The other day I had a long discussion with an author friend, and we were bemoaning a book we’d both recently read (I couldn’t make it past the 20% mark) and discussing all the problems it had (aside from the lack of editing), and he suggested to me that it might be valuable to create a series on how to write a better book.
WOW! A humorous blog with me, about me, focused on my wants and needs, and what I think and feel, with the lovely Patricia Carrigan.
NEWS: A guest blog with the always charming Wren Doloro. The Women of Russell Blake.
INTERVIEW: A brand new interview with author Mel Comley.
MORE NEWS: Another guest blog on how to promote your ebook!
None of what I lay out is new. Nor is it controversial. But it is often ignored by writers at their peril.
What follows is part one of a series of blogs that offer tips on writing a better novel.
TIP # 1: Eliminate unnecessary words. If that seems familiar, it’s because it is the first commandment from Strunk & White. And it’s a good one. Too often we get all wrapped up in word count and novel length, and I think that creates pressure to be less critical of our word choices than we should be. Some writers tend to use a paragraph where a sentence would suffice, or a sentence where a word would be more effective. I’m not counseling that you cut your work down to the bare minimum (although that’s never a terrible idea), but rather that you eliminate any lazy words – words you insert that add nothing, or that you overuse – one good tip is if you suspect you’re overusing something, use the “Find” feature in MS Word and see how many times it appears in your doc. As to lazy words, I’m talking about words like “few” or “or so.” “A few soldiers ran…” “It was a mile or so…” Try to be specific. No sentences or thoughts are improved by the insertion of lazy words. If it was a mile away, say so. If there were three soldiers, or six, or a dozen, say so – do the work, think through how many there were, and give the reader that specific information. Sometimes it’s okay to have ambiguity in a thought (to me, especially with character descriptions, I find that less is more and that they work better with the reader filling in the blanks), but mostly it’s just the writer being lazy.
TIP #2: Don’t be lazy. If a reader is to be expected to invest hours into reading your work, you owe the reader your very best effort. A shoulder shrug and the thought, “That’s good enough,” cheats you both. If you are questioning whether it’s good enough, it probably isn’t and you know it. So stop being lazy and do it better. Only once you feel that you couldn’t have expressed an idea or thought better should you be done with it. And you should turn each sentence over with that idea in mind. “Can I do this better? How?” If you take this approach, you’ll find your writing improves considerably because you are demanding more out of yourself.
TIP #3: Write fast, then rewrite. I don’t like to edit as I go. It breaks up the flow, and I wind up mewling like a bitch kitty in a corner, trying to polish each sentence rather than getting the story out on paper (or in this case, the screen). I’ve found that it works better to write at a decent clip and then do multiple drafts, rewriting only once the story is done. Basically, in my approach, the first draft is only 1/3 of the work. The second, which is where a lot of rewrite time is invested, fixes the more awkward language and grammatical gaffes, and then third is more for pacing, polishing and looking for echoes.
TIP # 4: Watch for echoes. Surely you can think of more than one word for anything. If you can’t, get a thesaurus. Nothing bores a reader faster than repetitive use of the same word. Go for variation, but be sensitive about trying too hard. Sometimes using a word like door twice is preferable to portico, and chair works better than chaise. Sometimes not, but usually you want to steer clear of the obscure. Because job number one is to tell the story in as gripping a manner possible, and showing off your scrabble skills might wind up coming off as pretentious or labored.
TIP #5: Use description as punctuation. You should establish a pace, a cadence to your flow, and balancing dialogue and exposition is one way to create a rhythm. Description can be mesmerizing or tedious, and when it’s done well, it can establish valuable pauses in the narrative.
TIP #6: Know the rules, but be okay breaking them if it creates an effect you are after. One of my favorites is “Show, don’t tell.” That comes from the more important idea of “Keep it entertaining and moving.” But sometimes for stylistic reasons you want or need to tell. I don’t get too hung up in this, as most of these rules are well-intentioned ideas, not mandates. When writers become dogmatic about rules (no adverbs, never end a sentence with a preposition, etc.) they are defeating themselves and confusing helpful rules of the road with narrowly-interpreted absolute laws. Mostly, I find that those who care about this stuff past a certain point got themselves a degree where they’re emotionally invested and there can only be one right or wrong. Again, I’m not saying be ignorant of the rules, but rather learn them well, and then follow them to the extent that doing so makes your writing better.
TIP # 7: It’s okay to love language. You should. You’re a writer. If your goal is to merely crank out ten word paragraphs at a second grade level, you may be a candidate for the James Patterson novel factory, but you won’t be writing evocative, interesting prose. Balance your use of language with what mood you want to create. You’re defining the atmosphere, the environment your reader will be inhabiting. Choose your style carefully so it achieves what you want. My advice is to not try to create a voice that you hope will be one readers are receptive to – rather, just write in your voice, whatever that is, and make your voice an extremely interesting and compelling one – work to develop it as such. Perhaps readers would love twenty thrillers by me, each with a different voice and style, but in truth, I believe that consistency is preferable. When I buy a Ludlum or Grisham novel, I want their distinctive, unique voice, not their attempt at a new one each book. In the end, the more you write, the more settled your voice will become, and the more confident you will be with it. That assurance is essential if readers are to have confidence in you as an author – and there’s no faking it. They’ll spot it a mile away.
TIP # 8: Read as much as you can. The more you expose yourself to, the more evolved your voice will become. I read voraciously – fiction, non, thrillers, economics, politics, you name it – anything but YA, romance or erotica (and poetry). Mainly because I’m a curmudgeon and don’t like it much. I can’t see how you could wind up being a good writer if you don’t read a lot. It’s like trying to be a good cook without eating or tasting a lot of different foods. Exposure to new ideas broadens your horizons, whether it is a device another author used to create an effect you like, or a stylistic trick you want to incorporate in your work, or a tangent the author goes off on that creates an unexpected sensation you’d like to make your own. If you don’t expose yourself to a lot of different work, you will have a limited vocabulary, which will translate into a hamstrung ability to tell an interesting story.
TIP # 9: Write as though your life depends on it. This speaks to quality. Write each book as though it was the only one of yours anyone will ever read. Because if it isn’t good, it will be. More importantly, nobody is holding a gun to your head to force you to write. There are more than enough good, and bad, books out there. The world doesn’t need any more bad ones. So if you are going to foist your work off on readers, make sure that it’s as good as it can possibly be. If you find a passage or chapter your gut says shouldn’t be there, or could be better, your job is to act as the quality control department and either axe it or fix it. You should write with pride and sincerity, and strive to improve each day. Your work is your calling card, and it will build, or destroy, your reputation. If you don’t take what you are doing seriously and assign importance to it, then you don’t deserve to be taken seriously.
TIP # 10: Tell the story as efficiently as possible. Another way of saying this would be don’t waste the reader’s time. Every chapter should be there for a reason, and each paragraph within it should as well. Same with each sentence. If it doesn’t move the story forward or create an effect you’re after or provide information that the reader needs, it shouldn’t be there. I’d rather read a gripping 70K words than a meandering 85K. Cut the fat. Lose the deadwood. Cut to the chase, and ask yourself with each page, “Is this interesting?” If the answer is anything but, “You bet your ass it is!” you should lose it.
TIO #11: Don’t be a douchebag with your vocabulary. You should have as large a vocabulary as possible (in order to best select how to convey your ideas, you need the largest palate of colors possible), but you don’t need to put defenestrated or axiomatic or antidisestablishmentarianism into your book just because you know what they mean. That’s kind of douchey, and it bugs me. It’s okay to use complicated language if that’s part of your style, but don’t write Nancy Drew and then drop in an antipodal or pantheistic for giggles. Keep it appropriate to your voice. Likewise, don’t write to moron level if you don’t naturally do so. Readers hate insincerity, and if you are trying to dumb your work down because you feel it is too smart for your target audience, my advice is to go after a different audience. Daniel Silva shoots for a different audience than John Locke. Neither of them would be good at writing what the other does. So keep it real and just write what you write.
TIP #12: Don’t write for an imaginary audience. Trying to second guess what some hypothetical demographic might like is silly. Write what you like, do it with sincerity, and make it as interesting as you can. In other words, write a book you would enjoy reading. If that means you take risks and push the envelope because you’d find it boring to read otherwise, then trust that instinct. If you try to make everyone happy you wind up writing a book by committee, and please nobody. Write what you would read – not what you would read if your mom was sitting reading with you, or what you’d want to tell your priest or rabbi you read, or what your critique group might be impressed with – if you would find what you are writing boring as a reader, go with that instinct and spice it up. Don’t pull punches, but don’t try to be outrageous for shock value alone, unless you enjoy books that have outrageous, shocking scenes or language for no other reason than the effect. Be true to what you like as a reader and you can’t go too wrong.
TIP # 13: Have fun. Creation can be painful, but at the end of the day, there should be an emotional payoff. There should be joy in it. Some might even say it should be fun. Given that the chances of any writer making real money from their work are miniscule, the work itself is likely to be the only reward one gets, so it should be rewarding. Love what you do, and love yourself as you do it. In the end, nobody gets out of this alive, and you will only have your experiences when you’re lying on your deathbed. So if you choose to occupy your time – the only time you have on the planet – writing, then make it count and do it for real, and enjoy it.
This list is by no means exhaustive. I will write more blogs on the topic as I feel inspired. A lot of this is good for me to state for myself – it’s easy to lose sight of some of these tips when you’re cranking out about a million words a year. So it’s a reminder to myself as well.
What do you think? Any tips you’ve found are helpful to your writing?