I’m taking the easy way out this morning. I could give you a whole thoughtful post about character motive or the power of the prepositional phrase, but no. Instead, I am mining my bloggity-blog notebook for five brief tips that will, when properly meditated on, make you a better writer faster.
Because that’s what we want in this century, isn’t it? Stardom without the struggle, success without the loneliness. Hemingway, in short, without the hole in the head. We want to be great, but let’s face it, we’d rather tweet about writing than we would write. We’d rather dress up a substandard book in a beautiful cover, market it in five thousand places, and sit back on our accolades than write a solid fucking novel and edit it to make it the solidest it can possibly be.
What’s that, Emily?, you say. What the fuck? I’ve been writing since I could hold a pencil. I want to do this shit up right. I’m already self published, and my ego is fragile and flowerlike enough without you heckling.
My answer: I’m not heckling. Not exactly. Think of me as your middle school lacrosse coach–you know, that creepy guy who chainsmoked in his car and always wore a protective cup to practice. When you finally got up the nerve to ask him why his privates were so attired, he leaned forward and whispered, in breath that smelled like stale coffee and Kool 100s– “because life, little Timmy, always goes for the balls.”
It does, little Timmy. Oh, it does. Here are some tips, however, to keep your story’s backup singers in tune and off of prescription medication. Note–these are not true one hundred percent of the time. Nothing is true one hundred percent of the time. And that’s why we’re starting off with tip one:
1) Don’t Reach. Note: I don’t mean don’t search. But if it takes you longer than thirty seconds to find a word or a phrase that fits, if it takes you five minutes to cook up that excellent ‘zinger’ simile, for the love of the gods, remove it. Your readers can sense when you’re grasping at straws, and they will hate you for it. The exception here, of course, is when you’re searching and that light finally goes on–“ohhh, uxorious! That’s what I meant!” But, if it never goes on, stick with the first thing you came up with. I prefer my prose grey to purple any day.
2) Eliminate excess adverbs and adjectives. You’re pissed right now because I included adjectives in with that writing societal bad boy, adverbs. You like your men tall, dark, and handsome, your citadels white, shining, and pure, and your glasses of wine blood-red, non-reflective, and aged since 1992. Here’s the trick, though–both adjectives and adverbs, while they have their place, are non-essential parts of speech. You could tell a story, if you really wanted to, without a single adjective or adverb. So your question, as you use these parts of speech, should be–do I need this in here? Your glass of wine can just be blood-red. Honestly, it can probably just be red. Or, you can describe while detailing and just say it’s a glass of claret or cabernet sauvignon. A strong verb or noun is worth a thousand adjectives and adverbs.
3) Spare me the word ‘was’. You know what you’re not using if you’re using ‘was’? A host of other dynamic verbs that could do the job twice as well. For instance, ‘the city was on the hill’ could be ‘the city stood on the hill’, ‘the city slept curled on the hill’, or even, if you like explosions, ‘the city exploded upward from the hill’. We like these verbs because they are descriptive. I imagine a city that explodes upward is a very dynamic place, a busy place. A city that sleeps is not. I didn’t even have to touch an adjective to get that across.
This said, you have to use ‘was’ sometimes. If you’re uncertain whether or not you should, refer to rule number one. Not every verb is a winner.
4) Vary your sentence structure and length. If your sentences are all roughly the same length, you will put people to sleep. You want short sentences, long sentences, pedigree sentences, mongrel sentences. You want to vary sentence structure and length according to the mood of the scene–an action scene, terse and fast, should probably feature a lot of short sentences, pared down description, charged verbs. A leisurely scene is the place for adjectives and all those commas you’ve been saving up in the Comma Bank. If you need help with this, I honestly suggest you make yourself some musical playlists for writing–nothing helps implant the mood in you quite like scene appropriate music.
5) Learn to words better. You know how you do that? You read, dammit. You read a lot. You take down notes when you see a word you don’t know. You pause at a passage you like and figure out why you liked it. You see how other writers, writers you admire, use the English language. Do they employ the Oxford comma? Where do they use colons, semicolons? Do you like the way they break up their chapters, agree that the word palimpsest (hello, Mr. Grossman) is totally necessary in this scene?
Speaking of palimpsest (which stuck out like a sore linguistic thumb in The Magician’s Land, but that’s a whole separate story), your vocabulary better be the shit if you plan on writing. Not so you can awe your reader with ten dollar words, no. I honestly think Lev Grossman did NOT need the word palimpsest in his novel, and the use of it, though it is one of my favorite words, took me too far out of the story. After inflation, a ten dollar word doesn’t impress me much anyway. You need to learn and grow comfortable with every single word you possibly can so that, when the situation comes up, you know just the right word for it. Infuriated, livid, and apoplectic, for instance, don’t all just mean ‘mad’, in spite of what I’ve seen around the internets. A synonym isn’t merely a word that means ‘the same thing’ as another word, to be used interchangeably when your grubby fingers graze the thesaurus. Infuriated, a word with Latinate roots, has a vaguely medical/legal sound because of it. It’s not an Anglo Saxon ‘feeling’ word, like mad or pissed. Livid has a touch of the purple prose about it. A king or a duke might get livid. And apoplectic–well. Apoplectic with rage sounds a lot more serious than livid or infuriated to me. Hell, the word even has ‘pop’ in it.
Again, however, I refer you to rule one. Sometimes, a character is just angry. Sometimes, a city simply was on the hill. Sometimes–most of the time, if I had my way–a character just says something.
This balance, between infuriated and pissed, apopleptic and mad, is the place where you have learned how to words. It’s not writing, not exactly. It’s more of a sixth sense. All good writers possess it. And if you want to have it as well–though I’m not sure it’s something that can be learned–you need to follow my bonus tip, tip numer six.
6) Read, damn you. I mentioned this already? Oh, did I? My apologies.
Read, damn you. Read a book twice–once for enjoyment, as a reader, and once critically, as a writer. And don’t read shit, please. If you read shit, you’ll write shit. Read some of the masters. Read outside your genre. Read Hemingway and Fitzgerald, Henry James and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Read copious amounts of writers who have remained readable for a hundred years or more. Read Ursula K. LeGuin and JRR Tolkien. Read them because they knew what they fuck they were doing. Read the ones you enjoy and leave the ones you don’t. But please, don’t just read pulp fantasy, even if it’s all you write. If you only read pulp fantasy, your writing will only ever be pulp fantasy.
Are there some great pulp fantasy writers out there? Hell yes. But if you eat nothing but carrots you’ll die, no matter how good for you they are, and the same goes with what you read. You need some carrots in your diet, yes, but you also need peas, quinoa, and beer. (Shhh.Yes, you need beer.)
So there you have it. My list, restated for those with short memories:
1) Don’t reach.
2) Avoid excess adjectives/adverbs
3) Spare me ‘was’.
4) Vary sentence structure/length
5) Learn to words better
Hope it helps. Now go out there and write something worth reading.