Brainstorms and Tips

I hope everyone had a wonderful holiday weekend! Now — *cracks whip* — back to work! Just kidding. But we are wrapping up Revision-o-Rama. Of course, I will continue to talk about revision topics on the blog but not in this concentrated way.

Since there are a bunch of smaller things that didn’t warrant full posts but that are still fun and important to do. I call them Brainstorms and Tips. Read on!

100 Declarative Sentences

This is a great brainstorm tool, and it’s really hard. This works best with a character or a setting that’s giving you difficulty. Maybe your critique group thinks it’s thin or flat or unconvincing, or it just doesn’t feel right to you. Concentrate on this place or this person and write 100 declarative sentences about her, him or it. Sounds simple, right? Well, it really calls into question how well you know what you’re writing about. A declarative sentence is just an informative sentence that states a fact. Let’s say I have a character called Claire who isn’t working for me. I would start my list:

  1. Claire plays JV tennis.
  2. Claire likes to eat ice cream but only after she wins a game.
  3. Claire wishes she had long hair like Abby does.

Etc. etc. etc. A lot of it will feel like you’re just riffing. You’re making things up. You’re improvising. But you’ll come up with some great surprises, like quirks of a character that you never thought of. Then, around sentence 80, you will feel like you will never finish this stupid exercise. And you will hate me. And you will probably give up and watch some TV. So it goes. But the point here is that you’re thinking of the place or person as something real. Declarative sentences are simple and informational. It will force you to think about things you haven’t been considering yet.

Who knows if you will use all of the 100 things you come up with? But the truth and beauty of fiction always lies in the specifics. Here, you have an opportunity to come up with specifics, quirks, tidbits and other things that will flesh out your character or setting and make them seem more real, more significant. Some of my favorite details about a character or place, the ones that stick with me long after the book is over, are small things like this. That Claire has the purple nail polish chipped off the big toe on her left foot. That Bellmeadows, the town where Claire lives, has three car dealerships but no gas station. Character and setting are in the details. Force yourself to come up with some. You’ll get maybe 10 or 20 new things to add throughout your manuscript.

Boring and Ambiguous Words

In my slush pile, I get a lot of queries that use boring and ambiguous words. What do I mean? Here’s an example (an amalgamation of all that is bad, one it has pained me deeply to write):

Johnny learns a mysterious secret at the beautiful Temple of Adventure that will change his life forever. Shadowy conspirators push him into a meaningful choice — and there’s no going back. When Johnny is faced with the truth, dangerous circumstances propel him to a thrilling and exciting climax that will leave readers begging for more.

Huh? What? What is this book about? All I have are general words that are meant to hype me up but they’re all fluff. Just like a booming announcer’s voice during a movie trailer that’s trying to tell me a story, it’s all dazzle and no substance. There are some words that are so general that they mean nothing. Or they mean different things to different people. What one person finds “beautiful” or “thrilling” isn’t the same across the board. Using some in a query or manuscript is okay, but I’m seeing a lot of paragraphs that resemble the above. If I read a paragraph full of generalities and ambiguous words, I really have no idea what your plot is. Plot is made up of specific events, not hot keywords. Avoid these words in your query and in your manuscript. Specifics are key. What does “beautiful” look like to this character? How does that character react uniquely to something “exciting”? Use instances where you’d normally use a boring or ambiguous word as an opportunity to show us something about the characters you’ve created. Striking out these blah words also goes a long way toward adding to voice.

Filters

Filters are phrases like “I think” and “I see” and “in my opinion” that dilute your prose. They’re most noticeable in first person but appear in third person, too. For example, it’s a lot more wordy to say, “I saw a dog bounding across the lawn,” than, “A dog bounded across the lawn.” Obviously, the narrator saw it, or they wouldn’t be describing it for the reader. Same with, “I thought her hair looked stupid.” That’s weak compared to, “Her hair looked like a skunk had set itself on fire.” The “I thought” and “I saw” just lessen the impact of what follows. Of course, you’re allowed to say things like, “I thought I saw a ghost,” if they’re important to your plot, but try and weed filters out of your ordinary prose. Tangentially, one of my biggest pet peeves is when writers put: “… blah blah blah, I thought in my head.” Yes. Obviously. What else do you think with? Your elbow?

Reading Aloud

As many readers have mentioned in comments, a nifty trick during revision is reading your manuscript aloud. Yes, it’s tedious. Yes, you sometimes lose your voice doing it, but you catch so many things you never would’ve caught before. My favorite thing to do — during workshop and critique sessions — is to actually have another person (or, you know, if you’ve got such a patient person at your disposal at all times) read your manuscript or parts of it to you. This is extremely instructive. You hear it in another voice (one that’s not inside your head) and you get to see where you reader stumbled or seemed to get caught up in certain sentences. You get to see if another voice makes the prose come alive (which means it has voice of its own) or if it lies flat on the page and makes your reader start droning. Very useful stuff!

The above are just a few tips and brainstorms that you can use. There are literally millions of writing exercises, books, methods and other authorities that you can study on the subject. I’ll name some of my favorites in my next post (and the last for Revision-o-Rama, boo!).

In the meantime, you can find more tips in previous blog posts. Here’s a post about why to avoid the word “suddenly” in your writing, and here’s another post about a nifty and quick revision trick that will help you see your manuscript in a whole new way. Feel free to leave your hot tips and brainstorming ideas in the comments.

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  1. Pat’s avatar

    I just discovered your blog and feel like I’ve landed on Treasure Island. Can’t wait to explore.
    Thanks

  2. Siski Green’s avatar

    Really useful post, Mary. I loved writing out declarative sentences for two of the characters in my WIP, but others were proving a nightmare to get done. Then I discovered another great way to get inside my characters’ heads – I go to Google image search and find photos that match their personality (people they’d like as lovers/friends, art they’d like/dislike, places they’d love/hate) and, if I’m lucky, photos that look how I imagine them to be. I save them in a file so I can refer to them at a later date. It’s also a good way to take a break from writing those declarative sentences!

  3. Stina’s avatar

    I liked the “fooling yourself” tip. Definitely going to give that a try (the font version).

    Another tip is to use your computer’s text-to-voice feature. If your ms sounds great with that monotone voice, then you know your pose sings. Plus it’s works well for finding typos and awkward sentences, and you don’t lose your voice.

    I’ve done a number of different exercises to discover the ins and outs of my characters, but I’ve never heard of the declarative sentence one. Sounds like a great idea, especially for developing the setting.

  4. Kat Heckenbach’s avatar

    It is the standard procedure of the critique group I’m in to read each others’ works out loud. It helps SO much in finding awkward sentences and discovering those sneaky little typos that you miss over and over.

    As for characters–I do like the list of 100 idea! Another thing I’ve found very helpful is to write short stories about my characters, focusing on turning points in their lives that occured before the time-line of my novel. It helps me get into their heads and see where they are coming from, what events in their lives shaped them into who they are. And the bonus–I can publish those stories in magazines and get a little extra exposure (and maybe even a bit of money, too!).

  5. bjanderson’s avatar

    I really love the idea of the declarative sentence brainstorm. I’m definitely going to use that one on a secondary character who’s been giving me trouble. Thanks for some new ideas!

  6. Ryan Ashley Scott’s avatar

    I am looking forward to trying out the 100 sentences with a character that has no character. I’ve been fighting with her for a while. Thanks for the tip!

  7. Jennifer Chandler’s avatar

    Hello Mary!

    I found your site thanks to your interview with “Guide to Literary Agents”. This is a wonderful post! Thank you for the tips. I’ll be returning to this post again and again.

    Happy Monday,
    Jen

  8. Sherrie Petersen’s avatar

    Great tips! I’m going to try the declarative sentences. That could be a really useful exercise.

  9. Martha Flynn’s avatar

    Okay, so I tried this with a character who was giving me issues and for the record, I started hating you around sentence 32. This hate then transferred to me, to my character, the construction crew that begin hammering at 7:16am this morning, then, finally, back to me. I’m going to down a latte and then come back to it. You’re an evil genius.

  10. Anita’s avatar

    I love all these tips! I can’t wait to try the declerative sentence brainstorm. I have some characteres that need some help.

  11. Lynn Rush’s avatar

    Fantastic! I have a crit group where we read chapters aloud. It’s amazing what you catch! Especially when someone ELSE reads your work. LOVE it.

  12. Jackee’s avatar

    Great tips, thanks! I admit recording myself reading outloud helps me pick out the rough spots and repeat words, I just hate listening to my own voice–it’s like Michael Jackson’s pet chipmink narrating. I’ll have to see if I can railroad someone into reading for me. And the declarative sentences? Totally going to try it.

    Marvelous interview on the GLA blog, by the way!

  13. Kristi’s avatar

    I hope you had a great holiday as well. I love the declarative sentences idea – I sat down with one of my characters during the revision process and began a similar process but realized I didn’t need her at all – so I killed her. Figuratively of course. I’m starting my final read aloud revision tomorrow so I’m stocking up on throat lozenges.

  14. Nicola Morgan’s avatar

    Hi Mary
    Not sure why I haven’t found your blog before – great stuff! I have been doing that declarative sentences things without having something fancy to call it, so thank you!

    Nicola

  15. janet’s avatar

    I looked at your previous post about the word “suddenly” and suddenly I realized why the word “suddenly” has been bothering me so much. I don’t use it much but when I do I suddenly feel like something is wrong with my manuscript. I will add it as number 46 on my revision “to do” list. Maybe one day, before many more years pass, I will suddenly be finished with my story and be able to send it your way.

  16. Jennifer Mann’s avatar

    I am writing and illustrating picture books, and I am always amazed how much story I have to write in order to get to The Story! I haven’t thought of it as writing declarative sentences, but I guess that’s what I am doing, in a round-about way. Sometimes I just close my eyes and really try to wander around in the shoes of the character I am imagining..and if the character is anything like I was as a child, well, then it is a little easier to feel what the character is feeling.
    Your blog is really wonderful…thanks for being so generous with your knowledge.

  17. Karen Cioffi’s avatar

    Thanks so much. Your blog is like taking a children’s writing course. I love it!

  18. Theresa Milstein’s avatar

    I’ve signed up for peer critiques at the NESCBWI conference the last two years. Those are the only times that someone has read my work aloud to me, and since it’s the opening pages (which are the most vital), I get a better sense of what’s working and what needs work. I probably get more constructive feedback from hearing my words than the pats on the back from my peers (Though I like that too).

    Now I’ll have to find a volunteer/victim to do that when I think it’s all flushed out and ready to submit.

  19. Suzanne’s avatar

    The declarative sentence exercise sounds fun. It also sounds like something I can do while my kids are still home from school on winter vacation. I’m going to try it today! Thanks!

  20. Joan’s avatar

    Amazing information! I wish I had been pointed to this blog a long time ago.

    I’m going to use the declarative sentences exercise and keep an eye out for those pesky filters. I have a computer program that reads my work to me (to help me spot errors), but I never thought of using a real person to see if the prose has a life of its own . . . I’ll have to see if I can beg/bribe someone to do this for me. =D

  21. Lacey Boldyrev’s avatar

    Thanks for this! Angela Ackerman recently brought some of the fillers I used in my ms to my attention. The difference it made was incredible.

  22. Valerie’s avatar

    It’s interesting, when I was in film school we always read our screenplays out loud in class to see if they sounded authentic, but it never occurred to me to try this with my book. I will definitely be giving this a try. Also you’re the fourth or fifth person who has recommended Bird By Bird in the last few weeks. I’m going to have to pick this book up soon. Thanks for the great revision posts!

  23. Cate hart’s avatar

    Great insight. Sometimes I forget the simple things, like the ‘duh’ moments. Off to finish revisions with some awesome ideas.

  24. Bonita Kale’s avatar

    A hundred sentences. A hundred sentences? Oh, God, a hundred sentences. But I can see that it would work….

    Okay, a hundred sentences. Drat.

    And that about the boring and ambiguous words– so often, what the writer is trying to do is to tell the reader how to feel. It doesn’t work. You have to show them something, and trust them to get it.

  25. Mary’s avatar

    Bonita — That is a GREAT way of putting it. In fact, I have saved that and will use your quote (attributed, of course) in an upcoming post. Writers have to trust their readers and realize that a genuine emotional reaction is SO much more real than anything they try to force on a reader.

  26. Christina’s avatar

    Wow, so much helpful info. here! I’d made a bio for my main character, but the 100 sentence excercise sounds like a fabulous way to really dig deep. Having someone else read my manuscript out loud to me is also extremely helpful. I’ve tried recording myself reading aloud, as well. Thanks for all the great advice.

  27. Melissa’s avatar

    Mary,

    Thanks! I especially love the 100 declarative sentences exercise.

    I spent the holidays on vacation. Before I left, I’d built up some good momentum with my revision. I didn’t want to lose that, but I was traveling through some remote places, and it wasn’t possible to bring my laptop or spend long hours writing. Instead, I kept a journal in my main character’s voice. In the process, I learned a great deal about her, as well as about her mom and her best friend.

    I was able to write an average of 1,000 words per day over the course of the ten-day trip. 10,000 words equal 1% of a Million Bad Words. Not too shabby for ten days off.

    Melissa

  28. Katie Bowden’s avatar

    Oooohhh! I LOVE the 100 declarative sentences challenge! What a great idea. With my new WIP I’m in the planning stages for both character and setting, and this will be a terrific tool. Thanks!

  29. Charline’s avatar

    Mary, thanks for taking time to post such helpful info on your blog.
    My website (www.cprofiri.com) has a list of weak/vague words compliled from several sources. Yes, “suddenly” made the list!

  30. Dee White’s avatar

    These are all great points, Mary. I could particularly relate to your ‘filter’ suggestions. I write first person YA, and I always think that the reader knows that ‘I’ am the one telling the story, so that what is being seen and heard is from my point of view so it’s not necessary to state this.

    To tighten up boring bits, I also do word searches to try and minimise the use of ‘was’ and ‘started’, and try to eliminate words with ‘ing’ constructions because these seem to slow the pace down.

  31. JennW’s avatar

    These are some great revision tips, esp. the filter suggestions and the “suddenly” suggestion.:)

  32. Davy’s avatar

    I love the ’100 declarative sentences’ tip — so often I read these little tidbits and pass them over without real thought, but that one definitely seems like a keeper.

  33. Bryan Sabol’s avatar

    Mary,
    This is not just a great post, but it’s one of my favorites you’ve done. Any chance you’d consider “Brainstorms and Tips” as a recurring post that you build on over time? I’d love to keep learning from your ever-expanding tool kit.

  34. Mary’s avatar

    Bryan — Aww, thanks. I sure can put that in the idea bucket and see if I can’t make it something of a regular feature.

  35. Pamela Tuck’s avatar

    I enjoyed this article…it gave me that extra “umph” I needed to flesh out my middle-grade novel. I appreciate the tips and how they all work together in the building of character development, creating the sensory details of the setting and also word economy. This article has given me a sense of direction and now I know what things to target in my novel. Thanks for sharing.

  36. Mary Danielson’s avatar

    Okay, I absolutely love the 100 Declarative Sentences tip – that is just the kind of thing that I know would jumpstart ideas, if I were stuck. And since I’m stuck right this moment, I may have to go try it out! ;-) I’m also another one who finds reading aloud very helpful when revising. There are always little words left out or awkward sounding sentences that I don’t notice with just a read-through.

    Thanks for the tips!

  37. Tabitha Rees’s avatar

    Thanks for all the information here. As soon as I return home to my computer, I’ll be sure to interrogate my character like crazy. As for the word choice, I guess I can do my best to edit that. :)

  38. Natalie Rompella’s avatar

    Like one of the earlier comments, I use photos to help me. I had changed a boy character to a girl in my book and I just couldn’t figure out her character traits. After poking around on google, I found her! I was so helpful to give her a face.

    Something else that helps me is http://www.cul.co.uk/creative/ranword.htm It’s called the random word technique. When you’re stuck on a plot issue, you write down that problem. The site gives you a key word (or pick out a random word from a dictionary). Write down anything you can think of related to that word. Then, work to tie your problem with your free associations. Sometimes it really gets me thinking outside the box and gets me going again.

  39. Alice’s avatar

    I’m new to this site but I’m finding it entertaining, helpful and comprehensive in info. The descriptive character exercise above is so simple, but I can see the value in pushing past the ‘usual’ stuff to what lies beyond…
    Reading about the importance of details i.e. “That Bellmeadows, the town where Claire lives, has three car dealerships but no gas station.” makes me want to go and revise my work now!

  40. Adventures in Children's Publishing’s avatar

    Love the idea of declarative brainstorming. I’m going to go put a link back to this article on our blog post right now. Thank you for sharing!

  41. CreativeA’s avatar

    Great post! Very true, all of it.

    “Shadowy conspirators push him into a meaningful choice — and there’s no going back.”

    This part made me LOL so hard. I see stuff like that all the time, drives me crazy.

    -Mandy

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