Over the years as I have written and re-written my manuscript, I’ve received or found lots of advice on writing from how often to write (daily seems to be the consensus) to what to write (what you know) to more technical tips. While you can find dozens of blog entries and articles on writing tips and I am no authority on writing, these are a few I’ve spent a lot of time struggling with:
Don’t fall in love with your writing
Or as Stephen King says, “Kill your darlings.” You have to have a thick skin to be a writer (rejection, criticism, etc. are part of everyday life) and while lots of others will give you feedback, your toughest critic has to be yourself. Cut, prune, trim, rip out. Lose the extra words, paragraphs, pages and chapters.
One of the best pieces of advice I was given along these lines was to throw away your first chapter. There is so much in your head when you begin to write you want to set everything up and explain it all from the beginning. Go ahead. Get all that critical information on paper when writing that first (or third) draft.
When you’re ready to review, simply skip to the second chapter and start reading. You just might find if you grab two or three sentences from your first chapter and seed them into your second, the reader can get along just fine. Then, do it again. Eventually, you get down to the essence of the story and move the action and flow along much better.
Harsh, but probably the best single piece of advice I have received.
Go on an adverb hunt
Most writers, editors and teachers will tell you adverbs suck. They are unnecessary and lazy. I tend to agree, but there are uses for adverbs as long as you use them sparingly (yes, I see the adverb). Adverbs can often be redundant and action verbs drive the narrative much better than passive verbs with adverbs. I could go on, but here is an excellent blog entry on the use of adverbs:
Since we’re on the subject of adverbs, again most folks agree it’s best to avoid them:
“Forget it,” he said angrily.
“Forget it,” he shouted.
Certainly gets the idea across with an active word rather than an adverb, but another way of writing it could be:
Bob pounded the desk. “Forget it!”
Now there is action in the scene and the reader gets that Bob is angry.
So three approaches. I think there are times for the second approach and times for the third, but I favor the third because I like the visual aspect to it.
But, what about when two people are just chatting?
“I want to go home,” Andy said.
“Well, you’ll have to wait for the bus. The cops put a boot on my car yesterday,” Sue said.
“I thought you were going to pay those parking tickets,” he said.
“I never got around to it,” she said.
“Damn. No need to get testy,” he said.
The reader barely notices the “said”s, but it’s dry. Another approach might be:
“I want to go home,” Andy declared.
“Well, you’ll have to wait for the bus. The cops put a boot on my car yesterday,” Sue replied.
“I thought you were going to pay those parking tickets,” he groaned.
“I never got around to it,” she barked.
“Damn. No need to get testy,” he soothed.
Now the tags jump out at the reader, but it’s too much and can be distracting. The dialogue and the action should inform the reader of the speakers’ moods. If tags appear to be necessary, rewrite:
“I want to go home,” Andy said.
“Well, you’ll have to wait for the bus. The cops put a boot on my car yesterday.”
“Ugh, I hate the bus. I thought you were going to pay those parking tickets.”
“I never got around to it, OK?”
“OK. OK. Sorry. No big deal.”
Just my opinion, but much better. I assumed there were only two speakers, so didn’t even bother to tag the second line of dialogue.
That all being said, there are a few handy tags, like “whispered” which might have use under certain circumstances. Again, wise to use sparingly.
Read out loud
A great test of writing is how it sounds when read out loud. If the prose and dialogue sound smooth, natural and flow, you’ve nailed it. If you’re tripping over your own sentences, rewrite.
Watch for assumptions (but don’t over explain)
It’s easy to forget that your readers don’t know everything you know. In Wonderland, DJ finds a puzzle box. In a recent draft, while I did describe what it looked like, a friend pointed out to me that everyone might not know what a puzzle box was, so I added a couple of brief sentences explaining how puzzle boxes work.
I find it to be a delicate balance – explaining just enough but not bogging down the pace with too much exposition and I’m sure I fail on several occasions. I go back to one of the most ubiquitous pieces of writing advice – use the shortest words, sentences and paragraphs to get your point across to the reader.
Engage all the readers’ senses. We tend to focus on sight because it is the most obvious to describe what the characters are seeing, but touch, taste, smell and hearing are just as important and can breathe life into a scene or an action sequence.
Caveat to not falling in love with your writing
This is my own advice, for what it’s worth. Don’t sacrifice your style for perfect grammar or text book writing. Everyone has their own style. I’ve worked with a number of editors over the years and I get turned off when they start wordsmithing every sentence. We all have our own cadence and that should be respected. I’m not saying that you should throw Strunk & White out of the window, but, IMHO, it’s OK to take some dramatic license.
Good luck and keep writing!
As always, feedback is welcome!