For me it’s all about the eyes. Specifically, where they’re pointing. In any scene I write that has more than two characters, I end up with at least three or four ‘looks.’ She looked at him oddly. He turned to look at her. I looked up from what I was doing. You can’t pull a fast one on any of my characters, because whatever is happening, they’re looking at it.

Their conversations, though, are full of momentary pauses. Someone will often refuse to answer someone else for a moment. Or they’ll be silent for a moment. Or they’ll do anything except speak—but always only for a moment.

As soon as they get outside, though, it’s the sun and the horizon, preferably combined. Suns really like to ‘hang low on the horizon’ in my stories; apparently my characters live in a world where it’s always late afternoon. If the sun does happen to end up in a different part of the sky, I’ll definitely let you know about it. The sunlight will filter through leaves, gleam on the hood of a car, or shine in someone’s eyes.

I’m guessing you have them too—words or phrases that you overuse. They’re like your own special spice: whenever you’re making dinner, you pull them out and sprinkle them on. You know what this casserole needs? A sun hanging low on the horizon.

The number one rule of drafting is don’t stop, so if you’re in the flow and the time seems right for a character to look oddly at someone or refuse to answer for a moment, then let it flow. Who knows? Maybe this will be the one spot in your story where you let that phrase shine. Maybe all of those other uses are the extraneous ones, and this one right here is the whopper that you let ride.

But when the time comes to start revising, you have to be on your guard for your little bon mots. I find it’s handy to build up a list of words that I overuse in general, and then a separate list per manuscript of phrases that I’m pretty sure are popping up too frequently. My first novel is set on Mars, and the color of the sky shows up a lot. It’s an important thing to describe—if you were suddenly transported there, the color of the sky would be one of the most striking and memorable elements—but I have to make sure I don’t describe it the same way each time. So sometimes, when I’m writing a particular bit of description, I think to myself I bet I’ve used this somewhere else and so I jot it down in my note-taking app. Then later I do some project-wide searches to whittle my descriptions down so that each one is as unique as possible.

It’s late afternoon here in Pacifica, and the sun is hanging low on the horizon, so I’m going to look up from what I’m doing here and go see if I can refuse to answer someone’s question. For a moment.

filed under david-bowman’s-retina