Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Editing, Day 2--Speaker Attributes/Verb Choice

First, a quick point of housekeeping. I received an e-mail from a would-be BG yesterday, saying she had a heck of a time reading this blog because her Mac computer wreaked havoc with the punctuation, etc. I told her to try reading the post from the comment page, but that didn’t work either. Her computer savvy husband showed her what to do. She said, “By going to view, then encoding, and choosing UNICODE UTF-8 (Default was selected), the page displayed correctly.” Please pass on this info to anyone you know who’s had trouble reading the posts.

We had a pretty busy day here yesterday, and over the weekend as folks were reading our AS and the first edit. Thanks to those of you who commented yesterday. Becca—welcome to the AW side (at least for yesterday).

Lynette asked if I’m open to people giving me ideas for books. Uh, yeah, if you don’t want ’em. Not promising I’ll use ’em, but I’m open to all the help I can get.

Ron asked: When I write a character asking a question, I simply tag it "she said" instead of "she asked." I see the ? and "asked" as redundant. Am I wrong?

Answer: Well, you’re not wrong to think it’s redundant. That’s why not using an SA is your best bet. Try to use either straight dialogue or beats when you can. When you must use an SA for a question, it should be “she/he asked.”

I hope you all will remember this Use-an-SA-as-a-last-resort idea as you continue to write. Don’t let yourself get lazy now, hear? Today I was looking back at my novel Color the Sidewalk for Me. Those of you who’ve stuck with this blog through our NES (Never Ending Saga, turned to Now Ended Saga) know what I went through to get that book published, and that to this day I have a special place in my heart for this book. I like the story; I’m proud of the writing. But I’ll tell you—I look at the SAs in it and shiver. They’re all through that book, and they don’t need to be there. If I were to rewrite the book today, I’d take 98% of ’em out.

I consider this a very positive thing—that I can look 8-9 books back and see things that I would change. Shows I’m making progress in my craft.

Now for our AS, I’m going to move on to verb choice. We're talking about verbs mostly in the narrative sentences, and sometimes also in interior monologue. Verb choice is important in all scenes, but particularly in action scenes. When there’s all kinds of action going on, the verb is the most important word in the sentence. So you want it to pack a punch. Strong verb choice is another technique that just by itself can immensely improve a scene. The technique here is simply stated: Find the most action-packed and meaningful verb you can. Easy to say; often hard to do.

Here’s what I try to do in action scenes:

1. Choose verbs rich with meaning that will help the person feel and visualize the scene.

2. Vary these verbs so I don’t use the same one twice. The more unique and meaningful a verb, the less I use it throughout the book, because it stands out.

3. Stay away from state of being verbs. These verbs (is, was, etc.) are the weakest verbs you can find. Definitely not good fits for high action.

It’s easy to fall into mediocre verb choice. The more common verbs spring first to our minds. We have to work at finding the more meaningful ones. And, per point 2, the better verbs we choose, the wider the variety we must use so they're not repeated.

Here’s our AS, run again in total. This version, however, includes the changes we made regarding speaker attributes. I have highlighted the weak verbs in red. There are quite a few strong verbs used. Still, you may be surprised to see how many weaker verbs I found—now that they’re popping out at you.

In an instant, he spun her whole body around, and her shoulder pummeled into Spirit. The horse panicked and jumped away, ripping the reins out of her hand.

Vince’s fist landed on her cheekbone, and she was vaguely aware of the horse bolting out the door before she felt the pain and stumbled.


Vince was upon her. He grabbed a fistful of her jacket and yanked her to her feet. “It’s time you learned something, Darling.” He stuck his face in hers, his stale cigar breath assaulting her. “I don’t take ‘no’ for an answer.”

She closed her eyes, gasping. If she resisted, he’d make it worse. “Vince, please, don’t.”

“You pitiful excuse for a woman.” He hit her again, a swift bash on her left temple. The blow made the room turn black around the edges. But she didn’t lose consciousness.

Vince let her crumple to the floor. “Worthless piece of trash.”

She tried to look up at him. “If you just leave me alone . . . I . . . I promise I’ll never tell a soul what you did. Just let me go. Why won’t you let me go?”

He picked her up by the jacket again and shoved her against a stall door. She groaned as pain shot through her back. He’d pushed her against the metal latch.

“Oh, it’s too late, Christy. I’ve given you more than enough chances.”

“Please. . .”

He backhanded her across the face. She fell to her knees, clutching her nose as warm blood dripped into her fingers.

“I don’t know what I ever saw in you. You’re certainly nothing to look at.”

She glanced up at the caricature of his once handsome face. How could she ever have loved this man?

Vince pulled a wad of rope out of his jacket pocket. “Not even worth the air you breath.”

That’s when she realized the awful truth. He wasn’t just doing this to frighten her. He intended to kill her, and every ounce of survival instinct she had kicked in. She searched for a weapon. Bale of straw. Horse comb. Bottle of saddle soap. Shovel. She locked onto that. It leaned against the wall by the door. Could she crawl fast enough?

Vince kicked her in the thigh. “Get up.”

Christy started to rise in a slow, defeated way, but the second she got her feet underneath herself, she lunged for the door, and the shovel. Grasping it with both hands, she willed her eyes to focus on Vince, and hurled it at his head.

The shovel met it’s mark with a revolting thud. Vince’s hands flew to his face, and he moaned as he sagged to the floor. She froze, shocked she’d actually wounded him. What was she doing? She had to get of here! Move!

Christy ran. Into the yard, past the pickups. The house! Get to the house! Lock the door. Maybe she could figure out how to use one of those guns before Vince could break in.

And then she saw the most beautiful creature in the entire world, Spirit, a snowy apparition standing in the middle of the yard, waiting for her. For a split second she hesitated. Should she race for the house or try to mount the gelding when she could barely see straight?

Vince decided for her. He appeared in the barn doorway still holding his head, his eyes ablaze. She wouldn’t make the house.

Adrenaline propelled her to Spirit, and she frantically gathered the reins, struggling to get her foot in the stirrup.

Glance behind. Vince was running toward her.

Clutching Spirit’s mane, she summoned all her strength, pulled herself up, and made it!

Tomorrow we will look at ways in which many of these verbs can be changed. For today, feel free to comment on your own ideas for changes, or post an edit of SAs you made on your wip since yesterday’s lesson.

Read Part 4


C.J. Darlington said...

This is incredibly educational. I didn't realize how many so-so verbs I'd used in this scene. I'm very interested in your thoughts tomorrow on what to use instead.

D. Gudger said...

This is really helpful to me. I need to pay some attention to my WIP (its being neglected due to a new job). Stronger verbs are definitly a need for me!

Ron Estrada said...

Priceless, BC! I hope you don't mind, but I shamelessly started a thread back at ACFW to start a discussion on your daily topics. It's a little more user friendly than the blog post and allows for more interaction. Naturally, I plugged your blog. Thanks again.

Bret said...

CJ, this is a fascinating learning experience. Thanks for sharing your work so we can all benefit. I'm curious to see what BC shows us tomorrow.

Becky said...

Hahah--Ron, I was going to do the same thing!

Brandilyn, glad you posted the info about how to clean up the text for Mac users. Actually I stumbled upon that a number of weeks ago. (You probably didn't notice, but the frequency of my comments fell off there for a time because I wasn't on the comment page already. As it is, I somehow manage to post something pretty often anyway! ; )

Stuart said...

Lovin' B'sB ;)

Just to take you up on your last comment here's an idea for editing this line:

Vince decided for her. He appeared in the barn doorway still holding his head, his eyes ablaze. She wouldn’t make the house.

Maybe works better as:

Vince forced her decision. He burst from the barn. One hand clutched his head. His eyes blazed, promising she'd never reach the house.

I'm still not happy 'bout that last line. I'm sure you can do much better than me with the edit C.J. ;)

CHickey said...

Great exercise, Brandilyn! I, too, try to vary my verbs in the books I write. Mentally, I put myself into the "picture" and strive to write what I see and feel.

Lynette Sowell said...

Hi! CJ, I've gotta say, you're brave, and I still applaud you for it. Right now my WIP is in the "vomit draft" stage--I heard that at a writers' conference once, and found it vividly appropriate. Anyway, here's a couple of things I'd change. Don't know if I can get it to look 'purty,' but I'll see.

[That’s when she realized the awful truth.] I would delete this because it slows the action.

[He hit her again, a swift bash on her left temple.] I would reword this. It's a fast animal type of action. "He bashed her temple." Maybe that's not the best rewording, but it's all I could come up with. :)

[Vince let her crumple to the floor.] I would reword this since it would have more impact if it were in deeper POV. Pretend this action is a movie clip. You're watching Vince watch her. Make yourself fall to the floor with her. I "see" the books in my head, and I'm still trying to work on this. (sigh)

[Christy started to rise in a slow, defeated way, but the second she got her feet underneath herself, she lunged for the door, and the shovel. Grasping it with both hands, she willed her eyes to focus on Vince, and hurled it at his head.]
My "movie projector" says this should start in slow motion, then go faster. I notice the scene doesn't read faster although her actions are supposed to be swift.

Hope I've helped. Take what you can use. :)

C.J. Darlington said...

Thanks, Lynette! I just saw your comments. All this is very interesting. I appreciate your taking the time to think about this scene and offer your suggestions.