Thursday, December 18, 2014

Resist the Urge to Explain

This post was first published her on May 18, 2011.

When I began writing, my crit partners would often return my pages with passages labeled "R.U.E." Anyone who's undertaken writing has heard "Show, Don’t Tell"—probably more times than they've wanted. This isn't a hard and fast rule, because often telling is more efficient than showing, and done well, gets the point across. But too much telling, especially when it comes across as author intrusion, can put the brakes on the pace of your story, doing exactly the opposite of what the author intended.

For example,
"Mary laughed so hard, she was afraid she'd pulled a stomach muscle. Susie had just told the funniest joke Mary had ever heard."  
The second sentence isn't needed; it's explaining something the reader would be able to figure out in context.

The goal of any fiction writer is to get readers to care about the characters. We want there to be an emotional connection, so we often tell our readers exactly what the character is feeling. However, saying "Mary was depressed" doesn't pull the reader in as effectively as showing Mary's actions. Did she stay in bed until noon? Eat a box of chocolates? Not eat anything at all? How did being depressed affect Mary's actions? That's what you need to show.

Another pitfall—telling something, then going on to show it. Let's say you're beginning to understand "show don't tell" and you do put the action on the page. For the sake of example, a simplistic passage might be written as follows:
After Bill cancelled their date, claiming his aunt was sick, Mary was depressed. She took one bite of chocolate cake, then pushed the plate away.

The second sentence shows what the first tells. If you find this in your writing, use your delete key on that first sentence. A better approach:
Mary had been looking forward to her date with Bill for weeks, and he'd cancelled, giving some excuse about a sick aunt. She moved the chocolate cake around the plate with her fork, then pushed it away.

The reader gets the information, and can see that Mary's depressed without having to be told. You can use the same to show other emotions. Maybe Mary was angry, not depressed, after Bill cancelled. Maybe she throws the whole cake against the wall.

What about this?
Mary's feet felt like lead. She couldn't run fast enough to escape the man chasing behind her.

Cut the first sentence. You don't need both. What about: 
Mary ran, but her feet refused to move fast enough to escape the man chasing her. Or, Mary's feet moved as though encased in lead shoes.

Sometimes, we tell the reader too much.
Mary twirled up two strands of spaghetti and waited for the excess sauce to drip onto her plate. Leaning forward, she manipulated the fork into her mouth, then wiped her mouth with her napkin. She was a very careful eater because she hated getting stains on her clothes.

Don't insult your reader with the last sentence. No need to explain. We can see for ourselves Mary is a meticulous eater.

Another common place writers need to Resist the Urge to Explain is in dialogue. Too often, we tack on tags or beats that tell the reader what the dialogue has already shown. Are you adding adverbs to your dialogue tags?
"I'm sorry," Tom said apologetically.

Those adverbs are usually signals that you're telling something the dialogue should be showing. They're propping up your dialogue, and if it needs propping, it wasn't strong enough to begin with. All that 'scaffolding' merely calls attention to the weak structure beneath.

Will your reader notice these differences? Probably not, but they might not enjoy the read even if they can't explain why.

Check your manuscript for 'emotion' words, especially if they're preceded by "was" or "felt." Are you describing your character's feelings? Don't tell us how your character feels. Show us.

Check your dialogue tags and beats. Are they consistent with the words being spoken? If so, you don't need them. If not, your readers will be confused, trying to reconcile dialogue with the action.

Readers are smart. Don't patronize them by 'talking down' to them. Resist the Urge to Explain.

Terry Odell is the author of numerous romantic suspense novels, mystery novels, as well as contemporary romance short stories. Most of her books are available in both print and digital formats. She's the author of the Blackthorne, Inc. series, steamy romantic suspense novels featuring a team of covert ops specialists, the Pine Hills Police series, set in a small Oregon town, and the Mapleton Mystery series, featuring a reluctant police chief in a small Colorado town. To see all her books, visit her website. You can also find her at her blog, Terry's Place, as well as follow her on Twitter, or visit her Facebook page.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

The Central Question

This post was first published here on January 28, 2013.

Every plot hinges on a central question. Posing the question at the beginning of the tale and answering it at the end is sound story architecture. Does that task make your head spin? It shouldn’t. It’s as easy as choosing a story skeleton. Let’s explore a few examples.

1) The Romance skeleton poses the central question: Will they or won’t they end up together?

The answer had better be yes or a satisfying equivalent. The girl can find out guy A isn’t what she wanted after all because she found guy B, but this is not the genre for an I’m okay on my own ending. That story uses the Literary (or Women's Fiction) skeleton. Romance readers want passion and fulfillment and are very disappointed if they don’t get it.

2) The Mystery skeleton poses the central question: Who did it and will they catch him?

The answer is yes. The criminal may escape at the last moment to torment the detective another day, but the case that is the focus of the story is considered solved. Twists where someone other than the detective solves the crime or there wasn’t a crime after all should be rerouted to the Thriller section.

3) The Thriller skeleton poses the central question: How will they, and by proxy we, survive the threat to an individual or society? 

For an up ending, the hero succeeds. If you want a down ending, the hero can fail and learn an ugly truth. Twists often provide an unexpected answer in this genre.

4) The Horror skeleton poses the central question: What brought the danger near and how will they escape it?

The answer can go either way as long as you reveal the reason why. Some horror stories ignore the why, but fans consider that a weak story. Fans want the main character to live to be frightened another day, even if every other character is knocked off by the tale's end.

5) The Science Fiction skeleton poses the central question: Will the hero find, change, or stop something in time?

Most fans prefer an up ending. They want to believe that we can overcome the challenges to our existence, especially if you plan a sequel.

6) The Fantasy skeleton poses the central question: Will the hero obtain or learn to use the power to defeat the evil that has disrupted his world in time?

The force is usually with the hero. The wicked witch gets her just due. Lord Voldemort is defeated. If you plan a sequel, the villain can live to fight the hero another day, but the story must show a resolution to a skirmish in the battle.

Once you've chosen a skeleton, the challenge is providing riveting obstacles between question and answer to keep the reader glued to the page. The reader knows from the outset that the hero will likely survive. Your mission is to make her question the outcome anyway. You do that by choosing believable obstacles.

Diana Hurwitz
 is the author of Story Building Blocks: The Four Layers of Conflict, Story Building Blocks II: Crafting Believable Conflict, Story Building Blocks III: The Revision Layers, and the YA adventure series Mythikas Island. Her weekly blog, Game On: Crafting Believable Conflict explores how characters behave and misbehave. Visit for more information and free writing tools. You can follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

He Said, She Said, They Said

This post was first published here on November 13, 2012.

Good morning, dearies! Please excuse the T-shirt and leggings; I’m off to the local jogging track in just a bit to work on my hurdles. I discovered a snake in the rubbish bin and failed to stick the landing.

It’s easy to fall into biased (and colorful) language when one is startled by a scaly percussionist, but what about the written word? The CMOS has a lovely section that covers bias-free language; let’s take a peek, shall we?

First and foremost, the Manual emphasizes maintaining credibility. Getting bogged down in objectionable language or visual distractions should be avoided. Have you ever tried to work your way through a paragraph stuffed with he/she and they? It’s like trying to decipher a store return policy.

While there are many biases to be dealt with, the CMOS focuses on gender neutrality and offers several ways to avoid drawing the ire of readers. Most of these techniques draw on careful pronoun use or omission. A smart shopper knows where he can find the best bargains on coats becomes A smart shopper knows where to find the best bargains on coats.

That was a relatively simple example, but it may not work for every case. Another option is the use of relative pronouns such as who. For example: If your visitor is wearing mismatched socks, she may not have had enough coffee becomes Visitors who are wearing mismatched socks may not have had enough coffee.

One thing to bear in mind is the fact that you cannot please everybody. While you may end up inadvertently irritating someone, a reasonable reader will understand and be pleased by your carefully chosen words. Do your best, and remember: a well-turned phrase is always in style!

Photo courtesy of Darrick Bartholomew 
Seeking escape from freezing temperatures and howling winds, the Style Maven has laid in an enormous supply of milk and cocoa, and is pondering the logistics of a hot chocolate bath. If she succeeds, the story will be posted on The Procraftinator.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Don't Marry Your Writing

This post was first published here on July 17, 2010.

Telling stories to a ghostwriter is like talking to a therapist or a bartender. When they get comfortable with me, my clients tell me all sorts of intimate stuff,often answering questions I never even asked. Then later they may have second thoughts, and wish they hadn’t.

Here’s a frustration with working with non-writers.  Writers know that writing exposes you and makes you vulnerable. The more real and truthful you are, the more vulnerable and exposed – and the more compelling to your readers.  But non-writers don’t know that. They get their manuscript back from the ghostwriter they hired to write their story, read their words and thoughts and feelings on paper, and get scared.  They want to hedge and soften, and turn specifics into generalities, so they will feel safer.

Of course, this will kill the writing.  Readers respond to gut-level stuff; that is what makes stories compelling and readable.  But it’s not just the readers who get shortchanged when the story is “softened.”  So does the storyteller.  By softening those rough patches, by hedging their truths and telling instead of showing their pains and joys, they have dramatically reduced one big benefit of writing – healing their emotional wounds.

From the ghostwriter’s perspective, this is so frustrating! It’s not my story; it’s theirs. If they don’t want to tell the truth, I can’t make them.  All I can do is offer my word tools, and hope they use them.

Many times I’ve been told “I didn’t say that” when I know they did – I have their recorded voices saying exactly that. I had one client who had a bit of a potty mouth, but she didn’t realize it. I didn’t include all of her swear words, but I inserted a few so it sounded like her. She was upset. “I would never use that f***ing word!” she said.

I once ghostwrote a memoir for a lovely man who had led a rich and varied life. He was a touring musician during Vaudeville in the late 1920s and early 30s. His circuit included places like Al Capone’s Chicago, and as you might guess, there were some juicy details in his stories. I loved listening to him, and could hardly wait to get those stories down on paper. But his wife was a very proper lady in her eighties, and she did not want any of those juicy details in his memoirs – they weren’t respectable and she didn’t want anyone knowing about them. They belonged to his youth, before he became a pillar of the community.

The musician himself didn’t actually care, since he was just doing the book at the request of his children. He shrugged and said, “Whatever my wife says.” So I had to take some of the best stories out of his memoir, and make it conform to what his wife deemed proper. It made the story much blander than it should have been. Boy, that was hard for me.

This happens to ghosts. I don’t always agree with everything my client wants to say, or doesn’t want to say. I may have to argue for artistic integrity. I’ll have to defend why I want to put those details in, or why I want to take them out. I’ll have to explain why the story about grandma and the plumber just doesn’t fit in a book about gardening. Even if it is funny.

But I must be aware that I might lose this argument. It is their book, not mine. This is one of the hardest challenges of ghostwriting – you must let go of your own ego. You can’t marry your writing. In fact you can’t even get engaged to it. At the most, you’re simply dating.

Kim Pearson is an author, ghostwriter, and owner of Primary Sources, a writing service that helps others become authors of professional and compelling books and articles. She has authored 6 books of her own, and ghostwritten more than 30 non-fiction books and memoirs. To learn more about her books or services, visit

Friday, December 12, 2014

The Buck Stops Here

This post was first published here on April 27, 2012.

At least we hope it stops here — because that’s the plan. So how do we get from hope to plan to book sales? Where’s the marketing goose that lays the golden eggs?

Last December, a very interesting piece appeared in the Wall Street Journal. After having her manuscript rejected by several publishers and more than 100 literary agents, first-time author Darcie Chan took matters into her own hands. At the time the article was written, she had sold over 400,000 books. When any unknown writer creates this kind of success, we need to sit up and take notice. What is she doing that we are not? Check out the article at the link below, and then tell us what you think. How could you adapt her marketing strategy to your book?

This is a very short post because I really want you to read this article. It could make a huge difference in the success of your books — as well as the size of your bank account.

Linda Lane and her editing team mentor and encourage writers at all phases of the writing process. To learn more about what they do, please visit them at

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Ask the Editors: Third Person/Present Tense

This post was first published here on Nov 3, 2009.

Theresa M. Moore, author of ten books, including her latest, Principles of Self-Publishing: How to Publish and Market a Book On a Shoestring Budget, Rev. Ed., and another 4 in progress wrote to ask The Blood-Red Pencil editors this question:
Recently I have received two books for review which were written in third person present tense (action as it happens) instead of the standard third person past tense. I found both books hard to read as I am used to the latter style. Is this an acceptable way to write a book for new authors?

Where did this style originate, and should it be accepted by editors?
Here’s my take on this, Theresa.

Writers are constantly being told they need to write something new, but not too new: something unique, but that the reader can identify with … a plot device that grabs the reader, but doesn’t lock them in a stranglehold … a new twist on an old story … characters who will lead the next rage-wave … and on and on.

What editors want is a story that will grab their attention, carry them late into the night reading, and make them close the book and want to call the writer the next morning to grab them before someone else does. Yeah, they want that unidentifiable “something,” be it a unique plot twist; a new vampire, but not a vampire; a thread that runs through the story that will establish a platform for the writer and create mega sales; a story that moves them; something different, yet not too different; fully developed characters who arc over the course of the book and who live and breathe in a setting that will pull the reader into the story.

They’re rarely looking for a way of telling the story that baffles the reader.
He sees a manuscript on his desk, neatly typed, with a compelling title, and he picks it up, ruffles through the pages. He reclines in his desk chair and begins to read. He is only a few pages into the story when his assistant comes in, sets a cup of mocha on the manuscript. “Hey, I’m reading that.”

“Sorry,” she mumbles. “Where can I put it? Your desk is covered.”

“Set it on top of the Dan Brown tome. I’m gonna pass on that, anyway.” He smiles, watches her leave the room, and picks up the manuscript. He knows it’s not a new ideal; it is, in fact, a remake of a hundred other books: A vampire who craves the blood of young teens, but holds himself in check because he’s in love with a human cheerleader. But it’s written in third person/present tense. He nods his head. Yeah, that’s a twist. He checks the cover page to see if the writer included her phone number.
Yes, there have been books written in third person/present tense. It has the feel of the old gumshoe TV shows. It lets the reader in on everything that happens as it happens. Third person/present tense is not easy to maintain for 300 or 500 pages, nor is it easy to keep the attention of the reader who’s sitting smack in the protagonist’s lap seeing and feeling his every move as it happens.

Before you write this kind of book, get several published books under your credit belt. Establish yourself with your agent and editor, so they know when they receive this third person/present tense manuscript that you can handle it and they can work with you. Or , better yet, you’re close enough to your agent or editor you can talk to them ahead of time and see what they think of the idea before you start. An unpublished writer sending this to an agent or editor probably won’t get far.

She may get the first few pages read, but not much more, unless the agent and the editor think it’s brilliant.

Thanks, Theresa, for the question.

Helen Ginger is an authorblogger, Coordinator of Story Circle Network's Editorial Services and Chair of the Texas Book Festival Author Escorts. She teaches public speaking as well as writing and marketing workshops. You can follow Helen on Twitter or connect with her on Facebook and LinkedIn. Helen is the author of three books in TSTC Publishing’s TechCareers series, and the novel Angel Sometimes. Two of her short stories can be found in the anthology, The Corner Cafe. Her next book, Dismembering the Past, is due out soon.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Things That Drive An Editor Crazy

This post first ran here on October 7, 2008 and is another of our most popular and most commented on posts.


I’ve been editing for a long time and am still amazed at how often I see common mistakes repeated over and over again. For instance:

Fred walked out, taking the file with him. You don’t need ‘with him’. If he took the file, it’s with him, DUH!! Or the sentence could be rewritten to make it a little more visual. Fred grabbed the file and walked out.

Those gray eyes of his stared right at her. This is an incredibly popular phraseology used in romance novels, and I wince every time I read it. As if he would be looking at her with anyone else’s eyes.

Please note that I am not denigrating romance novels. I have read many that are wonderful, well-crafted stories. Unfortunately, I have also received many to review that I can’t even read past the first chapter because the writing relies on tired, worn out wordage. How I long for some fresh, clever word usage.

Sally shrugged her shoulders. What else would she shrug?

Harry nodded his head. As opposed to his elbow?

Sam found himself standing in the middle of… Was Sam lost? Much stronger to write: Sam stood in the middle of….

It was a picture of Madeline Smith, herself. Could it not just be a picture of Madeline Smith, period? Even my husband asked if the use of the reflexive pronoun was necessary, and he’s not an editor.

And don’t even get me started on all those dialogue attributives. Characters say their lines. They don’t cluck, snort, retort, purr, snigger, interject, bark, and my all time favorite, ejaculate. Most of the time the intent is in the dialogue itself, so there is no need to TELL the reader how the character spoke. Let the dialogue SHOW the reader. And if it doesn’t, the dialogue needs to be reworked until it does.

Also high on the list of things that make me pound my head on my keyboard is the overuse of adverbs. Again, that is often connected to dialogue and TELLS the reader how the person was speaking as opposed to SHOWING them, which doesn’t mean that adverbs should be avoided entirely. A well-placed adverb can be very effective, but they lose their punch when every other line has one.

Sometimes I will have a client say, “But I see that all the time in books I read.”


Weak writing is weak writing no matter who is getting published. Some people don’t care. They just dash off a piece of work, grab the money and run. But I believe we owe our readers more than that. Developing the story and getting it down on paper – or stored on your hard drive – is only the first step in writing a book. The next couple of steps are crucial and infinitely more difficult – at least I think so. Rewriting and editing to find just the right words and phrases can lift an average book into the realm of good and maybe even great.

Maryann Miller is a novelist, screenwriter, editor and sometimes actress. Her most recent mysteries are Doubletake and Boxes For Beds, both available for Kindle and in paper.  Stalking Season is the second book in the Seasons Mystery Series, hardback and digital, along with Open Season, the first book in the series. For her editing rates, visit her website. When not working, Maryann likes to take her dog for a walk and work outside on her little ranch in East Texas. 


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