I love writing classes.

They so often offer unexpected surprises. I’d like to share a tip from a recent class that made an impact on me. Veronia Rossi talked about revision.

She said read your work and look for the sentences that are vague and general. They’re missing specifics. They’re using a phrase you’ve read (or used) before. Mark those. Then come back and make them specific and fresh. Turn the routine into sparkling writing.

I wondered if this would really work, so I tried it on my current work in progress. It’s very much in the draft stage, so I was sure I’d find room for improvement.

I didn’t expect to highlight seven phrases in two pages.

Here’s the first sentence I tagged. “I’d held their hearts in my hands.”

That said what I wanted to say. Those words described the character’s feeling when she was, unexpectedly, on stage in a leading role. Not literally hearts in hands, but the feeling that my hero had captured her audience’s attention in a way she wouldn’t have imagined. They were listening and focused on what she was saying.

But really? When I read that sentence, I thought, I’ve seen that before. It’s a common phrasing any reader could, well, read right over without feeling an impact. What does it say that’s new? That’s specific to this character and her experience.

So I highlighted the words and came back to think about them. What was my character actually feeling in that moment? My character as the unique person she was – with her own heart and mind.

I tried rewriting and came up with this:

I’d drawn them from their real world into my imaginary world. Magic. The kind of magic that Herbert worshiped. This time I’d had the impact of a clown nose stuck to a rhinoceros.

I’ve gone from a sentence I’ve read before to one that surprised me—and might affect a reader. Make her think and remember the character whose experience when she’s the center of attention is being a clown nose on a rhinoceros.

At least that’s what I hope.

For me, this captures a different feeling, the way the character stands on a stage when she’s not an experienced actor. She’s filling in and she’s uncertain and awkward and out of place. But trying as hard as she can to make a play work. And soaring with relief when she succeeds, even though she doesn’t quite believe it’s working out.

There’s a sense of humor instead of self-congratulation. For me, it was truer to her experience. Wonder and disbelief.

If you think of all the people who might stand on a stage in leading roles, every one of them would express the sentiment of capturing an audience differently.

Maybe for another actor, it would be the sense of power. You are expertly controlling the emotions of those watching.

Something like:

They were crying because of her. She’d twisted their hearts and wrung that emotion from them. No threats, no blows, but a sucker punch to the hearts of every person in that audience. The stage offered a platform to reshape the world and a tryout for having the same impact offstage. After curtain calls, she’d ask for a raise.

For me, that would be a very different experience.

The question is, if you read your book from the outside, finding those words that are “good enough,” you can make them so much more meaningful.

Go for it!

All it takes is a highlighter, a lot of ruthlessness, and an intent to build your unique character on the page. You’ll have a lot more fun and wind up with a stronger book.

By: Kate MacEachern


Kate MacEachern is an aspiring author who has been a member of WisRWA and enjoyed many past conferences. She is always working a novel and has learned a lot from online and in-person classes over the years.