I Had My Characters Do What?!

A bit of fun today with some friendly writerly advice sprinkled on top.

We writers are sometimes caught up in our stories and gloss over the exact details of what we’ve written for our characters’ actions. If we’re lucky, readers skim over those details without stopping to think about the literal meaning of our words. But more likely, they’ll see them and have an unintended reaction. We don’t want that.

Good agents and editors should highlight these potential gaffs and ensure we fix them. But with so many writers going the indie route, the lack of serious quality control can be glaring. Good writers should identify and correct these problems before querying their manuscripts or directly publishing the books.

Thank heaven I caught these no-nos before I ask anyone to beta read the revised Summer at the Crossroads.

Kathryn slumped in her chair and dropped her head in her hands. “Oh, God. Where in Guatemala?” Okay, she’s “broken up” about some news. But should she be quite so literal about it?

He pulled back to take her head and caress her wet cheeks. Really, now. That’s a bit extreme. Surely he could caress her cheeks while her head is still firmly attached to her body, couldn’t he?

But then her eyes fell on the framed photograph on her desk. Don’t you hate that squishy feeling when you finally find them and have to put them back where they belong?

Then there are the just-plain-awkward ways of going about things.

They pretended to focus their gaze on the images and accompanying text while listening to the speaker. By the time they finished pretending to focus their gaze, the speaker would be long gone. Now, “they pretended to study the images while listening to the speaker.” Much simpler, don’t you think?

And when your typing can’t keep up with your thoughts, you get sentences like this.

If you want to be a typical grad student, you shave imported beer, not domestic.” What, you never shaved a beer before? You “should have.” You don’t know what you’re missing. (Despite the way the sentence reads, this isn’t a scene where a bartender explains the art of shaving the head off a beer.)

Have you run across anything like these in your reading or writing? Did you do a double-take? Or have a good laugh where the author wanted a darker mood? Fellow writers—take a look at your WIPs. Are your characters doing unintended violence to their bodies or setting up readers for an undesired bout of laughter?

Stormy Weather?

I plan to finish Meghan’s next story installment this weekend and schedule it for Tuesday. It’s looking more likely that we’ll be hit by Hurricane/Tropical Storm Sandy, and there’s a good chance we’ll lose power, even though we don’t live on the coast.

If you don’t see me responding to comments on Tuesday, I’ll be back as soon as I can. Our power company’s been known to take more than a week to restore all power in the area…. But if you don’t see a post for Tuesday, then I couldn’t finish the latest Meghan post before we lost power.

67 thoughts on “I Had My Characters Do What?!

  1. My characters’ eyes were doing a lot of impossible feats. Luckily my editor noticed this and substituted the word ‘gaze’ or suggested something different. No one wants to read about a character who can’t keep her eyes in her head unless it’s a horror novel. 🙂

    I hope Sandy doesn’t hit you too hard. Good luck.

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    • Totally off topic here—you and three other readers have ‘liked’ this post, and you’ve commented. According to my stats, this post has no views. No wonder my numbers aren’t rebounding from this summer! Apparently when we use the reader, it doesn’t count as a view for the blog. Very counter-intuitive to me since WP wants us to love those view stats…. 😉

      Anyhoo! I’ll have to do a full search on “eyes” when I finally finish up the manuscripts. And variants of “head taking.” I seem to like that. Now if I can just figure out how to resolve some more serious character issues…. Even if that means writing by hand come Monday or Tuesday…. Sandy will hit us. It’s just a question of how hard. Freaky late storm!

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      • I suspect Sandy is why we’re predicted to have several days of rain. But I’ll take that over what you’re likely to experience.

        I read your post from my iPhone this morning–that’s probably why it didn’t show up as a site view. I had to get up early for a function at my son’s school, and to help me get out of bed, I often grab my phone and read a few comments or blog posts. Helps wake me up and get me moving. Yours was my motivational post this morning. 🙂

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  2. I’m not reading this from my WP reader, so hopefully you’ve got my little ol’ view 🙂 Great examples, JM. I never kept track of some of my typos et al, and now I’m thinking that would have been great comic relief. However, I bet when I participate in NaNo this November, I’ll have lots to choose from!

    I think eyes do a lot of jumping around and locking on things and settling on faces, at least, in the books I read. I’m not sure it’s totally avoidable, because gazes and stares and looks can get very repetitive across a novel.

    We’re bracing ourselves for Sandy up this way, too. Some towns have already rescheduled Trick or Treat night in anticipation of losing power. Last year we suffered that freaky snow/ice storm on Halloween–and Trick or Treat was rescheduled then too! How can it be that we might have to do that 2 years in a row???

    Tonight I’m hosting a Halloween party for my kids and 20 other little goblins. I’m happy we’re escaping the storm, so at least we’ll get a little spooky fun in!

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    • I got your view. 🙂

      The eyes are hard to avoid, and as readers we probably ignore them. And I think it says something about how visually oriented humans are that we include them so much in our writing. But I’ve got to do something about my violence with heads—taking them, dropping them…. I’m really not a violent person!

      We only got a dusting of snow last Halloween from that storm, but I don’t see how we can avoid heavy rains this year. Our early voting starts today, and we’re going this morning to make sure we get it in. I should check to see if trick-or-treat has been rescheduled yet…. 🙂

      All my beta comments are in for the manuscript now, and I’ve got a hard copy, If we lose power, I know what I can work on while it’s daylight. Although I’m currently facing a brick wall as to needed revisions…. urghh.

      Have a fun time with the party tonight! And I hope you’ve got a few more adults to help with the crowd! 🙂

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      • Well, I hope you know you can bounce anything off me in regard to your revisions. 🙂

        I roped my sister, my cousin, and my college friend to help with the party. It was a lot of fun, but very crazy! I owe them a night out, because I couldn’t have done it alone.

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        • When I can get my head around some of the ideas, you and Anne will be hearing from me. The similarity in your comments was striking—as was the difference then between you two and the two male readers. 🙂

          Rest up and then start preparing for Sandy! She is really looking nasty….

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  3. I shall have to look out for these body part issues in my writing! I do have a vague recollection of a funny one but can’t quite remember it. I’ll come back if I do…

    Good luck braving the storm!

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    • The one that first tripped me up in the last round of edits was him “taking her head” to caress her cheeks. And I burst out laughing at the image—which is not good since it’s part of the key (and potentially dangerous) turn of events. That’s when I added the bodily violence and eye adventures to the edits. 🙂

      Most current tracks have the center hitting a bit north of us in Delaware. But that’s close enough for us to get substantial rain and gale force winds. Preparedness is taking place!

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  4. Funny, JM! I hate it when my husband’s head falls off in my hands. ; )

    I haven’t been back through my WIP with a fine-toothed comb yet, but I always think it’s funny when we’re reading something in critique group and someone gets tickled. One recently was when one of my characters found a little lizard and rescued it during a scene… someone said, “I think you should lose the lizard.” From that point forward, we laugh about losing the lizard in everyone’s WIP. “Lose the lizard”=take out the unnecessary. So glad I could be helpful. ; )

    Good luck with the storm!

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    • I love “losing the lizard!” It should become one of those writerly bits of advice like “kill your darlings” or TV’s “jumping the shark.” 🙂

      It’s impressive the mischief one little turn of a phrase can do to a scene. My first three examples are all from a major development point in the story where foreign events hit Kathryn at home. People should not be giggling at those times! 🙂

      Fingers crossed we don’t lose power. But I have hard copies of the WIPs I can work from if we do!

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  5. Ha! I’m guilty of a lot of these, as well, especially in my first drafts.

    I think you’re right about us being so visual-oriented. Many of these phrases have become conventions of accepted writing for that fact, I guess.

    I’ll add “focus” to the list of alternatives to “eyes” – though I agree with Kate that using a word like “look” as often as we’d want to use “eyes” or “gaze” can get tedious on the page. I hate to drop those descriptions, especially in a scene that’s meant to be emotional…though maybe it’s better if I do.

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    • It’s such a difficult balance because we’re told 1) we shouldn’t overuse words but 2) we shouldn’t use too many synonyms lest we sound like a thesaurus.

      I often use the looks (and deep breaths and pauses) to break up what I feel is a long bit of dialogue for a character. But beta reviewers have noted some of those breaks are pulling them out of the story. Argh. What is the right balance?

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      • Not sure of the right answer to that, myself.

        Part of it is personal preference and style, though. I know I hate seeing a page that’s just quotation marks, with no break for description more than “he said” or “she said.”

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  6. I always hated the expression “met her eyes” (same with “his,” “my,” etc.). Always sounded like someone saying, “I’d like you to meet my eyes, Sinister and Dexter.” And the one about “her eyes fell on the picture” made me think of the sideshow performer that could pop his out. I do everything I can to avoid these.

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    • Good example! All it takes is one miscreant phrase at the wrong place, and our readers are laughing as the protagonist learns the serial killer just murdered the wife or best friend. Let’s lose as many of these potential gaffs as possible before publication!

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  7. Yeah, I’ve caught myself in all sorts of stuff like that, particularly on the first round of edits. But that’s why we revise and edit our work before sending it to others, right? There’s a reason I don’t let anyone else see my first draft, ever.

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    • Sigh. I can’t tell you how many rounds of editing these examples survived. I glossed over them every time. 😦 Live and learn, I guess. But sometimes the lessons are painful. 😉

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      • I didn’t mean to suggest I *only* find them in the first round. That’s just when there are a ton of them. I find some in every round, partly because rewriting a section can introduce new ones. I’m coming to the conclusion that I’ll never really win. I’ll keep trying, but I think getting them all is probably a goal that’s out of reach for all of us. 🙂

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        • I didn’t think you were. 🙂 But when I think how I queried that manuscript before it was anywhere near ready (despite test readers), there’s an unhealthy dose of ego-deflation. I try to stay upbeat on the blog, but I’m in a real quandary on revisions to Death Out of Time. I know the ideas will come. But until I get them sorted out in my head, I can’t touch the manuscript, even for bits like “taking heads” and “falling eyes.” Trying to sort out this round of revisions is my NaNo….

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  8. I must confess, my daughter and I have frequent chuckles over such gaffes – especially our own! Good reminders, JM, and hope Sandy is gentle with you guys! xoxoM

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    • I’m happy when someone laughs at my stories—in the desired places! But not when someone’s world is crashing down around her. Poor Kathryn. Hopefully, if I can turn it into a publishable quality book, no one will remember these examples. 😉

      Cross your fingers that Sandy somehow weakens. She’s got New York in her sights, too.

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  9. I laughed so hard (because I have done all these and repeat the same mistakes each time I write). It’s that “hurry and get the story out of my head however it comes out” action that causes it, and unfortunately, that means heads off bodies and eyes sitting on tables gazing about rooms, horrifying readers. I was surprised when I noticed my book sitting on your sidebar! Thanks. That was unexpected. Good luck during your storm. I’ll be thinking of you and hoping you keep your power.

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    • I’d be more forgiving of myself if I’d caught these in an early round of editing. But they have survived repeated revisions. Yikes! At least I’m finally aware of them, so they should be cleaned out of future novels more quickly.

      I just added the “recent releases” to the sidebar a couple of weeks ago. But you’ve just reminded me I need to update it. I like to help others with marketing, even if I’ll be terrible at it for myself! 🙂

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      • As a proofreader myself, I realize you don’t catch ‘everything’ the first time through. Your brain goes into certain modes (at least mine does) and I’m looking for different things each time. That’s why editing several times is good (which it sounds like you’ve done). And thanks for the marketing. I’ll have to try to figure out how to do something like that on my blog (when I take time to go into all the preference things that I hate). Hunker down, now!

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        • Oh, yes. Sometimes I’m reading through a draft for passive sentences. Then another pass for extraneous adverbs and adjectives…. And the brain still misses a few things. 😉

          For the recent releases, I use an “image” widget for each cover. I get the book image the same way you do for an awards image and then there’s a place to add a URL for when someone clicks on it. I’ve kept it basic and take the reader to the author’s main blog page. 🙂

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  10. Very funny, JM!

    If it helps — I read blogs from Google reader on my tablet. Had a lot of family news in the recent couple of weeks including a death in the family but I am reading Meaghan’s story on my tablet and I’m enjoying it very much. Hope everyone is safe from Sandy and has a Happy Halloween. 🙂

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    • Thanks, Christy! The number of comments and likes vs. number of views this morning was a real indication of why my stats haven’t rebounded from the summer—about the time the WP Reader really got going. All those “stats” really don’t mean anything these days if half or more of your audience isn’t being recorded!

      I’ve had a loss in the family in the last few weeks, too. That can be so hard, even when it’s considered a blessing. Reading my blog buddies posts is a good way to stay connected.

      I’d love it if Sandy were a bust, but I’m afraid she’s going to stay in the news for a while. Hoping she won’t disconnect me or too many people during her visit!

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  11. Those typical grad students and their beer shaving.

    Nice examples. Hope you don’t get a power outage, we need to know what happens next to Megan – stay safe.

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    • Ah, yes, we’d sit around and see who could shave the beer in the least amount of time. Guinness was the preferred selection…. What do you mean, you don’t believe me? 😉

      The deck’s been emptied and all the outdoor furniture stored in the garage. We’ve filled a bunch of containers with water, and we’re making ice for the coolers, just in case. Tomorrow we’ll haul out the candles and matches. Books and hard copies of the WIPs are available for potentially extended reading time. 🙂

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  12. I know well the problems of which you speak! As a naturally wordy guy, I really have to remember that more words does not necessarily equal better. Mine is still a naturally wordier style, and I don’t fight that, but I do have to watch for the attendant consequences and my weakness for a clever phrase.

    I think your edits were good ones; it’s harder to catch your own stylistic gaffes, I think. Also, I actually like “eyes fell on the page” if it’s not overused.

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    • I know I’ll never catch all potential smile-inducing phrases. But I will try to avoid them when I want readers feeling anger/sadness/dread/disgust…. Otherwise, the potential for turning the story into a Monty Pythonesque moment looms large! And much as I love their comedy, my books are not meant to fall in that genre.

      Beta readers. I swear by good beta readers. They can help us find some of these pitfalls.

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  13. Love the eyeballs and beer shaving! I’m shocked about the WP Reader though. i’ve seen a few likes come through without hits and I assumed that was because the people were viewing in the reader but not clicking over to my blog; you’d have to click to comment, though. I almost always use the Reader to keep up with new posts, though, so that might mean my favorite blogs aren’t registering my eager eyes. So sad!

    And good luck with Sandy. My parents live over there but are visiting the west coast right now. Isabel hit my wedding in the D.C. area in 2003, but that’s another story…

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    • The “non-recording” of views in the reader seems so counterproductive to WordPress’s desire to hook bloggers with stats. I understand not being able to link with outside things like RSS reads or the Google Reader. But WordPress’s own reader? Surely there should be a way to record a “view” on our blogs.

      Away from DC is probably a good place to be the next few days. 😉 Heaven knows how widespread the power outages will be or how long they’ll last. To me, the nightmare situation is large chunks of the Eastern United States still without power on Election Day.

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  14. JM, maybe I’ve not been following you long enough and I love your characters and posts, including this one. I’ve always been “told” that one shouldn’t post their writing online because an agent or editor only want stories or WIPs that haven’t been published — and that means not online as well. Please enlighten me because I’ve got short stories and other “writing stuff” that I don’t share online but would love to get feedback from you and others…

    I’m in Sandy’s path too, so stay safe and hope to see you back online (and me too!)

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    • You raise a great subject, Brigitte, and one that probably needs some expert legal insight. I’ve see the same warnings. To me, barring writers from sharing small sections of the WIPs is counterproductive. After all, what better way for potential readers to see if they’ll like a work when it’s published?

      I was recently looking at the Writer’s Digest contest guidelines for short stories. They indicate you can submit work that has appeared on your own personal blog maintained solely by the author or within a private critique forum that requires registration for access. Since the winning short stories will be published by Writer’s Digest, obviously they don’t have a problem with prior exposure on a personal blog.

      And I’ve seen some agent interviews where a few sections of the WIP on the blog weren’t a problem. But clearly there are agents and some presses that feel differently. Personally, if the few opening scenes I have on my blog are a deal breaker, I’ll go with another option—whether that’s another agent, a small press, or the indie-route.

      I think if I had some specific agents in mind to query or particular presses I wanted to approach, I would check their websites/blogs for guidelines on this subject. If they won’t touch a work that’s on a blog, then I wouldn’t post anything.

      Honestly, with Meghan’s current adventure, I had no idea I was about to write a short story online. Maybe some publications wouldn’t take it because of that, even if I rework it. I hope others will. But it might be a good test of this subject.

      If you’d like feedback from some of your fellow bloggers, I’d say you could either do a post asking if readers would be interested or email some bloggers directly. I’m sure there are a number of us who would be happy to help, whether you’re looking for general comments, specific points, or full beta reads. Me included. 🙂

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      • Good, JM. I have my writing group but I’d love for you to look at my writing. I think you’re a great writer so maybe I should just post a snippet of my novel or short stories? Thank you.

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        • Blushing over here!

          Obviously I have no problem with posting a few snippets. And I’d have a problem with an agent who did. 😉 Think of all the “tagging” games for writers where we post a few sentences from a certain page or “Six Sentence Sunday” where the sentences are supposed to come from the WIPs. Why should that be bad?

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  15. Sometimes the ideas run faster than the process and words do not come out as intended, I find. These are good examples. I hope you stay powered and safe in the coming days 🙂

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    • When I saw the “shaved” sentence, I was so glad I wasn’t drinking anything at the moment. 🙂 I found other examples of smooshing two words together, but none that were quite so funny!

      Monday and Tuesday may be an adventure I would prefer to skip. But we’re as ready as we can be with stocked water, ice, candles, and food that won’t require cooking. (Although we should be able to light our gas stove top with matches.) And the essential books and hard copies of the WIPs in case the computers are unavailable. 🙂 But hopefully you’ll see me here Tuesday morning!

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  16. I do these sorts of things all the time. Quite often it gets through to public eyes.
    Regarding “If you want to be a typical grad student, you should have imported beer, not domestic.”
    I often misread nouns/verbs etc. and have to re-read. The above can be read as “…you should have imported(v) beer, not domestic(n?).” It’s only when I come across “domestic”, an adjective, not a noun, that I realise “imported” is not a past tense verb, but an adjective. The use of the word “have” is also ambiguous and does not help the sentence.
    I agonise over my own work when I do this too. I spend lots of time reducing ambiguity (it’s the engineer in me). Should I really bother?

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    • I think it’s good to clear up as many things as possible that might confuse or pull readers from the story. But we’ll never get all of them.

      That’s a good point about the imported/domestic beer phrasing. In the overall context of the speaker’s dialogue, you might not have been confused. I didn’t use a stronger verb (“order”) because I had used it in an earlier sentence. However! I can easily switch the stronger verb to this sentence and the “have” verb to the other, where there are no adjectives that could be interpreted as part of the verb construction.

      This is a good example of why we need multiple test readers before we query or submit for publishing. Different readers catch different potential problem/confusion areas. 🙂

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      • Yes, it helps to read the sentence in context. But I often think it’s a flaw of mine in the way I read those things. Especially when I don’t hear anyone else picking up on similar things, I think is there something I missed at school that would have helped me read these as they were intended?
        But it’s true: there is something in having 20 people read and getting 20 different opinions. 🙂

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        • I think we all have our own “area” that trips us up when others gloss over it. It can be thinking of a word’s verb use first before its adjectival. It can be a personal view that a certain word shouldn’t be used in a certain circumstance. It can be sentences starting with prepositions, even in dialogue. And those aren’t flaws so much as personal takes.

          20 readers, 20 different opinions. Yep. That’s always fun! My view is that if the majority of readers see some similar points, those definitely need work. And if the reactions to something are all over the board, then I think I haven’t got my intent across clearly enough. But at the end of the day, we have to hope we’ve made the right changes. 😉

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  17. Fantastic post, JM. I love the comments as well (particularly ‘losing the lizard’!). I was reading a book at one stage where two people got into a canoe and paddled away to escape a bad guy with a gun. The guy shot at them and the canoe caught fire and they escaped just before it exploded. I laughed for hours over that one – how can a canoe explode? Now, when I finish writing a story my hubby always says – ‘no exploding canoes, I hope’ 😀

    Keep safe and I really hope Sandy doesn’t get too close to you 😦

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    • Canoes that catch fire and explode?! Were they carrying dynamite?! 🙂 That’s a good one—I bet the author didn’t want readers laughing at THAT scene! That’s another one to add to our writerly bits of advice. 🙂

      Supposedly the first rain showers will develop in the next 15 minutes. I think The Weather Channel is off with that timing. The radar doesn’t show anything that close to us. But it won’t be long….

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  18. Your annotations on your sentences made me laugh. I do stuff like this all the time, then you read back and go.. what was I thinking? Haha! Stay safe with Sandy, our very own Kate is bracing herself too for the storm. 🙂

    PS – Our giveaway ends tomorrow if you’d like to get an entry in! B x

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    • Not sure if I can get something done today…. I’m trying to get other computer-required chores done today, too, just in case….

      I’m glad you laughed at the annotations because I WAS trying to be funny there—unlike in the case of the sentences from the manuscript! 🙂

      Don’t be surprised if Kate and I go silent in the next few days. But I hope we don’t!

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  19. i have found f’en typos on blog posts and in other work literally 8-10 hrs after publishing or sending the thing and it drives me batty. i always fix them, but still. i think that this is just the price of producing a lot, unfortunately. xoxo, sm

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    • It is impossible to avoid some error in a work of any size and when we’re at it every day. But we should try to minimize them where we can! I’m willing to overlook the typos in blog posts, but I’m a lot more persnickety about things like novels. So I’d better watch what I do! 🙂

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    • Thanks, Marylin. 🙂 Examples make it easier for me to understand the mistakes I’ve made. I just can’t believe how many drafts these particular ones made it through! I’m crossing my fingers that future manuscripts will have fewer of them to begin with….

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    • We were so lucky that we escaped the brunt of the storm. The Eastern Shore was pounded with a foot of rain, and Ocean City lost its historic pier. Then the westernmost county had 2.5 feet of snow dumped on it as Sandy hit that cold front. Our lights flickered a few times, but we never lost power. I wish everyone could have been as fortunate.

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  20. Ha, you have a strange fetish for dismembering your characters. Surely there’s nothing unhealthy about it 😉

    For the record, “shave that beer” will be the new hit game at all of my future parties!

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    • Once the wording hit me, I realized how much mischief it could cause when people read the book! What writer wants someone laughing at the image of eyes falling on a desk or following someone out the door when the desired mood is fear or sadness?! I have to undo that violence!

      And I say go for the “shave the beer” contests—there could be awards for best time and most creative techniques and penalties for “missing a spot.” The possibilities are endless! 🙂

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      • Well, if you were going for a horror/comedy, that would kind of be exactly what you were looking for…so don’t knock the idea!

        As for beer…I think we’re on to something here. Don’t know about you, but I’m quitting my day job and starting my “shave the beer” world tour extravaganza! See you when I’m rich!

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    • My brain did the same thing for I don’t know how many drafts! And then on a recent go through, I saw it clear as day. I’m sure a beta would catch it down the line, but I try to give them grammatically clean drafts. That way they can focus on story/character issues. 😉

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