On Becoming a Professional Amateur # 16: Some Writing Safety Tips

I’d like to offer a smattering of “safety tips” that have come out of the mentoring and workshops I’ve done over the years. Some of these I’ve come by as the result of struggling with my own craft and some through struggles with other writer’s particular issues. As with all things, interpret them in a way that’s useful to you at this moment in your writing life.

Observe the Golden Rule: Whatsoever you would that a writer should do unto you, do ye even so unto your reader. Or put more simply, Write as you would read. 

Cut off the tags: Not every line of dialogue requires a tag. In fact, if you’re trying to write a tight, emotional scene, or a scene you want to move quickly, use as few as possible.

The right stuff: Amateur writers often ruin scenes by filling them with irrelevant detail—describing the previously revealed physical characteristics of a character, say, in exacting detail. Relevant details tell us something about what the characters are doing or who they are. Describing a character’s thick, luxuriant black beard allows us to picture him only in the broadest sense. We know nothing about his state of mind. But telling us he’s tugging at that beard repeatedly as he speaks with another character and we cannot only picture him, we know he’s fidgety or anxious or ill-at-ease … which leads us to wonder why.

Move your lips: I read out loud, sometimes reading only the dialogue as if I were acting it out. This helps me fine tune the emotional dynamics of scenes and catch weirdness in the prose.

Channel Stephen Spielberg: Sometimes as I read I try to imagine I’m shooting a movie. Does my action sequence track right? How does it look through the camera eye? I visualize scenes as if they’re up on a movie screen and pay close attention to locations and positions. Also it’s important to think about what the characters are seeing, hearing, smelling and so on, as these things can be easily missed.

Sketch location layouts: I heartily recommend mapping out locations even if it’s just a pencil sketch on a restaurant napkin. When Michael Reaves and I were working on MR. TWILIGHT (Del Rey) I made a sketch of Colin “Twilight’s” workshop because so many key action sequences took place there. I wanted every visit the reader made to more clearly lock the furnishings and layout of the room into their minds as if it were a real place.

Metaphorically speaking: When it comes to painting word-images, murkiness is your worst enemy. You want the image to be as vivid and sharp as possible. So when constructing a metaphor or simile make sure you eliminate any verbiage or complexity that will muddy the image. A good metaphor is one you can exploit for a variety of strong related images. One caveat—you don’t have to use everything you find. If you choose a metaphorical image that yields much fruit it can be tempting to use every piece in the bowl.

Tough love: Find a trusted reader who will be merciless with you. My husband serves that purpose for my work, although I network with other writers who read my manuscripts before I send them off. And of course, my editor at Del Rey is the where the buck stops for content and story arc, etc. The publisher has a crack team of proofreaders and continuity people who also try to keep track of things that fall off the radar.

Unfortunately, not all readers are created equal. Friends may not necessarily tell you when you’ve misfired. Or they may realize something’s off but not be able to articulate what it is. Or they may really not read the genre you write or understand its sensibilities. I like to have at least one “non-genre” reader to help me spot characterization issues, et al, but I think the ideal first reader is one who “gets” what you write.

I suggest that writers network with other writers and help each other out. Yeah, there are safety tips about writer’s groups that would fill a small encyclopedia, but that’s a different topic.

Edit carefully: Watch out for wandering body parts. Use “gaze” instead of eyes when the verbs are this active. A character can lock eyes with someone or lock gazes with them and the reader will just go with it, but when the verbs suggest broader action it can create unintentional humor. I’d advise you avoid having people “cast” or “throw” their eyes (or other body parts) to the ground or let them wander around the room. If your characters are Zombies then you can safely ignore this advice, but if they aren’t, their body parts should perhaps remain attached.

Do away with extra “baggage” words such as “over” “down” “back” etc. These are minor edits that can really clean up your prose. Your character can just rush to the car—he doesn’t need to rush over to it.

Mantra: I have a three-word mantra that I use when I edit: Simplify, clarify, vivify.

  • By simple, I don’t mean simplistic. Simple prose can be plenty elegant. Conversely, you don’t necessarily add elegance by adding complexity. And complexity does not equal “more words arranged in complicated ways”.
  • Usually if you simplify it will help achieve clarity, but not always. The writer also has to have a clear grasp of what she wants to say before she can say it clearly. Action and emotion are two areas where clarity is most dear. I see so many manuscripts undermined because the reader couldn’t visualize what was happening or couldn’t relate to a character’s emotional responses (or lack thereof). As a result, the action was chaotic; the emotion was muddy.
  • By vivify I mean use the strongest verbs possible in creating powerful images that will stick with the reader, while using a lighter hand with adjectives and adverbs.

I’m not saying it’s never good to embellish. Some of my favorite passages in the English language are quite artful and they deal with intangibles (the hauntedness of Hill House in Shirley Jackson’s powerful novel or the sense of anticipation that Ray Bradbury causes to inhabit the month of October). What I’m saying is that I think it’s good for a writer to be able to turn out solid, simple prose as a foundation on which to create unique style.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this series of posts. Thanks for visiting Book View Café. And happy reading!


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