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    For Writers

    How to Make Your Characters Stop Looking At Everything

    Happy Writer Editing Advice Stop Characters Looking Staring Gazing

    Hello again, all you happy writers (and editors) out there! As I’m still knee-deep in edits (or neck-deep, or–when exactly am I certifiably drowning?), I’d like to address a problem I’ve been working on with today’s chapter revisions — the dreaded (and constant) use of the phrase “looked at”.

    You’re probably familiar with the problem. You picture your scene like a movie playing out in your head, and find yourself inserting “stage directions” into your writing. As each new development occurs, characters swivel around to look at the person speaking, to stare indignantly at their rival, to gaze up at the source of a sound, to glance at a plot point. It all sounded good in your head as you were writing it down, but now that you’re reading the scene over again, the words looked and gazedglanced and stared appear in almost every. single. sentence. What do you do? How do you keep your characters from constantly looking and staring and glancing and turning towards each other?

    Troy Staring Editing Advice Happy Writer

    Suffice it to say, people constantly staring at each other can be a little off-putting.

    First of all, consider the advice that a reader will comfortably overlook the word “said,” because they’re paying more attention to the dialogue than the repetition of that single verb.  What I mean by this is, readers are paying more attention to the action and unique dialogue in a scene than to filler statements like “He looked at her” or “She glanced at him.” These sentences don’t leave much of an impact, because they’re repetitious and we can safely assume that if someone is speaking, the other characters are looking at them. (If you accept this as a given, you can then incorporate with more significance a character’s choice to not looking at another character in a scene.)

    So, even though you might think that the choreography of your scene relies on understanding that each character is looking here, at this thing during this moment and there, at that other thing during the next, rest assured that most readers will glaze over those stage directions. If someone is quoting their favorite sentence from a novel, they’re probably not going to remember that moment where so-and-so was talking and someone else glanced up at them and nodded. Don’t worry that you’re making some vital cut to your scene by editing out all the looks and stares and glances.

    But, such things are easier said than done! How do you easily edit out a ton of looks and stares and gazes, especially when you’ve realized that your scene–obviously through no fault of your own, of course–consists almost entirely of knuckleheads glancing around at each other?

    I have two thoughts I’d like to throw out first:

    1. When the POV character is looking at things, this action is almost always a filter separating the reader from the story and can usually be cut without too much trouble. Instead of “Mike looked out the window, where lightning lit up the sky”, you can say something like, “Lightning flashed across the window” or, “Through the window, lightning lit up the sky.” We can assume Mike looked out the window and observed that lightning because we’re seeing the world through his eyes.

    2. Alternatively, when another character is looking AT your POV character, this can sometimes be a significant action. If your character has said something important, and another character turns around slowly and stares at them, that moment of the character silently gauging the POV character could in fact be necessary. So, don’t feel so guilty about including actions like that. Still, though, if you have a sentence like, “Sharon looked at Mike and considered his proposal”, you can usually change it to something as simple as “Sharon considered Mike’s proposal,” without losing much.

    Point being, consider whether or not the action is of necessary significance to your story. BUT if, as is probably most likely, you find yourself using all this glancing and looking and gazing as empty phrases stuck in there to fill space and keep with the rhythm of the scene, consider the following advice:

    Editing Tip #1: See if you can’t delete the sentence entirely without changing anything else about the scene.

    Omit the phrase and gauge whether or not the rhythm of the scene continues undisturbed. This is my favorite fix to the problem, since it requires the least amount of work, lol.

    But, sometimes you can’t just delete the phrase! I’m editing a chapter right now that is very dialogue-heavy, and I’ve found that a lot of the action I’ve stuck between the speech tags involves characters turning towards and looking at whoever is speaking next. If I went through and dispassionately deleted all the instances of characters looking at each other, I’d have a wall of dialogue! What should I do then?

    Editing Tip #2: Substitute all the “looking” with more dynamic, scene-specific action.

    This is the best edit to make, if also the most difficult. Find other ways to move your characters around, other ways to inform their actions besides literally tweaking them into place. Characters can pull out chairs, stand up, sit down. Try exploring details of the setting instead of relying on relaying character movements–employ your senses, dispersing sight, smell, taste, sound, and touch details in place of the staring.

    It’s hard to get specific with this advice, since it’s so reliant on each specific scene.

    But, consider:

    He looked up at Sharon. “You don’t know what you’re talking about.”

    versus something like:

    Rain lashed harder against the windows. “You don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said.

    You can use details specific to the scene and world around the characters in place of all the gazing and staring you’re trying so hard to edit it. This’ll bring more depth to your scenes and can even create better tension between the characters! It can also help move your plot along faster, if you replace all the staring and gazing with actions relevant to moving your scene forward.

    Editing Tip #3: If not dynamic action, replace all your “looking” with other character-specific mannerisms.

    This advice basically suggests replacing one kind of filler with another, but if you need packaging to smush in between your dialogue, this is at least a little more unique. Replace the “looking” verb with a character-specific mannerism. For instance, a character in a scene might stomp their feet, scratch their noses, impatiently swipe their hair out of their eyes; they could scuff the floor with their sneaker, clench their fists or their teeth, pick dust off their clothes, check their holsters, crack their knuckles, bounce on the balls of their feet. Basically, if you feel like you need something to break up the dialogue, consider something character-specific that is slightly more interesting and varied.

    ~

    Editing advice is always hard to give, since stories are unique and pugnacious beasts and every writer requires a different set of revisionary tactics to tame the beast and cram it back into its story-shaped cage. (Real solid metaphor, this.) But, I hope this has helped a little bit! Basically, don’t stress too much about too many stage directions in your story, because they’re not a terribly big deal, BUT, if you’d like to vary your action and strengthen your weaker sentences so they might lift a heavier load, consider some of these alternatives!

    If you’d like more help with editing, I walked through my editing process in How to Edit a Scene in Five Easy (Heh. Try Hair-Pulling) Steps.

    If weak words are your pet peeve, check out Clean Up Your Draft By Eliminating Crutch Words, where I walk through revising a scene from my WIP by editing out the word ‘was’.

    What are your crutch words? Do you have any advice for how to edit all the looking and staring and gazing out of a novel? Tell me in the comments below!

    For Writers

    Inside My Writer’s Revision Binder

     Hello, happy writers! How’s your summer treating you? Crushing those word counts? I’m still waist-deep in editing my WIP, and while it’s immensely difficult, I am seeing incremental progress — it’ll all come together eventually, right??? Editing a novel can be overwhelming, especially as you try to keep all your notes and your revised plot outline straight in your head. For every decision you make, there are about a thousand alternate routes the scene or chapter could’ve taken, and it’s a lot to wrap your mind around!

    In an effort to take control of my life this process, I’ve created a Revision Binder — a central hub for all of my notes, a way to track my progress, and a handy tool that offers a quick look at my plot, broken down into key moments.

    Come on in, I’ll show you what I’m talking about!

    Read more…

    For Writers

    Have You Ever Based A Character On A Real Person?

    Hello, lovely writers! It’s Monday, which means it’s time for another post about the weird, wonderful world of writing. Lately, as I revise this beast of a novel, I’ve been thinking about where my characters initially came from — and how far they’ve traveled since those original conceptions.

    From first draft to tenth (or twentieth, who’s counting), some of my characters have changed gender, changed skintone, changed personality or physicality; some look exactly like my original idea but act nothing like them; and some are exactly the same as they were that first day I put pen to page and gave them life. Interestingly, some that have changed the most from my original mental image were characters that I had initially modeled after a random actor — either because the character itself naturally evolved, or because my interest in that actor, for whatever reason, flatlined, and the character morphed accordingly.

    I’m wondering, have you ever based a character on a real person? An actor, maybe, or someone from your real life? Do you find that method more helpful, or more constrictive than creating them from scratch? I’m going to go through those three options below, and unpack my feelings about each a little more.

    (Coupled with some peeks of my character aesthetics boards on Pinterest, because I can’t get enough of them, okay?)

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    For Writers, Motivation

    What Are Your Writing For?

    It’s always good for writers to have goals, be they weekly word goals, to write a short story every month, or get a book finished every year — But I was wondering, lovely writers out there: What is your end goal? What is it that you’re working toward?

    What are you writing for?

    At what point will you consider yourself successful, or your writerly wishes fulfilled? When you hold your published book for the first time? When you see your work on the shelves of a bookstore? Why do you want your story to be published? To see your name in print? To make money? To tell a story you desperately want to tell? What makes you excited to finish your writing?

    For me, I really want to know that I’ve entertained someone, that I’ve given them a few minutes or hours of escape. Reading has helped me out of countless depressive episodes; when you’re feeling listless and lost in the world, it can be so amazing to pick up a book, get engaged in the story, and remember how to feel feelings again. So, if someone reads what I’ve written and tells me it got them through a bad night, through a plane ride, that it cheered them up after an exam or long day, that something I wrote made them smile or laugh, I would be walking on cloud nine.

    Consider your end goal often. Do something to remind yourself why you’re writing. Write your goal down on the first page of your writing notebook, or scribble it on a Post-It note that you mount above your desk. On days when the work seems endless and the story too difficult to wrangle, remind yourself that you’re doing this for a reason. You want to share your characters with the world. You want to see your name on a printed book. You want to sit on a panel of authors at a convention and share your knowledge as an equal, an authority. Or, you want to get someone through a bad night.

    Hold onto why you’re doing this. Whatever your motivation, whatever gets that story out of your head and onto the printed page, it’s worth it. And it’s worth reminding yourself of, from time to time.

    For Writers

    Developing A Fictional City ~ Worldbuilding for Fantasy Writers

    Creating a city from scratch can be an intimidating task for a fantasy writer — you want your city to feel like a living, breathing place, with its own personality, elements of fun and fantasy, and believable enough and descriptive enough that the reader can imagine themselves plunked down into the middle of it.

    Consider some of the best, most vividly written cities in fiction. Closing your eyes, you can see the snow-capped cottages of Hogsmeade that look like illustrations on Christmas cards; you can see the colorful and extraordinary shops of Diagon Alley, cluttered with stacks of cauldrons, barrels of beetle’s eyes, hooting owls in ironwork cages; shoppers in ankle-length Wizard robes. You can see the stone buildings climbing up the mountainside of Gondor, you can see the shifting grass plains of Rohan, can picture the Shire with its farms and flowers and so many green hillocks punctuated with round front doors.

    Ugh. You can literally smell the honeysuckle and the pies cooling on windowsills.

    Fantasy villages, towns, and cities are scrumptious to read about, they’re visceral and eye candy and exciting. So, how do you go about creating one such (or many such) cities for your own fantasy novel?

    Read more…

    For Writers

    Is Your Character Asking Too Many Questions?

    We’ve all had those moments when we’ve had to come to terms with the fact that the character we envision in our heads isn’t quite the person staring back at us from the page. Their voice, their mannerisms, their decisions, aren’t quite what we imagined in our heads. Maybe your gallant heroine came out of your first draft with rather darker motivations than you intended, or there’s something about your love-interest’s behavior that, for no reason you can quite put your finger on, really makes you want to drop-kick the guy right out of your story.

    Here’s an unexpected problem I stumbled across in editing my WIP—my main character sounded younger, more naïve, and, frankly, whinier than I ever meant for him to come across. Luckily, it wasn’t hard to identify why.

    The dude asked too many questions.

    Do you ever get irritated when someone treats what should’ve been a casual conversation as an opportunity to straight-up interrogate you? Since when did small talk come with a side order of psychoanalysis? Have you ever been trying to concentrate on something, only to have someone standing at your side asking you question after question after question, until your nerves are rattled? (Well?? Have you???)

    My character spent much of the opening chapters of my WIP asking questions about the world around him. While a lot of the information imparted to my character during these exchanges is essential to moving the plot forward, there’s no reason this grown adult needs to sound like a precocious four year old ceaselessly demanding to know “Why?” all the time!

    If your character is constantly asking questions, they can come off as younger, more naïve, and — frankly– more annoying than you intend. Find a more engaging way to impart crucial plot information than bland interrogations between characters. 

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    For Writers

    Plotting in a Pinch: A Quick Guide to Plotting Your Novel

    Wreath: Plotting in a Pinch Quick Guide to Plotting Your Novel

    Happy Monday, my beautiful writers!

    Planning your story can be tough. Revising your story into something resembling an actual novel can be nothing short of impossible. I want to share a real quick Guide to Plotting that’s been helping me through my (near endless) revisions — a quick look at the basic shape of a story. Don’t take this as a cookie-cutter formula, nor as the End All rule all novels must follow.  Rather, it’s a tried-and-true suggestion for the structure of a story that works, a story that moves along briskly, has coherence and cohesion to its plot points, and basically looks all pretty and book-shaped when completed.

    At the end of the document, I have a handy PDF of the guide you can download — a perfect insert for your writing notebooks!

    So, let’s get to it! I bring you Plotting in A Pinch: A quick, handy guide to the main plot points you’re going to want to hit for a beautiful, exciting story that actually feels satisfyingly like a story! (A possibility that can seem far off and whimsical when you’re drowning in revisions and sixteen different versions of a single scene, believe me.)

    Read more…

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