I used to think I was pretty good at writing. I could turn out a clever phrase and churn out pages of readable content.Then I started writing to get published and researching all the rules of writing. That led me to see some of what held my writing back. All that learning also changed how I read. I can’t tell you what makes a great book great, other than I don’t notice what’s wrong with it. Since I did all that studying, I thought you might enjoy seeing what I learned about modern writing.
First Sentence is the Hook
The modern reader has many alternatives to keep reading if your book doesn’t reel them in. I try to start with the hint of what the story is about and something unexpected or twisted. Leave the reader with a question, so they want more.
Diseases, Deaths and Divorces on the First Page
Whipping out the Cancer Card in Chapter Six is lame. Its invoking drama from out of nowhere, unrelated to the story, except for the stress it adds. The Fault in Our Stars gets right to it, girl’s got cancer, now set the scene and roll camera.
Adverbs are Mostly Evil
Technically, there’s nothing wrong with adverbs. The best case for purging them is when they snuggle right up to verb and you could replace the pair with a better verb. I use tools to find them and consider if each should stay or go. This is also true of the word very as it modifies something in a very weak way. Impotent.
Active People Don’t Have Passive Voices
Learn the “by zombies” rule or use a tool to find these. They make your character look weak, and maybe there’s a time for that. When you character is doing stuff, be bold. The princess was saved by the hero means it was an afterthought. The hero saved the princess. Bold and zesty, just how we want our heroes.
Exposition sounds like we need it. How can you understand Ned Stark without knowing the complexities of Westeros unless I start with the history of the First Men of the Andals? Or, you’ll figure it out along the way if the writer drops smaller explanations in. Just enough to clear something up, but leave them wanting more. Also, much more exciting to read and gives the reader some credit for piecing things together.
Start at When Things Change
A common observation from first drafts is that the writer should start at chapter two. This is often the inciting incident, the thing that propels our hero into the main problem. Don’t make us read about Peter Parker going to school and being boring for too long, get to the part where Peter gets bit by a spider before page ten, because that’s all you’ve got before the reader quits because he doesn’t know who or what your book is about.
A Man of Action Takes Action
The difference between an Ent and a tree as the main character in a story is that the latter features a lot of stuff happening to it, but in the end, we simply learn how paper is made. The Ent on the other hand, reacts to the threat, cries over fallen comrades, makes a plan and attacks Dunder-Mifflin’s company picnic where the people who ordered the tree massacre can be found. Make sure the hero is doing stuff, choosing stuff. Not just passively experiencing their life.
The Chapter Status Should Not Be Quo
If the hero is tied up at the start of the chapter, they should be untied by the end. Or some other change, be it new information, a new ally or things have gotten worse. Otherwise, your chapters will all start to look alike and you can shuffle them up or delete them.
Remove Unnecessary Words
That’s the first advice I got on my first piece I brought to a critique session. It could be Purple Prose, that overly flowery and majestically useless drivel that spreads magnificently over the page. Or filler words like “that” and “just” which don’t add anything. Or it could be redundant text, words that repeat the same meaning that you already said.
Let Thesaurus Eat Your Repeats
Using the same word repeatedly is a good time to try out some other words. Don’t fall for using too many of synonyms, or the fancy big ones. Just mix things up, some, or rephrase things so it comes up less.
Tag Dialog with Said or Action
Back in school, I learned to mix dialog up with a variety of alternatives to said like exclaimed, quipped, explained, asked, queried, droned and so on. I have that aforementioned Thesaurus imprinted on my brain with those words because of that. Nowadays, it is a sign of novice writing. Stick to said, or writing some action from the speaker with their dialogue. It adds motion to the scene. Don’t make the mistake of doing that every line or you’ll have the characters criss-crossing the room in frenetic arm crossing, room crossing and leaning action.
Things Get Worse Before They Get Better
In the beginning, more things should fail or get worse than succeed for the hero. This is how you raise the stakes and tension. It’s classic storytelling formula. So when the hero goes into the bar to question a witness, the question is “Does he get the info” and the answer that would be more entertaining is not likely to be “yes, and that solved everything.” Try, “No, and” or “Yes, but…” to drive the hero to more chapters.
Try It Before You Knock It
Every author breaks these rules. Published and unpublished alike. So what’s the deal? This is most of the stuff I can recall off the top of my head. I’ve found them to improve my writing, by making me scrutinize my choices and decide what to change or keep as is. Thinking carefully about what goes in the manuscript is the craft of writing. Try them out.