The Novel Workshop Writing Tips
Here you will find some general tips about improving your writing. I make no claims to be an expert in grammar. I try my best, as any author should. I am not offering a grammar bible. If you want such a tome, I suggest you get one from the local bookstore. I've been told The Chicago Manual of Style is an excellent resource, but there are many other, less expensive works as well that may suit your needs.
This article is targeted toward new authors belonging to The Novel Workshop forums. The tips of what not to do below are compiled here as a result of many reviewers input from those forums--not just mine. They are guidelines and meant to be taken as such, not as law. Writing is a creative endeavor, especially in fiction. Authors are artists who paint with words. Never forget that.
Before you submit your chapters to the boards for review, take the time to line edit for the following common errors as well as flow and clarity in your work.
Passive Voice: In sentences written in passive voice, the subject receives the action expressed in the verb. Therefore, the subject is acted upon. Passive voice sentences make the verbiage sound like it happened in the past or is being summed up. A good rule of thumb is to look for trigger words such as was, had, had been, could, would, will be and their derivatives.
Here is an example:
Passive: The paperwork will be presented by Gertrude.
Active: Gertrude will present the paperwork.
The stone had been thrown by Hamish.
Hamish threw the stone.
If you write using MicroSoft Word, you can set your processor to point out passive voice for you. To do this, go to "TOOLS" then "OPTIONS" and "SPELLING AND GRAMMAR" then check the box to search for passive voice.
Passive voice is not wrong. It is a style of voice an author may or may not choose to use. At the time of this article's writing, passive voice was not considered the "in" way to write. Many authors use heavy passive voice in their works and do well. I include it here because you may receive comments about it in your critiques if you write in that style. Many science fiction authors choose passive voice.
Repeated Words: Repeated words or their derivatives used in close proximity throughout your writing lends a dull, monotonous tone to your voice. Try to use synonyms that mean the same thing. Not only does opening the thesaurus increase your vocabulary, it adds flavor to your tale.
Proper Dialogue Tags: It's not hard to do. Quotations marks follow the punctuations in the majority of general dialogue situations. Periods magically morph into commas. If you don't know how to use dialogue tags and you want to be a published author, I suggest you purchase a grammar book and learn. Please don't post sentences like the following in your work:
"No chocolate for you, Mom"!
"I can't see you." said Tom.
There are other rules which apply to dialogue punctuation which I will not address here. Again, a good grammar book is a resource you should invest in if you are unsure about how to punctuate your dialogue.
Verb Tense: Not only does it control how your reader understands the flow of time in your tale, verb tense, when done incorrectly, can throw your reader right out of the tale.
Avoid present tense usage such as: "I make my bed and walk across the room." It reads like a screenplay in the preceding example. Unless that is your intent--and it may very well be--don't do it.
If your tale has already happened, then show that. "I made my bed and walked across the room."
No matter the tense you choose, do one thing: be consistent. I can't stress this enough.
Point of View Shifts: Read many publishers' guidelines and you'll find that they don't like randomly shifting point of views. They flat out tell you not to "head pop". What does that mean? Headpops or headhops happen when an author changes POV without an obvious reason and often in excess.
Point of View is a touchy subject for authors. You can choose to write in first person, third person, third person deep, omniscient, and mix them up as well. The current fad at the time this article was written is what's called Third Person Deep Point of View. It means you get to go into the main character's head revealing internal thoughts and also that you show things happening which only that character can experience with his or her five sense or by interpreting.
Here's an example of shifting POVs:
Rebecca leaned back into the wicker chair. It's so hot today. Sure wish I had me some sweet tea. "Oh hey, Donald," she called across the porch. "Why don't you come on up and sit by me for a while."
Donald glanced up through his unruly blond bangs and grinned. She looks like a frumpy, pink flower in that dress. "Yeah, okay, Becca. Lemme just hang my hat in the house first." He tucked his fingers in his overalls and felt the cool line of sweat trickling down his back.
Many beginning authors will go back and forth, dropping in each character's thoughts, feeling and viewpoint all mixed within a chapter. They'll do it with every character in the scene leaving the reader in more than two heads in just one scene.
The way Third Person Deep POV works is that you offer your reader a character's viewpoint in large chunks. You go into that person's head, deeply, using their thoughts, their speech, their sayings, inflections and tone for both the narration and the dialogue/body language/thoughts when in their POV. Why? Because it sucks your reader into that character's world. It makes your characters real.
Want to know a great way to throw the reader out? Shift the POV in the middle of a scene. Shift it every paragraph and ZOOM THUNK your reader just tossed your book across the room.
There are appropriate times to shift POV. Some authors do so to cause tension. The hero is about to fall off the edge of the cliff and BAM the POV shifts to the heroine dashing across the meadow, racing to save him and how she feels when she sees him go over.
Think of it this way: Which character has the most at stake in this scene? Who will learn the most? Whose POV will add the most intensity to my story? When you know who that star is, write it in that character's POV for the whole scene.
How often should you shift POV? Gah, you're the author. I've read chapters with three shifts in them. Each is a clear change and made sense to me. Each piece was a chunk, not a little paragraph. Some authors like to write one POV per chapter using a pattern. Say you have three characters. Rebecca, Donald and the evil guy: Liam. You can use a pattern to alternate their viewpoint, weaving what they learn in each chapter into one cohesive story.
Chapter 1 Rebecca
Chapter 2 Donald
Chapter 3 Liam
Chapter 4 Rebecca
Vary the pattern to suit your needs.
Adverb Abuse: Adverbs modify verbs, adjectives, clauses, sentences and other adverbs and most end in -ly. Some examples are: quickly, silently, softly, suddenly. There are many more. Look at those words and ask yourself what they really say. Are they adding to your writing? Instead of: He ran quickly. Try: He sprinted. Instead of: She said softly. Try: She whispered.
Writing with minimal to no adverbs will strengthen your writing. It's not against the law to use a few, but it's horrid to overuse them and adds a sing song quality to your work. Unless you meant to add that, don't overuse.
Weak Writing: By this, I mean using words such as seemed, appeared to be and very. Why not just punch your reader in the face and say it with clarity. Instead of: Joshua seemed very angry. Try: Joshua threw his book across the room. He narrowed his eyes and scowled. "Why did this author pull me out of Samantha's head? I want to know what she's thinking!" He stomped out of the living room and slammed the door behind him.
Spellchecker: No, I'm not joking. Use it; run it; pay attention to what it tells you. Sure, we all make a mistake once in a while or use created words, but there's no excuse for not sparing your fellow reviewers some time correcting something that Word would gladly correct for you at the touch of a button.
Spacing: On Writing.com in The Novel Workshop forums, please place one line space between each of your paragraphs. It makes it easier to read. When you don't, the paragraphs tend to squish together making it difficult for a reviewer to keep his/her place.
Unnecessary Flashbacks: Like adverbs, they serve a purpose, but immediate action is always more engaging. It is often difficult to maintain a flashback in "showing mode" and the "telling" usually slips into straight narrative. Often the flashback is really background that was necessary for the writer, but not for the reader.
Overused Dream Sequences: Many new authors like to delve into their characters dreams to show the reader a semblance of what may occur in the future. Be wary of how often you do so and make sure it's integral to your plot.
There are many deeper aspects of writing that affect your novel such as world building, religion, background, character history, settings, descriptions and consistency. This article touches on the basics. Hopefully, you'll find it helpful. If you would like more added to it, drop me a note and let me know. It is a group effort of compilation from input of The Novel Workshop members. As time allows, I can update it. Please do not write me condescending reviews that bash me for my errors because I should know better having become a published author. I am only human, and therefore, imperfect. If you do find an error, let me know so that I can correct it, and I will do so.
My last piece of advice is: Know the rules, and then feel free to break them to suit your creative purposes.