Tag s | Craft

Letting Go of Your Babies

One of the worst mistakes writers can make is being too possessive of their words. They fight for each adjective, adverb, and conversation tag.

My early writing suffered from too many words. I once wrote that an artist didn’t “really” understand the difficulties of making a living in his profession. The editor kindly cut all instances of “really,” “just,” “so,” “very,” and other weak words experienced editors call “weasel” words.

The cuts hurt, but I exercised restraint in venting only to my mother. I didn’t have a literary agent! She agreed with me. “If you cut out ‘really,’ then you’re saying he had no idea at all!” Sharing offense is the job of mothers.

Weasel words are great in everyday conversation because they soften the impact of strong verbs and can make painful statements gentler to the listener’s ear, but they waste a reader’s time.  Embrace the power of a vibrant verb. You want your reader to feel every emotion, whether your goal is to offer a sense of relief and peace through nonfiction or to bristle with anger and fall in love along with fictional characters.

In my role of agent, I sometimes edit manuscripts and point out areas needing improvement. My writers know I am partnering with them to give editors their best work. Sometimes an author puts forth a convincing reason why an element should remain as is. If so, I relent.

But a literary agent is only part of the equation. In the hands of an editor at a publishing house, the stakes increase. The editor represents the publisher, who is paying for your work and will bring the book to paying customers. Expressing outrage is not the order of the day when talking with your editor. Choose your battles wisely, if at all; and be prepared to present airtight reasons for resisting changes. This is especially true for new writers, but even veterans need to be respectful of the publishing professionals the Lord puts in their path.

When you do, you will be happier, your editor will be happier, and you will have a happy agent!

 

[This post was previously published in June 2011]

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Floating … Floating … Gone …

Writers conferences and blogs talk about this topic often so I don’t pretend to be breaking new ground with this post. Yet I still see some floating body parts and cliches creep into otherwise great stories. No, I don’t mean murder mysteries depicting a stray arm floating in a river. I mean much gentler fare.

Yes, floating body parts offer the reader — and writer — shortcuts. But relying on them as description in narrative doesn’t challenge anyone’s imagination.

Rolling eyes

The offender I see most often is:

“She rolled her eyes.”

Yes, we all know this means that her eyes went from the ceiling and back. No, wait a minute. Her eyes didn’t go the ceiling and back. Her gaze went to the ceiling and back. See the difference? No pun intended.

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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 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.

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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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Always Be Learning

During the Summer of 1978 the #1 hit on Christian radio was the classic “He’s Alive” by Don Francisco (click here to listen). That same Summer I attended a Christian music festival in Estes Park, Colorado and decided to take a class on songwriting being taught by Jimmy and Carol Owens. I settled into my chair near the back of the room with notepad ready.

Just as the class was about to start a bearded man slide in the chair next to mine….notepad at the ready. To my astonishment it was Don Francisco. (I recognized him from his album cover.)

Here was a singer/songwriter who had the number one hit in the nation…taking a class on songwriting! What did he think he needed to learn?

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The Art of the Sentence

A month or so ago I asked some social media friends what sentence from a book rocked their world. The replies were delightful, and I shared some of them in my June 27 post on this site, titled “In Praise of Memorable Sentences.” There were too many, however, to include …

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You Are Not Your Words

Writers love words. That’s a good thing. But when we become attached to our own words, that’s a bad thing. I see it often in meeting with writers and offering critiques at writers’ conferences. The writer will hand me a piece of his or her work, “to see what you …

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Read It Twice!

I read Gone with the Wind for the first time in the seventh grade. Then I reread it in the eighth grade. Daddy fussed at me for this. “Why are you reading the same book again? You should read something else.” I know he had a point, but I consumed …

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