Writing advice

Over the many years I have been writing, I have come across much advice on the web. Many of these I was sufficiently impressed by to dump them in a Word document for my later perusal. Well, the document got longer and longer, and so I decided that if it was going to do me any good, I needed to pick out 'the good bits'. Now I hasten to add that these are entirely idiosyncratic, and not meant to be any judgment! But I thought I would put my collection 'in the cloud', where they would be accessible to others as well as me. Feel free to add any good bits of writing advice (with links!) that you've come across, in the comments.

General writing advice

Elmore Leonard gave some writing advice in an essay in the NY Times that’s quoted all over the place. Here are his basic ‘rules’ (I’ve grouped related items):

  • Never open a book with weather; Avoid prologues.
  • Never use a verb other than "said" to carry dialogue; Never use an adverb to modify the verb "said"
  • Keep your exclamation points under control; Never use the words "suddenly" or "all hell broke loose."
  • Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
  • Avoid detailed descriptions of characters; Don't go into great detail describing places and things.
  • Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip; If it sounds like writing, rewrite it.

A.L. Kennedy talks inspiringly about writers and the piercing eye of the raptor:

“ Here is something so deeply and perfectly alive that it draws the eye, that it makes the observer happy – can you make your words do the same? Here is a gaze about life and death, an utterly fixed purpose – does your work have the same purpose, the same strength of knowing its aim completely and completely committing to it? Here is something shaped by its needs, made beautiful and simple by the necessities of its life – is your work so beautiful, so uncluttered, is it powered by the heart of your needs, the things it would be life for you to say and death to stifle ? Here is something that will meet your eye with a force you will always remember, that is made to reach its aim – can you meet your reader's eye with the same power, will you always touch them? Here is an unshakeable focus, but around it there is only flexibility, fluidity, the ability to deal with the vast variable that is the sky – can you know the nature of your piece so well that you cannot lose it and yet adapt to its needs and your own? In what ways are you the bird? … Sometimes we are the falcon and sometimes we are the falconer. And sometimes we need beauty to feed us up and send us out into the world, to give us the strength to speak. And sometimes we can help others speak, too.”

Suggestions of passages from classic novel that illustrate some technical lessons (setting; dialogue; tone; pace; etc).

Livia Blackburne gives a nice example (if, like me, you’re a fan of the book Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman) of how to tie related scenes together with a common element.

Plotting

Top of my list is Jim Butcher’s advice in a series of livejournal posts; a must-read. Particularly:

I find his description of the story arc really helpful: Beginning sets up all the dominos. When all the dominoes are set up, time to hit the Big Middle event (can also bring in a new subplot &/or new character). Dominoes then topple one after another, till you hit the climax. Also, the idea that the climax is the answer to the story question you’ve framed (When …).

Of course I like this especially because Jim Butcher writes good urban fantasy. The advice doesn’t necessarily apply to every novel type! Here’s something to think about: Has plot driven out other stories?:

“The market's stress on keeping stories moving means we're in danger of losing some truer fictions”  “..would The Recognitions get published were it submitted by some eager unknown today … I rather suspect it wouldn't get a look in. The opening is slow and focuses on the protagonist's father. Where is the main character's dilemma? Where is the inciting incident? Where's the story?”  "Films won and books lost. That's the story of the 20th century – the story of where the stories went" “Plot, as one of many literary strategies, is fantastic: employed carefully it can lend extraordinary emotional resonance to a text. But we shouldn't lose sight of the fact that it is not the only pleasure to be derived from great literature." "In the end, books are better than films at putting you inside someone else's head."

For a bunch of good questions to ask yourself at each point, check out the “Complications Worksheet

A reminder from Plot to Punctuation about the importance of goals being not only important, but important to the protagonist — it’s not enough to save the world, there’s got to be some reason why your hero has to be the one to do it, and it’s got to matter to them. Similarly, some of the obstacles in the path have to relate to character — the hero fails for personal reasons; she learns to overcome her personal weaknesses.

Similarly, Jody Hedlund talks about three-strand conflict: external, internal, and relationship conflicts — all of which she tries to intertwine.

Elizabeth Sims has a nice article on 10-Minute Fixes to 10 Common Plot Problems. I particularly appreciated her tips for scenes that drag (don’t heap more on to try and liven it up; instead, cut stuff — make it tighter, choppier), and dull characters (give her an obsession!)

Two pieces of advice I especially liked in this article on 6 Vital Signs of a Healthy Plot: you want to “feel in your gut the ache or hunger or desire your character has for a particular person, thing, or course of action”, and “If you can’t feel the tension, then you haven’t fully identified what your characters want or what the obstacles are.”

Some tips on how to twist your plot

Ridley Pearson talks about the 3-act structure, with frequent references to Christopher Vogler's The Writer's Journey. He says, “In starting an outline, I like to think up four or five big moments that will occur in the story. These are turning points, or darkest moments. From here, I bridge to connect these scenes, adding several smaller turning points to connect the dots. … I card these scenes and hang them on the wall.”

I found interesting the comment about “the mentor, the sage, the Obe-Wan character who's consulted and is the catalyst for the Hero to make the commitment to the Adventure”, and about this character not only prepares the hero but also enables the author to explain the hero to the reader, and bring in backstory.  Also, how Act 2 is a “balance of action, story development and interiorizing the characters”; the place for a "sitting around the fire" moment that enables characters to reflect and tell us more about who they are; and the importance of wrapping up some of the subplots so you’re not trying to cram too much into Act 3. And how in Act 3, “What we thought was true turns out to be false. … This propels the protagonist to a final threat”; the knowledge our hero learned at the end of Act 2 is what enables him to win in the end.

Back in 2006 Cheryl Klein, an editor, gave a talk to the Missouri Writers Guild conference on “The essentials of plot”, and put it online. I was much taken with this and copied it onto my own PC, but unfortunately the url is now completely dead (although you can have a look at it using the Internet Archive. Bits I particularly noted:

  • “At the same time, if a subplot is showing us something we already know about the character, or the same thing another subplot is demonstrating as well—you should consider cutting it
  • The goal is to have every subplot contribute something unique that adds up to the main plot.
  • So what’s giving your multiple Action plots unity, then?
  • The answer is the emotional plot of your main character—how the character changes internally through what he’s experiencing in all the different parts of his life.
  • A good measure of emotional stakes: The novel should dramatize a turning point in the protagonist’s life—an event (and its consequences) without which this character would be a different person
  • Aristotle believed that this [character] flaw should drive the action, until the protagonist was forced to recognize his mistake by the enormous horrible consequences of the result—what he called the Recognition.
  • And this leads to a change in the character’s circumstances—what’s known as the Reversal
  • This is a mistake I see a lot of beginning writers make: They think “Okay, the essential piece of action-plot information has been planted here, on to something else”; or “Oh, this chapter is getting too long, I better end it here”—and so they cut off a scene without its having an emotional point”

Especially if you’re writing a historical novel, Martha Alderson’s description of how she keeps tabs on everything might be helpful.

Discussion on the nature of tension: “stories where the author uses the reader’s ignorance – no, no, let me try that again… the author mistakes or confuses reader ignorance with true tension.” Do you know what true tension is? Tension is knowing everything except how it all turns out in the end. Tension is not knowing the final outcome to the people in the story (who the author is supposed to make us care about). But only the outcome is unknown. Everything (or almost everything) else is known.

On this point, note John Gardner says, “Real suspense comes from moral dilemma and the courage to make and act upon choices. False suspense comes from the accidental and meaningless occurrence of one damn thing after another.”

From StoryFix comes the idea of a beat sheet: a list of short, bulleted descriptions about each scene and why it’s there. Can do at planning stage, or as revision. An example of a generic and a specific beat sheet.

Lecture by Stephen J. Cannell as he discusses the three act structure in connection with screenplays (but also applies to novels). Particular points:

“A good way to design the complications is to let it be a piece of the back-story that has remained hidden until Act Two.”

“YOUR ADVERSARIES MUST BE IN MOTION. Adversaries should not be standing around, waiting to be caught.”

“At the end of Act Two is the second act curtain. This is the destruction of the hero's plan … the lowest point in the drama … If you have ever watched a movie or read a book where it starts out great and then, after about a third of the way through, becomes a "hummer" where nothing new is happening and you're starting to get bored, this is almost always because there is no second act.”

“Once we get past the complication and are into Act Two, we sometimes get stuck. … The plotting in Act Two often starts to get linear (a writer's expression meaning the character is following a string, knocking on doors, just getting information). This is the dullest kind of material. … When you get to this place, go around and become the antagonist. You probably haven't been paying much attention to him or her. Now you get in the antagonist's head and you're looking back at the story to date from that point of view.”

“When you have heavy exposition, look for something else to write about. Create equal amounts of attitude with exposition” “ Every scene in a book or script should do two things. FIRST: It should progress the story. The test is, if the scene is removed does it leave a hole in the plot. SECOND: The scene should simultaneously advance the character relationships. Try to accomplish both of these goals in each scene.”

The 5 Essential Story Ingredients. Particular points:

“the beginning is not simply the first event in a series of three, but rather the emotionally engaging originating event”

“at its most basic level, a story is a transformation unveiled—either the transformation of a situation or, most commonly, the transformation of a character.”

Five essential story ingredients:

  • Orientation: “The beginning of a story must grab the reader’s attention, orient her to the setting, mood and tone of the story, and introduce her to a protagonist she will care about, even worry about, and emotionally invest time and attention into.”
  • Crisis: “Typically, your protagonist will have the harmony of both his external world and his internal world upset by the crisis that initiates the story. There are two primary ways to introduce a crisis into your story. Either begin the story by letting your character have what he desires most and then ripping it away, or by denying him what he desires most and then dangling it in front of him.”
  • Escalation: “There are two types of characters in every story—pebble people and putty people. If you take a pebble and throw it against a wall, it’ll bounce off the wall unchanged. But if you throw a ball of putty against a wall hard enough, it will change shape. Always in a story, your main character needs to be a putty person.” “stop thinking of plot in terms of what happens in your story. Rather, think of it as payoff for the promises you’ve made early in the story. Plot is the journey toward transformation.”
  • Discovery: “At the climax of the story, the protagonist will make a discovery that changes his life. The protagonist’s discovery must come from a choice that she makes, not simply by chance or from a Wise Answer-Giver.”
  • Change: “The character’s actions or attitude at the story’s end show us how she’s changed from the story’s inception.”

“.. stop thinking of a story as something that happens in three acts, or two acts, or four or seven, or as something that is driven by predetermined elements of plot. Rather, think of your story as an organic whole that reveals a transformation in the life of your character. The number of acts or events should be determined by the movement of the story, not the other way around.

Because story trumps structure.”

Specific genre advice

“want our heroes frustrated, walking the edge between good & evil” (don’t know where this quote comes from)

Fantasy

For amusement (and also because it’s worth thinking about), those who write epic fantasy, should check out the Fantasy Novelist’s Exam.

Mystery

What mystery readers hate in a story (a list from readers on a mystery listserv)

Horror

Joe McKinney gives five reasons great horror stories work:

  • Not enough to have a great setting; you need to give “a sense that we are closed off from the rest of the world, that we are no longer free or able to run away, that we are shut in with something very bad.” The challenge is “to make readers feel that what was once familiar and comforting has suddenly become oppressive and menacing. … you need to change your characters’ attitude toward the setting, and you do this by showing the setting before and after the horror takes the stage.”
  • “need viewpoint characters who get scared so that we get scared vicariously through them.”
  • Need to give a reason “why they don’t just up and leave the moment things start getting weird.” “A surprising amount of good horror is built from economic necessity.”
  • Need a reason the good guy and the bad guy are connected.
  • Need a convincing and truly frightening villain/monster, and they should have some degree of moral authority/purpose.

Thrillers

Writers Digest has several reports from Thrillerfest 2011. Points I thought worth noting:

7 Keys to a Thriller That Actually Thrills:

  • Forgo the endless array of action sequences. “sometimes the only way to create suspense is to take the opposite path—create more stillness.”
  • Make more promises. i.e. foreshadowing
  • Be careful with violence. “the more violence there is in a story, the less it means.”
  • Ensure that your danger is intimate and personal
  • Turn a twist the right way. ‘Plot twists [should] unravel everything that came before and then rethread it, providing a fresh shot of meaning.”
  • Craft an artful peak. “the perfect breed of climax is one that nobody would guess … but readers feel they should have known all along.”

3 Things to Do Before You Start Writing Your Thriller:

From bestselling medical thriller writer Michael Palmer:

  • Formulate a what-if question for your book.
  • Develop a MacGuffin. “ basically the answer to your what-if question.”
  • Answer the question, Whose book is this? Consider who has the most at stake

On pacing:

In Ken Follett’s novel Eye of the Needle “a memorable and climactic fight takes place on the edge of a cliff. Follett knew it had to last a while—so he arbitrarily decided it’d last six pages, and he swore he’d make it last six pages no matter what.
To pull it off, he made a list of everything that could happen in a fight. He came up with 30-some things, and he worked all of them in.”

Also from Writers Digest, David Morrell & Ken Follett Talk About Writing:

“Donald E. Westlake, the great crime writer… encouraged me to go to bookstores and read the first pages of books that had just been published. … what I was going to discover: that most of the books felt as if they’d been written by the same person…. he said if you had 100 books, that chances are only five of those books would be what we’re looking for, and all five of those would be different from each other.
When I teach writing, I have a mantra: Be a first-rate version of yourself, and not a second-rate version of another writer.
I think every writer has a dominant emotion … and if you can identify it and try to understand it, it becomes your subject matter, and it makes you different from everybody else.

I always say thrillers are about people in danger. … There’s a rule of thumb that says every four to six pages the story should turn. If you leave it longer than that, people start to get bored. If it’s shorter than that, it’s too frenetic. And a story turn is anything that changes the situation for the characters, so it could be quite minor—somebody telling a little lie—but it’s a story turn.

neither book feels like a genre book. It has umpteen action scenes and all of that, but we believe that this story is happening to actual people. The element of believability.

Character

“all too often I see writers take the all-at-once approach: a character has a problem, realizes it, decides to act differently, and is thenceforth cured. Like magic! It’s exactly like magic, in as much as that’s not how life actually works. In the real world, personal growth takes time and practice.” Great point! See Five steps to building a believable character arc

In a Writer’s Digest seminar on “The Psychology of Character Motivation”, thriller writer D.P. Lyle suggested that you should work out where all your characters start off on each of the following key dimensions:

  • Tough Guy <–> Whiner
  • Team Guy <–> Rebel
  • Artist <–> Dreamer
  • Smarty <–> Dummy
  • Blooming Rose <–> Wallflower
  • Grinder <–> Lazy Dog
  • Goody <–> Baddy
  • Believer <–> Doubter

Then work out where you want them to be by the end of the story.

Some helpful tips on getting your character's language right:

“within five minutes of reading about your main character, we should peg him or her for what he or she is, even if he or she never mentions it.” You need to learn how people like your character speak: “every subcategory of person is going to have its own lingo and its own frames of reference”. And remember that we talk differently in different contexts/ with different people

To learn how to do this:

  • Talk to real-life people who do these jobs or fit these classifications
  • Pick up magazines written for and read by individuals in these jobs or classifications.
  • Find a support group online where people of your character's description gather.
  • Podcasts. Listening to someone talk off-the-cuff about his profession or self-categorization will give you everything you ever need to know about how your protagonist should speak.

Revision

What I really liked about the query tracker post on writing a synopsis that I mentioned under Synopsis, was that I thought there was some really good revision advice in there too — namely, the idea of writing a 2-3 sentence summary of each chapter (which process immediately reveals if the chapter isn’t actually doing anything!). I think that’s a great place to start your revision.

The process of doing that should throw up any weak scenes. There’s an article in Writer’s Digest that discusses how to strengthen your scenes. They suggest you start by picking the 10 weakest scenes in your book (even if you don’t think they’re actually weak), and then assess each one for its purpose. Then cut or strengthen as required.

But do remember that the purpose of a scene doesn’t have to be action! You need time to reflect too. There’s a very nice example in this article which shows the importance of a scene in which nothing happens. It’s not always about advancing the plot; character development often requires quiet scenes.

Alexandra Sokoloff has a good article on editing. I especially liked the advice to do a dedicated pass focusing on the crucial genre element (whatever your genre is), and do other dedicated passes concentrating on: the “desire line” ( ask yourself for every scene: “What does this character WANT? Who is opposing her/him in this scene? Who WINS in the scene? What will they do now?”); emotion (what do I want my readers to FEEL in this moment?); and sensory (make sure you’re covering what you want the reader to see, hear, feel, taste, smell, and sense). She also has a checklist of story elements that she uses both when planning the story and at revision time.

I find Elizabeth Sim’s Writer’s Digest article on putting suspense in your story quite inspirational. I particularly like the idea of plotting according to Heart-Clutching Moments.

Livia Blackburne has some useful thoughts in her blog post about how she’s going to approach her second novel differently, including:

James Plath has 21 issues you might want to consider if your manuscript still isn’t quite right and you’re not sure why.

Nathan Bransford has a good revision checklist.

Janice Hardy has a list of the aspects of a novel that you should work through when revising.

QueryTracker has a helpful article on getting rid of clichés - not simply dialog, but also clichéd actions

Fixing the writing

Holt Uncensored has a good post on the Ten Mistakes Writers Don’t See (But Can Easily Fix When They Do).Note particularly: repeat words; sentences that are flat, and words that don’t add anything.

Write it Sideways talks about filter words — those that unnecessarily filter the reader’s experience through a character’s point of view. For example, using verbs such as: to see; to hear; to think; to touch; to wonder; to realize; to watch; to look; to seem; to feel (or feel like); can; to decide; to sound (or sound like). There’s a text example showing filter words, followed by improved version. But note sometimes filter words are ok: Susan Dennard of Let the Words Flow writes that we should use filter words when they are critical to the meaning of the sentence.

Writers Digest on 4 Ways to Make Every Word Count:

  • Delete redundant modifiers: When editing, look closely at your modifiers and make certain they don’t repeat the meanings of the words they modify. If they do, delete them.
  • Eliminate unnecessary categories: When a word implies a category, you don’t need to write both the word and the category.
  • Consolidate redundant word pairings
  • Steer clear of indirect statements: Avoid indirect statements using the word not. Instead, use it to express denial or to create antithesis

If you need a reminder about what to leave out, read this Writers Digest article.

StoryFix has critiqued a full manuscript, providing 26 single-spaced pages of feedback, and (with the author’s permission of course) put this critique online. Very educational.

Opening scene

Advice heard: Start your story where your character's conflict and your plot's conflict collide.

A book excerpt that describes the ten components of the opening scene that you need to consider.

Interesting comment on the common advice to start a book in the middle of action: “This shows me that the writer could be weak in a number of areas. First, she may not be clear what the overall story problem is, so she is beginning with a “gimmick” to hook the reader in that she is unsure the overall story problem will. Secondly, this alerts me that the writer is weak in her understanding of scene and sequel novel structure. … So when a writer begins her book with Biff hanging over a shark tank surrounded by ninjas, two major steps in a scene have been skipped." Also:  “internalization … has its place … [but usually as] part of what is known as the sequel. … Also, beginning with the protagonist “thinking” is very self-indulgent. Why do I as the reader care about this person’s feelings or thoughts about anything? I don’t know this character.

Endings

Livia Blackburne talks about a good twist ending and how the writer pulled it off

Description

Doyce Testerman in a post about when to describe a thing and when not to quotes this text from the Tao te Ching:

We join spokes together in a wheel,
but it is the center hole that makes the wagon move.

We shape clay into a pot,
but it is the emptiness inside that holds whatever we want.

We hammer wood for a house,
but it is the inner space that makes it livable.

We work with being,
but non-being is what we use.
Tao te Ching, verse 11

Word counts

Word length is something beginner writers tend to obsess about. It is good to know the basic rules of thumb, but you shouldn’t get too bogged down in the detail.

Here’s the most basic rule of thumb: an adult novel is 80,000-100,000 words.

Different genres do have their different expectations, of course. Romance tends to be shorter; epic fantasy tends to be longer (but not as long as you’d think, for a debut novelist!). But, really, there’s not a lot in it.

Young adult novels tend to be quite a lot shorter, but have a greater range: anything between 45,000 and 80,000 words is probably fine.

Children’s books are of course shorter still.

For more detail, check out the excellent articles at http://www.guidetoliteraryagents.com/blog/Word+Count+For+Novels+And+Childrens+Books+The+Definitive+Post.aspx

http://theswivet.blogspot.com/2008/03/on-word-counts-and-novel-length.html

http://literaticat.blogspot.co.nz/2011/05/wordcount-dracula.html

Also, below you can see some estimates of word count from various books (I think I used this tool for some of these; others I worked out myself by counting the number of words on one page and extrapolating).

What about shorter fiction? Writer’s Edge have some word counts for these. According to this, a novella should be at least 15,000 words and a short story should be less than 6,000.

Random list of estimated word counts:

Urban fantasy:

  • Jim Butcher: Stormfront: 240 w/p; 322pp; 27 ch; c 72000 wds
  • Rachel Caine: Cape Storm: 295/p; 303pp; 12 ch; c87000 wds

Fantasy:

  • Patrick Rothfuss: Name of the Wind: say 450/p; 614pp; 92 ch; c 276,300 wds
  • Robert Jordan: Eye of the World: 445/p; 782pp; 53 ch; c 345,000 wds
  • Raymond Feist: Magician: 485/p; 687pp; 34 ch; c 328,000 wds
  • Terry Goodkind: Sword of Truth 1: 400/p; 774pp; 49 ch; c 309,000 wds
  • Terry Brooks: Shannara: 154k; 158k; 164.5k
  • Traci Cavanagh: Black Magician trilogy: 119k; 148k
  • Ian Irvine, book 1 of Mirror Quartet: 193k
  • YA:
  • Garth Nix: Abhorsen trilogy: 52.7k; 133.8k; 99.2k
  • Liam Hearn: Tales of the Otori: 86.8k; 103.8k; 90.9k
  • John Marsden: Tomorrow when the war began …: all 78k

Children:

  • J.K.Rowling: Harry Potter: 77k; 85k; 107k; 191k; 257k; 169.5k??
  • Philip Pullman: Northern Lights: 116.5k; Subtle Knife: 98.6k
  • Susan Cooper: The Dark is Rising: 82k; 40k; 56k; 75k; 86k
  • Horrible Histories: 18.5k; 17.8k; 19.8k …
  • Animorphs: 23.5k; 26.6k; 30k; 28k
  • Lemony Snicket: 33.7k; 24k; 43.7k; 40k; 48.7k
  • V.M. Jones: Karazan series: 66k; 61.7k; 67.4k

Loglines

QueryTracker has some good advice on Writing Killer Loglines — questions to consider when writing a logline, and an example

Queries

The best way to learn how to write a good query is to see actual queries analyzed. Check out QueryShark to see not-so-good queries taken apart, and see what makes a good query in this section, where the Writer’s Digest editor Chuck Sambuchino regularly analyzes queries that succeeded in getting agents. The agent Caren Johnson also has an example of this. There’s also an agent-written article in Writer’s Digest that does a quick comparison of a query letter that got the nod and one that didn’t.

Query Tracker ran a couple of contests in 2009 that provide a lot of examples of good (agent-judged) pitches. Creating a pitch is not just useful for itself — it also really helps you come to grips with the essence of your story. So, don’t wait till you’ve finished your book — work out the 1-2 sentences that encapsulate your idea right at the beginning, before you put pen to paper.

Here are the top 11 elevator pitches, judged by Molly Glick

And here are the top 11 one-line pitches, judged by Brendan Deenan

and the top 50 semi-finalists

Synopsis

This is a good one for those of us who know the basics of how to write a synopsis but want to write better ones: How to Avoid the Top Ten Mistakes in Writing Synopses author’s site)

What I really liked about this query tracker post on writing a synopsis was that I thought there was some really good revision advice in there too — namely, the idea of writing a 2-3 sentence summary of each chapter (which process immediately reveals if the chapter isn’t actually doing anything!)

Patrice Michelle offers an outline and example of a romance novel synopsis.

Writers Digest give some formatting help.

The legal stuff

Writer’s Digest has a quick rundown of important points you should watch out for in a contract.

More resources

Tons of links to resources at Adventures in YA & Children’s Publishing

Margo Berendsen also has many links to resources

Add new comment

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
By submitting this form, you accept the Mollom privacy policy.