Thursday, October 8, 2009

Bad Seeds: Looking and Turning

I never cease to be truly grateful for what I’ve learned about writing from editing other people’s work. But when one reads other people’s manuscripts all day, every day, one starts to notice the same sorts of things over and over and over… and after a time (usually a fairly short time), these things go from being notable and interesting to being downright annoying. Now don’t think I’m becoming complaining and snarky—it is my my job and I love every day of it. If I didn’t love it, I’d hardly be taking the time to share this with you, would I?

But I do believe these are just the kinds of things that don’t belong in a MS. Wordy Bird calls them Bad Seeds. I thought you might find it helpful if I share some Bad Seeds with you every now and then. Because once you’ve really tasted a Bad Seed, rolled it around in your beak and spat out the husk, you may not want to try one again.

Bad Seed #1: Turning and Looking

Imagine Nestmate and I are having a conversation. I might write about it like this:

Wordy Bird kissed Chickling goodnight and flew down the stairs to tidy up the living room. She turned to Nestmate. “Matey,” she said, looking at him, “I note you haven’t done the dishes.”

Nestmate turned and looked at her. “I rinsed them for you,” he said. “Geez, I thought you’d think that was helpful.”

Wordy Bird looked at him. “Nestmate, rinsing the dishes and lining them up so I can wash them, is the kind of help one gives when one wants to appear as if one’s being helpful, but when one’s real intention is to watch the Patriots.”

Don’t you think all this turning and looking is implied? When we have a conversation, we usually face the person and look at them when we speak to them. In regular dialogue, turning and looking is implied. It’s when a character DOESNT turn and look at someone during conversation that it becomes interesting and therefore noteworthy.

For example:

Nestmate watched Tom Brady score another touchdown. “You’re always nagging me,” he muttered.

Wordy Bird studied her toes. “Not always,” she said quietly. She turned and looked at the teetering pile of dishes. “Now are you going to help me, or what?”

The bottom line is this, and it’s about much more than looking and turning: readers, even readers who happen to be small people, do not need to have everything spelled out for them. Not only can it be boring and tedious, it doesn’t leave room for the reader to read between the lines, to fill in the gaps, to imagine.


  1. Besides finding this very illustrative of good writing, I love that you use the phrase "small people". (I call them "little people"...same thing.) I find a lot people who try to write MG and YA forget that just because someone is young, it does not mean they do not understand things implied. Thanks for an interesting post.

  2. Great post, WB. Thanks!

    Can I also mention that one way to write well is to ignore (some) writing advice. But of course the writer must be confident enough to do that. I recall when doing a writing course twenty years ago that a very respected Australian author instructed his class to start a story with action or dialogue. I ignored this as I thought dialogue a cheesy way to begin. Lately I've been noticing many writers advising against such an opening. It's become a rule 'no no'.

    The trouble with writing to a set formuala - except in the case of grammar or punctuation - is that then everyone writes the same. Consider the dating of styles from one generation to the next. Often you can pick the era where something was written from the writing rules the stories are following. And these rules are always changing.

    One rule I dislike is having conflict as the main thrust and highpoint of a novel. This is because conflict does catch one's attention, and it is dramatic. However, as we all hate conflict in real life, why not think of relpacing conflict in our entertainment with something more appealing and productive? Instead of characters with problems, why not characters with answers? Instead of fighting and despair why not show how people can live in peace and hope and how much fun that would be? what we focus on we tend to manifest, so if the media could influence the masses with positive messages then our awareness and behaviours might be lifted to new levels.

    - Wendy Peterson

  3. Thank you both.

    An interesting response, Wendy, and I'm going to give that some thought.