Wordsmith Wednesday–10 Suggestions to Improve your Fiction Writing

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I’m in a bullet point mood. That is to say, I feel like posting a list of short, unrelated tidbits that aim to help you improve your writing. Some, I’ve already mentioned. Others are new but don’t need a thesis.

  • To create a bit of drama in the relationships of your fictional characters, triangulate. Add a third party to a friendship or love relationship…someone who threatens to disturb the balance.
  • Within the first few pages of your novel (or first few paragraphs of your short story) create a destabilizing event–something that creates an obstacle to the goals of your protagonist.
  • Take two steps forward and one step backward. The path to resolution should be full of obstacles. As the story advances, allow your hero to solve a problem, but introduce another one in its wake. Keep the reader on edge and turning pages.
  • Embrace realism. We ask our readers to suspend disbelief, but there must be a thread of truth in what you write, even if you write sci-fi or fantasy. Your audience should be able to say, “If we were invaded by Martians, it is not improbable that humans would react like….”
  • Create multidimensional scenes. Don’t relay solely on one sense to describe a setting. What does it look like? Smell like? Sound like. The more you are able to engage the readers senses, the better able will you be to hurl them into the story.
  • Read aloud. Whether you edit/revise as you go along or as one unit (or both, like I do) be sure to read your manuscript aloud. You will catch typos, stilted dialogue, echos, or odd syntax when you go through that exercise. If you can find someone to read with you, especially portions of dialogue, all the better.
  • Be objective. If you use a familiar setting, for example, make sure your descriptions are clear to the reader. You may be able to envision the details of a scene but have you written it so that anyone can picture the progression of the action?
  • Connect with your reader. Identify the demographics of your target audience and write to them. Use appropriate language for age, gender, education level etc.
  • Allow a theme to emerge from your story–don’t force the story to fit the theme.
  • And, finally, whenever possible, substitute an active verb for an adverb or adjective.

I hope that you will find one or more of these suggestions helpful to you in your writing and revision process. I would love any feedback you have to offer. Above all, enjoy what you do!

Wordsmith Wednesday–Voice


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A number of years ago I participated in a writing conference in which one of the speakers–a well-known author and writing guru–tossed out a piece of advice that I never followed. He claimed that budding authors, in order to improve their writing style, should sit down with a favorite book by a writer that they admire and copy the text, word-for-word, page-by-page. I just couldn’t buy into this suggestion.

I was already facing a glaring weakness in my own first novel. At the time I had been reading a lot of mystery novels by Robert Parker and had, unconsciously, imitated his short, clipped sentences. They worked for Parker who used them to propel his readers through quick, suspenseful reads tinged with a sense of humor–the kind of books that benefited my lifestyle at the time, that of a working professional. But I was writing literary fiction and dealing with issues of life and death that demanded a bit more ponderous tone.

Voice refers to the way an author uses words, style and syntax to create a story. Each of us has a message to deliver and, for the most part, we have a specific audience hovering somewhere below the surface of our consciousness. I think it is important to ask ourselves a few questions that will help to evaluate our own voice:

Who am I? Is my narrative true to my unique personality? If I read it aloud, is it congruent with how I envision life? Example: for me to undertake writing that is full of expletives, violence or lewdness is out of character. That does not mean I will not pen occasional scenes or characters that are edgy.

Do my characters all sound alike? Have I entered into their minds enough to differentiate one from another? Does a uneducated protagonist sound like a PhD? Does a physician sound like a teenager? Take the time to learn the “language” of your characters by visiting, eaves-dropping or interviewing persons of various backgrounds if you need to. Write dialect only if you are comfortable with it and can make it sound natural. This takes considerable skill and talent. Mark Twain succeeded in writing from the point of view of Huck Finn. Not many are able to pull that off.

Who is my intended audience? A while back I worked at a University editing patient education material for a nutrition department. The original work had been written by people educated at the Master’s or Doctoral level. The intended audience was for socio-economically deprived persons. It was my job to communicate the information in such a way that it would be meaningful to those who would use it.

As a writing exercise, I’m going to suggest the opposite of what the afore-mentioned speaker advised. Take a few paragraphs of an author you admire and rewrite them…in YOUR voice.