Swoon Author Katie Van Ark: Spice Up Your Writing With Sensory Detail

Sandy Hall and Jenny Elliott have both done a great job sharing what the Swoon editorial process looks like. So now that it’s my turn, I thought I’d share about the harder part. Because they’re right. Editing is fun with an editorial letter – it’s a road map that gives you directions about what to do and where to start. The hardest part comes before then, when you’re trying to get your story polished enough to attract the attention of an editor. When you’re sitting in a pile of rough drafts that all need major work, the task can seem overwhelming.

sheldon-throwing-papers

 

Take a deep breath and remember that the journey of a thousand edits begins with one step. You won’t finish it all in one day, and that’s normal. Focus on one thing at a time. Right now, I’m in the middle of editing my NaNo draft with my attention on the timeless writing advice to “show, don’t tell.”

Sara Zarr has a great post on her tumblr by author Chuck Palahniuk on this. Chuck asks writers to abstain from using “think/thinks/thought” for half a year. He doesn’t mean to swap them out for fancier variations from the thesaurus. The related words of know, realize, wonder, understand, want, etc. as well as like, love, and hate also make the do-not-use list. Why? While you will sometimes need these words, more often than not their use means you’re telling instead of showing. Searching your manuscript for these words can help you find places where you can improve your writing by using action, dialog, or sensory detail.

Here’s an example from a scene in my NaNo draft, French Lessons, where Breelynn’s siblings have weaseled Jonah into taking them to Chuck E. Cheez:

Jonah really doesn’t care, I realize, sitting in a booth with him the next night enjoying the last slice of pizza while Dwight and Jackson run around on a video game high. He’s got Merry cradled in one arm and even the baby likes him.

Jonah is the book boyfriend and I was missing an opportunity to show his total swoon-worthiness in this paragraph. How does Breelynn know that he doesn’t mind hanging at Chuck E. Cheez or that the baby likes him? What’s happening that shows these things? Here’s the edited replacement:

The next night, I’m enjoying the last slice of pizza while Dwight and Jackson run around on a video game high. Jonah leans back against the wall of the booth with Merry cradled in one arm. The baby looks up at him, eyes wide from the noise and flashing lights. He holds out one of his fingers for her to clutch. She grabs it and smiles.

 

Then she spits up on him.

 

I drop the pizza on my plate and reach out my arms to take her back, but Jonah just grabs a napkin and wipes everything up. I pick my pizza back up and take another bite. Somehow, it’s the most delicious one yet. He really doesn’t mind.

Notice that the baby now spits up on Jonah, where she hadn’t before. This was an added bonus that spontaneously emerged once I really got into the scene with my characters instead of just stating their thoughts.

Fellow writers, it’s your turn. Are you up to this editing challenge in one of your own manuscripts? Or do you have your own great editing advice to share?

About the author - Katie Van Ark

Katie Van Ark lives in Michigan with two daughters, two cats, and one very patient husband who was also her ...

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8 comments on "Swoon Author Katie Van Ark: Spice Up Your Writing With Sensory Detail"

Claire Kann on Feb. 12, 2015, noon said:

Claire Kann


That’s a stellar example, Katie! I’m always on the prowl for ways to improve my writing. I’ve read that Palahniuk quote before so it was great to see in action. When I edit, the first thing I look for are adverbs. I hunt them down by searching for “-ly” in MS word. Then, I try to restructure the sentence to see if it’s possible to use more powerful and engaging language.

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Katie Van Ark on Feb. 12, 2015, 4:45 p.m. said:

Katie Van Ark


I do that one, too. The “find/replace” feature – word processing programs’ gift to writers!

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Kevina Oyatedor on Feb. 12, 2015, 2:18 p.m. said:

Kevina Oyatedor


this is a great post katie!! i do tend to use the same adverbs so i change it up with other words or change the emotion of the chapter.

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Katie Van Ark on Feb. 12, 2015, 4:47 p.m. said:

Katie Van Ark


Thanks for sharing, Kevina!

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Vera Garnes Burris on Feb. 12, 2015, 2:28 p.m. said:

Vera Garnes Burris


Very well-timed, Katie. In my WIP, I’ve thought and thought of a word for thought and it came to…naught. :~)
Now I can go back to add more action or characterization instead

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Katie Van Ark on Feb. 12, 2015, 4:49 p.m. said:

Katie Van Ark


Glad it helped!

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Grace Prince on Feb. 13, 2015, 4:35 p.m. said:

Grace Prince


Great blog post! I have a “Bad Words” list that I pull out while editing, but it appears to have been missing a couple of words! Thank you!

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Katie Van Ark on Feb. 16, 2015, 8:45 a.m. said:

Katie Van Ark


Grace, I’d love to see what else is on your editing bad words list. Would you mind sharing?

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