READING TO LEARN HOW TO WRITE BETTER

A great trick for helping your own writing is to read other fiction similar to what you write and see what you skim through because it doesn’t interest you or bores you.

Does anything in particular annoy you about the book? Examples:

  • Present tense
  • Starting with one character musing or waking up. No conflict, no action
  • Too much description is a good example. Or maybe even, not enough, which results in no sense of place.
  • Characters with annoying habits that distract you from the plot. One recent read had several characters puckering their lips, apparently in confusion or disgust—I was pretty disgusted myself after about the fourth use of this word. Another one I saw by a best-selling author was; “Her eyes crunched.” What? Like cereal?
  • Anything that distracts you from the plot
  • Long descriptions of travel routes. Who cares how the character got from A to B, unless something exciting happens along the way? I don’t mind a mention of a few streets so that people familiar with a real setting get a better visual, but no need for every single turn, IMO. Or telling the reader every time a character climbed into the car, and then exited again. Anyone find it amusing, as I do, at how hard we try to use different words for ordinary actions, like sitting and getting in and out of a car (climbing in and exiting out of)?
  • Too much jumping around—with too many character POVs, settings, and/or timeframes. All this can be handled well by a good writer, but it can be hard to read by a not-so-talented one.
  • Weird attributions. The latest one I saw by a best-selling author was; “Her eyes crunched.” What? Like cereal?

Bottom line, try to figure out why this particular book was easy to put down.

On the other hand, notice what you liked about a work:

  • The characters? Why? What actions and emotional responses made them come alive for you?
  • The setting? Why—because it was simply interesting to you personally or because it was done so well, or?
  • The plot—because it had great twists or was unusual, or what? What plot points worked well for you? How can you make them your own in your writing?
  • The writing itself—was it voice, or word choices, or theme, or pacing, or something hard to define? See if you can nail it down

As soon as you figure out that the book you are reading right now might be a favorite, start taking notes. For each chapter, do a short synopsis.

  • Pay particular attention to how it starts and ends
  • What was the main conflict in the chapter, or questions raised?
  • How did the writer describe things that made you actually see them in your mind’s eye?
  • What did you like about the characters, including the villain(s). What made you love to hate them?

Is there anything in particular that almost always makes you love or dislike a book? If so, what is it? And what do you try really hard to do well with your stories?

For a much longer blog post about reading to help your writing, I recommend this:

How to learn to write while you’re reading

WRITING FOR THE READER—NOT JUST FOR OTHER WRITERS

Since I joined a couple of writer critique groups back in the early 1990s, I learned a lot of basic guidelines for good writing. The majority of them made a lot of sense to me. And as a reader as well as a writer, I now notice some awkward, clunky writing that miss the following points.

• Stay in point of view—no head-hopping inside a scene.
• Write as much as you can in active voice; don’t be passive.
• Leave out the boring stuff.
• Use modifiers sparingly (some say not at all, but I don’t agree with that—see below).
• Never use a semi-colon in fiction. (I break this one every so often, just because I’m a rebel.)
• Learn and use all the rules of grammar.
• Spell check over and over again.
• Get critiques and edits.

Then there were other rules I had trouble with:

• Show, don’t tell. In my opinion, this can lead to choppy writing and lack of interesting details. Yes, show action, but tell descriptions.
• No prologues. Come on. Sometimes they’re exactly what’s needed. They can pull the reader in and explain some backstory so there’s no “info dump” later on. I agree, though, that they need to be done very well. Many best-selling authors use them. Why shouldn’t the rest of us?
• No epilogs. I have two reasons for using them in my Paula PI books—one is that as a reader myself, I like to know what happens with some of the characters later on. In a mystery in particular, it’s hard to wrap up all the loose character threads during the hopefully action-packed ending. The second reason was simply because it was a senseless rule. (There’s that rebel again).
• Don’t use he said/she said. Have the character do something instead (cough, sigh, drink coffee, drink beer, whatever). Sorry, after a while of reading all these small actions (especially the coffee drinking) it gets old AND intrusive AND boring. He said/she said is invisible to most readers. It doesn’t stop them. So, why not use it? I do both the saids and the small actions, mixing it up.
• Split infinitives are evil. Only if you’re an English teacher who hasn’t kept up with the times. When Latin was in use, this was a necessary rule. It’s not one for those of us who speak English. And sometimes splitting the infinitive makes the sentence much stronger: “to boldly go where no man has gone before’ has a much better cadence than “To go boldly where no man has gone before.” Right? Right. When we were motorhoming I found a great bumper sticker that we promptly put on the couch: “Boldly going nowhere.”

But I digress.

One warning about head hopping:

If you do head hop between scenes, be sure the reader knows right away whose head you’ve hopped into if you’ve changed it since the last scene. The book I’m reading currently has made this mistake several times, and it always make me stop in order to figure out I’m in a different head.

So, the biggest rule is to do what works. What works is smooth writing that doesn’t in any way make your reader stop reading to figure something out. This is okay for non-fiction. Not so much for fiction. Thus the rules about using good grammar and spelling in particular.

THE 80/10 RULE FOR WRITERS

You’ve probably been told how important good grammar and punctuation are to becoming a good writer. And they are.

You may have been made aware of certain “rules” or even current fads for writing fiction. “Show don’t tell.” “Eliminate all ‘wases.’” “No head hopping.” Then you scratch your own head when you see a best-selling author do all of those things. On one page.

You might have learned about story arcs, the snowflake graph, the best way to outline, structure, beginnings, endings, and a huge amount of other tips and tricks.

But still you don’t get it done. You don’t finish a story or a novel. You get stuck in the middle. Or even at the beginning. You think your skills are pretty darned good, but what good are they if you can’t finish what you start, or even get started in the first place?

There’s a new “thing” (I don’t know what else to call it, although it’s usually called a rule) going around about the 80/20 rule. This rule says that 20% of whatever you’re trying to accomplish is worth more than all the other 80%. So, you should concentrate on accomplishing that 20%.

I believe the 80% for writers are all the rules, guidelines, and mechanics of writing, and throw in the business side there, too. The 20% is the story, which is made up of words, sentences, and scenes. If you’ve read a lot and paid attention to how things are written, your subconscious probably knows a great deal about what is good writing and what isn’t. But all that reading, both about writing advice and fiction, can’t teach you how to put words on the page.

So, is there a trick for that? I think there are several.

First, stop worrying. Quit wondering where your next idea is going to come from, how you’re going to set up the murderer to be caught, how you’re going to fill the page.

Second, if you don’t have an idea right now, just pick one at random. It doesn’t matter what it’s about, who the characters are, pick anything. An object, a place, a person, a situation. Pick one of those things and start writing about it.

Third, eventually your idea will tend to peter out. This is where you stop and think consciously. Up until now, your subconscious was just doing stream of consciousness about what you decided to write about. Now, you need to start focusing more on a story.

Fourth, be pro-active in thinking about what to write next, about where your story can go from here. Use either pen and paper or your computer keyboard to let the ideas flow. Ask yourself “what if” questions. List all the possibilities that could happen next, no matter how outlandish (you may decide to write humor where outlandish is good).

Fifth, pick the idea you think is the most interesting, the most fun, the most unique, the best of all you’ve thought of.

And sixth, write some more until you come to the point where you have to repeat steps four and five.

If you insist on outlining, you use the same process. As you outline, just as those who do not, you will come to spots where you are stuck. Personally, I don’t outline for this reason. My first draft is basically my outline more fleshed out. And because this system is the way I write, I rarely have to make major edits to the story. So, I save a lot of time.

Some of the ease from this comes with more writing. Like most things, the more you do, the easier it gets. Usually.

And getting back to the 80/20 “rule.” Do the process steps over and over again while learning the current rules and fads for writing in this decade. In other words, pick them up as you go—don’t make them your main focus.

This works for me. I’ve had days when I’ve written three thousand new words in a novel. Most days I can get one thousand down, and many days I can pretty easily get close to two thousand. Each thousand words takes me approximately an hour or so to write, after a short time brainstorming with the what if/what happens next process.

I believe in learning by finding out how other people who are experts in their fields do things. I don’t classify myself as an expert—I’m not that arrogant. But I can tell that many prolific, successful writers, use this method. They may not even realize themselves how they’re doing it.

Give it a try. And let me know if it works for you.

AVOID CLICHES LIKE THE PLAGUE

The title of this post almost says it all. Almost. And yes, I cribbed it from those ubiquitous lists of rules for writers—the funny ones. Since I’ve seen it on several different lists, I feel okay about using it for my title.

Disclaimer over.

Why do I say it almost says it all? Well, obvious clichés should be avoided, except in dialogue, totally. Even there, don’t overdo it unless you create a character who talks that way all the time. Even then, be careful, and make him funny.

Unfortunately, there are other, more subtle clichés happening in stories. One is the pat description, such as “She was beautiful,” and “He was handsome.” The vast majority of heroines and heroes are good-looking. Same goes for describing a person more specifically. Blue-eyed blonde is pretty common. Red-headed and freckles. Then there is clothing. Here is a great place to show a person’s personality, status, possible wealth, and other traits. But please, not in a laundry-list way. Make it interesting. Give the details out as they come up. Not:

“He wore a blue suit, white shirt with French cuffs, and his gold cufflinks gleamed. His tasseled loafers had a high polish, and when he shot his cuffs, the Rolex watch peeked into view.”

Who cares? Instead, show the details as the story unfolds. The blue suit matches the color of his eyes (be specific about shade) when we first see him. Later, the cuff-links are shaped as lions’  heads because (make up a reason). Even later, out walking with him, he gets some dirt on his tasseled loafers and shakes it off in disgust. And your main character knows he shot his cuffs on purpose in order to show off that Rolex. Isn’t he more interesting already?

(Another disclaimer: If you read some of my earlier stuff, you’ll probably see the laundry-list problem, especially in descriptions. I’m trying to use this method now because I do believe it’s a much more elegant way to go.)

Settings can also reduce themselves to clichés. The teashop, bookstore, cubicle office, mansion or trailer. Again, hit the interesting details and leave the rest out. Intersperse those details as your character moves through the setting instead of all in one lump when she first arrives on the scene.

Then there are whole characters who have become clichés. The alcoholic police officer or PI. The little old lady who solves crimes. The spunky heroine and dashing hero. The beautiful female lawyer/doctor/veterinarian/you-name-it who is smarter than all the men in the story.

Be careful of these characters. Be sure to give them some quirks and problems that are not seen in lots of other stories. Make your plot twisty enough and the quirks detrimental enough to keep the reader happy.

Now plots are a whole ‘nother thing. It’s been said there are only three. Or twenty-six (or some such number). Or a hundred. Certainly the plots for mystery novels (crime committed, protag finds out whodunit) and romances (girl meets boy, something keeps them apart, but they end up together in the end) have standard plotlines. There’s no getting around those, or you end up in another genre. But the reader doesn’t mind that. It’s what she expects and feels comfortable with. Allow her that whole comfort zone, but leave out the other clichés, big and small, to get her interested, to get her blood racing, to get her turning those pages as fast as she can.

Hint: First draft, go ahead and make your laundry list. Second draft, get those details interspersed in appropriate places. After you’ve done this a few times, you might be able to do it naturally during first draft.

Clichés can come back to haunt you. Be careful out there!

FOUR RULES FOR GETTING YOUR SHORT STORIES PUBLISHED

After several years of writing, submitting, and watching other writers and wannabes, I have come to realize the importance of these four rules for getting published in the short form. Since I’ve had over 50 short stories published, I feel confident that these hints will work for you:

  1. Write every day, or at least five or six days a week. Set aside a time, and apply the seat of your pants to the seat of the chair, and write. Aim for 1,000 words each day.
  2. Finish a huge majority of the stories you start. I have seen so many writers start lots of projects and never finish any of them. Of course, these stories will never see publication.
  3. Read every day. When you are a beginner, it does, in my opinion, help to read how-to books about writing, creativity and motivation. It’s better to learn about  point of view, for example, from a book than from the editor who rejects your manuscript because your POV is inconsistent and confusing. Read in the genre you wish to write in. And read in genres you plan never to write in. It’s all good for you.
  4. Submit every week. If you submit one piece each week, that equals fifty-two submissions a year! Of course, at first you will have to work up to a significant number of stories to submit. If you write every day, you will soon have enough. Aim to write one short story a week or at least every two weeks, and within a year, you will see major improvement in your writing and hopefully, some acceptances. If you get a rejection, immediately send that story out again. It can count for the one that week.

I admit, I used a critique group to help me meet the goal of writing at least one short story every two weeks for a few years. Having other people waiting for something to read from you is a great motivator. If you can’t join a group, at least find a critique partner or two. Try it. And let me know if it works for you.

USING COINCIDENCES IN YOUR STORIES

All the writing advice I’ve seen over the years warns against using coincidences in your stories. I’ve seen this recommendation over and over, both in the advice given, and stated by characters in novels and short stories (usually mysteries, usually police officers): “There is no such thing as a coincidence.”

Really? What kind of world are the people saying this living in? How about the time we ran into an old neighbor in a store when we were back visiting in a city? In a city of almost 400,000 people?

I’m sure everyone can remember one astonishing coincidence that happened in their lives.

So, we have established that coincidences do happen.

In writing, though, the thing is you don’t want a coincidence to occur that helps your characters. You want one to happen that causes them difficulty. That old neighbor we met in the store? We were delighted to see her. In a story, it should be a huge inconvenience, maybe even a dangerous one.

If you don’t believe me, read some old Agatha Christi novels. Almost every one of her books has a coincidence in it. And she’s the best-selling author on the planet. Even today.

Last night I was reading N OR M? by Dame Agatha. Put it down right after a big coincidence happened. It was set up properly ahead of time. Totally believable, although totally improbable. Then this morning I read that old advice about never, ever using a coincidence in a story.

If you’d prefer not to, that’s fine. But if your story leads you to a wonderful coincidence, take a chance and use it. After all, coincidences really do happen. There’s even a word for it.

(Aside—I wrote this post over a week ago—before the surprising coincidence of the Fed Ex package I wrote about on Wednesday occurred. Amazing coincidence, no?)

My advice—as always, take it or leave it. What’s your opinion about this? Have you seen coincidences done well, or badly in stories? What’s the one that happened to you that you remember best? I’d love to hear from you.