Wednesday, 16 October 2019

Writers’ Questions: What are filter words and should I avoid them?

I’ve been blogging about historical fiction for the last six years, but, in the summer of 2020, my own debut novel, Brontë’s Mistress, will be released by Atria Books (more on this here). In this series, Writers’ Questions, I’m sharing some advice about the writing process to help fellow writers. Last time, I told you all about showing vs. telling, with some examples to show you the way. This week, we’re talking about filter words, also known as ‘thought verbs’.

What are filter words?

Back in July, I wrote a post in this series about point of view. Simply put, filter words = any unnecessary language that distances the reader from the point of view you have chosen to write your novel in.

Common filter words are verbs that refer to thinking or feeling. I’ve highlighted them in red in the sentences below (all of which are written in a close third person for ease):

Harry glanced out of the window. It was raining, he thought.

Megha looked at her again. She realised it was the girl from the painting.

Declan shivered. He felt cold.

Each of these examples can be reworded to delete the filtering and bring us closer to the character:

Harry glanced out of the window. It was raining.

Megha looked at her again. It was the girl from the painting!

Declan shivered.

In the first instance, there is no reason to insert ‘he thought’ if we are securely in Harry’s point of view. We already know as readers that our entire worldview is filtered through his eyes.

In the second example, the same is true with Megha and her realisation. You can hint at her surprise in other ways, for instance inserting an exclamation.

In my third example, the entire second sentence is unnecessary. People shiver when they’re cold! But if you do want to hammer home the point there are other ways to name the temperature that still avoid the filtering language:

Declan shivered. He moved his toes to stop them going numb.

Declan shivered. Cold crept through his bones.

In the first two examples I gave, we could also bring the point of view even closer by deleting references to where Harry and Megha are glancing/looking (another type of filtering):

The window was misting up. It was raining.

The girl’s coat was red, her eyes were grey. There was something familiar in the shape of her chin. Megha’s heart dropped. It was the girl from the painting!

Are filter words always verbs?

Nouns can also act as filter words, especially when they name the senses.


Uri walked into the kitchen. He was greeted by the smell of coffee.

This example has other issues (did you notice the passive voice?) but the word smell is also acting as a filtering word here. Depending on your writing style, you might consider rewording to something like:

Uri walked into the kitchen. Hot toast on the table, fresh coffee wafting from the pot.

Why are filter words ‘bad’?

As with any writing ‘rule’, there are always exceptions and counter arguments, but there are several reasons why you might want to avoid filtering.

The most important is one I’ve already mentioned. Filtering words make readers feel more distant from your point of view character(s)—a problem if you want us to have an emotional connection with your protagonist(s). In our own heads we just think and feel things without the insertion of clauses like ‘I thought’. So delete the filtering to put readers firmly in another human’s shoes.

Other issues include repeated words and unnecessary wordiness. If you’re revising/editing your manuscript currently and are looking to trim your word count, consider searching for parts of the verbs to think, to see, to feel etc. to shave off words that may be harming your novel vs. helping it.

What writing or publishing topic would you like to see the Secret Victorianist cover next as part of my Writers’ Questions series? Let me know, here on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

Friday, 4 October 2019

Novels of the French Revolution

Back in June, the Secret Victorianist attended the Historical Novel Society Conference in Maryland (read my full review of the event here). While there, I was lucky enough to receive a signed advanced reader copy of Ribbons of Scarlet (2019), a novel jointly written by six historical novelists depicting the lives of many of the women who played an important role in the French Revolution, which began in 1789.

Ribbons of Scarlet is now top of my TBR (to be read) list, but in honour of the novel’s release on October 1, in this week’s blog post, I’m straying out of the nineteenth century and back into the eighteenth to share with you some of my favourite reads set during, or inspired by, the revolution that rocked Europe and changed France forever.

A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens (1859)

Dickens’s depiction of the revolution, written seventy years later, influences how its events live on in popular imagination to this day. Expect narrow escapes from the guillotine, long imprisonments and rampant blood lust.

Aside from being a classic, A Tale of Two Cities offers a great glimpse into British responses to the revolution on England’s doorstep. It also has one of the best openings of any novel in English (check out my close reading here). Bonus fun fact: I once appeared as Monsieur (yes, Monsieur, not Madame) Defarge in a school play.

The Glass Blowers, Daphne du Maurier (1963)

Daphne du Maurier dug into her own family history to inspire her 1963 The Glass Blowers, a wonderful novel that examines the revolution through the eyes of a middle class family in the provinces. The novel deals with the divisions within families occasioned by any civil war and the misinformation that fuelled much of the paranoia that dominated the French Revolution.

Her main character, an unobtrusive first person, is representative of many men and especially women of the period, who tried to maintain domestic normality, while war and political strife ravaged the country.

A Place of Greater Safety, Hilary Mantel (1992)

Reading Hilary Mantel’s dense and captivating novel is as close as we can come today to experiencing the French Revolution blow by blow. Focused on Paris, Mantel illuminates the lives of three of the conflict’s main actors—Georges Danton, Camille Desmoulins, and Maximilien Robespierre—with a huge cast of supporting characters.

The novel is replete with interpersonal as well as political drama but this isn’t a story of ordinary people. If you want to dig into the nitty-gritty of factions, espionage and corruption, this is the book for you.

Pure, Andrew Miller (2011)

The most recent novel on my list, Pure isn’t really a novel of the Revolution at all, but of the years preceding it. Our protagonist is an engineer tasked with clearing the graveyard at Les Innocents in Paris, which is literally overflowing with corpses and therefore endangering the health of the city's residents.

The book captures the rising tensions in Paris in the 1780s, the bureaucracy of Versailles, the autonomy of different parts of the city and the fading influence of the Catholic Church. There’s even a cameo for Dr Guillotine himself as social discord rumbles, creating a dramatic stage for our central story. It’s dark, compelling, and beautifully told.

Other French Revolution related novels that are on my radar include Catherine Delors’s Mistress of the Revolution (2008), Edward Carey’s Little (2018), and, of course, Ribbons of Scarlet. But I’d love to hear what other books on the topic you’d recommend I check out! Let me know—here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

Sunday, 15 September 2019

Writers’ Questions: What’s the deal with Showing vs. Telling?

I’ve been blogging about historical fiction for the last six years, but, in the summer of 2020, my own debut historical novel, Brontë’s Mistress, will be released by Atria Books (more on this here).

In this series, titled Writers’ Questions, I’m sharing some advice about the writing and publication process to help other writers. Last time, the passive voice was written about by me (not zombies!). In this week’s post, I’m exploring one of the most common pieces of creative writing advice: ‘show, don’t tell’.

Mark Twain (1835-1910)
You wanted to become a writer because you like to tell stories. But now someone is telling you that telling is bad, and you should be ‘showing’ instead. What’s up with that? And what does showing vs. telling even mean?

Simply put, writers are advised to show, rather than tell, when a) they’re narrating something that readers should be able to work out for themselves; or, b) they’re summarising, rather than immersing the reader in the story. Let’s look at some of the most common places where writers tell, when showing would be better:

Telling emotions
Search your work-in-progress novel for emotion words e.g. angry, happy, exhausted, sad. Then consider whether there are ways you can show characters’ emotions, vs. telling readers how they’re feeling. Often you’ll find that body language cues can replace the telling of emotions and bring more action to your story.

If John is banging his fists on the table and turning red in the face, readers will probably conclude that he’s angry. If Susan is tired make her yawn. If she’s sad, maybe she’s hanging her head and sniffing back tears.

You may run into a problem where you keep repeating the same body language and/or actions. Maybe your characters are constantly shrugging, slamming doors, or crossing their arms. This is a great opportunity to hone your writerly powers of observation. What are the different ways the people you know in real life respond when they’re angry, for example? Not everyone is the door slamming type!

Telling relationships
Relatedly, writers can also fall into a trap of telling readers the state of relationships between characters e.g. 'Priya had a crush on Kevin', or 'Michael and Jayden had been best friends for five years'.

Often this is totally unnecessary. You can show Michael and Jayden’s friendship through how they speak to each other and the length of their relationship through references, in dialogue or narration, to their shared past. Humans act very differently with each other depending on their level of intimacy so bring some of these nuances to how your characters communicate in your story.

There are lots of great ways to show that Priya has a crush on Kevin too, many of which will give you the opportunity to develop your characters a lot more. Consider something like this:

Oh God, there was Kevin, looking beautiful, as usual, with his winning smile and perfectly messy hair. And Priya was just messy messy, dressed as a hot dog and covered in real ketchup. Maybe he wouldn’t see her. Maybe she could make a run for it. “Priya!” Kevin called from across the room. 

Telling people about your world
Lots of writers spend months, or even years, building the worlds where their novels are set. Maybe you’re writing fantasy and have dreamed up a complicated magic system. Maybe your sci-fi novel is set on a different planet in a different galaxy. Or maybe, like me, you write historical fiction and need to transport your readers to a different time and place.

In each of these cases, it’s very easy for telling to creep in. Are you opening with a prologue describing how your world was created? Are characters telling each other things both of them should be aware of (watch out for the tell-tale words ‘as you know’)? Are you writing paragraphs and paragraphs explaining the workings of philosophy, physics, and politics?

If so, consider how you can introduce features of your world more naturally by showing vs. telling. Want readers to understand a plumbing system? Maybe your characters get stuck in the sewers. Want readers to be aware that two tribes of people hate each other? Use dialogue to reveal their prejudices. No need to say ‘back then people travelled by horse and carriage’ or ‘in the Land of the Fairies, only wizards use wands’. Just have your characters travel by horse and carriage or a character say ‘he must be a wizard!’ when someone uses a wand.

However, despite the popularity of the ‘show, don’t tell’ maxim, there are times when telling is a valid, even preferable, choice over showing. Here are some examples:

Telling in dialogue
People tell each other things all the time when they speak so it’s natural for your characters to do the same. For example, while above I recommended you avoid telling emotions, it can be very powerful for characters to confide their feelings to each other and discuss their emotional responses to what’s going on. Dialogue is also a great way for characters to learn necessary information they wouldn’t otherwise be privy to. Why do you think Harry Potter and friends are constantly eavesdropping under the cover of the invisibility cloak?

Telling to jump through time
Telling vs. showing is a problem when you’re writing a scene but between scenes it is sometimes necessary to tell, especially if you’re skipping a large chunk of time. Consider a sentence like ‘for the next few weeks it was business as usual’. Telling here helps you avoid the ‘boring bits’, bridges the gaps between interesting events and delivers key information to readers.

The premise of many novels, especially those written in first person or omniscient third, is that readers are being told a story. Maybe a teenage girl is telling us about the time she ran away from home, or an all-seeing godlike narrator is drawing a moral from an epic adventure.

In these cases, especially at the beginning and end of scenes, chapters and the novel itself, there will be sentences that tell, rather than show. The quintessential storytelling opening, ‘once upon a time…’ for example, is of this type. Most first person novels establish why a story is being told in the opening lines and we expect this telling voice to guide us similarly throughout.

Consider, for example, the first paragraph of Mark Twain’s 1884 The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn:

You don't know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain’t no matter. That book was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly.

Ultimately, we all write to tell stories and telling and showing are two of the techniques in our toolkits to do just that. The advice ‘show, don’t tell’, shouldn’t make you eschew telling entirely, but if you’re getting this feedback a lot, especially around relationships, emotions and world building, consider taking it to heart and telling your story via showing instead.

What topic would you like to see the Secret Victorianist cover in the next instalment of Writers’ Questions? Let me know—here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist.