The problem with writing is that there is no real training. You might know when a sentence or paragraph doesn’t work, but you don’t know how to fix. And being a good writer by high school standards means that you are still terrible by anyone who is over eighteen. You’re a long way from getting published and you have no idea how to turn one of your stories into something that doesn’t suck.
A lot of professionals who talk about being a better writer will give you some vague idea of what to focus on, like: make sure you have well rounded characters, make sure your chapter does at least three things to drive the story forward, and if it’s boring cut it out. This post is going to focus on actual specifics. I’ll point out that this is more of a letter to myself for when I was eighteen, and less to my captive audience, so take what you want from it.
In no order at all:
Avoid indecision outside of dialogue. It’s not about an hour and a half, it is an hour and a half. The hotel is not two or three streets from here, it is three streets from here. Keep the indecision to dialogue only. Why? Because the author knows everything, but the characters don’t.
If you want to use aggressive language, use words from a German background, such as angst, glitch, kaput, plunder. If you want to use more romantic language, use something from a Latin/French/Spanish background, such as admire, cliché, majesty, poetic. If you want something dreamy and hypnotic, use soft sounding words that drop away at the end, such as daze, there, away, and avoid words that end sharply, such as tick, sharp, cut.
Avoid being redundant. If something is as black as coal, it’s just black. An end result is just: a result. A breakthrough may not always be a major one, but a major breakthrough is always redundant.
Maintain the focus of who the star is in a paragraph. If this paragraph is focussed on Harry, he’s automatically the person the readers will associate ‘he’ with. If you have a paragraph with five males interacting with each other around a camp fire, using ‘he’ is going to be confusing. Don’t confuse the reader. Make sure they know which ‘he’ you are referring to.
If you’re reading over what you’ve written and it feels clunky, trying reading that section out loud. Imagine this will eventually be an audiobook, and if your words are tripping over themselves when you read it aloud then it’s time to delete what you have and start again.
While editing, if you come across some bad writing, delete it. Don’t try to re-write bad writing, because you’re only inspired by bad writing and you’re just going to say the same thing. Delete it, forget what you just deleted, and try again later. I usually delete pages and pages of garbage in every chapter. It’s heart breaking, but the benefit is knowing that when you’re done, your book doesn’t have any bad writing in it any more. It might be half the size of what it used to be, but what’s left is at least average writing, and some of it might even be good writing. So when you fill in the blanks, you might end up with 75% good writing and 25% that needs to be deleted again. But every time you cut the awful words out, your story is getting less awful.
Recognise your pitfalls. This one is almost exclusively for me. I use ‘that’ a lot. Most of the time I don’t need it, and I need to delete it. I also use commas a lot. Those are my two go-to pauses for thinking, when I need to take five seconds to figure out what the rest sentence is going to be.
Describe the emotion without saying it. ‘John’s jaw dropped open and he looked as though someone had just knocked the life out of him.’ Compare that with: ‘John was shocked.’ One is better than the other.
How characters think and what they say define themselves for the reader. If all of your characters sound the same when they talk, you’re going to need to give them unique catchphrases, unique reactions, and different attention to what is important. Let’s say there are four people chatting around a table, and one of them says that she has just broken up with her boyfriend, you’re going to have four different reactions at that table. One will be the girl who might be embarrassed that her life has fallen apart, one will be the best friend who knows that this was the best thing ever, one will be the friend who is overly sympathetic and might burst into tears at the news, and one realises that the love of his life is now single. They’re each taking something different out of the news.
Characters need a passion in their lives and priorities. It’s often quite interesting when these priorities have to change.
Avoid repetition. Try to not use the same word in the same paragraph again. The more unique the word is, the less you want to repeat it, unless you’re trying to drive some kind of message home. If you have used the same word, it’s time to break into the thesaurus.
The protagonist needs to be awesome at some things and inept at others. Being useless at something creates a little sympathy with the reader, being awesome creates a little admiration. Perhaps they are a wonderful singer, but a terrible cook.
A story needs to raise the tension. Don’t be afraid to add a new element to kick the story along.
If you are utterly stuck on a story, and suffering from writer’s block, you’re writing the wrong story. Write a different one.
If you are seriously stuck on this one story and must finish it, and you’ve obviously written yourself into a corner, it’s time to write anything and hope it sticks, knowing that you can cut it out later. Either introduce something tragic, or beneficial. Your protagonist goes shopping and something unusual happens while they’re out. Or one of the secondary characters is hit by a car and ends up in the hospital.
Avoid long sentences (25 words or more). The reader will get lost as to what the point of the sentence is.
The first and last sentence of a paragraph are the most important elements. If your reader skims through the chapter and focuses on only those two sections, then they should still be able to follow the story.
Let the characters behave like real people. Don’t force them to act against their better judgement. Some people run away, some people become useless, and some people find their inner strength. And remember that people do act pretty stupidly, and they aren’t always sure why. They will disappoint the ones they love, they will be there for a friend in need for as long as it’s convenient, but they will always have their limits.
Remember that every character is the centre of their universe. They have their own goals in life.
If you have an idea for a story that has the same feeling to another story you’re aware of, write your story before looking for inspiration, otherwise you will only re-write someone else’s story and it will never be as good as something fresh from your own imagination. Specifically for me: if you have an idea that sounds like Lost in Translation, don’t watch Lost in Translation first and hope to be inspired, because you will only watch that movie and feel deflated because it didn’t do anything you wanted it to do.
Once you’re done with the second draft you can always pepper it with awesome sentences. Pace around your house and write 20 random sentences that are pure greatness. Then put them into your book.
Avoid mixing metaphors and cliches. If someone slithers like a vampire . . . no. Snakes slither, vampires don’t.
100,000 words is a good length for a book. Not too short, not too long. 75,000 words is about as short as you want to go. 150,000 words starts to become an epic story. At 200,000 words your book better be spectacular.
Find another writer who edits like an anal English teacher. This person will be your best friend as a writer. You give them your manuscript to edit, they give you theirs. You will quickly see their flaws, and they will see yours. Highlight every damn error you find, and explain why it’s wrong. By editing someone else’s book, you will become a better writer and editor for your own work.
If your book requires a hell of a lot of research, feel free to do that research after you’ve written the first draft. That way you’ll know what you need to research. Generally, most stories are about human interaction. Even if your story is set in a submarine during the Second World War, the human interaction is more interesting than the actual submarine mechanics.
After dialogue, avoid ‘ly’ words as much as you can. He said, shyly. She said, lovingly. If you can describe him being shy in 25 words, that’s better than saying ‘shyly’. If she smiles at him and gives him a wink, that’s better than saying ‘cheekily’.
Write 2,000 words every day.
The only way to finish a book is to actually sit down and write it. Pacing around your living room is not writing. Staring at the blank screen is not writing.
Those are just some of the things about writing I wish I knew when I was a kid. Now if no one objects, I have to go and procrastinate!