Photo by Tristan Schmurr
Writing fiction is a process of making stuff up, telling tales, fabricating reality, lying. An exceptional story will string me along like a gifted grifter. I’ll buy into its characters, conversations, plot hooks, and setting. I’ll pay to hear it, even though I know it’s not true, because it’s not true. What lies do I anxiously await time to experience? More importantly, what separates the great lies from the meh? As I pull out the dwindling supply of hair from my head, sore from bashing it against my desk, otherwise knows as “editing a novel”, I crave advice to make my manuscript better. I comb the internet and get sucked into Twitter and Facebook conversations about the dos and don’ts, rules, appropriately breaking the rules, artistic license, grammar police, etc. Ever present is the caveat that the writer should trust his/her gut about the changes he/she makes to his/her manuscript. There’s no way I will offer any definitive writing tips here, BUT I will pass along some that I’ve read about and make sense to me. First, my caveat, hereby relinquishing me of any responsibility that said shared tips might ruffle feathers, stir dander, or otherwise frustrate. I’ve found them to be helpful. There have been enough that I no longer remember where I read most of them, but I will give credit where I recall the sources.
Most recently, I signed up for Rayne Hall’s “Writer’s Craft” newsletter. The bonus for registering was a workbook for growing my author voice. It contained a practical guide to implementing a bevvy of tips for more dynamic writing. The workbook exercises customize to any type of writing that I am interested in successfully pursuing. Sounds too good to be true? The concept was simpler than I imagined. Putting it into practice was as challenging as I thought any realistic guide to improvement should be. Identify the type of voice you want to write in, based primarily on your genre, and figure out what adjectives describe that voice. Find and use verbs in your manuscript that lend credence to those adjectives. Eliminate verbs that don’t (and there’s a handy list of weak verbs that most new writers, including moi, abuse). I look forward to future newsletters and tips. Rayne Hall has also written whole books about writing, and I intend to check them out. Good stuff! Follow her on Twitter: @RayneHall
One of my favorite authors, Joe Abercrombie, thanked his mum (they’re British) for giving him some important writing advice. She said that he should be honest. It may be the vital ingredient that keeps me reading, and re-reading, his novels. While it sounds simple to emulate, it can be extremely difficult. Each character should act honestly, not that all the characters are truthful. How boring that would be! They should behave in accordance to their motives, personalities, fears, and experiences. Sounds like a lot of work? You betcha. But it’s what makes his fiction such a pleasure to read. His characters feel alive. They don’t seem created to fulfill a specific purpose or take on stereotypical roles in the narrative. They are messy, faulted, wounded, and often pathetic specimens, and those that don’t have those qualities are usually just exceptionally good at hiding them. As I edit my novel, I’m challenged to honestly portray my characters as people first, characters second. This, I think, is the key to luring in readers who normally wouldn’t want to read genre fiction. If I can make them believe my made-up characters mimic real people (see “lying” above), how much easier will it be to convince readers to follow those people through their journey? It’s also vitally important that I be honest with myself when editing and making difficult decisions about what furthers the story and what is unnecessary.
I talk to myself like the crazy guy on the bus. That’s one of the things I do when I’m writing and editing dialogue, and it’s also the reason most of my time spent on these activities is in the privacy of my home or my car. This exercise has been recommended to me nearly universally in every tip I’ve read on the subject. Why? Because anyone who speaks English will detect the lies I’m selling if the speakers of those fictional conversations sound like 1980s TV robots. Each character needs to speak consistently, and there should be a unique sound to each voice. It’s a great way for readers to be able to tell the characters apart in conversations without using dialogue tags. Speech can tell readers things about characters without taking up time to describe them in more traditional ways, more boring ways. There’s a fine line between perfect and overdoing it, though. When I speak characters’ lines out loud, I can hear how they sound and if their voices have changed from one conversation to another. I learn more about the characters, too, like what body language they might use along with their lines of dialogue.
Share your writing with others. It’s an important step for those who want to be read by an audience. Doesn’t that seem obvious? For many writers, this is completed with a great degree of trepidation. Rejections can be harsh, and there will be rejections on submissions. I’ve experienced a ton of them, and each of them sucks. Writing groups can be relatively safe spaces to get honest and helpful feedback. After all, they are filled with other people who want the same thing and appreciate opinions that are given respectfully. I’ll plug 10 Minute Novelists, a group I joined some time ago on Facebook. Now with thousands of members, they promote members’ blogs, give advice, offer consolation during the painful process of editing, and encourage members to help each other out. I’ve received encouragement, blog followers, and beta readers through membership in this group. Most importantly, I’ve learned that writing doesn’t have to be a solitary pursuit like it was before the Internet, or “when dinosaurs roamed the earth” as my son likes to say.
Writing tips are everywhere, and I could spend lots of time reading them instead of writing, but it is necessary research. Anybody who becomes good at something will tell you that you have to keep striving to improve. If I read advice that seems like a step in the wrong direction for my writing, I disregard it. I intend to share the nuggets of genius as I learn them. I’d appreciate it if you will too, because I can use them. Feel free to drop me a comment with the best writing advice you’ve received. Sharing can make us all better writers.