Good morning! Coffee Time with Kara is a new, weekly feature here on the blog where I–Kara Leigh Miller, Editorial Director for Anaiah press–will share tips, tricks, and secrets about writing, querying, publishing, and everything in between. So, grab your cup of coffee and get comfy…
I know…you’re probably reading the title of this post and wondering what on earth I’m talking about. My authors are probably reading it and rolling their eyes at me. Ha! While “walking the dog” and “contemplating your navel” — or as I like to call it: navel gazing — are two different things, I often see them go hand-in-hand when I’m reading submissions / editing, so I’m going to talk about them together.
In real life, walking the dog is cool, right? You get to spend some time outside with your furry, four-legged friend. You get some fresh air, exercise; you probably say hi to your neighbors. Unfortunately, this type of “action” doesn’t translate well to fiction. Think about it: would you want to read paragraphs or pages that describe a character walking their dog? Probably not. And why? Because it’s boring! So when an editor talks about “walking the dog,” what we really mean is the characters are engaging in boring, mundane tasks. This could be anything from washing dishes to folding laundry to taking a bath.
Always remember: If you’re going to have your character walk the dog, something exciting needs to happen. For example, the dog gets off the leash, takes off on a run toward the woods, and you have to chase the dog. In doing so, you trip and fall over a dead body. You have now taken boring action and made it exciting–there’s a clear purpose behind why we’re seeing the character walk the dog.
Navel gazing is when your character is simply thinking. And I don’t mean a thought about something or a mental reaction to something, but full-on contemplating their life, their past, the hero/heroine, what they should make for dinner, work stuff, etc.
Oftentimes, authors will have the character walk the dog while navel gazing. So we then have a boring, mundane action combined with a lot of thinking. Sounds boring, right? Your readers will think so, too. While there is always room for a character to reflect on things that have already happened, it should be done in small increments.
Take the following passage as an example:
I piled dirty dishes in the sink as it filled with hot, soapy water. Grabbing a plate and scrubbing it, I stared out the window. The rose bushes were overgrown. I’d have to get out there and take care of that. But first, I needed to make a grocery list and call Gran to see if she needed anything. I rinsed the plate and put it in the strainer, then grabbed another. I also needed to bake cupcakes for Jane’s class party on Friday. Maybe I should buy them instead. It would save me a lot of time. That meant going back to the bakery, though, and facing that arrogant jerk again. I huffed and set the plate in the strainer harder than necessary, refusing to admit to myself that I found him attractive. He’d embarrassed me. Nothing else mattered.
As you can see in that passage, the character is washing dishes and thinking about (1) her to-do list, and (2) a meeting we’ve presumably already seen with the hero. It’s not an active scene, and it’s not that engaging, either, is it?
Always remember: Every scene should move the story forward! Whether it’s to progress the plot, create conflict or tension, develop a romance, or reveal something important about a character, every word needs to count. A good rule of thumb is if you can remove a paragraph or scene and the story will still make sense, then you can get rid of it because it’s only taking up space.
Be sure to come back next Monday when I’ll be talking about the promise authors make to readers. In the meantime, if you have any questions or have a topic you want me to address, leave it in the comments.
Keep on writing 🙂