Saturday, March 23, 2013

Jeri's Ten Tips to Better Writing

By Jeri Westerson

At some point, most writers are asked to give writing advice. I’m asked about my writing all the time; what’s my process and how long does it take to write a novel. Those who are interested in writing their own books look to published authors to get the skinny, maybe that magic bullet. Well, I don’t have a magic bullet. It's mostly just hard work, but there are tips that are tried and true that might make your life easier, and most authors adhere to them whether they realize it or not. So here’s my tips that I hope will help you along the bumpy road of literature. 

1. Vary the length of your sentences and the type of sentences.  
Take this challenge. Grab a book from a favorite author and just look at the page, not the words themselves, but just the black and white look of the page. What do you see? Chances are you’ll see a lot of variety in the sentence length, not dense pages full of ink. Your brain wants variety, not just in the word choices but in the paragraphs coming up. You might use short sentences to emphasize ideas. But for defining and illustrating descriptions you might use longer sentences. Where fragments would get you bad marks in an essay, it’s okay to use them in novels. Moves the narrative along.

2. Use active verbs.
I know you’ve heard this one before. Try to avoid the passive voice as much as possible, as well as forms of the verb "to be." Verbs which act upon their subject are said to be in the passive voice. Instead, use dynamic verbs in the active voice. In the sentence, All the bells were rung at the same time is more active if you revised it by saying, All the bells rang at the same time. Here’s another passive voice sentence: George was very appreciative of the dollar he found. Active: George appreciated the dollar he found. Another: This violin was made by my father. (from A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language) Active: My father made this violin. Another: The young gentleman was later seen by me in front of the gare Saint-Lazare. (Raymond Queneau, "Passive.") With apologies to Mr. Queneau, how about instead: I saw the young gentleman in front of the gare Saint-Lazare. See how more direct the active sentence is?

3. Proofread, edit, and revise.
Don’t wait until your manuscript is complete before you start working on revising and editing. If you wait till the end, you might miss important information you forgot to include or worse, find that your clue isn’t possible/ historically correct / too cliché to use, and now there’s a lot more work for you to revise. These days I find editing and rewriting to be almost more fun than the creation itself. Once I get the words down it’s easier to do the fine tuning and trimming. Which leads us to the next point.

4. Slash the clutter.
When revising your work, eliminate unnecessary words. She said to him. It’s enough that “she said.” We don’t need the words “to him.” It’s obvious. Trim the fat and keep your sentences to the point. As William Faulkner (or any number of other authors) said, “You must kill your darlings.” Kill off or delete those beautiful bits of prose that really don’t help your book. You might love those darned words, but save them for something else. Maybe a Christmas card?

5. Write crappy first drafts.
I write a minimum of ten pages a day. Theoretically, after a month, I should have a first draft. It doesn’t ever turn out that way (life intervenes) but at least I’ve set a goal. And that means I give myself permission to write ten crappy pages if need be. I know it can be fixed in the revise. After all, I always read over what I wrote the day before to get myself started, and that means revising or completely deleting the writing that came before.   

6. Use a Thesaurus.
Please don’t rely on the computer’s thesaurus. Get yourself an honest-to-goodness hardbound Roget’s. There is no substitute (even the online versions pale). Why? Because looking up a synonym the old-fashioned way causes you to cruise lots of words you ordinarily wouldn’t run across, giving your old brain more fodder to chew on. A thesaurus is set up in families of words, with different nuances of meaning. You learn as you skim, you acquire. It’s your job, after all, to collect words. Not necessarily high-falutin’ words—because those can be a distraction—but words with precision and shades of gradation.   

7. Read.
It always surprises the hell out of me when I hear about would-be authors who don’t read. Hello? This is your profession! You need to read as well as write. Read not just in the genre you write but everything! Novels, biographies, histories, comics, blogs. Everything you read goes into the cache of your mind and can be plucked out later for use in your own creations. Reading builds your vocabulary, defines your own “voice” and sentence structure. Why do you want to write for other people if you don’t read? Believe me, it will show in your writing.  

8. Write everyday.
Seriously. Even weekends and holidays. Writing is not like other professions. You have a physical need to write all the time. Then see number 5.

9. Develop a process.
Find a writing process that works for you. So maybe it isn’t ten pages a day. Maybe it’s five minutes, or 500 words. Maybe it’s something else. Maybe you do have to write the whole manuscript before you revise. It’s your process. Whatever works for you is the right one. Do you like to write by the seat of your pants with no idea where you are headed? Great! Do you need a detailed outline? Go for it! Or perhaps something in between? I write a chapter by chapter outline before I begin. I have three books to finish in a year, so I don’t have time for writer’s block. An outline gives me goals to shoot for. However, my outline is also not etched in stone. I know that I can veer from it and often do. But as long as I have a goal in mind, I’m happy. What’s your process? A combination of both?

10. Jot down your ideas.
You never know when inspiration will strike. Make it a habit to keep a pen and note book with you at all times; beside your bed, in your car, in your purse, wherever. Or, I suppose, if you aren’t as technically challenged as I am, there are probably ways to do that on your smart phone. Bits of dialogue always come to me at the most inconvenient of times. I know I’ll forget them if I don’t write them down right away. I’ve rushed more than once soaking wet out of the shower to pen them on a notepad. I keep a spiral notebook for each of my novels. It serves as a reservoir for my research, for notes on scenes, dialogue, vocabulary, and a diary in which I can argue with myself and brainstorm on particularly tough spots in my manuscript. I am free to express my thoughts and fears in that notebook instead of wasting time on it in my manuscript. It’s a good outlet if nothing else.

Got your own tips? Feel free to share them in the comments. Looking for more? Here's a bit of advice you'll need for marketing.


Leslie Budewitz said...

All good points, Jeri. Thanks!

Julia Buckley said...

I agree with all of these! (Although I sometimes break them). This is worth posting on a writer's wall.

Steven M. Moore said...

Hi Jeri,
I generally agree, although I tend to ignore #5 and combine 3 and 4. With modern word-processing software, the chainsaw can be on all the time, for example. Some days I write 4000 words, it seems, and then hack out most of them--a highly nonlinear process and, like you say, hard work until I'm done with the book and say, "Wow! That was a lot of fun!"
All the best,

Jeri Westerson said...

I agree, Steve. I think any combination of these help a writer get to the business of writing. Not etched in stone by any means.

Victoria Honeywood said...

Great advice Jeri! Although I'm not sure that the sentence "George was very appreciative of the dollar he found." is passive. Wouldn't passive be "The dollar was found by George, who was highly appreciative."? (equally horrible sentence!) But I do agree that it's better to avoid use of passive and various forms of "to be" wherever possible.

And carrying on from your point 8 "write everyday" I've just discovered the benefits of speed writing - set the clock for say 15 mins and just write without stopping. It's amazing how much you can get down in those few minutes plus it really frees up the creative spirit - and amazingly it's often not all rubbish! :)

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