In April I shared a post about varying sentence beginnings. You can read Variety is the Spice of Writing for a refresher. Today, we’re moving on to my biggest problem area.
I am an eye person. Let’s just get that out of the way right off the bat. If I could get away with not having to explain why I'm staring at people and making notes, I’d constantly study people’s eye movements, the little squints, tics, gazes, glances, and nuances that make them tick. But staring at strangers can get you in trouble.
But that’s what movies are for! :)
On my Claiming Mariah edits, my editor pointed out my excessive use of eyes, gaze, glance, look, looked, stare, peeked, etc. and asked me to try to eliminate some of the repetition. I managed to trim 60% of those words, and there’s no telling how many I had already cut before turning in the manuscript.
Other writers might have a bit of a problem with taste, smell, or sound, but I suspect the majority of us get a bit stuck on eyes since that is the best and most reliable way of reading the thoughts and feelings of others. Even though there’s nothing wrong with using sight as the vehicle to communicate feelings, emotion, and movement in our writing, the purpose of editors in pointing out the overuse of that particular sense is to get us to utilize the other senses that we tend to forget about.
I’m not going to include very much lead up to these examples since they’re plucked at random from Claiming Mariah, and my current novella, The Evergreen Bride (Barbour, October, 2014), so if the examples don’t make a lot of sense out of context, just concentrate on the lesson at hand. Yes, Virginia, I got dinged for the sense of sight even in my latest manuscript. Hangs head in shame.
Let’s jump right in. I'll give you the before example, then the after example, and a short explanation of my thought processes as I fixed it. Since I’m a packrat, I have the before and after versions of hundreds of uses of eyes, gaze, glance, look. Glancing over (oops!) these examples was an eye-opener. Honestly, I throw out references to sight like Santa throwing candy in a Christmas parade. Sheesh!
How much sorrow had her father’s greed caused? How much heartache? And how much did his son know of their fathers’ shared past? The accusation in Slade Donovan’s steady gaze told her, and the heat of fresh shame flooded her cheeks.
The accusation on Slade Donovan’s face told her, and the heat of fresh shame flooded her cheeks.
How: Wow, all I had to do was concentrate and think about what else Mariah could see about Slade that would show her his reaction. I realized I didn’t have to limit what she sees to his eyes, but could pull the “camera” back and include his face. I could have even mentioned his stance, but just pulling the “camera” back a bit and mentioning his face, not just his “steady gaze”, worked here, and got rid of the word gaze, which occurred a whopping 181 times in the manuscript I turned in.
Slade glanced at his brother, his gaze lingering on the jagged crescent-shaped scar on his face.
Slade glanced at his brother, wincing at the jagged crescent-shaped scar on his face.
How: Even though I didn’t get rid of glanced, I was able to zap that gaze again by using the word wince. And it gives us more of a visual of Slade’s reaction anyway, doesn’t it?
An incredulous look crossed Mariah’s face, and her dark eyes flashed fire.
Mariah faced him then, an incredulous look on her face, color blooming in her pale cheeks.
How: I pulled back and described Mariah’s face, not just her eyes.
Slade stared across the water. How could he tell the boy what he thought when he didn’t even know himself?
Slade scraped a hand over his mouth. How could he tell the boy what he thought when he didn’t even know himself?
How: We’ve all seen that movement, haven’t we? Someone rubbing a hand down their jaw or across their face as they debate how to answer someone.
“You scared?” Slade leaned on the pitchfork and looked at the boy.
“Yeah.” Jim looked down and scuffed the dirt. “I’ve never been to church. Pa wouldn’t ever let us go.”
“You scared?” Slade leaned on the pitchfork and eyed the boy.
“Yeah.” Jim scuffed the dirt. “I’ve never been to church. Pa wouldn’t ever let us go.”
How: I used the work “looked” twice here, and had already used “looked” somewhere else close by. I did leave “eyed the boy” in there. With all the sight words highlighted, I changed Slade’s to look and just removed the reference to the boy looking down. Most people will probably picture the boy looking down as he is scuffing the dirt.
The preacher placed his hands on either side of the podium and looked out over the congregation. Slade swore the reverend’s gaze lingered on him longer than anybody else.
The preacher placed his hands on either side of the podium and looked out over the congregation. Slade swore the reverend’s attention lingered on him longer than anybody else.
Her hair looked like a cross between a rat’s nest and a cobweb.
Her hair resembled a cross between a rat’s nest and a cobweb.
How: Is there another word that you can use instead of gaze? In the two examples above, attention worked just as well as gaze; resembled as good as “looked like”. One word. Boom. Problem solved.
From The Evergreen Bride:
Annabelle glanced around. “By the way, where is my brother? I can’t wait to tell him my news.”
Annabelle swiveled on the stool. “By the way, where is my brother? I can’t wait to tell him my news.”
Samuel glanced at her. “Don’t even think about it.”
Samuel took a step toward her. “Don’t even think about it.”
How: I tried to picture Annabelle in my mind. In this scene, she was sitting on a stool, so instead of having her glance around, I decided she could swivel on the stool. Works just as well, and gets ride of my repetitive glances. Is there an action, a movement, the character can perform, like Annabelle swiveling on the stool, or Samuel taking a step, instead of glancing or looking at the other one?
Don’t feel that you have to eliminate all references to sight. Eyes, gaze, look, glance, stared, peeked, etc. are all a very important part of a manuscript, and especially a romance. I kept a lot of great turns-of-phrase that I loved, like ‘Pain turned her dark eyes to ebony’, ‘Two spots of angry color bloomed in her cheeks, and her eyes sparked like sun off brown bottle glass’, but if the reference was ho-hum, I searched for a new sense or emotion to employ.
When applying the scalpel to the eyes (ouch!), one way to determine how many to cut is if you have three or more references to sight (see key words above) per page, or a cluster of repeated words bunched together, then you might want to consider rephrasing some of them.
Set aside a few hours, or maybe day or two to go through your manuscript searching for these words. It’s best to find and highlight them all, then view the pages in thumbnail size so you can see big chunks of where these words appear.