Writing Ain’t Easy Part Two–A top ten list of what NOT to do
Here’s a part two to yesterday’s post. The question posed: what’s the best writing advice I’ve ever received?
When I first started, I had no idea that creative writing was more complicated than just knowing how to write a sentence and where to put a comma. I thought I’d review a little bit of grammar and things would be fine. People who critiqued my work said otherwise. It seemed, a lot of things were missing, like sensory details. But that’s another post another day.
After several months of going through writing exercises and getting feedback, I started to realize that sometimes it’s just as important to consider the things that need to be left out of a story. So, here’s my top ten list of things I try to take out of my work, which also includes most of the best advice I’ve been given.
1. Adverbs. There’s controversy over this one. Some say leave them in; others cringe when they see them. I’ve never found an instance where I couldn’t write around the adverb to a newer and better phrase. Come on, all you pro-adverb people, let’s face it–a lot of times adverbs rob the reader of a chance for awesome description and cause a break in point of view. If you’re writing from the perspective of one character and say that another pats them on the shoulder encouragingly, you’re making an assumption you can’t really “know.” That’s why it’s better to have the pat on the shoulder and give some physical evidence or dialogue that shows the pat is encouraging. The adverb is just lazy writing. http://www.writersdigest.com/editor-blogs/guide-to-literary-agents/subverting-adverbs-and-cliches
2. Filter words. I’m the world’s worst at putting these in my rough draft. The idea here is to jump straight to the action instead of separating the reader from it. It happens when you use words like felt, wondered, assumed, decided, saw, etc. For example: She saw the woman carrying the child across the crowded parking lot. Just say the woman carried the child across the parking lot. It’s more direct. Here’s a helpful site that explains this well: http://writeitsideways.com/are-these-filter-words-weakening-your-fiction/ (And here’s a freebie from the same blogger–a great list of sites: http://writeitsideways.com/23-websites-that-make-your-writing-stronger/)
3. Flowery description. Wait! Take description OUT? Here’s a well-intentioned line from one of my stories that I was really proud of. I thought it was a quick way to capture my setting and move on. I put the story in two different contests, though, and EVERY judge said lose it. “Just a few yards from the edge of river, an unlikely subdivision stood, framed by soon-to-be planted tobacco fields and vibrant green buds of sugar maples.” They made comments like “It distracts from the action,” and “It pulled me out of the story.” The problem? Too many descriptors in the same sentence. Looking back now, I cringe every time I read it. What was I thinking?
4. Explanation of a character’s actions. One of my worst habits was to have a character do some kind of weird, unexpected action, and then add several sentences of mental processing to justify it. Or, I’d throw in some dialogue and explain it. This is just another example of lazy writing. I didn’t take the time to build a character with traits that might make the action seem logical, so I had to give a rationale.
We often do this more subtly, too. We say, “He nodded his head.” Well, what else would he nod? So, no need to say his head.
5. Overuse of common emotional actions. A character can only laugh, sigh, cry, look into someone’s eyes, etc. before it becomes grating. My go-to on this one is a book: The Emotion Thesaurus by Becca Puglusi and Angela Ackerman. It’s a list of every possible emotion and the physical actions and internal reactions that go along with it.
6. Vague and “believe me” words. One of the best pieces of advice I’ve been given is to commit to an action. One can’t be slightly pregnant, almost feverish, or a little bit exhausted. Do I pretty much cut them out of my writing, or just straight-up cut them out? Simpler to say I cut them, but also, it makes it clearer that cutting them is the direct action I took. It’s not vague or leaving anything to interpretation.
Like the vague words, a lot of “believe me” words end up being adverbs. Actually, honestly, surely, to tell you the truth… If you’re having to appeal to your readers to believe you, then you aren’t building fleshed-out, convincing characters and setting.
7. Avoid Mary Sue. A Mary Sue is a character that’s too perfect. One good rule of thumb I learned from critiquers is to give villains a few good traits and give your protagonist a few imperfections. It gives them more depth and helps to make them believable charact
8. Was, But, That, and Just.
Just trust me. You can cut these words and still get the same point across. Instead of “he was walking” say “he walked.” Instead of “she needed milk, but the store didn’t have any,” describe the empty shelves and the bustling store.
9. Don’t name drop. One, some companies do not look kindly when a writer or filmmaker uses their product. People even get sued over this sometimes. Two, it can be kind of fun to invent a product or brand. Maybe let your best friend be CEO of the company, and your children can be the top sellers. Why just borrow something real when you can be creative and come up with something on your own?
10. Don’t use weird names. For those who followed my NaNoWriMo debacle in 2012, you’ll probably breathe a sigh of relief that Kakydol is no more 🙂 Or Marrah, Rymon, and whatever those other odd names I chose. One weird name might be clever. Using several takes attention away from the story.
So, there you have it. Good luck with your writing!