Writing Tip: Names versus Pronouns

My guess is I don’t need to tell you what doesn’t work about this passage:

Mary rifled through the suitcase that John dropped on the bed. “John, have you seen my camera?” Mary’s hands flew to her hips and she scowled.

“I’m certain you packed it, Mary.” John scratched his head. It wouldn’t be the first time Mary had forgotten to pack something important. “I’ll check our carry-on. Mary, where did you leave it?”

“Other room, on the table, John.” Mary huffed and began stuffing shirts back into the bag.

John retreated to the sitting area of the luxury suite. The place had cost John a fortune, but Mary had insisted on a room with a sunset view, specifically for taking photos. John emptied the carry-on and sighed, certain Mary would have a fit and accuse the airline of stealing. “I checked and it’s not here, Mary.”

“Oh, crap, John!” Mary stomped into the room. “The airline must have stolen it.”

Did you notice all the Mary’s and John’s?

If you didn’t, trust me that after a few pages you’d be pretty tired of Mary and John. When I’d started writing, my publisher made me go through my manuscript and edit out first names whenever they weren’t needed. Here’s why…

1. Pronouns create a tighter POV.

Generally, we want a tight POV because it draws the reader deeper into a character’s experience.

Whether we’re writing in 1st or 3rd person (except omniscient), we’re sitting inside the POV character’s head, looking through her eyes, hearing what she hears, feeling her emotions, living out a scene from his/her perspective. Authors work hard to achieve the immediacy of a tight POV.  When clarity isn’t at stake, POV character’s will always refer to themselves with pronouns.

This is easiest to see in 1st person books where the POV character always refers to him/herself as “I.” Another way to think of this is in your daily life. When you’re hanging around the house you don’t refer to yourself by your name. I don’t say to my husband, “Diana’s going to make tea; do you want some?” That would be weird. I use a pronoun. “I’m going to make tea…”

3rd Person is subtler, but the same reasoning applies. We’re still sitting inside a character’s head, viewing the world through their perspective. Though the pronoun in this convention is a “he” or “she,” it’s still a pronoun. POV characters wouldn’t naturally refer to themselves by their names.

2. We don’t talk that way.

Next time you’re in for the evening with one other person, pay attention to the conversation or record yourselves for a short time. If names are used at all, it’s with purpose – primarily to get someone’s attention (“Hey, Randy, have you seen my keys?”) or for emphasis (“Listen, Randy. You lost them, you better find them!”). Do the same with a group of people and you’ll notice more first names, but still surprisingly few.

When are names necessary?

The answer is pretty obvious – to avoid confusion. And it’s easy to identify those situations:

  • When starting a new scene
  • When there are more than two characters in a scene and the dialog and action is jumping around
  • When two characters are talking about another character(s).
  • When two characters are the same gender.

Now, like anything in writing, this “rule” is meant to be broken, and broken for all kinds of reasons: reminders to the reader, to get a break from all those pronouns, sentence pacing, etc. This is simply something to be aware of when crafting your prose.

Here’s that paragraph all cleaned up.

Mary rifled through the suitcase that John dropped on the bed. “Have you seen my camera?” Her hands flew to her hips and she scowled.

“I’m certain you packed it.” He scratched his head. It wouldn’t be the first time she’d forgotten to pack something important. “I’ll check our carry-on. Where did you leave it?”

“Other room, on the table.” She huffed and began stuffing shirts back into the bag.

He retreated to the sitting area of the luxury suite. The place had cost him a fortune, but she’d insisted on a room with a sunset view, specifically for taking photos. He emptied the carry-on and sighed, certain she would have a fit and accuse the airline of stealing. “I checked and it’s not here.”

“Oh, crap!” She stomped into the room. “The airline must have stolen it.”

Should You Edit Your Published Book?

When to edit

Like just about anything we do (paint, cook, dance, carpentry, write) we get better with practice. We learn better methods, the tricks of the trade, how to blend color and spices, cut a rug and cut a bevel.

We learn how to craft a tight plot and rich characters, show versus tell, reduce dialog tags, choose verbs, kill the adverbs. If we’re lucky, we get strong feedback from editors, critiquers, and beta readers. We take courses, read books on writing, and write, write, write.

Knowing that improvement is a given, the books we wrote five years ago might not look as polished as those we write today.

As I reclaimed my publishing rights from my publisher, I planned to reread my books to correct typos and buff them up a bit. I didn’t expect to do much rewriting – after all, the books were edited and they’ve received decent reviews.

I started reading … uh oh.

Look at all those adverbs…
Erm, telling words…
Yeesh, I could eliminate a lot of these dialog tags…
Hmm, this section doesn’t really advance the plot…
Oh dear, kind of wordy…

So the books got a much closer look than I intended, and I’m glad I made the effort. This exercise got me thinking about two editing questions related to previously published books.

yes-238378_960_720When is a re-edit of a previously published book a good idea:

After a while, most authors develop an inner “knowing” as to when their story is done, and it’s usually based on the writer’s current level of skill. It’s as good as they can write it at the time.

Thus, our first books are often, not always, a little beastly. And this speaks to why editorial feedback is so vital, particularly early in one’s career. I know this from experience; my first book was a warty little troll before an editor got her eager hands on it for a makeover.

Fortunately, like most skills we tackle, we make gigantic leaps forward in the beginning and then start to level off when we near our peaks. For this reason, revisiting previously published books makes the most sense after we are a few years into our writing careers. By then, we have pages of experience crammed into our back pockets.

Another time to revisit a previously published book is when it has few or mostly negative reviews. Early works may need anything from a major developmental edit of plot and structure to a simple scrubbing for grammar and flow. If a book didn’t run through an editor’s gauntlet the first time, it’s not too late.

As authors, we might weigh the impact of leaving older books out there if they’re not reflective of our current skill. The last thing we want is for a reader, once snagged, to walk away and miss the awesome talent infusing our later works. It’s a confidence boost to polish up the weakest links in our backlist chains.

no-238376_960_720When to stop re-editing a book (published or otherwise):

Your novel is done. Finally! But wait; maybe you should give it a last read-through for typos. Then there was that scene in Chapter 7 that gave you so much trouble. Just one more look. Wa-la! Oh, darn, there’s a telling word; are there more? What if I can cut another thousand words; maybe describe their clothing less; nobody cares about clothing. Okay, done! Maybe my protagonist should have a goatee…

Some writers never publish because they never stop editing. The editing loop can roll on forever and ever … even after publishing. Knowing when to stop isn’t always easy, but it’s important.

Here are some reasons to stop editing:

1. There is no such thing as a perfectly written book. And even if there was, someone would hate it. 90% Perfect and shared with the world is better than 100 percent perfect and wallowing in your head.

2. Endless revisions take time away from writing something new!

3. Over-editing can dull your pov characters’ distinct voices. This is especially dangerous when you’re editing in bits and pieces and lose the narrative flow.

4. You’ve done your major developmental edits, content edits, stylistic edits, and proofing, and now you are increasing rather than reducing the word count.

5. Instead of improving your book you are only making it different. And maybe making it worse.

6. You haven’t taken a break from your book in a year. Time to let the beast sit for a month or so. You’re way too up-close and personal with your novel and both of you need some space to relax and think rationally.

7. You started the book when your kids were in diapers, and they just graduated from college.

8. You hate looking at your book and the thought of rehashing it one more time makes you want to barf. Time to shut it down.

Have you written a book? Are you writing a book? How do you decide when it’s ready to fly?

Writing that First Draft

troll enwikipediaorgNaNoWriMo looms. My outline has taken shape. The terrain of a new world sprawls before me, rife with civilization. Characters chatter, love and battle in my head. If you’re like me, that first draft is a molten caldron, uncontainable and ready to erupt. I can’t hold myself back anymore.

troll enwikipediaorg3A first draft is a flawed, untamed, tainted, wonderful, intense piece of art. Before I started using the volcano metaphor, I likened it to vomiting, spilling my guts over the keyboard. Disgusting, but so cathartic.

A first draft has nothing to do with perfection. It’s about the story. It isn’t the time to edit, to labor over weak verbs, revisit dialog, or craft flowing descriptions. You’ve spent weeks fleshing out your outline; it’s time to put it to work and start spinning your tale.

troll enwikipediaorg2A few sections of that first draft will feel inspired and flow from your fingertips. Other parts will require patience and will-power as you drag them like whining teenagers across your page. Your outline will help you persist through those hair-pulling hours, because with an outline, there’s no writer’s block. No matter how painful, you know what you have to do.

Get the story out of your skin. Just write it. That’s the point of the first draft–the story. Your outline is your guide, but remember that a creative outline is still fluid; expect it to morph, flex and grow as you write.

trolls pinterest2My first draft is a constant play between an evolving outline and the written page. My characters continue to surprise me, plots deepen, new scenes appear, dialog ripples off in unexpected directions. I have to go back and add or change scenes, hint at backstory, place the sword on the belt. This isn’t editing–this is getting a story down on paper. At the very same time, I am massaging my outline, changing what is coming based on these unforeseen tangles and turns. I’m deleting and adding, noting follow-up details, tying up loose ends, and making certain that the story is still rational and cohesive when I get to the end.

trolls pinterestThis marvelous, messy, raw creation is your own foray into new territory. I never share my first drafts with anyone. They’re too ugly. They’re warty little trolls blinking in the sunlight. They need baths and haircuts, a visit to the dentist, and a decent meal. But I love them, and they are princes when I get them cleaned up.

Artwork compliments of creative commons: en.wikimedia.org, flickr.com and pixaby.com.


Writing From the Inside Out

image from pixaby

The internet brims with advice on how to write (this little blog included). I most enjoy reading the ponderings of those of us who are still exploring the mystery of this craft, this art. So few absolutes exist in the realm of creativity. How wondrous that we all possess distinctive voices, styles and stories to tell. To me, writing is organic, personal. I believe we need to discover, encourage, and play with our inner muses.

I’ve read a number of blogs and how-to narratives that outline the steps for developing character and plot. Some offer great wisdom, while others (often those written by the “experts”) strike me as somewhat formulaic. And I don’t mean general guidelines with a few obvious rules. I mean fill in the blanks! To me, these strictures feel deadening, and I worry that new writers in particular will unwittingly lose the opportunity to discover the unique storyteller within.

creativity pixabyI wrote my first book without a clue as to what I was doing. And despite the painful drudgery of endless editing to address my ignorance and learn the craft, I’m glad I did it that way. Because I loved the creative process. I love writing from the inside out. I’m not sure if I would have come to the same conclusion writing a fill-in-the-blank book with fill-in-the-blank characters.

I’m close to finishing the Raven’s Shadow fantasy trilogy by Anthony Ryan. He breaks so many rules it’s exhilarating. Someday I’ll make a list and we can all celebrate. The first book in the trilogy, Blood Song, has 2, 124 reviews. I loved the series. Did I mention he breaks rules?

As I finish final edits on my current project, I’ve begun to stir the cauldron and will soon enter the contemplative process of conjuring up the next story. That’s what it feels like to me…magic. That spark of inspiration bubbles up from inside me, not from a formula, and when it arrives, it’s mine.

creativity pixaby4In his book, Eternal Echoes, John O’Donohue, the Irish poet and author, writes: “The natural and ancient creativity of soul is being replaced by the miserable little arithmetic of know-how.”

I would second this bit of wisdom and the attendant advice. As artists, we may relish our rules-of-writing consciousness, but inspired writing rarely springs from a formula. Writing is alive with subtlety, impression and intent. Listen, learn, revisit, and then find your own way. You are the artist.

image flickr

All images from pixabay.com

Striking the Motherlode


image from flightfox.com

Well, I have a gift for you today. NO, it’s not a book. Phew!

A friend of mine shared a link with me, and when I opened it, I gasped. My knees turned to syrup, and I wiped tears of delight from my eyes. I’d struck writing gold.

Brandon Sanderson, the highly successful author of Mistborn and The Way of Kings fame, teaches a master’s level class at BYU for fantasy and science-fiction writers. The class is so popular that only a small number of interested students actually get to enroll. In response to the flood of despair, the entire series of winter lectures were videotaped and are available on YouTube at zero cost.

image from thebooksmuggler.com

image from thebooksmuggler.com

You don’t write sci-fi or fantasy, you say.

I will assert, while skipping in circles with excitement, that the ideas he presents are 99% applicable to all fiction writing. He covers a broad range of choices and approaches, and rarely lays down any hard fast rules. Writers will fill up their brains with ideas while being told to discover what works for them.

(Just to warn you, he does hate passive sentences and has an odd aversion to the word “replied”).

Now, this is a ton of material that includes not only invaluable lessons on writing, but also on how to pitch, sell, and market a book. He’s tidily listed the lessons by content so it’s possible to pick and choose what you’re interested in learning about. The complete listing, with links to each lecture is here: Brandon Sanderson Writing Seminar.