January 2009 it became impossible for me to work and deal with her weekly emotional outbursts of sobbing and yelling, or the biweekly visits to the emergency room for falls and urinary tract infections and pneumonia episodes. My panic attacks woke me from sleep. My heart raced for days on end. I stopped seeing friends, stopped gardening, stopped cooking for fun, stopped feeling anything but dread of her and my own home.

Eventually, the strain on our marriage became unbearable. After 8 years of living together, we were suddenly fighting over dishes, shoes not in the "shoe room", who got to decide the tv show we watched, and why we weren't sleeping in the same room. Something had to give.

To my business I waved bye-bye.

Now my MIL lives in one of the best assisted-care facilities in town and on a government program that will take care of her for the rest of her life. She's happy, well cared for, at peace with her conidition. We're finally free. Sort of.

We're not the same people we were before. We have to rediscover happiness, reninvent ourselves. But I'm rebooting my career in an economy that doesn't play by the old rules. 100 applicants for a tech-editing job I don't even want? No thanks. I can't go backwards.

This time I'm going to get it right because life is short. I'm going to do exactly what I want to do.

So I've polished one of my novels and sent it to an agent. And I'm teaching writing and editing courses monthly. And I'm blogging about misadventures in writing and editing so others can leverage my experience to advance their own careers.

I've never been happier with my career outlook.

And today, when I visit my mother-in-law and give her the $62.50 the government says she's allowed per month, and *again* explain why she can't have more money, I'll be feeling grateful. Grateful that she tore me away from work that numbed me, and grateful that now I can pursue my true calling(s).

That's one Happily Ever After I didn't expect.