Tip #1 – Store Your Notes
Usually when I see great writing tips, I have a file set up in Word called – what else? – “Writing Tips.” I copy and paste the advice into my file to refer to when needed. Any handwritten notes I’ve made as reminders also get posted there.
Tip #2 – Be Prepared to Write
Keep writing materials handy no matter where you go. That one item you forgot to write down, and then forgot completely, could have been the one fragment that made your story memorable.
A true writer makes notes everywhere they go. If we’re without a laptop, as I am, we carry note pads and pens. JK Rowling used paper table napkins because she used to sit in her favorite cafe lamenting on her jobless plight – till a shift happened in her mind and she started penning the notes for her first novel.
Tip #3 – Beginnings
Avoid using empty words to start a story. Some empty words are:
There – refers to a place
They – refers to people
That – refers to a thing
It – refers to almost anything
Without first knowing the content your story, we have no idea to what each refers. For example, one person may write:
There were four of them. Without yet knowing the story, ask yourself: Where were they? Who were they? A better way to bring the action forward would be to say, Four of them appeared. Or get directly into the meat of your story and say, Four men dressed in black mysteriously appeared out of nowhere. You can write much more succinctly if you will use descriptive words, and not empty ones to start a story or sentence.
The Charles Dickens line: It was the best of times. It was the worst of times. I see no way to improve on that – or emulate it.
Also: It was a dark and stormy night, coined by the Victorian writer, Edward Bulwer-Lytton in his 1830 novel Paul Clifford. Surely, you wouldn’t write: A dark and stormy night had overtaken us. Or would you?
Tip #4 – The First Word of a Story
The first word of the first sentence of the first paragraph under the story title must grab attention. The first sentence must sustain the attention, and on through the first paragraph. If the first word or sentence is boring, or says nothing in particular, the readers’ expectations of a good story are killed.
What if you wrote: It was a quiet town with quiet people. Does that give you any idea at all as to what the story might be about?
You can use the word “the” to begin anywhere, but what follows “the” then becomes the attention grabber.
Here’s an example of starting with “the” from my adventure novel, The Tropics: The jagged scar on Pablo’s belly wriggled like a snake when he ran.
Here’s the attention grabber from my Egyptian fantasy, The Ka: “Witch!” Randy Osborne said as he strode around the room wearing a contemptible smirk.
And from my thriller, River Bones: Blood-red letters filled the top of the monitor screen: Serial Killer Victim Identified.
Then from my latest thriller, Down to the Needle: “The perp torched himself…”
Start your stories with words and action that pull the reader in.
Tip #5 – Use of the Passive Voice
Passive voice should be used with serious consideration as to how it affects your story.
A bad example: The house was cleaned by someone else. Here, the object of the action is the subject of the sentence.
A good example: Someone else cleaned the house. “Someone else” did the action. They should be the subject of the sentence. Ask yourself who or what is doing that action. They are the subject of the sentence, not the action.
Passive voice can best be used, and sparingly, when writing in first person. Example: I was hit by the car.
Tip #6 – A Rejection for a Comma
My publishing house editor returned my manuscript again after I made most of the changes suggested in the first edit. The editor referred me to the Chicago Manual of Style and told me to get it right.
What’s wrong with this sentence? He mumbled as if confused, tried the knob, grunted and tried again.
The Chicago Manual of style says (Page 173 of the 14th Edition):
5.57 – In a series consisting of three or more elements, the elements are separated by commas. When a conjunction joins the last two elements in a series, a comma is used before the conjunction.
Therefore the corrected sentence is: He mumbled as if confused, tried the knob, grunted, and tried again.
Did you spot the correction? Can you sense the difference as you read it?
In order to avoid rejections, the grammar in your story must conform to the rules if you know a certain publisher adheres to the Chicago Manual of Style.
Tip #7 – Avoid Splitting Infinitives
Be conscious of any form of “to be.” A great example of a split infinitive is “To boldly go where no man…” Everyone knows that line. It just doesn’t sound right to use: “To go boldly where no man…”
Look at these two:
“To be, or not to be.”
“To be, or to not be.”
Though split infinitives are a matter of style, incorrect usage at the wrong time can ruin a good story.
Tip #8 – Edit and Revise
We MUST edit and revise as many times as necessary to get it right. Otherwise, what could we expect but another rejection? Knowing if a story is right comes with experience of editing our own work as if it were someone else’s.
Once writers think their stories are finished and polished, even though they may have had a great edit, they refuse to go through another rewrite. Then, I ask, what’s the sense of having the piece edited? I edited my entire “Ka” novel manuscript – 885 manuscript pages (410 book pages) – a MINIMUM of 30 times over four years and stopped counting after that. Point is, the story had to be right before anyone other than my personal editors saw it. All of that happened before the publisher’s editor saw it. Then there were two more edits following that person’s sage advice.
Most of us writers are not English majors or PhD’s. No matter how good we believe our writing to be, editing is the only means to perfecting our craft.