Thursday, May 26, 2011

When Search and Replace Is Not Enough

courtesy of
Body language has always been a struggle for me. I either have too much or not enough and much of what I include all revolves around the same motion. Twisting hands that knot themselves in your lap are the same thing. An eyebrow that lifts is the same one that quirks.

But because I am trying to write “fresh” I often take the same ways of saying something…and using different words to describe it.

Sorry. Can’t get away with that anymore.

After taking a recent Margie Lawson class (Empowering Character’s Emotions), I realized my body language (BL) was not good enough in my writing. And it suddenly became quite plain what I was doing wrong.

It was all the same.

Every bit of it revolved around a few parts of the body. A wince of a smile, restless hands, pacing, stomping, nodding or shaking of a head. There was no variety to any of it and I saw how my work suffered.

A great deal of BL that comes across on the page has the potential to speak louder than the words the character says. For example: (in the most simplistic form)

“Oh, why would you say that? I’m not nervous.” Her legs uncrossed and tapped a dance on the floor before hooking a toe on the barstool. Where a jittering rocked it from knee to toe. “Not nervous at all.”

Her actions completely contradict the words of her mouth. Now obviously I could have written that better, but do you see my point?

I decided to go through my manuscript and mark all my BL. Physically write it down on a pad of paper with a pen instead of just highlighting it on the screen. By writing it down in physical form you can see how many times you repeat a certain motion, because your mind is engaged to take it from the screen to the page.

Courtesy of

The reason you can’t use “search and replace” for this method because if you do a search for “smile” you won’t find all the other times you used a different word or description. Like: “his lips titled upward” (a pet phrase of mine…)

When I went through my first six chapters I marked not only BL, but also actions. I know I often use the same verbiage to describe something, so this was also a chance to mark those areas and see how they compare later on in the story. Don’t get stuck on marking “only” the BL. Look for the verbs that jump out at you as pet phrases.

My characters do a lot of smiling. I marked every single one so I can see how often they do. They also mess a lot with their hands, marching, stomping and nodding. Mark, mark, mark and mark them all!

If your main character doesn’t do the action, then make a little side note with which character did. Be fastidious about this exercise; take the time to mark them all. And when you are done you are going to have a resource at your fingertips that will catalog the emotions and BL of your characters, so when you start to write one that sounds similar you can search through your short-hand notes to see if you have or not.

Make your fiction “fresh” and “vibrant” by not settling for less. Take the time to go through these little extra steps (I did six chapters in a little over an hour) and you’ll plainly see what is working and what isn’t and those pet phrases to avoid.

What have you found that helps your editing process?


Sarah Forgrave said...

Great post, Casey! I absolutely loved Margie's course when I took it last year. It's amazing how many things we can improve without even knowing it (just need somebody to tell us). :)

Joanne Sher said...

What a fabulous post, Casey. I'm definitely going to use this technique when it gets to that point. And I SO want to take Margie's course. Gotta find out when and were I can!

Casey said...

SARAH, I completely agree! What I love so much about that particular class from Margie is it takes the power of the editor and puts it in your hands.

JOANNE, her classes are fantastic! I imagine the lecture packets (that is what she teaches from) are just as great! Hopefully this tip today will help. :-))

Jeanne Takenaka said...

Casey, what a GREAT post! Though it's been in teh back of my mind to think about what BL my characters display, I loved your challenge to go through my wip and really analyze and improve ways of converying emotion and those unspoken messages Thanks so much for sharing these very practical ideas!

Anonymous said...

Thanks Casey! I also used "smiled" alot - problem is I just don't know how many replacements I can find to say "smiled"!

Beth K. Vogt said...

Echoing the "excellent post" sentiment. This is one of those times I'd love to run into someone who thinks writing is easy. Yeah, writing is easy. Writing well--that's something else altogether!

Keli Gwyn said...

Wonderful tips, Casey! I'm working hard to rid my manuscripts of what Harvest House editor Nick Harrison refers to as "trite mannerisms." Doing so is challenging, but I love seeing this aspect of my writing become "fresh" and "vibrant," as you so aptly put it.

Casey said...

JEANNE T, glad it was helpful! I know when I started going through and marking the BL, I was suprised how MUCH I had, probably bordering on too much, so it's good for both ways. :)

FREYA, I know what you mean! But so often you can use other actions or BL to speak for a smile instead. And those times when the character does smile, you can use a colorful description to make it stand out. And sometimes a simple smile works just fine. :) How's that for an answer?

Casey said...

BETH, right there with you! It's one of those things you just can't dwell on. Because each step you take gets you better and better. :)

KELI, trite mannerisms is a great way to put it. I find the more I learn about stronger writing, the easier it is to hit the delete key. Gets easier to divorce those words the more you learn. :)

Cindy R. Wilson said...

Casey, what a great post - and how relevant to what I'm dealing with now. One of my biggest weaknesses is repetitive verbs and descriptions of my characters actions (I even wrote about that in a post I have coming up). I've been searching for better ways to ease up on those common phrases I use a lot, like lips quirking or nodding or eyes squinting. I'll definitely have to add this exercise to my list when I start editing. Thanks!

Casey said...

Glad it could help at such a time, Cindy! I know when I started putting the words down on paper, I saw a lot of pet verbs (that I knew I had, but hadn't really done anything about yet), this really helped me see them. :-))

Jillian said...

I need to run to Office Depot for more pens! Great advice, Casey. Thanks!

Pepper said...

This is GREAT, Casey.
And terribly painful to read - because I'm right there - 'boldly repeating where I've always gone before".
Blah, blah, blah
And I have loads of pet verbs.

Interesting enough - guess which book i brought with me on vacation. The Power of Body Language by Tonya Reiman. REally good info - nothing compared to Margie Lawson's great courses, but still very helpful

Oh - and i like smiles a lot too, Case :-)

Angie Dicken said...

This is something I am always aware of when I write, but I ignore the voice inside of me saying "you've used that before" and just keep on going. Thanks for convicting me for slacking! Ha!

Margaret Metz said...

Great post. How do we balance the desire to be fresh and new in writing about body language with capturing those habits and mannerisms that are part of our characters?

Mary Vee Writer said...

Thanks Casey.
It's easy to fall into our ruts, and as we write we often become comfortable with describing what we see in our mind, forgetting that someone else's mind saw the same product with a different view. I catch myself repeating, but it'd sure be nice to have a brainstorming session to tweak new ideas.

Casey said...

JILLIAN, LOL! Margie advice for sure. :-))

PEP, I know, it's tough to think of going through and writing it all out, but the truth of the matter is, for how long it takes to write it down, you'll see everything you failed to notice. Good stuff, that! :)

Casey said...

ANGIE, LOL, sounds like something I would do ( That's always good for the first draft, though! Laze away. :)

LEE, often that just comes down to the power of the moment. Often times a smile is all that is needed and it conveys the moment, they are BASIC hits to the emotional power of the moment. And other times we have to look at the scene and the emotional impact, put ourselves in the character's shoes and act as they would act. The fine tweaking of all the words and cliche-breaking can come on a second or even third pass. Write the basic and then EMPOWER for what your character needs to convey in that scene. Hopefully that gives a bit of help. :)

MARY,EXACTLY and sounds like a brainstorming plan. Just let me know. ;-)