Focus: Reflections

Wordslaying: How to Omit Unnecessary Words

Friends are generally surprised when I tell them I used to be a bird hunter. Using a .410 (small gauge) shotgun, I’d often limit oPheasantsut on doves before grown men using 12 gauge (larger pellets) shotguns.

My parents were avid bird hunters. After they died, I gave up hunting.

Now, especially recently, I’m a word killer rather than a bird killer. I’ve been slaying herds of words in an effort to create a leaner, meaner, funnier, faster-paced novel. Woo hoo! When you’re cutting words, there’s no limit.

However, it does involve pain. You’d think I was at the wrong end of the pellet gun for the agony caused by killing off my precious babies.

So how can we make the slimming down process less painful and most valuable?

To use bird hunting as my metaphor (for at least as long as I can stretch it), begin with your heavy 12 gauge, getting rid of the big stuff.

    • Can you eliminate entire chapters that are perhaps unnecessary?
      • Make a note of a couple of things about each scene/chapter: who your point of view character is, what she or he needs to get out of the chapter (objective or goal), the obstacle to be overcome, and (almost always or your book threatens to be dull) why/how that objective is thwarted. I also make note of the character’s emotions and what surprising emotion I might slip in.
      • Is the scene essential to the plot? Can you combine it with another, more interesting scene or chapter?
      • Does it advance your story AND develop your character/s?
      • If it is backstory, is it essential, repeat, essential information that cannot be sprinkled into other chapters (after the first 50 or so pages that should RARELY contain backstory)?
      • Is it a dream? If so, give it a blast with both barrels. I hate dream scenes. (Okay, that’s a personal bias)
      • Is it a traveling scene or a description of setting that is ONLY that? Even travel and setting description should reveal something about the plot and the characters living it.

1-IMG_8400After you’ve used the big guns, use a smaller gauge or perhaps a rifle to focus on sentences and words that can be cut. Again, your standard is whether or not the phrase or the word moves the plot forward, creates the tension and emotional conflict that keeps the reader reading, or develops character.

Some easy words that you can pop off with a pea gun (or a Word search):  very, much, almost, just, a bit, somewhat, sort of, probably, possibly.

Wordslaying  works best once you’ve gained a little distance from them. Wait for a second or third  draft before you aim to kill. By that time you may be less attached to each gem.

My best trick in convincing myself to cut unnecessary scenes is to save them in a file of cut stuff that I may use in another novel or be able to rework into a short story. Some people call that file, the Dead File or the Morgue. Recently, I’ve named it Basura (Spanish for trash)

Reality is, I likely won’t use these words again, but it sure makes the act of pulling the trigger easier. And saving them helps, too, in case it’s just one of those days when I think NOTHING works and I should use an Uzi on the whole dang thing. When reality and straight thinking return, I merely copy and paste them back in.

Another trick that helps me eliminate useless scenes, pages, words, is to work with a critique partner who can gently advise me that I’ve already established that my protagonist is nervous or jealous or whatever.

Try becoming your reader: which part would you skip? Cut it. Which part reveals the author’s brilliance with language (“Oh, what a lovely choice of words.”) instead of simply moving the story ahead?

Cut it.

I’d love to know your ideas for killing your precious words. And I’d also love to hear your opinions of dream scenes, and of those who hate them.

Show Don’t Tell Holds for Dialog as Well

Good dialog illuminates character, advances the plot, and holds readers’ interest.drawing people talking

Dialog and narration will accomplish those missions better through telling, not showing. I read a novel recently that reminded me how easy it is to slip into telling instead of showing in dialog. Each time the characters met up, one would chat away for two or three paragraphs about what she’d discovered as an amateur sleuth. Then her boyfriend the cop (a convenient device that works for many experienced writers) would regale her with what the coroner discovered and why it wasn’t safe for her to investigate on her own.

Just because you get your characters talking doesn’t mean you can’t slip into that good old explanation mode.

“Carla,” Nell said in an exasperated tone, as soon as her roommate had poured her first cup of coffee, “You look like something the cat dragged in. It’s so exasperating to me that you spend half the night drinking with your friends, coming in and making all that noise, without a thought for those of us who are trying to sleep, especially when you know I have that important interview this morning.”

Dialog combined with appropriate action can show us the character’s emotion far better than she can tell us.

Nell pulled the milk and eggs out, slammed the refrigerator door and stomped to the cupboard.
Carla slumped in her chair.
“Eggs?” Nell asked. “Bacon?”
Carla shook her head.
“I suppose not. Just coffee and toast, your usual. Or is it hair of the dog today? Some of us need our strength for things like, say, job interviews.” She broke three eggs into a bowl and whisked them. “Not salsa dancing into the wee hours.”

Sometimes you do need to use telling, and that’s perfectly fine. It’s useful when you need to provide information that isn’t crucial to your plot. It helps speed the pace, set the scene, get your characters where you want them, provide necessary information.

Just be sure when you need to convey something important to the plot or to your character development, that you show, don’t tell.

Want a book about dialog? You could try Writing Dialogue by Tom Chiarella, or any of dozens on the subject.

Some people think writing dialog is easy-peasy, others find it a chore. How about you?

Context and Perspective Matter

Earlier this week I went to lunch with fifteen other writers, thanks to the energy and enthusiasm of Ethel Lee-Miller. It was great fun. Someone brought up the topic of point of view. One person suggested that point of view can be demonstrated through a character’s actions and movements. So true and so helpful. Characters also see life from different perspectives.

On a research trip to North Idaho some time back, I considered the different ways my characters would see the images (1)countryside. One character might see the color starting to turn on the deciduous trees, another the slash piles amongst the pines, another the golden, harvested wheat fields between the trees, another the lone parking space at a roadhouse next to the highway.

Later that day we went to a posh restaurant in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, at the recommendation of a nice man at the Visitor Center. “Ask for the daily special,” he said. “You’ll get a discount, and the views are terrific from the 7th floor.”

The view of the lake was indeed terrific. So was the wine list, and the menu looked enticing. Our server was welcoming and friendly. Until we asked for the “specials.” “Yeah,” it’s on the menu. “Fish and chips, $8.95.”

We looked at the menu. For the regular price of $11.95, it’s called halibut tempura, until you ask for the lunch special, when it becomes good old fish and chips. Talk about different perspectives.

What about context? Consider this: since we decided to move to Tucson, I have been overwhelmed by all the clutter my husband and I have accumulated throughout (and before) our marriage. When I passed a bus bench advertisement for Mr. Pack Rat, I thought I’d found the answer to my clutter problem. Turns out, he runs an exterminating service!pack rat2

From my point of view, pack rats meant clutter, from someone else’s, a pest. Both need elimination, but the methods might vary.pack rat

Readers may also be coming at your work from a different frame of reference than yours, so it’s important to consider that when editing. It’s also why good critique partners can be helpful (“When I read this, I thought you meant … and it took me a while to figure out you didn’t.”)

How about you, readers? Has anything hit you recently that you took out of context, or looked at from a unique perspective?

 

Lethal, Fatal or Deadly?

Happy-New-Year-2015-Fireworks-Clipart-Image (1)As 2014 is preparing to pass from existence, I thought about the various synonyms for deadly and the gradations between them.

Are lethal and fatal the same? What about mortal? Or terminal? Deadly?

Although the words are close in definition, there are distinctions. If a weapon is lethal, it is capable of inflicting death. If it is fatal, it has been successful. The fatal blow is the killer. If the blow is only lethal, the victim might yet survive. Mortal means nearly the same as lethal, destructive of life, capable of inflicting death. Mort comes from Middle French mort, death. If something (namely, us) is mortal, then it is capable of death or dying. Deadly weapons tend to (and are meant to) kill, but the result isn’t inevitable.

However, should a Scot tell you someone is mortal, it is most likely to mean that person has imbibed too much and is dead drunk.

In writing a murder mystery, it is correct to say she drank a lethal poison and survived to tell the story. Deadly works there, as well. However, if the poison was fatal, she won’t be the one to talk about it later. If you use it that way, your reader may laugh about it.

Terminal means (among many definitions) coming to the end or leading to the end of life. A terminal patient is in the final stages of a fatal disease.

If I don’t stop now, 2014 will also be at an end and I won’t have the opportunity to wish you a productive, peaceful, joyful, HAPPY NEW YEAR!

 

 

 

Cinnamon Pecans Recipe and a Confession from a Real Nut

I’m guest posting today at the blog of the gracious, generous and prolific writer, Conda Douglas. Head on over there for my post on Believable Lies and a recipe for pumpkin granola. Conda writes in several genres. Check her out! Then come back for a nutty recipe here.

I confess: moving to a whole new town, then launching a remodeling project that didn’t seem horrendous before we started, can be classified as nuts! My boxes have been moved around so many times the cardboard’s starting to crumble. And I nearly crumbled a few times — when contractors didn’t show or others damaged the work another had just finished, or when one contractor left a trailer filled with junk in our driveway so long I told him the only way he could leave it a day longer was to cover it in Christmas lights.

But the trailer is gone and most of the work (by others) is done. Now it’s time to empty the boxes and put belongings in their final resting place.

And welcome guests who arrive the day after Christmas.

So I am truly nuts. And here’s a recipe for yummy Cinnamon Pecans.

By the way, my first book in the Havoc in Hancock series, Mustard’s Last Stand, is on sale today (8:00 a.m. PST) through 12/26 at 1:00 pm. at Amazon for 99Book Cover cents! Some may call that nuts, but it’s part of the Amazon countdown sale. On the 26th it goes to $1.99, and on the 28th …$2.99. It returns to its original list of $3.99 on the 31st.

 

CINNAMON PECANS

2 egg whites
1 c. sugar
2 Tbsp. cinnamon
1/2 tsp. salt
1 lb. pecan halves

Preheat oven to 250 degrees F.
Beat egg whites until foamy but not stiff. Stir in sugar, cinnamon, and salt.
Stir in pecan halves.  Spread on greased cookie sheet.

Bake at 250 degrees for 1 hour, stirring 3 or 4 times.

Makes 1 pound of delicious Cinnamon Pecans.

 

 

 

Have a Problem with That?

People are often confused about the use of which or that. I hope to clear that up in today’s post.

That or Which?

That introduces restrictive or essential clauses. Which generally introduces non-restrictive or non-essential clauses. A restrictive clause is part of the sentence that describes a noun. Without it, the meaning of the sentence would change.  “The restaurant that my cousin opened closed yesterday.”

Without the words “that my cousin opened,” the sentence could refer to any restaurant. Thus, that my cousin opened is essential to the meaning of the sentence and does not have commas surrounding it.

“The restaurant next door, which always serves excellent soup, added pies to its menu last week.” This sentence can make it on its own without the clause “which always serves excellent soup.” Remove it and the sentence still makes sense. That makes the clause non-essential or non-restrictive. Surround it with commas.

A sunrise scene that is one reason I moved to Tucson.
A sunrise scene that is one reason I moved to Tucson.
The dog who stole our hearts! Or the dog that stole our hearts.

Of course exceptions abound. Instead of introducing more confusion, I suggest following the guidelines above.  Or go for the simplest choice and leave that out altogether:

Instead of, “The restaurant that my cousin opened closed yesterday,” opt for “The restaurant my cousin opened closed yesterday.”

However, you may not use that in a non-essential clause. “My ailing laptop, that I have always hated, will soon be replaced.” Nope. You have to use which in that clause. Or change the sentence entirely if it is too confusing: “My ailing and long hated laptop will soon be replaced.”

If you’ve already used this, that, these or those to introduce an essential clause, you may use which to introduce the next clause.

“That is a problem which many supervisors must face at evaluation time.”

“Those cartons, which should have arrived yesterday, can be stacked in my office.”

Consider streamlining your sentence by leaving out which or by revising your sentence.

“That is a problem many supervisors must face at evaluation time.”

“The cartons that should have arrived yesterday can be stacked in my office.”

Our objectives are clarity first, conciseness next. Avoiding unintentional silliness is also a good idea. “That Charlie. He doesn’t have the guts that it takes to get that business going.” Get rid of them all. “Charlie doesn’t have the guts to get a business going.”
One more point about that. That is used to refer to things or groups, who to people. “Melissa is the woman who shares my cubicle.” “She belongs to an organization that supports animal rights.”

Being a person who is fond of animals, I often refer to my pets using who. You may decide which you will use.

The purpose of grammar is to make our meaning clear. Remember that, please.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Grammar Dilemmas for the Holidays … Plus Scones!

 

Christmas Past
Christmas Past

Now that we’re deep into the holiday season, we’re faced with that age-old dilemma: “What should I bring to the neighbors’ party?” I’d suggest better grammar! The question should be, “What should I take to the party?” Take is used when something is being moved away from the speaker and bring when something is being moved toward the speaker.

Dr. Seuss got it right. Remember what the Grinch told little Cindy-Lou Who when she asked him why he was taking their Christmas tree? “There’s a light on this tree that won’t light on one side. So I’m taking it home to my workshop, my dear. I’ll fix it up there. Then I’ll bring it back here.”

If you are coming to my home, you may bring whatever you choose, as long as it’s tasty!

The holidays bring to mind another word challenge: sit, set, sat. Sit means to be seated. I sit at my computer. Yesterday I sat far too long. I have sat here many hours. Set (to place) needs an object. He sets the turkey on the table. Yesterday he set a turkey casserole in front of me. He has set it there every year, and it is always yummy. 

Speaking of tasty food, I’ve included a recipe for scones served at the (fictional, alas) Blind Chukar Café in Hancock, Idaho. The Chukar is a gathering place for the characters in my novel Mustard’s Last Stand.

Cranberry-Orange Scones

 1 tsp. cinnamon                                    ½ cup butter or margarine (1 stick)
Sugar (1 T, ¼ cup)                                ½ cup dried cranberries or raisins,                                                                             chopped
1 ½ cups all-purpose flour              ¼ cup sour cream
1 ½ tsp. baking powder                    ¼ cup orange juice
½ tsp. salt                                                 2 tsp. grated orange peel

Preheat oven to 400°. Grease cookie sheet or use parchment paper. Mix cinnamon and 1 T sugar, set aside.

Mix flour, baking powder, salt and ¼ cup sugar. With pastry blender, cut in butter until mixture resembles coarse crumbs.

Stir in dried cranberries, sour cream, orange juice and orange peel just until ingredients are blended.

Turn dough onto lightly floured surface. Roll to ½ inch thickness.

Cut out scones with 3-inch cookie cutter (use a star for holidays) Place two inches apart on cookie sheet. Press trimmings together and roll and cut as above. (Use a light touch!)

Sprinkle scones with cinnamon/sugar mixture.

Bake 10 to 12 minutes until golden. Serve warm or cool on wire rack.

 

I’m a big fan of scones (okay, of lots of pastries). Include a favorite in your comments!

A Writer’s Eye Needs Different Perspectives

The Eyes Have It

Caught of snap of this coyote as I drove out of our subdivision today. IMG_20141209_115700_119 IMG_20141206_163107_817And met up with this javelina outside a local hospital.

These recent sightings reminded me of a webinar I took from Jeff Herring on article writing and marketing a few years ago.

Jeff suggested we look at the world with “article eyes,” alert to everything that might turn into article topics.
Shortly after, I saw something sad that got me thinking about the different kinds of eyes and how they might see the same event.

As I drove down a busy street, a car hit and killed a squirrel. Nothing to be done for the poor little critter but mourn its loss. On the way home I thought about different eyes.

Article eyes:

Driving Safety Tips: Five Reasons You Should Never Swerve to Avoid an Animal in the Street, Unless it is Larger than Your Car

Automobile Care Tips: How to Clean Fur, Blood and Guts from Your Wheels

Cooking Tips: Seven Recipes for Fresh Squirrel

Cooking Tips: Roadkill: the Ultimate in Recycling

Novelist Eyes:

Romance — She stomped the brakes but didn’t dare swerve. When she heard the faint, horrid thump beneath her tires, her eyes clouded with tears and she pulled to the side of the road. The driver behind her also slowed and stopped. As she stood outside her vehicle, sobbing, looking into the road at the lump that had once been a living creature, a deep, soft voice, said “You did the right thing, you know. Nothing else you could do.”

Mystery — Somehow, some way, someone threw several stuffed squirrels from the bed of the battered old pick-up. No one was visible, yet the little beasts flew out and hit the road in front of Cheri. The way they bounced made it clear they were toys. But why so many? And why wasn’t the tosser visible? She missed most of the stuffed animals and sped up, following the truck. The license plate was smeared with mud. Who was back there? What were they trying to tell her?

Thank you, Jeff. Great idea. We as writers need to stay alert to what’s going on and then put our own personal spins on the events we see. If it doesn’t fit the w.i.p., then make a note and put it in your idea file. I keep little 3 x 5 cards with me most of the time to capture those fleeting ideas.

What would your writer eyes make of my two desert critters?

 

What to Say When Readers’ To-Read Lists Need Some Help

If someone said “Nothing against women writers, but all of my favorite crime fiction authors happen to be men,” how would you respond?

My first response would be to deck the sexist annoyance! However, if I’m able to restrain myself, I might try a gentler approach.

My bookshelf smallerEven before responding, however, I’d consider whether or not it is worth the effort to convince someone to try something new. I have a friend who always orders turkey sandwiches when we go out for lunch. She does not welcome my suggestion that she try sushi, say.  Or my brother-in-law, who prefers his steak cooked beyond chewy.

Some people are not open to change.

However, a person who brings up that question either wants to provoke me or is actually open to suggestion. With the sincere person, I’d ask who those favorite authors are and what they like about the authors’ books.

Then I’d silently curse my memory for not coming up with a great list on the spot and offer to email some suggestions. I’d race home, look at my bookshelf (and my Kindle) and come up with a list. I’d send it with the reminder that these are only my impressions of the moment and that a great place to find new authors is the local public library.  I remind readers of this post that my list is way too short and includes only a few of my current reads.

I would also send them to the Sisters in Crime website’s Author Search. When I moved to the Bay Area, I sought out local authors with books set in my new community. That’s how I found Marcia Muller, whose first novel, Edwin of the Iron Shoes, became a favorite. Now that I’ve moved to Tucson, via a long and wonderful time in Boise, Idaho, I’ll be searching for local authors.

Action:  Peg Brantley, Gayle Lynds, Marcia Muller, Sara Paretsky

Police procedurals: Frankie Bailey, Deborah Crombie, Elizabeth George, Martha Grimes, Elizabeth Gunn, L.J. Sellers

Private investigators: Linda Barnes, Sue Grafton, Laura Lippman, Val McDermid

Humor: Conda Douglas, Kathy McIntosh, Kris Neri

Great characters: My list would become overwhelming!

I probably wouldn’t add the names of the many cozy writers I read and love. When someone thinks only men write the best crime novels, ya gotta bring ’em around slowly.

Yes, I would add my name to the list of recommended reading, unless I knew it simply would not be to this person’s taste. Because we as authors need to be proud of what we write and able to actually suggest that a reader buy our books.

You probably have oodles of authors to suggest and I so welcome your thoughts.

This blog post was inspired and created for the Sisters In Crime bloghop. You can find out more here, www.sistersincrime.org/bloghop.

You may have hopped here on the advice of my dear friend and fellow writer Conda Douglas, whose name is on my list of humorous authors. Her Starke series is a hoot. If you haven’t yet read it, her post contains great advice for new authors. Make that for all authors.