Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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December 20, 2013

Advanced Craft Tips - Writer Strong

By Laura Drake

Writer Strong

Now that's what I call Writer Strong!

As I get better at craft, I’m beginning to catch the nuances of good writing; things beyond the basics of POV, show don’t tell, etc. They’re more subtle and harder to spot, but I believe they can be the difference between a ‘good writer’ and a popular author.

These are only a few - Please add your tips in the comments so we’ll all learn more, won’t you?

1. Unnecessary thoughts. 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? Trust your reader to get it – they’ll appreciate it more. Save thoughts for what we couldn’t guess from the context or body language. That can be powerful – showing that the character is keeping something from the others in the scene.

2. Anchor us in the POV. Adam is the POV character below.

He was going to make an example of this one. Maybe word would get around. He tipped his chin at Joyce, the cashier; his signal to let the kid go.

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 almost in a narrator’s POV.

3. Unneeded dialog tags. I tend to notice these more, because dialog tags is one of my pet peeves. I think we use them much more than we need to. And they’re distancing.

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

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

This is a very small nuance, but can you see how the second is more natural and ‘flows’ better?

A yowl from the cabin next door punctuated his statement.

“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. 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 etc. that you’re good.

4. Backload your sentences

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


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

A herd of sharp-hooved nightmares thundered through her sleep every night.


Every night a herd of sharp-hooved nightmares thundered through her sleep.

5.  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 will only allow me one to two of these per book.



Full dark

Tipped (as in chin)


Come on, you know you have your favorites, admit it!

6.  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 her legs 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.

7.  Throwaway words.

I’m just becoming aware of how often I do this – throw in unneeded words at the beginning of a sentence. 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.


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

Oh yes, I understand that.”

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?

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

8.  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’re going to be dying to hear  answers to.

From The Sweet Spot – page 1

For a few hours, the project had rescued her weary mind from a hamster-wheel of regret.

The homing beacon in the Valium bottle next to the sink tugged at her insides.

She sipped a glass of water to avoid reaching for it and glanced out the window to the spring-skeletal trees of the back yard. Her gaze returned to the two-foot wide stump the way a tongue wanders to a missing tooth. Tentative grass shoots had sprung up to obscure the obscene scar in the soil.

From The Book From Hell (my working title 😉 ) page 1

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.

Okay, your turn. Give us your advanced tips, with examples in the comments. We all want to learn!

Cover Nothing SweeterThe second book in Laura's Sweet on a Cowboy series received 4 1/2 stars from Romantic Times!

Nothing Sweeter releases January 28th.  But if you preorder here, you could have it in your mailbox or on your e-reader on release day!

You know how much preorders help authors, right?



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49 comments on “Advanced Craft Tips - Writer Strong”

  1. All great catches, Laura. I've weeded out several of these from my own work (for the most part), but I definitely have a few overused words I rely upon. Worse, I realized recently I've recycled one or two major "thoughts" in two MSs! LOL They weren't worded exactly the same, but close enough to jump out at me on a re-read.

    I struggle with #6 because it is really difficult to describe certain body motions (especially facial expressions) in fresh terms. I'm always looking for new ways to express a grimmace or scowl, or that quizzical look (without jumping to a single raised brow).

    One other thing I do when I am going through a late round of edits is look for overuse of adverbs and multiple adjectives strung together, then I try to replace them with stronger verbs and nouns.

    Thanks for the pointers. Great checklist for a final round of edits!

    1. You're right Jaimie, don't even get me started on adverbs - it's another of my pet peeves! My poor critters get the "adverb alert" comment a lot. I'd make the case that 98 out of 100 adverbs aren't needed, and the sentence is stronger without it!

      And I struggle with #6 too.

      1. I'm having the same problems. To make it worse, I have to make sure the actions are realistic for the period and the words aren't anachronistic. So no tossing heads, unless it's a horse, no barging in and so on. I can't tell you how many times I've gotten great lists and most of the words are unusable.

  2. Laura, that was a great post. One of my keepers for sure. I'm still on the other side of the learning curve and collect rather than dispense tips. What I have done that is similar to your tips, is learn how to read a draft and weed out all those unnecessary words or tags. This post can only serve to help me yet again. Thanks 🙂

  3. These are wonderful tips, Laura! I see them all when I'm editing. I'd like to add the undefined pronoun "it" to the list, as in "It was the start of their quarrel" or "She could see it coming." Those are fingernails-on-a-chalkboard sentences for me.

  4. Great hints. Thanks, Laura. I use http://www.etymonline.com/ a lot for my Regency and Vintage books to make sure the words I'm using don't yank the reader out of the story by being from the wrong time period. Tolkien can describe a firework dragon sounding like a steam locomotive in Middle-earth, but seeing the description in a medieval novel tosses me out of the story.

    1. Judy, there's a reason I write contemporary, and that's it! I'm lucky to get the details of THIS world right! Kudos to you, and thanks for the site - our historical readers will appreciate it!

  5. Oh, Laura, these are great tips. I'm re-re-re-revising my book right now and you've given me several tasks I have to do during my millionth edit! Thank you so much. I have a problem with boring same-o same-o facial expressions. I've got to think "stronger".

    1. Patti, what I do when I need something fresh, is to go to Google Images, and type in 'Angry woman's face' and choose one. Then I can study it and come up with something fresh. I find it works better than my memory, and if it's no one I know, I can be more objective. Try it!

      1. I would go for:

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

        Another great post, by the way. I plan to ask my critique group to look out for these in my writing, since it's so much easier to spot when someone else does it!

  6. Thanks for the great article. #4 is a tough one for me. Your advise will be used when I start my revisions.

  7. I love this! Thank you so much for sharing. I have started using The Emotional Thesaurus to help me with my writing. And my word - just. People just love to do things, they just want to be happy, you get the idea.

    1. Oh yeah, Tasha - 'just' I forgot that one! I'm guilty of that one too!
      Just - even - only - always 9 times out of 10, they're not only unnecessary, they weaken what I'm trying to strengthen!

  8. Thanks for this post, Laura. I look forward to reading everyone's tips.

    In the most recent craft class, and from the editor of my first book, I learned that I often don't provide enough reaction from the POV character to either what another character says or an action in the scene. Failing to provide reaction prevented the reader from emotionally connecting to the story. I'm training myself to use the stimulus/response guideline.

    I once read of an author who went through turning point scenes and provided a character POV response to every bit of dialogue and action until she began writing them naturally. She ends up cutting a some responses, but it ensures they are there.

    In my first couple of manuscripts, CPs would say they couldn't tell what my characters were thinking/feeling and couldn't connect with them. I was so afraid of "telling" information and bogging down action that I missed this step. What's ironic about all this, is that I'm a highly emotional person. I needed to let my characters express theirs!


    1. Wow, Deb, that's fascinating! I know someone else who has that problem, but I could never put my finger on what the problem was. Thanks for the great tip!

  9. Me again . . . I also wanted to add that backloading sentences is a skill that doesn't come easily to me but I do believe it makes your writing stronger, especially in the last sentence of a chapter.

    1. I'm not sure it comes naturally to anyone, Deb - but once you get the hang of it, you tend to write the sentence that way automatically. And you're right - the writing is MUCH stronger for it!

  10. Wonderful post, Laura. I won't tell you wish writing sins I'm guilty of. But I'll share one. Never start a sentence with "Suddenly." As in, Suddenly, (insert surprising action). Just write the action.

  11. That's a weakness of mine. Suddenly, I get it 🙂
    Something I read recently has helped me a lot with deep POV, Don't allow the character to step in front of you, write as if you are looking through their eyes. It helped me cut out a lot of the 'said' or 'Bob was' kind of things.

  12. My favorite author word is "just". I just don't know why I feel I just have to use this word all the time. It just doesn't make sense to have just one word that you just can't seem to get away from. Damn, I just did it again!

  13. Fabulous tips! I love that you pointed out the "she knew" stuff. I realized that I'm guilty of that in first person too ("I know that..."). I finally said to myself: Well, if you're in the POV character, then just stating something means she knows it! We're in her head!

    As to favorite words, I had a critique partner read a novel of mine and comment, "These characters sure do tingle a lot." LOL. I watch that word "tingle" now. No over-tingling in my writing anymore!

  14. Great tips, Laura! I'd add the period at the end of dialogue before following up with a movement -- I know editors dispute whether a person can "laugh" or "sigh" a response (as in "That's so true," she sighed; IMO, if it is a vocal sound -- sigh, laugh, grunt, etc. -- it is fine to use as a dialogue tag) But someone can't perform a physical act [walk, jump, stomp] as a vocal reply.
    So I would change your example -- "I'll walk you back," [comma - sentence continues] she fell into step beside him --
    to "I'll walk you back." [period - new sentence] She fell into step beside him.

    One of my pet peeves is over-written descriptions. So I would *not* change a simple shoulder shrug to a lengthy description of how someone straightened their spine so the shirt pulls across their chest, etc. -- UNLESS it is really important to emphasize the shirt (or the chest ;-p)
    It's fun to get creative with descriptions of simple movements, but it can be very distracting and call attention to the author. Kind of like a director using fancy zoom and hand-held camera shots instead of just showing the scene. It pulls me out of the story. In general, less is more (IMO).

    That is so true what you say about favorite words! I don't even realize I'm using them until I go back and read through a few chapters of a draft ;-D Of course they work for some people (one of my favorite authors, a best-seller you all know I"m sure, uses "blink" a lot. The characters are always "blinking" in response to something.) But I'm not a best-selling author, and when I do the same thing it comes across as redundancy, not a cute trademark style ;-D

    Another thing I look out for is the dialogue-narrative all looking the same on the page -- e.g., every line of dialogue starts and then ends with a tag or reaction. It keeps things visually fresh (which helps keep reader from skimming) to vary the pattern -- so, e.g., one line starts with dialogue, then the next line is a reaction FOLLOWED by dialogue, etc. [does that make sense?]

    1. Yes, Dmac -- I agree, the fresh descriptions need to be sprinkled in, when it's a key scene. But personally, in think the shirt across the chest was brilliant. Tired movements encourage skimming - use the fresh ones to cause a pause....to draw attention to what's going on.

      I have to admit, I've never understood the comma after, and preceding movement. Thanks for the tip!

  15. Great tips! This is really helpful for a novice like me. I sometimes use a dialogue tag in the middle of a character's statement to emphasize part of the dialogue or break up a long dialogue. I'll do this even if a tag isn't actually necessary. Is that OK?
    “But why doesn’t Mr. Gherring get his own dates for these events?” Anne puzzled. “Surely he wouldn’t have any trouble finding someone who’d like to go with him, so he wouldn’t have to go with a complete stranger.”

    1. Anne, agents see this as a newbie error. Sorry. Someone told me once the tags are ONLY used if the reader could get lost as to whom is speaking. Otherwise, completely skip them. Do you see that "puzzled" is not needed? The question 'shows' us puzzled. You using it in a tag, 'tells' us. Trust your reader to get it!

      Thanks for stopping by!

      1. Thanks! I'll trust your experience. I guess my thought comes from my (bad) habit of skimming when I read really fast. Sometimes I don't read a long dialogue carefully, but I guess that's just my own problem. I'll trust my reader.

  16. I wish it weren't so late and I wasn't so behind on the good blogs I follow, this being one of them. The only thing I wanted to point out was my disagreement with one point you made using these two sentences as examples, the second one "flowing" better:

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

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

    Personally, I have no problem with the first sentence. And the second sentence would "flow" if it was written as two sentences:

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

    I love tips like these, btw 🙂 All the wonderful nuances in becoming a better writer, striving for excellence 😀

  17. Others have commented on the "“I’ll walk you back to your ship,” she fell into step beside him." problem,so I'll just say ditto. 🙂
    My characters have a tendency to sigh, nod, and have clenched stomachs and jaws waaay too much. I think I"ll always be working on that. I'm getting much better at setting up a question in the reader's mind that leaves them wanting backstory, and I love your tip for backloading sentences.
    My tip is to go into slo-mo at particular times. When a character doesn't know how to react, don't give us internal thoughts - instead, show him/her looking out the window, running a finger around the rim of the coffee cup, let us hear the ticking of the clock or see the trees whipping in the wind, etc. It doesn't work in a fast-paced action setting, but in quieter dilemmas, it ups the tension as we readers wait to find out what the character will do.
    Thanks for a great post!

  18. Reblogged this on Daphodill's Garden and commented:
    When I find a good post, I tend to gobble up as many of the author's other pearls of wisdom as I can. This is another excellent set of guidelines to keep in mind when writing and editing.

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