Letting Life Lead
When I first started reading others work to critique, I panicked. The best I could offer was dialogue pointers and tentative suggestions on run-on sentences. I convinced myself that I had no skills and that my own writing wasn’t worthy of good beta because I couldn’t reciprocate quality.
Over the past year and a half, a supportive writer’s group popped up around me. I engaged more and took the chance to share my thoughts. I followed the advice I give my students: focus on what you can do, not on what you can’t do.
I am always learning how to give better critiques and adding new items to watch.
Here is a list of my top trouble makers. I seek these out for my flash fiction and short story Beta Buddies. I encourage hesitant new writers to bring what they can to the beta table. Everyone has something to offer.
Disclaimer: This post was not beta read, so is not the best it can be.
I scan for the prolific fur balls that plagued the Enterprise. In prose, they are words that state the obvious.
Notice the sounds that can be heard, and look at the things that need looking.
I search the story for the bold words above and ask if they are a plauge. In a flash fiction, where every word counts, they feast on precious word count. Writers can become blind to these basic beasts in re-reads. They take up space and don’t offer new information.
Ticking IS a sound.
Angela heard ticking.
The ticking disturbed Angela.
Tick-tock-twang. Angela put the hammer back under her pillow.
A clang is a sound that…uh…clangs.
The bell clanged.
A clang interrupted the third act.
This reads like a “thank you for thanking me for thanking you” situation.
The looking glass’s reflection wasn’t mine.
In the mirror truth stared back.
From the mirror, death regarded me.
I admit guilt. My prose used to be littered with -ings and I have to be diligent in not letting too many creep in. These are important because they drag along he passive voice verbs: “was” and “were”. If I see a lot of these passive possums, I let my beta buddy know even if it is possible they made a style choice.
A trick I learned in college to light them up is to “search and replace” -ing for ING or some other obnoxious capital sequence. A few words (sing, ring, king, etc) will suffer the treatment, but the offending words will make up the majority of replacements.
Once seen, a writer can decide to keep, discard, or rework.
The dog barked and howled all night, and we lost our collective minds.
The dog’s barking and howling drove us insane.
There and that are grubs getting fat on word count. I won’t point out every instance (there and that have uses), but if the story needs cutting I mention or make a suggestion. Consider the examples. In the first, I plucked the grubs. In the second, I replaced words that added nothing with atmosphere.
Once the story is on the page, weedy filler words can choke the prose. Instances of stating the obvious can become a play-by-play of minutiae. If the reader can infer, removing the words that provide no pertinent information won’t cause confusion. If the action requires description, fillers are useless. In a beta read, I comment when I see these doing nothing for context.
The reader can presume Mira has hands and can reach with them; well-working knobs turn.
Mira opened the door.
Mira’s slippery tentacles couldn’t turn the knob, so she rammed it open with her beak.
The reader can infer the action because chandeliers are usually on the ceiling.
Carlos touched the chandelier.
Carlos shoulders ached after dusting the two hundred chandelier crystals.
He said and she said can’t be eliminated completely, I know. However, in a short piece where every word counts and needs to carry a lot of weight, these tags can drag down the dialogue. Gosh, I love dialogue! Too may “saids” are equivalent to adding sugar packets to the Big Gulp from the 7/11. Replace these with actions wherever possible. As long as the reader understands who is speaking, they take up space. I’ve read stories where every line had a “said” and that was all I could see. That can translate to thirty-plus words the writer could use elsewhere.
The six tag words offer nothing in the way of atmosphere. Consider the edit:
My husband won’t play Boggle with me. He’s dyslexic and is in awe of my superpower over the Boggle cubes.
I can see word patterns in all stories, except mine! I am happy when beta readers point out when I have lost the balance and have peppered too many “he” or “she” in a row (either in the same sentence or crammed in a small paragraph). This also happens with proper names.
With a low word count, repetitions are caltrops that interfere with the story flow. From time to time, a repeat is deliberate. I’d rather err on pointing it out in case the writer didn’t intend to have a dozen consecutive sentences in a row start with “she”.
Once I had a beta reader comment, “Don’t be wishy-washy.” I soaked in a moment of indignation. Were not my prose beautiful and flowing? However, more than one reader pointed out similar stumbles, and I had to accept that I was a waffler. Since I’ve done it, now I can see it. I realized that waffling restricts the writing process.
Was she or wasn’t she dancing like a gazelle? It’s akin to being “sort of” pregnant.
What are your mad skillz that can make you a valuable (if novice) beta reader?
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