11 Ways to Level Up Your Writing

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

11 Ways to Level Up Your Writing

*cracks open Writer's Toolbox*

*wonders why there's a banana inside*

*tries to make a call on the banana phone*

*fails, eats banana*

Ahem. Here are some tools that might help you finesse your writing, if you're still looking for ways to take it to the next level. As ever, this list is not definitive. There are good times to break the rules. Your mileage may vary. But I've discovered them all *since* I wrote my first book in 2009. They might seem obvious to you, but they've helped me, and I hope they'll help you.

1. Kill dialog tags whenever possible.
"Said" is the only acceptable one. Try to kill that, too. For example:
NO = "I'm going to do it," he said.
YES = Ferdinand crossed his huge arms and nodded. "I'll do it."

2. Kill adverbs. Replace them with beautiful writing.
Especially kill adverbs when added to dialog tags. (She exclaimed self-righteously.)
NO = The old man stood painfully and carefully walked to the kitchen.
YES = Helga groaned, her bones cracking like popcorn as she navigated the cramped hallway.

3. Kill all instances of these words: feel, see, smell, hear.
Of course the character is sensing something. It's in their POV, isn't it?
NO = Leo could see the tiger mauling his pet parrot, and he could hear the rending flesh splatter against the wall.
YES = The tiger's teeth ripped into Mr. Cheeky, the scent of copper pennies and raw chicken sending Leo into a gagging fit.

4. Don't end a chapter on a note of complete comfort.
It gives the reader a great place to stop reading. And we don't want them to stop reading.
NO = She fell asleep in Lord Wolfington's arms, sated and happy.
YES = She fell asleep in Lord Wolfington's arms, sated and happy except for the strangest feeling that she'd forgotten something terribly important. In the morning, her maid had disappeared.

5. Become a master at communicating important details with just a few words.
NO = The burgundy and black damask wallpaper was ripped and torn, showing scarred wood beneath it that matched the destroyed furniture and pockmarked floors, all of which had once given the appearance of wealth and abundance.
YES = She hated waiting, especially in a sitting room that so obviously displayed Lord Wolfington's inner darkness, thanks to claw-torn wallpaper and a well-gnawed chaise.

6. Try not to use the same word twice within a two-page spread.
Obviously, "the" and "a" don't count. We're mainly talking noticeable things.
NO = The carnival called to her, from the sound of carnies shilling their wares to the merry song of the calliope to the alluring scent of carnival goodies.
YES = The carnival called to her, from the barker's harsh cawing to the merry song of the carousel to the alluring scent of funnel cake and popcorn.

7. Your ego will try to insert itself into the manuscript, especially in the form of exceptionally clever similes and metaphors. Kill them.
This is what they mean by "killing your darlings". Every time you revise, you'll ponder these phrases. At first, you'll be proud. Then they'll start to grate on you, but you won't want to remove them. This is the sign that they need to die. If you're Douglas Adams or Terry Pratchett, you might be able to get away with it.
NO =  The mermaid looked a lot like Goldie Hawn, and not just because of the fish lips and her tendency to be thrown overboard by men wearing eye patches.

8. To up the tension, add a ticking clock.
My agent taught me this one. If the story is just plodding along, add The Big Game and a football scout, a departure time for that big cross-country move, or a date by which Lord Wolfington must be married to inherit his fortune.
NO = "Your happiness is important to me, Linnea. I shall support you even should you become a spinster and haunt my attic forever."
YES = "By God, I am finished with your mucking about in the laboratory, Linnea. You will find a husband by Michaelmas, or I shall put you up for auction!"

9. Torture your character in ways big and small.
Complacent and comfortable aren't exciting. Although the reader needs an occasional win, disequilibrium is interesting and moves the story along. Discover their greatest fear and use it against them.
NO = Lulu was doing fine in school, she loved her job at the GAP, and her grandmother had the body of a forty-year old.
YES = Lulu's chemistry grade had taken a plunge, thanks to a misunderstanding with moles, which meant she spent most of her shift at the GAP studying in a dressing room and praying Chase didn't catch her and fire her. She needed that money to help pay for Grammy's meds, which only seemed to cost more as time went by.

10. Make a spreadsheet and plot out the story to make sure it's interesting.
When you're in the muck of the story, it can be hard to see the big picture. Make a spreadsheet and break it down by chapter. Make columns for what happens in the chapter, what the biggest revelation is, and how exciting it is. On a scale of 1 to 5 for excitement, you don't want a bunch of 2s all in a row, but you don't want a bunch of 10s, either. Check out this post by Chuck Wendig for more discussion. Your plot shouldn't be a straight line, but everything in it should mean something.

11. Think about sentence length.
The first sentence has more punch if it's short. Then you can draw one out, craft it lovingly, focus on the rhythm and beauty of the words. Maybe the next one is of middling length. Maybe not. In any case, you'll notice that there are sentences of a variety of lengths in this very paragraph, and that they start off in different ways, some with "the" and some with "maybe" and one with "in any case". You should always keep this tip in mind. The reader's mind wants to dance with you.