Tighten your manuscript – Wednesday Prompts and Inspirations

chalkboard-3-AYou’ve heard these, I’ve heard these, and up-and-coming writers are sure to hear these comments about their work…

But those are my best words.

Kill my what? No! Not my darlings!

But I worked hard perfecting that lovely, poetic flow of flowery adjectives.

What’s wrong with adverbs?

Take out that “telling” sentence? But what if the reader doesn’t grasp the showing sentence?

My love of writing centers around picture books. Therefore, I don’t have the luxury of writing without eyeing the word count at the bottom of my screen. I take a deep breath as the number crawls to 550. Gad’s I’m at 750, and I haven’t reached my story’s climax! In my critique groups, I find it easy to help others trim words. Since I don’t have a relationship to any of their carefully structured sentences, I can highlight every adjective, adverb, and telling sentence, offer stronger verbs, offer suggestions, etc…

Here is what I look for…

Signs of a passive “telling” voice. I don’t want to read that Mary is happy, I want to see her hands clapping and her feet lifting off the ground.

In picture books, descriptive passages are word hogs and can often be deleted and turned over to the capable hands of the illustrator. Unless the color of Sarah’s shoes are important to the story, don’t write — Sarah slipped on her pink, sparkly shoes with the purple, satin bows. That sentence weighs in at 12 words. Let’s shorten it for a picture book: Sarah slipped on her shoes. Woo Hoo!  5 words.

We’ve all been told to delete adverbs. And after years of writing, most writers reach the point when, after proofreading, they rejoice at not finding any. Adverbs are a sure sign we haven’t chosen the strongest verbs to “show” the action.

Mark quickly ran to the corner.  Mark dashed to the corner.

It’s easy to string a series of adjectives together when the best choice is to use one or none.

Sarah pulled on her sky-blue, loosely knit, chunky, cowl-neck sweater.

In a picture book, the writer needs to leave the bulk of description to the illustrator and write: Sarah pulled on her sweater.

Lemons are yellow, so unless the lemons in your story are purple for a reason, leave out the adjectives.

Does your picture book open with lots of back story? Have you offered the reader a long look into your main character’s past? While this information is good to know. Correction: While this information is good for YOU to know, your reader can be spared. I recently read a picture book manuscript in which the first 500 words toured me through the main character’s house, offered me a look at his town, outlined his hobbies, pointed out the places his friends lived and, I’m not kidding you, went on to say, and now my story begins… Needless to say, the deletion of those first 500 words brought the word count down.

A picture book of 500 words or less requires the writer to put every word on trial and trim unnecessary words with the thought of receiving $20 per deleted word. (Make that $50.) Constantly question if every sentence reveals something about character or plot. At the top of my computer screen, I tape a slip of paper with the central question of my story. Everything I write must answer that question.

I’m off to tighten my word count.

Happy writing.

Do You Hear What I Hear? Wednesday Prompts and Inspirations

chalkboard-3-ALast week at my daughter’s Christmas coir concert, I found a seat up in the balcony with a fairly good view of the stage, better, I was told by my daughter, than any seat on the ground level. Minus the small area blocked by the bouffant, out-dated hairdo of the woman seated before me, I had a fairly good view of the stage, the clock, the entrance, exit, and steady stream of parents.

Off topic, but as memory serves me, didn’t parents simply watch their children perform at school plays? Nowadays, parents watch their children through an iPhone or iPad held before their face as they record the show.

Back to the point of my blog post. Fifteen minutes before the show, I wondered if an elementary school auditorium would make a good story setting, and if so, what sounds belonged there. I took out my handy pocket notebook and compiled a list of sounds I could hear.

1. Shuffling feet

2. Squeaking seats as people adjusted their positions

3. The rustling of hats and coats

4. The white noise of a hundred, simultaneous conversations

5.The turning of program pages

6. Conversations on iPhones

7. Children warming up their voices behind the stage curtains

8. Tapping feet

9. sneezes and coughs

10. The 5 minute before show announcement

Sound is an important part of our writing. Life isn’t silent. When we write, we mention the cozy smell of cinnamon in a warm kitchen, the sight of delicate, drifting snow flakes, the sticky feel of sugar between our fingers from the sticky bun we ate in my earlier Wednesday post, and the taste of paprika in the beef stew we ordered at a Hungarian restaurant.

What can I hear as I type this blog post?

I hear my daughter shuffling through our stack of Christmas CD’s in the living room, my dog whining for something better than the canned swill in his bowl, my husband in the basement, turning wood on his lathe, the bubbling sound the fish tank filter makes, the hum of the dishwasher, the beeping of the completed dryer cycle, the heat kicking back on, the chirp of our birds, the other chirping of crickets I raise to feed my tree frogs, the click of my fingers on the keyboard, cars driving over the wet street, and rain falling when, on the day before Christmas, it should be snowing. Yikes! With all this noise, it’s a wonder I can get any work done at all. But most days, these sounds disappear. I don’t notice them. These are the sounds of my typical life and, for the most part, I have tuned them out.

For this Wednesday’s Writer’s Prompts and Inspirations, I want you to tune in to the sounds around you. Concentrate on what you can hear. As we know, a little sound here and there can add a level of richness or reality to our writing. Take out your notebook and make a list of what you hear where you are right now, what you hear at the coffee shop you pop into later today, at work, at the gym, in line at the grocery store, and wherever else your day carries you. Try closing your eyes when you tune into your surroundings, you might hear more without the distraction of sight. Can you list ten sounds in each location?

Did you hear/notice a sound that surprised you? Did you hear a sound for the first time that has been around you always, but one you never noticed until now?  Again, this is part of the showing not telling that brings our readers into the world our story takes place in.

This is a sharing place. I would love to hear from you.

Character Soup – Wednesday Writer’s Prompts and Inspiration

chalkboard-3-AAs writers, we all have a natural tendency to people watch. Each day we sit beside, pass on the street, get honked at, speak to, and get called on the phone by possible characters for our stories. Our world is a veritable character soup!

Some of my favorite places to jot details in my pocket notebook are coffee shops, train stations, and, nearly everyone’s favorite people-watching location…the airport.

Have you ever sat across from a group of people and absent mindedly stared at one person in particular? What was it about his appearance that set him apart? His advanced age? his dated clothes? Something resting on his lap or clutched to his chest? A look in his eyes filled with joy and contentment of having lived a good life?

Next time you’re wondering about someone, reach for your notebook and begin speculating.

Start by describing their appearance.

* The fashion-conscious woman–she wears the latest in Vogue, her gold necklace rests perfectly above the neckline of her designer dress, her carry-on bag matches her purse, and her polished nails match her lipstick and belt.

* The confident man– he wears a button-down, white shirt with jeans–worn at the knees. His back pocket is loosened at one corner and bulges with the outline of his wallet. He finger-styles his hair, and when he sits you notice his western boots.

* The homeless woman–she wears several layers of clothes, a torn garbage bag nests in the protection of the grocery cart she rests her hand upon. Her shoes have holes in the sides and the heels are worn. Her tangled, brown hair is pulled back under a frayed, knit cap.

What does the individual have with them? A briefcase? Purse? Stack of folders? A puppy in a pet carrier? A stroller with an infant? A letter? Absolutely nothing? What can you tell about the person from this?

What is this person doing? Checking e-mails on their mobile device? Scribbling details of you in their pocket notebook? (Yeah! A fellow writer.) Feeling in their coat pocket occasionally to check on something. (Hmmmm, possibly suspicious…)

If you’re at the train station or airport, can you speculate where the individual might be going, what awaits him/her there, and what they might need to do there? Are they returning home or beginning their journey? Who did they see? What business brought them to this point?

What about their activity can begin to paint a picture of their personality? If they are writing, do they crumple a sheet of paper with only a few marks on it, or do they use every possible writing space available on that page? Wasteful vs. Frugal.

BEFORE TODAY IS THROUGH, see how many new character sketches you can create.

And maybe one more…(?)

Observe yourself. Yes, you are a potential character for your stories, too. Do you know anyone better? How are you dressed today? What do your clothing choices say about you? What do you carry with you that others can observe? Is the tone in your voice irritated, hostile, happy, or pensive? When in public, what do you talk about that others might overhear? What do you say that a fellow writer in the crowd might document as an example of REAL dialogue?

And while you are creating fresh characters, keep in mind that the details you include are a fine exercise for show don’t tell.

Don’t tell us the man is old…show us his time-worn facial features, shaky hands, and dependency of his cane.

Don’t tell us the woman is stylish…show us her designer outfit, her long-legged, confident stride, and the shiny, silver heels of her black pumps.

Do you already keep a notebook for on-location character sketches? Have you ever been a character in one of your stories?

I’d love to hear from you.

The Wednesday Writer’s Prompts and Inspirations

chalkboard-3-AMy subject today is one you’ve seen in countless blog posts. But because it’s such a good one, (oldie but goodie) it will be the inspiration for my Wednesday Prompts and Inspirations.

Drum roll, please….

Show don’t Tell  (With a twist)

I’m going to introduce this topic via the television.

When we’re watching a movie, clues are given to let us know what sort of scene we’re entering into. One of these clues is the music. (Wouldn’t it be great if our novels could come with a built-in sound track?) No dramatic scene was ever accompanied by a soothing, dreamy melody. The music swells as the pounding beat mimics approaching, heavy footsteps. An ominous sensation falls around us. Our pulse quickens as we try to prepare ourselves for a sudden scare.

The way a scene is lit also adds to the feeling being established. (Another movie technique we have limited access to in our writing.) Harsh, contrasty lighting adds drama, while soft, diffused lighting is perceived as feminine and romantic.

But here is something we, as writers, have complete access to…  Grab your remote control and turn off the volume on your imaginary television set–completely.

Dead silence.

Let’s watch the characters interact as we study their facial expressions and analyze their body language to discern which emotions are portrayed.

We watch a man and a woman discuss something. Their faces appear calm. The woman holds a bouquet of roses. She gazes at the red blooms and offers a gentle, thankful smile. Then the man shoves his hands deep in his coat pockets and shifts his feet. While he speaks, his eyes dart everywhere except to the woman he just gave the bouquet to. The woman listens as she studies the man’s face. Her joyous expression is traded for one of contempt. Her eyes narrow, her fingers tighten on the bouquet, and BAM! She strikes the man’s chest with the flowers not once, but twice. A flurry of rose petals shower the air, her tears stream, she drops the flowers, turns, and runs.

And not once did I say she was angry,  nor did I say the man was nervous.

Stepping away from the television, let us suppose we are putting on a play, and the director tells us to be angry when the curtain goes up.

Each and every one of us will bring something unique to that scene. I might stomp my feet and scowl. Someone else might hurl a vase of flowers against the cardboard backdrop, a child might kick and scream. In order for every reader to see the scene the way we envision it, we must show them what we want them to see.

For today’s Prompt’s and Inspiration, watch your favorite DVD with the volume turned off.

Write out a scene without using the words: happy, sad, exhausted, curious, angry, elated, etc…

And, if you feel like “showing” part of what you wrote, scroll to the top of this post and click ‘comment’ to share.