About Kathryn Lilley

A crime writer, former journalist, and author of IMBA-bestselling mystery series, The Fat City Mysteries. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and two neurotic cats. http://www.kathrynlilley.com/

16 Concrete Tips for Effectively Editing Your Own Fiction

by Jodie Renner, TKZ alumna, fiction editor and author of writing guides    

Are you relatively new at writing fiction? Perhaps you’ve shown your first (or latest) draft to beta readers and been told your premise, plot, and characterization are now pretty solid, but that your pacing is a bit slow and your writing style could use some amping up and polishing. Perhaps it’s overly wordy or just a bit pedestrian.

If so, take a break, then grab a coffee or some chocolate and start going through the whole story again, page by page, to search for any wordy, clunky, hackneyed, or lackluster phrasing and replace it with succinct, fresh, vibrant wording that will entice and delight your readers. The step-by-step list below will help you do a line-by-line self-edit to take your story up a notch or two.

If you want your popular fiction to captivate readers, sell well, and garner great reviews, ferret out and fix these 16 style weaknesses:

1. Meandering, wordy, or repetitive writing. Be on the constant lookout for anywhere you can cut down on wordiness. Don’t bore your readers by having characters going on and on. Avoid lengthy, neutral descriptions—today’s readers don’t have patience with them. And don’t say the same thing several times just to make sure readers got it. Look for areas you’re repeating yourself. Also, watch for “little word pileup.” Can you be more succinct and direct? For example, instead of “It would be a good thing for us to…,” just say “We should….” Here’s an example from my editing:

Before: The man was small and pudgy and he had a full dark beard that he nervously stroked with his hand.

After: The small, pudgy man nervously stroked his full dark beard.

2. Wishy-washy qualifiers that weaken your message. Do a search for words like quite, sort of, almost, kind of, a bit, pretty, somewhat, rather, usually, basically, generally, probably, mostly, etc., and delete almost all of them. Forget “He was quite brave,” or “She was pretty intelligent” or “It was almost scary.” These qualifiers dilute your message, reduce the impact, and make the imagery weaker. Even really and very are best avoided—it’s like you’re saying the word after it needs reinforcing. “She was beautiful” packs more punch than “She was very beautiful.”

3. Colorless, pedestrian verbs. Do a search for overused verbs like walked, ran, went, saw, talked, ate, did, got, put, took. Get out your thesaurus or use the MS Word one to find more expressive, powerful verbs instead, like crept, loped, stumbled, stomped, glimpsed, noticed, observed, witnessed, spied, grunted, whimpered, devoured, consumed, gobbled, wolfed, munched, or bolted. Do searches for walked and ran and replace many or most of them. See Ch. 21 of Fire up Your Fiction for plenty of more expressive alternatives.

4. Overuse of –ing verbs. Best to use -ed verbs instead—they’re stronger and more immediate. “He was racing” is weaker than “He raced.” “They searched the house” is more immediate than “They were searching the house.” Rewrite -ing verbs whenever you can, and you’ll strengthen your writing and increase its power.

5. Too many -ly adverbs. Instead of propping up a boring, anemic verb with an adverb, look for strong, descriptive, powerful verbs. Instead of “He walked slowly” go for “He plodded” or “He trudged” or “He dawdled.” Instead of “She ate hungrily” say “She devoured the bag of chips,” or “She wolfed down the pizza.” Instead of “They talked quickly,” say “They babbled.” Instead of “He walked deliberately,” say “He strode.”

6. Pile-up of adjectives. Use adjectives sparingly and consciously. Instead of stringing a bunch of descriptors in front of an ordinary, overused noun, find a more precise, expressive noun to show rather than tell. Instead of “a very tall, hefty man” say “a giant”; instead of “a beautiful, huge, historic house,” say “a stately mansion.”

Overuse of adjectives can also turn your writing into “purple prose”—melodramatic, overly “flowery” writing. For example, here’s an over-the-top description from a novel I edited many years ago, about a sports car in motion: “Every turn of the wheel, the veiled beauty of fortune shadowed him: serpentine and capricious in nature, bestowing pleasure or pain at whim, and enslaving mankind to her fancy.”

7. Telling instead of showing. Show us, don’t tell us how your characters are feeling. Avoid statements like, “He found that funny,” or “The little girl felt sad.” Show these emotions by their actions, words, tone, facial expressions, and body language: “Eyes downcast, shoulders slumped, head down, she pushed her food around the plate.” Do searches for was, looked, seemed, and felt and reassess and revise.

8. Distracting dialogue tags. Stick with the basic he said and she said­ (or asked) wherever possible, rather than “he emphasized” or “she reiterated” or “Mark uttered,” etc. These phrases stand out, so they take the reader out of the story, whereas “said” is almost invisible. However, I like dialogue tags that describe how something is said, as in he shouted, she murmured, he grumbled, she whispered.

Also, you can often eliminate the dialogue tag altogether and just use an action beat instead:  He picked up the phone. “That’s it. I’m calling the cops.”

9. Showing a reaction before the action that caused it. Make sure your sentence structure mimics the order of the actual actions. Describe the action first, then the reaction; the stimulus, then the response. State cause before effect. Instead of “He jumped when he heard a piercing scream,” write: “A piercing scream made him jump.”

10. Passive instead of active voice. Don’t say, “The ball was thrown by the boy.” Say “The boy threw the ball.” Start with the doer, then describe what he did, rather than the other way around. Use the more direct, personalized, active voice wherever possible. Instead of “The house was taped off by the police,” write “The police taped off the house.” Instead of: “Fire on them as soon as they’re spotted,” say “Fire on them as soon as you spot them.”

11. Negative constructions. Avoid double negatives as they can be confusing to the reader. Instead of “I didn’t disagree with him,” say “I agreed with him.”

12. Frequent repetition of the same word or forms of the same word. If you’ve already used a certain noun or verb in a paragraph or section, go to your thesaurus to find a different way to express that idea when you mention it again. “The assailant closed in on me, eyes blazing. Next thing I saw was his fist closing in, and then making contact.” or “Two big stacks of files were stacked on her desk.”

13. Pet words or imagery you use over and over. Is your character smiling or shrugging or squinting or swallowing or nodding or rolling her eyes or raising her eyebrows a lot? Vary the wording and imagery.

14. Formal sentences and pretentious language. To be avoided in fiction, unless it’s the dialogue of an arrogant or pretentious character. Rather than impressing your readers, ornate, fancy words can just end up distracting and alienating them. Simple words are more powerful and direct, as they evoke an instant image or feeling. Pompous or unfamiliar words feel like the author is trying too hard to impress us.

“Are you excavating a subterranean channel?” asked the scholar. “No sir,” replied the farmer. “I am only digging a ditch.” – Anon

15. Characters starting to do things. Don’t have your characters begin to do something or start to do something. Just show them performing the action. Instead of “She was beginning to feel nauseous,” say “She felt nauseous.” Instead of “His head started to pound” say “His head pounded.”

16. Monotonous sentence structure:

– Don’t start sentence after sentence with “He” or “She” or their name. Rearrange the ideas for a more sophisticated feel:

Before: His headlights found the driveway leading to the rear of the duplex. He parked in the darkness. He closed the car door carefully after him. He drew his gun. He was relieved to see no lights in the windows. He walked quietly up the path to the back door.

After: His headlights found the driveway leading to the rear of the duplex. He drove around, then parked in the darkness. Closing the car door carefully after him, he drew his gun and crept forward. As he walked quietly up the path to the back deck, he was relieved to see no lights in the windows.

– Don’t start sentence after sentence with a gerund:

Creeping to the office door, Eileen stood listening. Hearing nothing, she opened it and peeked out. Seeing no one in the hallway, she headed for the door near the entrance to the showroom. Entering the room, she turned on the light and closed the door behind her. Expecting to see a room filled with stolen artwork, Eileen was disappointed.

– Change up “and” sentences, which can seem clunky and amateurish.

Before: He was tall and thin with a long narrow face and looked exhausted.

After: Tall and thin with a long narrow face, he looked exhausted.

– Combine sentences and reword for better flow:

Before:  Ben Cross was a top-notch investigator. He was at a table drinking coffee and eating a donut when Shelley walked in.

After:  Ben Cross, a top-notch investigator, was at a table drinking coffee and eating a donut when Shelly walked in.

Or:  Shelly walked in the café and looked around. Ben Cross, a top-notch investigator, was at a table drinking coffee and eating a donut.

This list is by no means exhaustive, but working through these tips should definitely result in a more dynamic, engaging writing style and better pacing. For more many more tips with examples for sparking up your story and polishing your prose, check out Jodie Renner’s FIRE UP YOUR FICTION.

For lots more succinct, valuable advice for writing compelling fiction, see links to many of Jodie Renner’s top writing craft posts HERE.

Do you have any style tips to add? Please post them in the comments below. (Let’s leave advice on grammar and punctuation, and also plot, characterization, pacing, tension, intrigue, etc. for other blog posts.) Thanks.

Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor and the award-winning author of three craft-of-writing guides in her series An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: FIRE UP YOUR FICTION,CAPTIVATE YOUR READERS, and WRITING A KILLER THRILLER, as well as two handy, clickable, time-saving e-resources, QUICK CLICKS: Spelling List and QUICK CLICKS: Word Usage. Website: www.JodieRenner.com; Blog – Resources for WritersFacebook, Amazon Author Page.

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Reader Friday: Your Most Useful Writers Confabs?

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We’re winding our way toward the end of the year, so let’s share some of our hive wisdom. What are your favorite writer conferences for networking or making contacts? Describe the best conference you ever attended, and please tell us what made it a good experience for you.

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It’s Time To Share, TKZers! What Are You Working On?

A while back, a TKZer made an excellent suggestion: to give an opportunity for readers to share something about their writing and latest projects.

So, this is the day we want to hear about YOU, your WIP, and recent accomplishments! Don’t forget to include a link so that folks can find out more about your work.

C’mon, it’s time to toot your horn!

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First Page Critique: FIFTH FLOOR

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Today we’re reviewing the first page of FIFTH FLOOR, submitted anonymously for critique. I’ll start the ball rolling, and then please add your suggestions for today’s brave author in the Comments.

FIFTH FLOOR

The smell of burning wood and flesh began to be drowned out by the sound of screams…the screams of a woman. Deafening and chilling screams, echoed through the steel door.  Andromeda found herself in a small room, with cold metal walls, a plain steel table, metal bed with a thin mattress and blanket, and an uncomfortable looking metal chair. She was a tall, beautiful young woman, whose long black hair fell down to her shoulders, and slightly covered her almond shaped face. An eerie chill pierced the air in the room, and Andromeda wasn’t sure if the goosebumps that followed were because of the woman screaming, or the total lack of insulation in the room – likely a combination of both.

Andromeda looked around the room, her heart pounding through her chest. Her attempts to remember how she got here was futile; the only thing she remembered was cleaning up after her best friend and roommate Sofia, who was recuperating from the flu. After disposing of soiled tissue paper and disinfecting their dorm room, Andromeda turned on some classical music and tucked herself in bed. After that, there was a black spot in her memory. She sat up in the bed that she woke up in, and began to stretch and look around the room.

Dressed in a white t-shirt, gray fleece shorts, and white socks, she began to walk around the stark and unoccupied room, looking for anything that may give her a clue as to where she was. She wrapped her arms around her body, bracing herself for the shudder and chills that followed. The room had the look and feel of a military interrogation chamber: there were no windows, no traces that anyone even knew she was there. But someone knew she was here, the same someone who put her in this place.

Suddenly, Andromeda was reminded of the screams as they began again, growing increasingly louder, followed by a loud “BOOM!” Andromeda ran to the door, preparing her mind to bang on the door with all of her might, to hell with alerting whomever put her in this room; the only thing on her mind was escaping. However, before she could even touch the door, it receded into the floor.  Andromeda fell face first onto the cold, hard, metal floor of the hallway. The palms of her hands were burning, and so were her legs.

My comments

We’re definitely starting off with a sense of urgency in this scene, as Andromeda becomes aware of her surroundings and tries to assess her situation.

Here’s another version, with my comments/notes in bold:

The smell of burning wood and flesh began to be drowned out by the sound of screams…the screams of a woman. Deafening and chilling screams, (Edit the number of commas used throughout this submission) echoed through the steel door.

(The references to “the smell of burning wood and flesh” didn’t get much followup after this opening, which was a bit puzzling. The flesh of the screaming woman in the next room is being burned? That would be a truly terrifying conclusion to make. And if that’s what’s happening, I’d want Andromeda to have a reaction.)

Andromeda found herself in a small room, with cold metal walls, a plain steel table, metal bed with a thin mattress and blanket, and an uncomfortable looking metal chair. (I  stumbled briefly over the transition from a woman screaming to “Andromeda found herself in a small room.” Found herself? That wording struck me as a bit vague.)

She was a tall, beautiful young woman, whose long black hair fell down to her shoulders, and slightly covered her almond shaped face. (This description is a bit intrusive, and it’s what some editors would call a “description dump”. Try to work in character description in a way that isn’t a generic “She had brown hair and green eyes” sort of thing. For tips and examples of fresh ways to work character descriptions into a scene, I suggest taking a look at DON’T MURDER YOUR MYSTERY by Chris Roerden)

An eerie chill (Can a chill be eerie and piercing? Just wondering) pierced the air in the room, and Andromeda wasn’t sure if the goosebumps that followed were because of the woman screaming, or the total lack of insulation in the room – likely a combination of both. (Edit this down a bit. The ‘total lack of insulation’ seems off in tone. By now, I was also looking for some followup or clarification to the mention of burning wood and flesh in the opening sentence.)

Andromeda looked around the room, her heart pounding through her chest. Her attempts to remember how she got here was (attempts…were) futile; (semicolon alert) the only thing she remembered was cleaning up after her best friend and roommate Sofia, who was recuperating from the flu. After disposing of soiled tissue paper and disinfecting their dorm room, Andromeda turned on some classical music and tucked herself in bed. After that, there was a black spot in her memory. She sat up in the bed that she woke up in, and began to stretch and look around the room. (This transition stopped me. Which bed is this referring to? The one in the metal interrogation room? This is the first moment I realized she woke up in the bed there–that should be established earlier, the first time the bed is mentioned. And “stretching” seems too relaxed a gesture for the level of tension this scene requires.)

Dressed in a white t-shirt, gray fleece shorts, and white socks, she began to walk (she walked, not “began to walk”) around the stark and unoccupied room, looking for anything that may give her a clue as to where she was. (Try to pare down the number of clothing details, and work them in without calling them out so pointedly. And the use of “unoccupied “ is unnecessary—by now, we know she’s alone in the room) She wrapped her arms around her body, bracing herself for the shudder and chills that followed. (tighten up the wrapping, bracing, shudder and chills a bit) The room had the look and feel of a military interrogation chamber: (To me, the reference to a military interrogation chamber suggests a certain type of background–if so, we need to get a sense of that background somewhere in this scene) there were no windows, no traces that anyone even knew she was there. But someone knew she was here, the same someone who put her in this place. (Try to find wording that is stronger than “put her in this place”)

Suddenly, Andromeda was reminded of the screams as they began again, (Just start with the screams. No need to say that she’s reminded) growing increasingly louder, followed by a loud “BOOM!” Andromeda ran to the door, preparing her mind (nix the “preparing her mind”) to bang on the door with all of her might, to hell with alerting whomever put her in this room (the wording’s a bit awkward here); (semicolon alert) the only thing on her mind was escaping. However, before she could even totuch the door, it receded into the floor.  (What? The door receded into the floor? Visions of Sci-Fi rise in my head) Andromeda fell face first onto the cold, hard, metal floor of the hallway. The palms of her hands were burning, and so were her legs. (Burning from what? The metal door and floor? I’m not getting a clear sense of cause and effect here.)

Overall

Happily, most of my previous comments fall into the category of nit picky writing edits and craft tweaks that are easily introduced. I think the scene overall has enough inherent drama and tension to engage a reader’s interest and propel this story forward.

Our thanks go to today’s writer for submitting this scene for critique! TKZ’ers, please add your notes and suggestions in the Comments.

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“When I Grow Up”: Things I Never Planned To Become

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We spent Labor Day weekend in New York City, which meant I had to reacquaint myself with the sights and textures of Manhattan’s gritty streets in the sweltering heat of late summer.

Our activities revolved mostly around watching the US Open and Yankees baseball. As someone who had zero interest in spectator sports for most of her life, I’m a bit surprised by having acquired a sudden, rabid interest in baseball. Because my newfound enthusiasm for baseball far outstrips my knowledge of the game, I have a newbie’s tendency to vocalize (loudly) ill informed skepticism about Aaron Boone management decisions. This obnoxious trait leads to the occasional humiliation when his decisions turn out to be correct, leading to a Yankees win.

We spent the entire day on Saturday enjoying a close-up tour of Yankees Stadium. They let us wander around the dugout and take a quick peek at the bullpen. Later that day during the game we listened as the famed Bleacher Creatures bellowed outfielder Andrew McCutchen’s name as he made his debut in pinstripes. Per my usual, I questioned Boone’s decision to use him as the leadoff hitter in his very first game (I mean, Cutch had just traveled 3,000 miles on short notice—ever hear of jet lag, Aaron?) 

Checking out the Yankees dugout

But to his credit, Boone thrilled many hearts in Yankees fan world (a notoriously fickle lot) by getting thrown out of a game recently. Boone, who has been criticized in social media for being a bit too mellow, too nice, got suspended after storming the field to conduct a brim-to-brim confrontation with an umpire. The manager’s ejection seemed to galvanize his players, who rallied quickly to take the win.

So now I’m in the mood to read some great books about sports. The subject doesn’t have to be baseball; I’m looking for anything that captures the drama, personalities, or history of a sport. Any suggestions?

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Reader Friday: Dark And Stormy?

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As Hurricane Lane bears down on the enchanted islands of Hawaii, we’re reminded of the age-old advice against opening a story with a description of the weather.

Have you ever made an exception to that “rule” in your own writing? Was it effective?

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