Seven Deadly Sins for Novel Writing Sin # VI

Sin #6: Dialogue Disaster

Pick up any work of fiction and flip through it. In fact, flip through several. How much of the novel is dialogue?

With the exception of a few genres or older works, I'm betting your estimate comes in around 40-50 percent. It might even come in higher if the book is aimed at younger readers. The presence of dialogue means SCENE, which means ACTION, not narrative. And anyone pounding out a novel knows that scene/action should make up the bulk of the book to adequately move the story along.

So, back to that estimate: 40-50 percent. That's a disaster in the making if your dialogue is weak. Let's look at some common pitfalls.

Repetition in Structure and Dialogue Tags.

Dialogue, followed by tag. Dialogue followed by tag. Watch for patterns like this during conversations and shake up the order if they go on ad-nauseum. Another common repeat is NOUN/PRONOUN + said (or vice-versa). Said tends to be invisible and should be used, but don't rule out the occasional use of a BEAT (see below) or tagless dialogue (provided it's clear who's speaking).

Tag Less Dialogue

Tagless dialogue can create the effect of a fast exchange, sometimes necessary in a scene. This technique should be used with caution--the reader should always be aware of who is speaking. If you try tagless dialogue with more than two people, you run the risk of confusing the reader and it should also only be used in bite-sided interchanges. Using the actual name in the dialogue as a way of showing the speaker should only be done with good reason.

Changing Up 'Said' Because The Writer Thinks It's Boring

Said is invisible to the reader and while it can seem repetitive, rotating through other said-isms (exclaimed, interjected, insisted, responded, retorted) is a bad idea. Sooner or later the reader picks up on these synonyms and it pulls them out of the story. NEVER LET THE READER NOTICE THE WRITING. If you must show the dialogue is being delivered in a specific way (yelled, pleaded, stuttered, whispered, etc) you can use a synonym occasionally. More below.

Modifying Said

Like drugs, just say no. If you feel the need to modify said with an adverb, chances are there's a better way to show it. She said quietly = she whispered. He said loudly = he yelled. There are a few times when a modifier is justified, but challenge yourself on finding a better way before using it, either through a specific said-ism or showing through a BEAT.

BEATS: Too Many, Too Few, Too Fluffy

Beats are tiny bits of action that work with the dialogue to show emotion, motivation, enhance the scene, or create rising tension. You can use them in place of a dialogue tag.

Mary slammed a plate onto the dirty counter. "What do you want for lunch?"

The use of 'slammed' tells us a bit about Mary--she's either angry at the person she's speaking to, or she's feeling harried and impatient. But change it to:

Mary placed a plate onto the dirty counter. "What do you want for lunch?"

Now we don't really know what she's feeling. 'Placed' doesn't provide any clues, so make sure your beats not only show the scene or the character, but imply a state of mind/emotion. Beats should always work hard to be in the dialogue, and be used in moderation. No beats can create a dull exchange. Too many slow the exchange to a crawl. Make each one count.

Info Dumps Disguised as Dialogue

Some writers attempt to avoid back story or massive info dumps by dressing it up as dialogue. Dialogue should absolutely convey information, but only as it applies to the current action and only in small amounts.

Dialogue should always move the scene forward. Characters should always have a valid reason for speaking--chit chat over the weather or clothing or so-and-so's new baby happen in real life and should not happen in books unless there is a strong motivating goal hidden behind it. Never dump a load of back story on the reader all at once--dialogue should be a natural exchange of ideas, not a speech. Never use dialogue to rehash what the readers and characters already know.

Weird Dialects, Broken English or Stiff Dialogue

Each character is different, and so their dialogue should have a different flow to it. This doesn't mean that all your characters should have outlandish dialects or slang every word to 'show' their personalities--not only can this mark you as an amateur when overused, it can be hard to read. Be subtle and show light differences in speech patterns and beat actions. The character's viewpoint and personality should come across by what they say. A person with a sarcastic outlook will say something completely different than one who generally sees the good in everything. Make sure your dialogue matches your character to avoid stiff or unrealistic-sounding dialogue.

Unlike the rest of the novel, dialogue should not always follow perfect sentence structure and grammar--it should sound very close to how we actually speak. In real life we drop words, speak in fragments. It's okay to use these as long as the end product sounds accurate for the character and it doesn't become distracting to read.

Dialogue requires practice to get right, but with such a large role in the average novel, it's absolutely necessary that we put as much effort into it as possible. :-)
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A MYSTERY Followers Contest!

When I saw we'd hit 400 FOLLOWERS today, I knew I had to do something special! So to celebrate, I thought I'd host a little contest...with a very unique prize.

The winner will not only get a first chapter critique...

...they will also choose my NEXT thesaurus collection.

It's almost time to retire the Colors, Textures and Shapes thesaurus collection and start a new descriptive thesaurus. I've been agonizing on which one to start next, trying to gauge which might be the most helpful to the average writer. I have many different collections to choose from, like really awesome X or innovative Y. Or maybe something neat-o like Z. Oh the choices!

I guess we'll have to wait and see what the winner picks, won't we? *winks*

So, the CONTEST!

Simply comment which thesaurus entry you've found the most helpful, or what type of description you struggle with the most. Or if you have an idea for a thesaurus you'd like to see someday, let me know that too!

Often I'll get email from Musers asking about different thesaurus ideas, and if they are ones I think I can make work, I add them to my master list. I'm always interested in hearing what will help writers most!

Entries: Followers (old and new) only please!

+ 1 Leave a comment about your fav entry
+ 1 Tweet this contest
+ 2 Blog this contest
+ 2 Link TBM to your awesome sidebar
+ 1 Facebook/Myspace this contest

So just comment, post your point tally with links and that's it!

The winner can send me a first chapter of their novel (all genres except Erotica) for inline critique, and I will send them a blurb for each of the Thesaurus Ideas I'm considering for the next collection.

Contest closes on Feb 10th. :-) Good luck everyone!

Setting Thesaurus Entry: Elevator


Metal doors, metal or faux panelled walls, sticky surfaces, smudges, fingerprints, gum wrappers, dirt, pea gravel on the floor, poster ads behind glass, a sanitizer dispenser, operation panel, buttons for the floors, opening and closing the door, a slot for a key, a bright red emergency button, florescent lighting, a handrail, a video camera, speakers in the roof or panel, an emergency intercom button, a false grate or metal slot roof, an emergency escape panel, names, initials, limericks, statements written in ink or scratched into the wall, paper shoved through the ceiling grate, rubber seal around the door, gap between floor and elevator, an eclectic mix of passengers, a digital read of the floor, people checking watches or cell phones for the time, people staring at the digital read and moving toward the front as it gets close to their floor


Metal rubbing against metal, squeals, squeaks, hydraulics pressing the doors shut, the crackle of the intercom, music from speakers, breaks squeezing the wires, the car shuddering and jerking as it slows, a metallic hum, people coughing, rustling clothing and jackets, people asking for a floor number button to be pressed, small talk, a bing as the floor is reached, people saying 'Excuse me' or apologising as people move to the side or make room


Wet & dirty mat or floor, too many perfumes/aftershaves/hair products mingling, dirty diaper smells from babies in strollers, cough drops, bad breath, hand sanitizer, body odors, cleaning products (if you're lucky), smokers who smell like stale cigarettes, take out food being delivered to a particular floor


Gum, candies, cough drops, pop, juice or water brought into the elevator (but really, I wouldn't recommend eating or drinking on the elevator!)


Pressing/jabbing a plastic button, shuffling to the walls to make room, holding breath or trying to make oneself small in a crowded elevator, clutching the metal handrail, trying to not touch the grimy walls, clasping hands in front of self, waiting, head craned up to watch the floor number display, smiling or nodding a hello to a fellow passenger you make eye contact with, bumping against the walls, rubbing shoulders with other passengers, being hyper aware of the distance between you and someone behind you, feeling someones breath on your neck from behind, holding your breath at a foul smell (pressure in chest), reaching out to halt a closing door, volunteering to help someone encumbered get in or out (strollers, elderly in wheelchairs, etc)by lifting/pushing/pulling

Helpful hints:

--The words you choose can convey atmosphere and mood.

Example 1:

'Stand by Your Man' drifted from the elevator speaker as I jabbed the button to take me to the lobby. Hell would freeze over before I set foot inside the Aritzia Suites again--the nerve of Donnie, promising he was done with the womanizing! I glared at my smudged reflection in the metal doors as the singer's loving twang stabbed at my eardrums. If the elevator didn't open in the next five seconds I'd rip that damn speaker right out the roof.

Example 2:

Emma clutched at the sticky metal handrail as the elevator lurched to a stop. The door opened and a smiling woman pushing a stroller came on. As the elevator continued toward the lobby, Emma shook her head at how the woman could coo and laugh with her baby, so at ease at being placed in a filthy, airless box that probably relied on a drunk repairman to function. Didn't she see this for the death trap it was?

--Similes and metaphors create strong imagery when used sparingly.

Example 1: (Simile)

The doors screeched as they opened at the third floor, and as an elderly man started through, began to jerk shut like a the metal jaws of a monster attempting to procure a leg or two for its midday meal.

Example 2: (Metaphor)

I rushed onto the empty elevator, gagged at the smell and hopped out again before the doors could shut. Five sets of stairs were preferable to a elevator that rivalled a truck stop washroom.

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Seven Deadly Sins for Novel Writing: Sin V

Sin # 5: Flat Wordsmithing

We've all heard the phrase, 'The writing is flat.' The question is, what does that really mean?

Flat writing is where the prose lies dead on the page. Descriptions, characters and stakes are conveyed in such a bland manner that the reader ceases to care. Either the writer lacks the confidence in their writing style to get their ideas across in a way that holds shape, or they need to work on their ability to bring that texture and balance into their manuscript. Flat wordsmithing can disguise itself in many forms, so this is something we all need to be on the lookout for.

Descriptive Woes

Description is the writer's most powerful tool in translating what they see in their head onto the page. Not only does it breathe life into settings, characters and emotions, it is one area where honing our skills IS A MUST. Flat description often happens when the writer doesn't strive hard enough to utilize the five senses.

Sensory feedback also comes to us in every breath, movement, sound, and taste. Why should writing be any less dimensional? Tastes, textures, sounds, smells...well anyone who uses this blog regularly knows my descriptive thesaurus collections are all about utilizing these senses in addition to sight. When describing, take advantage of the range of senses. The reward is a much more vivid experience for the reader.

Poor Word Choice

Repeat after me: THE THESAURUS IS YOUR FRIEND. Strong verbs. Accurate modifiers. Stay away from walking fast if you're really sprinting or lurching, don't drop a cup of juice when you can have it smash against the floor and spray yellow ropes of liquid across the cupboard.

Always strive to find the strongest, most apt words to describe...while remaining firmly seated in the narrator's range of knowledge and speech and true to your voice. In other words, if the POV character/narrator is a 10 year old girl living on a farm, she's not going to sound like a Harvard graduate when describing the world around her.

And while using that thesaurus, remember it needs to be used in moderation. One or two strong descriptors are better than a paragraph of purple prose.

Over Baked Ideas

Cliches. Well-worn descriptions. White as a bone? A rosebud smile? Breaking up with your BF under an umbrella in a rainstorm? Two words: RUN AWAY.

Often the first thing that comes to mind is a well-worn description or something that could border on the cliche. Don't feel bad about this! I doubt there's a writer out there who hasn't penned a cliche during the heat of the first draft. But anything worth doing is worth doing well, and that's what revision is all about. If you spot something that feels a little too familiar, stretch yourself into brainstorming a new way to get this description across to the reader.

Grammar, Punctuation, Style

I'd say probably 90% of writers have a passionate dislike for these three words. I think of them as a necessary evil, like taxes and politicians. A working knowledge of sentence structure, punctuation and grammar is important. Nothing stops a reader faster than poor wording, run on sentences or bad grammar. And spelling? We're all guilty of a missed typo now and again, but no manuscript should go without an affectionate rub down via Spell Check.

Some writers use the excuse that rules are 'made to be broken' to get out of the tedium of learning P & G. The concept of rule breaking is filled with debate--can we? Should we? Certainly. Done right, the writer can achieve great things. Done wrong, they look like a hack. Bottom line: know grammar and punctuation inside and out before attempting to break a rule and have a good reason for doing so.

To avoid flat writing, be aware of sentence structure. Sentences with little or no variation (all long and unwieldy, or too choppy) can ruin the experience for the reader. The good news on this one is, the more you practice, the more that variation becomes second nature. :)

Under-developed Ideas, Characters and General Vagueness.

Know the manuscript. If the writer doesn't know their characters very well or is a little hazy on what they are doing or feeling, it shows. If the writer tunes out during a passage of writing, you can bet the reader will too. Look for flat places during re-reads and spiff them up through development and better description.

Can you think of other ways the writing can appear flat?

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Happy Anniversary!

Hard to believe it's been two years since I started this blog with Becca Puglisi! I'm on my own now as you all know, and am continually overwhelmed to have so many insightful readers. I appreciate the time you spend here with me, and love all the comments. Your thoughts, opinions and experiences make this blog truly great!

This anniversary, I'd like to hear from you. Tell me if this blog is helping your writing in the way you need it to, and if there are ways to improve! Are there any specific topics you would like to see more of in between my thesaurus entry posts? Are you finding that the thesaurus posts continue to help?

As always, I love to hear your comments and ideas, so don't be shy! :-)

Now who wants some CAKE?

Setting Thesaurus Entry: Spaceport

(Content generously supplied by Liana Brooks)

A small note on sci-fi settings: There is no setting in fiction more fluid than the ones used for science fiction and fantasy worlds. While books based on real places must resemble the real place sci-fi and fantasy settings are limited only by the author’s imagination and the constraints of the cultures the author creates.

This thesaurus entry is a place to start. Is your setting clean and pristine? High tech? Low tech? Almost no tech? Is the universe peopled by more than just humans? Is there a war going on? All of these factors will change what you sense. What remains the same is a need for all the senses to be engaged. Travelers will always need to stop for the basic essentials (food, fuel, and gossip). Build your world around those needs.


concrete, steal, railings, pillars, light source, buttons, switches, cables, boxes, labels, wooden packing crates, sterile crates, plastic/metal crates, loading equipment, uniforms, ship’s patches/badges, flight information, customs, security monitors, currency exchange, boots, artificial plants, windows/false windows, glass, vents, clipboards, fire, fire extinguisher, weapons, hats, shops, food, pubs/taverns, trams/trains, brightly colored warning signs, speakers, security guards, chauffeurs, diplomats, repair work, blowtorch, welding equipment, replacement electronics, robots, conveyor belt, advertisements, TV/holo screen, suitcases/luggage, battle damage, handles on walls (for zero G), spilled fuel, metal shavings, fighting, shadows, trash, dirt, gleaming surfaces, mech-organic organism, aliens, living tissue walls, travelers (different races &/ life forms), crates, bright tags/hazard signs, vendors, litter, garbage receptacles, robotic loaders, screens displaying news/propaganda/advertisements, neon lighting, elevators & lifts, sparks, tools, welding, repair sites, flashing/rotating lights


people talking, announcements over a speaker system, cargo being moved, ships idling, ships taking off, sonic booms, footsteps on hard surfaces, ventilation system hissing/whining, native animal noises, coughing, metal scraping against metal or concrete, glass clinking, music, coins clinking, electronics chirping, paper rustling, waste disposal grinding, luggage dropping, cloth rubbing against cloth, throbbing of blood or fluid in a living port, The hiss of hydraulics, hawkers calling out, boots clumping down metal stairs, tools dropping with a clang


diesel, frying grease, burnt ozone, fresh air, recycled air, body odors, methane, dust, mildew, bleach, disinfectants, perfume, acid-sharp smell of hot metal, mud, decay, flowers, smoke, drugs, alcohol, oil, grease, machinery lubricants


copper, tin, dust, dry, soap, grease, salt, local food, imitation food from other places, sour, lemon, tang of 'canned' air… Um, the writer suggests that you not lick the walls, just to be on the safe side.


air on skin, humidity, breeze, smooth metal surface, pocked surface from damage, cloth against skin, gravity pulling you down, weightless/light, bones grinding/organs grinding, cold machine controls, gloves, rain, snow, hard, firm, bouncy, pliant, pillow-like ground surface, grit, lifting luggage, cargo, boxes, pressing buttons on a keypad, rifling through papers for officials, stretching or rolling shoulders after a long journey, head twisting/tilting/jerking about to keep up with the new sights and sounds, using a handrail to step down from a vessel, feeling floor vibrations through boots, ducking to pass beneath a low overhang, brushing against others, jerking back or to the side to avoid contact with a species that is distasteful to the eye, weaving past pallets of cargo or huddled groups, pulling on ropes/chains, wires to make sure cargo is secure, wandering through crowds (bumping, jostling, pressing), head craned up, rubbing at back of the neck while scanning content on monitors/displays

Helpful hints:

--The words you choose can convey atmosphere and mood.

Example 1:

I shuffled up a spot, that much closer to the security wicket. My bones twitched and jumped inside my skin, more than just a side effect of the Levian in my bloodstream. As two armed men swept their wands over a merchant on leave, I considered how much attention it would draw if I left the queue now. Sure, Drew had promised my levels were low enough to not set off contraband sensors, but then my cousin was busted up on Red E half the time, so who knew how many brains cells he'd melted? Besides, he sent me rather than come himself, hadn't he?

Example 2:

Ena kept her face carefully schooled as the glass air lock whooshed open and a middle-aged male Omnoid walked in. It was just her luck that the new hire had left on break, leaving her no option but to service the client. She pasted on a fake smile and directed him to a table. Of all the races needing a masseuse after a long jump, Omnoids were the worst with their slimy, weeping skin and loose bones. It was like massaging an egg that had broken in the pan.

--Similes and metaphors create strong imagery when used sparingly.

Example 1: (Simile)

Pam stared out the viewer just past the sani-station, pressing her hands against the cool glass. The metta system was one of her favorites, with its gas belts and condensed stars shimmering against the black velvet sky. It was like being alone in an adornment gallery, free to bask in the beauty of precious gemstones and metals without clerks harrumphing over her worn boots and ill-fitting clothing, watching to make sure she didn't steal something.

Example 2: (Metaphor)

Newly promoted to the Lower Union fleet, Captain Relic strutted along the crumbling tarmac wearing his new colors, a rooster surveying his domain.

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Texture Thesaurus Entry: Crackled


Walnut shell
Papery or scaly skin
Dried mud puddles/riverbeds
Disintegrating leaves
Dried mushrooms
Canyon fissure
Earthquake fissures
Fault lines
Eye blood vessels
Palm lines
Veins on a leaf


Burnt timber (charcoal)
Manufactured electricity
Static electricity
Old, peeling paint
Antiqued paint technique
Mummified remains
Brownie/cake tops
Gingersnap cookies
Worn leather
Varicose veins
Crackled hand blown glass
Bone fractures
Old china
Cement floors
Damaged windshields
Antique oil paintings


fissure, crackle, splintered, fracture,

Describing texture in a story creates intimacy between reader and character, and can even cause an emotional trigger for both. To anchor the reader in the scene, make sure comparisons and contrasts are clear and relatable, and within the scope of the narrator's life knowledge and experience.

A weak example:

Great Aunt Edna always had a hard look to her, but thirty years of feuding with her two sisters had done her no favors. Her skin had the appearance of well-worn leather and deep frown lines cut at her cheeks and lips.

What's wrong with this example?

Two things to note here: a bland description and also somewhat overused. Think about it--how many times have you read a comparison between skin and leather? If you can, try to stay away from it and don't be afraid to get a little creative.

A strong example:

Great Aunt Edna always had a hard look to her, but thirty years of feuding with her two sisters had done her no favors. Her scaly, sallow skin had bagged into craters beneath her eyes and the frown marks cutting into her cheeks and lips had become full blown fault lines.

Why does this example work?

This one gets across the skin texture and unkind aging but does so in a fresher way.

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The Seven Deadly Sins for Novel Writing Part IV

Sin# 4: Plot Snafus

Your plot is the meat and direction of the novel. Even the most compelling characters lie flat on the page without something to do. For some, plotting comes as natural as breathing, and for others it seems like a mountainous task. Either way, plotting correctly is easier said than done. Here are some of the potential landmines waiting in the plotting department:

--Plot Holes

Logic, logic, logic. If there is one rule we must understand as writers, it is the art of following logic. Noticeable inconsistencies in the plot are gaping holes of doom to the novel.

Plot holes happen in different ways. A character can act illogically. A storyline can proceed in an unnatural way with no foreshadowing or set up. Key information or critical factors to the success or failure of the storyline are ignored. A plot hole is a missing piece of the puzzle that the reader can and does notice, and they will not love you for it.

Before you pronounce a book complete and send it out into the big bad world of publishing, read the book specifically for places where the logic doesn't add up, characters' choices and actions don't ring true or the obstacles and goals aren't realistic. This is where a critique group can really be a help, providing the critical eye and distance from the work that an author cannot always achieve on their own.

--Too many subplots

Poignant subplots add layers to the story and characters, but too many can ruin a plot. If readers have to work hard at keeping the characters and their story lines straight, there's too much going on. Maybe characters are vying for importance (sin # 3) or maybe the writer has so many great ideas they can't decide which subplots to include. The answer is not to include them all, but rather to be ruthless and judge each on its ability to enhance or contrast the MC's plight in the main plot. Never let the subplots cannibalize the plot or over-complicate the novel. If you suspect you have too much going on, narrow the focus and cut, cut, cut.

--Too few subplots

On the other side of the page is a book with little or no subplots to tug the reader in deeper. Subplots are a great way to add depth to the storyline and the characters, add complication to the main plot and also provide other needs/goals for the readers to root for as the book angles toward the climax and resolution.

Think of a book as a journey by boat down river. If the main plot line is working alone, the journey downstream will be swift and somewhat linear. The scope of experience is the rocking motion of the boat, the sky overhead and sightings of local flora and fauna from the railing. But if the boat pulls into the eddies once in a while to allow travellers to get off, pull off their socks to stroll along the banks and along pebbled beaches, the experience becomes textured and so much richer.

--Saggy middles

Middles are the bane of many writers. This is the time where the hero is tested, and then tested again. They struggle, they may fail, but they must rise again and ultimately emerge with the tools and confidence they need to take on the climax. Often middles sag because the writer is so busy showing the inner journey of the MC they forget that the outer journey must always SHOW STRONG FORWARD MOVEMENT.

Pacing can also suffer because the writer is repetitive in their tests and obstacles. A sharp eye is needed to keep the pacing on track. Conflict is they key to successful middles, and each test must add to the character's knowledge, experience and dedication to the task ahead. With middles, less is more. Make every scene earn the right to be part of your plot. If one doesn't work hard enough, pull out the chainsaw.


Every writer should be very wary of this flaw, because it is directly tied to the reader's Suspension of Disbelief. SoD is the reader's decision to put aside disbelief and accept the novel's premise as being REAL until the book ends. The danger lies in the fact that the reader's SoD can only be pushed so far, and once they are carried over the line into disbelief, THERE IS NO RECOVERY. Worse, they may be so upset that they will not pick up another book by the author. Understanding SoD can not only save your can save an author's career.

Coincidences should be avoided whenever possible.
Rarely do they need to be included in order for the writer to gather all the right elements to bring on the solution or resolution. Pay close attention to that word: RARELY. Strive to avoid coincidences, but if you must include one, make it small and seemingly insignificant. That's the only way to fly under the radar.

Sometimes writers use coincidences as a method of letting their hero catch a break. Again, make it small. If the hero goes to some one's place of business because they need something imperative from them and actually find them at work--that's catching a break. But when the Hero is vacationing half way across the world from his small town in Kansas and in walks his neighbor who just happens to be vacationing at the same time, at the same place, and happens to choose the same dive bar to have a drink at? Never in a million years will the reader believe this was 'happenstance.'

--Dropped Plot Lines

Loose ends are never good in a novel. If you feel a sub plot is important enough to earn a place in your book, see it through to the end. Dropped subplots leave your reader in limbo, wondering whatever happened to so and so, and did he ever find out about x? It is possible for a subplot to reach a milestone but not be fully resolved, but only if the book is being billed as one out of a series, and only if it still fulfills its role correctly in the current book.

Plotting snafus take time and energy to solve, but a compelling plot line is pure gold and worth striving for. Can you think of other snafus to be wary of?

Setting Thesaurus Entry: Shopping Mall


Crowds, bright store signs, sale signs, glass doors/windows, clothing racks, shelves, displays, washrooms, food courts, benches, garbage cans, specialty item kiosks, shopping bags, store logos, tile floors, plants, escalators, stairs, cash machines, sales staff, customers, people sipping from coffee/specialty drink cups (slushes, ice cappuccinos, etc), baby strollers, mall strollers, shopping carts, elevator, stores for: Clothing, housewares, cigar shops, knife shops, coffee houses, restaurants, bedroom stores, purse/luggage shops, electronic stores, music stores, gaming stores, toy stores, travel centers, jewelry stores, health food stores, maternity stores, baby stores, decorative/niche stores, art galleries, parking lots, lines, change rooms, neon signs, free sample giveaways, product demos, sculptures and artwork, exit signs, double door exits, security personnel, information desk, lounge areas with comfortable chairs, banks, bright lighting, skylights, railings, receipts dropped on the floor, staff changing out garbage, water fountains, open areas set up with charity raffles for cars, trips or excursions, teens sitting and texting, people walking and talking on their cells, kids dragging parents into stores and toward displays, kids coin machines (gumballs, small cheap toys in plastic bubbles, costume jewelry, tattoos, etc)


Boots and shoes on tile, people talking, laughing, eching/mish-mashed crowd voices, people calling out to others, cell phones ringing, cash registers printing off receipts, the crackle of a security radio, plastic bags crinkling, zippers on purses & jackets being unzipped/zipped, slurping from straws, kids asking questions/whining/pointing things out to parents, store music, air conditioning, store security wickets going off, customer announcements in stores regarding specials, cashiers calling for a manager over the store speakers, scanners picking up the bar code in bleeps, the click and clack of hangers rubbing against each other, the swoosh of fabric, the crinkle of shrink wrapped boxes


Food from the food court (meat grilling, grease, fresh bread products (yeasty, buttery), cinnamon, salt, spicy foods, BBQ, hot dogs, burgers), bad breath, body odor, perfume, hair spray and products, strong perfumes/body sprays from beauty product counters, popcorn, fabric, paper, cleaning supplies, coffee, wet shoes/boots during poor weather, air fresheners, air conditioning,


water, coffee, pop, mints, gum, the acrid tang of AC, food from the food court (see above), snack food bought at stores (cookies, candy, chocolate, camels, chips, ice cream), cough drops, tobacco chew, dust, dry mouth from dry air


Stepping onto an escalator, pushing past/brushing by other shoppers, leaning against shopping counters, digging through purse for cash or credit cards, digging in pocket for wallet, cup coins in palm and sort through for correct change, the feel of a cool smoothing drink in the hand, sucking on a straw, the drag of heavy shopping bags cutting at palms, shopping bags bumping against legs, digging for a cell phone when it goes off, holding a cell out to text, waving at a friend, angling across the crowd to reach a shop, sliding a receipt into the purse or pocket, sitting on hard food court chairs, pulling clothes on and off to try something on, straightening clothing and hair after trying on clothes, putting hand on a railing, climbing time steps, blowing on hot coffee or food, touching knees with friends you're sharing a table small with, craning neck up for signs or to look up on the next floor up, feet hot in boots/shoes from walking, arms heavy, sorting through hangers on a rack, holding up an outfit to self and looking in the mirror, tapping a glass showcase with a fingernail, pointing at a fast food menu item on the wall, pushing a shopping cart, holding onto a child's sweaty hand, flipping through CD covers in a music shop, flipping through fliers, checking price tags for price and size, reading the description on a package, checking watch for the time, rubbing at eyes while sitting and waiting for a shopper, wanting to go home

Helpful hints:

--The words you choose can convey atmosphere and mood.

Example 1:

Fred sat on the bench outside of Benita's Fine Clothing waiting for his wife, his arms heavy and his chin dipping toward his chest. He didn't know what he feared worse--the Visa bill, or that he'd be stuck in this hell-spawned mall until closing.

Example 2:

Marcy hopped on the escalator and rode up to the second level to the HMV store. The air practically buzzed with excitement as early shoppers hustled to snap up the best Boxing day deals, fragrant cups of coffee in hand to give them a much needed caffeine boost. She tapped the pocket on her jeans, making sure her 100 dollar gift card was still in place.

--Similes and metaphors create strong imagery when used sparingly.

Example 1: (Simile)

Middle age men rushed into the Sony store and their boxing day sale like football players running for the touchdown.

Example 2: (Metaphor)

I admired the cashier's composure when her super sized customer held up a glittery yellow bikini set and demanded to know why the store didn't carry it in her size. One of those photo shopped pictures of a hippo wearing a g-string came to mind and I had to excuse myself from the line up.

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Color Thesaurus Entry: Spotted

Real World Comparisons:


Butterfly wings
Spotted owl
Deer faun
Spotted Salamander
Rash (measles, chicken pox)
lily pads on a pond
Rot on a banana or mango
Gold dust plant
Diaper rash
Pollen on flower petals
Age spotted skin
Brown Trout
Dragon fruit
Duck weed
Cowbird egg
Dew on a leaf
Leaf blight
Pig skin
Stargazer lily

Man Made:

Polka dots on fabric
Chocolate chip cookies
poppy seed cake
Blueberry muffins
Rust blooms
Water spots on tables
Blood splatter
Medical electrode tape on skin
Lighted disco ball
Rain on a car hood
Oil stains on a driveway
Pot holes on a road

Synonyms of Spotted:

polka dot, rash, pimply, dots, dotted, freckled, seeded, mark, stipple, pip

Make every detail count

Colors are powerful descriptors, not fillers. Make sure that if you use a comparison or contrast to highlight a color, you choose the right one. Look at the setting and atmosphere you are working to create, then draw from the viewpoint character or narrator's history, education and past experiences to find the right fit.

A poor example:

Once the snow melted, Dan finally got his first look at the backyard of his new home. He shook his head; Mary had been right--they should have never bought a place belonging to dog breeders. The grass was more spotted than an overripe banana.

What's wrong with this example?

It's a little weak: banana small, yard big. Also, by the description I don't know if it's spotted by holes dug by dogs, or those scabby-looking pee marks all over the grass. We need something that sends a good, concrete image leaving no doubt.

A strong example:

Once the snow melted, Dan finally got his first look at the backyard of his new home. He shook his head; Mary had been right--they should have never bought a place belonging to dog breeders. The yard had more holes than a country road.

Why is this example better?

This one's more comparable in size and paints a pretty disheartening picture.

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The Seven Deadly Sins of Novel Writing Part III

Sin # 3: Missing the Mark on Voice & POV

Voice is one of the most elusive aspects of writing. If you struggle with it, you are not alone. Just understanding what it is can be a challenge. When a writer speaks of voice, do they mean the way a character talks, the way the MC comes across to the reader or something deeper, something that infuses the story from beginning to end?

To me Voice can be summed up in a single word: authenticity. Voice is when the writer blends their unique writing style with their intimate character knowledge and viewpoint to elevate story telling into an actual, moving experience for the reader. Voice is the song of the story, the heartbeat of the main character. It is nothing short of magic.

A strong voice is the writer's devotion coming through. Their portrayal of the POV character entrances the reader--every word, every description, every thought and action of the MC rings true. Real. Authentic.

The focal point of Voice centers on the POV character. This authenticity and realism transforms the main character into someone the reader believes in, cares about and roots for. A connection is forged that cannot be broken because to the reader, the character and his plight feels real.

Missing the mark with Voice creates a 'watered down' effect where the MC's essence isn't captured as completely. A weak voice is dangerous, because the reader will not be emotionally invested as they read...if they even choose to read on. Several things can contribute to a weak voice.

The writer doesn't know the character well enough

This is the difference between asking, "What would someone do in this situation?" and "What would my main character do in this situation?" The MC is not just anyone--they are unique. Their footprint alone must be placed in every action and decision. If the writer doesn't know the character well enough, the reader will not believe in the character's choices and actions, or be bored by the MC's 'generic' feel and predictability. KNOW YOUR CHARACTER AS WELL AS YOU KNOW YOURSELF.

The writer has doubts about their ability to tell the story

As writers, doubt can be difficult to banish. We tend to analyze our skills and abilities constantly. After all, this is a business where being told, 'Sorry, this isn't what we want' happens all to frequently. Rejection often leads to self doubt and reevaluation. It's the nature of what we do.

However, doubt must never enter the picture when writing a novel. Pushing away negatives may be hard, but it must be done to achieve the authority needed to bring that compelling voice into play. The core belief that this story is ours because we know the characters inside and out is imperative for a successful voice. We then prove it by writing a story that comes alive for the reader. If the writer doesn't believe, the voice will suffer as a result.

The writer is not 'all in'

Writing is all about pushing the envelope. How far can we push our characters, how far can we push the reader? There is a fine line between completely captivating the reader and forcing disbelief by going too far. We cannot be afraid to walk this line. If the writer holds back, the voice is dulled by hesitation.

Making choices based on how a novel might be received, pulling punches to soften a scene or 'save' the character, pushing the writer's agenda to preach (yes, sin #2)--all of these sabotage the story and weaken the voice. Don't be too risk-adverse. Commit and give it everything you've got.

Poorly chosen POV

POV is closely tied to the Writer's Authenticity. After all, the POV chosen will have a huge impact on how the story is received by readers. Done right, it proves that the writer has nailed the story telling. The wrong POV changes the focus and delivery, and not for the better. POV hurdles often come in three forms:

-The POV chosen does not do the story justice

Sometimes the choice of POV for the story doesn't paint the picture as well as it should. Each POV will change the perspective being offered, so choosing the right one for the story is important. First Person puts the reader right into the character's head, but they are limited to personal knowledge only. Omniscient POV tells us everything, but requires a deft hand to wield or character transitions end up as drunken head-hopping. Third Person can sometimes create a good in-between, but is that enough? Bottom line--consider all aspects of the story and decide which POV (and which character) can deliver the most gripping account.

--POV is shared between characters because the writer can't decide who's story it is

Sometimes the writer falls in love with their characters to the point where they cannot bear to leave anyone's story untold. The result is often muddled plot lines and the reader feeling unsure about who to care about most. *Note, this is different from intentional POV sharing in order to provide a cohesive tale of multiple characters.*

If the writer doesn't know who's story it is, how will the reader? Frustration will ensue and the writer will be lucky to retain the reader's interest. TAKE THE TIME TO KNOW THE STORY. If the story line is nailed down, deciding who's POV to concentrate on is easy, because one character and one plot line naturally stands out as the strongest. Be ruthless to the other characters. Not everyone can sit in the driver's seat.

--The writer is inexperienced in the chosen POV

Some POVs are harder to master than others. Omni or First person are often viewed as the most difficult to get right and unfortunately inexperience shows. Sometime a writer is better of sticking to what they know. But what if they feel the story's power will be diluted if told through any other POV?

In that case, Practice, practice, practice. Read widely in the POV, and find good critique partners. Other writers who can offer honesty and mentorship will help the writer learn the POV inside and out! Time and energy put into developing our craft always pays off.

What are your thoughts on the importance of POV & Voice? Can you think of other ways where improper handling causes power to be leeched from the story and lead character?

Photo courtesy of theparadigmshifter

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