Using Active Voice to Make Your Words Count

Let’s flashback in time to almost a year ago. I had just finished the first draft of my third novel and my CPs were taking a crack at it before I dove into further revision. One of them (the one who lovingly rips apart most of what I write) said something that I’m only JUST NOW starting to fully understand.

“It’s not about making a word count,” she said. “It’s about making the words count.”

So at first, I was like, “Okay. I can do that.”

Okay

But then trying to put it in practice, I was like this:

Frustrated

See, the thing about making the words count is understanding which words DON’T count. (Or shouldn’t be there, is more accurate.) I think this is a problem several writers face and aren’t even aware of it. I mean, we LOVE words. That’s why we write. We love describing things and articulating our emotions. We love the idea of creating worlds that are so realistic, anyone who reads about them will be transported right into our minds. So to look at any of our darlings and have to kill them is tough. But I’ve found, as I’ve been working to improve my craft, that we use A LOT of unnecessary words.

I’ve seen both agents and editors on Twitter lament about this very thing. “Outrageously high word count.” “Word count needs to be halved.” “Cut 60K and MAYBE I’ll look at this.” It comes up all the time! (As a side note, if you struggle with too low a word count, the culprit is likely your plot. Either it’s not fleshed out enough or it’s lacking in content. This is a post for another time though.)

 So if you’re reading this and asking:

Do you have a point

Yes! And here it is: A great way to eliminate unnecessary words is by using ACTIVE VOICE. (Wait! Don’t go away. This is good, I promise. Keep reading.) Now, there are tons of articles out there that will describe the difference between active and passive voice so I won’t get into the definition of it. Rather, let’s talk about putting it into practice with some examples.

One: Search your MS for the word “Could.” This word usually precedes filtering or passive voice.

“Could hear”, “Could see”, “Could feel”, etc. Yes, there are circumstanced when “could” is necessary. “Could you pass the peas?” “I couldn’t let you die!” And so on. But “could hear” should just be “heard.” “Could see” should be just “saw” and so on.

Now, even once you’ve eliminated “Could,” this concept can be taken even further.

EX: “Near me, I saw a bear prowling through the woods.” This would be even stronger as just “Near me, a bear prowled through the woods.”  Removing “I saw” brings us closer to the narrator.

My MS is in third person, and I find that eliminating saw, heard, realized, and other filter words really helps the reader to feel closer to my MC.

Another EX: “Sarah entered the circus tent. She saw people everywhere. She heard a donkey bray as a clown honked a horned. She smelled popcorn and animal manure in the air.”  Now if we remove the filter words, it would read something like this: “Sarah entered the circus tent. People were everywhere. A donkey brayed as a clown honked a horn. The smell of popcorn and animal manure filled the air.”

Can you see how this is stronger? As a reader, instead of me TELLING you what to see and hear and smell, you’re getting to experience it firsthand. Removing filter words has a double benefit: lowering word count AND bringing your reader right into the action. Oh, and of course, it’s always better to “show” than “tell.” (Again, a post for another time.)

circus

Two: Realized, wondered, thought, noticed, etc. These are thought verbs and in my last post I linked to a fantastic article by Chuck Palahniuk about how to “unpack” them. I love this article and would strongly recommend it (AGAIN) for those needing to flesh out their MSs. But since we’re focusing on eliminating words today, I’m going to talk about WHEN these words can just be cut.

EX: “I realized the bear was about to charge.” This would be stronger as, “The bear was about to charge.”

“I wondered if he might like me.” Stronger as, “Does he like me?” (Just flat out asking what our characters are wondering is better then us telling the reader that our characters are wondering anything.)

“I wondered if I should run away.” = “Should I run away?”

And some examples in third person: “Jane realized it was too late. She had to run.” = “It was too late. Jane had to run.”

“She noticed that he never smiled in presence of others.” = “He never smiled in the presence of others.”

charging bear

Three: Know, Knew

This is another thing we tend to say and don’t need to: “I knew I had to tell him I loved him.” “I knew it was getting late.” “I know you’ll hate me for saying this…”

All of these could just be, “I had to tell him I loved him.” “It was getting late.” “You’ll hate me for saying this…”

And in third person: “He knew he would never see her again.” “She knew something wasn’t right.”

“He would never see her again.” “Something wasn’t right.”

It’s simple, but you’d be surprised how often characters “know” things when they could just tell you what they know. (An exception: “You knew about this?” While you can technically “unpack” this sentence, there really isn’t a need to. Dialogue is the place where rules can bend a bit. Another post, another time.)

I don't know you

Four: Adverbs.

I know I rag on this all the time, but Stephen King has converted me. Now, I’m not as die-hard as he is about them. I will let them slide (occasionally) in dialogue because it HAS to sound natural. But a lot of times, we can cut quite a chunk from our manuscripts by just using stronger verbs.

Ex: “I ran quickly,” could become, “I sprinted.”

“I walked slowly,” could be “I trudged.”

“He spoke softly.” = “He whispered.”

Adverbs also tend to “tell” instead of show, so all the more reason to eliminate or replace them.

Five: That

I know what you’re thinking. “How can I write without “that?” The short answer: I’m not asking you to. The long answer: about a year ago I read “‘Writing with Clarity and Style” by Robert A. Harris. (I’d strongly recommend this as well.) There’s a segment called “Delete ‘that’ for flow, Retain ‘that’ for clarity.” In it, he states that there are sentences which need ‘that’ to clarify something. Then he says there are many sentences which use ‘that’ and don’t need to.

Basic rule of thumb for this principle: If you can read your sentence without the “that” and it still makes sense, then cut it. If it doesn’t, then keep it.

Example of deleting: “She sighed in relief when a sign indicated that their destination was but five miles away.”

Example of retaining: “It shattered the peaceful calm that had settled between them.” (If you removed this ‘that’ the sentence wouldn’t make sense.)

Remember: ALWAYS read your sentence out loud before deciding whether your ‘that’ needs to be retained or deleted.

This isn’t by any means a comprehensive list of ways to reduce word count. It’s just a starter post to help you sort out important words from words that can be important but are usually just overused. So, as you grab your cleaver and head back into the revision trenches, I hope you keep some of these words in mind. And let me remind you that you are NOT alone in trimming your word count. I’m right there with you, learning and growing as I go. Happy butchering, friends!

I did what I had to

Revision Shortcuts

Sorry to burst your bubble, but if you decided to read this thinking I had actual shortcuts for revising, you’ll be sorely disappointed. Besides, shortcuts don’t actually exists. Like anything worth doing, you have to do the hard work yourself!

sorry gif

Now, what I do have is a compiled list of my favorite websites with advice/tips/hints for revising, which is what I’m sharing with you today. Like many authors, after so many rejections/failing to nab a mentor/agent/what-have-you, I decided my MS needed an overhaul: A major-new title-rearranging scenes-adding scenes-cutting scenes-tightening dialogue-hunting out crutch words-multiple word sweeps-overhaul. Basically, I wanted anyone who’d read my MS before to read it after the revisions and be like:

Who are you again

And then be like this:

sally love

But the thing about revising is that you have to have an idea of WHAT needs to be fixed, right? And after you know what you need to fix, you need to know HOW to fix it. So for me, (along with taking advice from betas and CPs) I had to find articles that would do one, the other, or both. So, for those of you interested in strengthening your MS but aren’t sure where to start or what to do, below is a list of my favorite sites, along with what issue they address and (hopefully) how to fix them.

Finding and fixing plot holes:

Ten Steps to Fill Plot Holes

Beat Sheets to help with pacing and plot/character arcs: (You can also search Youtube for ‘beat sheet’ and watch a breakdown of how to do this if you’d rather not read it.)

Worksheets for Writers

Creating a new title:

http://www.rachellegardner.com/how-to-title-your-book/

Why and How to remove “Thought Verbs”:

https://litreactor.com/essays/chuck-palahniuk/nuts-and-bolts-%E2%80%9Cthought%E2%80%9D-verbs

Adverbs: Here are two posts about this subject. The first will explain why writing is (usually) stronger without them. The second will help you identify and remove redundant adverbs if you need some help easing into the idea of writing without them.

Stephen King on Writing, Fear, and the Atrocity of Adverbs

http://www.quickanddirtytips.com/education/grammar/how-to-eliminate-adverbs

How to spot overused words in your MS: (Most of you probably know about this site, but I think it helps to actually SEE what words you tend to overuse so you can eliminate them.)

http://www.wordle.net/

And a “Word Watch” list that will help will other overused words:

https://writelarawrite.wordpress.com/2015/06/25/guest-post-watch-word-list/

And in case that wasn’t enough, here’s another article on crutch words, which seem to turn up most often in dialogue: (As a warning: stay true to your voice, but be aware of crutch words and don’t use them without a purpose.)

http://blog.hubspot.com/marketing/so-um-you-really-need-to-stop-using-crutch-words

Brief explanation of 1st, 2nd, and 3rd person POV and tense: (This article won’t make up your mind about which one to use, but it’s a good refresher and might help you make an informed decision.)

Choosing the Right Viewpoint and Tense for Your Fiction [With Examples]

Now I know this can seem overwhelming. It’s a lot of work!!!!! But if you focus on one issue at a time, and pace yourself, it’ll be worth it. So take a deep breath, grab a beverage of your choice, and dive into revising!

deep breathe

And hey, part of the battle is finding the resources. You’re welcome:)

Sound off in the comments: What are you fixing in your MS? Which articles do you love or which have helped the most?

Lessons From Walt Disney: For the many who Didn’t make it into Pitch Wars

The bad news is, I didn’t make it into Pitch Wars. (The odds weren’t good, but more on that in a minute.) The good news is, I learned how to GIF! So my posts should be increasingly more interesting from now on.

applause

Now, back to the bad news. Something I didn’t mention about myself in my Bio is that I’m actually very good at math. (So good, in fact, I’ve had professors threaten to sell my brain to science once I’m dead.) When Brenda announced that over 1500 authors had submitted to Pitch Wars, with only 100 slots, (assuming even distribution of subs among mentors) that equated to roughly a 94% chance of NOT being chosen. And when you take out the assumption of even distribution (which you should when looking at facts) the odds became a lot worse.

The fact is, every author who submitted had five odds: 1 in however many subs received per chosen mentor. Some mentors tweeted their stats and I’ll use some of those numbers to show my point. The highest number of subs I saw was 184. It doesn’t take a math genius to see that the odds of being chosen by that mentor were less than 1%. (~0.5% to be specific.) And the lowest number of subs I saw was about 50. Which means that whomever subbed to that mentor still only had a 2% chance of being selected. As you can see, just by sheer volume of entries, the odds weren’t in our favor. Add in that inevitable subjectivity and it really came down to the right sub going to the right mentor at the right time, which (in my mind) takes some luck.

To the very few who made it, CONGRATS!

You're awesome

From the bottom of my heart, I’m so excited for you all! Some of my CPs and Twitter friends made in it, and I think you can see by above math that it was no simple feat. Good luck to you!

And for the many who didn’t make it, of which I am a part, let’s talk about what comes next. Now, you might be wondering, what the heck does any of this have to do with Walt Disney? I’m getting there.

Wlat Disney

As I mentioned before, I am a Disneyphile, through and through. One of the reason I adore everything Disney so much is because I have massive respect and appreciation for Walt himself. This year I read an in-depth, highly immersive biography about him, written by Neil Gabler. And oh, did it blow my mind.

Mind Blown

I don’t think a lot people are aware of the many, many, MANY struggles Walt faced before (and even AFTER) he became “Walt Disney.” When he decided he wanted to be an animator, it wasn’t even a thing at the time. He had to travel all over the nation to find like minded people who worked together to develop what primitive animation skills they had. There were times he lived out of his car and ate nothing but a can of beans every day, and had to pay a dime to use the shower once a week at the train station.

After he was able to land some freelance work, and eventually start his own company, he was back stabbed and doubled crossed by more than one co-worker/employee/associate. His first popular character Ozwald the lucky rabbit, was stolen by a distributor. He had dear friends turn on him in a boycott when he build a multi-million dollar facility for his employees after the success of Snow White. During the war, his company was commandeered by the government and forced to produce educational War films, while forbidding any work on any artistic projects. (For the record: Walt was happy to help the government, but not so happy that they restricted  WHAT he could produce for the four+ years they were in charge.) Even after Disneyland was build, he was called insane. He was told it would be a flop, or if by some chance it succeeded, would become obsolete when he died.

WHAT

We’re all making this face, right? We all KNOW how that story ends, how wrong all his critics were. But did you ever stop to think that when ALL OF THAT was going on, Walt didn’t know how it would play out? He didn’t know that when his finest creation was stolen, something better would come in its place. He didn’t know that his films, after critics panned Fantasia and the handful of films after it, would later become classics. He even believed the Disneyland haters, and build a college (CalArts) because he desperately wanted something he created to outlive him. Can you imagine?

Really. Can you imagine being Walt Disney? I don’t think I can. I don’t think anything I ever create will be as monumental or influential as Walt’s contributions to American culture. But what if I’m wrong? The thing is, if I quit, if I let the next set back be my last, I won’t know. I’ll never know what I could have been.

So here’s what I’m gonna do now. I’m going to take a few lessons from Walt Disney.

One: I’m going to strive to make my next project, my best project. Walt was never happy with doing what everyone else did. He was the first to use sound in a cartoon. He pioneered color in animation, invented the “follow the bouncing ball” to synchronize music to film reels, and constantly pushed the envelop for realism in his films. Once he mastered something, it was onto the next big thing. How can we apply this as writers? Look at the weak spots of our manuscripts, of our writing technique in general and see where we can improve. Read articles and books about improving your craft, and take classes or webinars if you can. Stay true to your voice, but learn the rules and know when it’s ok to break them. Half the reason we entered Pitch Wars was because we were looking to improve, right? Not getting in shouldn’t stop us from striving to be better.

Two: KEEP GOING. No matter what happened, Walt was determined to succeed. He wouldn’t let himself quit and neither should we. The number of “noes” doesn’t matter. The number of setbacks doesn’t matter. If you want something badly enough, then go out and get it. Don’t let anything stop you.

Three: Surround yourself with good people. Walt couldn’t have become Walt without his few, loyal companions. His brother Roy, for one, never failed to help Walt when asked. His merchandising manager, Kay Kamen, was an honest friend and supporter of Walt until his tragic death. (Kay’s death, I mean. The man died in a plane crash.) We need to surround ourselves with support. Get good CPs that will tell you what your strengths and weaknesses are, and be honest enough to do the same. Vent to each. Praise each other. But most importantly, STAY TOGETHER. Grieving the loss of opportunity is normal. Taking time to be sad is ok. But if you let yourself be alone for too long, it inevitably leads to bitterness, self-doubt, and hermit-ness. (I’m coining this word. Feel free to use it.) So let yourself have a few days to be sad, but then don’t wallow. Pick yourself up, grab your CPs, and move forward.

Four: Dream big. Above all, remember that Disneyland (and everything it represents) started with a farm boy who had nothing but a paper and pencil. Walt once said, “If you can dream it, you can do it.” I believe him. And you should too. Soldier on, friends. And good luck in the next phase of your journey.

Fireworks