Thank you to our last writer of this workshop series, E.S. This is an early draft of a middle grade fantasy.
The Workshop Submission
It started when the two faceless men knocked at the back door. If I’d known it was them, I would never have answered.
The potential for some solid tension here. The one thing I’d keep an eye out for, however: “I would never have answered” leaves the present moment. There’s this “If I’d only known” vibe. We go into some hazy, undefined future, from which the narrator is writing. It risks pulling the reader out of the moment to wonder, “When are we relative to the present moment?” My preference is to only use tension that’s available in the present. But since we don’t really know what’s going on in the present yet, I’ll allow it. 😉
Usually I wouldn’t have answered. I hate answering the door. It’s never anyone for me, anyway. All I want is to be left alone to mind my own business and have everyone else mind theirs.
“I wouldn’t have answered” and “I hate answering the door” are redundant. Consider this post about writing description. We get even more into the same point with the discussion of minding one’s business. This is also telling about the character, which I’d much rather avoid.
But I figured it was Mom with her arms full of groceries or something, so I answered the door. Because who else would come around the building and through the gate in the fence and past our sorry excuse for a backyard and knock on the back door? Anyone else would go to the front door. And Mom should have been home already, anyway. It was way past the time she usually gets home from work, and she hadn’t even called. She can be a real pain like that.
This is much more relevant to the present moment. I think that Mom not being home yet (tension) meets the element that it’s the back door, not the front door (tension) should be played up from the beginning, eg, “Nobody ever knocks on the back door. Only Mom comes in that way, and Mom would never knock…” Though I do love “our sorry excuse for a backyard” for voice purposes. This could be cherry-picked and used to start the novel.
So I just unlocked the back door and opened it. I expected Mom to come bustling into the kitchen, saying, “Samantha, young lady, have you finished your homework?” and puffing loose hair out of her face. But it wasn’t Mom. It was two tall, faceless men.
The difference between this opening and what the writer currently has is that this opening is in action. Samantha is expecting Mom (neutral) but it’s not Mom (tension!), it’s two faceless men (tension!!!!!!!). Give it to us in the moment. All the discussion of wanting to be left alone and blah blah blah is just telling. Give us the action instead.
Maybe they actually did have faces under all that bristly hair, but it was impossible to tell. Plus their tall furry hats were jammed down so far on their little heads that the hats would’ve covered any faces they had. Their arms and legs look like giant pipe cleaners. Creepy. And not brand new pipe cleaners either.
The rambling here (the long sentence about the tall furry hats) and the humor (though I love humor) undermine the shock or tension of the moment. Two random strangers have shown up at Samantha’s back door, and you ideally, I think, want the reader to be scared. But by making fun of their hats and faces and head shapes, you let the true fear out of the moment. Is she meant to be scared? This would be better for tension. Or is she just going to hang back and poke fun? This would be better for voice but … for the beginning, tension should be king.
That’s all they wrote! Thank you so much for joining me for this workshop series, and thank you to all the writers who have furnished your openings for potential workshop. I’m planning the next one as we speak.
If you’re struggling with your beginning, bring me on board as a novel editor and trusted writing partner.
I work a lot with voice, especially colloquial writing, with my editorial clients. Aside from dry voice, which is a topic in and of itself, I have been battling long sentences quite a bit recently. I write this post as a reminder to all writers: Bigger isn’t necessarily better. (Cue my thirteen-year-old self giggling.)
Long Sentences Are Hard Work
There are two common ways in which writers elongate sentences unnecessarily. One is via the semicolon, one is by stacking action. Unless you are British or from another Commonwealth country, the semicolon is largely leaving modern trade fiction. (An interesting anecdotal study done for The Bestseller Code by Jodie Archer found that semicolon use is inversely proportional to commercial success. Plus, not a lot of people use semicolons correctly.)
I personally encourage clients to avoid them because they create awkward long sentences that drag on. They are especially undesirable in picture books, early readers, and chapter books, and some early middle grade because those readers are not yet comfortable with complex sentence structures.
Another tendency I see is the stacking of action, especially by using “as.” I encourage writers to limit a sentence to three actions, for example:
She shut her laptop, sipped her coffee, and stared absently at the wall.
(This happens to be my favorite activity…)
Here’s what happens to the sentence, which is long enough already, if “as” comes to the party:
She shut her laptop, sipped her coffee, and stared absent at the wall as the cat prowled for puzzle pieces along the hallway and the mail carrier knocked at the door.
It’s too much for one sentence to do comfortably. (Also, my cat can’t be the only puzzle enthusiast out there, right?) Your work shouldn’t be, well, work to read. When you’re tempted to use a semicolon or “as” to keep something going, consider either zooming out and conveying less action (because you might not need such detail) or breaking up the sentence.
Reading Long Sentences Aloud
Another trick I love to use, especially for picture books, is to read the work aloud. Not only will this help you get a visceral feel for colloquial writing and voice, but it will absolutely indicate which sentences are too long. Why?
People need to breathe. And if you need to breathe in the middle of one of your sentences, it’s too long. Especially in dialogue. We tend to speak in shorter sentences than we’d use for narrative and description. If you have characters speaking in 50-word sentences which are exactly the same as your narrative writing style, that’s an issue. Speech should have its own cadence.
Read your work aloud to focus on long sentences and either eliminate them or break them up. Colloquial writing is here to stay, and shorter, more energetic sentences are going to help you a lot on the voice front. A win for you, and a win for your readers!
If you struggle with voice, I can step in as your manuscript editor and guide you in the right direction with personalized, encouraging feedback.
I got a great question the other day about authorial voice and third person voice from an editorial client. He was writing in alternating close third POV chapters with a cast of several characters. Basically, he was telling his story in third person from several character perspectives. Even though everything was in close third person, he was still dipping into different character heads per chapter. Would that influence the voice? Basically, he was wondering what the difference was between authorial voice (his natural voice as a writer), the third person voice of his overall narrative, and how (and if?) close third is influenced by character voice. A lot to unpack here!
Basically, it’s a balance. There is the author’s own voice, and then the narrative voice, which is informed by POV character, at least slightly. Or at least it should be. Because if your third person narrative voice is the same from Character A Chapter to Character B Chapter, then why bother segmenting the narrative into separate characters?
This writer made the choice to use different close third POV characters. The modern trend is to “flavor” your POV chapters with narration that reflects the POV character at least somewhat, even in third person. This obviously happens more conspicuously in first person because then the entire voice is assumed to be the characters’.
But in third person, you wouldn’t write a third person grandfather POV with the exact same language as you would their grandchild’s POV chapter. Overwhelmingly, I’ve heard agents and publishers comment about adding voice and style to close third person POV that at least takes the character whose chapter it is into account. The consensus seems to be that they should be able to open your book to a random page and know which character’s POV we’re in based on voice, even if they can’t see the chapter heading, and even in third person.
So let’s break it down further.
This is the voice of your character. In first person POV (“I said”), that is also the voice you’re writing in. In third person, it is widely preferred in contemporary fiction to let your character’s voice inflect the narrative, especially if you are writing in close third person on that one character. This basically means that you are writing in third person (“He said”) but only go into the experience of one character, usually your protagonist.
Other opportunities to express your character’s voice come in dialogue, where they are literally speaking, and interiority and direct thought, when you render their exact thoughts on the page. This is when you will want to think about voice, which words they’d choose, how they’d say them (syntax), and the content of their self-expression. It’s good to consider these elements for each character you put on the page.
Sometimes, the narrator him or herself is very intrusive and becomes a character in the story. The classic example is the narrator of the Series of Unfortunate Events, written under the pen name of Lemony Snicket, but really by Daniel Handler. There are people acting out the plot but the story is told by a first person raconteur character as well. This is yet another type of voice to consider.
Third Person Voice
If you are writing third person, you are either in close third (your POV is limited to one character), alternating (you hop from character’s head to character’s head but in a more structured way, like my client who asked this question) or omniscient (where you float around and “head hop” at will into the experiences of a wide cast of characters, like The Sun Is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon, but note that omniscient third is widely considered the most difficult to pull off and not a good fit for every market).
This means you are also now thinking about narrative voice, your baseline voice for telling the story. Unless you have a Lemony Snicket-type narrator, but in third person, to account for, your third person narrative voice is going to be more neutral. I would still recommend tinting this voice to share elements with your character(s) if you are writing in close third, alternating, or omniscient. Per my example above, a chapter in third person voice that focuses on a young child should not read like a chapter in third person that explores an older man’s more wistful or reflective (or bitter!) experience.
If the voice sounds the same on every page, even in third person, despite going into the experiences of different characters, this is an issue. You may not be exploring or inhabiting your characters deeply enough. They should affect your voice. Not as much as they would in first person, but enough to have some bearing on the writing.
Another thing to note is that narrative voice can change from book to book. Your snappy YA romance is not going to be written in the same voice as your coming of age MG. It just shouldn’t be. Those are completely different categories, character ages, plots, and reader expectations. So it’s important to realize that narrative voice, whether first or third person, changes according to the characters used and the story being told.
Finally, there’s authorial voice. This is the element that doesn’t change, your signature. Are you known for clever dialogue, like John Green? Froth and fun, like Meg Cabot? Heartfelt honesty, like Judy Blume? These are classic examples but when we read these authors, we know what we’re in for, no matter what the book. That’s because of authorial voice.
If you’re just developing yourself, don’t worry. Authorial voice is something you discover, not force into existence. It falls into place much later in the writing journey, and sometimes people can’t predict what their signature is until it emerges.
My client, though, was wondering if authorial voice should dominate the third person writing, or if he had to make allowances for character to creep into the narrative. Especially since he was writing in alternating chapter close third person, I told him that character had to lead the day. Authorial voice will emerge, but it should not be your primary storytelling concern. Especially if you are choosing to render multiple POVs.
The overall voice with be yours (authorial voice), and that sense of voice will get stronger, the longer you write. But I would encourage my client, and anyone reading, to add lenses of more stylized voice/narration that are going to be unique to each POV character.
Struggling to develop voice? It’s usually the last writing and storytelling element to fall into place. With me as your novel editor, we can work toward your own narrative style together, in a focused, supportive, and actionable way.
Oftentimes, manuscripts are cluttered with transition words, like “then”. These tend to just be filler. Here’s why it’s better to cut down on transition words in writing and streamline your manuscript. Some writers won’t be affected by this at all, but others may recognize themselves in this article.
Transition Words are Filler
For fun, here’s a list of transition words. A lot of these words and phrases are more at home in an essay. Writers of fiction will especially want to pay attention to the Time/Chronology/Sequence list.
Some writers use these words a lot. “Then” and “Suddenly” and “Just as” hang out and take up space at the front of many paragraphs. Some writers absolutely don’t have this issue, but others can’t help but be conscious of the passage of time. They use transition words and phrases to introduce action that’s about to happen.
Here’s the thing. Instead of introducing that action is coming, then describing the action–take a shortcut. Simply describe the action. For the most part, transitional words and phrases are filler.
Action is, by and large, written in chronological order. So words like “Then” to link descriptions aren’t necessary. Your reader will know that one event follows the other. If your manuscript suffers from inflated word count (50k words plus in middle grade, 90k words plus in young adult), you may want to really drill down to the sentence level. Are you overusing transition words and stating the obvious?
Try trimming them and you might see that your writing takes on a new and refreshing tightness and simplicity.
A Few Exceptions That Require Transition Words
There are two notable exceptions to my advice. In picture books, transition words in writing really do keep things moving. Picture book action tends to be very quick–writers are expected to do a lot in about 700 words. Sometimes, time and action move quickly. Actions are described in a few sentences. So transition words help things flow, and they help keep younger readers engaged.
In work for older readers, there are instances where you will want to use compressed narration, or when you’re hopping around in time. If you are making a transition between scenes and need to splice your timeline together, transitions are totally fine.
They’re also a good idea if you’re going into flashback or moving around in any order other than chronological. Remember, if you take a time leap, you will always want to ground your narrative relative to the scene you just departed.
Transition words help keep your reader’s feet on the ground, so they know exactly when and where something is happening in relation to a previous passage.
Streamline Your Writing
The big takeaway is that writing works best when it is tight and functional. Flourishes are, of course, allowed. Sometimes extras help define your voice and identity as a writer. But a lot of filler can creep into writing and make it dull and heavy. Are transitional words one of the things you could trim from your work?
Voice is a crucial component of publishable writing. Hire me as your developmental editor and we can take your work to the next level together.
If you want to write children’s books, writing child characters has to be a special interest, and always top of mind. The thing is, children are different from adults. For a lot of wonderful reasons. For some people, it’s very easy to channel their childhoods onto the page. For others, it takes constant work and course-correction. Here are some tips.
Writing Child Characters Believably
Nailing the mindset of a child the same age as your protagonist is crucial. As I write in Writing Irresistible Kidlit, and as I’ve said at many conferences across the country, kids have amazing built-in BS detectors. It’s hard to ring true with them because they are so absorbed in their experience, they’ll be able to pick out those who can’t connect to it very easily. (It’s the bane of every parent’s existence to be called out for not understanding, after all.)
For a lot of writers attracted to children’s books, this comes rather naturally. There is something about a young child’s experience that they remember from their own lives. They remember being a child and have something they want to say about it. Or they have a child the age of their protagonist to connect with. Something about parenting children has inspired them.
No matter where you stand, it’s always a good idea to get back in touch with your inner child–because that’s key when writing for children.
Remember Your Childhood
You may want to bean me with a yoga mat for this suggestion, but I am a big fan of journaling to help you get into (or out of) a particular headspace. When trying to connect with your inner child, don’t hesitate to write letters to that age of child, write letters from that age of child, or write diary entries as that child. Don’t try too hard to think, don’t judge yourself for what you’re writing or its quality.
Simply write. (Ha ha, easier said than done.)
Soon enough, you may find that words are starting to flow and ideas, memories, or feelings may surface after a long, deep sleep. The key isn’t just to do this once. If you want to write for a certain age group, do this over and over and concentrate on what it was like to belong to that age group.
Also, and this goes without saying, this is one of those exercises that only works if you do it. Thinking about doing it and doing it aren’t the same thing.
Connect With Modern Kids
Not in a creepy way, obviously. But another piece of the puzzle if your childhood muscles are rusty is to be in the same room as living, breathing children for a while. Volunteer for story time at the library, hang out with nieces and nephews, offer to host your teen’s next sleepover or sports party. Don’t lurk, but don’t close your listening ears or your observation eyes, either.
Childhood is different today than it was in your time, even if your time was a few years ago. A lot of the feelings might be the same, but the plot points are new. There are different issues at play. The world is different. Scarier. Bigger. Smaller. Bullies can do their dirty work on a screen or with guns instead of with their fists, for example.
Channel your inner child, but talk to contemporary children as well. They’re fonts of information and they will be more than willing to share if they believe you to be genuinely interested in their experiences.
Read, Read, Read When Writing Young Characters
Have I beat this dead horse into the ground yet? Read. Even as you’re journaling to connect with your former self, and hanging out with actual kids the age of your characters, you’ll want to see who else is working in your space, and what they’re doing.
If you’re not already reading in your chosen category, what the heck are you waiting for? If you’re at a total loss for great books, start with award winners. These are writers at the top of their game, and all kinds of age groups, genres and styles are represented. Check out the Caldecott, Coretta Scott King, Newbery, Printz, Belpré, Stonewall, Morris award winner and honor books, and more. Here’s a whole list of all the awards given by ALA. This is certainly not the end-all, be-all of books published that you should be reading, but if you’re desperate for a reading list and don’t know where to start, this will lead you down a great rabbit hole of your future favorite authors.
Writing Picture Book Characters
Special considerations for writing picture book characters (and, to an extent, early reader and chapter book) include remembering that these kids are still very much developing. Their worlds are quite small. They have a family and home that fill up most of their lives. They are learning a lot and being told what to do constantly by parents, teachers, siblings, etc.
As such, your books for this age group need to empower and inspire. Kids need to be put in the starring role, to solve their own problems. Well-meaning and wise adults cannot solve everything for them. For these ages, play on universal themes like love, loss, friendship, overcoming challenges, and trying to find what makes you special. These ideas will resonate in a big way with little kids who are still extremely egocentric. (This is not a slight. Developmentally speaking, young kids have a hard time differentiating that others are different from them and not simply there to suit their needs until they’re two or three.)
Think of what’s important to the littlest kids in your life. Writing young characters for picture book and connecting with children the age of your readers is especially important when writing for the youngest age groups, because you may not have very distinct memories of what it’s like to live in the moment and feel everything as intensely as little readers do.
Writing Middle Grade Characters
I love writing young characters for this age group. Nowhere else is the split between child and grown-up felt so acutely. Middle school-aged readers (and those slightly younger) are in frenzy of activity around developing their identities. Yet they also crave a safe haven when life gets to be too much, or when they get in over their heads. To all the world, they might be confident young citizens…but sometimes they’d much rather run and hide under their covers or have Mama bring them hot chocolate after a rough day.
Identity, friendships, and realizing that the world has shades of gray (including their suddenly fallible parents) are key themes for middle schoolers. Issues like communication, bullying, and figuring out one’s own moral code and integrity will come up a lot in the most emotionally resonant plots.
Though many of us probably don’t want to go back to middle school–it was such a cruel and confusing time–this is the proving ground for your middle grade characters. Where they figure out who they are, who they want to be, and how to start bridging those gaps. If the split between childhood and teenage-dom isn’t felt in your MG fiction, put this idea on your back burner as you revise.
Writing Young Adult Characters
Teens aren’t just miniature adults with fewer responsibilities. They certainly can seem that way sometimes, but assuming this is a big disservice to the age group. Teens don’t want to read your romanticized version of teendom. They experience everything in larger-than-life terms (which makes for great fiction). Their problems are incredibly real to them. And they don’t have the tools necessary to put their lives in context yet, or deal with their problems in healthy ways.
Remember, teens were kids just a few years ago, even if they’ll do anything to distance themselves from that idea and prove that they know better. At the same time, teens do have moments of clarity where they’re aware of their limitation. This vulnerability is an incredible thing to write into. It’s what makes YA so alive and electric.
The teen years are full of defining experiences, big questions, big fractures, and the seeds that will stay with a person for their entire lives. Who were you when you forged your identity? How do your teen characters grapple with this responsibility–if they want to touch it at all? How are they still children, deep down? This split-personality element of YA is so interesting to write.
No matter how old your characters, or how you get into the headspace of writing them, you just need to keep authenticity in mind. Write from an authentic place, and you will attract readers who value vulnerability, truth, and genuine prose. Sorry to go all Brené Brown on y’all, but I like to be reminded every once in a while of what we all aspire to.
Are you striking the right tone, voice, and emotion in your children’s fiction? Hire me as your developmental editor for anything from picture books to young adult novels.
Great writing voice is the goal of every writer. However, voice is often the last thing to come to the surface when you’ve spent many, many hours on the page. (If you want to learn how to create a story, all you need to do is write a million bad words. Easy, right?) There are two essential tenets to writing great voice, and I bullet point them here for you.
Great Writing Voice Via Reading
In my previous post about expanding your writing vocabulary, I urged all aspiring writers to read more. Read more of their favorite authors, read more writers across all categories, to read more. Reading for writers is an essential part of developing our craft.
I’m harping on this again. Maybe because I’m, ahem ahem, a bit of a nag (just ask my husband). Maybe because I’m making it my personal mission to read more myself this year. (When you read for a living, it’s hard to make room to read in your off hours.) Maybe because there is just so much damn good writing in the world, and reading it is an easy way to develop your own great writing voice.
I firmly and roundly reject the idea that writers will pollute their own voices and novels by reading the work of others. Um, no. Not at all. Everyone has to learn their craft somehow, and shelves are swimming with amazing examples of voice and writing.
Would you go a surgeon who didn’t want to pollute her creative genius by watching other surgeons at work? Didn’t think so. Luckily, in creative writing, we don’t have to spend all that time in medical school. So we’ve saved ourselves many years and many thousands of dollars. What should we do with all that bounty? Read. It’s cheap and easy and pleasurable. Reading for writers is our medical school.
Speaking of great writing voice, I’m reading Wave by Sonali Deraniyagala right now. (Thanks for the recommendation, Ali!) It’s about a woman who lost her entire family in the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami. This is a woman shattered, shattered by grief. It shows in the voice. The voice is unflinching. It’s quite a difficult read, but a haunting one. With my recent steeping in grief, I recognize the fractured bursts of thought and insight. The experience is that of a brain twisting and turning and trying to find purchase on anything. It’s an amazing read.
If I was trying to write a novel in fractured sentenced, with choppy pacing, I would definitely want to know Sonali’s work. Even if I was writing something peaceful and rhythmic, I’d check it out, to see how the other half lives. The point is, you cannot know what other writing is like without experiencing it truly.
To neglect the work of your (ideally) future peers, is to shut the door on the best opportunity to better yourself and your craft. I listen to writers tell me that they don’t read all the time, and it blows my mind, every time. I will never agree with this idea. If that’s what you’ve been doing, I urge you to reconsider.
Great Writing Voice Via Reading Aloud
The second piece of advice is also very simple, and it involves only you, your voicebox, and your manuscript. This is a different kind of reading for writers. Hopefully you have understanding partners (or pets) at home, and hard-of-hearing colleagues at work. I’m asking you to demonstrate your great writing voice by reading your work aloud.
I tell this to everyone. At conferences. In editorial notes. On the street. Read your writing aloud. Don’t just think about it, actually do it. Maybe one out of ten people actually try this. Even fewer make it a habit whenever they write something new.
I always read my writing aloud. I print off a draft and pace around my house and read the longest story ever to my dogs. When I was writing my book, I went hoarse after a few days of reading. So what? This helps me find areas where voice isn’t flowing smoothly, identify points I’m not making correctly, and generally see if what I’ve written pleases me and makes sense.
It is a miracle for developing great writing voice. I’m serious.
Read your writing aloud. Better yet, especially if you have poetry or a short piece (helloooooo picture book people), have someone read it aloud to you. I guarantee that, at least once, you will be shocked. It gives a whole new life to something you think you know well.
How many of my readers will do this? Not many. How many will do it more than once? Even fewer. But before we had the written word, we had spoken story. Everything we’ve put down on paper now used to be passed verbally around the campfire.
When we write on a page or a screen, we are entirely in our heads. Reading aloud puts some of our creative energy in our bodies. You will be very surprised at what you can discover that way. Try it. Seriously. Go.
Still struggling with developing great writing voice? Let me help as your developmental editor. An experienced set of eyes on your work will put rocket boosters on your progress.
Today’s post about writing vocabulary is a perfect one for the New Year, because growing your vocabulary is something you can work on. Speaking of which, I’m back to work, more or less, and looking forward to 2018. Thank you everyone for your wonderful kind thoughts about the loss of our little Nora.
The Role of Writing Vocabulary in Prose
Writers love words. Or, well, they should, if they want to be writers. Collecting words, analyzing words, thinking about words: building your writing vocabulary should be a small part of the writing work that you do. While you’re doing it, you may not know why it’s important. What’s the point of learning words that you might not use?
But one day, you’ll want to say something, and you will realize that there’s a perfect word for that. The English language is beautiful and varied and we have a ton of words for everything.
From a prose and craft perspective, the more specific your choices, the cleaner and tighter your writing. So if you know the best word for something, use it. This contributes to an overall sense of tightness in the prose, and to more specific voice. The words you learn and use don’t even have to be complicated.
An Easy Example of Improving Writing Vocabulary
I was editing a manuscript the other day, and came across a sentence very much like this:
She craned her head up, tensing so that she could see through the window.
This description is okay. It’s wordy. Try reading it aloud. There’s a lot to chew on there. It does the job, but we can do better. The thing is, we have a word to convey exactly this. We could swap it out with:
She strained to see through the window.
We are swapping seven clunky words for one word. So simple, so elegant, so clear! Like crawling into bed on clean sheets.
Many writers are convinced that in order to really be a Writer With a Capital W (to earn one’s bones, so to speak), they have to show off and make things more complicated. They will impress the reader into submission, dang it! The haughtier their prose, the more everyone will know that they are very, very good.
Yeah, that’s not the case. A simple, clean style is actually very difficult to achieve, and that’s what you should be aiming for. A carefully selected writer’s vocabulary will also reduce the clutter of your prose, tighten up your manuscript word count (I’ve never met a very, very long manuscript that absolutely needed to be that way, the writing is usually quite bloated), and allow readers to zip through your story.
Remember, your goal is precision. You’re not trying to bamboozle your readers with rare words. You’re trying to delight them with the perfect words for the occasion.
How to Build Your Writer’s Vocabulary
So what do you do about your writing vocabulary? I have two suggestions. A silly one and a serious one.
First, become interested in words. There’s a great and simple way to do this: sign up for the Oxford English Dictionary’s Word of the Day. This website looks a little sketchy, but that’s the OED’s sign-up form. They will send you an email with a new word every day. You may get some really weird stuff, or you may get words you never knew about that are precise and wonderful.
Second, read. There is a class of writer that doesn’t read because they worry about unduly influencing their own process. I will never and have never understood these writers, I will tell you that right now. The strongest way to improve your own writing, that I can think of, is to read the work of writers who are way ahead of you on their authorial journeys. They will have this craft of using words precisely down. Read their work. Read writers who aren’t in your category. Read literary writers. Read pop culture writers. Read, read, read. (For extra credit, check out my post on reading like a writer.)
The best way to nurture your love of words and language is to be around words and language. Write interesting words down. Read with a highlighter in hand. Keep a file of words. You never know when you’ll need something from your writer’s vocabulary, so make sure it’s there for you.
If you’re struggling with voice and prose, hire me as your novel editor. I’ll comb through your writing sentence by sentence.
Recently, I’ve walked a few full novel editing clients through the use of imagery in writing. Why do authors use imagery? I decided to write a post about it because there seems to be some confusion about what imagery in description is, when to use it, and why you’d want to in the first place. Read on!
What is Imagery in Writing?
I have an MFA in Creative Writing, and as you can imagine, us Creative Writing MFAs spend a lot of time sitting around in coffee houses, thinking about the building blocks of the fiction craft. (Just kidding! Sort of!) Well, one of those important building blocks is imagery in description.
Imagery in writing serves to deepen the reader’s understanding of what’s going on and how to feel about it. The image is a tool. It adds something. It enhances.
A lot of writers believe that an image is necessary for every situation. It isn’t. My preference would be that you use imagery in books more sparingly. That way, your figurative language will mean more.
When to Use Imagery in Writing
So that brings up the question of when to use imagery in description. A big mistake I see in manuscripts is that writers use imagery when it really isn’t necessary.
Here’s a good example of imagery used incorrectly:
He was so hungry that he felt like a swarm of ravenous bees were buzzing around in his stomach.
There’s figurative language in this sentence (the bees). But what does it add? The information is: He was hungry. Does the image of “ravenous bees” and all of this activity in his stomach add anything to our understanding that he’s hungry? No. It’s restating the information and there’s no sense of depth or enhancement.
Here’s a good example of a situation where imagery works:
He watched her accept Jake’s promposal. Regret gnawed at him like a hungry tiger, and he stormed off, slamming three dozen red roses into the trash. Why hadn’t he made his move yesterday?
This is a bit of a melodramatic description, but the image here serves a purpose. It introduces the idea of a specific emotion that’s playing out inside him, and adds the layer of how deeply it affects him. Regret is like a predator, and he feels like prey–vulnerable, exposed.
This is an emotional moment, and the image spins it in a more visceral direction. The alternative would be:
He watched her accept Jake’s promposal, feeling regret. He stormed off, slamming three dozen red roses into the trash. Why hadn’t he made his move yesterday?
This has a lot of the same information, but it might be a little dry. Does it have the same resonance? That’s up to you as a writer. But it’s a good example of where an image might be desirable, if you’re the type to add embellishments to your significant and emotional moments.
Using Focused Imagery in Description
Another thing to consider is how much imagery to use. A reasonable description of regret, per the example above, instantly becomes overkill in an instance like this:
He watched her accept Jake’s promposal. Regret gnawed at him like a tiger, lashing into him like a thrashing shark, dripping into his veins like acid. He stormed off…
This might look like obvious redundancy to you, but it’s something I see all the time. Once a writer has decided that an occasional calls for imagery, they might decide that “more is more!” That’s actually not true.
If you’ve gotten the feedback that your imagery in writing and that it can sometimes slant toward cliché, really think about it and maybe pick the third or fourth image that comes to mind. You want to make sure you’re being evocative and fresh. That’s how you’re going to develop your writer’s voice.
On a lighter note, I hope that I never have to write the ridiculous word “promposal” ever again! 🙂
Struggling with voice, description, and imagery in description? I’m happy to help troubleshoot your manuscript in regards to these important concepts. Hire me as your novel editor, and we’ll dive in together!
Directing reader attention is an art. As the writer, it’s up to you where that precious resource goes. Are you doing a good job?
As the writer, you know what’s important about your story. Your reader doesn’t. They’re brand new to the thing and eager to learn what matters about your character and plot. It would be terrible to just tell them. So instead you show them. But how?
You Are the Curator
You need to pick the elements that are important to the story, and leave everything else by the wayside. Act like an art curator when you sit down to write a novel. You need to pick the characters and events that are crucial to the telling of your tale. Then you need to layer in every other element that needs to be noticed.
How do you do this in a way that readers can interpret clearly? The metaphor of a spotlight operator is a good way to think about directing reader attention. They sit in the back of a darkened theater. Their objective is to direct the audience’s attention. If there’s a love scene going on downstage, they aren’t going to focus their spot on a big player dancing upstage. That doesn’t make any sense.
As you craft your manuscript, you don’t have a spotlight at your disposal. But you do have other tools. These are the amount of description, and the type of description.
Directing Reader Attention With Amount of Description
One consideration when directing reader attention to what’s important is the amount of writing that you’re going to lavish on the element in question. If an amulet is going to become very important in your fantasy novel, for example, you may not want to mention it in one sentence and move on. That will not be enough to pique the reader’s interest.
But it’s a balance. If you lavish too much descriptive prose on the amulet, the reader will think, “Ah ha! This writer is trying to tell me something. This isn’t the last we’ll see of this amulet.” So if you’re looking to direct reader attention without giving away any big reveals, keep your description notable but short.
The adverse is true, too. If something isn’t important, don’t spend time there. If you pour a lot of descriptive prose into the man at the bus stop, his five o’clock shadow, his wrinkled silk tie, and we never see him again, then you’ve wasted the reader’s time. The man was just set dressing. Interesting set dressing, sure, but there was no reason to treat him like the star of the show.
Directing Reader Attention With Type of Description
When you think about the descriptive prose around certain elements of your story, think of the emotion you’re attaching to your description. Important elements should have some kind of voice attached to them, they shouldn’t just lie neutrally on the page.
Look at these two examples:
The dog came over and sat on my lap.
The dog trundled over and lolled into my lap, letting his head rest heavily on my knee.
We may not know a lot about the dog yet, but the second description tells me, as a reader, that there’s probably more to know. The first description is so generic, there’s no emotional signature at all. The second uses interesting words and some sensory details. It paints more of a picture. If you want to be especially emotional, you could even do something like:
The little bastard pranced into my lap and nuzzled his homework-chewing chin into the palm of my hand. I couldn’t stay mad at him, but Mrs. Turner would have my neck for missing yet another assignment!
Here, there’s a clear emotional signature to the description. It’s also a good example of the concept of interiority. We can’t help but start forming a relationship with this dog because, clearly, the narrator already has one. I’m also getting some more context about the situation here, and how the dog fits into it.
Of all three instances of descriptive prose, I’m going to remember that third dog the most, because it was described in an emotional way. It’s also the longest description, practically guaranteeing that my attention is drawn to it.
When you’re revising, think about directing reader attention like a spot operator and curator with your descriptions. Let them work for you, and guide the reader through your story.
Is your descriptive prose hitting the mark? Hire me as your novel editor, and I’ll help you take your writing voice to the next level.
When I talk to client about novel world building, I talk a lot about context. If, for example, there is a magic in worldbuilding, I want to know if a) magic is common, b) the protagonist has experienced magic before (if yes, how much? what kind? etc.), and c) how they feel about it. So when a streak of green lightning flies across the room, I am looking to the protagonist for clues. How they react to it will tell me a lot about how magic operates in the world.
But this sort of approach isn’t just for novel world building. You can add an emotional stance to almost everything, even if your book is set very much in the real world. Think of it as a worldbuilding approach to all of your writing. It’s also a principal tenet of interiority. How does your character see the world? How they react to stuff will be a very good guide.
Emotional Novel World Building
For example, if they see the new kid in school, they might say:
There’s Bo, the new kid in school.
This is merely factual, but is there an emotional signature there? No. Do some worldbuilding! So the reader is still wondering … so what’s the deal with this Bo guy? Do we like him? Is he weird? If he’s important, I want to know more about him right away. One answer (other than putting Bo in the plot or in scene with the protagonist, which I would also recommend) would be to add an emotional stance into your novel world building.
For example, here are some more complex reactions we can have to seeing Bo:
There goes that Bo, swaggering like a show pony. Who does he think he is?
There’s Bo, on the fringes of the cafeteria with the cool drama kids already . Would he say something to me today? I hope so.
And then there was Bo. Was he the one who shot off that green bolt during homeroom? What if he’s an algae elemental? What if he can help me figure out the Slime Pond mystery?
Worldbuilding As It Applies to Character
Here we have three different attitudes about Bo, because I’ve let the narrator have an emotional stance inaddition to providing basic information (“There’s Bo”). In the first example, the emotion about Bo is quite negative. In the second example, it’s attraction to Bo. He’s already off fraternizing with some other group, but the narrator hopes that he’ll come pay him or her some attention, too. The third example gives world-building context but there’s also an emotional signature of intrigue. We get the feeling that algae elementals (ha!) are quite rare, and they’re desirable, at least for the narrator.
I could play with this stuff forever. For example, what if algae elementals weren’t rare? How would we convey that idea through the narrator’s emotional stance?
And then there was Bo. Was he the one who shot off that green bolt during homeroom? Great. The first new kid we’ve had in ages and he’s another dang algae elemental. This stupid school is teeming with them.
Don’t just settle for describing something or someone. It’s in how you describe them that the reader will be able to read the narrator’s attitude and emotion toward them. It’s all about context, folks!
Layering interiority into your story can be hard. If you want to master character worldbuilding, hire me as your developmental editor and we’ll dig deep together.