I’ve been an avid reader from a very young age, and I was an English major in college, but neither prepared me to be a publishable writer.
When I wrote my first novel, I knew how to put a story together. With my English degree and my job as a writer and editor, my novel certainly didn’t have grammatical errors. But anyone who’d been studying what it takes to become a published author would have immediately labeled me an amateur.
Here are a few things to avoid if you don’t want to stick out like jeans at the prom.
1. The “as you know” conversation. You read a scene that has a conversation something like this: “You know she was in that accident three years ago and lost an arm. That’s why she can’t play the clarinet anymore.” The problem with this type of device is in the first two words – “you know.” The character does already know, so why would the other person need to remind them. If you must use dialogue to convey something the characters already know, get creative. Something more like: “That stupid accident! I hate that she can’t play the clarinet anymore.”
2. Was xxxing. This one is perhaps more of a pet peeve for me, although I do see the more in-depth professional writers pick on it at times. Let’s use “was walking” as our example. If you’re writing in past tense and you use the term “was walking,” then you’d better be referring to an ongoing trip down the road or using it in dialogue with someone telling a story. If you’re purpose it to describe a person going from point A to point B, then 95 percent of the time it should just be “walked.” Sticking that “was” and “ing” into the sentence slows it down. If you go through your MS and change your “was xxxing” to “xxxed,” you’ll notice a big difference in the flow and pacing. Your character will be more active, and your writing will be stronger.
3. Fancy dialogue tags. Ah, dialogue tags. You want to use fancy ones like “he urged,” “she complained,” or “he coaxed.” It’s so boring to use “said” all the time. The problem is that these go into the tell territory when you could be showing the emotion behind the dialogue with movement or interior thoughts. It’s a cheat, really, to use fancy dialogue tags, and the writing experts will tell you not to do it. Does that mean you can’t slip one in every once in a while? No, but keep it to a minimum. And you don’t have to use “said” all the time either. There are other ways to show who’s talking without a straight dialogue tag.
4. Adverbs in dialogue tags. To add to the previous point, don’t just switch to something like “he said urgently,” “she said complainingly” or “he said coaxingly.” The same rule still applies. Find another way to convey the urgency. For example:
“We have to go home now!” He tugged on her arm.
She stuck out her lower lip. “But I don’t want to.”
“I’ll give you a sucker if you come now.”
Hopefully you saw the urgency in the tugging, the complaining with the pout, and the coaxing with the actual dialogue. (Maybe you’ve had this conversation with one of your kids–not that I endorse bribery :).)
You might say, “But best-selling author X does No. 3 all the time.” I know. That’s part of why I didn’t realize it was an issue when I started writing seriously. Instead of reading current novels, I was reading books by my favorite authors—authors who have been publishing for 20 years or more. When they started, these techniques weren’t an issue. And they’re already popular, so they don’t need to change. To be honest, it now drives me crazy that some of my favorite authors do these things, but once I get far enough into the story, I don’t notice it anymore.
We can’t count on someone reading far enough into our MS to forget about these amateur devices. The market is extremely competitive today, and our first efforts have to be better. Sure, there will be flukes that get through without following the rules, but don’t aim to be the exception to the rule. Just aim to be exceptional.
What writing techniques drive you crazy?