Writing Tip: Choose Modifiers Carefully

Remember the post on adverbs a while back? Well, similar advice applies to other modifiers. Make sure they add something to the story. “Very” should be on your hit list, along with all sorts of weasel words and phrases, such as a little, a lot, big, small, somewhat, sort of. . . You get the idea. Take a stand. Don’t shilly-shally.

Writing Tip: Deadly Dialogue

Don’t have characters tell each other things they already know just because the reader doesn’t know those things. For example, if two sisters are talking, it’s highly unlikely that one would say, “When Mom and Dad adopted our brother John, I was devastated.” Find another way to convey relevant relationships or bits of backstory to the reader.

Another no-no is to have an exchange between two people weighed down by repeatedly calling each other by name. “Hello, John.” “Hi, Sharon.” “How are you doing, John?” “Oh, Sharon, I am so low I have to reach up to touch bottom.”

A third negative is putting in greetings and leave-takings that are pro-forma, tell us nothing about the characters, don’t move the story forward. Just because they would happen in real life doesn’t mean that every amenity has to be spelled out to the point of diluting the scene.

Story Starter: Sunday Mornings

Write about the perils and/or pleasures of Sunday mornings. It can be Sunday mornings in general, or it can be a specific Sunday morning. It can be past or present. It can be something that actually happened (or has happened). It can be what you hope for or fear.

Whatever path you take, be sure to use specific, vivid details. Try to engage all five senses. Use dialogue if possible.

Story Starter: Worship Surprise

Recall the last time you were in a place of worship. Write about where you were, why you were there, what you were thinking and feeling, what happened.

Now recall the last time you were at an athletic event. Where was it? What was it? Why were you there? What were you thinking and feeling? What happened?

Now write a story in which you combine half of the elements in one of these events with half of the elements in the other event. Reconcile the disparate parts to make a coherent whole–even if that takes you into magical realism or some other unexpected genre.

Writing Tip: Talk to Yourself

Longer, more complex sentences are much smoother and more graceful on the page than in the mouth. If you want dialogue to sound real, listen to it–literally. Reading silently, your brain fills in and evens out. So, when you feel your work is in pretty good shape, read it aloud. Any place you stumble needs to be reworked. Reading your work aloud–whether prose or poetry–helps identify rough patches, awkward words, and other problems. If feasible, it’s even to have someone else read your work aloud for you.  Good listening!

Writing Tip: Beware Long Descriptions

Whether describing a person, a place, a thing, or a process, long detailed descriptions–unrelieved by action–are likely to be deadly. If very well done, readers will get so involved in the description, in visualizing exactly what the author had in mind, that they are taken out of the story itself. If not well done, those passages are likely to be skipped altogether. Elmore Leonard advises leaving out the parts that readers skip anyway. Replace length with strong, vivid, memorable language.

In describing people, go for details that will help define the character for the reader. For example, in describing an employee saying, “Her dress was black and blue and ruffled, better suited to a ballroom than a boardroom,” would not create the same image in the mind’s eye of every reader but it’s likely to convey the same impression–which is generally much more important.

And consider not describing transportation at all. If you need to get your character from New York to Philadelphia, put her in a car, a plane, or a train and get  her out again and let it go at that–unless something important to the story happens in transit. Even then, skip as much of the before and after as possible.

Finally, leave out the parts of routine actions that the reader can assume. For example, if a man is going out and locks the door behind him, we know without being told that he had already opened the door and closed it again.

Wonderful Words: Conglomeration

Conglomeration is another of those words I love because it sounds so much itself. Technically, it has to do with a spherical shape, and disparate things brought together in one. But its more common usage, of miscellaneous or even random things brought together (no particular shape) make it a very useful word. Try writing a sentence–a scene–a whole story–around “conglomeration.”

Beloved Books: Anything by Jane Austen

I stumbled across Jane Austen at the end of spring term my sophomore year in college. During finals week, I devoured every Austen I could lay my hands on–which may partly explain why I missed by a hair making Phi Beta Kappa. But that is not the point here.

Over the years I have, at irregular intervals, reread her novels. In the midst of  the current Jane Austen Mania, I am in the midst of another of those periods–the first since I started writing fiction. And so I find myself reading Austen with a different eye, one focused on identifying the components of her genius, her methods of revealing human nature and human relationships that make us recognize commonalities between people then and people now.

At the moment I am reading one of her less well known books, Lady Susan, an epistolary novel involving multiple letter-writers. Although not a popular form today, it still can be found in novels such as The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. As an aspiring writer, you might want to read one or both of these books with an eye to noticing character development in the absence of the usual devices.

Writing Tip for Avoiding Reduncancy

Redundancy takes many forms and it makes for clunky, dull writing. Below I shall give a few examples.

When words and punctuation are redundant, stop with the quotation:

  • “Stop!” he shouted.
  • “Why?” he asked.

When the whole concept is embodied elsewhere, the underlined word or phrase can be eliminated:

  • She sat down.
  • …she thought to herself.
  • and etc.

And, finally, don’t use two–or more–words when one  would do. Simply choose the strongest, or the one closest to the meaning you are striving for.

  • She hated, loathed, and despised him.
  • The wind blew hard, raging across the open field.
  • Joe was tall, towering over his teammates.

Writing Tip: Matching tone & structure

The basic rule is that short, simple sentences–even sentence fragments–convey more energy than longer, more complex sentences. They are less likely to be beautiful in the poetic sense, but they carry more punch.

Take an emotion such as anger. If it is a long-held, smoldering anger, longer sentences with modifiers and clauses might be appropriate in a narrative passage. But if it is an anger outburst or a heated argument, you are more likely to want short sentences.

If you use lots of ands, buts, whens, and thens, consider whether wordiness is sapping energy from your writing. Consider breaking one long sentence into two or more shorter ones.