There are a lot of things I’ve done to improve my craft since I started writing. Some of them have come from books, more have come from crumbling up drafts and critiquing other’s works. Between writing and rewriting, I’ve probably typed a million words trying to get my first novel right–it still isn’t ready to even show Linda. Writing a million words teaches a lot of lessons, and some of them aren’t all that difficult to deal with. I’ve come up with five little things I’ve learned that can spruce up that rough draft.
1. Saw-ing and heard-ing
This is a bad habit I’m still trying to rid myself of. If your point-of-view character notices something, just describe it. There’s no need to say he saw the block of cheese or that she heard the siren. It distances the reader from the point of view you’ve established. You can just say there’s a block of cheese on the counter or that a siren split the calm day. Sure, it’s a little thing, but getting rid of these unnecessary verbs will draw the reader in and help him or her identify with the POV character. I’ve gone to the lengths of popping up a find dialog and searching for every ‘saw’, ‘heard’, ‘thought’, so forth and so on to figure out if they are really needed or are just distancing. It might take some time, but it’s a pretty easy thing to do to make your writing more intimate and sophisticated.
2. Watch out for crutch words
Sometimes you have to choose between what is right and what is easy. There are a few words that I think are crutches for writers because they are so easy to use. ‘Was’ and its ‘to be’ cousins are very seductive. It’s really easy to describe something by saying it was that, it was this, it was one, it was two, it was red, it was blue. But all you do with that is create a list. Yes, it might be a lovely list of shiny adjectives, but it’s still a list and there’s a reason a grocery list doesn’t qualify as literature. If you see a string of sentences all using the verb ‘was’, then you probably need to think about turning some of those sentences from being to doing. After all, what’s more compelling, a description of what something is or a description of what something does to the person observing it? Not that ‘was’ is always bad, but give it a stern look when it starts cropping up a lot.
Adverbs are a whole class of words that can lure you in with their easiness. Need a stronger statement than your verb or adjective is giving? Just slap on an adverb. It’s so easy that it’s tempting to skip having to find that stronger verb or adjective. In dialogue, it’s easy to throw on an adverb like ‘he said exasperatedly’, but it’s so much more vivid to show the exasperation or let the dialogue convey it. Again, adverbs are not always bad, but weeding out the ones that are simply band-aids can elevate the prose.
There are other words like ‘seemed’ and my personal nemesis ‘just’. These are words I’ll pop up a find dialog to hunt down. Sometimes ‘seemed’ is the right word, but a most of the time it only waters things down. It’s like you can’t commit to the words that follow it. ‘Just’ I just plain overuse. Figure out some of the words that haunt you personally and find every single instance of them, then ditch the excess ones. Time consuming, but not hard. Don’t get me started on the overuse of ‘suddenly’.
3. Don’t drown your dialogue
Sue shook her head as she fidgeted. “No, I don’t want to buy that cheese.”
“But it’s good, and we need it,” Bob argued, pointing toward the white block of cheesy goodness.
Sue glanced toward the cheese and let out a breath. “It’s so white.”
Bob rolled his eyes and spread his hands. “It’s mozzarella, it’s supposed to be white.”
“White food just creeps me out.” Sue took a step back from the cheese, shuddering.
When you picture a couple of characters talking to each other, it’s tempting to throw in lots of physical beats or attributions into dialogue. I want the reader to see the body language exactly the way it is in my head, and I want to make sure he or she always knows who is doing the talking. However adding too much clutter will drown the dialogue, and the reader doesn’t need to see the scene the same way I do. Pruning the excess brings the dialogue and the characters to the forefront. You don’t want to get rid of all of them, but sometimes less is better. It’s not a big thing, but it can make that dialogue more effective.
Sue shook her head. “No, I don’t want to buy that cheese”
“But’s it’s good and we need it,” Bob argued.
“It’s so white.”
Bob rolled his eyes. “It’s mozzarella, it’s supposed to be white.”
“White food just creeps me out.”
Hmmm… I’m not sure even the eye rolling should stay in there.
4. Don’t -ing it up too much
Taking off her boots, she walked into the room.
Another temptation is to start off sentences with an -ing word since it’s a really easy way to tie together a couple of actions. This can easily lead to sentences like the above where the author means that she took off her boots and then walked across the room. However, what the sentence really says is that she somehow took off her boots at the same time as she walked across the room, which is awkward at best. Even if you avoid that trap, too many of these easy sentences can make your writing sound crude and lazy. When reading through your work, keep an eye on how many of these -ing’ing sentences you have. Also, make sure your characters aren’t doing physically improbable actions when you do have one.
5. Start off with something unique
There’s lots of advice about the opening of your story, but this is a pretty simple one. You want to make sure that the first page of your book can’t be the first page of just any book–it needs to be unique in some way. Maybe it’s something about the main character, maybe it’s something about the voice, or maybe the setting, or maybe the plot, but it needs to stick a flag in the reader’s mind that says this is not generic. This is the genesis of the advice to avoid starting with the weather or the main character waking up–these are the kind of openings that any old book could have. If you write an epic fantasy book that starts with the main character bundled up against some unfortunate weather regretfully overlooking a burned-out village where his family perished, then your first page could belong to any of a hundred books. If the main character smiles and dances in the chilling rain when she sees that burned-out village where her family perished, then it’s not going to belong to just any book even if you do start off talking about the weather and a destroyed village. If that first page seems generic, crumple it up and think of the things that are specific to your story. I’ve certainly crumbled up a lot of my openings.
Not everything that can help improve your craft needs to be complex and difficult.
W.E. Larson is a life-time midwesterner living in the Kansas City area with his wife, daughter, son, and two dogs. He earned a degree in physics from Trinity University with minors in computer science and mathematics. He went on to pursue a career in software engineering. Larson always enjoyed telling stories and decided to finally put some to paper—especially stories that his kids might like.