Tip #1 – Store Your Notes
Usually when I see great writing tips, I have a file set up in Word called - what else? Writing Tips. You should have one too.
I copy and paste the advice into my file to refer to when needed. Included is the name of the author of the tidbit, in case I wish to quote them at some future time. Any handwritten notes I’ve made as reminders also get posted there.
Simply for clarification: When quoting another person’s writing or spoken word, up to only 100 words may be used and the originator of the piece must be given credit.
Tip #2 – Be Prepared to Write
Keep writing materials handy no matter where you go. That one stunning idea you forgot to write down but were sure you’d remember, and then forgot completely, could have been the one fragment that made your story memorable.
We writers should make notes everywhere we go. If without a laptop, we carry note pads and pens. JK Rowling used paper table napkins because she used to sit in her favorite cafe lamenting her jobless plight - till a shift happened in her mind and she started penning the notes for her first novel.
Ernest Hemingway wrote on table napkins when sitting in one of his two favorite bars in Cuba, El Floridita and La Bodequita del Medio.
Tip #3 - Beginnings
Avoid using empty words to start a story. Some empty words are:
There - refers to a place
They - refers to people
That - refers to a thing
It - refers to almost anything
Without first knowing the content of your story, we have no idea to what each refers. For example, one person may write:
There were four of them.
Without yet knowing the story, ask yourself: There? Where were they? Who were they? A better way to bring the action forward would be to say,
Four of them appeared.
Or get directly into the meat of your story and say.
Four men dressed in black mysteriously appeared out of nowhere.
You can write much more succinctly when using descriptive words, and not empty ones to start a story or sentence or paragraph.
The Charles Dickens line: It was the best of times. It was the worst of times. I see no way to improve on that – or emulate it.
Also: It was a dark and stormy night, coined by the Victorian writer, Edward Bulwer-Lytton in his 1830 novel Paul Clifford. Surely, you wouldn’t write: A dark and stormy night had overtaken us. Or would you?
Sentences beginning with It, especially beginning entire books, had their places in yesteryear’s prose. Such lackadaisical nondescript expressions are not acceptable in the descriptive writing demanded of these modern times.
Tip #4 – The First Word of a Story
The first word of the first sentence of the first paragraph under the story title must grab attention. The first sentence must sustain the attention, and on through the first paragraph. If the first word or sentence is boring, or says nothing in particular, the readers’ expectations of a good story are killed.
What effect does this sentence have on your expectations?
It was a quiet town with quiet people.
Does that give you any idea at all as to what the story might be about? As far as the reader knows from that line, nothing happens in that town. Boring.
You can use the word The to begin anywhere, but what follows must then become the attention grabber.
Here’s an example of starting with The from my adventure novel, Legacy of The Tropics:
The jagged scar on Pablo’s belly wriggled like a snake when he ran.
Here’s the attention grabber from my paranormal Egyptian suspense, The Ka:
“Witch!” Randy Osborne said as he strode around the room wearing a contemptible smirk.
And from my award-winning thriller, River Bones:
Blood-red letters filled the top of the monitor screen: Serial Killer Victim Identified.
Then from another of my next thrillers, Down to the Needle:
“The perp torched himself,” a fireman said, shouting to be heard over the clamor.
Whether narration or dialogue, start your stories with words and action that pull the reader into the scene.
Tip #5 - Use of the Passive Voice
Passive voice should be used with serious consideration as to how it affects your story.
A bad example: The house was cleaned by someone else. Here, the object of the action is incorrectly the subject of the sentence.
A good example: Someone else cleaned the house. Someone else did the action. That person should be the subject of the sentence. Ask yourself who or what is doing the action. They are the subject of the sentence. The action they are performing should not be the subject.
Passive voice can best be used, and sparingly, when writing in first person. Example: I was hit by the car.
Tip #6 – A Rejection for a Comma
My former publishing house editor returned my manuscript again after I made most of the changes suggested in the first edit. The editor referred me to the Chicago Manual of Style and told me to get it right.
Can you find what’s wrong with this sentence?
He mumbled as if confused, tried the knob, grunted and tried again.
The Chicago Manual of Style (Page 173 of my 14th Edition) says: 5.57 - In a series consisting of three or more elements, the elements are separated by commas. When a conjunction joins the last two elements in a series, a comma is used before the conjunction.
Therefore the corrected sentence is:
He mumbled as if confused, tried the knob, grunted, and tried again.
Did you spot the correction? Can you sense the difference as you read it?
In order to avoid rejections, the grammar in your story must conform to the rules, especially since knowing that publishers adhere to the Chicago Manual of Style.
Tip #7 – Avoid Splitting Infinitives
Be conscious of any form of to be. A great example of a split infinitive is: To boldly go where no man….
Everyone knows that line. It just doesn’t sound right to use: To go boldly where no man….
Look at these two:
“To be, or not to be.”
“To be, or to not be.”
Though split infinitives are a matter of style, incorrect usage at the wrong time can ruin a good story and make the writer seem like an amateur. Contradictory, incorrect usage at the right time can set your prose apart from all the rest. It can be done, but seldom. How many writers have produced lines of narration or dialogue that can compare to that line from Star Trek?
Tip #8 – Edit and Revise
We MUST edit and revise as many times as necessary to get it right. Otherwise, what could we expect but another rejection? Knowing if a story is right comes with experience of editing our own work as if it were someone else's prose.
Once writers think their stories are finished and polished, even though they may have had a great edit, they refuse to go through another rewrite. Then, I ask, what's the sense of having the piece edited? I edited major portions of my entire Ka novel manuscript - 885 manuscript pages (410 book pages) - a minimum of 30 times over four years and stopped counting after that.
Point is, the story had to be right before anyone other than my personal editors saw it. All of that happened before the publisher's editor saw it. Then there were two more edits following that person's sage advice.
Most of us writers are not English majors with PhD’s. No matter how good we believe our writing to be, editing is the only means to perfecting our craft.
Tip #9 - Reference Books
Get yourself a current copy of The Chicago Manual of Style: The Essential Guide for Writers, Editors and Publishers. I also recommend the Complete Stylist Handbook by Sheridan Baker and Writing with Clarity and Style by Robert A. Harris.
Mary Deal is an award-winning author of suspense/thrillers, a short story collection, writers' references, and self-help. She is a Pushcart Prize nominee, Artist and Photographer, and former newspaper columnist and magazine editor.
She has traveled most of her life and has a lifetime of many and diverse experiences, all of which remain in memory as fodder for her fiction. A native of California's Sacramento River Delta, where some of her stories are set, she has also lived in England, the Caribbean, and now resides in Honolulu, Hawaii. Having traveled a bit, she continues to paint and use her art and photography to create gorgeous products.
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