Laura Drake discusses points relating to the difference between a good writer and a popular writer.
I do a lot of critiquing. As I get better at the craft, I’m starting to catch the nuances of good writing; things beyond the basics of POV, show don’t tell, etc. They’re subtler and harder to spot, but I believe they can be the difference between a ‘good writer’ and a popular author.
These are only a few
- Unnecessary thoughts. Something happens – your character has a thought about it – someone speaks – your character has another thought. It breaks up and slows the scene, and it doesn’t add enough to warrant the break. Example:
When he stepped out, he had no smile for her. He avoided meeting her gaze. Even though his clothing was freshly pressed and his shoulders were back, he looked drained, as if he’d just run the obstacle course.
The presentation must have gone badly.
Do you see how the thought is not only unneeded – but that it weakens the sentences above it? Trust your reader to get it – they’ll appreciate it more. Write only thoughts that the reader couldn’t guess. That can be powerful – showing that the character is keeping something from the others in the scene.
- Anchor us in deep POV. Adam is the POV character below.
He was going to make an example of this one. Maybe word would get around.
He tipped his chin at Joyce, the cashier; his signal to let the kid go.
Halfway out the door, Adam grabbed him.
“Hey, lemme go!” The punk twisted to see who had the collar of his shirt.
Do you see how the way this is worded blurs and distances us from the POV character?
Better would be:
Halfway out the door, he grabbed the little thief.
Why? Because if I’m firmly in Adam’s POV, I shouldn’t have to use his proper name. The way it’s originally written, it’s distant; almost from a narrator’s POV.
Suzie’s face flushed red, realizing she’d just put her mother in the same category as the wino.
Again, we’re in Suzie’s POV. We don’t need her name. This is also a minor POV violation – Suzie can feel the blood in her face, but she can’t see that her face is red.
- Unneeded dialog tags. I tend to notice these more, because dialog tags is one of my pet
peeves. I make the case that the only time you need a tag is when the reader wouldn’t know whom is speaking. And when you need one, there are a lot better ways to use it, than, ‘he said’. I Besides, they’re distancing.
“I’ll walk you back to your ship,” she said, falling into step beside him.
“I’ll walk you back to your ship,” she fell into step beside him.
This is a small nuance, but can you see how the second is more natural and ‘flows’ better?
A yowl from the cabin next door punctuated his statement.
“What was that?”
she asked. It sounded like someone had pinched a baby.
Since there are only a man and a woman in this scene, and we know it’s not him from the line before, the reader will deduce that she asked this. Which means you don’t need the tag.
Margie Lawson is the Queen at this. You can read a blog she wrote about it, HERE.
These are small nuances, but important ones. The reader won’t think, “I don’t need that tag.” But these are the things that show an agent/editor etc. that you’re good.
Telling, then showing:
I see this a lot. Example:
It was insane to expect him to restrain himself. “That’s like sending an alcoholic into a bar that’s giving away free beer.”
I’d make the case that not only is the beginning unnecessary, it weakens the line of dialog. Showing is almost always better than telling, and both is always the worst.
Over the top:
This happens in many ways.
Exclamation points. You get three per book. Use them wisely. (and yes, I have the same limits, and I hate them just as much). And never two pieces of punctuation in one sentence. Yes, I know everyone uses it on social media – but you’re a professional.
“I know, right?!”
Along the same lines – repetition in general –
As a reader, we assume that if you wrote it, you meant it. Repeating it does not make us believe you more. Saying the same thing again in a different way won’t do it, either. If you feel like you need to do this, I’d make the case that your original sentence isn’t strong enough. Go back and work on that until you’re happy with it.
- Backload your sentences
Put the important word(s) at the end of the sentence for more impact.
I’ve got more male in my life than I need already.
I’ve already got more male in my life than I need.
- Favorite ‘author’ words. Everyone has them. Your ‘go to’ words. But they’re not words that everyone uses in everyday speech, so they stick out. Below are mine. My crit group gives me one to two of the following per book.
Tipped (as in chin)
Ones I see very often in others’ work are:
Over, under, turned, back, down, up, just.
- Same old, same old body expressions.
How many times have you read, ‘he frowned’ or ‘she straightened her shoulders’ or ‘lifted her chin’? Personally, I use sighing way too often. Why not freshen them, and instead of having the reader skim, give them a reason to pause?
She caught herself squirming in her seat and forced herself to stillness.
Vale clears his throat. A shudder vibrates up my spine.
Priss buried her nose in her cup.
Vale’s shoulders tip back, just enough to make the crease across the front of his shirt pull smooth.
- Throwaway words.
I’m just becoming aware of how often I do this – throw in unneeded words at the beginning of a sentence. It’s not only wordy, it’s distancing. I’m a big one on ‘when.’
When the woman touched his shoulder, the kid shrugged her off.
The woman touched his shoulder. The kid shrugged her off.
Oh yes, I know what you mean.”
She knew it was hopeless.
See what I mean? They add words, but not meaning. Along those same lines:
Why use “moved” which tells us nothing instead of
jerked (oops) jogged, or stumbled?
Why use “started” rather than just showing someone doing something?
“Almost” is another word that doesn’t work well very often. Either someone does something or doesn’t. How do you ‘almost’ do something like smile?
- Slip in snippets of backstory. Make the reader want backstory before you slip it in. How do you do that? In the first few sentences, raise questions they’re going to be dying to hear answers to.
From The Sweet Spot – page 1
For a few hours, the project had rescued her weary mind from a hamster-wheel of regret.
The homing beacon in the Valium bottle next to the sink tugged at her insides.
She sipped a glass of water to avoid reaching for it and glanced out the window to the spring-skeletal trees of the back yard. Her gaze returned to the two-foot wide stump the way a tongue wanders to a missing tooth. Tentative grass shoots had sprung up to obscure the obscene scar in the soil.
From my books, Reasons to Stay:
She stopped a few feet short of the open grave. Her mother was down there. Shouldn’t she feel something beyond tired?
“Come, Ignacio. It’s time to go.” A meager woman stood at the foot of the grave, her face and raincoat set in the same generic authoritarian lines.
Priss recognized a Social Worker when she saw one. Given her past, she should.
Okay, your turn. Give us your advanced tips with examples in the comments. We all want to learn!
For more information about award winning author Laura Drake, visit her website.