by Chris Stewart
I see these lists all over Facebook on a regular basis so, just for fun, and hopefully to help you, I compiled my own list. I swore I wouldn’t, but a respectable period has passed, about three years, since that vow, so I think I can break it now. Think less of me if you will. These are going to annoy you because most of them are deceptively simple. But, admit it, we often make life more complicated than it has to be so – trust me. You’re doing a lot of crap you shouldn’t and it’s unbelievably easy to fix in some cases.
When someone doesn’t write well, I find it’s for two reasons: ego and ignorance. People who think they are amazing writers usually are not. Whenever someone tells me they’ve written an amazing story and they think the writing is really good, best seller material, I know eight times out of ten that I’m in for it as an editor. Ego. The ones who come from ignorance (untrained, unskilled) usually write stilted, often nonsensical (due to their use of a dictionary and thesaurus rather than writing like a real person at the conversational level), stale pieces because they want to be a Writer.
They might be imitating their favorite writer or a successful one, using someone else’s mold instead of creating their own. It’s like they’ve never read a book before. Or, heaven help us, they think they’re inventing something new. Sigh. Here are some ways to stay out of both extremes and clean up your act:
1) Read at least 10 books on craft before you do anything. Okay, this one isn’t easy. I tricked you. If you don’t have an MA/MFA in creative writing, if you haven’t taken at least 3-5 classes (not workshops, separate class series) on craft, or worked one on one with a writing mentor or editor, if you haven’t read at least 10 books on craft, then I’m here to burst your bubble.
It’s for your own good.
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There’s about 1000% more to writing a book than you think. Writing something good is hard. Writing takes skill and training and lots of practice (about 100 times more practice than the number in your head right now). Even if you’ve been writing for years and have written and published a successful book, it is still hard. It will always be a challenge. Yet so many think they are special, talented geniuses, and don’t have to do the work. Craft schmaft, they scoff. (Long pause so you can fill in the blank about what I think about that.)
So pick whichever books you want but make sure to cover plot, structure, dialogue, character, voice, point of view, and editing/revising. "How To" books with examples and details and exercises, not just ones that are vaguely inspirational or philosophical about the art of writing. Also include some writers' journals/notebooks from classic writers as well as contemporary. And Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style. Everyone will have their opinion about the best books to read and it’s a deep well. No time to go there here, so feel free to post the book you feel helped you the most and why in the comments.
As you’re reading, make notes as they relate to two things: a) the story you want to write (whether short or novel) and b) your writing in general - mistakes you see yourself making, things you want to try, ways you can improve, plot and character ideas that will pop into your head. Be honest with yourself. It will save a lot of time.
2) Kill the adverbs. I still see books on the NY Times bestseller lists or on prominent tables at Barnes & Noble dripping with them. No, I’m not contradicting myself. It’s a sign of poor writing and poor editing, period. You are a writer. Adverbs are a shortcut. Writers are not allowed to take shortcuts. You’re the writer; if you can’t find the words to describe something without using an adverb, why bother writing at all? They are the equivalent of serving cardboard for dinner. They usually do nothing for a sentence. There can be exceptions, but practice this tip first, for a few years, then we can talk.
3) Dialogue tags. It’s ‘said’ and only ‘said’ (or ‘say’). That’s it. No ‘exclaimed’, ‘questioned’, ‘argued’, ‘ruminated’, ‘jeered’, ‘cajoled’, ‘mocked’. I could go on. Your dialogue should convey jeering by your word choice, pacing, movements and gestures between sentences, facial expressions, silences. Not with dialogue tags. Another shortcut. (Insert sound of buzzer here.)
4) Ellipses. These, as an editor, drive me insane, I have to say. Dialogue trailing off into ellipses. Huge no. Colossal no. Again, you’re the writer. The reader wants you to fill in blanks, to say or not say the things they should say or bungle saying for them. Take risks. There’s a limit to how ‘real life’ a reader wants it. If your character isn’t sure how to answer or what to say (because you have a good reason; there needs to be one), have them think what they’d like to say or change the subject or act, move, gesture, send a message with their body language or facial expression. Whatever you decide, it has to have a real purpose. To mean something. To advance the story, create conflict, or develop the character. These goals should be on your mind at all times.
5) Part two of the above is wasting space and time with boring everyday dialogue like “How are you?” and “Well” and “Um” and “What would you like for dinner?” and “Yeah, I know”. Use your words and your silences as a strategy. Listen to your mother (with a twist): if you don’t have anything to say that moves the story along, don’t say anything. Withhold, for instance. Force yourself to read Henry James if you don’t already love his work. His nickname was “The Master” and he is. One of the things he’s the master of is the unsaid. Get to know this important tool in your craft toolbox.
6) Dodging the story you promised to tell. This ties in to telling versus showing. I’m sure you’ve heard this, who hasn’t, but it holds true. Don’t tell me, show me. Show me means a scene, with dialogue, inner monologue/thoughts, action, emotion (what is the character feeling?), description/scene setting. One of these might dominate the rest but they are all present to some degree. The biggest mistake I see related to telling-not-showing is the dancing around, summarizing of key, important scenes, then writing the boring, useless ones in excruciating detail. That means you’re afraid to dive in and tell your story. I wrote another post on that here: http://writersedgeinfo.blogspot.com/2011/05/seeing-forest-for-trees.html
7) Zero thematic, figurative, symbolic level to the story. Little to no figurative language (metaphors, similes, allusion, hyperbole, personification, to name a few). This is why writing is hard – you need to be thinking about your book at many different levels, not just the quality of the writing, but your overall theme, structure (and all that goes with that – pacing, rising action, arc, climax, resolution), plot (as a whole and at the level of the scene), character (development, arc), and the figurative/symbolic level.
No figurative language or symbolism, no attention to theme, makes a book one, maybe two dimensional. It can move quickly, but it might never lift off the page. Writing at these levels is your subtext, written in a sort of invisible ink for the reader to discover. There’s nothing a reader likes more than finding clues to develop their understanding of a story or character. It makes them feel smart, like good readers. It creates an intimate bond between them and you (in the reader’s heart and mind). Like you placed it there just for them to find.
Think of ways to also use figurative language, metaphors especially, to surprise, but not confuse. Make sure your metaphors are consistent. Don’t pile them on (use one at a time, think spare) and don’t have them be from radically different categories (food, sports, animal, nature). You will draw attention to yourself, “Hey! I’m using a metaphor I’m really proud of here. Aren’t I clever?”
Don’t overdo it. You can certainly vary your metaphors, I don’t mean every single time a certain character is present you always use smoke metaphors or bell metaphors or the character literally always encounters smoke or hears church bells or something. That’s like a bad joke that your spouse tells at every party or something. A bad pun. Cringeworthy. Again, use as a strategy and be subtle! Do not rely on metaphors to be the spark in your writing. They are easily overused.
8) Verb tenses. It’s pretty simple: If your story is in present tense your flashbacks or mentions of things in the past are past tense. If you’re writing in past tense, flashbacks or mentions of past events are in past perfect using ‘had’. The trick with a flashback is to use ‘had’ two or three times, then switch to past so the flashback will feel immediate, then switch back to ‘had’ for the last couple of verbs to exit and remind your reader of the time shift.
Here’s some help: http://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/601/01/
9) Grammar. Learn it. Here’s some help (or buy the book of your choice): http://writerswrite.co.za/51-grammatical-terms-explained. And punctuation. Learn how to use a semi-colon. How to punctuate dialogue (open any book and there’s your tutorial. It’s not that hard, but I see this issue in just about every manuscript). Use a serial comma. You get 3 exclamation points for the book (poet Edward Hirsch says for your whole writing life, but I’ll let you slide a bit there). Use with care. Reread #3 and #4.
10) For the love of (insert deity of your choice), please format your manuscript properly. Start from the moment you write. Do not write single-spaced stories and convert them. They will not truly be formatted properly and may revert back to single-spaced in places when printed. Here’s how your manuscript should be formatted.
-one space only after commas, periods, and colons
-12 point font, Times New Roman (Some people persist in saying maybe Courier. No. Just no.)
-1” margins on all sides
-Chapters start one-third to halfway down the page and the first line is left flush
-Double-double space between sections and the first line of the new section is left flush (which is enough, don’t use asterisks or pound signs too)
-Indent the first line of every paragraph (use tab set for 5 spaces -.05)
-Left justified (not full)
-Page numbers appear in upper right hand corner like this: Last name/one or two words of title/number
– page numbers start on the first page of the actual story
-You also need a title page for novels
-Do not create section and page breaks manually, or change spacing between lines or characters
BONUS: Unlike cleaning before the maid comes, do clean up your manuscript yourself before you send it to an editor, whether of a magazine, one you’ve hired, or with a publisher. You need to see the mistakes you’re making for yourself and fix them yourself. You won’t learn if someone else does it all for you. It's inevitable that you'll miss some or something will need correcting, and that’s where an editor comes in. Do a spelling, punctuation, and grammar check. Read for typos, for continuity of character names, descriptions, time, objects (cars, furniture, cities), pronoun use (make sure they are referring to the person you think you’re referring to). Format your manuscript.
This is all so obvious, but how often do you make obvious mistakes? How thorough are you, really? Speaking personally, I don’t work with people who aren’t interested in learning and improving their writing. If I receive a manuscript that’s a mess in terms of the basics, I turn it down. If you can’t be bothered to handle them, just hire a proofreader, self-publish, and send the Amazon link to your parents.
For those of you who mean business, picture yourself as Mahakali (above) with ten arms (and legs, I spared you the legs; that’s just creepy) and you have a metaphor for the number of virtual hands you need for the threads you’re weaving—or tossing balls in the air, so to speak. For all the big and little details and levels editors are reading for in your manuscript and possibly finding it lacking.