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A Character’s Reflex and Senses

We did the Active Shooter Response Training this week at school. Big shoutout to the KSP--it was fantastic. I learned so many things I’d never thought about before, and for the first time in my career, I don’t feel like a sitting duck. 

One thing the speaker said resonated with me as a writer. He talked about how in a scenario like a school shooting, the body tends to focus on a single sense, like tunnel vision.  The person in danger could literally see everything in the room and hear nothing. I heard what he said, but it wasn’t until we started doing drills that I really understood. We get so carried away with trying to throw in all those sensory details that sometimes we forget to check reality.

In some of the drills, we had to flee. I’ve never ran so fast in my life, and surprisingly, I wasn’t breathless. Here I’ve been making excuses about not running 5K’s and who knew I could jet across a parking lot in ten seconds, ha ha. But the crazy thing is, I remember all of the cars in the parking lot beside where I was standing. I remember details of the back of our school that I’ve never noticed before even though I’ve been out that same door several times. Everything I saw the second the drill was over is blazed in my mind.

Then it hit me (duh) that I’ve taught anatomy, and human reflexes are pretty well-researched phenomena. 

Here, for example, is one of the sites I like to use:  Our Body’s Rapid Defense Mechanism. It explains involuntary movement and what almost always happens when we get injured.

Tying this back to characters, it makes me wonder how well we pace their reflexes. When I heard gunshots in the hallway, I stood frozen for about 5 seconds before I ran, evaluating which direction was safe. Sitting in a room with someone pointing a gun at me completely changed the way I see that kind of scene. They told us in the training to fight the man, and I dove at him before I even knew what I was doing. Let me tell you, in that instance, I wasn’t thinking about what color shirt he was wearing or whether or not he had a certain hair color or style. 

What I’m saying is placement of details matters. In that 10-15 seconds that I held the “shooter’s” wrists and the other teachers helped me ambush the poor guy, my only thought was keeping that gun out of my face. Now after he was on the table and the “danger” was over, I noticed everything in the room. 

Now I’m pumped, ready to write a good fight scene 🙂

A Novel is a Highway, Always Under Construction

2012-09-10 14.55.30


This picture is one of my favorite stretches of road, a little country drive that winds its way along train tracks and a river. Peaceful, relaxing, and a great distraction from day-to-day drama–until it rains hard and the road washes away. The right side of the road is continually needing to be rebuilt and resurfaced.

It’s a good metaphor for life and a great one for editing fiction. I’ve been sitting on a “finished” novel for about two months now, in the revising process, and I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to step back and quit editing. It seems like with every read I find a part of the story that’s bumpy, or there’s a plot hole, or a big section that’s completely washed out from something I rewrote in another place.

Which begs a question–how do you know when it’s polished enough? And how do you get there?

I’m not the only person who’s ever asked that question–in fact, a Google search hits up several bloggers offering their own bit of advice. Author Carolyn Jess Cooke likens it to that scene in Forest Gump where he takes the football and runs with it. She talks about finishing when it pleases overall.

In the writing forums I’ve participated in, this question comes up a lot, and the answer is usually the same. You don’t ever truly finish editing. At some point, you have to just let go and go for it. Right now, I run my chapters through Editminion, which gives me a good overview of weak writing, prepositions and such. Then I exchange critiques with partners, and they usually pick out the big plot issues. I do a little revision and send the chapter on to my freelance editor. I make most of the changes she suggests, and do a final read using the following techniques.

1. Create a Wordle of each chapter. Wordles are AMAZING! The only negative is they’re a public document.  The way a Wordle works is to analyze each word in an excerpt of text and size the words in accordance to frequency. For example, here’s a screenshot of my Wordle for the first chapter in my WIP. You can tell it’s a Christian Fiction because of the size of the word church, for example. Part of the scene happens in the church. But some other words that stood out to me–phone, eyes, shoulder, face–how many of those could be overused?

Wordle Chapter One

2. Search for commonly overused words with Microsoft Word’s Find feature. This article has a great list. My bad habits are back, going, reach, look, saw, eyes, etc. Lots of repetitive words.

3. Search for “ly” with the Find feature. Most of the time, these can be cut. I’ve never found an adverb I can’t write around, although I do sometimes use them in my writing. I  aim for about one per every 1000 words, which comes to about two or three per chapter (YA).

4. Read through to find places to add sensory details. Can readers smell your setting? If there’s food, have you described it in a way to make their mouths water?

5. Do a line-by-line read-through for show/don’t tell. Can readers pick up the emotion in each scene? Did I just say anger washed across a character’s face, or did I describe what that looked like?

But I still don’t feel “finished.”  Novel, under construction. Somebody’s going to have to take this thing away from me 🙂

What are your strategies? How do you know when you’re finished editing?