In honor of my Blogs birthday, I am going to give one of you, my wonderful readers a present. (But, you have to read to the end to see what it is.)
Like most newbies, when I started writing I had no clue how many rules there were to the craft. I just wrote my story down as best I could. And, when I typed the last word to my first draft, I thought it was perfect.
"There is no way anyone is going to have anything negative to say about my baby. It's perfect. I'm a genius. I'll make the best seller lists and rake in millions."
Anybody else think like this?
Don't lie, we all have delusions of grandeur. =p
Upon submitting my first chapter to be critiqued, I was shocked and appalled with how it was shredded to pieces. Some critiquers hated it. And many more had lots of issues to point out.
Here are a few anonymous quotes from my masterpiece...
I feel there's not enough action and when there is it seems somehow slower than it should be
One negative thing that kept cropping up for me was repetition of information and/or superfluous phrases.
I am not a huge fan of vampire fiction unless it is done in an original way. One of the problems besieging horror lies in unoriginality. ... I didn't see anything new here.
Okay, I'm thinking by this point, WHY ON EARTH is the MC sharing all this information with us???? You need to make this known pretty near the beginning of the story, I think.
So, as you can see, my first effort was clearly not the work of a writing genius.
I took my lumps in stride (I'm still taking them too) and worked hard studying the craft, buying lots books on writing, and started revising.
Well, this is a blog about writing, and there are many of us newbies out there. So I figured the best way to celebrate the blog's belated birthday, is with a post about some of the helpful tips and tricks I have learned over this past year.
So here are 10 great tips (if I do say so myself), in no particular order.
1)Started & Began
These are two words to avoid when writing any action. Since our writing should be in the moment. A character needs to "do" the action, rather than start or begin it.
Kind of like when Yoda says, "Do or do not, there is no try." In this case it is "Do or do not, there is no start."
A character should walk towards the door, not, start to. If he/she is physically moving then he is doing the action.
He started walking towards the door.
Ok, so he started, but did he actually do it, or did he just take a step in that direction?
He walked towards the door.
See, this time the reader see's him actually walking.
Now, the caveat to this rule is if the action is halted somewhere.
He started walking towards the door when the shrill ring of his phone halted him in his tracks.
A character can start something if that action will not be completed, otherwise, make the character act. Same applies to the word began. He began to dance with the strange lady. He danced with the strange lady.
2)Dialogue tags and punctuation.
This is a simple one that I manage to screw up all the time.
When you use a dialogue tag like, he said. it should look like this.
"I'm heading to the bar,” he said.
Comma inside of the quotes, not a period. In this case, the tag is an extension of the sentence.
Now, when the dialogue is followed with an action you would use the period.
"I'll see you later.” He winked.
Notice the difference? Because winking (in this example) is it's own seperate action, it is not a part of the sentence, so a period is used.
I won't go into creative dialogue tags. I am guilty of using those too.
3) POV Shifts or Head Hopping.
Hopping in and out of various characters heads does tend to stand out to readers.
It's a no no.
Unless you are writing in 3rd Omni, where the entire text follows both/all characters thoughts, feelings,etc...
I've been beaten up about this more times than I can count.
The general rule of thumb, is to pick only one character's head to be in per scene.
However, if you really feel you need to show more than one characters thoughts and feelings in a particular scene, (if it is long enough to do this) is to pick specific spots to swap. Figure out what characters inner thoughts and feelings are most important, for the part of the scene you are in, and stick with that character for at least 1k or so words. The larger the gap between POV changes, the more willing readers are to accept it.
Also, each POV shift should be clearly marked with either a noticeable gap in paragraphs, or a symbol like this, # in between paragraphs. Not 100% clear on the rule maybe ### or *** are more acceptable. Many submission guidelines will tell you what format they expect. Always check your formatting before you submit your work.
4)Think about your POV.
This goes along with my head hopping tip above.
Always remember who's head you are in.
In first person, the reader should only see and hear what the MC see's and hears. The MC can only know what they know, and can only speculate on the intentions of other characters.
George burned with desire for me.
The MC can't know for sure that George is burning with desire. She may be herself, but unless she can read his mind, she can't be sure.
George pulled me into his arms. His hot breath blew across my ear as he spoke, "I need you."
Here, the MC tells us, through George's actions and words, that he does, in fact want her.
In limited 3rd, the reader should only know the thoughts and feelings of one character. The narrator can delve into the MC mind to tell us the characters internal thoughts and motivations, but not the secondary characters.
George pulled Madeline into his arms, enjoying the feel of her soft body against against his own. "I need you," he whispered in her ear. Madeline sighed with contentment as she wrapped her arms around his waist.
Here, there is a minor POV change from George to Madeline. If the Narrator is in Georges head, they cannot know for sure that Madeline is content. A sigh could mean anything.
George pulled Madeline into his arms, enjoying the the feel of her soft body against his own. "I need you," he whispered in her ear. Madeline responded with a sigh and wrapped her arms around his waist.
In 3rd Omni, the reader should know all characters thoughts and feelings. The narrator can delve into each person's mind and know their intentions and motivations.
No example here. I never write in this POV.
I won't even touch 2nd person. =p
5) Comparisons can be a good thing. In small doses.
When I first started writing, I felt the need to describe everything in painful detail. I have since learned that the occasional comparison can help convey the image I want without the extra, and often necessary words. However, they should not be overused.
Example 1 (too much)
A large, thick soled boot, like the kind a soldier would wear, came down hard on my hand. It felt like a lead weight. It twisted side to side, crushing my knuckles as if stamping out a cigarette.
Now this is obviously way too much. It does convey the image of a heavy boot, and the weight, as well as the image of it stamping on her hand, but it's overkill.
Example 2 (no comparison)
A large, thick soled boot came down hard on my hand, crushing my knuckles under its weight.
This is fine to convey an image of the boot coming down on her hand. It would pass my critique, but with the small, added ooph of something to compare the action with, it will pop.
Example 3 (revised)
A large, thick soled boot came down hard on my hand, twisting side to side, crushing my knuckles as if stamping out a cigarette.
6)Small sentences can make action feel real.
This was an interesting point I picked up while being critiqued. When I started writing, I had a tendency to write really long flowing sentences. I wanted to get everything-all the details in one breath. A critiquer pointed out to me that action, reads best with smaller sentences.
Example 1 (original)
Again, I yelped as hot tears streamed down my face. I tried to crawl away, clawing at the pavement to push myself up but before I could get far, a foot came down hard on my hands. A large, thick soled boot crushed my knuckles, twisting side to side as if stamping out a cigarette.
Example 2 (revised)
Again, I yelped. Hot tears streamed down my face. I tried to crawl away, clawing at the pavement to push myself up. A large, thick soled boot came down hard on my hand, twisting side to side, crushing my knuckles as if stamping out a cigarette.
Details get lost in overly long sentences. By making action sentences a little shorter, and focusing on one action per sentence, you emphasize what is happening so that no detail is lost.
Now I am not telling you to only write short sentences, you should always vary it up, lest it become too monotonous. Just remember to make the action pop!
7)Echo Echo Echo.
An echo happens when you use the same or similar word too close together. This is something you want to avoid doing whenever possible. It tends to stand out, like an annoying drum beat when done too much. When you are tempted to use the same word twice, think of ways to reword or restructure the surrounding sentences.
Example 1 (echo)
I surveyed the café, noticing that two strangers had sat down at one of the card tables along the painted mural wall. They did not seem like the type that frequented coffee houses, especially not a vintage cafe like this.
See the echo here. The word cafe is used twice in close proximity.
Example 2 (revised)
I surveyed the café, noticing two strange men sitting down at one of the card tables along the painted mural wall. They looked too clean cut, definitely not the type who would frequent a vintage place like this.
Sometimes a little reword does the trick.
8) Had, Was, Were... To be or not to be, that is the question.
A year later and I am still learning about passive voice in writing. I'm not going to attempt to give advice on that subject specifically, but I will give this handy little tip.
Avoid the "to be" verbs when possible. They have a tendency to make your writing passive and they are so easily overused.
Now, I am not saying never use them, just avoid where possible. Just like all words, they do have their place in writing.
Example 1 (unnecessary had)
I surveyed the café, noticing that two strangers had sat down at one of the card tables along the painted mural wall.
The had here is unnecessary and drags the sentence into the passive zone. Lets reword.
Example 2 (no had)
I surveyed the café, noticing two strange men sitting at one of the card tables along the painted mural wall.
Example 3 (unnecessary was)
My heart was pounding in my chest.
Sure the heart was pounding, but we could have gotten the same message in a more active sense without the word, was.
My heart pounded in my chest.
You will find, in most cases, when you are tempted to use one of the "to be" verbs, you can simply rework the sentence and avoid it.
Now, there are situations where they are perfect to use. Had, for example is a wonderful way to let the readers know the information happened in the past.
I couldn't understand why Hector refused my request. He had helped me many times before. What's stopping him now?
Here, had is used just to tell us of a previous situation. It works, as is.
9) Felt, Saw, Heard, Smelled, and other incomplete descriptors.
I have been beaten up on this one many times. Sometimes we forget the details and need a little reminder. In writing we have to give the reader as much information as we can to really let them experience the world we have created.
Don't tell the reader a character saw, heard, smelled, etc...something, describe it. Pretend that the reader is deaf and blind because they are as far as your story is concerned. They cannot see the imaginary world or hear the sounds in your book unless you describe it.
She saw a bird among the flowers.
Well, what did the bird look like. Is it a small, brightly colored humming bird flitting among the pale pink honeysuckles? Or maybe a bright, blue robin? The reader won't know unless you tell them.
She heard a noise coming from the other room and went to investigate.
What kind of noise? Is it the sounds of fighting? Bodies being slammed into walls. Music perhaps? Are there thundering, syncopated boom's coming from the other room. Perhaps it is crashing glass, like a vase being broken on a hardwood floor.
Paint a complete picture with your words. Use all of your senses to describe a scene.
10)In medias res.
Latin for "into the midst of affairs."
Originally, my first chapter was all back story. I have since learned, through many suggestions by critiquers, that this is a HUGE no no.
I'm sure you have heard this one a million times, start in the action. Start at the moment of change for your character. Hook the reader right at the beginning.
Many new writers, my self included, want the reader to get to know the MC before we start torturing them (the characters, not the readers. We never want to torture the reader).
Don't do it.
A standard adult novel is at minimum, 80k words in length (MG and YA excluded). There is plenty of space to weave in your characters back story. The beginning of your book needs to draw a reader in. You need to give them a reason to read on, so start with something action packed or drama filled to get them interested.
After the first few round of edits on Immortalis-Carpe Noctem, I whittled away almost 4k words of back story to start right at the moment my MC is ditched by her friends and left to walk home down a dark street. Those 4k words did not go away though, I found various places later on in the story to weave in her history. If I can do it, you can too.
Along those lines, skip the prologue, it works against the whole, in medias res thing and most people won't read them.
Ok, there is my 10 tips. Thanks for reading! On to the long awaited present.
Since this specific blog post is all about tips for better writing, I am going to offer up a wonderful self-editing resource as a prize to one lucky reader.
A gently used copy of
Renni Browne & Dave King's book, Self Editing for Fiction Writers.
Since I only have one copy to give I'm going to hold a drawing.
All you have to do to enter, is leave a comment on this post with a writing tip or trick.
Comments can be posted any time from now until Thursday night, December 3rd, at midnight PST.
At that time, I will put the names of those that commented with a writing tip, into a hat. The name I draw will win MY copy of this book. (don't worry it is like-new. I am gentle with my reference books.)
I will post the name of the winner on Friday morning along with how to contact me to arrange shipping.
Good luck and thanks for reading. It's been a great year. Here is hoping for many more to come.