Proofing Checklist: Just Nod & Smile

I recently finished the latest revision of my novel, and after all the heavy lifting was done–you know, adding new scenes, tweaking character motivations, all that–it was time for one more proof before it goes back to my agent. Now I have a pretty lengthy proofing checklist that includes all kinds of things, from overused words, sentence structure bugaboos, adverb annihilation, dialog tag correctification, the works. What I want to focus on today, though, is body language and nonverbal cues, and more importantly the ones I tend to overuse.

As usual for these things, what follows is how I write, revise, etc. I’m trying for a specific style with my work that won’t be a good fit for everyone. So with that disclaimer out of the way, let’s nod, smile, shake our heads, and grimace this thing to death. 🙂

As I alluded to above, the prime suspects for overused body language in my work are nod, smile, and shaking heads. The first two, especially, can get pretty egregious, and I end up removing half or more of them in a given manuscript. I also tend to overuse frown, grimace, and, oddly, shudder to a lesser degree, plus a few others.

So how and why do I fix my nods and smiles and so on? Well, here are some examples.

1) It doesn’t make sense. Sometimes I’m just writing along, making everybody nod and smile, and for some reason I pop one into sentence where it doesn’t make sense. Case in point:

When are you going after them?” Everett asked.

She nodded. “Soon, and you’re coming with us.”

So, uh, why is she nodding there? No good reason. This one just gets nuked, and the sentence and dialog are fine without it.

2) It’s redundant with the dialog. This is kind of a stylistic choice, but I prefer to let the dialog do the heavy lifting when it comes to character emotions, intent, and so on. Often as not, the body language is just redundant. Example:

Everett nodded. “Yeah, that night.” He took a risk and lied. “I spoke with Howard on the inside. He saw the same thing.”

I don’t really need the nodded here because he gives the affirmative in the dialog and I don’t think it adds anything. I might rewrite this one as:

“Yeah, that night.” Everett took a risk and lied. “I spoke with Howard on the inside. He saw the same thing.”

Now there are times where the body language, a nod in this case, does add something to the dialog. Case in point:

He didn’t sit, but he put his hands on the back of the chair and nodded. “Go on.”

I could remove the nod here, but I actually like the three little bits of nonverbal communication here followed by the dialog. Your mileage may vary, but this is one I’d keep.

3) There’s a better word. Sometimes I’ll default to one of my go-to bits of body language even when there’s a better choice. Now, this differs from point number one in that I actually want some kind of nonverbal cue in the sentence. Just, you know, a different one. Example:

He grimaced. “They could have brought you at night to spare you that.” He remembered his own troubles with the sun.

Now a grimace is usually used to denote disgust or pain, but that’s not what the character is feeling here. It’s frustration or even anger, so something different is needed. Maybe it’s:

“Goddamn it,” Everett said through clenched teeth. “They could have brought you at night to spare you that.”

In this case I think that extra bit of dialog and the nonverbal cue sells the emotion I want better than just a facial expression. I also think it works better without the last sentence.


So how many of the offending words did a remove from my 103,000-word manuscript? Here’s the score.

Word Start End
nod/nodded/nodding 108 47
Smile/smiled/smiling 89 47
shake/shook head 88 38
shudder/shuddered/shuddering 23 11
frown/frowned/frowning 15 14
grimace/grimaced/grimacing 13 9

Not bad. As you can see, I removed half or more of the prime offenders while I was more lenient with the others. It should be noted that not all those nods, smiles, and shaking of heads were simply deleted. Like the examples I included, sometimes they were replaced with a more appropriate word or action.

Well, that’s a glimpse into my proofing process, and, again, this is just how I do it. You may use more nods and smiles than me, and that’s cool. Hell, I recently looked at a best-selling novel around the same length as my book, and it had 276 instances of nod/nodded/nodding. That clearly didn’t keep it from getting published or selling in great numbers.

What types of body language and nonverbal cues do you tend to overuse? Tell me about it in the comments.

Get Your Hooks In: Even More Fun With First Lines

For a while now I’ve been revisiting my published stories specifically to look at the first line and determine if it’s the kind of line that immediately hooks the reader. Once again, this is because of an essay by Stephen King called “Great Hookers I Have Known” from his collection Secret Windows. It’s a great little piece where King looks at the first lines from his novels to see if they qualify as “hookers.” That’s apparently old publisher slang for a first lines that grab a reader’s attention.

So let’s look at some of my recently published stories and see if I’m getting better, worse, or just treading water with my first lines. I’ll give you a link to the story if it’s free to read online, then the first line, and an excuse, er, I mean an explanation of why it’s a good or not so good.

1. “The Thing That Came With the Storm” published by The Molotov Cocktail

I’ve burned all the furniture and every scrap of paper in the house.

Pretty good. Like a lot of interesting first lines, I think it gets the reader asking questions. In this case, that question is why is he doing that? That’s the kind of thing that usually keeps a reader reading. Grade: B+

2. “Big Problems” published by Jersey Devil Press

Gorrus crawled on his hands and knees, squeezing through the narrow halls of his house.

Meh. This is one that gets a whole lot better when paired with the second sentence. His bedroom was the only room that could accommodate a giant’s frame because he’d knocked down the walls of the adjoining rooms. There’s an argument to be made, of course, that you should focus on the first paragraph as a hook, and this is one that probably supports that argument. Grade: C+ (B with second line)

3. “Paint Eater” published by The Arcanist

Ajay tossed the empty can of black Krylon on the ground and stepped back.

Yeah, bleh. I have a good paragraph to open this story, but this first sentence is kinda boring. The black Krylon is, I guess, mildly interesting just because you don’t read those words together very often and it tells you something about the story. Still, not awesome.  Grade: C-

4. “Far Shores and Ancient Graves” published by New Myths

Dr. Livingstone, I presume.” Grace smiled, hoping the stuffy looking British archaeologist had a sense of humor.

Not terrible (a little cliche maybe). This one gives you a little character note from the get-go, but it’s not exactly knock-your-socks-off. British archaeologist gives a hint at what the story might be about, but I’d say this one is just okay. Grade: B-

5. “Old as the Trees” published by Ellipsis Zine

Simon stood next to an ocean of waist-high weeds, their thin yellow stalks so densely packed you’d have to walk on top of them rather than through them.

I like this one. There’s some good imagery here, but it doesn’t tell you a whole lot. This is a horror story, and if I’d been able to inject something ominous into this first line it would really sing. As it is, it’s not bad, but not great. Grade: B

6. “Time Waits for One Man” published by Factor Four Magazine

Okay, so you’re immortal?” Nadine set her iPhone on the table and pressed record.

Here we go. This is a good one. I love starting a story with dialog when I can, and I think it works here. The question “Okay, so you’re immortal?” is pretty interesting, I think, and I believe most folks would want to keep reading (the whole point of a good first line). Grade: A

7. “Beyond the Block” published by Tales from the Magician’s Skull

My cell is not far from the executioner’s square, and the headsman is already at work.

Another solid first line. This one tells you a lot in a short space. You immediately know the narrator is in some kind of trouble and there’s the threat he’ll get his head chopped off. That’s pretty good. It’s not the best of the bunch, but well above average. Grade: A-


As usual, these grades are super subjective, and your mileage may vary. A lot. Ultimately, all these stories were published, and the question, as always, is did the first line help or hurt the story’s chances? This is not scientific or anything, but I will say the stories in this batch with better first lines were rejected fewer times or even sold on their first attempt. There are, of course, other factors at play. I’ve sold to a number of these markets more than once or even a lot, so the editor might give me the benefit of the doubt and read past a boring first line (bless them). Or, it’s entirely possible that some editors don’t really care about the first line and read every story start to finish and judge it in its entirety (also, bless them). Who knows? But it remains a fun little exercise. 🙂

Thoughts on first lines? Tell me about it in the comments and/or share some of yours.

The Post-Rejection Process

Rejections are inevitable. You can’t avoid them, you can’t (and absolutely shouldn’t) argue with them, and though they lose some of their sting over time, they’ll always have some bite. What you can do is control how you deal with rejections. For me, that boils down to a specific four-step process that lets me put rejections in perspective and move on. Of course, this is going to be a very different process for each writer, but here’s what I do.

  1. Read and feel. You can’t avoid this part, so I just lean into it. Be disappointed, be angry, be sad. There’s nothing wrong with any of that . . . as long as you set some kind of time limit. If I need it, I’ll usually give myself anywhere from ten minutes to an hour just to deal with the emotions. I remind myself none of this is personal, that selling a story is all often about putting it in front of the right editor at the right time, and all the other little adages and affirmations I talk about on the blog. What I don’t want is to let those emotions overwhelm me and keep me from being productive, i.e., sending out more submissions. This is also a time I might reach out to other authors to commiserate, normalize the experience, and, hey, get a little sympathy from folks going through the same thing.
  2. Observe and report. The next thing I do is all the bookkeeping. It’s a clinical process that removes me from the emotional aspect of rejection. First thing I do is move the rejection email from my inbox into a rejection folder. It’s kind of an out of sight, out of mind thing, but it’s also so I can put the rejection where it belongs. There’s something vaguely comforting in that. The next thing I do is head out to Duotrope and report the rejection there. I want to keep accurate records because I need them for my blog, and I want to make sure I don’t make stupid mistakes like sending a rejected story to the same publisher. I can’t let a disappointing rejection hurt my chances at future publication.
  3. Get analytical. Okay, now that I’ve let my emotions have their moment and I’ve done all the necessary accounting, I’m usually in a pretty objective place. If I’ve received a personal rejection with feedback, I’ll pull up the email and really try and absorb it. Is it useful to me? Do I need to revise the story based on the feedback? More importantly, does the feedback possibly pinpoint a larger issue in my writing? If the feedback resonates with me, then I’ll revise the story. If I’ve received a form rejection, then I generally go straight to step four.
  4. Fire and forget. I often send out a rejected story right away if I received a standard form rejection and the story has only been submitted a few times (or if I can’t use the feedback I received from a personal rejection). It’s another process that has, I don’t know, kind of a cleansing element, especially after I’ve done all the stuff above. Sending that story out again feels like the final step in the process, one that allows me to put a rejection behind me and move forward.

So that’s my process, my ritual if you will. It keeps me sane and keeps me sending out more submissions, and that’s all I can hope for.

What do you do post-rejection? Tell me about it in the comments.

Deadlines: What Can They Teach You?

I’m currently writing on deadline, something I’ve done a lot in my career. From short stories to novels, I’ve frequently had to bang out the words under the gun. That got me thinking. What has writing under a deadline taught me and how has it shaped my writing? Here are three deadline-induced skills I’ve developed, which I’ve reduced down to acronyms because it’s more fun. So, lets talk about ABO, GID, and FIP.

1) ABO (Always be Outlining)

Look, I’m not saying outlining is the one true way. A lot of writers prefer to fly by the seat of their pants, and that clearly works for them. For me, however, outlining a fiction project does two things. One, it alleviates a lot of the worry that goes hand-in-hand with writing under a (tight) deadline. If I know where the story is going, and I have a solid road map to get there, I worry less about that and can focus on the writing. Two, it makes it easier to get started. An outline is kind of like a practice run or a warm-up, and it allows me to dive into the story without all the anxiety-inducing baggage of actually writing it (yet). That, for some reason, make the whole thing easier.

What ABO has Taught Me

Well, this is pretty simple. I’ve become a dedicated plotter in my own work for the same reasons I describe above. I write detailed outlines for short stories and novels, and it’s made both starting and finishing my own projects much easier. As I said above, outlining is not for everyone, and I get that, but it’s been an invaluable tool for me.

2) GID (Get it Down)

When I’m writing on a deadline, I don’t have time to let self-doubt and fear get in my way. That’s not to say they aren’t present (they are), but the only thing that frightens me more than getting those words on the page is, uh, not getting those words on the page and missing my deadline. So I sit down and write, no matter how I’m feeling, not matter how my brain is screaming “THIS IS ALL TERRIBLE.” I just forge ahead, word by word, paragraph by paragraph, at a pace of 2,000 to 3,000 words per day until I have a first draft. Basically, I tell myself “just get it down,” which is to say get it on the page, get that first draft done, and, most importantly, you can worry about the rest later.

What GID has Taught Me

With my own writing, I often pretend I’m on a deadline. For a novel, I figure out a writing schedule that requires a pace of about 10,000 words a week. I write my outline, and then, well, I just get it down. It allows me to knock out a first draft in about nine to twelve weeks. Really, what GID has allowed me to do, in conjunction with outlining, is finish things. It’s often a struggle, but if I can allow myself to not care about everything being perfect as I write it and really just focus on getting words on the page, I can get things done, and it’s never as bad as I think it’s gonna be, which leads me to the next skill.

3) FIP (Fix it in Post)

The bosom buddy of get it down, fix it in post or FIP is another mantra I recite as I’m writing a first draft. It’s more of a film/TV term than a writing term, but the concept of cleaning up and editing raw footage still applies. Working in the gaming industry as an editor and writer for all those years taught me just about everything can be fixed (often at the last minute) once you have a complete draft to work with.

What FIP Taught Me

Like the rest of these acronyms, FIP is all about finishing. It’s another way to do an end run around the fear and doubt that might keep me from writing. When I’m working on that first draft of a story or a novel, and I start to get a little freaked out that it’s not going well or whatever, I tell myself “fix it in post,” often right after I tell myself “just get it down.” Those two together are a powerful force that lets me forge ahead and keep working.


Armed with ABO, GID, and FIP, I feel I can go into just about any project with the understanding that a) I can complete it, b) it won’t be nearly as bad as I fear it will be, and c) even if it needs work, I can DO that work. They’ve been a great confidence booster, and I learned them all because of the looming threat and ticking doom clock of years and years of deadlines. Those skills–though I guess they’re more mindsets than actual skills–have definitely paid dividends in my own work.

So that’s what deadlines have done for me. What have they done for you? Tell me about it in the comments.

Micromanagement: 4 Benefits of Writing Tiny

I’ve been writing Twitter microfiction under the #vss365 hashtag for roughly two months. This is my first experience writing at this very limited scale, and I’m finding it both fun and educational. I’m by no means an expert, but there is definite value in trying to cram a story into like 50 words. Here are a few of the benefits, as I see it, from writing microfiction.

  1. Savage self-editing. One of the best parts of writing microfiction, at least for me, is how it forces you to be utterly brutal and precise with word choice and sentence structure. What I mean is it’s largely an exercise of stripping an idea down to its bare bones so that that only the most vital words remain, and when you do it right, there’s a beautiful simplicity to the piece. Depending on the kind of fiction you write (and how you write it), that’s a skill that translates to longer works, from flash fiction to novels. I tend to have a fairly Spartan style anyway, and I find writing microfiction still forces me to knuckle down and make those hard choices (almost always for the better).
  2. Stretching your literary legs. If you’re writing microfiction based on a prompt like I’m doing, I think you’ll find yourself writing outside your comfort zone a lot. Yeah, I still fall back on my favorite horror genre tropes a fair amount, but I also find myself dipping a toe into other genres and even subjects approaching lit-fic (hell, I’ve even written a few limericks). That’s maybe not something I would attempt with a longer piece, but with micro I feel like I can experiment a little.
  3. Story seed generator. Look, it’s pretty difficult to write a complete story in 50 words (it is possible, though), but even if you don’t end up with a perfect micro, you might end up with a pretty solid idea that can be expanded into a longer piece. I’ve written something like fifty or sixty micros over the last few months, and I’m already developing two of them into longer stories. What’s better, they’re both a little different than what I usually write (back to point two) and might let me hit some markets my work normally isn’t a good fit for.
  4. Easy to share. Obviously, I’m writing microfiction on Twitter, so every piece is getting shared to the folks who follow me. That’s a big benefit because it’s an opportunity to potentially let a lot of people see my work in easy bite-sized chunks. It has also introduced me to a fantastic group of writers and THEIR awesome work. Let me tell you, there are some supremely talented folks writing microfiction on Twitter under the #vss365 hashtag (and others), and I strongly urge you to head out there and take a look.

Again, I’m no expert on microfiction, but in just a short amount of time I’ve found the practice of writing tiny to be immensely beneficial. I plan to keep at it on a daily basis, and if you’d like to follow my microfiction journey, follow me on Twitter @Aeryn_Rudel.

Do you write microfiction? I’d love to hear your thoughts on the subject in the comments.

Submission Top Ten: Longest Waits

Recently I sent a few submission status queries and even a withdrawal letter, and it got me thinking about long wait times and how they turn out. So I went back through my submissions and pulled my top ten longest waits to see how each resolved. It’s an interesting mix of results, I think.

Days Out Avg Wait Status Queried Notes
1 419 180 Withdrawn Yes Closed
2 324 128 Pending Yes
3 310 317 Rejection
4 286 180 Acceptance Yes Closed
5 277 57 Withdrawn
6 211 153 Withdrawn Yes Closed
7 203 239 Rejected Closed
8 189 90 Rejected Yes Closed
9 187 173 Rejected
10 159 180 Rejected Closed

Kind of a mixed bag, huh? Let’s take a look at each one, and I’ll quickly fill you in on the details.

1) 419 Days. Yep, this is the longest I’ve ever waited . . . sort of. I actually queried and withdrew this story, but the publisher didn’t respond to either email, so I started submitting the story elsewhere. Then, like a year later, they sent me a very nice close-but-no-cigar rejection. To add to the weirdness here, the only other times I submitted to this publisher they rejected the story in a single day. This market has now closed, which is a common theme on this list and may be a contributing factor to some long wait times and eventual story withdrawals.

2) 324 Days. This is an interesting one in that it’s still pending. Why have I not withdrawn it? Simple, the publisher has been incredibly communicative and promptly replied to my query letters. This length of story is not their usual fare, so it’s taking a little longer. Since they’ve been so awesome and upfront about everything, I’m totally okay with waiting.

3) 310 Days. This is an anthology submission, and you’ll notice I didn’t send a query. That’s because it was clear based on this publisher’s past anthologies (and their average wait time) that it was going to take a while. They allow simultaneous submissions, so I was fine with the long wait.

4) 286 Days. The one on the list that ended with an acceptance. One thing to note here is that I did send a query letter, and as you can see the publisher was certainly not offended by it. Don’t be afraid to send those submissions status queries if you’re following the guidelines and an appropriate amount of time has passed. I’ve yet to have a publisher respond negatively to one. Sadly, this market has also closed.

5) 277 Days. This submission was a bit earlier in my short fiction career, and I should have queried. Instead, I simply waited (too long) and finally sent a withdrawal letter. Thing is, I know this was an anomaly for this publisher. They’ve since published one of my stories and rejected two more, responding within their average wait each time. This was likely just a lost submission.

6) 211 Days. This is a standard wait, query, and withdraw with one oddity. The publisher responded to both the query and the withdrawal letter, which is unusual when I actually get to the point of withdrawing a piece. The fact they they have recently closed up shop might be an indicator of what was going on, but I don’t know for sure.

7) 203 Days. Nothing odd about this one. It’s a one-time anthology that responded well within the wait time they promised. As such, I didn’t query because I knew it was going to take a while. Like many publishers and anthologies that have long wait times, they were open to simultaneous submissions. They’re closed, but that’s just because it’s a one-shot anthology.

8) 189 Days. After waiting a reasonable amount of time on this one (around 120 days I think), I sent a submission status query. They didn’t respond, and I was about to send a withdrawal letter when the rejection came in. This market has also closed down.

9) 187 days. I knew going in this market had a long wait time. I didn’t mind because a) the story was a reprint and b) they allowed sim-subs. They rejected the story right around their average wait time.

10) 159 days. This is the same market that accepted my story after 286 days. This time, they rejected the piece right around their average wait time.


That’s my top ten longest wait times. I think the most important lesson to be learned here is don’t be afraid to query. If you follow the publisher’s guidelines on when and how to query, they’re not going to upset, and, like I said, a lot of the time they’ll get back to you with some kind of response.

Got any long wait times of your own you’d like to share? Tell me about it in the comments.

Why I’m Not Writing: Procrastination

Let’s talk about procrastination, one of the myriad demons that plague writers and keep them from achieving their goals. I believe procrastination generally stems from fear. You know, fear of failing, fear of writing badly, fear of that really difficult scene that’s out of your comfort zone, and so on, and so on. This is why I procrastinate, anyway.

Procrastination’s enabling bosom buddy is distraction, and, well, the writer’s world is chocked full of distractions (I’m sitting in front of one right now). I typically fall prey to the following distraction duo.

  • Something more “important.” Instead of working on the thing that scares me, I must write this blog post, or edit this short story, or start writing this novel outline. This is a tricky one because I’m still writing and being productive, but I’m absolutely avoiding the project I should be working on (he says, kind of avoiding the next revision of his novel). Shit, I may have created an entire blog for this purpose . . .
  • Internet and social media. Sometimes I tell myself my internet nonsense is actually “something more important,” you know, like, uh, marketing and stuff. Usually, though it’s more like: Yes, I know I need to start writing, but I need to watch these twelve YouTube videos about a dude restoring a one-hundred-year-old kitchen knife he found buried in his backyard. (Oddly, watching someone methodically remove rust is really soothing). Note, reading Rejectomancy posts does not count as procrastinating. I promise. 🙂

So, how do you deal with procrastination and distraction? Every writer who gets anything done has some method, but this is not a one-size-fits-all kind of thing. Here are three methods I’ve employed in the past and how well they’ve worked for me.

  1. Iron Will. Yes, some writers defeat procrastination and distraction by just giving them both the middle finger and getting on with it. I know writers who sit down at their desks and say to themselves, “I will now write for eight straight hours,” and then, you know, do that. Crazy, right? I mean, for God’s sake, who’s checking their Facebook and Twitter feeds?! I have nothing but mad respect for these authors, but for we mere mortals such rigorous devotion can be difficult. I’ve had some success with this method, usually because I’m under the gun with a deadline and it’s write-or-die time.
  2. Distraction elimination. Some folks leave their homes and write on laptops or other devices that aren’t connected to the internet, so giving in to distraction and procrastination isn’t even an option. This is similar to the Iron Will strategy, though more attainable because you can’t access the thing keeping you from writing, so you might as well write. This is certainly effective, though it does require you to have a dedicated writing machine. I’ve tried this a number of times with some success. I also find changing your writing location every once in a while–a coffee shop, a park, a library, whatever–can be good for staying on task. Thing is, I’m not a big fan of writing away from my desk, so I don’t use this tactic as often as I could.
  3. Giving in. A little. This is my favorite and the one I use the most. It involves giving in to those distractions a little without going too far down the rabbit hole. What I do is make a deal with myself, and that deal is, “Hey, if you write 500 words or edit 25 pages, you can screw around on the internet for 10 minutes or work on that blog post a little.” Seems childish, I know, but it totally works for me, and I can bang out 2,000-3,000 words or edit 100 pages in a day pretty reliably. Of course, screwing around on the internet might be actual work too (research, answering emails, etc.), but if I want to watch that rust removal video, I don’t have to feel guilty. Well, I don’t have to feel guilty about not writing for 10 minutes.

How do you deal with distraction and procrastination? Tell me about it in the comments.