Each Fall, I get ready to welcome a new crop of novel writers to my class. This year, I thought I’d start things off by offering some simple ways to kick your fiction up a notch.
Writing Tip for Today: New writers often make a few common mistakes that if corrected, can propel their writing skills to that next level. Here are three:
Strong Verbs Rule
If you don’t change anything else about your writing, this one tip can transform so-so into va-va-voom. The use of passive constructions (any sentence which uses a form of the verb to be: is, are, was, were) forces the action out of the passage. When you pair these “to be” verbs with an “ing,” the result is flabby fiction. An example: She was walking down my street. Take out the “was” and replace walking with a simple past tense verb: She walked down my street. Now take the ordinary verb of “walk” and let the reader see what she’s really doing: she strolled, trotted, ambled, tore. By eliminating the “was ing” type of construction, your sentence tightens. And if you search for a more specific verb, readers will imagine your scene in greater detail.
Specifics Rule Too
Specific verbs are like gasoline on a fire. They power readers with particular mind pictures, so they can get lost in the story. The use of specifics in other parts of speech can also tighten prose. A red car becomes a crimson Ferrari. Use of specific nouns and modifiers can also elevate your writing, but beware: unlike specific active verbs, nouns and mod ifiers (adjectives and adverbs) can quickly weigh down the story if you employ too much description. Look over your recent draft and see if you can spot patterns (say, the use of two or three modifiers for most nouns, e.g., a strong iron gate beside a flimsy wilted bush) or for spots where the description overwhelms the action. If you aren’t sure whether you’ve inserted too much description, try using the Rule of Three until you get more of a feel for the balance between action and description.
Act it Out
This balance of action to description is crucial. If your readers get tired of reading about all the “stuff” in a scene or what a character is wearing, they may stop reading. Lists of items in setting scene, or long passages of description, however beautifully written, can cause a disconnect. Readers crave action, simple as that, but the action cannot be random. With characters doing things to move the story forward, readers are pulled along. You can think of the story are a row of dominoes. As each domino falls, it impacts the next, all the way to the climax and resolution. The more you force your characters to act and interact, the more readers want to know what happens next. If your prose is stalling, take a look at what the problem area has in terms of action. Too much thinking, too much description or action that does not feel logical as the next “domino” to readers will hinder your story. By eliminating these story stallers, your writing will takes strides toward that next level.