Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Let's Share - Leave A Tip On the Blood Red Pencil

One thing I've noticed about most writers is we don't mind sharing, in fact, we enjoy doing so.
I've been writing a number of years now, and have picked up some handy information along the way.

One basic tip I'd like to share is:

Don't Backstory Dump.

In other words, don't say too much about what happened before the story begins. Instead, sprinkle it in bits and pieces, so the pace doesn't slow to a crawl.

I bet you've learned a tip or two also, even if you're a beginner.

I'm inviting you to leave a tip on the Blood Red Pencil in the comment section below. It's not required, but if you happen to remember, by all means mention where you got it.

Or, if you particularly like or agree with a tip already mentioned, don't be afraid to comment.

Then, be sure to leave your name, plus one website or blogspot link. If you wish to divulge where you heard about this post, you're welcome to do so.

Happy Sharing!

Morgan Mandel
Killer Career now 99 cents on Kindle

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  1. One big tip I learned was to let the story tell itself. It's along the lines of show don't tell.

    Basically a writer should not constantly re-explain character motivations.

    Here's the kicker: I learned it from being annoyed at soap operas -- I basically NEVER want to do story telling the way they do... which constantly has flashes of previous scenes to stand in for unspoken motivations, or recaps the last scenes from previous day before proceeding with the new action.

    A novel is not a soap, readers don't need a reminder of what has happened before, as if they haven't read the last 100 pages when they get to the climactic moment on page 101.

    That means as the writer I have to have written enough detail ONE TIME previously for the reader to understand the context without the immediate reminder in the middle of the climactic scene.

  2. Tip: As long as you are going to all the trouble to communicate in words, use the best words possible to draw the readers into the story. The best word doesn't necessarily mean the most accurate. It means the one in dialogue THAT particular character would use or the word in narrative that takes the reader to exactly where you want her.

    The exception is when you are using descriptive verbs. If you use the verb "to be" to do more than locate your story in past, present or future, you are not using the best verb to describe action. "Was" locates you in time; "exploded" propels you through space---even if it happened yesterday.

    Many new writers write as if it is he or she talking and an astute reader will pick that up in a paragraph and put down the book in two.

    In my own world of chaotic erudition, I wouldn't say, "Y'know?" if you pulled my teeth out with a pliers but I have characters who would and even an occasional narrator who might.

    Sometimes, you might want to use language as a tool to educate your readers when it is appropriate and doesn't take away from the gist of a story. For instance, I would never say life is hard unless it is cast in cement, though often times it can be quite difficult.

    Words are tools and if we write in English or a close approximation to it, we need to know and understand about 300,000 of them even if we chose, like Hemingway, to use only a few hundred to tell our stories.

    nuf sed.

  3. Tip I've learned: Critique partners/groups are invaluable. A good critique partner can help turn your work from okay to fantastic. But you have to have thick skin. But hey that is true of this writing gig as a whole isn't it?

  4. Wow, already we have some great tips!

    There's always room in my head to learn more!!!

    Morgan Mandel

  5. Morgan--I don't need to know complete descriptions of the characters to the point of ad nausea. I'm seeing more and more inserted descriptions that smack of the old romance novels, that that tell us to death. Editors seem to be overlooking this detail more and more, in fact, I think they're encouraging it more and more.
    I assume you know what I mean, because I can't write an example this early in the morning.
    Excessive description might be replaced with action words. Celia

  6. For fiction writers: if you're stuck mid-manuscript, save different versions of your problematic chapter, and try wildly different things in each version. I'll routinely have 3 or 4 versions of the same chapter on the go, and inevitably one will start to feel more right than the others, which can then be mined for nuggets before being shelved. Sometimes the differences between the versions will be small, and sometimes you'll have attempted something crazy that just works, and works obviously. The beauty of having different versions on the go is that you can compare them side by side, and it's amazing how easily this simple method shows up the holes in your writing.

  7. I call this the Rule of Two: anything to which you call your reader's attention must appear at least twice.

    If, for example, your completely original boy wizard is menaced by a bully early in the story, that bully better come into the story at least once more. Otherwise, with your throw-away character, you've thrown away some of the attention readers have paid to your story.

    I have a longer post about The Rule of Two on my blog, The Laws of Making.

  8. Don't get too obsessed with comparing yourself to other writers (how well they write, how successful they are). Down that path lies madness and much frustration.

    Focus on your own writing. Finish what you're writing. Make it the best writing that you possibly can before you send it out.

    Debbie Ridpath Ohi

  9. When you’re editing, hunt down those pesky pleonasms and cut them out. Never heard of them and don’t know what they are?
    A pleonasm is a word or phrase which can be removed from a sentence without changing its meaning. For example, “John walked to the chair and sat down.” Down is a pleonasm and can be removed without changing the meaning of the sentence. Another one I’ve seen lately in my critique group is, ‘grabbed up’ as in, “Peter ran into the room and grabbed up his pistol.” Up adds nothing to the sentence and should be removed.
    Are a few pleonasms in a novel fatal? Will it be rejected because of those extra words? Probably not, but you want to present the best, tightest most error-free manuscript to an editor for publication. Why take a chance? Pull up a chair, boot up your computer and go through that Great American Novel one more time. You may be surprised at just how many pleonasms you can remove.

    Carlene Rae Dater

  10. My favorite tip is to read your work aloud to a voice recorder, then play it back. Reading aloud is a great way to find out whether the words flow or not, but playing it back allows you to focus on just listening. I find unnecessary words, general clumsiness, and pet phrases that way.


  11. Good tips here for writing. I posted a couple of basic Word formatting tips on my own blog yesterday. Another tip came from Robert Crais (which he attributed to his editor). "Your words aren't precious." Don't be afraid to cut.

    Terry's Place
    Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

  12. Tip: Explore and expand your boundaries. Go outside your comfort zone and test yourself. What you learn from experimenting isn't only if you're good or bad at a particular genre/writing style/etc. You're expanding your own horizons. You're gaining knowledge and experience that will further help develop your writing.

  13. Great tips here. I like what Deren said about the rule of two and would like to add to his comment. Those who write mystery, thriller, and suspense novels, need to be cautious about how much attention they give to an intended victim. For example, if there is a man about to be killed in an explosion at a hotel, don't spend pages setting him up as a character. I know the intent is to let the reader connect with this victim as a real person, thus the reader will care more when he is killed. But that can be accomplished in a few short paragraphs, not several pages.

  14. The favorite tip I got when I was learning fiction writing was "Make Things Worse." Especially for your main character. Force her to confront her worst fears, put the person he loves most in danger, up the ante--in every single scene. All that makes for a better story.

  15. I've enjoyed all the comments. Thanks for the post, Morgan.

    My tip: Avoid head-hopping. Try to tell your story through the point of view of no more than two characters. Flipping around to different personalities weakens a story and leaves the reader without a focus.

    I have writing tips up at my blog. Click the "writing tips" in the cloud. Some writing articles there, too.

  16. TIP: Watch out for the overpopulation of your favourite words. Every writer has them. 'Search and Replace' is a wonderful tool.

  17. Lots of great tips here! I can relate to all of them!

    My favourite tip us about research: Don't let the facts get in the way of a good story.

    I picked that up from a colleague at work, who has nothing to do with writing, but then when researching researching I found similar advice from Greg Rucka: 'Confronted by a choice of the Facts and Fiction, my duty is to the fiction'.

    It means that information from research should never come before the actual story.
    Suits me, because I hate research.

    I have a longer post on doing research on my blog:

  18. My big tip is to get up off your chair and do something else for a bit for every hour you sit. It allows your mind to clear and organize your thinking.

  19. What great contributions!
    I especially agree with what Maryann said about spending too long to build up a character that gets killed.

    It's way too disappointing as a reader to invest lots of thoughts and feelings on a character that won't remain with me for the entire story.

    Morgan Mandel

  20. Enjoy what you write. If you are bored or distracted reading your own writing, why would anyone else be interested?

  21. I'd say remember that the major point of the first three pages is to get someone to want to keep going to page four. In other words, make sure everything at the start is designed to reel the reader in, entice them and make them hungry for more. Backstory is boring and will not interest the reader nearly as much as some newer writers seem to think. Get that snowball rolling down the hill first. Make us readers want to know what happens next and we will reward you by continuing to turn the pages.

  22. Great tips! I often try to get my clients to cut down on the backstory, especially in the first few pages of a novel. Get the story rolling first, then just add those background details little by little, on a "need-to-know" basis.

    I have a little grammar tip that some people may not be aware of - when to use "and me" and when to use "and I." For example, "He was waiting for Carol and I," is wrong. How do you know for sure? Just take out the "Carol and". Would you say "He was waiting for I"? No, so it has to be "He was waiting for Carol and me."

    Same with "Jason and me drove to the party." Take out "Jason and." Would you say, "Me drove to the party?" No, so it's "Jason and I drove to..."

    Ditto for "and her/him,them," etc. vs. "She/he/they and..." - just take out the "and (name)" and see how the rest sounds.

  23. Great tips, everyone! This kind of goes along with the "pleonasms"-- when you are in one of your final rewrite stages, see if you can eliminate at least one word from each sentence. I always edit for extraneous words like "that," "very," "both," etc. A friend of mine (http://jenniferwilke.wordpress.com/) is applying this technique and by Chapter 24, has cut her manuscript by 10,000 words.

    Heidi Thomas

  24. Try to avoid simultaneous action—something happening as something else happens. It jerks the reader in two different directions.

    Wilfred ran down the steps as he wondered what to wear to the interview while thinking about the impression he'd make when the phone rang. Arrgghhh!

  25. Becky, that simultaneous action example is really something!

    Morgan Mandel

  26. As an English teacher one of my pet peeves is seeing the wrong homophone in writing! Ie, going TO the store is directional...being at the store TOO is excess so there are two OOs. And the number has the W in it, so TWO kids are going TO the store TOO.
    Where are you going? Over THERE...note it has the word HERE in it, so it's a place thing. THEIR has the word HEIR in it, so it involves ownership. THEY'RE is a contraction of THEY ARE.
    And my all-time pet peeve? She should OF gone there. Here you want to use HAVE, but Americans are sloppy linguistically, so they say "She should've gone there."
    I realize these may appear minor, but when you are grading student work and find the same mistakes repeatedly, you start to really get annoyed by them!

  27. I mentioned this in my post yesterday about world building in fantasy novels. It's nice to hear some back up on that advice.

  28. Some excellent tips here, covering the spectrum from grammar to the process of keeping sane as a writer!

    Here's my contribution: a few concrete details make all the difference, in bringing a character or a setting to life. Notice the key words "few" and "concrete"!

    Lisabet Sarai

    P.S. I have a set of author-focused articles on my site, too.

  29. When writing an emotional scene, leave it open. That way it has a more powerful impact on the reader.

    I hope that makes sense :)

  30. Great advice here, and I'll add something I haven't seen mentioned yet.
    A trick I tell people at my workshops is to take a random page of your work and do two things. First, write down the first word of every sentence. If you find lots of repetition, like "He" or "I" or "The" as the start of sentences, you should do some rearranging and combining of clauses and phrases.
    Next, count the number of words in each sentence. There should be a variety, not all sentences of the same length.

  31. Yes, writers do like to share and this post illustrates that fact. Much of what I think has been said already. Just as a little extra to the pleonasm comments - I once searched my ms for "that" and found over a thousand that I could cut.
    When searching for ideas, nothing beats "Becoming a Writer" by Dorothea Brande which she wrote in 1932 but remains true today: "Be two people - let the unconscious run wild and the conscious weed out what is right and wrong".
    Sue Roebuck

  32. Gee, which of my many tips should I pick? I think I'll share something that makes a lot of sense.

    When writing in a characters POV, anything that character does, sees, feels, believes is assumed to belong to that person. Avoid starts like "He saw, he believed, he felt... I'll give you an example.

    Sean believed she was the prettiest girl in the room. He planned to invite her to dance. He hoped one spin around the floor might lead to inviting her home.

    Okay...isn't this better:

    Sean inhaled the sweetness of her cologne as she whirled by him on the dance floor. If fortune smiled on him, he'd be the next on her dance card, and if everything went right, she'd accompany him home.

    That might not be the best example, but I think you understand. If you avoid head hopping, the reader will always know whose POV they are in, so no need for all the extra baggage in the sentences. I just blogged about something similar a few days ago.

    I'm sure a new rule will pop up somewhere today. Seems every publisher has their own list.


  33. As a reader, there is a certain NYT bestselling author I've never been able to get into as she spent 1-1/2 pages discussing a policewoman's shoes. The mystery was set in Charlotte, NC, the character was Scarpetta. I'll eventually try one of her novels again but I don't know when.

    It throws me out of a novel when the author uses "myself" in lieu of "I" or "me" and I am seeing both of those mistakes more and more frequently.

    Thanks for these tips!

  34. Make a thumbnail sketch of a character stronger by providing a thought, opinion, or reaction from the point-of-view character. This gives the description another dimension and broadens characterization.



The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.


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