Quick hits and tips


Sorry I’m running a little late today, real life and Facebook got in the way. So rather than trying to be a coherent post, here are some quick hits from me and from my critique panel last weekend at Atomacon with Alexandra Christian, Misty and Emily. 

1) Write descriptions for all five senses. This is a constant problem for me, as I tend to write in a white box in my first drafts. So if you’re a plot and dialogue guy in the first draft, be sure that one thing you do in the later drafts is to plug in descriptions using all the senses. Smell is one of the most important things to add to scenes to really flesh them out, and a lot of us (especially me) tend to scrimp on it. 

2) You can break any rule you like, once you’ve proven an understanding of the rules and have built up some equity with your audience. Once you’ve really developed your descriptive skill, you can use the occasional adverb or bit of passive voice. But don’t try to be the exception that proves the rule when you’re just starting out in your career. Write the way editors want to see things, then once you’ve developed a following you can stand things on their heads a little bit. 

3) Be Elmore Leonard. By that I mean – “Figure out the parts people skip when they’re reading, and don’t write those parts.” Don’t outsmart yourself, don’t over-flower it. Tell the tale, speak the speech, I pray thee, as I pronounced it to you, etc. etc. In other words, keep it simple. Plot, Character, Conflict – get those right and you’ll have a good story. 

4) Voice is worth more than anything, and the only way to find yours is to write. A lot. There’s a concept floating around that it takes 10,000 hours of concerted practice to get good at something. There’s another one that says that you have a million crappy words in you and you must get them out of the way before you start writing good ones. I wrote about half a million words on poker before I ever started writing fiction, and that took care of a bunch of my crappy words, but every once in a while I still find myself writing junk. Go ahead and write the junk, just don’t send it out. 

5) NaNoWriMo is great for people writing their first novel. It’s awesome to finally finish something huge, like a book. But don’t think your book is done once NaNo is over. There’s a reason people call December National Terrible Novel Submission Month. Please don’t send out your NaNo novel until you’ve put it away for a while, let it percolate, and then come back and edited the hell out of it. 

That’s a few quick hits from me for this week. Give me your favorite quick tip in the comments and share with the rest of the class. 


12 comments to Quick hits and tips

  • Ken

    Don’t sweat the first draft. This is really where you get to play with stuff so, go on and play. Take that turn at Albuquerque if the road seems interesting.

    Play 🙂

  • Great tips, John. I am definitely guilty of writing in a white box. Or going to the other extreme because I suddenly remember I’m supposed to have some setting and over-describing everything (although I think even then I tend to forget smell).

    Now I’ll go back to working on those million crappy words. 🙂

  • Razziecat

    Those are great, John. I do try to get at least three of the five senses into a scene, weaving them into the action, the dialog or a bit of description so it’s not just a laundry list of what somebody saw, heard, felt, smelled and tasted 😀 Remember when someone (I think it was David, but I’m not sure) wrote about battle scenes, and focusing on just a few things here and there to bring the scene to life? I try to do that with sight, smell, etc.

    Some of my favorite tips are: “It’s perfectly okay to write garbage, as long as you edit brilliantly.” (C.J. Cherryh)

    “Strip TV and movie cliches from your writer’s vocabulary.” (Carol Berg)
    “Read, read, read. And not just the sort of thing you want to write. You need a deep well to draw from.” (Lynn Flewelling)

    And my all-time favorite, although I don’t know who said it. “Bang it out now. Tart it up later.” 😉

  • Hepseba ALHH

    Based on the novel I’m currently reading: *Please* don’t *actually* believe that the word ‘said’ is invisible. It’s not. It’s especially not when a book is being read aloud. (Hint: check for polish by reading your work out loud.) Instead of wasting hundreds of words using ‘said’ over and over again, take the time to learn about *other* ways of attributing dialog. Adding in some facial expressions or some aside interactions with the outside world not only cut down on the over-use of said, they make dialog more interesting by bringing in some of that lovely description John is talking about. (Though of course remember: balance in everything. Please don’t delete all of your ‘said’s.) The book I’m reading currently (aloud to my husband) is really quite excellent, but it’s way low on description and the number of ‘said’s is *constantly* distracting.

  • Excision for concision. Or, most of those extra words that you have there you probably do not really need. 😉

  • Nathan Elberg

    Look at each event in your story, and imagine your story without it. Does it add or subtract from the whole? Leave or delete accordingly.

  • Hmmm.
    1. Remember that your POV character has his/her own voice and don’t deviate from it without *very* good reason.
    2. If a character is stabbed with an ornate knife that the stabber-character takes from the desk, it must be part of the scene first. Early prop placement/prop positioning is important. (This one from an old MWA article on how to commit murder believably.)

  • Johnathan Knight

    I could spend all day writing tips I’ve heard that I happen to love, but since I don’t have all day, here are a few:

    1. Along the journey, does the MC accomplish an objective? Answer with “yes, but…” or “no, and…” For instance, did the MC make it to the space station? Yes, but everyone on the station is dead. Or, no, and space pirates are after him or her now. Yes/but, no/and, it keeps things interesting.

    2. If one of your characters is a type (like Han Solo is a charming rogue) then introduce the character acting in type. So first impressions establish the character early. This is something that was mentioned at Atomacon, and as advice goes, it’s stuck with me thus far.

    3. When looking for critique, consider that readers tend to ask three questions. 1. “Huh?” Does the reader understand? 2. “So what?” Does the reader care? 3. “Oh yeah?” Does the reader agree that things work generally the way you’ve described them as working? And remember, (I’m paraphrasing Gaimen here) readers are great for knowing when something isn’t working, but they’re almost always wrong in regards to how to fix it.

    4. Minimize filtering. Instead of “He saw a girl walk into the room,” try “A girl walked into the room.” It’s clear that “he” saw it if he’s the POV character.

    5. The best way to respond to a critique is “thank you.” It’s not something to argue about. Different readers have different tastes. It’s important to get wide array of opinions before committing to changes. Or perhaps consider writing for one person in particular. If one person loves what you’re writing, chances are good that somewhere, other folks will too.

    6. An antagonist is often more compelling than a villain.

    7. If you wear glasses, like me, take them off when you’re writing. Put them back on when you’re editing.

    8. Learning about story structure is great, but at its heart, it’s a character with a goal, obstacles, and a resolution.

    9. Understand character sympathy. Why do readers like and dislike characters?

    10. Be careful that the things your character does make sense. Would the character do it, or is it in the book to simply service the plot? Ideally, both are true.

    11. Obviously most important: finish the book. Get to the end.

    12. And finally, the greatest movie ever made was Young Guns II. You really can’t go wrong if you spend endless hours analyzing it.

  • mudepoz

    Watch people. Listen to people. Watch Animals. Listen to them. Give them a snack. That’s all I got.

  • Cindy

    Love number 9 Johnathan. When I’m reading a book and dislike the main character, I analyze why before I quit reading.

  • Late getting to this, but I would add “Don’t be afraid to make big changes in the rewrite.” That’s one I’m currently learning.

  • Write the story you care about, the story you love and have to tell. Writing for the market is like trying to throw darts at a butterfly.