Monday, February 27, 2012

Things every newbie writer learns

In terms of years, I'm a writing old-timer. I've been doing it for a while. But I keep thinking about that horrible line from Armageddon ("I'm a third-generation driller, been doing it all my life, and I still haven't got it all figured out.") and realize I got a ways to go. See, I learn new shit all the time, and then when I read stuff for friends I get a little embarrassed because they're making mistakes that I was making just a year or two ago. And I'm probably making mistakes that you were making ten years ago. So I aim to provide a guide for brand-new writers, so we can all be on the same introductory level of badness and proceed from here. You veterans might get a chuckle of out this, too.

So, without further ado: things new writers need to know before they have a buddy read their first draft:

1. "Was" is not your friend. Do a document search and replace any instance of "was" that you can. Stronger verbs provide an instant and dramatic facelift for a story.

2. Document search for "this," "it," and "that" to make sure you're really talking about what you're talking about. Unintentional or unclear referents are signs of writing that hasn't been thought through very well. Dangling participles are another. If you don't know what a dangling participle is, chances are you're making them all over the place. Look 'em up.

3. Replace every form of "was verb-ing" with "verbed." On rare occasions, it'll sound silly, and in such cases you can change it back, but start out with the idea of eliminating progressive tenses completely.

4. Avoid word repeats like the plague. If you've used the same word twice in a sentence, fix it right away. Twice in a paragraph, please also rewrite at draft stage. Twice on a page... can wait until the second draft to fix unless it's a really unusual word like "leonine."

5. Point of view matters. A good cheat is to pick one character and write the whole thing in such a way that it could be read in first person. Nobody'd ever say, "I looked sullen but beautiful," right? Similarly, don't have characters say what they look like or talk about their expressions and postures. Also don't switch POV (even using a linespace to do so) for no other purpose than to give a physical description of your protagonist. Changes in POV are best when they occur on a hook, like at the end of a chapter.

6. Don't use semicolons. Nine times out of ten, you're using them wrong, even when you think you know the rules. It's better to just use commas and full sentences and read the sentence out loud for rhythm. At best they look pompous, at worst they look wrong.

7. Limit dialogue tags. Instead, provide stage direction or something to note who said what. For instance:
"Hello," he sneered.

can become

Carl sniffed and wrinkled his nose when he looked down at me. "Hello."
Also, lines and lines of dialogue with no narrative between and just the barest of tagging are indicative of a first draft that you haven't paid a lot of attention to. You'll want to flesh all that out before having somebody read it for serious. Otherwise it looks half-baked.

8. As an addendum to number 7, look for "said adverb-ly" and rewrite it. Readers skim right over "said" and tend to do the same to any words coming immediately after "said." Especially adverbs.

9. Hunt down the clich├ęs. If characters are raising eyebrows to show disdain and sighing to show relief every other paragraph, you'll want to mix that up a bit.

10. Look for phrases like "she felt" or "he thought" and see if you can reword it directly. For instance, I recently changed a line from "A novice would shoot now, she thought, but she’d learned to trust her partner" to "A novice would shoot now, but she’d learned to trust her partner."

11. Nix the word "literally" unless you are writing satire.

12. Look for adverbs and replace them with better verbs.
He walked energetically


He bounded.

13. Give sensory details from all senses, not just the visuals. Say how things smell, taste, sound, and feel to the touch.

14. Make all dialogue meaningful. Unless "Hello" is ironic or important to the plot somehow, most times it needs to go. Some readers skim, looking for dialogue, and you want yours to snag their attention and make them stop skimming, damn it.

15. Know what your protagonist wants and how he or she aims to get it. Then you can torture that character much more satisfactorily (bwahaha). The best stories lay that information out right at the beginning.

Feel free to add to this list. After all, I'm not even close to finished learning.

Cross-posted at

1 comment:

Savanna Kougar said...

Vivien, great points overall! And, most of them I adhere to the best of my writerly ability.

However, being the rule breaker that I am, I find myself in spots where I simply break the rules... for example: in my Tuesday flash scene at ShapeShifter Seductions I wrote this paragraph ~

"He'd found her... finally. The woman who had saved his life. More, she'd saved his very soul. She'd saved the wolf, and didn't know she also saved a man."

Honestly, I couldn't think of another way to say it, given that's what the hero was thinking.