Monday, November 25, 2013

Ten Writing Tighteners: Voice Not Character Appropriate

Photo by Anirudh Koul

From what I can tell, almost every single editor and/or lit. agent has said, or will say, they're looking for fresh or strong voices in books they choose to champion. Good voice will bridge the gap for the audience to think of characters as real people, at least during the time they're reading. I, like many others, connect to some characters on such a level they almost become as real to me as actual people. 

Voice helps readers connect to characters. 

Some voices stay with me long after the story-line has faded from memory. As discussed several times during the Ten Writing Tighteners Series, it's a writer's job to immerse the reader in the story using certain techniques and avoiding pitfalls. One snag, which pulls me out of a story faster than almost anything else, is if the voice doesn't stay true to the character the author has created.

sophisticated character will not only speak in a manner which portrays this, but they will also think in more refined terms. Country bumpkins will likely use expressions from the region they currently live or places they grew up. Sometimes country of origin can have a huge bearing on the voice of a character. The English employ distinctive colloquialisms and attitudes, where Americans have their own. Characters from California need to be portrayed slightly different than those from Texas.
Photo by perpetualplum

Vocabulary is important to refining a character's voice. People from the UK could use the bollocks where Americans may say nuts or balls. A girl from England would describe having sex as shagging, but one from America might say screwing. Or if the character is unique, they may have their own words. For instance, sometimes I use the word scrogging for sex. I've only ever known a couple of other people who used that word, so it might be useful to set a character apart as quirky.

World view has bearing on character's voices.

What makes up one's world view is determined by many factors. Family dynamics, the way they interact with peers, religion and/or political views, even their physical appearance can affect their world view. It's the author's job to develop their characters fully, even if they never reveal ninety percent of the information to the reader. It helps to have a clear mental picture as to what motivates characters to act in certain ways and think in a particular manner.

Children see and describe the world in completely different terms than adults.

My daughter Alex, 16 months
When the point-of-view character is a child, writers also have to take into account the child's family situation, their family's background, and the child's level of maturity. A four year old would describe things much differently than a twelve year old. Even the difference of a couple of years can be a huge leap in maturation and thought processes in children.

If a character is young, but unusually mature, their voice will be different than an average intelligence character of the same age. However, if the writer goes too far they can make it unbelievable. Take Bella from Twilight as an example. She's a teen, but early in the book Bella remarks that her mom said she was 35 when she was born. So the reader knows she's very mature and smart. When she uses big words and acts more adult-like than your average seventeen year old, it doesn't seem out of place. 

Imagine a teen-aged country boy, with only an eighth-grade education. He's portrayed as illiterate and not particularly bright. The last thing I'd expect him to do is use descriptions more fitting for a middle-aged woman working in the medical field. He wouldn't use a lot of medical jargon or even probably have a vocabulary that included a lot of big words. If an author writes their characters to speak and think as s/he would think and speak, their character's voices aren't going to ring true. 

Here's an example from my book, DEVASTATION. Gabe is a teen boy, who grew up in rural Texas. He works on a ranch. Here is a passage which I think shows his voice without using actual dialogue.
 Photo by Divine Harvester

Need rips through me with a force that might be scary if I didn't already know how connected my heart is to hers. Tied up with wax string, duct tape, and bailing wire. There's no way it'll ever come undone, and I don't want it to.

Gabe uses terms he's familiar with to describe his feelings. H doesn't use flowery words a girl might use, nor are they words of a poet--he's not poet after all. He's just a guy who works on a ranch.

Here's a scene from my newest book, SECRETS I KEEP. Lily is twenty-two and Sophie's eight. Lily's POV is actually in the book, but I've added Sophie's reaction here so you can see the difference in their voices. 

The fridge may as well be the barren tundra of Siberia and the cupboards are in the same sad shape. We’re down to our last three pieces of bread, and not much choice for what to put with them; mustard, crackers, or tartar sauce. Freaking great.

I draw a mustard smiley face on the slices and crumble crackers around the edges for hair. Maybe Sophie will think it’s fun and not realize this is a terrible meal with almost no nutritional value. Her little feet swing over the yellowed linoleum as she sits at our rickety table in the one unbroken chair.

Lily’s talking to herself again. I’m not sure what she’s saying, but her eyebrows are twitchy, which usually means she’s mad. So I sit in the good chair, because she doesn’t like it when I make the broken ones wobble, even though they’re way more fun to sit on. She sets the plate in front of me. Mustard smiley faces with crumbly hair. Ugh. Lily thinks I’m three. Oh well, at least she’s not mad at me. 

Photo by akeg

Rules are made to be broken.

As always, there are times when a writer will employ different tactics to shape a character. Perhaps the point-of-view character's words are a complete departure from his thought patterns. He might speak sweetly to the woman in the wheelchair, while in his mind he curses her for being in his way. The author can use this technique to show a two-faced character. 

Or perhaps an author is showing the prowess of a spy. He might think like a sophisticated businessman, but when he speaks at certain times during the story he uses simple language and perhaps sounds illiterate. This shows the character's ability to pull off working undercover.

My best friend is a kindergarten teacher. She's a different person with her class than she is when she's on vacation with just adults. If I were writing her as character, depending on thr scene she might think curse words and swear in her dialogue. Other times she'd use words and phrases that five-year-olds could relate to. So, it may seem as though the two things can't be intertwined in the same person, but they can. It all depends on how the character has been developed.

What things do you do to ensure your character's voice is being heard loud and clear? Share your techniques in the comments section. 

If you found this post helpful, please share it on Facebook and/or tweet about it on Twitter. I'm trying to grow my readership, so please become a member. There are three post left in the Ten Writing Tighteners SeriesWant to receive them directly to your inbox? Just follow by email. 

Ten Writing Tightener Series includes
1. Filters 10/14/13
2. Dead-weight Words 10/21/13
3. Echoes 10/28/13
4. Sentence Structure Stagnation 11/4/13
5. Redundancy 11/11/13
6. Telling vs. Showing 11/18/13
7. Voice Not Character Appropriate 11/25/13
8. Brevity Blunders 12/09/13
9. Head Hopping 12/16/13
10. Underestimating the Reader 12/23/13

Monday, November 18, 2013

Ten Writing Tighteners Series: Telling vs. Showing

Photo by teachingsagittarian

My first critique partner, the amazing Kelley Lynn, drilled me on "show, don't tell." Though I understood the peripheral of what this meant, there are nuances of the writing adage which took me a bit to fully understand.

The difference between telling and showing

Writing is generally about two things, information and/or story. This post is geared heavily toward fiction, though some of it might also apply to non-fiction. The first installment of the Ten Writing Tighteners Series was on Filters. In that post, I discussed how writers should help the audience experience what the characters see, hear, and feel—physically and emotionally. When done properly an author is showing.  

Telling gives information, showing brings the reader into the moment.

The driveway needs repairs.

The car bumped along the driveway, a jigsaw puzzle made from broken slabs of concrete with gravel filling the holes. 

In this showing example, the reader can actually envision what the driveway looks like, not just be told about it. Descriptions of the broken concrete and holes filed with gravel make it easy for the mind's eye to see.

My car went off the bridge.

 Photo by Steven Vance
When my foot slammed on the brake, a jolt shot up my leg to my hip. My eyes darted from the faded, yellow line to the rusted-out rail, too broken down to keep drivers safe. Scenery rushed past in a blur and the steering wheel bucked under my white knuckles as I tried to control the direction of the skid. Tearing metal pierced my eardrums, and then there was nothing but my heartbeat thumping away. The seat belt tightened against my shoulder and my ass separated from the seat. Oh, God, what do I do? One deep breath, and the air bag hit me, knocking my skull against the headrest. Intense pain radiated from my nose and my skin stings. Air is pushed from my lungs in a whoosh.

Showing allows the audience to experience breaching the guardrail, the pull of the seat belt tightening while rising from the seat, and the sting of the airbag deploying. The reader is even privy to the thoughts running through the character's mind in the quiet moment between leaving the bridge and impact with the water.

Telling is bland and clinical, showing is visceral and brings the reader into the actual moment being described. Granted, showing is more wordy, and sometimes that's not a good thing, but other times it's downright necessary. If the author wants the audience to fully enjoy the story he must bring the important elements of the story to life by showing.

Elements of showing

Strong Verbs

The English language is filled with synonyms. However, not all synonyms are created equal. Authors can use specific verbs to show what's going on in a scene. Using the right verb negates the need for adverbs, which a writer wants as few of as possible, and it helps keep the word count down.

Misha, my daughter Alex, & Ashlynn
She sat on the sofa.

She slumped on the sofa. (shows defeat or exhaustion)

She plopped on the sofa. ( could be carefree or playful)

She threw herself on the sofa. (maybe out of anger or frustration)

She fell on the sofa. (possibly because of being tired or disoriented)

By using specific verbs it's easy to get a clear image of the way she sat.


Details are key, ambiguity kills the prose—well not always, but more on that later.

Reading an entire novel filled with telling and little-to-no showing is akin to eating dried-out, unseasoned chicken. Dinner is served but not very appetizing. Showing is the juice and spice in the meat. It's what makes the mouth water as each morsel slides down the back of the throat to fill the empty spaces in our soul. 

 Photo by Cestomano
The storm was beautiful.

What makes it appealing? Could the reader's idea of beauty be different than the point of view character's? What if the POV character is a fiend who sees glory in destruction wrought by a hurricane? Or maybe a gray downpour is delightful to one person, but lightning bolts flashing across a canvas of tumultuous clouds does it for another. 

Showing lets the reader understand better.

Gnarled streaks of blinding light flashed in the distance, illuminating swirling clouds and transforming raindrops into diamonds.

Dialogue and action bring characters to life

Dialogue and actions are fantastic tools for allowing characters' attributesgood and bad— shine. Whether the character is a blockhead or a whizkid, shy or outgoing, classy or churlish, the dialogue and action surrounding it can show the reader, so the author doesn't have to tell them. Sprinkling these things in as the story is told is often the best.

Here's a conversation from my latest book, SECRETS I KEEP, between the main character, Lily, and her aunt, Cynthia: 


Cynthia slumps on the sofa, eyelids at half-mast. She looks so much like Mom it hurts.

“Cynthia, we need to talk.”

“Not now. I’m too tired.”

I straighten my back and force myself to stand up for Sophie’s sake. “Too bad.”

Cynthia scowls, sending me death glares.

Kelley's 'pirate' boots.
“You buy new boots instead of paying the bills? And then you decide to take off for days without telling me? Calling me? I thought you were dead in an alley somewhere.” Oh, God, I sound like my mother.

I pause and she jumps in. “Well that’s just tough shit. I’m a grown up, so what I do is my business. If I want new boots, I’ll buy new boots.”

“But you left Sophie by herself, with no food in the house and no electricity. What’s wrong with you?” Stopping, I take a deep breath. I can’t believe I’ve let her reduce me to yelling.

“Wah, wah wah. So what if you were a little hot for a day? She’s fine and you figured out how to solve the problem, so consider it a lesson. It’s good for you to know how to take care of yourself. Time to grow up, Lily.”

The dialogue and actions in the above passage reveal important details about both characters. Lily doesn't usually stand up for herself, but she does it for Sophie even though it makes her uncomfortable. Cynthia is irresponsible, the text doesn't tell the reader this in those words, but shows it when it's revealed that she spent money on shoes instead of paying debts. 

When telling should be used

Any author in the writing game for even a short length of time has heard the old "show, don't tell" adage. It's good advice, great even. However, like all areas of life, too much of a good thing is not always a good thing (I know, I know= #cliche'). Sometimes it is actually better to tell instead of show

Wait! Say what? But...but...but... YES, that's what I said. There are times it is best to tell the reader rather than show them what's going on.


 Photo by object...

Don't be a drag

There are some things the reader just doesn't want to experience in real time, it would be a real drag. A good rule of thumb I use for my own writing: when it's something I'd want to skip or skim in someone else's book, I do the same in my own. If the information is necessary for the reader, I skip it or gloss over it using telling, instead of boring my readers with too much showing.

Awesome book!
I'll use my good friend, Lizzy Charles' book Effortless With You as an examplewith her permission, of course. 

Lizzy's book features Lucy and Justin working together at their summer job, painting houses. How engaging would it be if Lizzy had shown every single aspect of her story, right down to watching the paint dry? Yeah, umno. But not to worry, Lizzy would never do such a thing, she's got a fabulous sense for when showing is a must and when it's just not the best idea.

Telling during intervals

Intervals are periods of time between events, according to the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. If there's a passage of time in the story, but nothing really relevant to moving the story forward is happening, it might be best to just tell that time has passed. 

Two months later, he...

After finishing the shopping, I...

Later, we...

Bridging scenes

Condensing the portions of the story that bridge scenes are often the perfect place to employ telling and save the showing for when it has merit.

 Photo by nickweinrauch
The following example is from the rough draft of my work-in-progress, D2: DESPERATION—I did say ROUGH DRAFT, so no judging. ;)

It’s hard to believe we’re, on the boat Nathaniel bought, with money no one knew he had. When I said we needed to go out to sea to get to the wormhole, he just nodded and the next day, boom, we had a boat. I asked where all the money came from and he just shrugged, saying, “I’ve got money I haven’t spent yet.”

The information needs to be told, but rather than go into a full blown back-flash, unnecessary to move the story forward, I spent only three sentences on it, rather than three paragraphs or three pages.

Showing weaves together the characters' experiences for the reader. Surroundings combined with emotions, how the characters deals with those emotions, and the action played out before the audience's eyes like a movie. Telling, on the other hand, gives important information, but not to the detail that will slow the pace of the story or bore the reader. 

I've barely scratched the surface on telling vs. showing. How do you balance your telling and showing? Do you have certain key words or phrases you search on to check for too much telling? Share with other authors in the comments section below. Here are some more in-depth articles, they're worth the time to check out.

This Itch of Writing Showing and Telling: the basics
Colorado Spring Fiction Writers Group Creative Writing 101: Show vs. Tell
Read, Write, and Edit Show vs. TellMy Take

If you found this post helpful, please share it on Facebook and/or tweet about it on Twitter. I'm trying to grow my readership, so please become a member. There are four post left in the Ten Writing Tighteners Series. Want to receive them directly to your inbox? Just follow by email. 

Ten Writing Tightener Series will include
1. Filters 10/14/13
2. Dead-weight Words 10/21/13
3. Echoes 10/28/13
4. Sentence Structure Stagnation 11/4/13
5. Redundancy 11/11/13
6. Telling vs. Showing 11/18/13
7. Voice Not Character Appropriate 11/25/13
8. Brevity Blunders 12/09/13
9. Head Hopping 12/16/13
10. Underestimating the Reader 12/23/13

Monday, November 11, 2013

Ten Writing Tighteners Series: Redundancy

Photo by teddy-rised

Writers can use words to pave the way to a good story or lay a foundation of information. Conversely, they can inadvertently clutter the page and impede the reader.

Imagine a cobblestone path. Each stone represents a word. Every redundant term's stone is stacked atop the one which implies or mirrors its meaning. Readers will stumble over those stacks of blocks, complicating their journey to a good story or understanding.                          
Photo by teddy-rised
These are some I've come across while critiquing manuscripts, my own and others'. I'm certain there are tons of others I've missed. If you know of some, please add them in the comments section below.

1. set implies down
Jane set the obese rabbit down into the magician's hat.
Jane set the obese rabbit into the magician's hat. 

2. stand implies up
I stand up in front of the monster.
I stand in front of the monster.
--The only time I'd give a directional word with stand is if, in a military sense, someone gives an order to 'stand down'.

Photo by lgh75
3. ran implies quickly
She ran quickly away from the unicorn.
She ran away from the unicorn. 
--Running in general gives the automatic impression that it's done quickly, if it is in slow motion, then it's worth mentioning how it's done. Honestly, according to most writing experts, at least all that I've come across, when the appropriate verb has been chosen the need for an adverb is negated.
(also see #17)

4. from/away
Using the previous sentence:
She ran away from the unicorn.
She ran from the unicorn. 

5. a/single
A single bead of sweat fell off the end of his nose.
A bead of sweat fell off the end of his nose.

6. angular/sharp
His sharp, angular jawline was sprinkled with whiskers.
His angular jawline was sprinkled with whiskers.

7. nod/consent
I motion for them to get started, and they nod their consent.
I motion for them to get started, and they nod.

8. stride/briskly
This one is pretty much the same thing as #3.
He strides briskly across the marbled foyer.
He strides across the marbled foyer.

9. plural words  (i.e. men) preceded by some
Some men flew in on winged horses.
Celina Bobcats
Men flew in on winged horses.

10. huddle/together
The team will huddle together before the break.
The team will huddle before the break.

11. Any question/wonder 
Why would he do that? I wondered.
Why would he do that? 

12. a/n [adjective] look implies on [pronoun] face
She wore a pensive look on her face.
She wore a pensive look.

13. lay or lie/down
I lay down on the bed.
I lay on the bed.
--This is similar to #2. Unless one is referring to being ill and laid up, it will be assumed if someone lay somewhere, they are laying down. You could argue that someone could 'lie back' and this would be true. The author needs to decide what is needed for the reader to understand the passage, at the same time remembering the 'never say in three words what you can say in two' rule of thumb.

14. any word meaning to physically cross a space implies over 
I ran over to the edge of the cliff.
ran to the edge of the cliff.

15. clearly/obvious 
He clearly loved her, it was obvious.
He clearly loved her.

16. to talk/to discuss 
There was so much to talk about, to discuss.
There was so much to talk about.

My daughter, Alex, and Troy, Prom 2013
17. [verb]/the adverb attached 
He smiled warmly into her eyes.
He smiled into her eyes.
--Unless he's smiling coldly or calculatingly, or some other non-normal way, the reader assumes it's a warm smile.

18. When positions of characters are already plain from the surrounding text it alludes to the direction of their actions
--If she is on a bed and he is standing next to the bed, then in the below sentence down is not necessary.
He looked down at her.
He looked at her.

19. Actions of body parts, which have to happen in a particular space or place, there's no need to spell out the place or space
He waved his hands in the air like a madman.
He waved his hands like a madman.
--If he's waiving his hands, they're gonna be in the air unless he's dunked them into a vat of oil or something else, then you'd want to explain where he waved them.

20. The SHOWING of an action or emotion infers the TELLING about the action or emotion.
He gritted his teeth and the vein at his temple pulsed. He was angry.
He gritted his teeth and the vein at his temple pulsed. 
--The SHOWING portion tells the reader he was angry. There's no need to spell out the emotion. Strong writing shows the emotion usually without needing to name the emotion.
My daughter, Alex, & her friend Haley, Prom 2013

21. reached/out
She reached out to touch my face.
She touched my face.
--Unless they are reaching INTO something, then it might be necessary to spell it out, maybe, depending on how it's done.)

21.1. A character [or insert noun here] touches something alludes to reached
His hand reached out to cup her cheek.
He cupped her cheek.
-If his hand cups her cheek, he must have reached out, so it's redundant to explain the mechanics.

22. Dialogue plainly spoken by a particular character implies the s/he asked/said following or preceding it.
--If there are only two characters in the scene, let's use Jane and John for the example, and one of them uses the other's name in the dialogue, then saying s/he said/asked is redundant, because the reader already knows who's speaking.
John, you can't really believe that," she said. OR He asks, "What would you have me do, Jane?"
John, you can't really believe that."  OR  "What would you have me do, Jane?"

23. Stacked descriptions
It was pitch black, no light came through the windows.
No light came through the windows.
- If it's pitch black, it's understood no light is coming from anywhere, right?

Alex, Sr. Casual Photo 2013
24. a position described infers position
She was in a standing position.
She was standing.
--If she's standing, the reader knows that's the position she's in.

25. Action alludes to the intent 
He pulled open the door to walk inside.
He pulled open the door.
--Unless he's pulling open a door for some other reason, i.e. to let out poisonous gas, or show someone that they should get the hell out, it's not necessary to tell the reader their purpose for their action.

26. Any time 'look' is followed by a directional word (i.e. up, down, over, across), and then trailed by an obvious place they are looking, the direction is implied.
I looked up at the sky.
I looked at the sky.
Obviously, the sky is up, so the up can easily be left out and the reader would still completely understand the direction the character is looking.

If you've found this post helpful, or if you think it will be helpful to others, please tweet about or or share on Facebook. Also, I'm working on growing my readership. I invite you to join this site. There are five post to come in the Ten Writing Tighteners Series. You can have them delivered right to your inbox by signing up for emails from this blog.

Ten Writing Tightener Series will include
1. Filters 10/14/13
2. Dead-weight Words 10/21/13
3. Echoes 10/28/13
4. Sentence Structure Stagnation 11/4/13
5. Redundancy 11/11/13
6. Telling vs. Showing 11/18/13
7. Voice Not Character Appropriate 11/25/13
8. Brevity Blunders 12/09/13
9. Head Hopping 12/16/13
10. Underestimating the Reader 12/23/13

Monday, November 4, 2013

Ten Writing Tighteners: Sentence Structure Stagnation

Photo by Leonard John Matthews

The air is warm—sweltering even, but it doesn't stop students from slogging to their first day of classes. Sliding into their seats, booting laptops, eyeing the blond fresh-meat two rows ahead, they wait for the new professor to enter. No one's had this guy before and everyone hopes he's interesting and not some boring-ass monotone-monologuer. 

Authors can have the same effect on readers as speakers have on audiences when they don't grab their attention and keep things moving. No one wants to spend months on a manuscript only to have readers lay it down after three pages.

There are butt-loads of ways to keep readers enthralled. For this particular post we're only discussing sentence structure variation. I won't go into subjects, predicates, clauses, or any other mind-numbing parts of speech I fail to recall at this moment. Everyone has suffered enough English lessons.

The below example is from my newest work in progress and NaNoWriMo effort for 2013, WANDERLUST.


I shawshanked this bitch days ago. I dug through the sheetrock. I dumped the crusted debris in small amounts down any available toilet. I sprinkled some along the edges of the flower beds. I stirred it in with the dirt and mulch at the base of the bushes. I just need to get the rest of the way through the wall. It’s almost been too easy.

They really shouldn’t allow unsupervised television viewing. They should censor the programming first. It didn’t take two days for me to devise an escape plan after The Shawshank Redemption aired. It only took four days to carry it out. It doesn’t hurt that I'm incarcerated—all right, not exactly incarcerated, they prefer a lighter term—checked-in to a minimum security facility. It doesn't even require me to cross any razor wire. I just have to hop a fence and call it done.


Photo by You As A Machine
I shawshanked this bitch days ago, digging through the sheetrock and dumping the crusted debris in small amounts down any available toilet. Plus, I sprinkled some along the edges of the flower beds, stirring it in with the dirt and mulch at the base of the bushes. All I have to do is get the rest of the way through the wall. It’s been almost too easy.

They really shouldn’t allow unsupervised television viewing, without first censoring the programming. After The Shawshank Redemption aired, it didn’t take two days for me to devise an escape plan. It only took four days to carry out. Being incarcerated—all right, not exactly incarcerated, they prefer a lighter term—checked-in to a minimum security facility doesn’t hurt. I don’t even have to cross any razor wire, just hop a fence and call it done.

Photo by Horia Varlan
This is just a two paragraph example. If it were a book filled with page after page of the same sentence structure over and overwell, imagine how brain-blurring that would get. When the majority of sentences in a text follow the same patterns it can become monotonous.

Too many simple sentences strung together can feel choppy. Conversely, over use of long and intricate sentence structure will slow pacing. By varying sentence length and construction within paragraphs, writers create rhythm and flow. Use longer sentences to convey more information and shorter ones to add punch to critical points.

I'm no English majorfar from it, but I do know when I'm not enjoying a read. If my mind wanders away and I can't seem to get immersed into the story, I feel somewhat cheated and a whole lot disappointed. No author wants to write that book.

What are your tricks to keep sentence structure stagnation at bay? Share in the comments section below.

For more in-depth information on this topic:

7 Solutions for Repetitive Sentence Structure

Next week, topic #5 of the Ten Writing Tighteners Series: Redundancy. Don't miss it. Also, if you haven't read them, check out the previous post for this series, Filters, Dead-weight words, and Echoes.

Ten Writing Tightener Series includes:

1. Filters 10/14/13
2. Dead-weight Words 10/21/13
3. Echoes 10/28/13
4. Sentence Structure Stagnation 11/4/13
5. Redundancy 11/11/13
6. Telling vs. Showing 11/18/13
7. Voice Not Character Appropriate 11/25/13
8. Brevity Blunders 12/09/13
9. Head Hopping 12/16/13
10. Underestimating the Reader 12/23/13

If you found this post helpful, please share it on Facebook or tweet about it on Twitter. Also, if you are interested in the rest of the Ten Writing Tighteners Series, don't forget to FOLLOW BY EMAIL (above and right) to have posts sent directly to your inbox. I also invite you to become a member of this blog. Thank you for visiting!