Editing, My point of view, Nuts and bolts, Writing

Write the Novel — Third Edit — Last Chance to Remove Book Killers

Even if you’re going great guns, I doubt you’ve finished the second edit, which involves printing an entire copy and reading it all the way through, marking and making notes as you go.

So this week’s blog is about what to do when you have finished. What comes next — the third edit — is the last chance to get rid of book killers. Some book killers don’t show up until we have a chance to read the entire story, in sequence, in a concentrated time period; in other words, while we’re doing the second edit.

To do the next part, it helps to draw a bar graph. I’ve posted one on my web site. Feel free to print a copy and use it. Or make your own. The blank chart looks like this.

Third Edit Blank Chart

Third Edit Blank Chart

We each have to decide where our condition of enoughess falls. For me it’s always over 80%, up to 90% if I can get there. Books rarely meet 100% of our expectations, so we shouldn’t drive ourselves crazy trying to get there. It’s likely that at least one category will have a higher condition of enoughness, one a lower, and three fall somewhere in the middle. The chart above has a mechanical limitation because I could color in blanks in 10% increments. If you feel your goal is 83% or 92%, feel free to draw a line at those estimated values.

Go through questions a section at a time; for example, all the questions under Flow. Looking at the book as a whole, what percentage of the book met all of the criteria under Flow? Color that percentage with your first color; in my case, green. What remaining percentage absolutely, positively must be fixed? Color that with your second color; I use red. What remaining percentage, up to 100% would be nice if I could fix, but frankly, I think I’ve done that section as well as I’m going to on this book. Color that with your third color; my third color is yellow.

The one exception to the 100% rule is if there is a small bit of material that is highly important and must be fixed. That’s the case with my character Lorenzo in the chart below.

Repeat for each line in the chart. At the bottom of the chart, describe what absolutely has to be fixed. A completed chart might look like this.

What a completed chart looks like

What a completed chart looks like


  • Does each situation result in the point of view character(s) making a decision, which leads to consequences and a new situation?
  • Are there plot highs and lows throughout the book?
  • Do they come closer together and become higher/lower as the book’s end approaches?
  • If there is violence and/or sex, does it always advance the plot?
  • Did we feel impatient or antsy at any point? (All right, all ready, we know she missed her senior prom. Get over it.)
  • Are details absolutely consistent throughout the book?


  • Is each major character a rich, fully-developed human being, with likeable and unlikeable qualities?
  • Does each major character have clear goals, and motivations?
  • Is each character’s dialog unique enough that the reader can probably tell who’s speaking even without dialog tags?
  • Were there parts of the book where the villain’s world view made sense?
  • Were any physical actions or sensory inputs used too often? (I had one book where chills ran up or down everyone’s spine far too often.)


  • Was what we put our characters’ through worth it? Did they get enough bang for the cost they had to pay?
  • What plot element satisfied the story, but left the character unsatisfied? (She caught the killer, but by doing so she lost custody of her niece.)


  • Is the language lyrical? (Lyrical doesn’t necessarily mean nice or pretty. If we’re writing about a prostitute in downtown Boston, does the language convey what it’s like to live on the street, in winter, in Boston?)


  • How often did we mirror the characters’ emotions? (If the character was supposed to be afraid, were we afraid? If they were sad, were we sad? If they were furious, were we furious? If we maintained an emotional equilibrium all the way through, we haven’t written nearly close enough to the character’s bone.)
  • How often did we manage a characters’ emotional reaction that was unique, neither cliché, nor inappropriate?
  • By the time we finished the book, were we at least tired, and preferably emotionally exhausted?

A copy of changes we make should be attached to our Second Edit printed copy, just to keep everything up to date. Small changes can be noted directly on the page. Long changes, for example sorting out the problem of Lorenzo breaking parole, can be printed on separate pages and added. I like to tip in mine because it allows the new page to function like all the other pages and turn easily. Here’s how to tip in a page.

  • Fold the left edge of the new page under about 1/2 inch.
  • Snuggle the fold near the binding.
  • Either tape or glue the folded edge to the next page.

I’m posting the Fourth Edit — All Those Pesky Words Tuesday, December 16, and the fifth, and final edit — The Fine Tooth Comb — the week after on Tuesday, December 23. We’re all busy with the holidays, but that’s the nice thing about blogs. If you don’t get back until after New Years, those two blogs will be waiting for your return.

Have a wonderful holiday season.

Tips, Writing

Write the Novel – Stop Telling, Start Showing (STSS)

Show, don’t tell is the absolute queen of critique comments. I get it all the time. So does every person, in every critique group I’ve ever been in. The abbreviation I write in the margin for this one is STSS.

Let’s start with this event

Somewhere behind the ATM, a metal door slid shut. The green screen blinked Temporarily out of service. Marcia hated it when an ATM went bad.

The writer is saying to the reader, I, the author, tell you what Marcia felt when the ATM stopped working. She hated what had happened. That last sentence is a did this summary rather than a does this description. Settling for did this rather than does this

  • truncates the reader’s enjoyment
  • places the author between the reader and the words
  • opens up what’s happening to misinterpretation — Why exactly did Marcia hate that the machine was temporarily out of service?

Here are three other examples, all involving that blasted ATM machine

Somewhere behind the ATM, a metal door slid shut. The green screen blinked Temporarily out of service. Marcia’s stomach went from tight to rigid. The closed glass door behind her wasn’t thick enough to deaden the sound of Donald’s car motor idling. He was out there, waiting, and when she returned without any money, he would punch a few numbers on his cell phone, and her sister would die. The machine spit the card back at her. Marcia wrapped her hand around it, leaving one corner exposed between her fingers. Let’s see what damage a bank card could do to eyes.


Somewhere behind the ATM, a metal door slid shut. The green screen blinked Temporarily out of service. Marcia pounded on the machine, screaming obscenities at it. The louder she yelled, the larger the after-theatre crowd that gathered around her.

“This is my last chance with Donald, and no ass-hole machine is going to screw that up.”

She turned and grabbed a man’s coat lapels. The fabric felt soft and expensive. “I have to get to the airport. Lend me a hundred dollars,” she shouted into the man’s face.

Two police officers headed toward her. She unhanded the man’s coat and ran for the exit. Behind her, heavy duty boots pounded on the tile floor.


Somewhere behind the ATM, a metal door slid shut. The green screen blinked Temporarily out of service. Marcia stared at the machine. Blink. No money. Blink. No Donald. Blink. No mistake. This was what salvation looks like, a blinking green screen in the middle of a grey metal machine. Marcie leaned forward and rested her forehead on the cool metal.

“Are you all right, miss?”

She turned and smiled at the elderly man in the mall security uniform.

“I’m fine, thank you. My guardian angel just stopped me from doing something stupid.”


The first thing you probably noticed is that each of these showing examples was longer than the telling one. My rule of thumb is takes 3 to 4 times as many words to show as it did to tell. The original example was 22 words; the three final examples ranged from 92 to 116 words.

Second, the telling example gives the reader the writer’s conclusion. The showing examples view the world from inside Marcia’s head, even though all three are written in the third person. She’s desperate in the first example, a comic figure in the second, and relieved in the third, but I never came flat out and told the readers any of those emotions. I used Marcia’s own body language, dialog, and her interaction with people and things to convey what was happening in her life. The same techniques can be used in first person point of view as well.

Do we have to show instead of tell every single bit of our story? Not necessarily. Events that have no emotional significance; events whose only purpose is to slide the plot forward, to build segues can be delivered in a few words.

  • Marcia paid the cashier and took her tray to a table at the cafeteria’s far end.
  • The Monday morning meeting was a bust. Two hours and forty-seven minutes of unrelieved boredom. As soon as it ended, Marcia ran for the phone in her office.
  • Marcia studied her cold latte. Didn’t anyone drink plain, black coffee any more?

How do we recognize when telling, not showing is important?

  • Is this an emotionally-charged moment for the character? (Marcia has finally gotten up the courage to ask her boss for the raise she desperately needs.)
  • Has another character said or done something that, in real life would stop us cold? (Marcia’s finance, Donald, just told her that he’s wanted by the FBI.)
  • Has the plot just taken a sudden, and likely unexpected turn? (The detective thinks that the killer had to have an unusually good knowledge of chemistry. Marcia knows that Donald has a masters’ degree in chemistry.)

If the answer to any of these questions is yes, it’s time to stop telling and start showing.

Here’s a quote, originally intended for actors, whichI paraphrased to writers

Writing is being driven by an urgent and immediate need to commit an action to achieve an objective that will fulfill that need. All external actions on the page need to be justified by the inner process of need that causes the action. … If we live in the world of the character and if we need what the character needs and if we do the things the character does to try to satisfy those needs, we naturally start to experience the life of the character and to modify our behavior and thought. This is known as the Magic If.

Our job is to do what the character does, completely and with the precise qualities required, not to show the reader the character or their feelings by indicating. Indicating is standing outside the reality of our character and playing the emotion or some quality of the character instead of immersing ourself in the experience of the action. ~ original quote from Robert Benedetti, The Actor in You

Next week, Tuesday, July 22, we continue with the third part of our common critique comment series. That one will be PSN (Perfectly Nice Syndrome) or how to tell when we’re making life far too easy for our characters.

On Thursday, July 24, Level Thinking is taking a look at how wide the mystery spectrum has grown in the past few years. I hope to see you here for both.

Tips, Writing

Write the Novel: What body language conveys emotions?

This is the start of a six part mini-series on things I do over and over in writing; things my critique buddies always catch me out on. In fact, they are so common, that I’ve assigned each one letters to save me or someone else having to write long margin notes, explaining I’ve done it again.

What I’m writing about today is WBL. It stands for What body language will I use to convey the character’s emotional reaction?

In the coming weeks, we’ll take a look at

  • STSS: stop telling, start showing
  • PNS: the perfectly nice syndrome
  • VSOP: ditch the back story; condense the context down, like Very Special Old Port, into something where every drop counts
  • BBS: build better segues, and finally
  • VAD: use violence as another form of dialog

“Good morning. My name is Sharon and I’m a short-hander. For years, I’ve expected my readers to figure out for themselves what was going on emotionally with my characters. It is the single biggest mistake I continue to make. Chapters I get back from my critique partners are littered with WBL written in the margin.”

Let’s start with with Jared, a thirteen-year-old boy.

Jared threw his jacket half on a hanger and kicked his trainers into the bottom of the closet. Food smells rolled from the kitchen. He sniffed. Beans-and-franks. A burning sensation filled the back of his throat. He raced upstairs, two at a time.

Before you scroll down past the photo answer the following questions

  1. What do beans-and-franks mean to Jared?
  2. What is Jarod feeling?
  3. What he will do next?
This photo has nothing to do with Jared. It's here so you have a chance to answer the questions before scrolling down.

This photo has nothing to do with Jared. It’s here so you have a chance to answer the questions before scrolling down.

Possibility #1

Jared lay stomach-down on the floor next to the twin bed he shared with his younger brothers. His hand groped under the bed until he found the locked tackle box. He unlocked the box, taking out precious jars of mustard, relish, and ketchup. Big glass bottles that he’d bought on sale. Seventy per cent off. A treat for his younger brothers and sisters.

It didn’t pay to leave glass around when his mother was high. Broken glass was dangerous. Tonight was going to be okay. Beans-and-franks meant his mother had stayed clean long enough to get a paycheck. He’d stay home tonight, wash the dishes, make sure the precious jars were spirited away after supper and locked up, waiting for the next beans-and-franks night.

Possibility #2

Jared made it to the bathroom before he threw up. Retching into the toilet, bile and saliva dribbling down his chin, he beat his fist against the top of the toilet tank. Why couldn’t Grammy listen? The nurse at the hospital had told her and told her that the chemotherapy made him sick, and that meat smells were the worse of all. He had to eat; Grammy would insist. He hoped make it to the bathroom in time after supper.

Possibility #3

Jared rooted under a pile of clothes for his ball and glove. Flipping the ball into the air as he came down the steps whistling, he bounded for the kitchen.

George Tolliver turned from the stove, “Hey, kid. Your mom’s running late tonight. I told her we could manage supper. It’s just beans-and-franks.”

“Yeah, I know. Omelets and beans-and-franks are the only things you know how to make,” Jared said, grinning so hard his mouth hurt. “How was your trip?”


“You got time to play catch?”

George dished out two plates. “Later. Sit down. Tell me how you’ve been the last couple of weeks.”

If I’d stopped with Jared’s throat burning, and him running up the stairs, in all likelihood the reader would have assumed a different emotional reaction, a different story, than the one I was trying to tell.

In my unfinished manuscript, I hurried through this scene, more a set of notes to myself about what I want the scene to show. Sure enough WBL showed up in the critique. For the rewrite I forced myself to slow down, to think about what George’s infrequent visits meant to both Jared and George.

  • Jared’s really glad to see George , but he’s also can’t believe his good luck of this guy being in his life. He’s afraid every visit is George’s last.
  • George is working hard to convince Jared that he has no intention of disappearing, but he knows Jared is skittish.
  • Hint that there is a problem with the mother.
  • Aim for a bittersweet feeling: the guy cares about Jared, but . . .

I will remember the power of why in plotting. I will try for at least 5 levels of why, in order to raise the stakes and go deep into character motivation.~Jo Beverly, romance writer

Why does Jared relate the way he does with George?

  1. Life is tough for Jared. Why?
  2. His mother is barely hanging on. Why?
  3. She’s overwhelmed raising a teenager boy, alone, working at a low-paying job. Why?
  4. Every man she’s partnered with left her, which destroyed her self-confidence. She passed those feelings on to Jared, which has made him insecure. Why?
  5. Jared thinks any good man who shows an interest in him will disappear out of his life.

Once I knew what was going on with the two guys, I picked strong verbs: rooted—flipping—bounded—skidded—manage: the first four imply movement, the last one has the bittersweet flavor I’m looking for. Jared and George aren’t on top of the world, they’re just managing.

This scene resolved itself easily because I was comfortable in the story and clear on my characters’ motivations. If I’m having real trouble rewriting a scene, this exercise helps break the impasse:

  • Assign colors to four elements that can be used to build a scene. Dialog = red; body language = blue; leftover emotions from previous scenes = yellow; and sensory texture = green.
  • Highlight text that I’ve already written, either on the computer, or a hardcopy with markers.
  • Tape the pages on a wall or, if I’m using the computer, I adjust the page size so I can get all the scene pages on the screen.
  • Walk away from the wall or screen, turn around, and let the colors hit me in the face. The predominant color is easy to see; in my case, it’s almost always red. Lots of dialog, not much of the other three elements.
  • If I still can’t figure out how to rewrite the scene, I assign elements at random: blue—green—green—yellow—red—yellow—blue and so on. Being an old gamer, I still having a jar full of dice. In cases of extreme writers’ block, I use the dice to randomly generate a color pattern.
  • Then I challenge myself to write what those colors represent, in this case, body language—sensory texture—sensory texture—leftover emotion—dialog—leftover emotion—body language.
  • Having done this, I can almost always take the elements, which may be out of order on the first pass, and rearrange them into some meaningful whole.

We need to write a character’s emotional reaction until we can’t add a single new thing to that reaction without changing the entire tenor of the scene.

If we go back to the second possibility, Jared throwing up as a result of chemotherapy, and, instead of ending with Jared fears about throwing up again after supper, we add a total non sequitur, something like . . .

. . .He hoped he’d be able to make it to the bathroom in time after supper. Oh, well, none of that really mattered. Maybe there would be a Simpson’s rerun on TV tonight.

If the reader’s reaction would be, “Huh? What just happened here?” this is a good clue that we’ve reached the end of describing a character emotional reaction.

I hope to see  you again next Tuesday, July 15th, for the next part in our mini-series: STSS, the dreaded stop telling, start showing.

And if you’re overwhelmed with social media and other marketing, I’ll have some thoughts on that on Thursday, July 10, with a piece I call Lay Down Our Sword and Shield.