Category: | Writing

Do You Write For Yourself Or For Your Readers?

Image from the PFWA program.

This past weekend, I had the pleasure of attending the Pasadena Festival of Women Authors. It’s the forth time I’ve gone and once again I walked away feeling inspired. (You can read about previous years here and here).

Aja Gabel’s “The Ensemble”

This year, in the breakout sessions where authors speak to smaller groups, I followed Aja Gable to hear her talk about her debut “The Ensemble.” It’s an expertly crafted book, about “four young friends navigating the cutthroat world of classical music and their complex relationships with each other, as ambition, passion, and love intertwine over the course of their lives.”

In her talk, she mentioned that she didn’t truly excel at writing until she stopped thinking about the fact that it would go out into the world. She had to forget her audience and just write for herself.

What About The Audience?

This caught my attention, because aspiring writers are often told the exact opposite – that we should think about who we are writing for. I’ve even heard people say that you should picture a specific reader as you write.

So when the floor opened up to questions my hand flew up like Hermione Granger’s. I asked her about how her experience contrasted with what I had heard so many times and I really liked her answer.

She said that when she is getting a story down, drafting the first pages, she has to just write for herself. That’s where the magic happens, but then, when she’s editing, she said that’s when she stops to consider “does this make sense to someone who’s not in my head.”

Writing For Ourselves

I love that. Because she isn’t thinking “will my audience like this.” Even when she does consider her audience, it’s only in terms of “will they understand what I’m trying to impart.” She’s not writing to please anyone, and so her story comes across with authority and style. It’s lovely.

It was reassuring to hear this from a writer whose book I so admired. Because when we get caught up in the business side of writing, it can be easy to hold up ideas and say “will people like this?” Ug.

I’m a firm believer of the idea that none of us are all that unique. If I write a story that I love, simply because I’m enamored with it (considering my audience only insofar as to make sure they’ll understand what I’m trying to say), there is a statistical portion of the population that shares my interests and will love my story as much as I do.

By staying true to my love for a story I am, by default, considering my audience. Ultimately they are the ones who will benefit from me writing what I am compelled to write.

What are your thoughts around this idea? Do you consider your audience when you write? To what extent? Would love to hear other perspectives on this.

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Being Engaged

engaged (to be published)

I’ve been reflecting lately on this unique period of time I find myself in: I have a publishing deal, but my book isn’t out yet. It’s this magical land wherein I have the proof of concept in hand (my book is getting published!), but there’s absolutely no way for anyone to judge my work. For all anyone in the world knows, I’m the next Lauren Groff.

I’m not.

But you don’t know that. Because you can’t read my book yet. It’s a special time. It’s kind of like being engaged, only there’s no special word for it in the writing world (and no fancy jewelry). You’ve stepped things up from dating, but you’re not married yet, and everyone keeps congratulating you, with absolutely no idea if you actually SHOULD get married. Maybe you picked the wrong person. Maybe you’ll be thinking about divorce before the flowers wilt. But YOUR GETTING MARRIED! Congratulations!

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not comparing my book to a bad marriage. And I’m certainly not saying it’s no good. I busted my ass to make that baby the very best book it could be. But the cold hard truth is that there will be people who don’t like my debut novel. Hopefully there will also be people who love it. In fact, I can hope that a lot more people love it than hate it, but I just won’t know until it goes out into the world.

And that’s stressful.

You know what’s not stressful? Getting to tell people that my book is getting published.

For eleven more months I get to enjoy this “engaged” stage of being a writer. Never again, after next February, will I get to come back to this. In this way, it’s not at all like a marriage. A person can be engaged more than once, but I will never again be an unpublished author with a book deal.

So I guess I should find more ways to embrace it. Maybe a book engagement party? Maybe some fancy jewelry? Or maybe I SHOULD start telling everyone I’m the next Lauren Groff. No, that’s a bad idea. Even Groff’s own books have to contend with her reputation. I don’t need that kind of pressure.

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Consider the Narrator

Consider the narrator

I’m fascinated by how stories use their narrators, because it’s not as simple as first person, second person, third. In my reading (and I read a lot), I’ve noticed that the books I love the most, the books that simply lift off the page and envelope me in story, are the ones with the most well-defined POV.

What do I mean by well-defined POV? It’s not a term I learned in grad school or anything, it’s just the way I’ve come to think of books that are told by a narrator (or narrators) from a specific (and known) time. Allow me to elaborate, because there are a lot of variables in any given story.

From Where and When?

If your story is told first person in the present tense, then the well-defined POV is taken care of. You know who’s telling your story and when they’re telling it (as it happens).

But consider first person in the past tense: “I confronted my uncle about the theft.” We know who’s talking (I), and what they did (confronted the uncle), but how much time has passed? If our narrator is talking from the not-too-distant future and they’re sitting on a bench in a jail cell, the energy is completely different than if fifty years have gone by and all the repercussions of their actions have played out.

Same for third person, whether in present or past tense. As an example, we’ll invent a moment: “He held the flowers out toward her, a peace offering in tiny white petals.” Who is seeing this happen? Is it the “her” of the story? If not, who is witnessing this scene? And again, how much time has passed since it happened?

Third person POV is the most fascinating to me because it is so often written without acknowledgement of who that third person is. Beyond interesting and edging into irritating are third person narrators who know things they couldn’t possibly.

Fails and Successes

For instance, the framework of a child recounting a parent’s story. A person may know a lot about their father, from the details on his Army uniform to the brand of cigarette he smokes, but I REALLY struggle when that kind of story dips into a sex scene. When a third person narrator starts describing a sexual encounter in detail I start to wonder “did your dad really tell you all that?” Because ew.

But when it’s handled well… oh, the beauty. Consider “Moonglow” by Michael Chabon. In that story he is narrating his grandfather’s story, but never looses sight of himself as the teller of the story – he wasn’t there, he’s just telling it as he heard it. Masterfully done.

Or the book “Less” by Andrew Sean Greer. The story is told mostly in third person, but then dips into first person to acknowledge the narrator and explore his relationship to the story. I don’t want to give anything away, but it’s masterfully done. A must read.

Opportunity

It’s not that stories can’t be well told with a mysterious third person narrator talking from somewhere out there in the future somewhere, but what I’m coming to realize is the potential presented by this question: who is telling your story and from when?

Answering that can only make your story stronger.

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How I Read As Much As I Do

I read about 60 books a year. I wish I could read more. I consider it part of my job as a writer to read as much as I can. But I also remember a time when I read about 10 books a year. Back then, reading more than that seemed impossible. There was just no way.

I was reflecting last night on how the shift from 10 to 60 happened. I’m not a terribly fast reader, though it’s possible I have gotten a little faster over the years.

Some factors were out of my control. For instance, my babies stopped being babies. They are now full fledge kids with regular sleep schedules and school days and sports. That’s a biggie. But there are also choices I’ve made in the past few years that have really opened up my time for reading.

For anyone looking to read more, I thought I’d share:

Embrace Audio Books

I live in LA, which generally means I spend a fair amount of time in the car. I’m either driving a kid to practice or picking said kid up. I drive to the grocery store. I drive to the bank. I drive a lot. And now, every time I get in the car, I get to “read” a few pages. I’ve even taken to using headphones for when the kids are in the car.

(Side note – check out Libro.fm. It’s just like Amazon’s Audible, except you get to designate a local bookstore to receive the profits from your purchase.)

I listen to books when I exercise, when I’m making dinner, and when I’m folding laundry. This has changed my entire relationship to chores (including exercise). Since I consider reading part of my work, I can now multi-tasking like a mo-fo. Awesome.

Pro-tip: set your audio book to play at 1.25 speed and you can “read” even more in the time you have. Some people can listen at even faster speeds, but that’s about as much as I can handle and still enjoy the story. Experiment.

Learn To Move On

You don’t have to finish every book you start. I think this might be the biggest trick to reading lots of books. Because when you’re reading something you’re not excited about you read slower, you’re more likely to fall asleep, and you’re less likely to pick up the book when you only have a few minutes.

I wrote a whole blog post about why you should stop reading books you don’t love. In short, reading a book should be entertaining. If it’s not, find a better book.

Don’t Take Your Phone to Bed

You know the routine. You get into bed and grab your phone to take one last peek before you go to sleep. Before you know it, half an hour has gone by. Maybe more. I started leaving my phone in the kitchen at night and somehow I plow through the books on my bedside table. I also sleep a lot better.

Carry a Book At All Times

I keep a book in my purse. Sometimes an actual book. Sometimes my Kindle. But I’m never without a book. So when I’m sitting in car line waiting for my kiddos (if I’m not listening to a story) I’m reading. Or if soccer practice runs over by fifteen minutes – more time for me to read. Stuck in line at the post office? Reading.

Swap TV Time for Reading

This one’s a no-brainer. Miright? In the US, the average adult (over 18) watches 4 hours and 45 minutes of TV a day. If you swap even half of that for time with a book you could easily read a book a week.

It Adds Up

If you consider that the average person can read a 300-page book in about ten hours, then you need to carve out about 85 minutes a day to read a book a week.

For those of you with iPhones, I challenge you to open your settings and click to view your Screen Time summaries. I bet you find twenty minutes spent on social media that could be devoted to reading.

Add in fifteen minutes a day in the car (a conservative estimate for most of us). Swap out one TV show a night. Listen to a book while you walk the dog. Read for fifteen minutes before bed. You don’t have to be a speed reader to read a lot.

How do you make time for books?

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Finding My Next Story

taking long walks in search of my next story idea

Back in November I blogged about setting goals for myself professionally. There’s so little we can control as writers. All we can do is write the best damn stories we can.

In that vein, and because I’m following the timeline I set out for myself last fall, I’m taking three months to ideate and outline what will eventually be novel number three.

Work Ethic

It’s strange to go from working furiously on a deadline to having absolutely no outside pressure on my work. So of course I managed to muster a fair amount of pressure to put on myself.

Because I thought I knew what I wanted book #3 to be. I thought it was a ghost story. It had been percolating for a while in my head. But when I actually set to trying to figure out the story I hit wall after wall. I kept adding things to the story, then taking them away. It just wasn’t working.

The thing I couldn’t figure out was if there was a workable story in that mess of notes, or if the idea was just a dud.

Breaking Through

Frustrated, I decided to stop. I let go of the idea completely. It was an extremely uncomfortable mental space. I didn’t like not knowing what was next in the pipeline, but I somehow sensed that the ghost story wasn’t it.

I took long walks. I browsed the library. Ideas would pop up and I would think “are you my next story?”

And ideas did come, but they weren’t stories. For me, stories are anchored in two things: a character who wants something and a setting. That was the litmus test. As each idea popped up I asked myself who the main character was and what they wanted. Follow up questions: where and when does this story take place.

And you know what? After a few days of floundering around, an idea did come. I’m not really ready to talk about it. Talking about a story before I have a draft is a super efficient way to kill my love for it, but I can say it exists.

Two Months to Think

In terms of my timeline, I still have two months left to ideate and outline ideas for novel three, before I set it aside and work on the second draft of novel two.

Carving out that kind of space has been super helpful for me to do the work that doesn’t feel like work and can be hard to justify: the long walks and day dreaming. I’m also doing a lot of reading, fiction and non-fiction, both directly and tangentially related to the story idea. It’s actually a really fun phase of the writing process, when I can embrace it for what it is.

If all goes well from here, I should have the beginnings of an outline soon. My hope is to start with something short (like a one page synopsis), which I can expand gradually as details come to me.

To help with that process, I’m planning to jump from paper to Scrivener some time soon. Stay tuned and I’ll share how that process unfolds.

Where do you get your story ideas? Do you set aside time just to think or do you just start writing and hope the ideas come? I’m very curious to hear how other writers navigate these waters.

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Balancing Parts of a Writing Career

writing career planning a book tour

To build a writing career, authors are expected to not only create great work, but also promote it. This is particularly true for those who self-publish, but even with a traditional publishing deal in place I am finding myself overwhelmed with all the things that need to be done before my book goes out into the world.

Thankfully, I have a long lead time. My publication date isn’t until February of next year, but even so, the list of things that need to get done is extensive. Here’s a sample:

  • Contact authors I know who might be willing to blurb my book (this is an ask that I don’t even know how to make, so I’m dragging my feet, unsure how to word my requests).
  • Make lists of names of people I can lure to readings in various cities. Apparently bookstores want to know who exactly an author can produce before committing to giving them a slot on their calendar.
  • Find authors to partner with for readings in cities where I may not be able to draw enough people. (Any authors out in Palm Springs interested in teaming up? How about Seattle?)
  • Redo my website to include a homepage with my cover featured prominently (and why is website building so damn time consuming? it’s like remodeling a bathroom – there are a thousand little decisions you have to make).
  • Make a video introducing myself and my book to have up on the new site.
  • Create a travel itinerary for NEXT SPRING. I mean, I’m a planner by nature, but that’s pretty far out even for me.
  • Keep blogging.
  • Keep writing.

Okay, looking over the list, it’s actually not all so bad. I just don’t know where to start or how I make time for all this while still actually writing pages on the new book and doing all the other things I do (parenting my children, exercising occasionally, helping Arthur Morgan find hidden treasure on Red Dead Redemption II, you know – important stuff).

I guess it’s like anything else. You just make time. There are 24 hours in every day. If you use them well, that’s actually a lot of hours. And anyway, what else am I going to do? Stop?

Not likely.

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Visiting Kensington Publishing in NYC

Kensington Publishing NYC

If you’ve been following along, you know that I was on the east coast last week. I was actually heading to a conference near Washington DC, but since I almost never get out that way, I decided to fly out a few days early to New York.

The idea had been to meet with my agent and my editor at Kensington Publishing, maybe connect with a few of the people I’ll be working with when my book comes out. Honestly, I wasn’t sure what I was hoping to accomplish, but I had friends who were willing to put me up so I decided to go for it.

I’m so glad I did.

Meeting My Agent

First I met with my agent. Now, a little clarification, because it’s possible you’ve read my post about meeting my agent back with I actually signed with him. My “agent” is actually a duo. The west coast man is Joel Gotler. Given his proximity to all the Hollywood business out here, he jumps at projects he feels have potential for film adaptation (wouldn’t THAT be cool?).

On the east coast, his partner Murray has his finger on the pulse of the New York lit scene and he manages the more literary half of their business. It was Murray I had never met. So on Wednesday we had breakfast and we ended up talking for two and a half hours about editing, books, and writers, and my new project. It was interesting to hear about how things work on his end.

Meeting My Publisher

From there I made my way to midtown and the Kensington Publishing office. They work out of the top two floors of a building just off times square. The two hours that followed were worth every dollar I spent to get there.

I met my editor in person. His office was overflowing with books. Every wall was lined with shelves, and on every shelf there were books stacked in front of books. When I started salivating he offered to send me a care package (which was waiting for me when I got home).

We chatted for a minute about the edits I turned in last month. He’s happy with the draft and doesn’t foresee any more major changes, which is an exciting thing to hear.

Then he walked me around the building and introduced me to everyone who is and will be working on my book. There were so many of them! I guess I hadn’t really thought about it, but there were sales teams, international sales teams, graphic design people, marketing people and more. So many I can’t even remember all their roles, but what I do remember is that every one of them said something along the lines of “we just love your book.”

Ego Fluffing

Okay, I will fully cop to it being a serious ego trip, but seriously, in the ten years I spent working on this book alone in the dark early hours before work, I had to just believe that people would someday enjoy my story and now here it is – ACTUALLY HAPPENING.

I will also admit that it’s entirely possible that not EVERY person truly loves my book. I mean, it’s kind of their job. It’s not like they’re going to say “oh, yeah, yours is the mediocre story about the ostriches,” even if that’s what they think.

But letting go of all that for a minute, it was just so fun to hear the words over and over. I wish I had recorded it all so I could replay it on those days when self doubt sets in. Because bullshit or not, it’s a serious emotional boost to hear that people like your book.

The Road Ahead

At the end of the tour my editor left me with my marketing team and we had a good long talk about all the things that will be happening in the next year. As I’ve blogged about already, I’ll be revamping my website once I have some cover art (which may actually be soon – stay tuned). We planned some strategic articles I can pitch in the months leading up to the pub date and talked about what conferences it would make sense for me to attend. We basically reviewed the author questionnaire I filled out and they told me which ideas were worth the time and which I could skip.

The whole experience had the effect of shifting my perspective. Having turned in my final edits, I was kind of settling into being done with this project, but the work is only just beginning. I’m so grateful to have a team of professionals to work with. This is the number one benefit of traditional publishing and it makes the long timeline totally worth it.

Stay tuned. I will share the cover art as soon as it’s approved, and I’ll be blogging all about this crazy process of publishing as things unfold.

I’m also starting work outlining a new book, so I’ll be writing more about that in the coming weeks too.

And before I sign off, I’d like thank you all for being with me on this journey. This blog, along with the writing community on Twitter, has been a real touch stone for me through these past many years. It’s very fun to finally get to share this part of the story.

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Living The Dream

I arrived in New York Monday night. It was dark and cold and I will admit to feeling a little intimidated, but there’s an energy to this city that’s infectious. By the time I dropped my things at the airbnb, bought some flowers at the corner bodega and caught an Uber to the apartment of an old college buddy for a late dinner, I was giddy with excitement.

A big part of my fantastic attitude is that I’m here on business. I have meetings with my agent and my publisher, and I just have this deep sense of living the dream. I am a writer in New York, meeting with people who care about my work. I mean, how fabulous is that? Even the stupidly frigid temperatures can’t bring me down.

Yesterday morning while walking (scurrying) to the subway station, I saw a little white dog with red booties. I helped up an old woman who slipped on the ice. A man shoveling snow yelled out “this is America!” for no discernible reason as I walked past. I figured out the metro all by myself (it’s actually really easy) and got myself uptown to the Met where I popped in my headphones and spent a few hours wondering around listening to cello music and soaking up the art.

I took an Uber through the park (yes, it was only a mile, but it’s REALLY cold) so I could walk past the Dakota, which felt like a literary pilgrimage as I am reading Tom Barbarsh’s new novel The Dakota Winters, then had chicken soup in a little cafe where I sat reading said book and watching the snow fall outside.

In short, it’s been a fantastic trip so far. This morning I’m meeting the agent for breakfast, then cutting across town to my publishers office. I’m hoping my editor has had a chance to read those edits I worked so hard on so we can discuss how the book is coming along.

Tune in next week and I’ll let you know how it all goes.

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Celebrate Milestones

Celebrating MilestonesA few years ago I quit drinking. It’s changed my life, honestly. I sleep better, I’m more patient with my kids, and my writing improved on two fronts. The first was that I had an easier time getting up in the morning to write (no brainer, that one). The second was that I came to understand myself a little better. When I could no longer just drink away my frustrations I had to actually look at what was bothering me and deal with it. It’s a skill that translates well to understanding characters. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I finally finished my novel after quitting drinking.

All that said, having been a drinker my whole adult life, I celebrated every milestone with a cocktail. Maybe champagne. Maybe a glass of whiskey. But booze of some kind.

Then, in 2018 I finished my manuscript, found an agent (my dream agent), sold my novel to a publisher, and got accepted to the Squaw Valley Community of Writers. I had a shit ton to celebrate. (Oh, 2018, I love you so much.) I had to get a little create with my revelry.

To set a framework, I calculated how much my husband and I could spend on a night of drinking back in the day. Bottle of wine with dinner. A cocktail or two (or three) at the bar after. Honestly, it wasn’t hard for us to spend $100 in a night. And that’s not counting dinner and the babysitter. So I set myself a budget of $100 and here’s how I’ve used it:

Ways to Celebrate for $100 or Less

The Korean Spa
I love, love, love the Olympic Korean Spa here in LA. It’s been a special treat since I moved here a decade ago and my sister took me there. They have this treatment called the Akasuri Scrub where a woman with unusually strong hands sloughs off the top few layers of your skin. It’s a little intense, but my skin is so silky smooth afterwards. And you can hang out all day in the soaking tubs (taking a cold plunge from time to time to balance things out). They even have a restaurant and a little spot for napping. This has become my number one go-to celebration ritual.

Frozen Treats With the Kids
My kids are old enough now that they understand that it’s a big deal when I finish a draft or sign a contract or get a short story published. If I don’t have time to spend a whole day at the spa, I like to take the family out for Pink Berry, or YogurtLand, or some other sweet treat.

Shopping
I almost never going shopping for myself, by myself. Most of the clothes I buy are from Target, grabbed from the rack as I walked by with the kids, hoping they will fit and look cute. So it feels luxurious to take a few hours and just go shopping on my own. That was how I celebrated the completion of my most recent edits. I bought a sweet pair of boots.

Being A Bum
After I drop the kids at school, I come home and read a book. I lay in bed, or on the patio if it’s sunny. I take long shower. I nap. Honestly, I can only do this for one day before I get antsy about all the shit on my to-do list, but taking one day to do nothing feels like I won the lottery or something.

What Am I Missing?

How do you celebrate your milestones? I know there must be things I haven’t thought of yet. Or maybe you just go with the old faithful champaign. To be clear, I’ve got not problems with that. It’s just not for me anymore.

So lay ’em on me. What are your go-tos?

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Final Edits (Round Two)

final editsThis morning I submitted the final edits of my manuscript to my editor. I’ve been working on it since November first (with a few weeks off there in December while the kids were on vacation), and it blows my mind that I could spend that much time editing something that, last January, I thought was done.

What exactly have I been doing all this time? Basically, I added 5,000 words and then cut 5,100 other words.

Bigger Changes

Going in, I had to accept that the time for really big changes is long gone because my publisher likes my story and wants to put it out into the world and I don’t want to mess with that. So I re-read it (and asked my beta readers to re-read it) with the idea that I’m not making any more “big” changes but I still want it to be as good as it can be. I will admit to being super anxious as I waited for their thoughts, but ultimately the feedback I got helped me to make a few key changes that I’m calling “bigger” not “big.” Mostly these edits involved two things: expanding and maintaining tension.

The consensus was that I had one character who readers wanted to know a more about. Specifically, they wanted to know how my main character navigates her feelings around this guy. Conveniently, this was a note I also got from my editor. So I did a lot of expanding around this character and one other (to a lesser extent).

Next were the places where I actually went into the story to organize. It was pointed out to me that I tend to dispel tension in my scenes by explaining how things will work out. I’m particularly bad about doing this when it’s not a major plot element. But I upped the tension through the entire book by going through and rewriting these minor scenes so that my main character isn’t sure it will all work out. Now she has uncertainty coming at her from all sides and the overall story hums along at much more compelling pace.

Smaller Changes

Once I’d done the bigger changes, I hunkered down with a list of words that my readers found repetitive. I’m embarrassed to say how many there were. Before submitting to agents I had gone through and weeded out the words I know I use as crutches (just, felt, seemed, realized), but I guess cleaning those up only left these other words room to stand out.

Using the word search function in Scrivener I systematically went through every word on the list (see below). Some of them I could just delete, but at least half of them had to be rewritten. I had to really push myself when I saw how often I relied on “shaking hands” to denote intense emotion, and instead dig in and really describe what that character was feeling. I can’t believe this is a lesson I’m still learning. But that shit is hard. No joke. And what’s more, I found countless places where I could be more precise in my writing, turning three sentences to one.

The end result was a slow, but steady, decrease in the overall word count. Arg!

The Overall Result

When I was done, my manuscript actually had 100 fewer words in it. After all that. But the story is richer and fuller for the edits. I am actually saying more (considering that I added backstory and adjusted plot elements to be more compelling) with fewer words. So I guess that’s what I’ve been doing these past three months.

The List

Okay. Even though I find it wildly embarrassing, I’m going to share the list of words I spent the last month trimming. Don’t judge. Maybe they can help someone out there make their own manuscript better. (Not you, of course, but someone.)

Turn
Look (ug, how could I have so many people turning and looking at things?!?!)
Gesture
Start
Stop
Step
Soften
Tighten (throats and chests)
Shake (as in hands)
Squint (in my defense – my story is set in the desert)
Gravitate
Circle
Exasperate
Thick
Faint
Long
Old
Wide
Curious
Defensive
Front
Back
Air
Breath (lots of deep breaths)
“in my mind”
Moment
Stomach
Chest (see note above about tightening)
Bodies
As if
Paused
Sad (I mean really, there must be a hundred ways to depict sadness)
Angry (ditto)
Fear
Confusion
Sweat
Feathers (it IS a book about ostriches)
Morph
Strange
Odd
Imagine
Point (as in “no point”)
Remembered
Think/Thought
Occurred
Struck
Laugh
Fell
Get
Sink

What words do you overuse? Share a few so I can feel a little better about my writing ticks.

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