Reminder or Repetition?

By Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

Photo credit: wwnorm on visual hunt

 

 

When you read a novel, do you like occasional reminders?

 

 

 

 

 

Or…do you find reminders tedious and repetitious?

 

 

 

 

Recently, I discussed these questions with author/editor Karen Albright Lin. Karen is currently reading my WIP, Until Proven Guilty, book #7 in my Tawny Lindholm Thriller series.

Speaking as an older reader with termites eating holes in my memory, I need reminders. Most of the time, I read a novel in bed and fall asleep after a few pages. Days may pass before I pick up the book again.

In stories with many characters, POVs, and plot lines, I get lost and need to scroll backward to review. Who are these people? How are they connected? When and where is the story taking place? What just happened?

My readers are generally older and probably have similar memory lapses. Because of that, as a writer, I make a conscious effort to include small reminders to ground the reader at the beginning of each new scene and chapter.

Authors often leave a character hanging on the edge of a cliff, particularly in thrillers. In the next scene, they jump-cut to a different character in a different place and time. Three or four scenes later, they return to the poor hanging character. At that point, I appreciate a brief reminder of how and why the character wound up in that situation.

Reminders are also helpful for secondary characters who are offstage much of the time. When they reappear, in addition to their names, I usually mention their role or function.

A minor character, Mavis Dockerty, appears only three times in Until Proven Guilty—in chapters 1, 18, and 32.

She’s first introduced during a preliminary hearing on page 2, questioning a rape victim in what should be a slam-dunk prosecution:

County Attorney Mavis Dockerty said, “Take your time.” She picked up a box of tissues from the prosecution table and handed it to Amelia.

A few pages later, Mavis’s airtight case against the rapist is destroyed by defense attorney Tillman Rosenbaum, the male lead.

Mavis doesn’t appear again for 150+ pages and could be forgotten by some readers. So, I reintroduce her on page 166:

Flathead County Attorney Mavis Dockerty was sitting by herself in the last row of Courtroom #2 when Tillman tracked her down.

She appears for a final time on page 287:

County Attorney Mavis Dockerty was doggedly determined not to lose twice against the rapist Claude Ledbetter. Her evidence at his second preliminary hearing was flawless and overwhelming, every possible loophole sewed up tight.

Quick reminders like that are easy.

But when do reminders turn into repetition?

Back to my discussion with Karen. In my manuscript, she made many notes where she thought I was being repetitive. She advised: “Trust the reader to get it the first time.” 

My initial reaction was Really? Nah, I don’t repeat myself.

Writers can’t see their own flaws. That’s why we depend on critique groups, beta readers, and editors to point out problematic trees amid the dense forest of our novels. I trust Karen’s sharp eye and savvy skills as an editor so I took a closer look.

What I found was shocking. Here are a few examples:

One hint the writer is being repetitive is when the reminder appears three times in two paragraphs.

In the following passage, protagonist Tawny is experiencing empty-nest syndrome. She loves her husband’s three children from his previous marriage but they’re away at school or traveling. Her own son Neal is in his mid-thirties, in the military, and is home for a rare visit.

She’d already had one disappointment, when Neal declined to stay in the beautiful, sprawling, ranch-style house that Tillman had bought when they married because it had enough bedrooms for all their kids. Instead, Neal opted to sleep at Tawny’s creaky old bungalow in the historic district—the home where he’d grown up and still felt comfortable.

The hollow bedrooms of the new house sometimes made Tawny melancholy. Occasionally Tillman’s two daughters and his son came for weekend visits but otherwise the rooms stayed empty. But that was the way with grown children.

Did you get the picture of the vacant bedrooms?

Again and again and again.

Based on Karen’s suggestions, the first paragraph stayed the same but the second now reads:

The hollow bedrooms of the new house sometimes made Tawny melancholy, wishing Tillman’s two daughters and his son visited more often. But that was the way with grown children.

In another example, Karen noted that the location of a coffee kiosk had been repeated. In that instance, since there were only a couple of mentions, with many pages in between, I did not take her suggestion because it seemed like a reasonable reminder that wouldn’t bug readers.

The bigger problem is how to express themes without being repetitive. That’s where Karen busted me big time.

Until Proven Guilty weaves together three plots, each showcasing a different perspective in the tug of war between the law and justice. The first involves a clearly guilty character who walks free; the second addresses an innocent character who’s wrongly imprisoned; the third shows the perils of presuming guilt without proof.

The two protagonists, Tawny and Tillman, are married, work together, and clash over their different beliefs. Tawny is an idealist who wants justice for crime victims. Tillman is sometimes a righteous crusader but he’s also a cynical, pragmatic attorney whose job is to vigorously defend his clients whether they’re guilty or not.

At the start of the story, Tillman destroys County Attorney Mavis Dockerty’s case against an accused rapist because of faulty evidence. Tawny didn’t know Tillman’s plan before the hearing and is shocked and dismayed that the accused rapist is set free.

As they walk from the courthouse back to the law office, she confronts Tillman:

Tawny looked up at him. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

His deep, rumbling baritone rose above traffic noise. “So you could distract me with a lecture about right and wrong, good and evil?”

“You know he’s guilty,” she said. “The judge practically said so.”

His dark gaze, half sexy, half scary, pinned her. “The cops botched the evidence collection. The crime lab mishandled the DNA samples. It’s not my responsibility to help the county attorney prove her case. It’s full of holes bigger than the Berkeley mine pit.”

“But he’s guilty,” Tawny repeated. “He assaulted that poor woman. That doesn’t bother you?” She dearly loved her new husband but sometimes she didn’t like him very much.

Tillman stopped in the shade of a maple tree overhanging the alley behind the office. “I did my job, Tawny. That’s how the system is set up. Presumed innocent until proven guilty. Mavis didn’t prove Ledbetter guilty. And the fee Ledbetter paid me allows me to take on more pro bono cases.”

He didn’t say “like yours” but the unspoken words hung heavy in the late summer air.

A scene follows at the law office where Tawny expresses her indignation to a coworker:

A new headache settled behind Tawny’s eyes, the pressure making them feel like they were bulging. “When the judge threw the case out, that poor woman was crushed. Her husband looked ready to peel off Ledbetter’s skin and dunk him in alcohol. I wouldn’t blame him if he had.”

Then she thinks even more about it:

Tawny knew the system. Yet, in cases like Ledbetter’s, her conscience chafed. What about the victim’s right to justice?  

A few pages later, on their way home:

Tillman said, “If you wanted a lawyer who represents only innocent people, you should have married Perry Mason. This is how the system works. What can be proved versus what can’t be, what evidence is admissible versus what isn’t. I use the law as it’s written to defend my clients.”

“But it’s wrong,” Tawny said.  

“It’s the law.”

Tillman was hard to argue with. That’s why he was so good.

Tawny couldn’t think of a rebuttal.

A heavy silence hung over the rest of the drive home.

Then, at home, they talk more about the case:

“You’re such a Pollyanna,” he murmured but without his usual sardonic tone.

“I know you have to do what you have to do. I just feel bad for that poor victim.”

“It’s not a justice system, Tawny. It’s a legal system. Right and wrong, good and evil. None of that comes into play.”

In the first 15 pages of the book, I repeat the theme five different times.

Didja get it? Sure you got it? Are you positive? Just in case, let me smack you over the head with a two-by-four.

The author’s personal beliefs are bleeding all over the story.

That refrain echoed through the rest of the manuscript as Karen observed over and over that I was beating the same drum. By page 188, her understandable frustration was showing: “This drum has been beat until there’s a hole in it.”

Therein lies my dilemma. Three different plots share the same theme but are seen through contrasting lenses by various POV characters. How does a writer show multiple perspectives yet avoid being repetitive? How do I keep my obvious bias in check?

Through the book, the running argument between Tawny and Tillman escalates. It ultimately leads to a crisis in their marriage.

Photo credit: matthijs smit – Unsplash

How the heck do I show that important plot arc without beating a hole in the drum?

Right now, I’m going through page by page with Karen’s cautions in mind. I have to decide when reminders become repetitious and cut those parts.

Sometimes I can combine several references into a single one that makes the point.

I’m trying to reserve dialogue about theme for the most important pivotal scenes.

Karen says, “Trust the reader to get it the first time.”

She’s right but, oh, it’s a struggle to restrain my drumstick.

~~~

TKZers: As a reader, how do you feel about reminders?

Do you sometimes want to tell the author enough is enough already?

As a writer, how do you incorporate reminders?

Do you catch yourself making a point until it becomes repetitious?

~~~

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Tools for Collaboration, Editing, and Beta Reading

Tools for Collaboration, Editing, and Beta Reading

by Steve Hooley

Today we’re going to discuss tools, one of my favorite topics. I have been a big fan of Beta Books for the past three years, using it to gather comments and reviews from students at surrounding schools as part of my editing process. This year, when I began inviting beta readers, I discovered that the website had a problem with the reader signup link not working. The support at Beta Books was good and helped me find a workaround, but it caused a pause in beta reader invitations.

I’ll discuss Beta Books at the end of this article, because I still think it is the best tool for beta reading, especially when they get the signup link fixed.

While I was frantically deciding what route I should take for beta reading, I began looking for other choices. I could not find any other site dedicated to just beta reading, and searches ended up being a review of collaboration tools.

I had used Word several years ago while working with my editor, but we had problems with different versions of Word. Google Docs worked nicely in the past when I was collaborating with someone who used Word for Mac, while I was using a PC. What were the “experts” saying in comparing those two? And what else was available and free?

I found these two articles that are worth reading for a quick review of the tools available, and for a comparison of Word vs. Google Docs:

The Top 7 Online Collaborative Writing Tools

Google Docs vs. Microsoft Word: 4 Reasons why Google is the Clear Winner

The first article (3/30/20) briefly discusses 7 writing tools and concludes that Word is better than Google. The other five tools discussed are Draft, Etherpad, Quip, Dropbox Paper, and Penflip. I’ve had no experience with any of them.

The second article (6/2/21) is written by a writer at SADA, which is associated with Google, and gives 4 reasons why Google is better than Word.

Two misconceptions that I had (and may be worth mentioning): I thought that when using both Google and Word, all collaborators needed to have a Word or Google account. According to my reading, the Word online tool can be shared by the owner of the document (who has a Word account) with collaborators (who do not have an account). And with Google Docs, the owner of the document must have Google account, but collaborators if they are only viewers and commenters – not editing do not need a Google account.

So, both Google Docs and Word could be used for beta reading.

I look forward to your comments on these two contenders in today’s discussion. And any comments on the other five tools listed in the first article would be appreciated.

But, before that, I’ll give you a quick review of Beta Books and encourage you to visit their site to check out the specifics.

Beta Books was created in 2016 as a site dedicated to beta reading only, built to solve the problem of format compatibility, knowing and tracking if readers were actually reading, and organizing the reader comments so they could be searched in one place by chapter or by reader.

For the writer, the site is intuitive and easy to navigate. Sign up is quick, and pricing is very economical:

  • Free to try for the first book with up to three readers
  • Standard plan for 14.99/mo. with unlimited number of books and up to 22 readers per book
  • Pro plan for 34.99/mo. and unlimited number of readers plus the ability to have a collaborator or a view-only monitor.

And, best of all, the writer can “turn off” the subscription during the months it is not being used. When the writer turns it back on, all the previous data is there.

Set up for a book is simple. After signing in and selecting a plan, the writer goes to the dashboard and clicks on “Create a New Book”. After book setup, then clicking on “content,” the writer clicks on “Add a chapter.” The chapter is titled, and can then be copied and pasted into the site from a Word document. (With my first book, I tried uploading the entire manuscript. I couldn’t make that work, and would recommend uploading one chapter at a time.) At that point, the writer can also leave pre-chapter and post-chapter questions for the reader.

When invited readers sign up, they can be given a specific link that takes them to Beta Books and the sign-up page for readers. (That’s what is not working currently.) The other option is to send an invitation email from the Beta Books site, and the reader responds to the email and signs up. Once in, the readers find themselves at the current book and ready to read and comment. They can highlight and comment in line, leave an emoji, or comment at the end of the chapter.

The writer is sent an email when a comment is written, and can respond on the site to the commenter. This option can be turned off.

When the writer begins reviewing the comments, they can review by specific beta reader or by specific chapter.

Also, under the dashboard, the writer can track who has accepted an invitation, and can track how far the reader has read, as well as how many comments they have made.

That’s probably more than you wanted. I’ll try to answer any questions in the discussion.

Today’s questions:

  1. What tools or software do you prefer for collaboration, working with an editor, and beta reading?
  2. In your opinion, what are the pros and cons of Word vs. Google Docs for collaboration, editing, or beta reading?
  3. What other route(s) besides what I’ve discussed have you found to accomplish your goals with collaboration, editing, or beta reading?
  4. Any experience or comments regarding the other 5 tools mentioned in the first article?

Killing the Mosquitoes in Your Fiction

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Dave Barry once said that the best time to visit Florida’s Disney World is 1965. Makes sense to me. I never saw the value in taking out a second mortgage to pack the family into a metal tube for a six-hour flight to an extended stay in a hot and humid swamp when we have Disneyland an hour away by car.

I once went golfing in Florida. It wasn’t the gators who eyed me on the tenth fairway that bothered me so much as the dang humidity. I felt like I had hot, wet towels draping my entire body, including my head. Swinging a club in a steam bath is not my idea of a good time.

And then there’s the skeeters. We have them in L.A., of course. But Florida has 80 different species of mosquito. They range from mere pests to carriers of potentially deadly pathogens. A perfect spot for a theme park!

Thus, when the Disney World location was selected, one of the first issues was, How are we going to get people to come to the Magic Kingdom in the middle of mosquito country?

Certainly that was on Walt Disney’s mind from the jump. So it was serendipity when Walt met a man named Joe Potter at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York. This impressive gent was a graduate of West Point and MIT (engineering). As one bio puts it:

During World War II, he directed logistical planning for the invasion of northern France, an operation nicknamed “Red Ball Express.” After the war, he served in Washington, D.C. as assistant chief of engineers for Civil Works and Special Projects.

In 1956, President Dwight D. Eisenhower tapped Potter to serve as governor of the Panama Canal Zone. You know what they have in Panama? Skeeters the size of canned hams. Carrying malaria, no less. One of Potter’s duties was figuring out how to control the blood suckers. Which he did.

Which is why Walt hired Joe Potter right there at the World’s Fair.

So Potter set about his task, and the first order of business was to take away the mosquitoes’ favorite breeding ground, standing water. Potter drained all the surrounding swampland and turned it into drainage ditches, so water would constantly flow.

Inside the park, you won’t find any standing water. There’s always a fountain or some sort of watery movement so the bugs can’t lay eggs.

Then there’s the architecture. Every building in Disney World is designed so that water from rain runs right off and has nowhere to collect.

And the flora: Disney World eschews plants that have soil where water can puddle.

And the fish: Disney World stocks their pools with the kind that love to eat mosquito larvae.

Now, someone may ask, why doesn’t Disney World just use a pesticide? The answer is, Walt was against it. He wanted to preserve the environment.

But they do spray….garlic! Mosquitoes hate garlic. So they use a garlic spray around the park that humans can’t smell but is decidedly anti-skeeter.

In other words, Disney World had a major problem and found a way to fix it.

Like with your novel.

First, you have to drain your novel of swampland. That’s any part of your story that is squishy, serves no purpose, doesn’t build on anything or provide a foundation for essential story material. The primary sign is a scene with no conflict or tension. Get rid of any such scene.

Second: keep the tension flowing. In every scene there should be the rushing waters of direct conflict, or at least the babbling brook of inner tension. Upon revision, look at every scene and see if you can ratchet up the tension by 10%. Doing that over and over throughout the novel creates tremendous momentum. (See also the tips from Becca Puglisi here.)

Third, eliminate any prose that feels like standing water. Cut flab and write tight. Every word counts. (You might try running sections through the free Hemingway app.) Keep special watch for the type of skeeter known as the adverb. Almost always you can squish them without any adverse effect.

Finally, spray the book down with the garlic of a good proof reader. Typos are like those annoying little mosquitoes called No-see-ums. They’re so small you almost don’t notice them, but man can they bite. Kill every one of them with extreme prejudice.

Then sit back, relax, and enjoy the release of your pest-free novel!

So…do you notice certain kinds of mosquitoes popping up in your fiction? What do you do to hunt them down?

*Research for this post came primarily from here and here.

Write Like You’re in Love, Edit Like You’re in Charge

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Several years ago I tweeted the words that are the title of this post. The phrase went viral (is there such a thing as going bacterial? I’m done with viruses!) It got passed around and was picked up by the great writing tips author Jon Winokur (@AdviceToWriters). The phrase aptly sums up my approach to writing a novel.

I thought today I’d unpack it a little, and ask for your responses.

Write Like You’re in Love

Coming up with a great idea, one that gets your nerve endings buzzing, is like love at first sight. You’re giddy. You can’t wait to spend precious months with this new romance.

When you start writing it’s all champagne and moonlight walks on the beach.

But then, out of the blue, you find yourself in an argument. The book is resisting you. Or vice versa.

Usually this happens to me around the 30k mark. I start to think maybe this isn’t going to work out after all.

You say to the book, “You’re not giving me what I need.”

And the book says, “This is how you treat me? After all I’ve done? I’ve given you the best pages of my life!”

Fortunately, I’ve found this little dustup to be only temporary. Let me suggest two ways to kiss and make up with your novel.

First, go more deeply into the characters. Pick any one of them (and not necessarily your Lead) and write some backstory. Create more of their history and use that to come up with a secret or a ghost.

A secret is simply that which the character doesn’t want anyone to know about, for some personal reason related to backstory.

A ghost is an event from the past that haunts the character in the present, and causes the character to act in certain ways. It’s best to let those actions happen without an immediate reveal. It creates mystery for the reader, always a good thing.

Five or ten minutes with these brainstorms will get your story juices flowing again. You’ll want to keep writing just to see what happens to these people!

Second, jump ahead and write a scene you feel excited about. Write it for all it’s worth. Then drop back and pick up the story and figure out a way to get to that scene.

These tips will help keep the love fires burning, like bringing the wife flowers even when it isn’t Valentine’s Day.

(Also see my post “When Writers Hit the Wall.”)

Edit Like You’re in Charge

Once you have a complete draft, you move into the hard-scrapple world of revision. And here you need a system.

The late Jeremiah Healy was a popular author-speaker on the conference circuit. In one of my writing books I found a clipped page from a newsletter I used to get called Creativity Connection. I’d saved it because it was a summary of one of Healy’s talks. In it he described his system of approach after writing a first draft:

  • He set aside the draft for a month.
  • He printed out a hard copy and read it through in one day, not making a marks on the manuscript (“Once you start, you won’t be able to stop.”)
  • He looked for “holes in the plot, underdeveloped characters, anomalies, and inconsistencies.”
  • He edited the draft to address any problems.
  • He next submitted it to three beta readers. “One should be an intelligent general reader. The second should be familiar with your genre. The third should be the dumbest bunny you can find.”
  • Then another edit, based on this feedback.
  • Finally, create the “cinderblock manuscript.” By this he meant the final polish on the old-school paper manuscript you used to submit to a publisher (the shape of a cinderblock). He worked especially hard on the first three pages. “When agents—who get buried in 50 manuscripts a week—decide which of the ‘cinderblock’ manuscripts to take home and read, they do so by reading the first three pages. It may be harsh, but it’s not arbitrary. Eighty-five percent of book buyers decide their purchases by applying the same test.”

That’s a good system, and very close to the one I use myself.

And systems can often be improved by adding a formula. Here’s one I’ll leave you with. It came in an early rejection letter the young (1966) Stephen King received from a science fiction magazine. It was a form rejection, but the nice editor had scribbled the following on it:

“Not bad, but puffy. You need to revise for length. Formula: 2nd Draft = 1st Draft – 10%. Good luck.”

Now it’s your turn. How do you keep the love as you make your way through the first draft? Do you have a system for revision?

A Single Word Can Change the Tone

by Jodie Renner, editor & author 

In your WIP, are you inadvertently tossing in a word here and there that jolts the readers out of your story or gives an incongruous impression?

Once you’ve completed a first or second draft of your story (or your muse is taking a break), now’s the time to go back and reread each scene carefully. Does every word you’ve chosen contribute to creating the overall tone and mood you’re going for in that scene? Or are some of your word choices unintentionally detracting from the impression you want readers to take away?

Is it possible you may have unconsciously inserted the odd “cheery” word into a tense scene in your story? Or a relaxed-sounding word in a scene where the character is stressed or in a hurry? Or maybe your teenager or blue-collar worker sounds too articulate? I’ve seen examples of these quite often in the fiction I’ve edited over the years.

For example, the heroine and hero are running through the woods, pursued by bad guys intent on killing them. The debut author, thinking it’s a good idea to describe the setting, uses words like “leaves dancing in the light” and “birds chirping” and “babbling brook.” These light-hearted, cheerful words detract from the desperation she’s trying to convey as the young couple races frantically to escape their pursuers. In this situation, it would be better to use more ominous words, perhaps crows cawing, a wolf howling, water crashing over rapids, or thunder cracking.

Read through each of your scenes and make sure every word you use to describe the setting, the people, and their actions, words, and thoughts contributes to create the impression you’re going for in that scene, rather than undermining your intentions.

DESCRIBING YOUR SETTING:

Here’s an example, slightly disguised, from my editing. It’s supposed to be a tense, scary moment, but the author has, without thinking about the impact, inserted relaxed, even joyful imagery that counteracts and weakens the apprehensive mood he is trying to convey (my bolding).

He locked the door behind him, his harried mind ricocheting between frightened alertness and sheer fatigue. He took a furtive glance out the window. No one there, so far. Despite the cold, a warming shaft of morning sunlight filtered through the stained curtain, and languid dust particles slow-danced in its beam.

What had he gotten himself into? They would certainly be on to him now—it was only a matter of time before they found him. He looked out again through the thin curtain. Sunbeams were filtering through the branches of an old tree outside the window, the shriveled shapes of the leaves dancing in the breeze, playing gleefully with the light. He swore he saw movement on the ground outside—a figure.

Some of the wording in the two paragraphs above is excellent, like “his harried mind ricocheting between frightened alertness and sheer fatigue” and the phrases “furtive glance,” “stained curtain” and “shriveled shapes of the leaves.” But the boldfaced words and phrases, warming, languid, slow-danced, sunbeams, dancing in the breeze, and playing gleefully with the light weaken the imagery and tone because they’re too happy and carefree for the intended ominous mood. Perhaps the writer, caught up in describing the view outside in a literary, “writerly” way, momentarily forgot he was going for frightened.  

Check to be sure every detail of your imagery enhances the overall mood and tone of the situation.

Here’s another example where the description of the setting detracts from the power of the scene and doesn’t match how the character would or should be feeling at that moment.

The protagonist has just had a shock at the end of the last chapter, where she’s discovered her colleague murdered. This is the beginning of the next chapter, a jump of a few days.

Mary gazed at the brightening horizon, immersing herself in the beauty of the rising sun. She watched as the dawn’s rays danced across the waves. Mary adored this time of day when the hustle and bustle had not yet started, and she could enjoy watching the waves wash in and listening to the seagulls overhead. It was one of the many reasons she loved this area so much.

Since the murder of Teresa three days ago, Mary had been in a state of turmoil. Teresa’s death had changed everything. Gruesome images continually flickered through her mind like an unending motion picture. She could think of nothing else and was racked by guilt.

To me, the two paragraphs seem contradictory in mood. If she’s racked by guilt and can think of nothing else, how can she enjoy the sunrise so much?

Be sure to choose words that fit the mood you’re trying to convey.

THOUGHTS, IMPRESSIONS, & IMAGERY:

Here’s another example of a tense, life-threatening scene whose power and tension have been inadvertently eroded by almost comical imagery.

The room went black and shots rang out in the darkness.

He took to the floor on all fours and, panicking, scrabbled around aimlessly, searching his addled mind for a direction, a goal. He poked his head up and looked around. Spotted the red exit sign of the back door. Loping ape-like across the office floor, he tried to keep his body below the level of the desks—he had seen them do it in the movies, so it was good enough for him. Several more bullets whistled overhead.

 

The words “addled” and “loping ape-like” seem too light and humorous for the life-or-death scene. Even the bit about seeing it in the movies, so it was good enough for him seems too light-hearted – this could be the last moments of this guy’s life if he doesn’t find a way to avoid the bullets!

Here’s the same scene, rewritten to capture the desperate mood:

The room went black and shots rang out in the darkness.

What the—? He dropped to the floor and, panicking, searching his frenzied mind for a direction, a goal. Get out of here! He poked his head up and looked around. Spotted the red exit sign of the back door. At a low crouch, he set out across the open office, dodging from one desk to another. Several more bullets whistled overhead.

Another example with imagery that’s fresh and creative, but does it actually fit the moment?

A truck came barreling toward them. He wrenched the wheel to the right, and they passed the truck, missing it by inches. Mud splattered onto the windshield, and the wipers smeared it like chocolate ice cream.

I think the chocolate ice cream imagery, although clever, is too positive and playful for the tense, scary moment.

A cliched phrase that doesn’t fit:

The frightening story cut too close to home for Diane. Just the possibility of it happening to her family scared her silly.

My comment to the writer: The word “silly” detracts from your intention to show her nervousness and fear. I’d express this with a less “silly” word. (and less of a cliché).

ACTIONS: The character’s body language and actions need to match the situation.

Don’t have someone “strolling” when they’re worried. Have them “pacing” instead. Similarly, when they’re arguing, don’t have them leaning back in their chair – have them hunched forward, or pointing a finger.

As they entered the police station, a tall, balding man with a goatee and an expensive suit shuffled down the hall towards them. As he passed, he handed a card to Wilson. “I want to see my client now, alone.”

My comment to the author: “I wouldn’t have a high-priced, confident lawyer shuffling. Save that verb for elderly or sick people, or a prisoner with chains.”

Another example of a verb that doesn’t fit the situation:

Joe stood up, shocked and numb, after his boss delivered the tragic news about the death of his friend. He dreaded his visit to Paul’s widow. He sauntered back to his office, his mind spinning.

“Sauntered” is way too relaxed and casual a word for the situation. The guy’s just been told his friend is dead. Maybe “found his way” or “stumbled” back to his office.

Another example: A high-ranking Nazi officer is about to invade the home of a wealthy Jewish family during the Second World War. The author wrote:

He giggled inwardly, thinking about the chaos he was about to bring to the Jews who lived here.

My comment to the writer was: The verb “giggled” fits a couple of schoolgirls, not a nasty Nazi. I suggest “smirked” or “gloated.”

Another example:

At the funeral, the widow caught Peter’s glance and squinted her eyes in accusation. She no doubt held him responsible for her husband’s death.

“Squinted” is like against the bright sun. I’d say “narrowed her eyes” or “glared at him.”

How is your character moving?

Is he strolling, trudging, striding, tiptoeing, stomping, shuffling, meandering, staggering, lurching, sauntering, tramping, slinking, mincing, strutting, pacing, sashaying, marching, or slogging along? Each word paints a very different picture of the state of the character and the situation.

For lots of specific suggestions for choosing just the right verb for the situation, see my post “It’s All in the Verbs” from a few years back here on TKZ. And read the comments there for more great suggestions.

And for specific lists of effective, evocative verbs for various situations, check out my post on my own blog, “People in Motion — Vary Those Verbs!

Make sure every single word fits the scene and enhances the mood.

Even one incompatible word can jolt the reader or dilute the power of a scene.

Can you pick out the word below that deflates the moment?

The guard drew in a shuddering breath as if to cry out. He half-coughed and half-gasped, then started to scream again, this time with enthusiasm. Brad covered the man’s mouth and knocked his gun to the ground.

Rather than screaming “with enthusiasm,” I’d use “in desperation or “in terror” or something like that. The choice of “with enthusiasm” evokes positive, cheery connotations.

Here’s another example of just one word jolting us out of the mood:

They broke the lock on the warehouse and looked around. “Let’s check the big freezers in the back.” He strode over and opened the freezer door. The smell of frozen flesh and blood smacked him in the face. An emaciated, naked man stared at him with lifeless eyes, frozen like a popsicle.

Yes, it’s that word at the end. I imagine the writer was searching for a good word for “frozen like” but “popsicle” is an unfortunate choice as it evokes an image that’s way too upbeat for the situation. Best to look for a more somber or horrific simile (maybe “like a pale slab of beef”).

Read these short passages and see if you can pick out the single word in each that contradicts the desired mood and tone.

  1. As the realization of what had happened hit her, Linda gasped and dropped to her knees, a myriad of twirling thoughts bombarding her mind.
  2. Could Greg have sold him out, led him here into a trap? Tony fixed his friend with an intense stare brimming with disappointment and betrayal.
  3. In the interrogation room, the accused man’s stiff, jaunty movements, drumming fingers, and constant glances around made Derek wonder if he was on something.
  4. The car spun on an invisible axis then crashed into a light post. Steve’s head bounced off the window, and his headache blossomed anew.

Words that don’t fit:

  1. “twirling” seems too light-hearted in this situation, like a dancer or a baton twirling. Maybe “whirling” or “swirling.”
  2. “brimming” is too cheery, too positive. Maybe just “his voice filled with disappointment…”
  3. “blossomed” seems too positive for a headache caused by a crack on the head during a car accident. Maybe just something like “intensified” or rewrite the phrase.

Your turn:

Rewrite any of these sentences with a more apt verb and any other tweaks you’d like to add:

  1. The big man walked into the… 
  2. The little girls danced around the room.
  3. The rabbit/squirrel/deer ran off.
  4. She looked at him, hands on hips. “What?”
  5. The crowd moved along the sidewalk.
  6. The pickpocket ran down the street.

Or feel free to make up one of your own. Have fun!

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: WRITING A KILLER THRILLER, FIRE UP YOUR FICTION, and CAPTIVATE YOUR READERS, as well as two clickable time-saving e-resources, QUICK CLICKS: Spelling List and QUICK CLICKS: Word Usage. Website: www.JodieRenner.com; blog: http://jodierennerediting.blogspot.com/; Facebook. Amazon Author Page.

Playing Tricks With Editing.

Playing Tricks With Editing.
Terry Odell

Playing Tricks With EditingFirst–Happy New Year, everyone, and welcome back to TKZ.

Over the break, I finished my personal edits on the manuscript of my next Mapleton Mystery, and I thought I’d share some of the tips I’ve discovered over the years for that final pass before turning the manuscript in.

We want to submit the cleanest possible manuscript to our editors, agents, or wherever you’re submitting. By the time most of us hit “The End”, we’ve been staring at the manuscript on a computer screen for months. We probably know passages by heart, we know what it’s supposed to say, and it’s very easy to miss things.

What we need to do if fool our brain into thinking it’s never seen these words before.

Editing TipsTip #1 – Print the manuscript. It’s amazing how much different it will look on paper.

Tip #2 – Use a different font. If you’ve been staring at TNR, choose a sans-serif font. In fact, this is a good time to use the much-maligned Comic Sans.

Tip #3 – Change the format. You want the lines to break in different places. I recommend printing it in 2 columns, or at least changing the margins. That will totally change the line scan, and it’s amazing how many repeated words show up when the words line up differently.

Tip #4 – Read away from your computer. Another room, or at least the other side of the room.

The above are all “Fool the Brain” tricks. Moving on to my basic process.

Tip #5 – Read from start to finish.

As I read, I have a notepad, highlighters, red pen, and a pad of sticky notes. This pass isn’t where I fix things; it’s where I make notes of things to fix. I don’t want to disrupt the flow of the read by stopping to check out if the character drove a red Toyota or a green Chevy. I have a foam core board by my chair, where I’ll post my sticky notes. Also, because it’s a hard copy, there’s not simple “Find” function.

When repeated words or phrases jump out, I note them on a sticky for a future search-and-destroy mission. I’ll circle or highlight words that could be stronger, or places where I might be able to come up with a metaphor that doesn’t sound writerly.

I’m also critical of “does this move the story?” as I’m reading. The beautiful prose might not be all that beautiful when reading it in the context of the entire novel. Don’t be afraid to use that red pen. On the flip side, you can also note where a scene needs more depth, or something needs foreshadowing. Are characters behaving consistently? Or do their personalities change because the author needs them to do something for the plot.

Another thing I look for is named characters. Naming a character tells the reader “this is an important person.” Do they play enough of a role in the story to earn a name? Can they be deleted, or referred to generically?

Once I’ve reached the end, I’ll go back to the computer and deal with the notes I’ve made.

The last pre-submission editing chore for me—and it’s a tedious one—is to let the computer point out all the clunkers I’ve missed. Because, despite all the ‘trickery,’ the story is still familiar enough that I don’t catch everything.

For this, I use a program called “Smart Edit.” (I might do a full post on this software another time.) I use the version that’s a Word add-on, and run its checks. I know I have my standard crutch words, but it seems that every manuscript brings a few new ones that I lean on too heavily.

Once I’m finished with the Smart Edit purges, the manuscript goes off to my editor. My work up front means she should be able to spend more time looking at the story, and less time dealing with clunky prose.

The last step for me, which comes right before I’m ready to publish, is to let Word read the manuscript to me. I’ve talked about that before, and using ears instead of eyes is another way to trick the brain into thinking the story is new. And yes, I still find things to fix.

What about you? How do you deal with whipping your manuscript into shape before submitting it?


Heather's ChaseMy new Mystery Romance, Heather’s Chase, is available at most e-book channels and in print from Amazon.

Terry Odell is an award-winning author of Mystery and Romantic Suspense, although she prefers to think of them all as “Mysteries with Relationships.” Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

When, Where, Why, and How To Use Block Quotes and Ellipses

By SUE COLETTA

An interesting discussion arose while working on copy edits for Pretty Evil New England. The conversation dealt with using block quotes—when, where, why, and how I used them in the (nonfiction) manuscript.

If at all possible, I tend to use quoted material as dialogue to create scenes. But there were times where I chose to block quote the text instead. For example, if the quote was mainly backstory and not part of the actual scene but still important for the reader to understand, then I used block quotes. You’ll see what I mean in one of the examples below.

Block quotes can’t be avoided at times. They can even enhance the scene, thereby adding to the overall reading experience. In fiction, two examples of where to use block quotes would be a diary entry or a note/letter/message. Please excuse my using one of my thrillers; it’s easier than searching through a gazillion books on my Kindle.

In Silent Mayhem, the antagonist and hero communicate through an Onion site (untraceable) on the deep web. Because these messages are neither dialogue, nor narrative, using block quotes set them apart.

Example:

Dearest Cautious Cat,

If we shut our eyes to dangers beyond our comprehension, we become powerless to fight. My offer still stands. Should you choose not to accept it, remember this . . .

When it’s your time to die, be not like those whose hearts are filled with the fear of death, so that when their time comes, they weep and pray for a little more time to live their lives over again in a different way. Sing your death song and die like a hero going home.

Hugs & kisses,
Mr. M

Block quotes also break up the text and enhance white space. We’ve discussed white space many times on TKZ. For more on why white space is a good thing, check out this post or this one.

BLOCK QUOTES IN WORD

To include block quotes in Word, highlight the text and right click. This screen will pop up…
Choose “paragraph” and this screen will pop up…

Reset your left margin to .5 and click OK. Leave the right margin alone.

Quick note about margins.

A good rule of thumb for block quotes is to not indent the first paragraph. If your passage contains more than one paragraph, check with the publisher. Most supply a style guide. For instance, my thriller publisher keeps all paragraphs justified. My true crime publisher prefers that the first paragraph be justified and subsequent paragraphs be indented.

To do that, the easiest thing is to click “Special” then “first line” (as indicated in pic below) and set it to .25. Then simply backspace to erase the indent on the first paragraph.

If you’re self-publishing, then obviously it’s your call on whether to indent or not to indent subsequent paragraphs.

BLOGGING BLOCK QUOTE

Bloggers who include passages from a resource, whether that be a book or wording from a reputable source, use block quotes to signal the reader that the passage is a direct quote (most commonly, all justified margins). You could style the post in Word, then copy/paste, but sometimes the style doesn’t paste over. Simple fix. Highlight the text and click this symbol…
And that’s it. Easy peasy, right?

ELLIPSIS

An ellipsis consists of either three or four dots. A single dot is called an ellipsis point. Some writers may find using ellipses a little tricky, but once you know the definitions of where, why, and how to use them, determining the right ellipses is fairly straightforward.

According to the Chicago Manual of Style, never use ellipses at the beginning or end of a block quote. CMOS also recommends using equal spacing between dots. Some style guides say to use three equally spaced periods rather than creating an ellipsis in Word, which you can do by pressing CTRL + ALT + Period. Always go by the style guide furnished by the publisher (or editor, if self-publishing).

WHERE AND WHY TO USE ELLIPSES

There are many reasons why you might want to use an ellipsis. An ellipsis can indicate omitted words within the middle of a quote, or faltering dialogue, or an unfinished sentence or thought where the speaker’s words trail off.

For faltering dialogue, you have two choices, depending on your style guide.

Style #1: Equally spaced dots with one space before and after ellipsis.
Style #2: Unspaced dots with one space before and after ellipsis.

Example #1 (uses three periods): “I . . . I . . . would never break the law.”
Example #2 (uses ellipsis created with Word shortcut): “I … I … would never break the law.”

For words that trail off, insert punctuation at end of ellipses. If the dialogue continues to another sentence, leave a space.

Example #1: “Why would he . . .? I mean, I can’t believe he got caught with that bimbo.”
Alternate style (Word shortcut): “Why would he …? I mean, I can’t believe he got caught with that bimbo.”

Example #2: “My weight? I’m about one hundred and . . . So, how ’bout them Bears. Did you watch the game?”

Alternate style (Word shortcut): “My weight? I’m about one hundred and … So, how ’bout them Bears. Did you watch the game?”

THREE DOTS VERSE FOUR

Here’s where some writers may find ellipses a little tricky.

Sometimes we need to omit words from the end of one sentence but still continue the quoted passage. This type of ellipsis is called a terminal ellipsis. In this instance, the CMOS recommends using four dots, or periods. The fourth dot indicates the period at the end of the sentence that we haven’t quoted in its entirety. By including that fourth dot it lets the reader know that the quotation borrows from more than one sentence of the original text.

Example from Pretty Evil New England:

Then I made up my mind to kill Mrs. Gordon. Poor thing, she was grieving herself to death over her sickly child. So life wasn’t worth living anyway. I was sorry, though, for the poor, unfortunate child, Genevieve. I love the little one very much. . . . I thought with Mrs. Gordon out of the way I could be a mother to her child and get [her husband] Harry Gordon to marry me.

Notice how I didn’t omit any necessary words? That’s key. We have a responsibility to other writers—in this case, the female serial killer—to not mislead the reader by leaving out words that change the meaning of the quote.

Three most important takeaways for ellipses in dialogue.

  • Avoid ellipses overload—too many can diminish their impact.
  • Reserve ellipses for middle and end of dialogue. If the character fumbles around to spit out their first word, use a body cue or other description instead.
  • Maintain consistent ellipses spacing throughout the manuscript.

Now, like most things in writing, there are exceptions to these rules. Always follow the publisher or editor’s recommendations. If you don’t have any recommendations to follow, feel free to use this post as a guide.

For discussion: Do you use block quotes in your writing? If so, why did you choose to do that? Care to share one of the exceptions to any of these guidelines?

Banished Words 2020

Banished Words 2020

Terry Odell

Banished WordsOne of my final editing tasks is removing overused words. I have my list of offenders, and I run the manuscript through SmartEdit, which will find more I was unaware of.

But “overused” can’t be decided based solely on number of uses. It depends on the word.

We all have words and phrases we like to use, often to the point of overuse. Maybe we’re not even aware we’re using them. When we’re writ­ing, they seem to sneak into our man­u­scripts via our fin­gers, as if the brain isn’t involved at all.

Lit­tle words, like “just” and “really” and “well” are com­monly listed among words that don’t add any­thing to the man­u­script other than giv­ing our brains time to catch up with what we’re try­ing to write. They’re the equiv­a­lent of the “um” in speak­ing.

Big “fancy” words, or “unusual” words are in another cat­e­gory. Miasma? Efful­gent? Par­si­mony? They’re going to jump out at a reader, and should be used spar­ingly, per­haps only once or twice in an entire man­u­script. I recall an author using halcyon repeatedly, and it made me stop after the second time.

Recently, one of my critique partners asked about my use of libation, bringing up an important point. How many characters used the term? Often, it’s good to have specific vocabulary words used by specific characters.

While I’m looking at my repeated words, I will check for con­text. Is it dia­logue? Does it enhance the char­ac­ter­i­za­tion? Then, I look to see how long it’s been since the last time I used the word. (There’s that “you’re on page XXX” thing at the bot­tom of Word.)

If it’s a com­mon word, my goal is at least 10 pages between uses. “Medium” words, maybe 30–50 pages. And those big fancy ones? If they’re truly the char­ac­ter speak­ing, and not autho­r­ial intru­sion, once is enough. Not a rule, just something I consider.

And, of course, the caveat that any “fancy” words are appro­pri­ate to the char­ac­ter, the genre, and the time­frame of the book. If you’re read­ing a Regency romance, the lan­guage is going to be totally dif­fer­ent from a contemporary.

There are other words one might want to avoid. Every year, Lake Superior State University publishes its “Banished Words List” of words based on misuse, overuse, and general uselessness. Their list for 2020 contains the following.

Most nominated

  • quid pro quo

Words that attempt to make something more than it is

  • Artisanal
  • Curated
  • Influencer

Words banished for pretentiousness or imprecision

  • Literally
  • I mean
  • Living my best life
  • Mouthfeel

Those darn millennials!

  • Chirp
  • Jelly (Abbreviation of jealous)
  • Totes (Abbreviation of totally)
  • Vibe/vibe check

To see why these were selected, go here.

What about you? Any words that jump out at you when you’re reading, either mundane or unusual?



Terry Odell is an award-winning author of Mystery and Romantic Suspense, although she prefers to think of them all as “Mysteries with Relationships.” Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

The Ears Have It

The Ears Have It
By Terry Odell

Deer EarAs authors, we want to provide the best possible experience for our readers. That means providing a well-edited book, and the more reliable eyes on the manuscript, the better. But I’ve learned you need ears on the manuscript as well.

Skipping the ‘read it out loud’ editing pass means you’re going to miss things. Heck, even when you do read it out loud, you still miss things, because you’re too familiar with what you’ve written. Your eye sees what’s supposed to be on the page. That’s what you’ll read; that’s what you’ll hear.

Since I can’t afford a narrator to read the book aloud twice, and I don’t know anyone who’d be crazy enough spend the time to read the book to me, I investigated having my computer do the job. I’d tried it a long time ago, and the robotic voice was impossible to listen to. However, there have been improvements in the system, so I decided to give things another shot. Here’s what I discovered.

Disclaimer. I use Microsoft Word.

Word has two ways to have the computer read your manuscript to you, and since they’re part of Word, you don’t need to install (or pay for) another program. One is the Speak Selected Text option which I blogged about here.

The other option is Read Aloud, and here’s a peek at how it works. Note: “Read Aloud” offers a choice of narrators, which is nice to break things up. I chose the female voice for this section.

You can find more here.

Depending on your version of Word, you may be able to use one or both.

Whereas my audiobook narrators are performers, the Word guy who’s reading my text to me (I call him Fred) simply recites the words on the page. Unlike the audiobook narrators who sometimes leave out words, or substitute others, “Fred” is going to read exactly what’s on the page. For example, I’d read this paragraph countless times, as had my editor and crit partners.

She drove the up the dirt lane. A beam of sunlight shone through a break in the gray winter sky, reflecting off a sprawling white two-story house, as if to say, This is your light in the darkness.

No one saw the typo on any of their passes. Did you notice it? On the first read? Or were you paying close attention because I told you there was a typo? When “Fred” read it, the extra “the” jumped right out.

Listening forces you to go slowly. Depending on which option you use, you might be able to speed the read a bit, but you can’t ‘skim-listen.’ While “Fred” reads, I have the manuscript open. I look for wrong punctuation, improper spacing, and the like. If I catch repeated words that evaded my eyes but not my ears, I’ll fix those as well.

If Fred doesn’t know a word, he’ll spell it. Usually, these are acronyms, but sometimes it’s a word he’s not programmed for. Other time, his programming doesn’t work exactly right. In one instance, he read, “The paramedic inserted an four.” Can you figure out what I’d written? Answer at the end of the post.

There will be pronunciation errors. “Fred” doesn’t read in context. He doesn’t emphasize words in italics. He speeds up for dashes and hyphens. Our language is filled with heteronyms—words that are spelled the same but have different meanings. The computer doesn’t read context, so you’ll get the occasional jolt for words like live, read, wind, dove, close, bow, complex, and presents, but that’s good, because it makes you pay attention.

Other “fun” jolts come from Fred’s programming regarding abbreviations, as in “Joe came into the room and sat.” Fred read this as “Joe came into the room and Saturday.” Or, when the character said, “Wait a sec,” Fred read “Wait a section.”

No matter which method you choose, hearing a computer read exactly what you’ve written is a critical—and ear-opening—step in the editing process. By the time “Fred” and I are through the manuscript, I’m hoping to have a better product for my readers.

Is it worth it? I’d say yes, especially when you get a review like this one: “After reading so many books with poor editing, I was very happy to finally read a book without the distracting errors and I was able to enjoy the story.”

As for what I’d written: “The paramedic inserted an IV.”



Terry Odell is an award-winning author of Mystery and Romantic Suspense, although she prefers to think of them all as “Mysteries with Relationships.” Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

The Edit Has Landed

(photo via GoDaddy stock)

 

The edit has landed. I repeat: The edit has landed. This is not a drill.

This refrain runs through my head every time I get an initial editorial letter from my editor after I’ve sold a manuscript. For the uninitiated, the editorial letter contains detailed comments and suggestions for changes the editor would like to see in the next version of a contracted manuscript.

On Sunday evening, the editorial letter for One Last Secret, my next suspense novel, arrived in my inbox.

I’m going to gloss over the agonizing hour or so I spent actually analyzing my letter. Imagine cheers or tears or cringing or reallys?! or ack–how did that get through? or yays! It’s a private moment that you are already familiar with if you’ve workshopped your own writing, or have had editors or truthful friends comment on it.

There’s a fine line when it comes to accepting or rejecting an editor’s suggestions. Ego can get in the way. Unless we’re collaborating with another writer, our stories have incubated in our own heads for months or years. Perhaps the initial drafts have been read by friends or spouses, etc, but they’re still essentially ours. It can be hard to let go, to be willing to let the manuscript change. But while an editor is also a reader, and often a fan, they are not just any reader/friend offering suggestions. They’re professionals who have a financial interest in seeing that the story appeals to a large number of readers.

An editor or reader is attracted to a novel or story as a result of the writer’s ability to successfully communicate a vision of the story that exists in the writer’s head.

But as we know, no two visions of a story are even close to identical. The best writing speaks loudly to people for myriad reasons, and tugs at the chords deeply anchored to our souls. And no two souls are alike. It’s a huge compliment for a writer to have a reader say a writer’s work resonates with them, whether it’s something as simple as a character with whom they identify, or a whole new world into which they can escape for an afternoon  and beyond.

An editor is an agent of the re-visioning process. (I’ve probably mentioned re-visioning before as a concept mentioned by Joyce Carol Oates.) In a re-vision, the vision of the story becomes something totally new for the writer. This new vision will change with each new addition or deletion or deepening of the story. It can be brought about with mechanical precision by making sure the story has all the necessary beats, or meets and even enhances the conventions of the genre. Or it will change when the writer combines characters, kicks the hero(ine) into higher gear, or tweaks the emotional impact of a scene. It’s a birth process that goes on and on until both the editor and the writer agree that their mutual visions meet on the page and are compatible enough to be presented to the world. They’re both happy. (Or they run out of time!)

For me it’s both wrenching and exciting to work with an editor. In theory—and it’s a theory I extoll frequently—I want to write and edit in service of the story. I write toward that Platonic ideal that exists for every story. The ideal we can only ever express as a shadow. But I want to at least make it a shadow that lives and makes other people see it as an ideal thing in their heads. It should have no visible seams, no dull moments, no unnecessary details, clear ideas, smart dialogue, and compelling images. In other words, as close to an ideal as possible.

Occasionally though, the old ego wants to dig in its heels when the suggestions come. My story! it cries. Mine! Mine! Mine! It begs me to leave it alone. Very occasionally there are story elements that I feel are integral and necessary to the story, and I try to negotiate their continued existence. Now that I think about it, the very few times that has happened, various editors have been very supportive. But I generally keep my ego in check. It really is all about the story. And a good editor knows how to balance the writer’s need for respect/story integrity with her own need to make the story more appealing to the marketing department and readers.

Not everyone likes the revision process. As I said, it’s both wrenchingly difficult and exciting for me at the same time. Change is hard, and changing our stories can be particularly tough because edits often feel like judgments. I just keep telling myself that an edited story is something shiny and brand new in the world. A new creation. And who doesn’t like the feeling of having created something new?

 

How do you approach the editing process—whether suggestions are from reader friends or paid editors? Do you love it, hate it, or see it as just one more step to be endured?

Or tell us about an editor you’ve loved working with…