December 23rd, 2016

Advanced Craft Tips

in-writing

I do a lot of critiquing. As I get better at craft, I’m starting to catch the nuances of good writing; things beyond the basics of POV, show don’t tell, etc. They’re subtler and harder to spot, but I believe they can be the difference between a ‘good writer’ and a popular author. And yes, I have these same problems too.

 

  • Tell us what we don’t know: Something happens – your character has a thought about it – someone speaks – your character has another thought. It breaks up and slows the scene, and it doesn’t add enough to warrant the break. Example:

When he stepped out, he had no smile for her. He avoided meeting her gaze. Even though his clothing was freshly pressed and his shoulders were back, he looked drained, as if he’d just run the obstacle course.

The presentation must have gone badly.

Do you see how the thought is not only unneeded – but that it weakens the sentences above it? And it slows the read. Write only thoughts that the reader couldn’t guess. That can be powerful – showing that the character is keeping something from the others in the scene.

Knowing I can’t go out there, the walls seem to crowd me, closer than they were a few minutes ago. Is it going to be like this until the trial is over? If so, my bail was a waste—I’m just in a cushier, more familiar prison.

Her sobs over the phone claw my insides.

 

  • Anchor us in deep POV: Adam is the POV character below.

 

Halfway out the door, Adam grabbed him.

“Hey, lemme go!” The punk twisted to see who had the collar of his shirt.

Do you see how the way this is worded blurs and distances us from the POV character?

Better would be:

Halfway out the door, he grabbed the little thief.

Why? Because if I’m firmly in Adam’s POV, I shouldn’t have to use his proper name. The way it’s originally written, it’s distant; almost from a narrator’s POV.

            Another example:

 Suzie’s face flushed red, realizing she’d just put her mother in the same category as the wino.

Again, we’re in Suzie’s POV. We don’t need her name. This is also a minor POV violation – Suzie can feel the blood in her face, but she can’t see that her face is red.

Better: Blood pounded to her face, flooding her with the realization that she’d just put her mother in the same category as the wino.

He watched Harper drive, hands ten and two on the wheel. We’re in his POV. If you say it, we know it’s because he saw it. Better: Harper drove, hands ten and two on the wheel.

 

  • Unneeded dialog tags: I tend to notice these more, because dialog tags is one of my pet peeves. I believe that the only time you need a tag is when the reader wouldn’t know whom is speaking. And when you need one, there are a lot better ways to use it, than, ‘he said’. Besides, they’re distancing.

“I’ll walk you back to your ship,” she said, falling into step beside him.

Better would be:

“I’ll walk you back to your ship.” She fell into step beside him.

This is a nuance, but can you see how the second is more natural and ‘flows’ better? It helps the reader be in the scene, instead of just reading about it.

“What was that?” she asked. It sounded like someone had pinched a baby.

Since there are only a man and a woman in this scene, and we know it’s not him from the line before, the reader will deduce that she asked this. Which means you don’t need the tag.

Margie Lawson is the Queen at this. You can read a blog she wrote about it, here.

These are small nuances, but important ones. The reader won’t think, “I don’t need that tag.” But these are the things that show an agent/editor or reader that you’re good.

 

  • Telling, then showing:  I see this a lot. Example:

It was insane to expect him to restrain himself. “That’s like sending an alcoholic into a bar that’s giving away free beer.”

I’d make the case that not only is the beginning unnecessary, it weakens the line of dialog. Showing is almost always better than telling, and both is always the worst.

 

  • Over the top:  Sure sign to an agent or a reader of a newbie author.

Exclamation points!!!! You get three per book. Use them wisely. (and yes, I have the same limits, and I hate them just as much). And never two pieces of punctuation at the end of one sentence. Yes, I know everyone uses it on social media – but you’re a professional.

“I know, right?!”

Along the same lines – repetition in general –

  • Say it once-say it well: As a reader, we assume that if you wrote it, you meant it. Repeating it does not make us believe you more. Saying the same thing again in a different way won’t do it, either, and it’s irritating to the reader, who feels like you think they’re too dumb to get it the first time. If you feel like you need to do this, it’s because your original sentence isn’t strong enough. Go back and work on that until you’re happy with it. Try it. I promise you’ll agree with me.

But there are subtle shades of repetition, and it’s easy to miss.  Here’s some examples:

“Then why don’t you tell him, if it bothers you so much?” Richard visibly stiffened at Michelle’s suggestion.

First, the adverb is unnecessary. We’re in Michelle’s POV – so if she noticed, it had to be visible, right? Second, you should trust the reader to know that he stiffened because of what she said. It also breaks Margie Lawson’s rule: What’s the Visual?

Written this way, it would draw the reader closer:

Richard’s spine straightened and his lips pinched in his signature ‘irritated librarian’ look.

 

  • Backload your sentences I have Margie to thank for this, also. Put the important word(s) at the end of the sentence for more impact.

I’ve got more male in my life than I need already.

Becomes:

I’ve already got more male in my life than I need.

 

  • Favorite ‘author’ words. Everyone has them. Your ‘go to’ words. But they’re not words that everyone uses in everyday speech, so they stick out. Below are mine. My crit group gives me one to two of the following per book.

jerked, hipshot, full dark, tipped (as in chin)

            Ones I see very often in others’ work are:  Over, under, turned, back, down, up, just.

 

  • Same old, same old body expressions. How many times have you read, ‘he frowned’ or ‘she straightened her shoulders’ or ‘lifted her chin’?  Personally, I use sighing way too often. Why not freshen them, and instead of having the reader skim, give them a reason to pause?

She caught herself squirming in her seat and forced herself to stillness. 

Vale clears his throat. A shudder vibrates up my spine.

Vale’s shoulders tip back, just enough to make the crease across the front of his shirt pull smooth.

Priss buried her nose in her cup.

 

  • Throwaway words. I’m just becoming aware of how often I do this – throw in unneeded words at the beginning of a sentence. Margie calls this, ‘clearing your throat’ as a writer – you’re getting ready to write. It’s not only wordy, it’s distancing. I’m a big one on ‘when.’

When the woman touched his shoulder, the kid shrugged her off.

Better:

The woman touched his shoulder. The kid shrugged her off.

Oh yes, I know what you mean.”

She knew it was hopeless.

See what I mean? They add words, but not meaning. Along those same lines:

Why use “moved” which tells us nothing instead of jerked (oops) jogged, or stumbled?

Why use “started” rather than just showing someone doing something? You can’t start walking, start making cookies, or start getting angry.

“Almost” is another word that doesn’t work very often. Either someone does something or doesn’t. How do you ‘almost’ do something like smile?

 

  • Trust your Reader:

I think we often tell the reader much more than they need to know. In big ways, like backstory dumps, but also in subtle ways that are harder to catch. But they both irritate the reader – if you have enough of them, the reader will abandon the book. They may not even know why – just that it didn’t engage them.

See, readers want to be engaged. To think, and to figure things out – not just to have it all handed to them. In other words, they want to be in your story. A part of the action. All these nuances prevent them from doing that.

Here’s some examples of small ones:

“The small canoe rested in the water, floating beside a long wooden dock.”

Where else would a canoe next to a dock rest, but in the water? And if it’s in the water, it’s floating, right? See how neither of those references are needed? Use that room to put us in the scene; engage our imagination and our senses.

“A red canoe with wood trim bobbed beside the wooden dock, waves slapping its sides.”

Subtle? Yes, but I think it reads better—more descriptive, more engaging.

“None of these plants are used for food. They’re purely ornamental” See how that says the same thing?

A stiff smile on her lips…. Where else would a smile be?

“And you are. . .?”  He let the question dangle. The dots show us dangle.

Sonja glared, and retreated a step back – retreated is back.

 

  • Slip in snippets of backstory. Make the reader want backstory before you slip it in. How do you do that? In the first few sentences, raise questions they’ll be dying to hear answers to.

From my book, Reasons to Stay:

She stopped a few feet short of the open grave. Her mother was down there. Shouldn’t she feel something beyond tired?

Next paragraph:

“Come, Ignacio. It’s time to go.” A meager woman stood at the foot of the grave, her face and raincoat set in the same generic authoritarian lines.

Priss recognized a Social Worker when she saw one. Given her past, she should.

Your turn! I’ve just touched the surface.

Give us your tips with examples in the comments! 

*     *     *     *

Days Made of Glass:

dmog-2

Harlie Cooper raised her sister, Angel, even before their mother died. When their guardian is killed in a fire, rather than be separated by Social Services, they run. Life in off the grid in L.A. isn’t easy, but worse, there’s something wrong with Angel.

Harlie walks in to find their apartment scattered with shattered and glass and Angel, a bloody rag doll in a corner. The doctor orders institutionalization in a state facility. Harlie’s not leaving her sister in that human warehouse. But something better takes money. Lots of it.

When a rep from the Pro Bull Riding Circuit suggests she train as a bullfighter, rescuing downed cowboys from their rampaging charges, she can’t let the fact that she’d be the first woman to attempt this stop her. Angel is depending on her.

It’s not just the danger and taking on a man’s career that challenges Harlie. She must learn to trust—her partner and herself, and learn to let go of what’s not hers to save.

41 comments to Advanced Craft Tips

  • As a lover of Deep POV, these are great lessons, or reminders. One favorite of mine is “Stay in the phone booth with the gorilla.” During action scenes is NOT the time to insert back story or character reflection. I wrote a blog post about it a while back; if it’s permitted, and if anyone’s interested, it’s here: http://terryodell.com/phone-booths-and-gorillas/

  • Excellent examples. I’m bookmarking this to send to editing clients. 🙂

  • Most helpful, Laura. Now, if I can remember and apply these gems of wisdom where they will sparkle best.

  • Beverly Turner

    Laura…I’m in the midst of revising my WIP and these practical tips/reminders have come at the perfect time. I recognized myself in a couple of them. LOL Will be using this information to turn a sharp eye on my writing. Thanks so much.

  • Margie Lawson

    Hellooo 2-Time Immersion-Grad Laura —

    Brilliant blog!

    You’re RITA-winning proof that my deep editing techniques add power.

    Have to share one of my fave lines from Days Made of Glass.

    — Harlie pushed on, ignoring the bull’s-eye bullet of blame tearing through her heart.

    Fresh writing! I’ve never read — bull’s-eye bullet of blame.

    Love that alliteration.

    But Laura didn’t stop there.

    She amplified and anchored by showing where Harlie felt that pain.

    And Laura didn’t just write that the bullet HIT her heart. It TORE THROUGH HER HEART.

    Plus, Laura’s fresh writing, that bull’s-eye bullet of blame, carries Harlie’s truth.

    Here’s the sentence again:

    — Harlie pushed on, ignoring the bull’s-eye bullet of blame tearing through her heart.

    What else does that one sentence accomplish?

    It deepens characterization. Harlie perseveres. She pushes on. That’s our girl!

    WHOOPS — I didn’t mean to slip into teaching mode. Just meant to share a fave line.

    Almost deleted this impromptu deep edit analysis…

    Happy Holidays Everyone!

  • pearson1408

    Laura, this is such a helpful post on editing, dialogue tags, backstory and fresh writing tips. Totally awesome! You blew me away. I also bookmarked Margie Lawson’s post and Terry’s.

    I’m at 73,000 word count into my second novel and still editing my first novel, so this couldn’t have come at a better time.

    My critique group is always picking me up on my dialogue tags. Either I don’t use enough or too many ‘he said’ or ‘she said’. If I don’t put them in (even if only two people are speaking) they tell me they don’t know who’s talking. Huh? If I put them in, some of them tell me, I use too many. Can’t seem to balance it out. But still working on it.

    I love all the examples you listed above. Very helpful.

    Many thanks!

    Happy Holidays to all.

    • Thanks for reading and commenting. I swear, Margie doesn’t pay me to advertise for her – but honestly, you should check them out – she’s the secret of my success! (well, her, and a ton of hard work).

  • Thanks, this was very good. In fact, great, as a check list for a final edit of that book I want to see in print. You know, The one that is three-quarters through. Or even finished. Sort of, but somehow not right.

  • Such timely, helpful hints as I slog through a major revision of my WIP. Some I knew, others are new suggestions, but I will filter my manuscript through the sieve of your suggestions.

  • christopherlentzauthor

    Light bulbs are flashing as I raise my hand in response to your list of literary land mines. I do that. I’ve done this one. Oh, shit, I was clueless about that. But not any more. The learning–and relearning–of this craft can be overwhelming, like facing a Thanksgiving feast three times a day. But to apply Margie’s cookie analogy, I’ll eat some and leave some. Between the insights you two so generously offer, we’re all going to have a bountiful 2017. *reaches for a frosted sugar cookie and thinks of Margie*

  • Laura. I’ve become an admirer of your columns, how you dive into the micro-levels of thinking and revising to make work more powerful. By nailing several potential weak points, you’ve heightened my awareness and determination to purge them. (Worst one for me–slipping in a “tell” with a “show.” I’m almost done with that, but they still sneak in. It’s easier to spot when others do it.)

  • Linda Lee

    I agree with most everything, except for the use of names in third-person subjective. Too many personal pronouns can give writing a “generic tone.” Syntax is another matter. How writers string their sentences together often reflects their style. Varying sentence structure is imperative. Many times, however, neither phrases nor clauses are integral to the meaning of the sentence.

    What’s most important is to choose words that evoke emotion–make readers feel they’re “there.” I have a note on my computer that says: “If you tell you don’t have to show. If you show, you don’t have to tell. Be present.” Helps, especially during revisions…

    Thanks for the great tips, Laura. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

  • Fae Rowen

    And you’ve pointed out every one of this blunders for me, Laura. Thanks for reminding me.I dive back into my revisions…

  • Great, concrete examples to improve your writing..I saved this one for my Best Editing posts list 🙂 One pet peeve repeated expression of mine is “my heart beat a tattoo against my skin” or something similar. Romance writers are enamoured with that right now. Most use it only once in their book which is good but I notice because I devour a lot of books in the genre. Better to make up your own metaphors/alliterations, just like you did in the lovely example Margie shared. Eeasier said than done.

  • All of us at WITS want to thank you for your faithful reading and commenting this year. We’re here for you – and because of you.

    May the coming year be your BEST writing year ever!

  • I’m glad I remembered to come back to read this (had saved it until I had time). What a great post, Laura. Of course, I cringed through most of it because I recognized so many of my own mistakes. *sigh* Happy holidays!

  • A great post, Laura. Many thanks.
    It makes me squirm to see all my failings laid out. Apart from the exclamation marks, I must be guilty of them all.
    On the last draft of my latest novel, I discovered several of those favourite author words, apart from a tendency to overuse ‘when’ at the start of a sentence, I had to cut ‘So,’ at the start of dialogue.
    I’ve printed out your post and my proof reader is going to have to wait a few more days while I go through the ms once more.

  • Thanks for another great post, Laura. I’m with you. I learn more and more with each critique I give. I find, as I learn, and the writer learns, I can go deeper and deeper with my critiques. Telling, and then showing is something I also see a lot. It kind of goes hand-in-hand with “trust the reader.” I’m definitely bookmarking and sharing this post. 🙂

  • Thanks for pointing out all the subtle nuances that can keep our writing from shining!

  • This is awesome! I definitely guilty of some of these – and I often don’t even notice.

    My go to body language is smiling. He smiled, she smiled, the dog smiled, the cat smirked (but cats are like that).

    Love this so much!

  • Awesome to get editing tips while I’m in the middle of revisions. I’ll remember these when I’m reading over my work! Thank you!

  • In my WIP I wrote: Nathan felt his fingers curl into a fist. I changed it to: Nathan’s fingers curled into a fist. Small change, but it read better. That’s my favourite part of editing. Crawling inside your character. Thanks for the blog post.

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