Saturday, September 3, 2011

Please welcome our guest Irene Hannon
Writing tips from a two-time RITA winner

Not long ago, someone asked me if there is a secret to writing award-winning books. I laughed and said, “You mean beyond luck and magic?”

Truth be told, though, there is a secret—but it’s nothing mysterious. Or magical. Or even exciting. Mostly, it’s mastering the basics…with an extra twist thrown in.

So in my guest blog I thought I’d share with you four tips that have helped take my writing to a new level. They’re basic, yes. But you know what? Even though I’ve published 35+ books and have been writing for a long time, I only discovered some of these “rules” in the past few years. Which goes to prove that a writer never stops learning.

Here they are, in no particular order.

1. Eliminate most adverbs. It’s ridiculously easy to populate virtually every page with them. Wait…why not: It’s easy to over populate every page with them. The latter is cleaner, simpler and more straightforward. Or instead of “quickly ran,” why not a stronger, more descriptive verb such as sprinted or dashed? Be ruthless. Adverbs clutter up writing, and their use should be deliberate and sparing.

2. Don’t overuse pet words. In my early work, people stared, gazed, took deep breaths and frowned a lot. To fix the problem, I began identifying recurring words and adding them to a master list. (Yes, “ly” is on there, too, for those pesky adverbs!) When I finish writing a chapter, I use the search function to find every word on the list—then change those I’ve overused. Over time, that list has grown to contain…well, let’s leave it at dozens of words, lest I sound obsessive. But it’s amazing how much more polished my writing has become as a result of this exercise, tiresome though it is.

3. Make limited use of dialogue tags. What does “he said” or “she said” add to a story? In many cases, there’s no need to identify the speaker; it’s obvious. And in instances where you do need to identify who’s speaking, consider it an opportunity to give readers an insight into his or her character. Example: “‘I won’t go.’ John shoved the leftover take-out chili in the microwave, slammed the door and jabbed the reheat button.” That tells the reader a lot more about John’s character than, “‘I won’t go,’ John retorted.” And it fits right into the “show, don’t tell” rule that helps make writing shine.

4. Now here’s the extra twist I mentioned earlier: add something unique that will make your book stand out and catch the eye of judges, editors and readers. My recent RITA-award winner, In Harm’s Way, contained what appeared to be a paranormal element. I emphasize apparent, because this is an inspirational romantic suspense and paranormal is frowned upon. But the phenomenon I wrote about is real, if unexplainable, and readers told me they loved the twist this gave the story, which kept them intrigued throughout. So adding an unusual element or a surprising plot twist can give a book that all-important extra oomph.

I can’t promise you’ll win a RITA if you apply all these rules, but I know they’ve made me a better writer. May they do the same for you!

To enter a drawing for either Irene's Carol-Award nominated LI book, A Father for Zach, or her new suspense book, Deadly Pursuit, please list a favorite sentence from the bio page of Irene's website

Irene Hannon is the author of more than 35 novels, including the bestselling Heroes of Quantico series. Her books have been honored with two coveted RITA awards from Romance Writers of America (the “Oscar” of romantic fiction), a HOLT Medallion, a Daphne du Maurier Award and two Reviewers’ Choice Awards from RT Book Reviews magazine. Her latest novel, Deadly Pursuit, has just been released.


  1. Have no fear, Seekerville. The coffee pot is set for the weekend.

    Thanks for the tips, Irene. These books sound great.


  2. Well what do you know, I went to update my status on Goodreads and detoured to Seekerville and who do I find? None other than the talented lady who wrote the book I'm currently reading! Cool! I'm only a few chapters in but I'm loving Deadly Pursuit, Ms. Hannon. Did I mention I love the cover? That Mitch, hubba hubba. :-P

    Please don't enter me to win but I have to say that I loved the line in her bio about "no regrets." That's a pretty important thing in life, IMO.

    XOXO~ Renee C.

  3. You're STILL sparkling nationally it seems Irene! Loved reading more about you. You cornered the creative gene for sure!

    Wonderful, simple tips we can all utilize. Thank you so much. Have a happy Labor Day weekend all!

    Appreciate the coffee Helen!

  4. Hi Irene:

    I think you do two others things that judges really like:

    1) very strong conflict

    2) exotic or beautiful locations where a reader would love to visit

    Here’s what I wrote about a book I very much liked from your 'Lighthouse Lane Series':

    "Irene Hannon likes strong conflicts between her hero and heroine and “A Father for Zach” is no exception. The hero, Nathan Clay, is just out of prison after serving ten years for armed robbery. The heroine, Catherine Walker, is a recent widow whose husband was murdered by an armed robber while her young son watched. The boy, Zach, was traumatized. In order to get a fresh start both the hero and heroine, unbeknownst to each other, have moved to the beautiful and expensive Nantucket Island."

    Now that's a beautiful location.

    I really enjoyed the entire 4 book series but I remember most "Zach". How could I not? Wonderful.


    www (dot) vmres (at) swbell (dot) net

  5. Whhoooops. May at maythek9spy dot com. Would like to have what Renee is having! ;)

  6. Hi Irene,

    Thanks so much for joining us and offering advice. From your bio, I chose this because all my life I've wished I had the talent to sing.

    A trained vocalist, she has sung the leading role in numerous musicals, including “South Pacific,” “Brigadoon,” “Oklahoma” “The King and I” and “Anything Goes."

  7. how funny is this - I just found this author and here is a contest with her :)
    here is the line from her bio that I like " I really believe people are born writers." It's true!

  8. My favorite comment from bio:

    "Irene and her husband enjoy traveling."

    I love to travel. Where have you been which has appeared as a setting in your stories and/or has inspired a plot line.

    Would love to win the book.

  9. Wow, one of my favorite authors! And I'd never been to her website so I popped over... I choose "Okay…maybe that’s a slight exaggeration." for my favorite line because it let's us know she's got a sense of humor!
    Great guest blogger, Seekerville! I love how you mix and match published authors with 35+ books, the unpubbed, the newbies, the agents, etc. Love it!

  10. I will help myself to some of that coffee if I may, Helen!

    One thing I look forward to, now that I'm out of school and in a 9-5 internship (read: no homework!!) is sitting down with Seekerville on the weekends. Ahh, it's so good to be back again!

    So here's my favourite sentence from Irene's bio page:

    "I prefer to show characters living their faith rather than talking about it."

    Yes! While talking about our faith is inherently a good thing, I believe a lasting impact on readers is made when the Christian life is shown, not told.

    That being said, in my own story I'm hoping to include some critical dialogue about theological grey areas that affect most believers in everyday life. But I'm still placing the emphasis on various ways of living it out.

    Anyway, thanks for the writing tips! I have to work at cutting out adjectives and boring verbs, and choosing better verbs to begin with! Thanks again!

    childofprussia (at) gmail (dot) com

  11. Irene, wonderful post and welcome to Seekerville on a holiday weekend Saturday! Girl, you rock!

    I'm not a bit embarrassed to say that I ordered a slew of your books last year, old and new, and read them to see what it takes to nudge writing up a notch. You've published some lovely stories. Wonderful!

    (And this year I did Linda Goodnight.... Yes, I'm stalking people, doing my own crash-course in upping the ante)

    You've provided wonderful example and inspiration to so many. Kudos.

    And we've got Apples goodness for breakfast! Apple pancakes, Apple topping for French toast, fresh apples, Apple Dumplings from the Pioneer Woman... Love her!

    Irene, thank you!

  12. I visited Irene's blog & read her bio. There are quite a few interesting sentences there but I enjoyed the following:

    "But she was one of the honorees in a complete-the-story contest conducted by a national children’s magazine. And she likes to think of that as her “official” fiction-writing debut!"

    Thnk you for all the wonderful useful tips Irene!

    Smiles & Blessings,
    Cindy W.


  13. "They created a home where I was accepted without question, loved without conditions and encouraged without restraint."

    Loved this.

    Enjoyed your website, as well as today's basic tips. And now I have to read, In Harm's Way. You've roused my curiosity about the twist.

    To win one of your books would be awesome. Thanks for the opportunity.


  14. Thanks so much for your tips - they make so much sense, yet not something that readily comes to mind. But I will definitely be keeping them in mind now :)

    My favourite line from your bio is:

    "Irene, who holds a B.A. in psychology and an M.A. in journalism, juggled two careers for many years until she gave up her executive corporate communications position with a Fortune 500 company to write full-time."

    I've been stuck in the IT world for the last decade, so it's encouraging to see you can have more than one career in life, and dramatically different ones at that!


  15. Good morning, Irene. Your Heroes of Quantico are my favorite of all your books. I'm so glad you write romantic suspense in addition to romances.
    Thanks for sharing this morning. I'm looking forward to your new book, and if I don't win I'm heading to Amazon tomorrow.
    But as an avid Nancy Drew reader in my younger days, I guess it’s no surprise that I eventually found my way back to suspense!

    I read every Nancy Drew book written when I was growing up. I found three of my mom's copies at my grandmother's house when I was growing up and was hooked.

    Thanks again for sharing your tips with us!


  16. Jackie, what was your fave Nancy Drew???

    I think mine was The Secret in the Hollow Oak...

    Who doesn't love a secret message tree?

  17. Oy, Helen, I don't drink coffee, but I may convert today.

    Welcome, Irene! It's great seeing you here after reading your books through the years. My favorite sentence? Well, it'd have to be the first two--loved the humor. =] And the thought of my youngest, who's 10, storming the publishing world cracks me up. He's all swords and shields and Gilligan. sigh. Gilligan is his hero.

    I've gotta tell my older daughter about your suspense books--they look fantastic and she'll drool. LoL

  18. LOVE these tips - especially the last. Gotta think on this for my current WIP! And here's my favorite line from your bio: "We live in a difficult age, but people of honor, principle, character and integrity do exist."

  19. I think my favorite was Irene Hannon is a bestselling, award-winning author who took the publishing world by storm at the tender age of 10,

    Because to me means you did not deviate from the calling God placed on your life and for that I am very grateful. I love everyone of your books.


  20. Good morning, all! It's wonderful to be here! I'm getting ready to take my daily walk before the mercury starts to inch up to 100 again, then my husband and I will be off to Starbuck's for our weekly Saturday-morning "just us" time and to celebrate the end of the work week.

    But first, I'll answer a few of the questions that have popped up from you early birds!

    Thanks, Vince, for your great review of A Father For Zach. I'm so glad you enjoyed it! If you like strong conflict--have you ever tried any of my suspense books?

    Cathy--I've travelled a LOT, here in the U.S. and all over the world. As Vince noted, some settings just lend themselves to stories and are inspiring because of their beauty. Nantucket, for example, was the perfect place to set my Lighthouse Lane series. And a trip to northern California inspired my upcoming Starfish Bay series, debuting in January with Seaside Reunion. Generally I visit every place I write about; that adds a measure of authenticity. The only exception is Afghanistan, one of the setting for Book 1 in my Heroes of Quantico series, Against All Odds. I'm committed to hands-on research--but not committed enough to dodge bullets!

    I'll check in again after my trip to Starbuck's!


    Great tips, and especially the overused words one -- I think I'm going to start a list like that because you can only "swallow hard" so many times before you look like you're dealing with acid reflux, you know??? :)

    I assume we'll be seeing you at ACFW, I hope???


  22. Irene,

    Thank you for sharing tips with us today.

    Have fun at Starbucks!


    RRossZediker at yahoo dot com

  23. Hi Irene,

    What a great list of key things to watch for in our writing - and great suggestions, too.

    It was hard to find a favorite line in your bio because there were so many of them! But I chose "And for pure enjoyment, it’s hard to beat a Cary Grant flick."

    I love Cary Grant movies - he has all the modern romantic heroes beat by a mile! Even - dare I say it? - George Clooney. (gasp!)

    Everyone have a fun and safe holiday weekend! We're heading up to the Iron Mountain Road (just a mile or south of Mt. Rushmore) to do some hiking - now that the Sturgis bike rally is long past the hills are quiet again.

  24. Welcome to Seekerville.

    Actually what I really like is your RITA award acceptance speech about your dress.

    That told me more about you than any bio could have. It said, wow she is a normal person.

    Welcome to Normalville.

  25. Just back from my walk. Oh. My Goodness. It's not even 9 a.m. here in the Midwest, and it's already like a steam bath!

    Thought I'd peek in again before heading to Starbucks.

    Yes, Julie, I'll be at ACFW. Looking forward to seeing you!

    By the way, since there's only one winner for today's blog, I wanted to let everyone know I'll be giving away a couple of copies of Deadly Pursuit to my Twitter followers mid-month in a special promo. So if you'd like a second chance to win, you can click on the Twitter icon on the home page of my website and you'll get all the details as I post them! to Starbucks!

  26. Welcome Irene.

    Loved the tips.

    I haven't read A Family for Zach, but just from Vince's description, you definitely heaped loads of conflict on those two characters.

    So glad you're living your dream!

  27. Hi Irene:

    I missed the bio question the first time around.

    My favorite line from your bio given below confirms a theory I have.

    “A trained vocalist, she has sung the leading role in numerous musicals, including “South Pacific,” “Brigadoon,” “Oklahoma” “The King and I” and “Anything Goes.”

    I have noticed over the years, because I’ve been looking for it, that many of the best selling authors and award winning authors have had live stage acting experience.

    There have been too many examples of this to be a coincidence. There is something about performing in front of a live audience and feeling the real time audience feedback to your performance that attunes a writer to the needs of the reader’s reading experience.

    Janet Evanovich says she is not even a writer per se but rather an entertainer. Is that ever true!

    I think the best writing tip to give an aspiring writer is to get on the stage at your local little theater and act! When readers are reading your novel, it’s really a ‘play’ going on in their minds. If you think of it that way, I think you write more to the needs of the reading experience and less to the abstract needs of the novel. At least it seems to work that way.

    BTW: Shakespeare was an excellent Shakespearian actor. He would actually rewrite lines between performances based on audience reactions. I’ve read three different versions of Hamlet published over time and each set of revisions made it much better.

    I did read one of your suspense books and it was very good but I read very little romantic suspense. I read romance for the romance so I really like Love Inspired and Love Inspired Historical and of course Harlequin Romance which is just about the romance. I read suspense for suspense, mystery for mystery, western for western and SF for SF. In fact, I think I would say that I like my genres ‘straight up’.


    P.S. I like conflict best in the romantic dynamic itself and not so much in external threats. I like the conflict to be structural and not artificial – as when you can see the hand of the author and can almost predict the next ratcheting up of tension (as the author follows the dictum: “always be increasing tension”.) If you can keep the reader interested without always increasing tension, then you know how to write!

  28. Great post. The show don't tell concept is one of my favorites.


  29. Irene, Thanks so much for the valuable tips. Your Heroes of Quantico series is fantastic.

    My favorite line wasn't from your bio, but the interview below. You say that writers write. They have to, it's like a compulsion. That is SO true. It drives me almost insane during the day at my job when ideas are churning and burning and I'm stuck in a meeting. I often wonder if my boss would mind if I asked to be excused to get the scene in my mind down. :o)
    It's an obsession, and I love every minute of it.


    P.S. I would like to be entered for the first five critique. Thanks.

  30. Thanks for the reminder. Today is the last day to enter for the first five pages critique. Only 3 more left --FOREVER!!!

  31. Thanks for being here today, Irene, and sharing your tips for becoming a better writer. Read your bio and it's hard to choose one sentence from it when so many stand out. So chose, my books have been called clean compelling fiction. That sums up my desire in writing a novel. Also enjoyed reading the interview and getting to know you better. Appreciated the advice for writers in it, too. Hope you and all here have a wonderful Labor Day weekend.

  32. Okay, my husband and I are back from our weekly treat at Starbucks and I'll be popping in and out to answer questions for the rest of the day. So ask away!

    Vince, your comment about theatrical experience being an asset to a writer is spot on. When playing a part, you have to get into the head of a character and also think about--and analyze--things like inflection and body language. It also allows you to experience the power of effective dialogue, especially humor--because the audience laugh! Stage work is a great learning experience for writers.

    Kirsten, I used to have the same problem when I was in the corporate world!

  33. Thanks so much for the tips Irene - I've read them twice (always have to do that with instructions, why is that? I memorize novels forever, no matter how fast I read them!). Very useful advice for writers working on publication - just one of the reasons I luv to skulk around Seekerville!

  34. Irene, thanks for sharing advice with us. Such simple suggestions yet they make a world of difference to the novel.

    An "apparent" paranormal element? Oh, you've tweaked my curiosity. See? Your advice works.

    I've got lots and lots of raspberries to share. And pound cake. Enjoy!

  35. Hello Irene,

    Thank you for the tips!

    And, from your Bio it sounds like you have been busy for a very long time!

    "Irene Hannon is a bestselling, award-winning author who took the publishing world by storm at the tender age of 10 with a sparkling piece of fiction that received national attention."

    Jan K.

    Please enter me in your draw:


  36. So glad I stopped back in for the raspberries and pound cake.

    I was at a community rummage sale and made a little money. Came home to my Seekerville gift basket in the mailbox, courtesy of Ruthy.

    "Mended Hearts" by Ruth Logan Herne &
    "A Home in His Heart" by Glynna Kaye
    are now on my TBR pile.

    Thank you, Seekerville!

  37. Thanks for the great interview and tips. Your website looks great. My favorite part of your bio page is The part of how you're a trained vocalist and the musicals that you've been in. It's always interesting to hear about the different backgrounds of writers.

  38. Hi Irene, these are great tips! Thanks for sharing them with us. I have enjoyed so many of your books, and I will take this advice to heart, especially the idea of searching for pet words after you finish each chapter

    I enjoyed reading your bio! I didn't realize you also enjoyed singing. Here's my favorite line from your bio:
    A trained vocalist, she has sung the leading role in numerous musicals, including “South Pacific,” “Brigadoon,” “Oklahoma” “The King and I” and “Anything Goes.”


  39. Taking a break in my Saturday chores to stop back in.

    With the temperature here over 100 degrees, it's a good day to Google vacation homes/condos for a three- generation family vacation in the South Walton Beach area of Florida (not far from Destin) for early next summer. But I'm overwhelmed by all the options. We'd like to be by the beach for my two young nieces, but prefer a quiet spot. Looks pretty crowded down there, though. Suggestions welcome if anyone's familiar with the area!

    And I'm still standing by if anyone has any writing questions. I think everyone must be taking a siesta today!

  40. Irene, welcome! I'm so glad you joined us today!! I love these tips. I've really been working on those pet words. Actually used a list on my current proposal Made lots of cuts!! :)

    I'll keep thinking on the twist to add. Need to start keeping a file for those.

  41. Tina, wanted to ask earlier about the first 5 page critique and if it was ok to request it today, too. Thanks for the reminder Kirsten and Tina. Please enter me into the drawing for this, too.
    pat jeanne davis

  42. Hi, Irene. I was at a baby shower today, a long drive away. Sorry not to be able to stop in sooner.

    I'm going to be a great aunt in a couple of months.

    I watched you give your acceptance speech for the Rita and you were so poised and funny.

    All I could think of was, if I'd go up there, AFTER I tripped going up the stairs, I'd be tongue tied and no doubt boo-ed off the stage.

  43. I'd like to know how much your stage performances lead into your suspense novels. They read is such a visual way that I can see them being movies. (good luck with that).
    Do you think being on stage yourself makes you think a little differently about writing.

  44. Dropping by again. I feel like I've actually visited Seekerville--when I was driving home from church a little earlier, the most gorgeous rainbow was arching across the sky...just like the one on the home page! No palm trees or beach here, though. Sigh.

    Hi, Mary. Congrats on soon becoming a great aunt! As for your question about theater--the answer is yet. Check my post from 12:41! :)

    It's been a very quiet day here--the holiday weekend, perhaps? That's what I'm going to tell myself, anyway. (Better for my ego!)

    I'll check back once more later tonight. And if any latecomers read this after the holiday, I'll be sure to visit again on Tuesday night to catch your questions!

  45. What a lovely thing to say, Irene.

    I do have question. How do you keep the very much editor specific likes and dislikes of each publishing house you write for straight? Do you keep a notebook?

  46. Welcome to Seekerville, Irene! Congratulations of your Rita! I loved your tips--I really need to watch my adverbs and favorite expressions. I'll start to check them.

  47. Welcome to Seekerville, Irene! Great tips! I'm only a newbie published author and right out of the gate started having to keep a "pet words" list. I can't imagine how many I'll have accumulated on it if I ever reach your 35 books! I sure do wish, though, that there were more alternatives to the word "gaze." :)

  48. I'm back for one last visit tonight.

    Tina--as for editor likes and dislikes when you write for multiple's not that hard to keep them straight. I've been with my Love Inspired editor for going on nine years now, so I've had plenty of time to learn what she likes and doesn't like. Continuity in editors helps! At Revell, I've had the same editor for my suspense work since the beginning, and she's never made any serious edits. So I think she likes what I write!

    Glynna--Yes, my overused word list is V-E-R-Y long after 35+ books. It's a real chore to run through it with every chapter--and new words keep getting added! But I do think using it adds polish to my writing. I, too, wish there were more alternatives for gaze!

    Well, it's getting close to my bedtime here, so I'll sign off. As I said in my previous post, though, because a lot of people may be off enjoying this holiday weekend, I'll pop back in Tuesday night in case anyone wants to make any other comments or ask other questions in the next couple of days.

    Thanks to all the Seekerville ladies for hosting me today. It's been fun!

  49. my characters are gazers and grazers. LOL. Nearly every scene has eyes and eating in it. Sigh! So I love your idea to keep a list of pet phrases.


  50. "We live in a difficult age, but people of honor, principle, character and integrity do exist." Please enter me in the giveaway!

    frequentreader19 (at) gmail (dot) com

  51. Checking back in one final time, as promised. Cheryl, I have a lot of eating in my books, too! Must be from growing up in an Irish family, where social life revolves around food--the more, the better!

    Thank you all for your comments, and have a wonderful fall! May the temperature be pleasant and the weather calm.

    For those of you going to ACFW--see you there!

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