Crutch Words

Uh-oh, I hear you thinking. It’s going to be one of those ranty ones. Well, yes, it is, but I will try to make it quick and relatively painless. This post describes one of the easiest ways to improve your writing: know your crutch words. Every writer has one or two, those mushy words we use to get us to the next part of the sentence. As an editor, the one I see most often in a fiction manuscript is ‘headed’. ‘Turned’ is a close second.

Jefferson didn't like lobster, so he headed to the car.
Victoria turned to face Clive before speaking. "I guess we should wait?" she asked.

These sentences tell us what’s happening, but they don’t show us. Now, no doubt you’ve heard the “show don’t tell” advice before, but how do you know when you’re doing it? Part of the key is to know what your crutch words are.

Microsoft Word Find Dialog boxOne way to do this is to use Microsoft Word’s Find feature. Try it on one of your manuscripts. If you check the Highlight all items found box, and select Main Document from the pull-down menu, then click Find All, this dialog box will give you a count of the number of times you’ve used the word ‘headed’ in your manuscript. If you’ve used a particular word (headed, back, just, said, turned) more than a couple-dozen times in a novel-length manuscript, my guess would be that at least a few of those instances could be revised away.

But wait, there’s more.

The highlight from this action only lasts until you close the Find dialog box. If you want to highlight these words semi-permanently, use the Replace feature. Microsoft Word Highlight Chooser

First, choose a highlight color. Any color you like.

Then, call the Replace dialog. Fill it out like so:  Microsoft Word's Find and Replace Dialog Box

The tricky part here is that you’re finding and replacing exactly the same word, but with the cursor in the Replace with text box, you’ll choose Format→Highlight. Then click Replace All. Every instance of the word ‘headed’ will be highlighted with the color you just chose.

Now you can see ’em… all those crutch words… and you can do something about them.

Like what?

With the example of Jefferson, who doesn’t like lobster, we already know what he’s doing, and why. The thing we would like to show here is how. Does Jeff stomp off to the car? Or does he hightail it, or slink surreptitiously, so that his hostess Evelyn won’t catch him, or does he scuttle to the parking lot (thus belaboring a crustacean-themed point)?

Jefferson scurried to his Buick. He had no idea a woman like Evelyn would
serve lobster for breakfast.

The case with Victoria is slightly different. The bit of stage direction, when done well, can tell us a great deal about Victoria’s character, perceptions, attitudes (unlike the attempt I made in the example.) Here, we want to ask why. Why does Victoria turn away? Is she stalling for time, or trying to control her tears, because Clive can’t stand it when a woman cries, or is she simply revulsed by the sight of his double chins and those stupid Edwardian waistcoats he’s taken to wearing?

When we figure out why, the how usually follows. For example, if she’s trying not to cry, she might dip one shoulder lower than the other and hold her breath, or wrap her arm around her middle, or touch her manicured index fingers to the sides of her nose (especially if Clive is the one who paid for that rhinoplasty). If she’s revulsed, she might hold her body tense and her head slightly averted, and she might say the words to a point on the wall beyond Clive’s shoulder instead of looking him in the eyes.

Victoria recognized the futility of trying to converse with Clive before
he'd been served his lunch. Instead, she focused on the mantelpiece behind
him and spoke softly to herself. "I guess we'll just wait, then?"

See if you can turn your crutch words to your story’s advantage!

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Free Edit for a Good Cause

Author L.A. Banks at the RT Convention, 2011

Author L.A. Banks at the RT Convention, 2011

It was recently announced that author L.A. Banks  is gravely ill. She was recently diagnosed with late-stage adrenal cancer, which is incredibly rare but no less deadly. A group of friends, authors, and editors has banded together to auction off items most writers will love. All proceeds go to help Leslie and her family with their mounting expenses.

I’ve donated a line edit of the first three chapters of your manuscript, fiction or non-fiction. You can see the list of all the auction items here.

After reading many of her books, I was lucky enough to meet Leslie at the RT Convention last April. She is warm, funny, and inspirational. We all love writing, we all love working with words… but Leslie’s face lights up when she talks about her process, and her hearty laughs tickle you into laughing along with her. From her, I learned how to do story research at WalMart (yes!), and about a thousand other great ideas.

I’m honored to have been included in the L.A. Banks Auction, and hope you will bid on the items to support Leslie and her family. More about Leslie here and here.

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Grandma’s Cookies

Today is Father’s Day, so for the last several days, I’ve been racking my brain trying to come up with a post that is simultaneously about writing and my dad. It shouldn’t be that hard: after all, he’s the one who gave me my first technical editing jobs.

He is a Physics PhD. At the time, he was a professor of graduate students, and my qualifications were that I was thirteen and wholly unemployed, and also one of the few able to read his tight-but-loopy handwriting. Plus, I knew most of the Greek alphabet, both upper- and lowercase. And thus I became the line editor of his journal articles (though I had no idea what it was called then), after which they were handed off to a department secretary charged with typing them on a noisy, olive-green IBM Selectric, a machine I secretly covet to this day.

From there, it would be nice to be able to say I knew back then I’d grow up to be an editor, that it was in my blood… but I had no clue.

However, we do have a Father’s Day tradition in our family. Every year I make my grandmother’s cookies, or a reasonable facsimile thereof. She lived first in Brooklyn and then later in Florida, and we lived in the Midwest. She used to bake up a gross of them and send them parcel-post in a shoebox thickly lined with aluminum foil and secured with a complicated series of rubber bands.

Now, the treats that came in that box are cookies in name only. They’re more like beige hockey pucks, neither sweet nor crispy nor chewy, and a week or more of cross-country transit in no way improves their taste or texture. They look like half-pretzels, and sometimes they’d come with a fat walnut pressed into the center. Sometimes not. Once, she used blanched, slivered almonds, which completely stupefied us. Sometimes the cookies were doughy, sometimes they were hard all the way through, and we risked our incisors with every bite. No matter their decoration, my dad has always loved those cookies. For the rest of us, they’re an acquired taste, much like a cross between sand and cornmeal. So in our house, they became “sand cookies”.

When I was nine, my grandma came to visit, so I cornered her and asked for the recipe. I had a notebook and a pencil and was all poised to write it down, but she said she’d have to show me.

What transpired next I found absolutely baffling. Grandma didn’t measure. She scooped flour out of the bin with her hand and threw it into the bowl like it had pissed her off. She used a teaspoon, not the measuring spoons I offered. She stirred up the dough with her hands, not a mixer, and I tried to follow along and ask questions. “How much flour was that?” “Eight.” “Eight what??” “Handfuls. We might need more. It depends when you mix.” I remember staring at the bowl and shaking my head. I couldn’t comprehend a universe in which one baked without a recipe, instructions.

I still have the notebook where I wrote down the bits of method I was able to glean. You need 5 teaspoons of baking powder, which is an astronomical amount. I know of no other food that needs so much baking powder just to be edible.

So long story short, Grandma passed away in the mid-nineties and the recipe died with her. A few years later, I was looking for a Father’s Day present, and make no mistake: the man loathes ties and he already has every gadget, every tool, every computer, every gewgaw known to mankind. He’s even invented a few, which is why it’s nearly impossible to find him something gift-y. But by that time, I was a software engineer employed by one of the first search engines, so I typed “5 tsp. baking powder flour eggs sugar” into the box and figured nothing would come back.

Bingo! First result! Turns out they’re called Kichel. I made my dad a batch of those cookies and presented them in a shoebox, all wrapped up in tinfoil, and they were… awful, just like Grandma used to make. But he loved them.

Today, when I showed up with the traditional, foil-lined shoebox, I put it on the snack table next to the artichoke dip and the three kinds of chips. My dad hesitated only a second before snatching that box off the table and moving it to the other side of the room.

“Not gonna share those,” he said.

I absolutely love that man.

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Like Singing in the Car

I went to a business meetup earlier today and had a bit of a drive to get home. Today was the quintessentially perfect California day: unusually clear, cloudless unreal-cerulean skies, temperature right around 68 degrees, and no traffic to speak of on 101, though there certainly should have been.

And I was already in a good mood before that.

So I opened the sun roof and put on the satellite radio to my favorite channel. Brace yourself for my shameful secret. Here it is.

My favorite station is the Broadway channel.

Show tunes. Yes.

I’ll give you a minute to a.) stop laughing and b.) stop shaking your head and c.) stop pitying me.

’Kay. Ready?

Most of the songs, I know them. I can name that tune in, oh, six or seven notes, usually. I also know the stories behind the songs, and who played the lead in the stage version, and why she got screwed out of the part when they made the movie, and who or what was the inspiration for the whole production in the first place. (Gypsy? Funny Girl? I’m looking at you. Real people. Fascinating characters.)

Now the ironical part of loving the Broadway channel is that I. Don’t. Sing.

Not a note. I don’t even hum. I can’t even render something easy like “Happy Birthday” (though I did dress up as Marilyn Monroe for Halloween once, complete with white halter dress and blonde wig). At the ballpark, I won’t even attempt “The Star Spangled Banner”. I just move my lips soundlessly while y’all do it justice.

I like to tell myself I don’t sing because I had so many ear infections when I was a kid that the delicate pieces-parts of my ear were tragically damaged and as a result I’m devastatingly tone-deaf, but the truth (what could the truth hurt now that you know my shameful secret?) is that I have absolutely no musical talent. It can’t even be measured using negative numbers.

So today, in the car, in between charming theater tidbits by the Amazing Seth Rudetsky, they played one of the ones I know by heart, “Roxie”, from the musical Chicago. It was the original voiced by Gwen Verdon, the one with Roxie’s long monologue up front… and when Gwen began to sing the first line, that first, vulnerable love-me-please wavering note…

So. Did. I.

I mean, this never happens. I don’t just burst into song; I’d sooner burst into flames. But there I was, singing out, Louise, horribly, appallingly, embarrassingly badly… but it was fun, and most perfect of all, absolutely no one could hear me but me.

Surely this has nothing to do with editing, I hear you muttering to yourself.

Oh yes it does too.

The act of writing is exactly like me singing in the car. You’re in your space, by yourself, fingers on the keyboard and staring at the monitor and no one can see what’s up on that screen, except for you. Nobody knows how many infinitives you split. Nobody is there to point accusing fingers at your dangling modifiers; nobody cares that your dialogue, comparatively speaking, makes Paris Hilton look like Cicero.

When I hold writing workshops, my first bit of advice is this: Give yourself permission to write crap. Let it be as bad as it needs to be to get your ideas out, or better yet, don’t judge yourself at all as you write that first version.

You’ll have plenty of time to criticize later, right? You have as many tries as you want or need to rewrite, revise, reshape, and yes, remove whatever doesn’t work, and get that manuscript to the place you think it needs to be.

But the work can’t be edited until it’s written. You’ve got to get it down on paper. So forget perfection. There’s no one’s watching; it’s just like singing in the car.

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What I Do

On a normal day, I have anywhere from two to ten manuscripts in some stage of the editing process. I keep the which-manuscript-is-at-which-stage problem all neat and tidy in a huge, conditional-formatting color-coded Excel spreadsheet, but that’s a subject for a post of its own. The spreadsheet usually tells me which project I need to work on next, so I open up that particular file and get started.

Let’s say the go-to project is a work of fiction.

I give most fiction manuscripts two deep passes before I return the markup to the client. In the first pass, I’m reading for content and looking for plot holes. Anything that makes me go “Wha??” or makes me roll my eyes (exposition by dialogue dump; crazy character names or spellings; male leads who speak like pageant contestants; guns or cars or cans of tuna that appear out of nowhere; lengthy descriptions of peoples’ hair, secondary sex characteristics, or eye color; villains who won’t for-the-love-of-Mike shut up, just to name a few) gets a note in the margin. I’m also checking for head-hopping and POV mistakes (you can’t see what’s behind your head unless you’re looking in a mirror, and people don’t generally think of their own hair as ‘soft tresses’). I pick apart the dialogue to make sure each person speaks like he should. (I encourage every author to eavesdrop, to really listen and internalize how people talk to each other… because most of the time, it isn’t in long, complete, gramatically correct sentences. The way people talk conveys emotion, every single time. If your dialogue isn’t doing that for you, then half of your story is missing.)

At the end of each scene, I’m asking myself two questions:

  1. Does this scene move the plot forward?
  2. Does this scene reveal anything about the characters in the story?

The best scenes will get a ‘yes’ answer for both questions. So if the answer to both questions is ‘no’, then the scene can be cut, and I add a comment.

If the author’s mechanics are good, with few grammar or punctuation errors, then I’ll correct those as I’m going along. If the mechanics need more attention than that, then I’ll do them as a separate, second pass. I’m a stickler about semicolons: with me, there’s no debate. Use ’em correctly, or they’re gone. For em-dashes, as with semicolons, moderation is key. A safe rule of thumb is to use em-dashes only to show interrupted dialogue. I wish there were some federally-funded study to prove that everyone’s writing is tighter and better without dashes. In many manuscripts, I spend a great deal of time fixing dialogue tags (she enunciated, he guffawed) and re-formatting dialogue to the correct punctuation. (Frankly, this baffles me a bit because dialogue is one of the few places where the rules haven’t changed, in like, ever.) And I have a slew of Word macros set up to help me find all the extra and missing punctuation bits, and the its/it’s, your/you’re and their/there/they’res.

Then I send it all, the markup and the comments, back to you.

And I know exactly how you feel when you open that file, because my work gets edited, too.

It’s painful. If you’re anything like me, you’ll feel your face go hot over one of those dreaded your/you’re mistakes, or the fact that you did indeed write it so the sergeant who just caught his wife in bed with his best friend had walked in through a door that had been carefully double-locked by said best friend. If you’re like me, you will hear yourself scream (inside your head) that all your characters totally do not all sound alike, and yes it is too possible for a person to be both a Krav Maga expert and a top-ranked, nationally known pastry chef, all before her 24th birthday (because how else is she going to defend the line cooks when the assassins burst into the kitchen?). And your heart will start to pound if there are cuts, even if you knew they were probably coming.

So if that’s happening to you, maybe I can share what I do when I’m on the receiving end of an edit: I try to remind myself that the writer and editor share the exact same goal. When we are doing our jobs right, we both work in service to the story.

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Off to RT!

I’m taking five manuscripts with me, which at this point is sounding more than a little optimistic. The plane ride is only an hour long…

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