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Wet Noodle Posse | Blog

Monday, October 13, 2008

Polishing Your Entry by Diane Gaston

You want to polish your Golden Heart entry so that it sparkles like a precious jewel? What should you look for to make your best effort even better?

Here are a few tips.

1. Show don’t Tell

Look for places in the manuscript where you are explaining to the reader what is going on instead of just jumping right into the what the point of view character is thinking or feeling or seeing.

(Telling) Mary wondered who that very attractive man could be.

(Showing her thought) Who was that man?

(Showing what she sees) He stood at least a head taller than anyone else with hair black as night and eyes the vivid blue of a tropical sky. Broad shoulders and rippling muscles were barely contained by his shirt. Every gesture exuded power and strength.

(Telling what she feels) Mary felt very attracted to him. She thought he was the most handsome man she’d ever seen in her life.

(Showing what she feels) Mary’s senses flared like never before. Blood surged through her veins and her breath quickened.

Also look for places where you’ve shown what the character sees, thinks, feels, and then you go on to explain it.

Mary’s senses flared like never before. She’d never seen such a handsome man before and never had she felt that instant attraction toward a man. It was unusual for her to react so immediately to a man especially one who was merely standing across the room.

The reader “gets” it from Mary’s senses flared like never before.

Once you catch on to how you (how we all) lapse into explaining, you’ll intensify the reader’s identification with the character, because then the reader is right in the character’s head and body. At the same time you’ll improve the pace by eliminating unnecessary sentences.

3. Use vivid and specific verbs instead of vague verbs.

By vague verbs, I mean verbs like: go/went, get, be/was/were, do, have

These are so interchangeable, they can be used in lots of different ways, so they don’t paint a specific picture for the reader.

(Vague) He went to the store.
(Vivid) He drove to the store; He ran to the store; He sprinted to the store; He sped to the store; He ambled to the store; He crept to the store.

The more vivid the verb, the more vivid the picture in the reader’s mind and the more the reader feels she is "in" the story.

(Vague) He went to get the glove.
(Vivid) He ambled over to the table and picked up the glove; He crossed the room and snatched the glove from her hand; He drove to the store to buy the glove.

Are you getting the idea? Think of a specific picture you want to convey in the reader’s mind and find a specific verb to use, but don’t overdo it. Every time your characters move they don’t have to sprint, hop, slide, stride, crawl, skip, but they can do more than go.

4. Avoid using too many adverbs

I happen to like adverbs sometimes, so I’d never say eliminate them, but look to see if using a vivid verb will give the reader the same vivid image. If an adverb is modifying a vague verb, it can probably be eliminated by substituting a vivid verb.

He went quickly to the next station.
He ran to the next station.

5. Use vivid and specific nouns instead of vague ones.

Check to see if you are using a vague noun when a more vivid one could be used. And look to see if judicious use of adjectives helps make the image even more compelling.

(Vague) She smelled the flower.
(Vivid) She smelled the pale pink rose.

Again, don’t go overboard with this. Don’t bog down your poor rose with too many adjectives so that the pace of your sentence slows down.

6. Avoid unnecessary words

Like just, so, as

Just rarely adds anything of value to a sentence. So and as used instead of other conjunctions weaken the prose.

I just can’t stop loving you.
I can’t stop loving you.

As the opera stretched on Joe’s eyelids became heavy.
The opera stretched on, and Joe’s eyelids became heavy.

Joe could not keep his eyes open at the opera so he vowed he’d never attend another one.
Joe could not keep his eyes open at the opera. He vowed he’d never attend another one.

Sometimes, of course, it is perfectly okay to use as and so (rarely just). Look to see if the phrase reads better without them. If not, leave them in.

Lorraine Heath has an excellent article about other unnecessary words. I couldn’t find the original source but it is copied here.

7. Look for “Filters”

Filters are those unnecessary words we all stick in, usually when we are Telling instead of Showing. Some of Lorraine Heath’s unnecessary words are what I’d call “filters.”

Words like began
He began to recite the poem.
He recited the poem.

It seems, he thought, wondered, speculated – all these can be filters. If you take them out it doesn’t change the meaning and it usually puts you straight into the POV character’s head.

She seemed to recall that he’d lived in Seattle.
He’d lived in Seattle.
Or if you meant to convey some uncertainty about her memory: He’d lived in Seattle, hadn’t he?

8. Look for Repeated words

I repeat words all the time! My editor once pointed out that my hero’s brow furrowed 17 times in one manuscript. I un-furrowed at least 14 of those.

Look for repeated words in the same paragraph.

She’d been looking for a dress like this one all through the racks. She looked at the price tag. Four hundred dollars. No way could she afford this dress, no matter how good-looking her date was. She’d have to look at the bargain rack again.

You get the idea.

9. Vary your sentence structure

My paragraph above starts three sentences with she. She-verb. She-verb. I could probably do better than that. You want to avoid the repetition of sentence structure because it sets up a boring rhythm.

Joe traveled to the beach. He pulled into the parking lot. Mary met him there. She led him to the boardwalk. They held hands.
Subject verb, Subject verb, Subject verb

Modify this a little so that boring rhythm is broken.

Joe traveled to the beach and pulled into the parking lot. When he stepped out of the car, Mary ran to greet him. Clasping his hand in hers, she led him to the boardwalk.

Listen, I break all these “rules” some time or another. Use your own judgment always.

I’m sure some of you have other things that you look for when you are polishing a manuscript or a Golden Heart entry. What are they?

Does anyone have any questions about this? Let me know.

See how many times Adrian's brow furrowed in Scandalizing the Ton, in bookstores now.

I'm also blogging at Risky Regencies today. Come visit and also see my interview about Scandalizing the Ton from yesterday.

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At 11:57 AM, Blogger Theresa Ragan said...

Great list, Diane! No matter how long I've been at this writing business...I can never get enough reminders! It took me forever to get a handle on telling not showing. Also on the deep POV.

I am off to read your other blog at risky regencies. Thanks for always being so helpful here at the WNP!

At 12:41 PM, Blogger Diane Gaston said...

I think the Show not Tell concept is a hard one. I think it is the best thing I've learned to improve my writing, and I still lapse into "telling" too often. I'm a little better at spotting it though.

At 2:05 PM, Blogger janegeorge said...

Nice, concise examples, Diane! Your post takes the mystery out of show don't tell.

I'd like to add that I shy away from using verbs that take away from the immediacy of my character's experience. Verbs like; saw, felt, knew, heard, sensed, tasted, wondered, watched, thought, etc. Not that they aren't useful at times, but they remove the reader one step from deep POV.

But like the maligned word, "was," there are places where telling and not showing is crucial to the pace of the story. Transitions or short descriptions, for example. If it's not necessary for the reader to experience the bus ride to the next scene in full sensory detail, just encapsulate it and move on to the good stuff.

I'm not entering the GH this year, but I am judging. I love to get entries that grab me and plop me right down in the action. Make me live it, ladies!

At 2:33 PM, Blogger Diane Gaston said...

I agree, janegeorge. You don't have to Show 100% of the time, but when you do Tell, make sure it is the best way to do it for your story.

And not all "was"es are passive.

The thing is, just make sure the way you are saying something is the best way.

At 4:54 PM, Blogger Esri Rose said...

I'm always going back and deleting filter words that mess with deep POV. At least I recognize it now. If I could not do it in the first place, that'd be good!

At 8:43 PM, Blogger Louisa Cornell said...

Great pointers O Divine One. I am always I am telling not showing. It is something I look for constantly. Then I get stuck on a word and use it everywhere. Fortunately my hometown critique group has three lawyers in it and they have eagle eyes for repetition!

At 10:55 PM, Blogger M. said...

I'm not entering GH this year, but I think this is also good advice for garden variety contests... *g*


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