Six LDS Writers and A Frog

Thursday, January 11, 2007

The Writer Whisperer

by Julie Coulter Bellon

I was folding laundry yesterday and the TV was on, and I caught a segment about this little girl whom they called the Lizard Whisperer because she could hypnotize lizards. They showed the little glass cage she had with three lizards in it, and one was jumping around like crazy. Since it was so energetic, they chose that one to demonstrate that she could truly hypnotize it. She took it out of the cage, turned it over on its back and started stroking its stomach. With just a few strokes, the lizard stopped moving around, and was "hypnotized." Then she dressed it in a princess outfit, complete with a unicorn in the background. (Which I thought was a little embarrassing for the poor little lizard). The interviewer then asked her how she realized she had this talent for hypnotizing lizards, and it got me thinking about writing and possibly hypnotizing writers. For a good cause, of course.

As many of you know, I was an editor at a publishing company for many years. I read a lot of manuscripts and I helped a lot of manuscripts go to press. There were several mistakes I noticed that almost every author made. If I was a Writer Whisperer, and could hypnotize authors into not making these mistakes, (no, I won't rub your tummy), then this is what I would be saying to you in your hypnotic state.

*gets out pocket watch* You are getting sleepy . . . You are getting sleepy . . . You are now asleep.

The number one mistake writers made was in the Show Don't Tell department. If you say, "He was tall and powerful," you're *telling* the audience. But if you say, "I was surprised by his commanding presence as he strode past the desk---shoulders back, head erect, his green eyes pinning me with his gaze," you're painting a picture for your audience, *showing* them the scene you have in your imagination so they can visualize it themselves.

The next most common mistake is the Author's Favorite Word. Every author has a favorite word whether they realize it or not. Some common ones are: "really," "actually," "just," and "so." Most times authors don't even recognize that they use these words so often, but it's easy to correct with the Find and Replace key. It just gets distracting and I think it draws attention away from where the author wants it to be.

The dreaded "ly" words. A lot of times authors are tempted to add "ly" words on at the end of their tags. "He said, reproachfully," or "she said, half-heartedly." "ly" words can sometimes emphasize meaning, but, really, you're telling the story again instead of showing. These words also can weigh down your dialogue, and suck the life out of the very scene you're trying to make stand out.

Backstory/Pacing---Pacing is very important to a story and many authors have this really exciting beginning, but then they stop to give some backstory into their character. For instance, the heroine makes it through the explosion in the parking lot, but then the author takes two pages while she's sitting in the ambulance to remember that she had a rotten childhood, she hated her sister, had a mysterious neighbor and her dad disappeared when she was five. It totally slows down the pacing and is information that the author can give in bits and pieces while they weave it into the story. Readers are smart, they'll put it all together without you having to throw up everything onto the page all at once. Smaller bites are generally more palatable and holds your tension longer. You want to keep the story moving so your readers stay active and involved, not yawning and putting the book down.

Laundry lists---This is one I saw constantly. The author wants to get the description across and so instead of painting a picture for the reader, they take the lazy way out and give laundry lists of adjectives. "Her long, golden blonde hair contrasted with her deeply bronzed flawless skin and beautiful almond-shaped green eyes that had just a hint of crows-feet wrinkles beside them." It bogs down the pacing and is once again telling the story instead of showing it, but it happens, and as a reader/editor I wish it wouldn't.

Now, my little writer friend, I am going to change you from your princess outfit and get rid of the unicorn, then I will count to three and when I say awake, you will wake up refreshed and invigorated and will never again make any of these common writer's mistakes.

1 . . .2 . . .3 . . . Awake!

Oops, I forgot to change you out of your princess outfit. Sorry.


At 1/11/2007 1:20 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hmm, backstory. Something tells me I'm going to have to go back and re-do the first chapter of my story.

Hey, what am I doing in this princess outfit? ACK!

Melanie Goldmund

At 1/11/2007 2:48 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Julie: first off I had no idea you were an editor. Where did you work? Secondly, thanks for these helpful if not extremely important reminders. I've often thought that writers put back story into the opening chapters of their novels because it is important characterizing information for the author to know about--essentially a set of behavioral rules governing the actions of the character throughout the novel. Sadly, however, many authors forget that it is information that may be important to them as they develop their characters and the story, but it isn't information that the reader needs. And, even more sadly, the author forgets to remove the uncecessary back story before they submit their masterpiece. This is really good stuff. I hope you'll do this again from time to time. Thanks.

At 1/11/2007 4:51 PM, Anonymous Marnie Pehrson said...

Julie, this was fantastically helpful, educational, informative and enlighteningly critical information for the would-be author. Oops...was that a laundry list of adjectives with too many -ly's? Maybe my hypnotic trance didn't quite kick in all the way to Georgia! Btw, did I ever tell you about the time I fell off the back of a mini-bike when it hit a car head on? Oh, wait... that's one of those flashbacks - right? But it would explain the trouble with my brain... Seriously good stuff and cute presentation. :)

At 1/11/2007 7:14 PM, Blogger LDS Publisher said...

Couldn't have said it any better myself! Great article.

At 1/11/2007 7:30 PM, Blogger Julie Coulter Bellon said...

I'm glad you guys found it helpful. Thank you for your comments.

And you all looked beautiful in your princess outfits!

At 1/11/2007 8:58 PM, Blogger Keith Fisher said...

Thanks for the reminders. I need someone to slap me up the side of the head now and again. maybe someday I'll get it right.

anyway I am fascinated by the story you were watching. When I was a kid growing up on the west side of Orem Utah everyone of us could put a lizard to sleep using the same method. we never thought it was special. when you turn the lizard back over they come out of it. Whoah, now that I think of it I have a new title; Lizard Whisperer. Of course so does everyone I grew up with.

Thanks again for the blog.

At 1/12/2007 12:28 AM, Anonymous Amy said...

Thanks for the helpful reminders! I make all of these mistakes but not so much the backstory and laundry list. I do have a favorite word, though, which was pointed out to me resently. I use the word as about twice on every page. Thank goodness for the Find Replace button!

At 1/12/2007 2:07 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Okay, so since we are discussing thoughts on editing here's a word (or two) on Amy's "AS" construction---and also the "ING" construction which is, essentially, the same thing.

Good fiction avoids the constructions that hack writers have over-used for years. The use of the "AS" construction or the "ING" construction marks your writing as the work of an amateur—the very thing you are trying to avoid. For example:

Amelia Johnson rolled her eyes as she placed her bookmark into the book she was reading.

The "AS" construction takes one action (rolling her eyes) and forces it on another action (placing the book mark in the book she is reading). The “ING” construction has the same effect on your writing. Take a look at this example:

Pulling it open she found Ron playing his video games with Eric sitting beside him watching the screen as if hypnotized by it.

If you begin a sentence with an "ing" construction like pulling (or if you hide it in the middle of the sentence as in: With a groan she placed her hand beneath her and pushed herself up and off her bed, leaving her book on her pillow) you force the action of opening the door (or leaving the book on the pillow) onto another action (finding Ron playing his video game or pushing yourself up off your bed). Writers use these constructions all the time, but they are the mark of unprofessional fiction and you should learn to avoid them. I once read a paragraph from a manuscript where the author described the protagonist quickly dressing. She was an actress who was hurrying out of her dressing room. The author wrote;

Pulling on her jeans she hurried out of the room.

The character was an actress not a contortionist and you shouldn't use these constructions unless the action is actually simultaneous, which, by the way, is a relatively infrequent occurrence. Don’t confuse actions that fall one right after the other as simultaneous. They may be sequential, but not simultaneous. Experienced novelists use the “as” construction no more than once every few pages and they rarely if ever employ the “ing” construction. If you have more than one "AS" construction on your page you should look to edit those pesky critters out and if you have any “ing” constructions there is always a more powerful way to write the sentence.

At 1/12/2007 10:00 AM, Blogger Julie Coulter Bellon said...

Keith! You're a lizard whisperer! Too bad you didn't know back then how special your talent was because you would have been a famous person making the rounds on the talk show circuit.

Probably the special thing about this girl was that she made a whole bunch of lizard clothes and dressed them up while they were "hypnotized." She had a really cute coat and tails for a "conductor" lizard and a little lizard leather jacket with a motorcycle as well. She obviously had some time on her hands, but it was interesting to watch.

At 1/12/2007 10:11 AM, Blogger Kerry Blair said...

Wonderful post, Julie! I'm going to print it and hang it beside my computer. And your comments are right on too, anonymous. As always.
(You're incredible. You know that?)

Unfortunately, I do ALL those things -- repeatedly. (You'd think I'd invented hack writing.) So, everybody please raise your right hand and swear not to read my last eight books. I'll do better in the ninth. I swear I will!

At 1/12/2007 10:48 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Kerry: Don't you mean, "As I read this, I will do better?"

At 1/12/2007 11:10 AM, Blogger Kerry Blair said...

Um, I don't know. You're the writing whiz. Is that what I mean? :-)

And I meant to mention, Julie, I hope I got the blue princess dress. I look like Hipporella in pink!

At 1/12/2007 11:50 AM, Blogger Jeff Savage said...


As a general rule your comments are good, but to say a writer should never use AS or ING in their writing is very limiting in my opinion.

Both of these can be misused as you pointed out, but they can both help a story to create a good flow if used correctly.

For example -ING must always be carefully checked to be sure that the two actions can happen simultaneously. (e.g. No, "Pulling open the door, he walked across the room.")

But, I believe a sentence like, "Stepping into the darkened alley, she felt the cold muzzle of a gun press against her back." is smoother and more powerful than. "She stepped into the alley and felt the cold muzzle of a gun press against her back."

The biggest problem with AS is that it often forces you into using WAS, which is a much bigger problem. "As I was walking down the street I saw a cow." The passive voice sucks the strength out of your sentence. But I don’t see a problem with using a construct like, “As she passed the jewelry store window, a large black pearl caught her eye.”

Of course, I still don’t know how to use commas. I sprinkle a few here and there, hoping one or two of them stick.


At 1/12/2007 4:57 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The AS or ING construction is gramaticaly correct and is not confusing. And the point I make has less to do with clarity than it does with stylistic considerations which will give your writint that extra bit of sophistication. These considerations range from avoiding legitimate constructions which have been over used by hack writers to also finding alternatives to certain stylistic techniques that have virtually disapeared over the last few decades. But whatever it is that makes these mechanics sophisticated, awareness of them when revising will help your work look like that of a professional rather than an amateur. One way to do that is to avoid two stylistic constructions that have been over used by hack writers. I refer to the AS and ING constructions as number one and two on the list. Pick up any average book and you will be inundated with them. But go to the masters and you will be hard pressed to find them. Why? Because those authors counstiously avoid the constructions that mark their work as less than professional.

At 1/12/2007 5:05 PM, Anonymous Jeff said...

Okay, I'll bite. Who are we defining as the masters and who are the hacks. Just a few examples from the national market.

At 1/12/2007 5:37 PM, Blogger Jeff Savage said...

Of course that could be my problem right there. I've been accused of a lot of things in my writing, but never sophistication. Hmmm, maybe that's why.

At 1/14/2007 12:47 AM, Blogger Cheri said...

Counstiously? Is that one of those feared 'ly' words? =D

At 1/16/2007 12:37 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I live in fear of it everyday. I also fear the wrath of copy editors.


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