EDITING: going overboard or being keelhauled

I know I just did a poll . . . and that the results said my readership likes to hear about what I’ve been reading (book reviews, yay) and funny incidents (we’re just BRIMMING with idiotically funny incidents that don’t seem funny at all, at the time). And I also just said that writers should not blog about writing all the time, as it is so BORING, especially for people who just like to read and aren’t planning to write Da Grate Amurkan Novl.

But I don’t care. I just heard the audio from a workshop, and you know how that always inflames me.

The workshop leader made good points. “Always double-check for weed words and delete them.” Weed words that I agree with: just, little, only, mostly, almost, sometimes, suddenly. And there are others. “Kind of,” “sort of,” “thought to herself” (how else is she going to think it, dear?!). Even “there are” constructions should sometimes (oops) be rephrased.

I do say that there are uses for “almost.” “He stepped back and almost/nearly fell off the cliff.” “He almost told her he was in love with her, but he caught himself.” “It cost almost everything he had in his savings account.” (Assuming you want to keep it a mystery exactly how MUCH he has left and how much he thinks is “almost nothing.” To a millionaire, 10K might seem like almost nothing.) That kind of thing. And make an exception sometimes (OOPS) for “mostly.” “Mostly harmless.” Even for “suddenly,” although that should be one of those “one per book” words. Mostly.


“Seem” and “seemed,” “appeared,” “evidently,” and other such weaselly-seeming woidz. These were roundly condemned by the workshoppe and anyone who defended them was spanked. “Don’t let something SEEM true, or SEEM blue. Just say it is!”

Um . . . no. In a mystery, you often need to have things not be what they seem. We are not Hamlet, who knows not “seemed.” And haven’t you ever thought a car was purple under certain nighttime car-lot lighting conditions only to discover in the daylight that it’s “grey haze”? Me, neither. But SOMEONE has. “Seemed” is in the language for a reason.

Here’s when I use such words. I wonder if you out there agree ?

If we are in Paige’s point of view, close first or third, not omniscient, then we cannot possibly see into Alan’s mind. (Headhopping is evil and will often get you into trouble when you’re a newcomer. I roundly condemn it. Well, at least I’ve found that if I try to sneak one by, I get dinged by anyone who reads the stuff. So I say don’t do it.)

Okay, then. What if we need readers to know that Paige thinks Alan might be lying, or might be upset by what she has just said? What if there really is not an unambiguous bit of “business” that we can show him doing so that readers know this? Because you can write “he shifted from foot to foot” or “he glanced around furtively” and half of your beta readers can think he needs to go to the little boys’ room, while the other half thinks you are setting up that he’s being followed by the CIA. In other words, sometimes it does not hurt to toss in a little hint to the reader. I don’t consider this “overexplaining.”

For example: Paige put the bill on the counter. Alan’s eyes bugged out.

This pretty much doesn’t need explaining, does it? He’s wishing he hadn’t ordered all that champagne without knowing what it was.

But: “What do you need?” He seemed upset.
Or: “She seemed not to understand what the professor was explaining.”
And: (in her deep POV, so we don’t need “she thought” or “she reasoned” and ESPECIALLY NEVER “she thought to herself,” unless everyone’s thoughts are announced on the loudspeaker or displayed on billboards that they happen to be passing)
“He was probably just short on cash. ‘I’ll pay,’ she said, grabbing the bill back.”

There is a point in having shades of meaning.

This use of words like “appeared” or “seemed” (or assumptions that your POV character makes without being sure or verifying it) is valid. Often we don’t want to get into a lot of detail and spend a lot of time showing (dramatizing) a minor character’s reaction, but we need the audience to know that the character didn’t comprehend what the prof said so that later on, when the character does something really odd, we can all realize that she didn’t get what he told her to do and thought he meant this other thing. You know what I mean? You don’t want to dramatize every little thing (which is what they call “showing, not telling”), or you’ll have a 500K tome on your disk before you know it, and readers will be at a loss because they thought if you spent a paragraph describing Joan’s reactions, she must be more important than she really is.

The workshop didn’t really emphasize this, but I will add that if you describe something in detail, the reader is going to think it is important. So if it ain’t, default to a basic room or a basic “recent model car” or at least “a new Chevy.” It’ll save you lots of woidz.

I would also like to point out that telling people “had” is bad is all very well, but because it IS part of the past perfect tense, you might NEED that “had” after all. Just drop the past perfect after the first couple of lines of a flashback or mini-flashback, and you’ll be fine. Except when you’re beaten for doing a flashback at all, that is.

And NEVER WRITE, “he thought to himself.” Not in THIS multiverse.

So am I all wrong as usual, or do I have a point here? Anyone? Bueller?


Author: shalanna

Shalanna: rhymes with "Madonna" and "I wanna," and is not a soundalike with "Hosanna" or "Sha-Na-Na." Aging hippie with long hair, husband, elderly mother, and yappy Pomeranian. I've been writing since I could hold a crayon. I started with fiction, which Mama said was "lying." “Don’t tell stories,” she would admonish, in Southern vernacular. “That's all in your imagination!” When grownups said this, they were not approving. So, shamed, I stopped telling stories for a few years--rather, I stopped letting anyone read them. I'm married to a fellow computer nerd who doesn't really like hearing about writing, but who reads sf/fantasy and understands the creative drive. I'm actually a nonconformist/hippie still wearing bluejeans and drop earrings and the Alice-in-Wonderland hair with headbands and sandals. Favorite flavor is chocolate/orange, favorite color is either Dreamsicle orange (cantaloupe) or bubble-gum pink, favorite musical is either Bye Bye Birdie, Rocky Horror, or The Producers . . . wait, I also love The Music Man. Is this getting way too specific and irrelevant yet? Obvious why I don't sell a ton of flash fiction, isn't it? To define oneself, I always say, it is good to make a list. How about a booklist? Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird Frank and Ernestine Gilbreth, Cheaper by the Dozen C.S.Lewis, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (all the Narnia books) J.R.R.Tolkien,The Hobbit/LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy Gail Godwin, The Odd Woman F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby J. D. Salinger, Catcher in the Rye (before dismissing it, actually read it) George Orwell, 1984 Kurt Vonnegut, Cat's Cradle Donna Tartt, The Secret History Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn James Allen, As A Man Thinketh Mark Winegardner, Elvis Presley Boulevard James Thurber, My Life and Hard Times The Wizard of Oz, L. Frank Baum Winnie-the-Pooh/House at Pooh Corner, A. A. Milne Peter Pan, J. M. Barrie The KJV and NIV Bible (each translation has its glories)

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