Monday, December 11, 2017

Self-Editing One Step at a Time: Cleaning Up Those Dialogue Tags

This post was first published on October 10, 2009.

This step may be combined with others during the sentence-by-sentence editing read as it addresses only these three mechanics of labeling dialogue.
When dialogue is carried on between two people, use the dialogue tag only as often as needed to let the reader know who is speaking.

“You know what I mean?” said Marjorie. She waited for her brother to answer.
“No.”
“Don’t be silly. Of course, you do.”

When the dialogue involves more than two people, add a dialogue tag each time the speaker changes, or use a leading sentence before the dialogue to identify the speaker.

“I don’t understand what you mean,” Marjorie said.

Or,

Marjorie raised her eyebrows and tilted her head. “I don’t understand what you mean.”

Use "said" in your dialogue tags, with perhaps an occasional "asked" or "repeated." Other words that describe speech such as hollered, yelled, whispered, mumbled, yelled, and shrieked might be used once in a great while, but it is best if the dialogue and narrative show the speaker’s behavior and tone, rather than the author telling us. Avoid verbs that introduce actions other than speech. Examples are coughed, spat, choked, and lied.

As in most other editing tasks, the aim is to avoid pulling the reader out the story with unusual phrasing or word choices. Using a dialogue tag to convey information the reader wouldn’t otherwise know (the speaker is lying, for example), or that the reader already knows (the speaker is lying, for example), is distracting.


Pat (Patricia) Stoltey is the author of four novels published by Five Star/Cengage: two amateur sleuth, one thriller that was a finalist for a Colorado Book Award in 2015, and the historical mystery Wishing Caswell Dead (December 20, 2017).

Pat lives in Northern Colorado with her husband Bill, Scottish Terrier Sassy (aka Doggity), and brown tabby Katie (aka Kitty Cat).

You can learn more about Pat at her website/blog, on Facebook, and Twitter. She was recently interviewed for a Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers podcast that you can find at the RMFW website.

Friday, December 8, 2017

Self-Editing One Step at a Time: Weeding Out Unnecessary Adjectives and Adverbs

This post was first published on September 11, 2009.

It might seem as though we mention overuse of adjectives and adverbs a lot. See Maryann Miller’s posts Adverbs Revisited back in June and Those Pesky Adverbs Again in July.

The truth is, we don't need to tell smart, intuitive readers every detail about a character’s appearance or clothing. They’ll fill in the blanks as long as the blanks are not critical to the story. You can describe a minor character (male) as 60ish with long black hair, bronze skin, and a leathery, weathered face, and the reader will know what your American Indian looks like. But if you say he's an Arapahoe elder, won't the reader form a similar mental picture without all the extra words?

Similarly, anything from a palace tower room to a battle scene may require description, but pay close attention to what is important to your story and what is not. Keep your eye out for unnecessary repetition—telling the reader the same thing in two or three different ways, using even more adjectives in the process.

Adverbs are even more likely candidates for elimination than adjectives. Many can be found by searching on the letters -ly. Examples of words you might find are silently, carefully, actually, and quietly. In the sentence, “He silently crept across the room in his stocking feet,” the word silently can be eliminated without changing the meaning, because the act of creeping implies secrecy and quiet.

Since not all adverbs and adjectives can found with a quick word search, this self-editing step may be combined with others in your sentence-by-sentence read. In addition to overuse and repetition, look for redundancies, such as emerald green eyes, or huge, cavernous room. And watch for quantifiers or indicators of size, which are often too general to be useful. Words such as large, small, big, tall, short, huge, some, many, and most are examples.

Not all adjectives and adverbs are bad, of course. In some cases, details are important to the story and may even be clues or red herrings in mysteries or thrillers. In other cases, a character's appearance might explain his odd behavior. Sometimes descriptive words are needed to create a mood. Even so, use adverbs and adjectives in moderation and be precise. Don't use two or three when one will do the job.


Pat (Patricia) Stoltey is the author of four novels published by Five Star/Cengage: two amateur sleuth, one thriller that was a finalist for a Colorado Book Award in 2015, and the historical mystery Wishing Caswell Dead (December 20, 2017).

Pat lives in Northern Colorado with her husband Bill, Scottish Terrier Sassy (aka Doggity), and brown tabby Katie (aka Kitty Cat).

You can learn more about Pat at her website/blog, on Facebook, and Twitter. She was recently interviewed for a Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers podcast that you can find at the RMFW website.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Self-Editing One Step at a Time: Searching for More Silly Stuff

This post was first published on December 16, 2009.

Sometimes we’re so focused on the big picture—our plot and characters—that we miss obvious clues that more editing is required. My July 16th, 2009 post, Look for the Silly Stuff: Exclamation Points, discussed the overuse of that popular punctuation mark. Here are a few other things you need to consider.

1. Bad grammar and lousy punctuation. If you don’t know the basic rules of grammar and punctuation, you need to take a class, buy a good book and study it, or choose one of many excellent online resources to hone your writing skills. I like Mignon Fogarty’s Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips™ for Better Writing and her website by the same name. Guide to Grammar and Writing is a website sponsored by the Capital Community College Foundation. I’ve found it to be very useful.

2. When Microsoft Word underlines a word in red, it means the software thinks you have misspelled the word. The error might be a typo. The word might really be misspelled. Or you may have used a correct word or spelling that is not in Word’s dictionary.

If you right click on the underlined word, an option box will pop up giving you a few alternate word/spelling choices and the ability to add the word to the dictionary so future uses will not be underlined in red. This is helpful for names of characters or fictional places, creatures, and objects (as in fantasy novels). Always turn to a good dictionary to verify spelling.

3. When Microsoft Word underlines a fragment or sentence in green, it means the software thinks your grammar is incorrect. You need to check it out and revise the sentence if necessary. Right click on the underlined phrase or sentence and an option box will give you a brief description of what might be wrong. If you’ve intentionally used incorrect grammar for emphasis, or in dialogue, you may select “Ignore Once” in the option box to make the green line disappear.

4. Two words, one word, or hyphenated word? This is a trickier problem. Whenever you have a noun that is made up of two words, and you’re not 100% sure whether the noun should be two words, one word, or hyphenated, it’s best to look it up in an official dictionary. Two words that tripped me up were rearview (as in rearview mirror) and backseat. Also remember that your word might be hyphenated if used as an adjective, but not when used as a noun.

Here are a few other examples: ape-man, backstory, bookseller, chain-smoker, deathbed, fishwife, safe-conduct, woodshed, and trashman (Word thought trashman was wrong, but Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary assured me it was correct). For more on this spelling puzzle, see Dani Greer’s posts, This is a test, just a test on April 22, 2009 and Spelling Test Answers on April 23, 2009.


Pat (Patricia) Stoltey is the author of four novels published by Five Star/Cengage: two amateur sleuth, one thriller that was a finalist for a Colorado Book Award in 2015, and the historical mystery Wishing Caswell Dead (December 20, 2017).

Pat lives in Northern Colorado with her husband Bill, Scottish Terrier Sassy (aka Doggity), and brown tabby Katie (aka Kitty Cat).

You can learn more about Pat at her website/blog, on Facebook, and Twitter. She was recently interviewed for a Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers podcast that you can find at the RMFW website.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Self-Editing One Step at a Time: Identifying and Eliminating Your Habit Words

This post was first published September 10, 2009.

Habit words. That’s what I call them. Some editors lump them into the repetitive word category. Others include them in articles about adjectives and adverbs. I’ve dubbed them habit words because they flow into our writing in the same way they clutter up our speech. The little devils were probably hard-wired into our brains when we were born.

Knowing that, let’s accept the truth. Our early drafts will be littered with these throwaways. Our brains (and our keyboards) think the words belong. We might not see them, no matter how many times we go through our manuscripts. Knowing that, how do we identify them, and how do we eliminate them?

1. Enlist the help of your critique group members, your first reader, or, if necessary, an experienced editor or proofreader. Once you’ve identified your habit words, keep a running list. You might occasionally find you’ve adopted a new one.

2. After your big story revisions are complete, and you’re ready to fine-tune your manuscript, open your manuscript file(s). If you have Microsoft Word:

Click on "Edit"
Click on "Find"
In the "Find and Replace" box, type your habit word to the right of “Find what:”
Click on "Find Next"
Case by case, decide whether to leave the word in your manuscript or delete it.

Repeat the process for each word on your list.

3. Since many of us have the same habit words, here are those I find most often in my own work and in the manuscripts I critique:

just, really, pretty, some, actually, so, well, back, up, oh, off, somehow, like, very, many, that, finally, real, rather, anyway

All of these words are good words in the right places. When unconsciously sprinkled throughout our story, however, they might lead an agent or editor to think we didn’t do a good job of proofreading our manuscripts.


Pat (Patricia) Stoltey is the author of four novels published by Five Star/Cengage: two amateur sleuth, one thriller that was a finalist for a Colorado Book Award in 2015, and the historical mystery Wishing Caswell Dead (December 20, 2017).

Pat lives in Northern Colorado with her husband Bill, Scottish Terrier Sassy (aka Doggity), and brown tabby Katie (aka Kitty Cat).

You can learn more about Pat at her website/blog, on Facebook, and Twitter. She was recently interviewed for a Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers podcast that you can find at the RMFW website.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Self-Editing One Step at a Time: How to Identify Dragging Narrative

This article first ran here on July 28, 2009.
~~~~~

In an earlier post about charting the novel story arc, I advised the writer to watch out for sections where the story's tension level drops and stays low across several pages or, even worse, several chapters. How do you identify passages that slow down the story and perhaps cause an agent or editor to toss your manuscript aside?

When viewing the novel as a whole, I use these visual clues to identify scenes or chapters that might need work:

1. Very little white space (not counting the margins) – This indicates that your paragraphs might be too long, or you have an opportunity to break up the narrative with dialogue, if appropriate for the scene.

2. Backstory or flashbacks that last more than one page – If you set these insertions apart from the rest of the book by putting text in italics, or using asterisks or hash marks as separators, they’re easy to spot. Without these clues, however, you’ll need to read carefully and mark the beginning and end of such passages. If too long, move part of the backstory to another chapter, or tighten the prose so the section doesn’t drag.

While doing a page-by-page read of your manuscript, can you find examples like these?

1. Detailed descriptions of the waitress Sally Mae, who appears only once in Billy Jim’s life story when she brings him his biscuits and gravy; a tree the cowboy rides past on his way to the ranch; or a room the hero passes through on his way to the deadly dragon’s lair. If the information is not relevant to the story, and it’s not needed to further the reader’s understanding of the plot or characters, it probably shouldn’t be in your manuscript.

2. Moment by moment reports of the three-day fish festival in Fon’dor; every detail of each attack by the Goobles on the humans (especially if the Goobles attack in exactly the same way every time); or librarian Millie’s reaction when Big Joe walks into the library, especially if he does that a lot, and poor Millie always emits the same sighs and has the same palpitations.

3. Information dumps. If you use historical facts, real natural disasters, scientific or technical knowledge, or current facts and figures in your novel, find ways to weave the essential information into the narrative or dialogue throughout the story without disrupting the story arc. Avoid putting large chunks of information in one place.

4. Memory dumps. This is similar to the information dump, but involves your memories of a place or event, especially if you’re describing a fictional town strangely identical to your town, or a family scene that reminds you of the way Aunt Sissie chugs her wine. We get caught up in the memories and tend to go on and on. This is a good spot to use that red pencil.

Using these identifiers can help you evaluate and fine-tune the pacing in your novel, regardless of genre.


Pat (Patricia) Stoltey is the author of four novels published by Five Star/Cengage: two amateur sleuth, one thriller that was a finalist for a Colorado Book Award in 2015, and the historical mystery Wishing Caswell Dead (December 20, 2017).

Pat lives in Northern Colorado with her husband Bill, Scottish Terrier Sassy (aka Doggity), and brown tabby Katie (aka Kitty Cat).

You can learn more about Pat at her website/blog, on Facebook, and Twitter. She was recently interviewed for a Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers podcast that you can find at the RMFW website.

Monday, December 4, 2017

Self-Editing One Step at a Time: Charting the Novel Story Arc

We are delighted to have our dear colleague Pat Stoltey returning to The Blood-Red Pencil in 2018. Pat has a new book coming out soon and we are helping her celebrate by re-running some of her excellent editing posts from past years.

This post was first published here on June 30, 2009 and it's become a tool I use regularly when editing manuscripts for authors. It's proven to be an enormously useful way to help determine if a story begins with enough of a bang, where the plot sags in the middle, and if the ending needs a bit more tension before the satisfying conclusion. Thanks to Pat for contributing one of our most popular posts! ~ Dani



Once I have a complete draft of a novel, and before I begin the detailed self-editing process, I want to evaluate the story arc to determine whether I need to add, delete, or revise sections of the manuscript. If this is done before the line-by-line edit, then I won’t waste time on sections that might be completely rewritten, or even eliminated.

The story arc is described by Shon Bacon as: “a set up, obstacles for the main character to overcome, and a resolution.” For additional information on what the story arc is and how to fix problems, read these posts from The Blood-Red Pencil: Prop Up Your Sagging Plot Middles by Heidi Thomas and Plumpers by Dani Greer. For an excellent description of the essential elements of the Three Act Structure, see Alex Sokoloff’s Top Ten Things I Know About Editing.

This is a painful part of the self-editing process for many writers, so I’d like to use the numerical ranking system to evaluate patient pain as a measure of tension and/or suspense in a novel. Zero will indicate no tension/excitement. Ten is the measure for “edge of your seat” suspense.

Mystery/thriller, fantasy/sci-fi, romance, or any other fictional form will have a story arc. There is no reader appeal unless the main characters want something, need to overcome obstacles to reach their goals, and eventually succeed or fail in their quests. The challenge is to maintain a pace in this obstacle/resolution process that keeps the reader engaged until the end of the story.

Ranking and charting can be done at a macro-level, where chapters or sections are evaluated. At a micro-level, the excitement of each page or scene may be measured. Whichever you choose, when you are finished, chart the results (you can even do a fancy bar graph, if you like). Does your story look something like this?

1-2-2-3-7-10-10-1-1-1-1-1-3-3-10-3-10-1-1-1-1

If so, better read that post on sagging middles and work on the over-long (and probably boring) resolution.

To complicate the process, if you have one or more sub-plots within the greater story, you might want to chart the sub-plots as a separate exercise. This is helpful, for instance, in novels of romantic suspense where you might have obstacles for the lovers that are separate from the intrigue in which one or both might be entangled.

Regardless of how general or how detailed you want to make this exercise, you’ll find it a useful tool in identifying problems with story and pacing. If you do this first, the rest of the self-editing tasks will be much easier.


Pat (Patricia) Stoltey is the author of four novels published by Five Star/Cengage: two amateur sleuth, one thriller that was a finalist for a Colorado Book Award in 2015, and the historical mystery Wishing Caswell Dead (December 20, 2017).

Pat lives in Northern Colorado with her husband Bill, Scottish Terrier Sassy (aka Doggity), and brown tabby Katie (aka Kitty Cat).

You can learn more about Pat at her website/blog, on Facebook, and Twitter. She was recently interviewed for a Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers podcast that you can find at the RMFW website.

Friday, December 1, 2017

When Outlines Make Revisions Easier

This post first published on September 20, 2016. We hope it helps you with your #NaNoWriMo2017 novel revisions! ~ Dani G.

Photo by Ron Bieber © 2006 (Flickr)

I used to find it difficult to move on to writing the next chapter of a book until I had the previous chapter down solid. I used to write a draft, read it, then revise. Then I’d read the revision, feel something was still missing, and revise again. Thus began an endless loop of revisions, pursuing the illusion of a perfect chapter but making little progress on the book.

What’s an obsessive writer to do?

I’ve always refused to start with an outline because it makes me feel inhibited. My characters are unruly, and after just a few pages we’re wildly off-track. So I started my current novel based on a synopsis and a list of “things that might happen,” which I believed was a smaller time investment. But when I began revising each chapter ad-nauseum, I knew I was not saving time at all.

Then I learned a simple notion: there’s more than one way to outline. On the advice of Lighthouse Writers Workshop instructor and author Doug Kurtz, I now outline each chapter after I write it. This method, which I feared might inhibit creativity has instead more than doubled my productivity while increasing my creative freedom. The best part: I no longer ride the revision merry-go-round.

Here’s the basic outline I briefly fill out after drafting each chapter:

Chapter Number/Name
Scene One: Simple phrase that captures the scene
Main Character: Name
Secondary Characters: Names
Want: What does the main character want at the start of the scene?
Obstacle: What is the obstacle that gets in the way?
Conflict: What is the resulting conflict?
Change: What changes as a result of the conflict?
New Want: What’s the new thing the main character wants now that things have changed?

As I describe the five above scene elements—1) Want, 2) Obstacle, 3) Conflict, 4) Change, 5) New Want—I inevitably have trouble answering one or more questions. That’s how I discover which elements need development. Then I note the missing elements in red—that meanie editor’s color, but, hey, it stands out.

For example, I might write something like this:

Chapter One: The Gold Coins
Scene One: The Safe Combination
Main Character: Jo
Secondary Character: Ky
Want:  Jo wants the gold coins that will secure the release of her kidnapped child.
Obstacle: Her friend, Ky, won’t give her the combination to the safe. (Wouldn’t it be a more dramatic obstacle if Ky insists Jo admit the kidnapping was her fault before she’ll reveal the combination?)
Conflict:  Jo and Ky argue about whether or not to give the coins to the kidnappers and they both blame each other for the kidnapping (The blame is not yet on the page. Should it be spoken or unspoken? If unspoken show interior monologue.)
Change: Ky agrees to open the safe, but only if Jo calls police. Jo is outraged. (Punch up Jo’s outrage.)
New Want: Jo wants to crack the safe without Ky’s help.

I write an outline for every scene. Once I’ve noted the needed revisions in red, I put off revising and draft the next chapter.

I’ve found many benefits to this sort of outline:

1) It gets me unstuck from repeatedly revising one chapter, because I’ve identified all the missing elements in one fell swoop.
2) It clarifies the purpose of the needed revisions in terms of plot development, so I know what to do.
3) It keeps me moving forward because, instead of feeling I have to fix everything now while it’s on my mind, I let the outline remember for me what to do later.
4) It prevents wasting time on revisions that might later be dropped if the book changes course.
5) When it’s revision-time, my course is laid out so I can finish most of it in one pass.

Sure, revisions can still take me months, but my old way would have taken me years, because I was feeling my way around for what my gut said rather than identifying clear plot requirements like: hey, you forgot the conflict!  

These days I’m editing my novel, which is different from revision. Only after I’ve included the want, obstacle, conflict, change, and new want in each scene am I ready for a content edit. That’s when I make another pass to condense, expand, punch-up, clarify, and polish.

From drafting to revising to editing is a long journey. But I’ve found that outlining decreases the distance between those points.

Cara Lopez Lee is the author of the memoir They Only Eat Their Husbands. Her stories have appeared in such publications as The Los Angeles TimesDenver PostConnotation PressRivet Journal, and Pangyrus. She’s a book editor and writing coach. She was a faculty member at Lighthouse Writers Workshop, a journalist in Alaska and North Carolina, and a writer for HGTV and Food Network. An avid traveler, she has explored twenty countries and most of the fifty United States. She and her husband live in Ventura, California.

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