Monday, August 20, 2012

Don't forget the fundamentals of the Writing Craft

As an author I am often asked to "read" or "review" new manuscripts or books for newbies. It's an honor to do so, but sometimes I become concerned that the writer has been so caught up in their wonderful creation that they forget fundamental principles of writing.  That is easy to do and that's why we edit, edit, edit and edit some more. 

Getting the story down from beginning to end without editing is a pretty good plan. You don't get hung up editing the first couple of chapters and get discouraged that way. Getting to the end is quite an accomplishment, but that's when the real story begins to emerge - during the editing process! I know, edit is a four-letter-word, but it's a good thing, really. No one creates the perfect manuscript the first time around. And there are always really great story bones you can flesh out.

When the muse is whispering in our ear we're listening and typing (or writing) as fast as we can, because we don't want to miss a thing. We use words over and over again because we don't want to step outside of the story to find a better one, but not to worry - we can catch them during the edits. I counted twelve times I used "and then" on two pages. There are other, more powerful words that can be used to depict a sequence of events, but it worked to get the story on the page. I'll fix it during the edits.

I've always had difficulty with "passive voice." After over a dozen years of journalistic and fiction writing, as well as two novels, it sneaks in there and I have to yank it like a weed; making phrases more "active" and more interesting for the reader. Re-write all those "he was" and "she was" sentences. Replace those lovely adjectives (-ly) with action verbs. Make every word count, because readers don't want to waste their time - and authors don't want them skipping pages, or worse - closing the book before the end.

Another fundamental item that comes back to haunt me is point of view (POV) shifts. When you have more than one major character, which we often do, then we can easily shift POV from one to the other. I'm told the only time it is acceptable is during a romance novel. In my first novel I had three major characters so I alternated chapters, one from Regina's POV, the next from Annabelle's, etc. They each got equal time. It worked out much better for the reader and I was able to clearly develop the character's personality and conflict.

Some of us struggle to make dialog interesting, realistic, and telling. It's so easy to have one character tell another all the reasons why they are acting like a jerk, but that's no fun. Show the jerk through the words they choose, snippets of information (not data dumps) that reveal the why's slowly. Make the reader want more. 

Don't forget the phrase "show don't tell." That one used to puzzle me. We tell stories, but letting the reader "see" what is happening to the character, how they react, the location, the tense situation is much more gripping than just saying - "he killer her". (Think of the story as a movie or play. Do you see the action clearly? Do you feel it?)

That brings me to "senses." We have five at our disposal and when all are stimulated, not once in awhile, but often, then the story comes alive. Can you smell the salty ocean air? Can you feel the humidity dampen your skin? Whatever it is, make the reader see, feel, smell, taste, and hear every scene. They will love it and you'll enjoy it, too.

Our job as authors is to write a "great" story. The first or second draft may be "good" but they may not be great - YET. We have to mine the gold from the garbage (and we do all write garbage from time to time). We want to write a story readers won't want to put down.

Robert Frost once wrote, "If there are no tears in the writer, there are no tears in the reader."
Enjoy the journey, writers! It can be an absolute blast....

-BD Tharp


Jacqueline Seewald said...


This is such outstanding advice, not just for beginning writers either! I often become impatient with the process, but if I put a manuscript away and then edit it several months later, I usually discover errors and changes that need to be made. No one's perfect.
The self-editing process is a very important one.

BDTharp said...

You are so right! When I first started out I dreamed about writing it perfect the first time. That just isn't realistic.

Mary F. Schoenecker said...

These are all good tips for writers. I especially liked the phrase "mine the gold from the garbage". We all need to do that!Thanks for sharing, Bonnie.

Janet Bahl said...

Bonnie, Great Tips & Information. Hey, Everyone, this lady knows what she's talking about. I especially feel your comment about rather editing later then during your original writings. I've had a tremendous holdup with that issue both for my book and for short articles of various subjects. Thanks for re-confirming and telling me to write, write, write first...then edit (days, weeks, even months) later when your mind clears up and you can see the errors and changes that need to be made. Thanks so much for your wisdom, my Friend.

Karen Cioffi said...

Great tips and reminders. I like the Frost quote!

bdtharp said...

Thanks all for your comments. Nice to hear from you Janet. It's been crazy busy and I forgot to check back. My apologies.