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Sunday, June 15, 2014

Improving You Craft

I don't know about you, but I'm always on the lookout for articles and blogs that contain advice as to how I can refine my skills as a writer. I've been under contract from the beginning of 2012, but I still feel like an infant on shaky legs who needs the security of a baby stroller.

So what do I do as I wade through the many sites offering help? Because as you'll come to appreciate, there are a lot of them out there.
The first thing I'd say is, Don't get put off by the volume. The wealth of information they contain can be turned to your advantage.
Do what I do. Skim.
All of us are different, so the help we need - or even want - will vary from person to person.
However, there are some "Bread & Butter" points that must be heeded, especially when those tips are repeated again and again.

Here are some of the *** what I feel to be *** most often repeated slogans you'll see. Therefore, we need to take note of them.

1. Be active, not passive.
One of the most common manifestations of bad writing is overuse of the passive voice. The passive voice makes the object of an action into the subject of the sentence with verb forms like, "X had been attacked by Y." instead of simply putting, "Y attacked X."
Now, using the passive voice isn't always bad. Sometimes there's no other way you can make a clear statement. But wherever you can, follow the rule of activity.
Be honest, what do you feel more comfy reading?
"The blog had been written by Andrew while he was at home." OR, "Andrew wrote the blog while at home."

2. Use strong words.
What do I mean? Good writing is precise. Evocative and thought provoking. Finding the right verb or adjective can turn a coma inducing sentence into a one where the reader catches their breath, and remembers it for years. Look for words that are specific, and try not to repeat the same word over and over, unless you're trying to build a rhythm with it.
But be careful, especially when it comes to dialogue.
Bad writing can be filled with 'he commented." or "she responded." A well placed "he sputtered." or "she gasped." can work wonders, but most of the time, a simple he/she "said" will do. Sometimes, this might feel awkward, but changing things up unnecessarily can make it harder for your reader to get into the back & forth flow of a conversation or exchange.
Remember, when writing dialogue, you want your reader to hear the characters voices, not your own.

3. Cut the chaff.
(Something I had to work hard on when I started out.)
Good writing is simple, clear, and direct. You don't get points for saying in 50 words, what you could have said in 30. Good writing is about using the right words, not filling up the page. It might feel satisfying to pack a whole load of ideas into a single sentence, but the chances are it'll just make it harder to read.
I can relate to this, especially with my Guardian Series that contains many references to technical and scientific jargon. Originally, I tried to convey too much information in the hope it would make things clearer. It didn't. My attempts just brought things to a grinding halt. Thankfully, I have a great editor who isn't afraid to wield the literary knife. With her help I learned - and am still learning - if the phrase doesn't add anything valuable...cut it!

Personal note: For all you newly contracted writers out there...take heed.
WORK WITH YOUR EDITOR. They know what they're doing, so trust them. In my case, I've improved a great deal in regards to this personal area of weakness. But it's something I still have to watch carefully. When I've finished my 1st draft, I can still cut up to 3,000 to 4,000 words from a 100K manuscript. Pretty good, eh? I think so too, until my editor (Demon Barber) gets her hands on it, and trims off a further 'X' amount. (Bah humbug!)

4. Show don't tell.
Instead of just sitting your readers down for a long exposition regarding a character's background or a plot point's significance, try to let the reader discover the same ideas through words, feelings and actions. Now, I understand there are times when things will be a little dry. Imitating a press release, for example, captures the mood of what you see in newspapers. But, when it comes to your actual dialogue, applying the advice of this masterly piece of advice is a crucial factor in improving your craft.

5. Break the Rules.
Isn't this a contradiction? No. The best writers don't just follow the rules, they know when and how to break them. If you know being naughty will improve your piece, grow a spine and don't be afraid. Do some research, apply what you learn, and take the plunge. Just ensure your standards are clear elsewhere, so that readers understand what you've done, and appreciate it.

Personal note: I was brave enough to actually do this with the Cambion Journals series. Stay tuned to my blogs next week where I explain the process I adopted to create this series...especially in relation to POV application. It was a huge gamble, but, my homework paid off.
(Look out for the "Buy the Book Tour" starting June 16th where the process is made clear,).

6. Edit...edit...edit.
Don't believe your eyes. EDIT. Even when you've gone over your draft umpteen times. EDIT. Check your manuscript. Check it again. Then do it some more. Editing is one of the most essential parts of writing. Don't rush it. Don't cram it. Don't leave it to someone else. Keep doing it over and over until your brain hurts.
You'll be glad you did.
TIP: Some friends of mine use a Google reader to verbalize their manuscripts. Me? I drive my wife crazy by reading out loud the actual words I've written. (She goes nuts when I use silly accents. I don't do it to wind her up, I use them as a concentration aid.) And that's important. Read what's there...NOT what your brain automatically wants to fill in. I've caught so many mind/finger slips this way, that I've made it part of my process. (Despite the danger to my life)

Anyway. That's it. Nothing fancy, and certainly nothing that's new. This is sage advice. Bread and butter pointers that every writer needs to apply to ensure their craft does what it needs to do...
I hope you find something here you like.

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