Decoration Day Honored U.S. Civil War Veterans; Later Became Memorial Day

I posted this four years ago, and it deserves posting again.

Polishing Your Prose

On May 5, 1868, Major General John A. Logan, the head of the Grand Army of the Republic, an organization of Union veterans, declared Decoration Day as a time for the nation to honor the U.S. Civil War dead. Logan declared that the day should be observed on May 30 and that the soldiers’ graves be decorated with flowers.

The veterans’ organization held the first observance that year at Arlington National Cemetery. Various Washington officials presided over the event, including General and Mrs. Ulysses S. Grant. By the end of the 19th century, communities throughout the country staged Decoration Day festivities.

Civil War veteran Oney F. Sweet — featured in What the Private Saw: The Civil War Letters & Diaries of Oney Foster Sweet — marched in many Decoration Day parades.

His son, Oney Fred Sweet, wrote a poem about the parades; the poem appeared in The National Tribune on…

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Kill Your Darlings: The Art of Revision — 10. Final Words

Tenth element in this series: Kill Your Darlings: The Art of Revision
(Please read the Introduction, if you haven’t already.)


Time and Distance

Do you give yourself time away from your work—do you give yourself distance—before rereading, revising, and rewriting?

 In terms of self-editing, the best thing you can do is take a break.

I don’t mean a day or two. I mean weeks—or even better, months—so when you go back to it, you have fresh eyes.

With my memoir—Dare I Call It Murder?—after working on it almost every day for two years, I got so frustrated that I quit. I set it aside, saying: “Screw it. This sucks, and I don’t know how to fix it.”

Two months later, after friends and family encouraged me not to give up, I dusted it off and reread it—with fresh eyes. I felt as if I were reading someone else’s book. I could be much more objective and critical—the way I am when I put on my green eyeshade and dive into a manuscript that just showed up in my inbox.

Time and distance—it is a critical component in the art of revision.

Then, after you take that break, you pick up a #2 pencil (with a new eraser), read your manuscript with fresh eyes (I recommend hard copy, not on the screen), and keep in mind these Key Elements of the Art of Revision—then be ready to kill your darlings.

Don’t rush it! Better to do it well than have regrets.


Like or not, Microsoft Word is the default word processor in the writing/publishing world. Most professional editors use Word. Therefore, learn how to use its features, especially Styles and Track Changes. If you prefer some other software, such as Pages, Google docs, or OpenOffice, more often than not you will have compatibility issues when working with an editor who uses Word, unless you are or you become technologically savvy.

In Closing . . .

  • Clarity, not confusion.
  • What’s the story reason?
  • Kill your darlings.
  • An editor has the same goal as you—to make your book even better than it is.

Recommended Reading for Writers:

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Kill Your Darlings: The Art of Revision — 9. Kill Your Darlings

Ninth element in this series: Kill Your Darlings: The Art of Revision
(Please read the Introduction, if you haven’t already.)


“Kill your darlings” does not mean you have to kill off your favorite characters (although it may). This refers to the fact that writers fall in love with what they have written and cannot bear the thought of deleting it, even if those passages are not needed to tell the story.

Ask yourself, what’s the story reason for including this in the book?  Does it provide a plot point, an inciting incident? Does it reveal important information to the reader? Does it reveal character? Does it reveal place or purpose? If you have no good reason other than “I love it,” then kill it.

The most common instances I see are extraneous descriptions or character bios; e.g., the tan stucco building, or character backgrounds that read like obituaries; also, author asides: the author either explains what just happened or comments on what just happened, as I described in Author Intrusion.

Example: Joe punched a hole in the wall with his fist. He was very angry.

And my thought, as an editor, is: No shit. Then I kill that darling: He was very angry.

My typical responses to this are:

  • Self-evident; the reader is way ahead of you; delete “He was very angry. ” Or: Redundant; delete. Or: Repetitious; delete.
  • Show, don’t tell.
  • Reveal, don’t tell.

The author could have another character say: “Joe, why are you so angry? Did something happen?” Then Joe reveals what’s bothering him.

Another common instance is an author trying to tidy things up at the end of a chapter, as if it were a standalone short story. However, this all too often deflates or dilutes the suspense or tension of the final action or dialogue in that scene or chapter. My most common response to this is: Unnecessary; author intrusion; delete. Think “cliffhanger.”

Research: Some writers try to include most, if not all, of the research material they uncovered. Don’t. Rule of thumb: leave out 90 percent. Yes, you learned some interesting facts while researching an event or place or historical figure, but it should be relevant to the story; only include what’s necessary for moving the story forward.

Every book I see can be tightened up. An early draft of my memoir totaled 150,000 words. I cut it by more than a third to 95,000 words. I also rewrote the first chapter 36 times. As the saying goes: Writing is rewriting.

Jennifer Redmond, former editor-in-chief at Sunbelt Publications, told me that she, on average, cut 10 percent out of most of the books she edited.

I worked with two co-authors writing a narrative nonfiction account of a criminal investigation; their first draft totaled 225,000 words. Through a lot of painful cutting and rewriting (over a period of four years) we reduced that by more than half to 110,000 words.

Their problem: They included all of their research, much of which was redundant or irrelevant to their story; i.e., they had no story reason for including that information. Nor could they kill their darlings—so I did the killing for them.

I see the same issue in historical fiction or stories that have a technical subject matter. You probably don’t need to spend 20 pages describing how to render whale blubber.

Kill your darlings.

Tenth in the series: Final Words

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Kill Your Darlings: The Art of Revision — 8. Information Dumps

Eighth element in this series: Kill Your Darlings: The Art of Revision
(Please read the Introduction, if you haven’t already.)


Reader feeder

This typically occurs in dialogue when one character tells another character things that other character already knows, or should know. The author inserts these details to “feed” information (exposition) to the reader. But it makes for unnatural, even unbelievable, dialogue between characters.

For example, Jill says:

“One set of prints here. Male as well. The lady who hired us described her friend, John Dodd, as five foot-ten and around a hundred eighty pounds. The depth of the print and length of the stride matches her description.” (40 words)

This is not how Jill would speak to her partner, Jack, especially since the lady has already been introduced. I changed it to:

“One set of prints. Male. Carol described her friend as five-foot-ten and around a hundred eighty pounds. The depth of the print and length of stride matches that.” (28 words = 30 percent fewer words)

The phrase the lady who hired us is reader feeder because Jack already knows this. Find another way to convey that information to the reader.

Fifteen pages later, Jill says:

“It’s time to go see the woman who hired us to look for Dodd and give her the bad news.” (20 words)

The phrase the woman who hired us to look for Dodd is reader feeder and repetitive. I changed it to:

“Time to go see Carol and give her the bad news.” (11 words = 45 percent reduction)

This is not only more realistic, it tightens it up and improves the pace.

Too much BS (back story)

Back story and character bios in inappropriate places (bringing the story to a halt), or without context for the reader, so it ends up having no meaning to the reader—e.g., someone asks for the time of day, and you tell her how a watch is made—and the reader skips it.

Back story and character bios that have little or no relevance to the story. I see a lot of manuscripts that go into great detail about a place or person that play minor roles in the story. Save it for the characters that matter.

Again, ask yourself, what’s the story reason? Is this the appropriate place in the story to put it? Does this information have to be introduced all at once or can it be dribbled in over a number of scenes or chapters, within a relevant context? I recommend the latter.

Author Intrusion

Author intrusion is my label for unnecessary or repetitious narrative that describes the action that follows, or explains a character’s motivation when the character’s action or words makes this clear to the reader. These are intrusive and slow the pace of the story.

Example: A character makes a sarcastic comment to another character, and the author writes: The day’s ball busting had begun. My comment to the author: Self-evident; delete. Or, put those words into a character’s mouth, not your narrative.

If you show, you don’t need to tell. If you reveal, you don’t need to tell. You can tighten up your narrative and improve the pace of the story by killing these darlings.

If you, as the author, writing in third person, want to be part of the story, then you need to make that clear from the outset. Otherwise, write it in first person.

The same applies to adverbs, those “-ly” words. Dump them, especially in dialogue attribution. E.g., “Be careful,” she said warningly. Or “I hate you,” she shouted angrily.

Adverbs are a lazy way out. . . . Metaphors are more fun. 
             —Carolyn Wheat

Using adverbs is a mortal sin.
                —Elmore Leonard

An exception would be if you are writing tongue in cheek and intentionally using “Tom Swifties,” which are a special type of pun.

Ninth in the series: Kill Your Darlings

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Kill Your Darlings: The Art of Revision — 7. Plot

Seventh element in this series: Kill Your Darlings: The Art of Revision
(Please read the Introduction, if you haven’t already.)


This, too, may seem self-evident, but I assure you, for some authors it is not: A plot should be logical, even in the wildest fantasy or sci-fi novel. Is the conflict contrived, unbelievable? Beware of plot holes: something missing from the story line that leaves the reader confused or, even worse, shaking her head in disbelief and laying the book aside. You want your readers laughing with you, not at you.

For example: Four characters are stranded in the post-apocalyptic Arizona desert and struggle to survive while being chased by bad guys intent on killing them; then, just when they are about to escape, without any suspicion or foreshadowing, one character betrays them. It feels contrived and implausible.

Example: Midway through the story, the primary POV shifts from the protagonist to a private investigator and a group of cartoonish cops, reading is if it were two different stories.

Rules to write by:

  • If you write genre fiction, use the “formula” as a skeleton, not a full-body suit.
  • The Hero’s Journey is tried and true; study it, then mold your own story, with a twist.
  • Avoid contrived scenarios that merely drag out the story without contributing to the story’s theme, message, or ultimate objective.
  • Keep the focus and POV on your primary characters.
  • Avoid deus ex machina endings (implausible or unbelievable).

Logistics: Watch for places where a character does things that don’t make sense or seem implausible, or the characters are repositioned without a transition.

For example:

  • A character is in Coronado, which is flanked by San Diego Bay, but the author writes: He left the car and sought solace in the rocking arms of Mission Bay.
  • A character picks up a gun in his left hand, and two paragraphs later he picks up a second gun with his left hand, and he intends to use the gun.
  • Two detectives get out of a car, but in the previous paragraph they were in the police station. This might work in a movie, where the viewer has visual cues, but not in a book.
  • It’s nighttime and dark, but the characters can see details as if it were full daylight.
  • The cell phone won’t work in a remote area, but 100 pages later, it does work.
  • A character in a post-apocalyptic hospital cuts all the electrical power to the building. Two pages later, she turns on lights and uses electrical equipment.

In science fiction and paranormal, you can create a new world, but the actions and situations still need to be plausible within the boundaries of that world.

Eighth in the series: Information Dumps

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Kill Your Darlings: The Art of Revision — 6. Characters

Sixth element in this series: Kill Your Darlings: The Art of Revision
(Please read the Introduction, if you haven’t already.)


Create three-dimensional characters; avoid stereotypes and cartoon characters.

I know this may seem self-evident, but all too often I see the latter—characters that are caricatures, rather than portrayed as believable individuals; this is especially true when it comes to cops and robbers; don’t turn it into Loony Tunes or the Keystone cops, or Father Brown, unless that is your intent from page 1—as a spoof, or satire, or humor.

Have your characters reveal who they are through their words and deeds. Show and reveal, don’t tell.

How many primary characters do I need/should I have? A literary agent told me: There are two or three important characters to a story—all the rest are furniture. That may be oversimplified, but keep that in mind.

How many secondary or minor characters do I need/should I have, even if they don’t get a POV? What is the story reason for including a specific character? If you have no justifiable story reason, take that character out. At the very least, do not give that character a POV.

Example: A number of secondary characters are introduced at the beginning, along with lengthy backgrounds, then are never heard from again. Meanwhile, characters with much larger roles get short shrift. If you do this, you are doing a disservice to your readers, and they may set your book aside.

The amount of words you devote to a character should be directly proportional to the role that character plays. The smaller the role, the fewer the words.

Seventh in the series: Plot

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Kill Your Darlings: The Art of Revision — 5. Point of View

Fifth element in this series: Kill Your Darlings: The Art of Revision
(Please read the Introduction, if you haven’t already.)


Point of View (POV) confounds many writers, but it is critical to a story, so you as writers need to be cognizant of how you employ POV and how it impacts your stories:

  1. Single—the entire story is told from the main character’s point of view, and it may be written in first-person. This is common in mysteries, from the POV of the detective or amateur sleuth, and the reader is two steps behind the protagonist, which creates the mystery.
  2. Limited omniscient—single POV within a scene, but multiple POV within the story. This is typical of a thriller or suspense story, where the good guy and the bad guy each have a POV, and the reader is two steps ahead of the good guy due to the bad guy’s POV, and that creates the suspense.
  3. Fully omniscient—multiple POV within scenes; “old school,” common in 19th and early to mid-20th century; no longer in fashion; a red flag to literary agents and publishers, who pejoratively call it “head hopping.”

    E.g., Somerset Maugham, and Louis L’Amour, who in a scene in Keylock Man gave a POV to six men—and a horse. In a manuscript I edited, the author gave brief POV to a dog.

    Do animals merit a POV? They can, but it needs to part of the story; maybe the animal is the main character. What’s the story reason?

The first two are considered the “rule of thumb” for today’s writing, while fully omniscient is considered to be old school and amateurish.

You may ask: How is POV established? POV is determined by what a specific character senses or thinks; i.e., what that character sees, hears, smells, tastes, and touches, and that character’s internal thoughts.

If something occurs in a scene that the POV character cannot see or hear, etc., then that becomes a POV shift. Not recommended.

The most critical element is internal thought—what a character is thinking at any given moment. In fully omniscient POV, the author may divulge the internal thoughts and motivations of two or more characters within a scene. In limited omniscient and single POV, the author limits the internal thoughts to one character per scene. What the non-POV characters think or feel is revealed by what they say or what they do.

Ask yourself: What POV do I need to tell this story effectively? How does a single POV limit my options? How does multiple POV complicate my options?

How do writers get confused by POV? True story: A writer had been to a workshop and was told by a well-known literary agent that if she wanted her book to be acquired by a New York publisher, she had to have multiple points of view. So, she wrote scenes from one character’s POV, then rewrote the same scenes from another character’s POV. If the second scene had introduced new information, or revealed aspects of the character not apparent in the first scene, then that technique might have worked; but this author merely repeated the information revealed to the reader in the first scene, and therefore it served no purpose. I had no trouble killing that darling.

Important points to ponder:

POV sends a message to the reader: It says “this character is important to the story, so pay attention.” However, I see manuscripts in which minor, throwaway characters are not only given a POV, they get paragraphs or even pages of background, while more important characters get short changed.

There are consequences for head hopping: rejection by agents and publishers, as well as reader confusion over who the most important characters are and whether the reader should care about or empathize with those characters. If a reader gets confused, he or she may put the book down and pick up another.

Only give POV to a few important characters. Clarity, not confusion. Example: I edited a rehash of the Robin Hood legend. It began with a long prologue from the POV of Robin Hood’s sidekick, Little John, in which Little John saves Robin from drowning when the ship they were on during their return to England began to sink. I thought, This is great—a fresh retelling of the legend of Robin Hood from Little John’s POV. But in Chapter One, the POV shifts to Robin Hood and Little John never gets a POV again. So, the author had set my expectations with the prologue—which should have been Chapter One—then dashed those expectations. This novel came out of a prestigious writers’ workshop, and, don’t get me wrong, that prologue was beautifully written, and it no doubt received high marks in the workshop. But not only did the POV throw me off, the prologue was not necessary for the story. I recommended that she kill that darling.

You ask: How do I convey to the reader what a character is thinking or a character’s emotional state without going into that character’s POV?

Answer: Show, don’t tell: Show the character’s thoughts and emotions through that character’s words and/or actions, rather than telling:

  • Telling/head hopping POV shift: She was pissed off.
  • Showing/no head hopping: “To hell with you,” she muttered and punched him on the nose.

Recommendation: Create a POV outline. This is similar to a chapter outline, but it’s limited to identifying each character that has a POV in each chapter and each scene within a chapter. You will see at a glance how much, or how little, weight you have given to each character.

If you find that you have given POV to multiple characters in a chapter or, more importantly, in a scene, then you ask yourself, is this necessary? What’s the story reason? Is this my intent? Why is this character so important that he or she merits a POV?

You ask: Can I have  multiple points of view in a story that’s written in first-person? Answer: Yes, as covered previously in Narrative Mode.

Murder mysteries often have a single POV—the detective, PI, or amateur sleuth—and often are written in first-person. So nothing happens in the story that is not through the eyes and ears of the main character.

Thrillers and suspense, by nature, require at least two POV—protagonist and antagonist—and may have a third or fourth, depending on the needs of the story.

But if you find that you have five, six, seven characters with POV, ask yourself why. Why do I need all of these characters’ POV? Why is this so critical? How can I write it differently so the POV remains with my two or three most important characters?

Sixth in the series: Characters

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