Updates about my book, THE NAMELESS QUEEN, and a funny story about revision and creative control. I’m still in the middle of line edits as I post this, so the adventure continues!
Updates about my book, THE NAMELESS QUEEN, and a funny story about revision and creative control. I’m still in the middle of line edits as I post this, so the adventure continues!
Show Don’t Tell! That means I’m going to provide a bad writing example and show you how to fix it! (Otherwise known as: an absurd amount of notes on an absurdly short paragraph.) This time, let’s talk dialogue rules, context, and continuity errors.
THE BEFORE PARAGRAPH
“Don’t.” I put my hand on the barrel of the gun and she hesitates.(1)(2) Her hand shakes. “Why?” (3)
I close my eyes. “I’m just asking you to wait.” I stare at the door behind her, waiting and hoping and praying for it to open and for the hero to walk in.(4)(5) She glances between me and the gun in her hands.(6)
The door doesn’t open. It doesn’t even twitch.(7)
Her finger twitches(8) on the trigger, and I reach out and grab the barrel to twist it away.(9)
1: There’s a comma needed here just before “and she hesitates.” Quick summary on why: If there’s a conjunction “and, or, but,” etc., look at the part of the sentence before and after it. If both are independent sentences, a comma is required. This is called having an independent clause (whole sentence) on either side of a conjunction, so a comma is needed.
2: Maybe it’s the lack of context, but where is this gun pointing? At the main character? On a third party? Obviously they are physically close enough to have this interaction, but I don’t have a clear picture of what’s actually happening.
3: Dialogue from two different characters can’t be on the same line. Actions should be separated out as well. Be careful not to let the actions in between dialogue make the pacing feel stilted and interrupted. Sometimes, we need quick smooth dialogue, and sometimes you want those beats in between.
4: You can’t have a character close her eyes and then stare at a door in the same line. I’m not saying you have to show a character’s every minor physical action on the page, but if you’re going to call out something specific, don’t contradict it immediately. For editing, read these things out loud and picture it like a movie. Where does the camera zoom in and pan, when to we get a broader scope establishing shot, and when do we get some good b-roll that zooms in on the moment. Try thinking cinematically. When does the camera show us the shine of a weak incandescent light on the trembling barrel of the gun?
5: Also, this sentence makes me cringe. Waiting for a hero to barge in, eh? What are you, a 1950s damsel in distress? Gosh. Maybe this sentence is trying to set up a clever “our heroes can’t save us” bit, but it’s falling into a pile of melting cheese. There is a VERY fine line between a meaningful quote and a hokey line. That line is made of cheese. Don’t cross the line into cheese-land, if you can help it. Most times, you just have to re-read things critically to catch these things.
6: This is the third time we’ve been shown things just because the character is looking at them. This is a trap of third person narration. Sometimes we’re afraid that we can’t show what’s going on in the world if the main character isn’t paying attention to it. But that’s not true! You can’t show what’s going on in the next room, but you CAN show us the current room with out staging it behind a direct observation. The downside to using “she saw” as a way to show the reader something is that it makes that observation seem very significant. If you’re just trying to show window dressing of the scene, a trifling observation might accidentally feel like a clue the reader is supposed to pick up on. PLUS! We already know she’s holding the gun, so saying that it’s “in her hands” isn’t giving us any new detail.
7: Twitch is a weird and probably poor choice of a word. I’m not sure how to visualize a door twitching, and I’m not sure I should try. Nope. Too late. Twitching doors are going to haunt my dreams. Anyway, I would suggest either scrapping this or tackling a thesaurus.
8: This is the second twitch in as many sentences. Too much twitching. Cut it out.
9: At first, I was going to criticize the use of the phrase “grab the barrel to twist it away,” because it doesn’t actually show us what’s happening. If we pay very close attention to word choice, it’s telling us the intent of what’s supposed to happen. Character grabs the barrel in order to twist it away. But is it successful? Does the gun move? Does our MC pull off the move successfully? It’s not clear, and maybe that’s the point. Then again, maybe we can achieve the same effect with a bit of tighter language. Also, if the MC was already touching the gun, she shouldn’t have to reach out to grab it. Continuity errors are the demonic ghosts that haunt all writing, especially revisions.
THE AFTER PARAGRAPH
“Don’t do this.”(1)
Vivian’s tightens her grip on the gun pointed at my chest. “Why?”(2)
“I’m just asking you to wait.” I stare at the door behind her,(3) even though I know no one is going to walk through it. I’m on my own.(4)
She follows my gaze, and the gun in her hands moves two inches so that it’s pointing at my shoulder instead of my heart.(5) Her finger twitches on the trigger, but this is my only chance. I step forward, grab the cold barrel of the gun and twist.(6)(7)
The sound of the gunshot rings in my ears.(8)
1: The opening is a lot more brisk now, and quite brief. What it lacks in detail will hopefully be remedied in the next paragraph, as long as the pacing works out.
2: See how we get more detail in just a single sentence? We get the antagonist’s name and a bit more of the physical layout of the scene. Notice that I sacrificed the detail about our MC putting her hand on the gun. That’s okay, because I think that touching the gun would ruin the escalation that happens in the later lines.
3: Juxtaposing “asking you to wait” with “stare at the door” implies a direct relationship between them. The MC is asking Vivian to wait for something or someone who is supposed to come through that door.
4: And then we have the lines that the MC actually knows that no one is coming and that she is alone. It’s much more condensed and tense now. We know what the MC knows AND what she’s trying to convince Vivian of.
5: Now we’re showing small movements which have a big impact. A shoulder wound is a hero’s wound, while a heart wound is fatal. We get to see the situation and understand the benefit for the MC.
6: In this line, we get all three actions at once, so it’s more of a sudden and intense escalation. Sometimes a scene might call for more of a slow build, where the actions are separated out. In one paragraph, she may take a step forward. In the next, she’ll reach out. Then in the last moment, she’ll twist the gun away. It all depends on the length of the scene, the timing, and what sort of tension/reaction your trying to create. And notice how the sentence still successfully shows that the action is being taken, but doesn’t give away whether the action was successful or not? Now that we’ve removed unnecessary repetition, it gives us more space for meaningful descriptions.
7: Also, there should be a comma before the “and”, because this is a serial list of actions. I am a fan of using the serial commas in all instances where it adds clarity and especially a certain syncope when you read it.
8: Boom. Literally. Separating this onto its own line really give it strength. It gives it a punch. We can be left with the question of who got shot, who pulled the trigger, etc. But the impression and feeling your reader will get is dependent on how you phrase it, how you contextualize it, and the details you provided beforehand. In this paragraph, we see the gun drift from the heart to the shoulder, so we can hope that if our MC gets shot, tis a flesh wound. The line itself focuses on the auditory sensation of the sound of the bullet. This might imply that the MC doesn’t feel the pain yet or maybe didn’t even get shot. Imagine if this line said “A gunshot splits through the air, and a blossom of fire burns in my chest.” That would be both auditory AND tactile, and it spells a much darker fate for the MC. As always, every line is important and should be doing good work.
What do YOU think?
How would you tweak/change the Before paragraph differently? Are you a fan of putting a single one-punch line on its own paragraph, or are you a “paragraphs for days” type of writer?
Any thoughts on the changes to the After paragraph?
Check out the rest of the Show Don’t Tell series!
After getting an office job almost 3 years ago, I’ve picked up some tips (aka: mistakes and lessons learned) for women in the workplace and for anyone looking to be more confident in their profession. Let’s jump right in:
1. Don’t say sorry when you mean something else. Say excuse me, pardon me, or Hello There.
2. Walk in the middle of the hallway.
3. In that same spirit, take the lead when walking with a group.
4. Another reflexive thing I see myself and others doing: folding in on yourself at meetings.
5. Think first, then ask. But don’t overthink.
If you have any tips you’ve picked up at your office, let me know! I’m a weird nerd who pays too much attention to social dynamics and physical behaviors, so I’m always looking to learn more!
Fact: Someday, I will sign my own name wrong in a book that I have written.
Planned Reaction: Hey, yeah. So… I spelled my name wrong in your book here. I’m just gonna… yep. I’m just gonna keep this one and, uh, slide you this shiny new copy. Isn’t that shiny? So shiny. And you know what? I’m not even going to sign it. We’ll just call this a wash–a net zero situation. You walk away with a totally neutral book, not marred by any egregious misspellings, and I’ll just have this pile of reject books over here. That’s okay, right? No? Okay. Well…. No, yeah, that’s totally how I’m spelling my name now. Yep. There are three C’s in Rebecca now. Totally.
Fact: Someday, someone will ask me about something in my book, and I’ll have zero recollection of making that decision.
Planned Reaction: Errr… why did that particular plot event happen, you ask? Uhh, I see you’re holding my first book there. That’s, um. That was a tough decision to make. Having the, er, character… do that thing they did. And geez, the tension and conflict? Must’ve been… it was a bold choice, to be sure. There’s… wait, what? Whoa, did that really happen? I wrote that? And there’s that terrible plot hole? Yeesh. Well, I’m sure I had my reasons. Probably. Did you want me to sign it? Because I’ve doubled up on the number of C’s in my name. I’m now signing my name as Rebecccca MccLaughlin to avoid confusion for when I spell it wrong by mistake. I also offer fun variations like RebClawflin for that super authentic scribbling signature vibe.
Fact: Someday, my ego will get the better of me in a normal everyday situation.
Planned Reaction: Oh, yes. I’m buying this shiny new laptop. Why yes, I do need the full sized keyboard. You see, I’m an Author. A Proper Author who authors things, and I am in quite desperate need of a keyboard that makes the right kind of sound when you type. I’m sure you’ve seen my book. It’s on the very front shelf at that bookstore across the street. I mean, it was in the back of the store when I was snooping, and I moved it up onto the fancy bookshelf near the front. I also signed it while I was there. You’ll see that the signature matches this new driver’s license I’ve had issued: Rbcccccca Mcccccln. My name is mostly C’s now.
Fact: Someday, I will say something inadvertently foolish, insensitive, or dumb online.
Planned Reaction: Yeah, I tweeted about it, for sure. What did I say? Oh, just that all books in the universe should be set on fire. Well, no. I meant it as a metaphor, obviously. Obviously! Sure, that’s fair. I DID light one of my own books on fire as a visual aid for the metaphor. Well, how was I supposed to know that the–what’d you call it? The booklr community? How was I supposed to know they’d get so upset. Come on, it’s not like I threatened to light ALL of the books on fire. Oh. I did? I did say that? Well, obviously I was overdosing on coffee and caffeine, and I shouldn’t be held accountable for–wait, what? There’s a trending hashtag about me? Really? Is it… no, it’s not good. Oh. Definitely not good. It’s #RbccccccaHatesBooks. Hmmm. I can see how that would be bad. At least it’s not being–oh it is. It’s being archived on the internet forever. I see.
Fact: Someday, I will accidentally spoil something about an unpublished book.
Planned Reaction: Okay, well I just announced to the world that everyone dies at the end. Yeah, I thought it was a joke too, until I remembered that 98% of the characters actually DO die at the end. So, what should we do about it? Is it too late to pull the books from circulation? It is. Okay. Well. How about we do a sequel where they all come back to life? And then there’s a High School Reunion that they attend even though none of them ever went to high school? And then someone inherits the universe?? No, I know it doesn’t make sense! But I’m panicking! This is what happens when I panic! I have really terrible ideas that I immediately pursue! Yes. YES. I DID just tweet about the sequel. What do you mean, “a sequel isn’t in my contract”??? What if I publish under a pen name?? How do you feel about RccccccMcccccc as a pen name???? Why can’t I stop tweeting?? NO, I KNOW I’M PANICKING. WHY DON’T YOU STOP PANICKING?!
So as you can see, I’ve given a lot of thought to what my life might be like as an author. I’m basically 100% prepared for any and all situations that may face me. Except for the complications of changing my name so that it has zero vowels and an excessive number of C’s.
I mean, I’m ready for that journey, but I don’t think my driver’s license will be a helpful tool for the police officer when I’m arrested for a.) signing my own books at a book store, b.) lighting innocent books on fire for an incomprehensible metaphor, or c.) breaking into the Twitter Archives to delete panic-induced tweets.
Looking at any process from the outside is simple. I come at this from two perspectives: having explored a hefty portion of the “Writing a Book” process and having made my first real “Process Tree” for my job as a Technical Writer.
The process I’m making at work is how our team handles documents that we are rewriting and remodeling. Outsiders think the process goes like this, a one-step process:
Our team makes stuff more awesome.
And even I was fooled by its outward simplicity. I thought it went like this:
Draft > Layout/Design > Final Proof > Publication
It turns our the process vaguely (and pixelated) looks like this:
As you can see, it’s way more complicated than it first seems. It goes more along the lines of:
First Draft > First Proof > Content Consult > Design/Layout > Final Proof > Interactive Test > Storage
So I figured, what other process in my life did I at one time think (oh-so-naively) was simple? Only to then discover, en medias res, that it was anything but?
Writing. A. Book.
I thought it was a one-step process. Like “update documents” was a one-step process, right? Write a book. Easy peasy. Well, easy until I was in the thick of things. Then, of course, it got more complicated. I figured, okay, it’s a FIVE step process:
Write book > Revise book > Get representation > Get published > Write more books
I thought it was straightforward. Let’s explore how wrong I was. Without getting too far into the weeds, let’s see what this process actually looks like.
This is what the process looked like after about an hour of process-mapping. And I only made it up to the “querying” stage before it all exploded.
Here are the basic stages (probably): Drafting Zone (orange) > Revision Hell (blue) > Query Trenches (purple) > Agent Land > On Submission > Editor Land > Pre-Publication Stuff > Publication Destination > Post-Publication Road
And because I love a good terrible-rendition of my process, here’s a brief idea of what my person journey through these stages looked like for the first book I wrote/trunked. Note that this process took me a culminating of 4 years.
And here’s the one that actually made it (purple), when I finally got my awesome literary agent. I spent a good deal of time in the Revisions, and you can see a bunch of other trunked or unfinished books along the way. You should always be spending more time in revisions than anywhere else, I think:
I’m thinking maybe I’ll do a flowchart for each major stage (at least the first four, since those are the ones I have managed to get through) and post them separately. Thoughts?
1. Learn the rules.2. Figure out which rules you want to break.3. Make it work.
I have to apply for my own job. I know. It sounds weird. It is.
I’m getting hired as a permanent employee instead of a contractor, but they still have to go through the interview process. Part of that involves updating my resume, which is a whole different beast. But part of it is pretty straightforward:
Have a stellar writing portfolio.
Writers are in the unique position that it doesn’t matter as much what your experience or job history is. What’s important is the writing portfolio. (The same goes for designers and illustrators.) You could have 2 years of experience or 20, but if your writing/art is stellar (or crap), then that’s what counts. It’s what they look at. Beyond that, they look for typical interview stuff: do you fit will into the team, are you clever, a fast learner, organized, filled to the piping brim with initiative?
Putting aside interviews and resumes, I’m going to talk about how to tailor your writing portfolio to the job you’re after, and what really makes it shine. (Grain of salt: if I don’t get my job back, then feel free to ignore this advice and also give me free cookies since I’ll be terrible and despicably jobless. Oatmeal raisin.)
If you can, include material that demonstrates you either have knowledge in the area tey are concerned with or that you are capable of communicating content clearly when you don’t have a background in it.
Here’s what this says to an employer:
- This employee can understand materials that they don’t necessarily have expertise in.
- Can work collaboratively with others when necessary and deliver a final product.
- Can display and interact professionally and present work to authority figures.
There you go! You just took that science presentation from college and made it into a business experience asset! And make sure that if they ask you about your writing samples, you expound on these skills.
Remember, they don’t necessarily care WHAT your writing is about, but what it says about your skills as a writer!
An interview and portfolio is NOT the place to discuss how you’ve written five books, 231 short stories and 23,000 poems but still haven’t gotten published. You might think “look how much I’ve done!” but they’ll think “and you don’t have ANY publication credits, yikes!”
Avoid the bitterness and suppositions that come with the numbers. Focus on the hard work of the process. There’s a method for using creative material to your benefit.
Let’s see that same format again, but this time for creative material.
Novel Excerpt: THE NAMELESS QUEEN
Mentioning the representation is sort of an ethos thing to prove that my work has the snuff to get represented and published. If you are citing work that isn’t published or represented, make sure to keep it succinct and clear.
Here’s a (not-so-secret) secret about writing: people think it’s easy. They think you write a book as a weekend hobby, and then you’re magically a mythical portmanteau between JK Rowling and Stephen King. They think you’re a Jphen Rowlking. Or something.
So if a potential employer asks about your Work-in-Progress (or even if you’re published), make sure you give them just enough insight to show them the hard work involved, but not enough to seem like a bitter wannabe.
Here’s a good example:
Interviewer: “Oh, I see here you’ve written a book? Are you going to get it published?”
You: “That’s the dream, isn’t it? Writing a book is all about time management and dedication, and it really involves a complex process of drafting, multiple revisions, fielding external feedback, and then marketing the book for representation.”
Did you hear all those buzz words in there? If not, I bolded them for effect. You can turn writing a book (what most people think of as a hobby for old folks and hermits) into a business venture. If they ask for more details, be prepared to discuss your life’s greatest passion as if its a logical business project. In reality, it is. You want to make sure your attitude and tone reflect that. After all, you’re after a job here, not validation for your personal work.
If you’re struggling with what to pick, just do the first 250-300 words. That’s the equivalent of the first page, which should be a stunning example of your writing. After all, that first page has to convince agents, editors, and readers alike to keep reading–so why not convince your future boss? If you’re not feeling confident enough to include it in your portfolio, don’t. It’s better to have a few excellent writing samples than a bunch of crap ones.
Be prepared to include unique forms of writing and associated work. Especially if you’re lacking a good number of pieces to include, it’s a good way to pad the portfolio and display diversity.
In fact, try not to have more than one of the same type of work. Don’t include three excerpts from your various unpublished books or two essays about similar renaissance literature. You want to display DIVERSITY. Show them your broad range of skills.
A lot of what you put in there will depend on what the job description is and if you have anything that can remotely display exposure or expertise in those areas. This is the same as the technical materials section. Use what you have to show how adaptable you are.
The diversity of your portfolio should shine and show that you are capable of tackling different types of projects with different types of content.
They’re going to ask you about your writing excerpts. Or at least they should. Or at the VERY least, they’ll be holding onto the portfolio to look it over when you’re gone.
If they DO ask about any of your writing/work samples, make sure you can speak about each of them in an educated, professional, and objective way.
If you use fancy English terms, like syntax, copy-editing, proofing, etc., know what they mean! And know how to explain what they are or how you do them to an interviewer who may not have writing experience.
For instance, if they ask about your book excerpt, etc., be prepared to discuss (briefly and succinctly, as always) the differences between drafting, revision, and proofing, and the different tactics and timetables for each. Or be able to display that you know that different areas of writing require different focuses.
Be prepared for people to think you are a secretary or that a secretary can do your job. Be prepared, but don’t believe it.
Like I mentioned before, people think writing is easy. They think anyone can write.
But not everyone can be a writer. This is something that a lot of people (and maybe even your boss or boss’s boss or coworkers or friends/family) don’t understand. So if you’re being hired by someone who knows a lot about writing and English in general, that’s great. Prove you know your stuff.
If you’re interviewing with people who don’t quite understand what goes into it, be sure to give them the “creative writing as a business venture” impression. Throw in some technical jargon that gives them flashbacks to High School English. Mostly, make sure they have a sense that you know that solid technical, professional, and creative writing are all difficult and challenging pursuits with a myriad of details to know and tackle, but also make sure you convey that you are more than willing to do that hard work.
This goes for any interview, really. Don’t make it seem like your job will be easy, because they’ll think you’re just not trying hard enough or you’re not equipped for it. Make it seem like a challenge you are willing, ready, and motivated to take on.
In the end, that’s the type of employee they want to hire.