Tactical Tuesday: Advice for Self-Editing

Finding a balance between drama and melodrama can be very hard sometimes. Today, let’s take a look at some of the areas an author may want to examine when self-editing to assure that the drama is not overdone:

Don’t take a small conflict and try to make it bigger: When an author takes a minor problem and turns it into something major without providing motivation for the larger conflict, the reader will think the work contrived. Instead, if Betty’s prom date calls up ten minutes before the prom to tell her he’s taking Debra instead of her, let that be the necessary drama. The reader can sympathize with Betty, and Betty needs to take some major action to get back into the game—like calling her drop-dead gorgeous-guy of a best friend who happens to attend a school outside of town. She might be a little late to the prom, but she’s going to make her date and Debra jealous. And what if Betty finds true love with drop-dead gorgeous guy of a best friend but doesn’t realize it because she’s busy chasing deadbeat prom guy. On the other hand,what if Betty knows that Debra is a little off from center, and that her prom date might be in danger? Then Betty’s reaction would be decidedly different and a little more dramatic. She has to save the no-good cheat despite the fact he dumped her.

Understated drama pulls a bigger punch: What happens if Betty is at home waiting for her mother to arrive so they can go shopping for her prom dress? This is the biggest event that has happened since her father passed away two years before, and Mom has smiled for the first time in ages. When a car pulls up in the driveway, Betty is excited. Mom will probably come in and change out of her clothes, and they’ll be on their way. Betty pulls back the curtain, and instead of her mother’s car in the driveway she sees a state trooper—just like the night her father died. Yes, you could make Betty fall apart, fall to her knees, fall into the arms of the trooper, but what if Betty opens the door and braces herself for the trooper’s words? She doesn’t say a thing as the officer tells her that her mother has been seriously injured. She remains quiet when the officer asks her to get the number of her nearest relative who lives several states away—someone her mother would not want her to be with. She still doesn’t speak as they tell her the relative will arrive soon. Only after the trooper has done all this does she speak. She keeps her back straight and with a very steady voice says, “Would you mind taking me to my mom? She doesn’t like to be alone when she’s not feeling well.”

Don’t bury the humor: High-volume conflict sometimes does bring out the humor in others. When things are at their most intense, humor can be the author’s greatest tool. Allowing the reader a slight break from the conflict isn’t letting the reader down. Instead, a little humor gives the reader a necessary and unexpected break. Humor in the midst of the extreme conflict is better than a scene where the reader is pulled away from the conflict completely. However, both type scenes are necessary. If the story isn’t a comedy, the author may wish to keep the humor to a medium, but even one line that makes a reader laugh out loud will secure that novel in the readers’ minds for years. John Grisham did that for me in his novel The Runaway Jury. I can still quote the line today.

When writing drama, it is important to ask others if the drama is too melodramatic. Could a character handle a situation with calm and add to the tension, and can humor provide the relief a reader might need in the middle of an intense scene?

Make-A-Story™ - Monday's Writing Prompt

Writing to spec – you’ve heard the term.  It means writing what the publisher wants.  Can you do it?  In our new feature - Make-A-Story™, we ask you to create a story with these elements.  The story can be set in any time frame, any length, must adhere to our guidelines and have our standard Christian world view.   

A pop-up camper
sneakers over a telephone wire
A cloudy day

Tactical Tuesday: Advice for Self-Editing

Writing humor isn’t as easy as it looks. If it were, everyone would be a comedian. For this reason, authors should use caution when labeling their work a romantic comedy. Here are a few editing tips for writing humor:

Don’t overthink the punch line: Actually, when writing humor, the punch line should be seamless and subtle. Authors are not comedians on the stage. They are, in a sense, playwrights, setting the scene in their readers’ heads. For comedy to work, there are two factors that should be reviewed.

            Characterization: No, characters don’t have to be clowns in order to pull off a humorous scene, but we must see something in their nature that makes the scene funny. For example, if someone is by nature a bitter person, they wouldn’t just rip out a joke to make someone laugh. No, the humor would come from their sarcasm.

            The Setup: The setup will make or break a comedic scene. Again, this may involve characterization, but it also involves the location, the event that is occurring, and even the character’s personality. If these areas come together, it takes only one line (the author’s punch line, if you will) to bring out a guffaw.

Let the humor flow: This goes hand-in-hand with not overthinking the punch line. If an author knows his characters well enough, the humor—if it is meant to be a part of the story—will flow easily. I have on several occasions finished a draft, and when I’ve gone back in to edit, I’ll see that the humor flowed without my intention to do so. Authors should let their characters rule in this regard.

Keep it clean: Recently, I’ve seen so many posts on Facebook and on Pinterest that could be very funny. Unfortunately, some folks mistake shock value for humor. The best jokes are those written without sexual innuendo, without racial slurs, and without four letter words.

One of my favorite characteristics of God is His understated sense of humor. It’s alive and well, and we could do well to model our humor after His. I think of the story of the ten plagues. Yes, it was a sad time in Egypt for Israel and for the Egyptians, but in the midst of this drama, God allowed something humorous to happen.

God didn’t overthink the punch line. In fact, it is very subtle. No, he brought some characters into the mix and played the setup quite well. Who were these characters? They were Pharaoh’s magicians. What was the setup? The location was Egypt by the Nile. God had introduced plagues that mimicked the gods of the Egyptians. One of those plagues was frogs.

I couldn’t imagine the smell of dead frogs littering the ground, the house, and every corner of Egypt. To prove that God had nothing over on them, what did the magicians do? They brought forth more frogs. I get this clear vision of Moses and Aaron walking away from that one, shaking their heads and laughing.

So, when editing for humor, an author should make sure the comedy is not forced, that the humor flows naturally from characters and from the setup, and he should always double check his humor-meter to assure that it is not offensive to others. The best way to do this is to ask several people to read the scene—without author comment—and to see if it works for some of them. Remember, humor, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. Not everyone will get it, but the majority should.

Make-A-Story™ - Monday's Writing Prompt

Writing to spec – you’ve heard the term.  It means writing what the publisher wants.  Can you do it?  In our new feature - Make-A-Story™, we ask you to create a story with these elements.  The story can be set in any time frame, any length, must adhere to our guidelines and have our standard Christian world view. 

A kayak
A kitten
A kaleidascope

Tactical Tuesday: Advice for Self-Editing

Voice: what is it that distinguishes an author in the vast world of publishing? Many forums are built on this question. Experts offer their opinion, but the truth is, voice is as elusive a question as why one reader loves a well-written story but another finds it boring.

With that in mind, I’m not here to provide a definitive answer, but I thought I’d point out the main area and its components that might help an author to stand out in a crowd of their peers. To do so, I am using a very secular novel, but one that has weathered the years of change and still continues to be the novel that gave voice to the author.

Characterization: A story is nothing without character. What stories do you remember most? Me? I connect to character first. Give me some distinctive characters and an author has begun to reel me in. Think about it. What made Scarlet O’Hara so memorable in Gone with the Wind? You either love her or you hate her, but you don’t forget her. Scarlet on her own is just another woman who ruthlessly goes after what she wants. Add the next two elements, and you have a novel that not only received the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1937, it is a novel that transcends generations.

Background: Gone with the Wind starts at the very beginning of the Civil War where we see Scarlet as a spoiled young woman. Several different backgrounds give the novel a distinctive voice. We start at the very end of the Pre-Civil War South where Scarlet is a spoiled young woman who is after one man: Ashley Wilkes. Even when she meets Rhett Butler, who recognizes and admires her character, she can’t see true love through her fantasy of Ashley—a fantasy that continues through the novel and has Scarlet acting out, marrying different men at first for spite and then for survival, but still she’s in love with Ashley. From the simple life of a part at Twelve Oaks and Tara, we find Scarlet in Atlanta with Sherman’s army advancing on the town. Scarlet has become a widow, but her widowhood has connected her with Melanie Wilkes, the wife of the man Scarlet loves. In the backdrop of Atlanta, we see Scarlet’s character arc—but not so much that Scarlet ever loses the selfish nature. From Atlanta, we see Scarlet on the road back to Tara, facing the dangers, and protecting those she loves, though true to character, Scarlet doesn’t see her care over them as love. That selflessness mixed with Scarlet’s selfishness continues as Scarlet does whatever she must at Tara to keep her family from ever going hungry again. Gone with the Wind is rich with background, and into those locations, Mrs. Mitchell adds the one component that makes a novel (and its author) stand out from the crowd.

Conflict: Scarlet O’Hara meets conflict head on. Again, not all of the conflict Scarlet battles is heroic. She fights for the love of Ashley Wilkes up until the moment that Melanie dies. Only then does she realize that she loved Melanie, and well, Ashley? She discovers he isn’t Rhett, the man Scarlet married. Even Scarlet’s courtship with Rhett isn’t traditional. She never sees that he’s the man for her until it’s too late. When Scarlet is asked to aid the wounded soldiers, she clearly doesn’t want to be there. Most authors would have to fight the desire to make Scarlet heroically pursue the endeavor, to be a Florence Nightingale? Not so our Ms. O’Hara. No, sir. She doesn’t want to be there. She can’t stand to see the suffering. Yet, when she has to help Melanie, who at this point stands in the way of Scarlet’s love for Melanie’s husband, Ashley, she does what needs to be done—but only after ever avenue has been exhausted. Gone with the Wind is unique in conflict as Mrs. Mitchell doesn’t let her heroine seem heroic. Scarlet handles every situation in a selfish manner. Yes, she has an ulterior motive, but somehow it always seems to work for the better good of all.

Even in Christian fiction, we tend to want to make our heroes like Superman and our heroines like Polly Purebred. I’ll admit, we need to walk a fine line, but no one is perfect. Scarlet O’Hara’s story is clearly secular, but I wanted to use her and Gone with the Wind as an example of an author not looking toward the typical heroine or hero. Typical anything does not establish an author’s voice.

In Christian fiction, our characters can’t be perfect. If we make them flawless, the reader will have no connection to them. They also should not behave like Scarlet O’Hara unless their character arc will bring a clear message (overtly or covertly) to the reader. However, in looking at what distinguished Margaret Mitchell’s voice for generations of readers, an author, when self-editing, would be wise to provide a unique flavor to each character, to provide interesting backdrops for the story to play out, and to layer the story with engaging conflict within the backgrounds they have chosen.

Thursday’s Tips: Word Choice

So many elements go into making a manuscript strong. One of the top ones for me as a writer, reader, and editor is prose. Sure, prose is word flow and rhythm. It’s cadence, absolutely. It’s part of your voice. But here’s one exercise you can do the next time you’re adding words to your work-in-progress, an exercise that will have an immediate impact on your work: be intentional about word choice.


Don’t settle for the first word that comes to mind, as most likely it’s the most basic. Instead, take a moment to consider your other options. And never repeat the same word in the same half-page of a document. Even words like “look,” etc. Grab a thesaurus and resist the urge to settle.


Be careful to avoid overuse of prepositions and prepositional phrases as well. Rework. Even phrases like “she kissed him on the nose” can be shortened to “she kissed his nose.” Watch out for phrases like “on the chair in the corner by the door.” Rework to tighten. I keep a handy list of prepositions nearby so I can weed many of them out.


Always try to rework tired phrases. If you feel you’ve seen/heard the phrase before, don’t use it in your own work. Editors spot them and unless they’re in someone’s dialogue as a character’s manner of communicating, we don’t want to see them.


Take your time to choose words with nuances you intended. Watch out for phrases that communicate something you did not mean.


Choose interesting verbs to avoid overuse of commonly overused terms, like “look,” “step,” “walk,” “turn.” Challenge yourself to avoid common nouns like “gaze,” “look,” etc.

Take the time to choose the right word. Your writing will shine when you do.

How about you? Do you let those words slip through and fix them during rewrites? Do you dig for the right word on the first draft? What’s the best way you’ve found to churn up stronger words?    -->   --> -->

Tactical Tuesday: Advice for Self-Editing

Although the art of fiction lies within the author’s ability to create a world for the reader to visit and leave her troubles behind, this does not give the author license to forego authenticity within the details of the manuscript. When self-editing, an author should confirm that research has been done in several areas so that the reader does not come away with a sense that the author lives in a world of his own making, or worse, that the author has a childlike understanding of the world around him. Such areas to research are:

Realistic business dealings: There are laws governing business transactions. There are permitting issues with many occupations and new businesses. Unless an author is writing a historical novel, the days of sealing a deal with a handshake and opening a business are long gone. Today, business owners face a line of red tape a mile long. Though the details may be too boring to share with the reader, the author must give some indication that characters involved in such ventures have jumped through the required hoops. If this isn’t done, the story loses realism.

Professions: Doctors, lawyers, policemen, firemen, office workers, you name it, every profession works within certain parameters. They also each have their own lingo. For example, if you were a Kennedy Space Center worker in the heyday of space exploration, you would have been met with a litany of acronyms. And yes, they did have a book that detailed the meanings. If an author planned to write a novel concerning that era, for authenticity, he would need to absorb the lingo. He would need to study launch protocol, and he might need to spend some time with rocket scientists and space engineers, who are different breeds altogether. Researching such details when it comes to professions makes the story ring true.

Characters’ Speech: As hinted above, different professions have jargon that is utilized in the course of the day. Likewise, in our everyday lives, individuals from different classes and regions have their own speech. In answering a question recently, I learned that someone from Minnesota might say, “I’m going with.” For me that is an incomplete statement that I might hear from a teenager. Someone from the deep South may not say their r’s and their g’s. An immigrant, unless he’s been in our country for a long while, is not going to use contractions when speaking. Also, depending upon their home country, they will use different tenses and sometimes incorrectly use words. These patterns of speech need to be authentic to the reader.

Characters’ Reactions: If an author has shown a character to be closed minded, dishonest, and unfriendly, the reader is going to stumble when that same character shows understanding, becomes trustworthy, or suddenly wants to befriend everyone. However, if the author does a good job of showing the motivation behind the character’s change in behavior—in other words providing a character arc—the reaction will ring true. Without proper motivation, the change in behavior will confuse the reader and make it difficult for her to believe the story line.

When self-editing be sure to research areas of law, professional lingo and convention, the patterns of speech based upon a character’s background, and the characters’ motivations for their various reactions.

Happy editing.

Make-A-Story™ - Monday's Writing Prompt

Writing to spec – you’ve heard the term.  It means writing what the publisher wants.  Can you do it?  In our new feature - Make-A-Story™, we ask you to create a story with these elements.  The story can be set in any time frame, any length, must adhere to our guidelines and have our standard Christian world view.   

A glass of iced tea 
A magnolia blossom
A murder