by Shannon Donnelly
“In many cases when a reader puts a story aside because it ‘got boring,’ the boredom arose because the writer grew enchanted with his powers of description and lost sight of his priority, which is to keep the ball rolling.” – Stephen King, On Writing
There are three huge flashing signs that are the marks of an inexperienced writer. Inconsistent and overuse of punctuation is one of them, overuse of adverbs is another, but the one that really makes a novice stand out as still learning the craft are the “writerly words.”
These are the words thrown in to show off—to make the reader pause and stop and marvel at the writer’s clever turn of phrase. These are words put on the page without thought as to if you’re breaking viewpoint to put that word into that sentence. And, guess what, that stop means the reader’s been thrown out of the story—the writer’s sacrificed story and character for a word or a phrase. For being clever. How do you know if you’re doing this? And, more importantly, how do you get out of this habit?
1-Read your work aloud. If you’re embarrassed, send the family off to the movies, lock the bedroom door and sit with a glass of water and a print out and read. Mark the sentences you need to fix—don’t fix them now, just read. Aloud. To yourself. If you stumble over a word or a phrase, mark it. If you stumble over how to pronounce something, mark it. If you run out of breath due to a rambling sentence, mark it to be fixed. You’ll be amazed how much you catch with one reading.
2-Look at every word and ask: “Would this character know this word, and would he or she say or think this?” When you put a word into a character’s mouth or thoughts and that word doesn’t fit, you’ve just broken viewpoint. Another writer will know this—a reader will just feel the story or character is “off.” Now an artist might think a sky is “azure” but would a truck driver think that? Probably not. A woman might know another woman is wearing a designer dress, and might even know the designer if she’s also fashion conscious, but a rancher who lives in the middle of nowhere probably wouldn’t know one suit from another. It’s all about getting those pesky details right.
3-Get yourself a couple of trusted readers. I recommend having a couple of readers who are writers, and a couple who are just readers (writers read differently than readers, and you want input from each). Have them simply mark or tag anything that gives them trouble—again, you don’t need fixes, you just need them to mark places where they’ve been thrown out of the story (where they’ve become aware that they are reading, and not experiencing a story). Really, really look at every place any reader marks—and if you get two people marking the same spot, you’ve got fixes to make.
4-Read a lot of great writers. You will absorb style. You want to read the best stuff, because you want to write that, too. Take apart great writing—look at the punctuation, look at word choice, look at the balance. Look at the voice used. Don’t just read for pleasure, read to learn from the best. And I urge every writer to read widely—don’t settle for just one genre or one author.
5-Take out every clever phrase that just makes you want to preen with pride. This is otherwise known as “kill your darlings” because that’s how hard this advice is to follow. You will rebel at this advice—you will think, “But that is my voice and my style.” Trust me on this—you want your story and characters to be the stars. You want readers to fall in love with them—and look for you as an author because your stories and characters are so great. I’ve been here, too. I fall in love with something and I do not want to take it out, but every time I do, I end up with a stronger story. And better characters.
6-Copy the greats. Very important—this copying is to learn, and doesn’t mean you can steal someone else’s words. Do not put anyone else’s words into your fiction—that is plagiarism. But, to learn, go ahead and take a page or two from a favorite book, and take the writing apart by retyping it. This helps you take the writing apart—you start to see how things are constructed. Then delete or trash those words and that file—they aren’t yours, so don’t steal them. You are using them to learn your craft. Look at how the narrative and dialogue are put together, but then let your mind absorb it and turn it into your own style.
7-Listen to King’s advice—make it your priority to keep the ball rolling. Readers want great stories—which is why someone who isn’t a great writer can hit the best seller list. It’s about the story; it’s about the characters. Don’t make your focus the great description, or the clever phrase, or the cute word that seems so different it startles the reader. Keep the ball rolling—keep the story going.
Shannon Donnelly Bio
Shannon Donnelly’s writing has won numerous awards, including a RITA nomination for Best Regency, RWA’s Golden Heart, the Grand Prize in the “Minute Maid Sensational Romance Writer” contest, judged by Nora Roberts, and others. Her writing has repeatedly earned 4½ Star Top Pick reviews from Romantic Times magazine, as well as praise from Booklist and other reviewers, who note: “simply superb”…”wonderfully uplifting”….and “beautifully written.”
She is the author of the Urban Fantasy “Demons & Warder” series, featuring Burn Baby Burn and Riding in on a Burning Tire, as well as her Regency Historical romances, which have been in the stop selling Historical romances on Amazon.com. Her SF/Romance, Edge Walkers, is currently on sale for .99 at Amazon.com for the month of November.