"There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are." - Somerset Maugham
If you’ve been pursuing publication for any length of time you’ve heard rules of writing until your eyes cross. Though rules are important, no rule or formula is law. Rules are simply guidelines that have helped many writers find their way into print, so take what works for you and your targeted publisher, and leave the rest. Some wise soul once said you have to know the rules before you can break them. I agree with that.
Many writers have just returned from the ACFW’s writing conference in St. Louis with big smiles on their faces and submission requests from editors and agents. I remember that rush, that euphoria to hurry home and send the book out right away before the editor forgot me. A few extra days won’t really make that much difference so you might want to take one last pass through the pages to make sure you’ve polished your prose until the editor simply cannot reject your fabulous book.
Though this is by no means an exhaustive list, you can make your writing stronger by polishing with the following techniques in mind:
Show, don't tell. I know, I know. You’ve heard this advice ad nauseum, but showing the reader, rather than telling, will lift your manuscript from novice to professional. Words like felt, watched, saw, and "be" verbs are red flags for telling. Do a word search and ferret them out as much as possible. (Telling: Kara was angry. Showing: Kara strangled the wheel of her cherry red Cavalier.) Not only does the second sentence show, it also gives us a better sense of the character.
Use strong verbs. (Weak: Raven turned to see who was screaming. Stronger: Raven whirled toward the screams.) Whirled gives a sense a sense of rush and panic that turned does not.
"Last is most" rule or internal hooks. To pack a punch and keep the reader turning pages, put the most powerful part of the sentence or paragraph at the end. Suspense writers are masters at this so if you have problems in this area, study those. Margaret Daley is a good one.
(Compare this section from my new book, THE CHRISTMAS CHILD, and consider which has more impact on your emotions). 1) A child’s eyes stared out at him. 2) Two eyes stared out. Blue eyes. Frightened eyes. The eyes of a child.
Child is the emotional word in that section so I carefully crafted the sentences to lead the reader to that punch.
Plain Writing. While varied sentence length is important, most sentences should follow subject-verb-object construction. This keeps the text moving and improves readability and pacing. Poetic phrases are wonderful in the right context but use them carefully. The same goes for a long string of big words. As Mark Twain said, “Don’t use a five dollar word when a fifty cent word will do.” I’ve judged contests in which the writer had worked so hard to impress with a massive vocabulary that the meaning was lost…and so was I.
Avoid overuse of qualifiers and other vague words. (Just, only, suddenly, somewhat, maybe, simply, etc.) Notice I didn’t say never use them but use them sparingly.
Appeal to the senses. Make your readers see, hear, smell, taste and feel everything the characters do. (Tamara Alexander, among others, does this beautifully.) Try to include at least three of the five senses in every scene. Four or five is even better. One trick is to reread each scene with a specific sense in mind and look for places to interject that sense. The better the sensory writing, the more involved in the story your reader will feel.
Limit overused phrases. Twist the tried and true so that it becomes your own. ("He smiled" might become "One corner of his mouth kicked up in an ornery grin.") This example not only avoids the trite, it adds characterization and is more interesting to read.
Readers like white space. Break long passages of narrative into dialogue with action in between. Several pages without dialogue or action are probably too many to sustain reader interest.
Point of View. Most publishers prefer one character’s point of view per scene. Again this is not in stone. However, be sure your point of view character can see and hear all the things you say she can. For instance, if we are in Sophie’s POV, she wouldn’t think, “Sophie’s eyes sparkled with delight.” Sophie cannot see her eyes, so she cannot logically think this thought.
There you have them, polishing tools guaranteed to make your writing better. Well, maybe not guaranteed, but they will make a difference.
To celebrate my visit to Seekerville I’m giving away a signed copy of my brand new book, THE CHRISTMAS CHILD. All you have to do to be entered in the drawing is to leave a comment. If you have a polishing tip to share, I’d love to hear it. Or if one of my tips gives you trouble, let’s talk about it!
Linda Goodnight is the winner of two Carols, the RITA and other highly acclaimed awards, Linda Goodnight is the author of forty romance novels. Involved in orphan ministry and the charity Stop Child Trafficking Now, this former nurse and teacher enjoys writing fiction that carries a message of hope and light in a sometimes dark world. Linda lives in rural Oklahoma with her husband and daughter, two dogs, three horses and lots of cows.
Find Linda online HERE
Buy The Christmas Child HERE