Writing Craft

Tag, You’re It!

One of the most common habits I see burdening stories is overemphasis on conversational tags, which goes hand in hand with not making good use of action tags. Here’s an example I just made up:

“No,” she exclaimed. She looked at the the pot of stew bubbling on the stove and saw red juice splattering. She began to stir.

Unable to resist multitasking, I demonstrated several bad habits in the above sample of poor writing.

First, punctuation. When a character exclaims, use an exclamation point.

“No!”

“She exclaimed” adds no new information unless you need to designate a character from several, so in almost every case omit it. Same can be said for tags, such as “said” and “asked.” In fact, “asked” accomplishes nothing because the question mark says it all.

Any tag should reflect what the character is saying. “He’s a slippery snake,” she hissed trumps, “What a viper,” she hissed. If in doubt, entertain the office cat. Read sentences aloud to make sure the tag works.

And notice the character stirring. “She began to stir,” should be replaced with “She stirred.” Why? Because as soon as you begin to stir, you are stirring. Use “began” for a huge project a character can’t perform in one sitting. For example, “She began reading the Old Testament.” She can’t finish reading the Old Testament today, so “began” works here. Otherwise, the term puts a drag on vivacious verbs.

Some authors give action tags the college try, then ruin everything with an unnecessary tag. I made this one up, too:

“Fetch, Buster! Go!” Marissa threw the rawhide bone as hard as she could, hoping the collie would repeat the trick she had spent weeks teaching him. The bone took flight and then disappeared over the fence. To her shock, she heard a thump and a yelp–from a human. She desperately wanted to meet her muscular new neighbor, but not this way. “Oh no!” she exclaimed.

Again, the tag at the end adds no new information. Drop it.

And now, back to the bubbling pot:

“No!” Nearly tripping over Buster, Marissa strode to the stove, grabbed the spoon, and stirred the spaghetti sauce. She frowned. “It’s burned.”

Slipping behind her, Brad embraced her waist with his muscular arms. “Don’t worry. I didn’t marry you for your cooking. Or your aim.”

See how much can be accomplished by good use of actions tags? Even happily ever afters!

 

[A previous version of this post ran in August 2011.]

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How Do You Measure Success?

by Steve Laube

A few years ago while talking to some editors they described an author who was never satisfied (not revealing the name of course). It this author’s latest book had sold 50,000 copies the author wondered why the publisher didn’t sell 60,000. And if it sold 60,000 why didn’t it sell 75,000? The author was constantly pushing for “more” and was incapable of celebrating any measure of success.

Recently there has been much ink spilled on whether Indie authors are better of than authors published by traditional publishers. Pundits have laid claim to their own definition of a successful book using number, charts, and revealed earnings. Following this dialogue can be rather exhausting.

I understand the desire to measure whether or not my efforts are successful. It is a natural instinct. If it is any indication, one of our most popular blog posts has been “What are Average Book Sales?” with thousands of readers.

In one way this is a wise question so that expectations can be realistic.

In another way it is unwise in that the cliff called “Comparison” is a precipitous one. I’ve talked to depressed authors who are wounded by numbers. I’ve talked to angry authors who are incensed by a perceived lack of effort by their publisher. I’ve talked to highly frustrated authors who wonder if it is all worth it.

Ultimately I can’t help but think this is all an exercise in determining a definition of success for the individual author. If you can measure it you can define it. That is as long as we know what “it” is.

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Never Burn a Bridge!

The sale of Thomas Nelson to HarperCollins and last week’s sale of Heartsong to Harlequin brought to mind a critical piece of advice:

Never Burn a Bridge!

Ours is a small industry and both editors and authors move around with regularity. If you are in a business relationship and let your frustration boil into anger and ignite into rage…and let that go at someone in the publishing company, you may end up burning the bridge. And that person who you vented on might someday become the head of an entire publishing company.

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Stop. Just Stop (Doing These Things)

All editors and agents have a few pet peeves. Some of us have more than a few. In my case, it’s a virtual menagerie. So, while you may want to keep my OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder), ODD (oppositional defiant disorder), and OCC (overly cantankerous condition) in mind as you read, please …

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What Caught My Eye


Last week we talked about the hook, the sound bite, or the ability to “say it in a sentence.” One reader asked for examples so I thought I’d give you a few.

Below are the short pitches of proposals that have caught my eye over the years from debut authors. Please realize that the sound bite is only one of many factors that goes into a great proposal. Ultimately it is the execution of the concept that makes for a great book. For example, The Help by Kathryn Stockett would not have succeeded as a word-of-mouth bestseller if the writing did not support the story. (No, we did not represent that title, I’m only trying to make a point. :-))

Your challenge will be to see if you can identify which books these sound bites are pitching. Each one has been published. One is obviously non-fiction, the other two are novels. The answers to each of these will be provided later this week in the comments section. along with a link to the title so you can see it in its final form.

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To Romance or Not to Romance

According to St. Teresa of Avila’s biography, the battle over romance novels has been going on at least since the 1500s:

Teresa’s father was rigidly honest and pious, but he may have carried his strictness to extremes. Teresa’s mother loved romance novels but because her husband objected to these fanciful books, she hid the books from him. This put Teresa in the middle — especially since she liked the romances too. Her father told her never to lie but her mother told her not to tell her father. Later she said she was always afraid that no matter what she did she was going to do everything wrong.

Those of us who write, represent, and publish Christian romance novels can be made to feel the same way when our brothers and sisters in Christ object to our efforts to provide readers with God-honoring entertainment.  I have spoken with authors whose pastors have derided their writing, read negative blogs, and heard conference speakers criticize Christian romance novels.

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C.S. Lewis on Writing

by Steve Laube

On June 26, 1956, C.S. Lewis replied to letter from an American girl named Joan with advice on writing:

Always try to use the language so as to make quite clear what you mean and make sure your sentence couldn’t mean anything else. Always prefer the plain direct word to the long, vague one. Don’t implement promises, but keep them.
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It’s All About the Plot

Last week we discussed characters portrayed in a sympathetic light. Another type of plot relies less on the character being sympathetic, but the reader is engaged because the plot itself is intriguing enough to keep reading. For instance, books can: Solve a murder. Some authors make plenty of money with …

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Down Under

By the time this blog is posted I should be nearing home after spending the weekend with a wonderful group of Australian and New Zealand writers at a retreat center in Mulgoa, Australia (approximately an hour’s drive west of Sydney) for The Omega Christian Writers Conference. I had the privilege …

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Writing Sympathetic Characters

Have you ever stopped reading a novel because you didn’t like or weren’t interested in the characters or you couldn’t muster enough caring about them to stick with them for 300 pages? Here are a few tips to try to keep this reaction from happening to your readers: 1. Portray …

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