Filler Words, Grammar Nerds and Fun with Line Edits

(This article also appears on the QueryTracker Blog this week)
As the saying goes, I don’t necessarily like writing as much as I like having written something. The editing phase should be easier, right? After all, you’ve just written a whole book. You dreamed up characters, gave them dialogue, threw in some plot twists and probably did it all while holding down a full-time job. So editing, in theory, sounds less time consuming, maybe a bit tedious, but not hard.

Au Contraire. Exit out of your spell checker and come sit a spell. Let’s talk editing strategies. I like to think of editing as sort of a food pyramid (before USDA went to the whole My Plate thing, which I don’t get). At the bottom of the pyramid are these basics:

Start with spelling and punctation. Have handy your CMS or whatever style manual you use. Don’t trust your computer. The programs can be wrong, and they definitely won’t fix your homophones. So if you typed “brake” instead of “break,” you will have to catch it by hand. Other things to look for on this level of editing include getting your capitalizations and commas correct in your dialogue. While you’re already looking at your dialogue, scan the dialogue tags to make sure you haven’t used overwrought phrasing like “terrifyingly shrieked” when a simple “yelled” will do. “Said” is always a safe bet because characters can’t shrug or snort words.

Moving up the pyramid are high-end items, such as, is high-end hyphenated? Is it anyone or anybody? Is that participle dangling? Now is the time to weed out phrasing like “Barreling into the room, I thought he looked like a tiger ready to pounce,” when what you mean to say is that he was barreling into the room, not you. This is the time to look for one of my downfalls: the “flying eyes.” I can’t stop writing characters whose eyes fly open, or dart around the room, which obviously, they can’t do.

Next stop on your way to the top is elimination of filler words. Your Find and Replace function will assist you weeding out useless words like just, then, about, almost. Make your own list of filler words, and words or phrases you tend to overuse. For me, my characters roll their eyes and shrug constantly. By using find and replace, I can either substitute a different gesture or delete it entirely. Look for other useless phrases like, “I could see.” We know you could see it because you’re telling us. Just saw “I saw” or better yet, just describe what is being seen. As the earlier QT blog on adverbs mentioned, searching for “ly” words will help you weed out excessive adverbs.

Scan the page for repeated names and words. If your main character is “Joe,” it stands to reason his name will appear often. But have you started nine paragraphs in a row with his name? Did you use the same word multiple times in a single paragraph? Here is where you fix it. Despite my best efforts at writing the best first draft I can, I still find words repeated in close proximity to each other. That’s why it’s a draft.

Watch those gerunds. This is another of my first draft frequent offenders. I often have draft sentences such as “Raising her glass, she thought of her absent friends.” These predicating “ing” clauses make editors twitchy and, when oft repeated, really make your writing come across as uninspired and amateurish. Find and Replace is your friend here. The sentences can easily be polished and tweaked.

Now were are getting past the nuts and buts and into content. Here is where you make sure you haven’t gone from Tuesday to Wednesday and then back to Monday over the course of a few chapters, or called a character Kate and then called her Karen. If a character had a beloved pet in chapter one, did it disappear for the rest of the book?

Themes, plot, and clues and backstory. If revenge is the driving force of your story, it should be woven in throughout the story. If your villain is revealed at the end to be a master counterfeiter, is there some small hint of this earlier or did you just drop it in, deus ex machine? Is your backstory spewed out in a multipage information dump, and if so, can you take bits and pieces and spread it out with a mixture of dialogue, flashbacks, action, and narrative? Is there a massive plot hole about how a character could possibly have known a piece of information? Do characters disappear for large chunks of time and then re appear for no apparent reason, or worse, never get mentioned again?

Next up: How is your pacing? Do your action or high conflict chapters pack a punch, only to be followed by pages of mundane dialogue and no conflict? Identify where your story sags and be merciless cutting out the parts that don’t work. Conflict should be present on every page, even if it’s internal.

Voice. Ah, Voice. What do agents and editors mean when they say, “Voice”? My take is that it is the narrator’s unique way of telling the story. John D. McDonald’s Travis McGee had a bohemian philosopher’s way of describing his adventures. Holden Caulfield practically leaps off the page with his disdain for phonies. Ginny in A Thousand Acres is both resigned and defiant. Whatever your storytelling style is, keep it consistent. Darkly funny is great. Don’t let your edits turn your darkly funny story into a faux literary tome.

Finally, time to fire up the printer. I really recommend doing this instead of relying on your computer because a book in hand is a different reading experience. You can read it all and make casual notes, or comb through it with a ruler, or both. But having the printed word in hand should reveal only minor issues, since you’ve already eliminated plot, pacing, and grammar issues.

I now use the Chicago Manual of Style, Merriam Webster Dictionary, and occasionally Strunk and White when I do this pyramid editing. Don’t hold me to editorial perfection on this blog because I am dashing it out at the last minute (sorry, Patrick) and it’s likely got a few errors. Keep in mind that this article is geared toward those who are doing their own editing and not relying on a content or copy editor. Getting your manuscript in the best shape possible will help set you apart from the crowd.

And mind those gerunds.

The Great Unknown: Trying a Different Genre

Under my Kim English moniker, I write family friendly, totally PG books for kids and teens. In real life, I am a devotee of all books spooky and creepy and will never turn down an opportunity for a dark thriller. While my offbeat thriller for adults (under a different pen name TBA) continues its slog through the submission process (shout out to my fabulous agent Gina Panettieri) I’ve also started dabbling in short stories, and in particular, horror/noir.

It’s s strange sensation to leave your writing comfort zone and hone a whole different skill set. Maybe it’s a mistake to try different genres, and I’ve read many people, much more experienced and qualified than me, who caution against cross-genre writing, especially as an unestablished author. I understand the notion that it’s a good idea to master one genre before tackling seven different ones, and I accept that a certain amount of branding goes into marketing your name with your genre. But unless I’m setting the publishing world on fire in kid lit (spoiler alert: I’m not), then who is going to gripe if I write a few short stories that are meant to keep you up at night, double checking the locks?

To that end, I posted my first horror short story on Wattpad (my user name is KimQuill). “The Dread” made a few long lists and a couple of short lists, but ultimately didn’t find a home, so I gave it one. I found that writing short stories (in any genre) has helped me improve my overall writing tremendously.  I’m also outlining the third and last book in the Coriander Jones series, will be putting out another picture book in a couple of months, and, depending on how submission goes, I see some thrillers in the future, maybe even a cozy. Oh, did I mention that steampunk novel that I am dying to start?

Maybe it’s just a bit of attention deficit (SQUIRREL!)  but for me, life is too short to forgo the enjoyment of learning something new. Unless I become the next big thing in a genre, I’m not going to sweat dabbling a bit and dreaming a lot about what I might try next. The best thing about writing is that you can sit down and make up whatever you want. If people like it, great. If you get paid for it, even better.

The cover for “The Dread”  is below. Pop over to Wattpad if you have an account (and you should- there is some great stuff) and let me know what you think. Have a great weekend, everyone!dread!


Monday Musings

Kayla2016 has been an eventful year thus far. I was so honored that A Home for Kayla won best picture book at the Next Generation Indie Book Awards. Hurray for mutts! This little labor of love has yet to reap great financial success, but what it does earn is going straight to one of my local animal shelters. The illustrator, Yis Vang, and I are also collaborating on a new animal-themed picture called Rolly and Mac, which we will be releasing later this year. As with Kayla, Rolly and Mac focuses on friendship. In it, a puppy and a kitten deal with the disapproval of the other farm animals, who think that a dog and a cat are too different to be friends. Fortunately, owl is the wisest animal on the farm and comes to the rescue.

Speaking of Kayla, the real Kayla is doing remarkably well despite her age and health issues and is longing to chase the new goats around. These newest fur buddies, Wyatt and Virgil, are simply too cute for words. I never thought it was possible to have a lap goat, but I’m here to tell you, it is. These little guys snuggle like a cat and play like a dog.  I see a goat-themed picture book on the horizon.

In other news, my adult thriller is on submission with my fabulous agent, Gina Panettieri, who is also looking for a new home for the Coriander Jones series. The second installment of CJ  is polished and ready to go and I can’t wait to have it out in the world. I learned so much since writing the first book in 2012 and I hope it shows. Whoever coined the term “submission hell” hit the nail on the head. Querying is nothing next to waiting for submission news. Next on the writing agenda is either another Florida-based thriller, my long-neglected steampunk manuscript, or finally finishing my offbeat YA zombie novel. Decisions, decisions…

On my entertainment agenda, Finding Dory is a must-see and the last installment in Stephen King’s Mr. Mercedes series is a must-read. If anyone has suggestions for a good, long-plane-ride type book, let me know.

To start off your week on a happy note, I’ve included a picture of Kayla with her #indiebookawards medal.


In Which I Finally Get Around to Reading “Weetzie Bat”

When I first started querying Coriander Jones in 2012-13, one agent’s submission preferences referenced her love for Weetzie Bat. I admit I hadn’t heard of it, but I put it on my to-read list, where it stayed until recently. I was intrigued by the setting, Los Angeles, and its reputation as a ground-breaking YA book that embraced magic and allegory.

Weetzie, along with her Secret Agent Lover Man, her best friend and his partner, make their own version of family in a Los Angeles that is half in the present and half in the soiled glory of its ritzy past. Having lived in LA in the late eighties, I can see it as a sort of tear-stained love letter to a city that was probably never as grand as people imagined it was during the golden era of Hollywood. Weetzie starts off the book in high school, but after a few scant pages, that locale is never mentioned again. If you like linear story-telling with internal logic, then this is not the book for you.

There is a lot to admire in Weetzie– The writing flows along dreamily as if the characters are having a lucid dream. Some events are constructed on the flimsiest sort of pretense (a magic genie provide Weetzie with just what the “plot” requires, Weetzie decides to become a mother by sleeping with both her friend and her friend’s lover) not to mention the suspension of disbelief about how the lot are even able to buy food. But that misses the point, because the mundane aspects of life (going to school, getting a job, paying bills) are not at all what the book is concerned about.

This is not to say that the magical realism totally overshadows the characters’ genuineness. Weetzie has her first real and true heartbreak when her father dies. The  AIDS epidemic (not mentioned by name) hits close to home. In the play within the play, where Weetzie is starring in a movie and can’t figure out how to end the story, her character decides that it is only by dying in the real world that she can wake up in the perfect fantasy world that she wants to live in. Although Weetzie herself doesn’t go the suicide route, I guess the takeaway is that you have to assume these characters only exist in a dreamlike state where all things are possible, where babies show up on doorsteps and no one questions it, and where someone tosses Burt Reynold’s toupee out of a limo window so that it can used to adorn a rubber chicken.

I’m guessing that there was not a whole lot like Weetzie Bat in bookstores  when it first came out. It had to have been mind blowing and I wish I had read it when I was closer to Weetzie’s age and closer to my years living in LA. For someone who came of age reading “edgy” contemporary YA by Norma Klein, or other books by SE Hinton or Judy Blume,  I can only appreciate Weetzie Bat from a distance. From my perch as a fifty-year old, still working on the writing craft, and parenting a teenager, it’s more of a specimen to me than something I will treasure having read.

If you’ve read it did you love it? Hate it? Wonder what the heck you were looking at? I’m interested in your thoughts.

Rediscovering John D. MacDonald

Recently I added “A Purple Place for Dying,” by John D. MacDonald to my kindle queue. One of several books featuring iconic Florida detective Travis McGee, I originally bought it as a pleasant diversion for a long plane ride, you know, the kind of pulpy crime novel that you read and then instantly forget about. I hadn’t read a McDonald novel in decades and had quite forgotten that he was far more than a grinder of pulp fiction.

In the novel, Travis is out west on a potential job when his would-be employer is shot and killed in front of him. This character appears only on a scant four or five pages, but consider his description:

I read female characters from sterns. Hers was hefty, shapely rich and  unapproachable. This one, I decided, would consider any gift of her favors a truly earth-shattering event, to be signaled by rare wine, incense and silk sheets. And she had the look of almost being able to live up to her own billing.

Lest you think McDonald’s narrative is limited to cops and femme fatale types, consider his description of college students that Travis observes as they scurry to and from their classes, noticing, but uninterested in, a middle-aged beach bum who is on campus following up on a lead.

The kids hustled to their ten-o’clocks, little and young, intent on their obscure purposes…They were in the vivid tug and flex of life, and we were faded pictures of the corridor walls-drab, ended and slightly spooky.

And the final blow, in which Travis imagines how life will eventually turn out for the young, unsuspecting coeds.

They were being structured to life on the run, and by the time they would become what is now known as senior citizens, they could fit nicely into planned communities where recreation is scheduled on such a tight and competitive basis that they could continue to run, plan, organize, until, falling at last into silence, the grief-therapist would gather them in, rosy their cheeks, close the box and lower them to the only rest they had ever known.

Mind you, at its core,  this is a crime novel, the type of popular fiction that is all too often derided as unsophisticated fodder for the masses. But I’ve read a lot of prize winning literary fiction that can’t hold a candle to the voice in this book.  I was struck by how well the story and characters hold up in today, where someone with a cell phone and Facebook could have probably untangled the complex family dynamics at the heart of the story.  Yes, there are outdated bits, and as far as some of the women characters, well, we’ve come a long way baby. But the writing is so good, Travis McGee so compelling a hero, that the reader can settle in as if it’s still 1964 and enjoy the ride.

My apologies for overlooking you for so long, Mr. MacDonald, who was also a Floridian, albeit a transplant. You will have a permanent place on my actual bookshelf from now on.


The Long and Winding Road to Publication and Back

In the summer of 2012, I packed off my daughter for her first summer camp- an entire month away from home at a traditional summer camp where the kids went on canoe trips, swam in the lake every day and participated in the annual “color war.” During the time she was away, I resolved to finally write that book I’d been talking about for years. Over the course of my life, I’d resolved at different times to write a book. Sometimes I aimed for a straight up thriller, or sometimes a horror tale, but that particular summer, I resolved to write a book for kids. Specifically, I wanted to write a book about kids away at summer camp who have to save the world. And not cotillion kids, or kids at boarding school, or chosen ones- I wanted to write about kids who lived in a trailer park, who didn’t have iPhones and who used the public library for internet.  My goal was to write a book my daughter would enjoy, and heck, maybe I could even get it published.

Three months later I had Coriander Jones Saves the World.  Actually, I had a first draft of CJ but little did I realize the importance of putting the book away and then coming back for multiple rounds of edits. By then, my compulsive nature had lead me to many hours of researching publishing, agents, and how to query. Even with all that information, I still managed to make every rookie mistake the good folks at QueryTracker warn us about.  If only I had discovered the forum sooner!

Genre? Who really cares if it’s MG or YA? Um, everyone. Fantasy? Adventure? Magical realism? What’s the difference? Lots, as it turns out. Even with all my mistakes, I still had a few nibbles, and even a few offers from small presses. Their contract terms were so one sided I didn’t bother to negotiate. A mistake? Maybe. Should I have followed up on the R&R from an agent? Maybe. But long about then I had decided that my personal goal of writing a book was enough and I could publish it myself. And then I decided to close out a partial request from a small press with a nudge so I could cross it off my list, and the editor immediately responded that yes, she had received the partial and could I send the rest. And then she asked what part of Florida I was from, and noticing my maiden name, asked if I knew an old high school friend of hers, who, as it turns out, is my cousin. Best of all, she love Coriander and her friends. She got what i was going for with the characters and the story. And I knew that going this route was not significantly different than self publishing as far as distribution. But the book was published. It even received some very flattering reviews and a few small awards, but as expected, sales were in the basement.

By then, I had kept writing, hopefully improving my craft, had made friends on Querytracker and  Twitter and felt like I was ready to not only write CJ II but also that quirky thriller I’d been thinking about for, literally, decades. So armed with Gator Bait, I dipped my toes in the query trenches again. This time, I struck gold when Gina Panettieri saw past the flaws and gave me a chance to make revisions. With those, she took me on as a client and GB is currently on submission. Along with, I might add, CJ, which I had mentioned to Gina, she asked to see, and decided it might have a second chance. So it’s on submission as well, with the second book done, edited, and ready to get in the queue. My small press is going in a different direction with their projects and they wished me well and gladly negotiated with me to return my rights early.

The odds are definitely against a previously published book like Coriander Jones, especially in a tight market like YA. But everything from here is gravy. I like my trailer park girl. Of everything I’ve written so far, her voice spills out the easiest. I may end up toting the series around to indie bookstores and craft fairs, but honestly, I wrote a book I liked, and my kid liked it too. Recently, a little girl that had been given a copy of the book very shyly asked me if I could please hurry up and finish the second one. It’s not a starred review in Booklist, but it’ll do.

On a side note, my own daughter hated summer camp and came home early. Go figure.

Check out the “Which Character Are You” quiz on





Thrillers, Women Characters and the Barbie Effect

I love reading thrillers, the pulpier the better. Airport kiosks bursting with potboilers are my playground. But  if I let myself stray from reading for sheer enjoyment to a more critical analysis, I sometimes conclude that in order to be a woman character other than the MC, one must be 1) in her early to mid-twenties; 2) smoking hot 3) single and ready to mingle; and, 4) if the plot demands it, have an advanced degree enough to earn the grudging respect of colleagues but not enough to prevent said character from getting kidnapped or murdered or both.

Of course, this isn’t true across the board, and there are plenty of great women characters that don’t fit this archetype (Detective Rizzoli, “Bones” Brennan, for example). But it does seem that a good number of suspense thrillers use the supporting women characters either as a plot device (their brutal murder haunts the MC) or as a luscious love interest in the prime of her youth. It doesn’t matter if the male MC is fifty-something with scars and a beer gut, that lithe coed/neurosurgeon is gonna be all over him by the end of Act One. I read a book awhile back where a female assasin (in her twenties and with a perfect body, naturally) went about her bloody business… topless. ‘Cause, you know, sometimes the girls gotta breathe. The reader was also assured that her assets were spectacular. So that was a relief. Also, these women have no  body fat, no kids to distract them and really shiny hair.

God forbid a forty-something gal with roomy hips and maybe a few gray hairs wants to get in on the action. Yes, attractive people make up the bulk of fictional characters in books, television and movies. Pretty sells better. I get that. But surely the women characters can be a little rounder, a little more realistic. Start small. Make them less Barbie and more “Bones.”  And for Pete’s sake, put some clothes on those poor girls. They might catch a cold.


Nano No No

This year I decided to give the November novel writing challenge known as NanoWriMo a shot. I had created an account last year but never went further and so I geared up for a productive month. I was armed with a pseudo outline, synopsis and the first 2000 words under my belt.

And then life got in the way. This month has been a perfect storm of teenager-related activities (driving lessons, anyone?) a job re location (complete with packing and cleaning and finishing up projects) and the usual nagging necessities such as sleep and meals. At the almost halfway point, I have not added a single word to the initial count.

“Sigh.” I keep thinking, “There is next weekend!” But then I remember I need this weekend to do work projects. I’m not giving up yet, but realistically, I’ll be lucky to log in 20,000 by the end of the month.

In happier news, a short story I submitted to Pulp Literature’s Raven short story contest made the long list, but alas, not the short list. But hey, it’s s a start. It’s a creepy little horror story that I hope will find a publication home somewhere. I’ve always loved reading horror, so I took a stab at writing it, and if I ever finish two other WIPs, I’ve sketched out an outline for a second short story.

Oh, and there’s also that pesky academic paper I need to finish in 2016 to stay on track for completing a degree I’ve been plugging away for several years.

So whatcha doing this November? if you’re on Nano, look me up (I Am Groot is my handle) or drop me a line. Anyone else taking a stab at short stories? If so, where are you submitting? What books are on your holiday wish list? Oh jeez, that reminds me, I’m way behind on my Goodreads reading challenge…