I finished a new story last week—more on that in a minute.  Having completed that project, I finally got around to cleaning out my office.  We’ve been remodeling our house for the past several months.  In the course of that project, we would move stacks of stuff from one room to the next, always attempting to stay out of the path of the subcontractors working in the house.  My office is upstairs and out of the way of the workers, so over the span of several months, more and more stuff got shoved in the room.  It had gotten so bad that I had to step over piles to get to my desk.  Enough!  I finally got so tired of the mess that I resolved to clean it up.

I started on a Sunday afternoon and worked from two to five hours daily all the way until Friday, when I declared victory.  I uncovered some really cool stuff, including a 1984 picture of two colleagues and me standing in front of the Berlin Wall.  One of the other treasures I discovered was a book that I’d had—stuffed in a box in a closet—for more than twenty years.

I spent Friday and Saturday combing through the many helpful suggestions contained in Self Editing for Fiction Writers.  Authors Renni Browne and Dave King were professional editors.  In addition to providing rules for better writing, they spiced up their book with many before-and-after examples.   Repetition, Point of View and Proportion are among the topics covered in the book.  The more I read, the more I recognized the habits Browne and King cautioned against.    These are common traps less experienced writers often stumble into—and issues with which professional editors can help.

I realized pretty fast that the mistake I most often make is overuse of Speaker Attribution.  What’s that?  Speaker Attribution is simply the technique by which an author tells the reader which character is speaking in a scene involving dialogue, for example: “Yikes!” John exclaimed.

As mentioned above, I had just completed a writing project, a novella telling the back story of Vera Vance, the primary female character from The Movie Star and Me which was published last August. The story includes a good deal of dialogue as it traces Vera’s journey to success in the movie business.

Here’s what one scene looked like before editing:

“Hey, I’d like a piece!” Tommy McTavish said, grinning and stepping into the kitchen.

“Don’t you come near me!” Mabel warned, reaching for the cleaver.

“What you planning to do with that?” Tommy asked, his grin still in place. He’d stopped moving.

“Whatever I have to,” Mabel replied, trying to sound threatening.  “I may have to cut something off with it!”  She held the heavy blade up and wiggled it.

Tommy laughed, then fast as Jesse Owens, he leaped forward, grabbed her wrist and twisted.  Mabel emitted an involuntary squeal and the cleaver fell from her grip, its blade falling and sticking into the floor with a thunk.  It quivered there for a moment, out of reach, and Mabel’s stomach went icy cold with fear.

Tommy buried his face in the bend between her shoulder and neck, one hand still holding her wrist while the other encircled her waist.

“You let me go!” Mabel hissed as she squirmed.  “Let me go or I swear to God I’ll tell Momma what a two-timing, low-life son-of-a-bitch you are!”

Now read the draft after I applied Browne’s and King’s guidance:

“Hey, I’d like a piece!” Tommy McTavish said, grinning and stepping into the kitchen.

“Don’t you come near me!” Mabel reached for the cleaver.

“What you planning to do with that?” Tommy was still grinning, but he’d stopped moving.

“Whatever I have to.  I may have to cut something off with it!”  She held the heavy blade up and wiggled it.

Tommy laughed, then fast as Jesse Owens, he leaped forward, grabbed her wrist and twisted.  Mabel emitted an involuntary squeal and the cleaver fell from her grip, its blade sticking into the floor with a thunk.  It quivered there for a moment, out of reach, and Mabel’s stomach went icy cold with fear.

He buried his face in the bend between her shoulder and neck, one hand still holding her wrist while the other encircled her waist.

“You let me go or I swear to God I’ll tell Momma what a two-timing, low-life son-of-a-bitch you are!”

Which version is better?  The second draft is a quicker, snappier read.  Why? Because the focus of the story remains on the dialogue and the actions behind it.  There are fewer words explaining who is speaking and so the reader moves more quickly and the story’s pace never flags.  Many writers over use speaker attribution because they don’t realize their dialogue is strong enough to tell the story on its own.  The use of descriptive words, like mumbled, shouted, exclaimed, threatened, etc., is redundant and distracting because well-written dialogue already conveys emotion.

I’m glad I found Self  Editing for Fiction Writers when I did.  Applying its practical suggestions strengthened an already good story.   My plan is to make the Vera Vance novella available for FREE in order to entice readers to dive into my Pacific Pictures—Frank Russell series.  The second book in the saga, Temporary Alliance, will be published this spring.

Stay tuned for details concerning the upcoming release of the Vera Vance story!