23 August 2009

I mentioned in a writer's area of a book forum, in an off-handed sort of way, that I was pretty much done with my current manuscript and was at the waiting point...wait for someone with proof it, wait for a final layout so that I would know how many pages and therefore how wide the spine needs to be, wait for a print-proof copy....lots of waiting.

Within an hour I had a couple of requests...since you're not busy with anything else--I didn't exactly say that, but I see how it can be inferred--would you take a look at the thing I'm working on?

Since these are writers who can, presumably, take some criticism, I said yes. And I didn't regret it; the stories were very good and sucked me in from the first line. It's always good to grab a reader right from the start. These writers are also very new to the game and while they can weave a mean tale, they're also making some very common new-writer (and old writer) mistakes.

Out of ten things I'm asked to read, I wind up giving the same advice to nine of the writers:

  • go back and edit out 98% of the adverbs1... 'she said sadly;' 'he laughed quietly;' 'she said gently.' That was one of the biggest things I took away from Stephen King's book On Writing. Kill the adverbs. If you've written the story well enough, those are implied. Your reader should know the character well enough to understand how they are speaking or sighing or laughing. When you're plowing through the first draft, use them liberally; they help you maintain the tone of your work, but then go back and pick most of them out. They really are verbal fluff.

  • Don't use the word literally unless something actually happens. "His head literally exploded!" Unless your character is scraping bits and pieces of someone's brain off the wall, his head did not actually explode. "My heart literally swelled three sizes." No...well, maybe, but you better see a cardiologist. We all tend to say "literally" when it would be more apt to say "figuratively" but that doesn't have the same ring to it. So scrap them both unless something literally happens, and even then think twice, and then think again.

  • I let my eyes roam around the room. No. No you did not...unless you literally popped them out of your head, fit them with tiny red sneakers, and set them free, your eyes did not roam anywhere.You looked around the room. Just be wary of dead metaphors and literary cliches.

  • Slice the word "just" as much as possible. It's as overused as the adverb; sometimes you just can't help it, but really, cut it.

  • Recognize that you are going to do all of these, repeatedly. Be willing to edit them out. Be willing to edit even the things you find hysterically funny, the characters you've fallen in love with, the prose that feels Pulitzer-prize worthy; if it doesn't add to the story or move it forward...edit.

The tenth writer? I don't make it past the first few lines. If you show me something written in old AOL-kiddie speak or something that looks like it was written as one giant text message, I'm going to shove it aside.

None of this applies to blogs...unless you're a professional blogger, and even's a blog. Who cares if the grammar, punctuation, and word usage aren't perfect?

1Basically, taking and adjective and adding -ly to it to form a verb
2Um. There is no 2. There should be, but there's not. I just like using the sup tag...


Twisted Cinderella said...

really great advice for writers.

kenju said...

I just have to get rid of the word just!! I know I use it too much.

Angel and Kirby said...

Very good advice. I have read books where the author user every adverb theu could find and it makes the book tiring!

Karen Jo said...

Very sound advice. I often find myself overusing certain words and find it very hard to stop.

Undr said...

Gently, I just have to say that I literally cannot refrain from digging into my brain and from it pulling every single one of these truisms and breaking each one precipitously.

Karen McQ. said...

Great post--funny and wise!

Tara said...

I think the search function was designed for writers. Use it. Search and destroy.