I received word that Awake Our Hearts selected a poem I wrote for publication in the inaugural edition of their online publication. It is “for the female voice exploring faith and life in full.” I titled the poem “A Garment of Sadness.” You can read it here… https://awakeourhearts.wordpress.com/writing/
How many of us have heard these words?
“Don’t worry about making it flawless. Get words on the paper. You can come back and fix it later.”
This is helpful if you’re stuck, if you can’t think of the perfect way to say what’s on your mind. But it often leaves us a page bloated with extra words. And those words slow our readers down.
So, yes, go ahead and do a brain dump. Get everything on the page. But be prepared for some serious chopping when you return the next day wearing your editor’s hat.
There are two places you can tighten your writing. One is the use of dialogue tags. The other is by eliminating unnecessary, filler words.
What is a dialogue tag?
This is how we attribute our conversation in our story. It’s the “she said” and “he asked” bits that follow the dialogue. Sometimes dialogue tags are necessary. If you have several people talking at once, your reader needs a tag to know who said what. But most of the time, our conversations are taking place between two people. If your writing is clear, your reader will understand which character is saying the words. If you add “he said” after each utterance, it bogs your reader down.
Instead, replace the dialogue tags with action beats. The action beat describes what your character does while he is speaking. The action beat adds flavor and depth to the scene, without slowing the reader with unnecessary words. Compare these examples.
“Hey, Manny,” called Jonathan, riding a few paces behind. “You think we will be home in two weeks? I’m ready for a bed and a pillow made of feathers instead of a saddle.”
“Hard to say,” replied Manny. He smiled to himself, knowing Jonathan was fretting about a girl.
Jonathan calls. Manny replies. But won’t your reader get that, without being told? Compare to this, where I replaced my dialogue tags with action beats.
“Hey, Manny.” Jonathan rode his horse a few paces behind. “How much longer ’til we’re home? Two weeks? I’m ready for a bed. And a pillow made of feathers. Not a saddle.”
“Hard to say.” Manny glanced over his shoulder. “It’s a bed you’re pining for? I’d be willing to bet money it’s something else. Like, I don’t know… a girl?”
“A girl?” A derisive snort accompanied Jonathan’s reply. “No, I’m just tired of eating your cooking.”
Let’s try another one. See what you think.
Jonathan narrowed his eyes at his friend then grinned, waggling his eyebrows. “Maybe she likes men who are earthy,” he said, waving his hand in front of himself as if he were showcasing a valuable treasure.
“Maybe she likes men who don’t smell,” Manny replied.
OK. Jonathan said. Manny replied. Totally unnecessary words. My readers know that from the context of the scene. What if I tighten the writing by removing the dialogue tags?
Jonathan narrowed his eyes at the insult. He grinned, waggling his eyebrows. “Maybe she likes men who are earthy.” He waved his hand in front of himself as if he were showcasing a valuable treasure.
“Maybe she likes men who don’t smell.” Manny’s voice was dry.
With Jonathan’s conversation, removing the dialogue tag tightened the writing. With Manny’s, using the action beat added some flavor to the scene. We hear his sarcasm, start understanding the camaraderie between the two friends.
What about the filler words?
Fillers are words we
probably say a lot while we talk but don’t really need when we write. These are words like: just, very, really, a lot, kind of, a little, sort of, maybe. Why force your reader to slog through these words like wading through little puddles of quicksand?
Listen to Grady talk to Abby. He has fillers in there.
“I guess I need to hunt,” Grady answered. “Why don’t I go while you and Sarah get some breakfast for the Littles? Maybe by the time everyone has eaten, I’ll be back. Don’t wait for me if you’re ready to pull out.”
If we eliminate the unnecessary words, we get this:
“I need to hunt. Why don’t I go while you and Sarah get breakfast for the Littles? By the time everyone eats, I should be back. Don’t wait for me if you’re ready to pull out.”
They make rules in writing so we can break them, right? And these are no exception. Your character’s “voice” may need those words. If the dialogue sounds more genuine using fillers, keep them. But don’t leave them in the rest of the novel. It’s just a little bit annoying to have to read through those little extras. Really.
What editing nightmare do you routinely create for yourself? Let’s compare. We can make a list of things to avoid.
People believe different things about God.
Is God a kind, benevolent, grandfatherly figure who looks after us, extending a kind but firm, guiding hand? Or is God angry, mean, and vengeful, waiting to extract payment from humankind for their sins?
Where you stand on this depends on which religion you follow, and your raising. And believers in both camps find verses in the Bible to support their points of view.
Many people believe it is wrong—a sin—to doubt God or to be angry with Him. Others point to Jesus’ anger in the temple, and his questioning in the Garden of Gethsemane to show He felt these emotions. Therefore, we can, too.
Does God ever leave us alone? I’d love to discuss with you.
Abby, my principal character in PROTECTED, is angry with God. She doesn’t understand why she is in the situation she is in, and she finds it hard to trust God or to pray. She feels abandoned by God. She spends the rest of the story trying to resolve this within herself.
Here is how her story begins:
Abigail Walker stood beside the fresh grave. Noonday sun beat down on the prairie. The wind blew in small, teasing bursts, cooling the sweat on her brow. Trees lined the creek where the kids gathered, the sunlight slipping between the tossing leaves in dappled golden flashes. A nearby mockingbird sang sweetly, running through its joyful repertoire in direct contrast to the grief swamping the girl. Five children formed a semi-circle behind her, clasping their hands together in prayer, some holding back tears. Abby dropped a limp handful of wildflowers onto the mound of loamy black soil. Her parents and her younger brother were dead. It stunned her. She could hardly breathe. She glanced down at the Bible in her hand.
Quoting scripture didn’t sit well with her at the moment. Were she and God even on the same side anymore? Grady, Frank, and Nathan stood across from her. The boys propped their tired arms on the shovels they’d used. With any luck, it was the last grave they would have to dig. No one else exhibited any symptoms. Perhaps the cholera had run its course.
Grady wiped his face, his shoulders drooping with weariness and sadness. “Well… I guess we need to make a plan.”
A surge of anger flooded Abby so fiercely, it left her trembling. Her heart pounded from the effort of holding back the torrent of words piling up behind her teeth. She clamped her jaw shut, afraid of what would spill out of her if she allowed a crack in the dam.
“Abby, what do you—”
She couldn’t face them, couldn’t solve another problem, couldn’t…. The girl tossed the book on the grave, turned on her heel, and walked away. One of the little girls behind her gasped. Another began crying softly, her sobs muffled against someone’s chest. She didn’t care.
Whew. Abby is hurting and scared. She feels like God deserted her. I want to reach into the book and hug her, to assure her things will be okay.
Do you believe God distances Himself from us? Let’s discuss.
Watching the prostate exam clip from “Father of the Bride II” makes me laugh. Every. Single. Time. Watching pretty much anything with Steve Martin makes me laugh. But I digress.
What does Steve Martin have to do with a blog post about writing? It’s all about point of view (POV).
POV issues plague almost every new writer. We probably have never noticed POV because the books we read have been so skillfully done, we don’t pick up on it. What does POV even mean?
From literaryterms.net: Point of view (POV) is what the character or narrator telling the story can see (his or her perspective). The author chooses “who” is to tell the story by determining the point of view. So how does it become an issue for new writers?
When we write with several POVs, our readers never get the chance to know our characters deeply. Putting the inner monologues of every character in our novel into the page creates what we call “head-hopping.” We get a quick glimpse into Character A, then the reader is yanked from her head and plopped down into Character B’s mind. Rinse and repeat. By the time our reader gets into Character G’s head, we have exposed them to the superficial knowledge of so many characters, they never get to know them. And that means our readers never learn to care about our characters.
And that’s not a good thing.
I learned a cool POV technique from Rachael, a member of my critique group. A speaker at a conference she attended taught them to imagine looking through a pair of binoculars. The speaker provided “binoculars” made of 3-inch long PVC pipes she glued together. She asked everyone to look through their binoculars. “If you can SEE it, you can WRITE it. If you can’t see it, neither can your character. “
That has helped me so many times. I’ve sat in front of my computer with my fists curled into tubes held up against my eyes, imagining what I can see.
If your main character (MC) is in front and the action is behind him, he can’t see it. You can’t write about it.
If your MC is blushing, she can’t see her own face. You can’t describe it as a color.
If your MC is with people in the scene, and the others have feelings, your MC won’t know them. You can’t write about them.
However, your MC can hear action. You can write about that.
Your MC can feel the heat of a blush creeping up her neck or turning her ears hot. You can write about that.
Your other characters can visibly show their feelings with gestures, sighs, or glances. You can write about that.
Sometimes I get so drawn into what I’m writing, I forget to be on the lookout for POV issues. Following is an example where my crit group busted me.
“Before his fist could connect with Orin’s face, pain exploded on the side of his head. The world went black. His body slumped bonelessly onto Orin’s chest.”
Manny, my MC, is in a fight with Orin. He gets conked on the head by Orin’s friend, which causes him to lose consciousness. I loved the visual of Manny collapsing onto Orin’s chest. One small problem—Manny is now unconscious. He can’t know what happens next. Simple fix—cut that sentence and add it to the next paragraph which is told from Orin’s POV.
“Before his fist could connect with Orin’s face, pain exploded on the side of his head. The world went black.
Orin grunted when Manny slumped bonelessly onto his chest. He shoved the limp body away with a curse.”
It isn’t always that easy to fix a POV issue. Sometimes we have to create an entirely new scene, or cut something we really liked. The extra effort is worth it, though. When we write in our MC’s deep POV, we allow our readers to get to know them. As the author, we invite our readers into their minds, their hearts, their worlds. We invite them care.
An editor recommended these two books to me. I found them both to be helpful.
Deep Point of View, by Marcy Kennedy, and Writing Deep Viewpoint, by Kathy Tyers
Good luck with your POV issues. If you have examples to share that could help other writers, post your before and after in the comments. Let’s continue to learn and grow together.
All wonderful stories have the same basic elements, and one is the “inciting event.” This is the plot twist where things must change for the character. Once it happens, there is no going back. In a romance novel, one inciting event is The Fight. The budding lovers experience a conflict that drives them apart. They spend the rest of the story finding their way back to love. Cue the hearts and music as we all sigh with pleasure and enjoy the happily-ever-after ending.
Readers identify with this inciting event because all of us who have been in love have endured one in real life. Mine started with a summer romance before my senior year of high school. I worked as a lifeguard, and the teen I believed to be my future love-of-my-life appeared at the pool one afternoon with his friends. He caught my eye, and I caught his. The next few months were romantic bliss as we learned about each other through conversations, hanging over a big yellow float in the pool, toes bumping into each other in the water underneath. The inciting event? My summer love crashed down around my feet as the beginning of school neared, and he confessed he had a girlfriend who went to my school. Anguish! Tears! Heartache! The next month was misery as I put the pieces of my poor broken heart together.
The “other woman” didn’t care for the fact her boyfriend spent the summer courting someone else, so she released him from his contract. As a free agent, he picked up where he left off with me. He had badly bruised my feelings, but my traitorous heart had no shame. When he came through the drive-thru at the small burger joint where I worked, a hard, excited thump in my chest told me I would eventually forgive him and take him back. And so began the dance of forgiveness and reunion.
We’ve all been there. Every love adventure has bumps. Including Abby and Manny’s. Here is an excerpt from PROTECTED, my novel. We pick up with the two lovers a few weeks after their own inciting event. They are feeling their way through the hurt feelings, but missing each other’s company. Jump into a Texas summer in 1855. I hope you enjoy it.
One day after lunch, Yaideli sent her to the barn for the mop. Her heart bumped high in her throat when she walked around the corner for water and stumbled upon Manny working. A deerskin stretched out on the ground before him. A small wooden bucket filled with liquid sat by the skin.
“What’re you doing?” Her nonchalant voice disguised her racing pulse.
“I’m tanning this hide for leather.” His normal ponytail caught his hair back, and the same strand that would never stay put blew across his face.
Abby longed to reach over and tuck it behind his ear. She stuck her hands into her pockets instead.
“Want to help?” His eyes challenged her.
The look he gave her said more than his words. She was tempted to walk away. He clearly had a hidden agenda. However, this was something else she needed to learn. They used leather for so many things on the farm. Rope, bindings, hinges, boots, clothes. She came closer.
“Sure.” She rose to the unspoken dare. “What do you want me to do?”
Manny gestured at the small bucket. “Mix this together. I was about to do it, but you can instead while I get this skin pegged to the ground.”
Abby peered into the bucket. A lump of pinkish-gray material sat in the water. She cut her eyes sideways at Manny. “What is this?” Her voice was guarded.
“It’s just animal fat. I’ll rub it into the skin to prevent it from drying and cracking. Mix it together with your fingers while I hammer these pegs in.”
Abby knelt and gingerly stuck her hands into the warm water. The lump of matter was gelatinous. It looked like the fatty strips on bacon. Sort of. She squished the material through her fingers, stirring and mashing it into smaller and smaller bits. An unpleasant odor wafted up. It didn’t smell like bacon.
“What is this?” Her nostrils flared, mouth pulling down in a grimace. The water turned a milky color.
“Brains.” His expressionless face matched his bland tone.
Abby flicked her hands away from her, casting the clinging bits from her fingers. “Ewww!” Disgust flashed across her face. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
Manny’s mouth pressed into a straight line. She felt him suppressing his laugh.
“Quit being such a baby, Abby-girl. What did you think it was?”
Abby’s hackles flared at the hated nickname, but she hid her annoyance. If he knew it bothered her, he would only say it more.
“I thought you were using bacon or something.”
“What difference does it make what it is? It’s still a body part from a dead animal, either way. Brains are greasy—lot of fat in them, as you’ve probably noticed.”
“Where did you get it?” Abby was reluctant to put her slippery hands back into the water.
“From the deer. Every animal has the right-sized brain to tan its skin. Keep mixing it. All the stringy parts need to break down. Are you afraid?” His voice mocked her hesitation.
Abby gritted her teeth and took a deep breath. Trying to keep her mouth from pulling down at the corners, she plunged her hands in the bucket and continued mashing and mixing the smelly concoction. Manny chuckled as he went back to pegging the hide.
Once Manny had the hide stretched out, he reached for the bucket. “That’s good enough. Now, help me splash it onto the skin and start rubbing it in.”
He cupped a large brown hand and scooped some of the watery mixture, splashing it into the center of the deer hide. Swallowing hard, Abby knelt at the opposite end and copied his motions. The grease collected in white globs between her fingers and underneath her nails. She breathed with her mouth closed. The smell was potent enough she could almost taste it. She didn’t want brain-infested air in her mouth.
Together, they knelt on the ground, splashing and rubbing the brain mixture. Abby replicated the movements Manny made as he rubbed. They worked silently, the sounds of the barnyard keeping them company. Chickens clucked just around the corner, punctuated now and then by a rooster crowing. The love songs of crickets pulsed rhythmically from the shadows. The wind rustled the leaves of a nearby cottonwood, sounding like a gentle rain falling.
I wish! Abby thought discontentedly. The heat. . .it never went away.
A buzzing sound caught her attention. She glanced up, then ducked her head away from a yellow jacket drawn by the smell of the brains.
“Shoo!” She leaned out of its way. It buzzed and bobbed over toward Manny, its long legs dangling ridiculously from its yellow-and-black-striped body.
Manny concentrated on spreading the brains to the edge of the skin and didn’t notice the insect until it flew near his face. With a muffled exclamation, he jerked backwards so suddenly he lost his balance and tipped over onto his bottom.
“Tarnation!” He scrambled up and took several steps back. Abby looked on, astonished.
“Don’t tell me you’re afraid of a yellow jacket!”
Manny avoided making eye contact. “I’m not afraid. I just—” Whatever he planned to say next was cut off abruptly as he danced a few quick steps to the left, avoiding the flying critter’s arbitrary flight plan.
Abby laughed delightedly. “You were saying?” She sat back on her heels, watching him with amusement.
Manny scowled. “I just don’t like them, O.K.?” He reached for the mop she carried from the barn, brandishing it like a baseball bat to swat the insect.
“Don’t make it mad!” She jumped to her feet and snatched the mop away. “Just ignore it. Maybe yellow jackets like the smell of brains.”
The insect alighted on an edge of the skin, and Manny positioned himself as far away from it as he could. She laughed again, enjoying the fact she had something to hold over him, something she could tease him with as unmercifully as he teased her with the stupid Abby-girl nickname. He shot her a dark look.
“Don’t worry.” Abby spoke in a sing-song voice. “I’ll protect you.”
They finished rubbing the mixture into the deerskin, all the while in the company of the lurking yellow jacket, picking its way delicately around the edges.
Finally, Manny stood. “I’m gonna roll the hide up so the oils can soak in for a day.” He eyed the yellow jacket with annoyance. “Don’t you have anywhere else to be?”
Abby gently shooed the insect off of the deerskin with a wave from her foot. It buzzed away, then landed again on the edge of the bucket. Long, segmented legs tiptoed over the edge, and the insect disappeared inside.
She cocked a challenging eyebrow at Manny, then helped him fold the skin on itself. He finished by folding it in fourths.
“I’ll set this in the barn until tomorrow.” He walked away without a backward glance.
Abby laughed again, not caring if he heard her, and went to wash the disgusting smell from her hands. She left the bucket where it sat, guarded by the yellow jacket. Let Manny figure out how to rid it of the unwanted guest.
It is so easy to read a book. Therefore, it must be easy to write one, correct?
Sigh. If only that were true. If I give one piece of advice to a beginning writer, it would be this: join a critique group.
My critique group has taught me so much. I wrote an enjoyable story, and it had positive points. But, whooee, was it rough around the edges! The members of my crit group started kindly, pointing out the baby problems. So I’ll start with that too.
First problem to look for–filler words. The most common filler word is “that.” Sometimes we need the word. Take this sentence, for example:
“It was that dog!” She pointed at the animal, crouching in the shadows.
In this example, removing the word “that” would not make sense. “It was dog!” Obviously, we need to keep this one.
But in the following sentence, we can delete it with no one being the wiser. “She clung desperately to the illusion that she was in control.” If we delete this instance of the filler word, the sentence still reads correctly. “She clung desperately to the illusion she was in control.”
See? We don’t need it. The only purpose filler words serve is to slow your reader.
Other fillers: just, only, really. Compare “I’m just so sad,” to “I’m so sad.” The meaning is the same. Delete!
Look for: almost, slightly, seemed, perhaps, maybe, simply, absolutely, basically, actually, sort of, kind of, a little, and very. I’ve caught myself multiple times writing sentences with the words “little bit.” For example: “They did know a little bit about what needed to be done.” Cut, cut, cut. The new sentence will get the job done. We talk this way, so it’s easy to write this way. Train your eye to catch them when they pop up.
It’s super easy to fix this problem if you have words on the paper already. (Oops! I just used one myself. Should I leave it?) Open your document in whatever word processing program you have and use the “find” command. In Word, you access it with Ctrl-F. (By the way, do NOT do a “find and delete!” Read each instance.) Decide whether you need the word, or if you can axe it. Once these filler words disappear, your writing is tighter and easier to read.
Here is a link to a document I found on Google: https://www.grammarcheck.net/filler-words/
Go back to your manuscript and tighten your words. Your readers will thank you.
“She reads books as one would breathe air; to fill up and live.” Annie Dillard
This is truth. Who’s with me? When I hear someone say they don’t like to read, it leaves me speechless. How is that even possible?
I read an infographic years ago detailing how little Americans read once they leave school. It astonished and saddened me. I was teaching geometry at my local high school, and I did an experiment with my 10th-grade students. Each of them got a survey asking them to rank their feelings about reading from 1 to 5. Don’t you agree— EVERYONE would enjoy reading if they could find the perfect book, the one written just for them? The amount of students who ranked themselves as 1 to 3 was depressing.
This could not stand! They just had not read the right book yet. Survey number two asked them to tell me the last thing they’d read for pleasure and their favorite book and/or author. If they couldn’t answer that question, they listed their three favorite movies.
If they ranked their reading enjoyment at a 4 or 5, they would likely read anything, so I used their favorites and made suggestions I thought they’d enjoy. Got them to branch out. Try science fiction – here is a copy of Dune. Try non-fiction – read The Perfect Storm. How about a classic – here is Pride and Prejudice.
With the 3s and below, they told me about their movie list. We determined the common thread. Why did they like the movies? You would’ve been surprised by their answers, too. One boy loved “Boyz In the Hood” for its theme of friendship and loyalty. Another chose Superman because he cared for underdogs. The hidden depths in their answers would’ve shocked you.
Thus the Soulmate Book project was born. Shelves and shelves of books lined the walls in my home, relegated to gathering dust; meanwhile, my TBR pile grew on the windowsills in my bedroom. It was time to purge—out with the old, give them as gifts to my students. The goal was to change the minds of those 1s, 2s, and 3s.
Do you believe we can learn new things, regardless of age? The heretofore untapped world of Young Adult fiction opened up. My reluctant readers needed books to speak to their quiet souls. Hunger Games, Maze Runner, Ranger’s Apprentice—I needed to read them in order to recommend them. I loved them. Have you tried YA? It may surprise you!
Each of my 170+ students received the gift of a personally curated book. Wouldn’t you LOVE to sit and talk books with potentially eager readers? Wouldn’t you enjoy thinking about their likes and choosing from your favorites to share with them? Each one had a note in the front cover, explaining why he/she might enjoy reading it. They were stacked all over my classroom. The kids grew curious, some excited. They asked me daily what I was doing with all the books. “You’ll see.” They saw their survey answers stuck inside the cover like a bookmark. At the beginning of class, someone would ask, “When can I have mine?!” It was as exciting for me as it was for them.
Each was wrapped to reflect the gift it was. On the last day before final exams began, the books were handed out. The kids were asked to give them a chance, to read without interruption for at least this one class period. If they didn’t want to finish them, they could leave their books behind. If they were interested, they could take them home and finish reading over the summer. So they read. And they took the books with them!
People who love to read want others to love to read. People who like books want to talk about books, discuss the magic inside the pages, share what they’ve enjoyed with others. My teacher friends began saving popular titles for me, helped me wrap them, helped me decide what would be a good match. It was a project of love and generosity.
Teaching geometry is no longer my job, but I still want to share my love of reading. The difference is now you can share my own books. I write inspirational romance. Real people with real faith struggles. Christians are not perfect. And while it is inspiring to read about Christian characters who always know the right thing to say, who always turn first to God when they have problems, who have wonderful, thoughtful prayers, it is also, sometimes discouraging. At least, it is for me. Because I sometimes say the exact wrong thing. I often wallow in my own problems for far too long before finally turning to God for guidance and help. At times, my prayers are a curse and a fist shaken toward Heaven.
So I write about people like me. We struggle. We do better on some days than on others. But we always seem to find our way back to the God who loves us and waits patiently for us.
Follow the birth of these stories. Get to know the characters. Read the deleted scenes. Learn the unique things I discover as I research for the books. See if you relate to anything in their stories. And share this love with me.
Welcome to my very first blog post ever! I am excited to start this journey.
I have learned so much since September 2019, which is when I attended my first writer’s conference. I started this new chapter of my life with little regard for how green I was. Almost immediately, I learned how many things I had done wrong. Once I learned those little nuggets of wisdom, I wanted to share them with other budding authors. (I’ve spent the past 20 years being a math teacher, and I find it difficult to leave that teacher mentality behind.)
So if you’re interested in writing and publishing, go to my contact page and subscribe to my blog. Come alongside me as I travel this unfamiliar—and exciting—road. I am happy to share what I learn along the way, and also eager to find out what you learn on your own adventure.