Just because you have a book published does not mean you know everything there is to know about writing. You can always get better. My first novel (Arch Enemies) was accepted and published by Double Dragon, and I was thrilled. I was a real author! But even then, I was aware that I could improve.
So I read books about writing. I took classes from professional authors, attended writer’s conferences, and participated in discussions and panels at conventions. While some of the things I learned centered around promoting myself and how to deal with the publishing industry, I also paid close attention to the actual job of writing itself.
And I learned some things.
Most of these lessons were obvious once I learned them. Each of these came with an “Of course! Why didn’t I see that before?!” light bulb attached. My writing improved considerably. The second novel (The Axes of Evil) was better than the first. I’m now shopping around my latest manuscript (Bloodsuckers: A Vampire Runs for President), which I believe is even better. I also edit short story anthologies (Tales of Fortannis), which take submissions from previously unpublished authors. This has taught me that I am not the only one unaware of these obvious rules beforehand … many of the rejected stories were sent back for violating these rules.
So here are my five obvious writing rules that aren’t that obvious:
1. Have a character point of view and don’t change it abruptly. My first two novels were in first-person narrative, so that wasn’t an issue, but now that my new novel is in third-person format I am paying much more attention to this rule.
Here, look at this paragraph:
John marched into the room. His anger raged within, like a volcano about to erupt. He stared at Mary, who stepped backwards, scared. She couldn’t help but admire the shirtless Adonis before her, but feared his power. Mary wondered if she could reach the knife in the drawer before John came closer. Fido barked, wanting only to be fed and have someone scratch his ears.
With whom does the reader identify? Is the main character John? Is it Mary? It could even be Fido! Jumping around from head to head tells the tale, but at a distance, with the reader removed from any one character. It’s clumsy, and often makes the reader have to go back and re-read a section to make sure it is understood. And that is something you definitely don’t want.
By making each scene take place with a limited third-person view — where everything is told from one character’s point of view — you can add drama, suspense, and most importantly get your reader to identify with that character and feel a part of the story.
John marched into the room. His anger raged within, like a volcano about to erupt. He stared at Mary, who backed away. Her eyes scanned his body as she softly licked her lips, and then her view darted to the kitchen. The dog barked once, its tail wagging happily.
This version allows the reader to identify with John. We still get the idea of what Mary is thinking, but through John’s POV. We also know the dog’s bark is friendly without having to analyze the dog’s thoughts.
Imagine residing in a specific character’s head for each scene. Descriptions of other characters will be from that POV and may not even be accurate, since we all have biases. It might be a good exercise to take some of your scenes and rewrite them, telling them from the POV of one of the secondary characters. Even if you don’t end up using it, the practice should tell you something about that secondary character you might not have known before, and can only help make your characters more real.
2. Try not to use words other than “said” and even then, try not to use “said.” And for that matter, steer away from adjectives that describe “said.” When you use other descriptions (growled, hissed, yelled, screamed, etc.) it can be distracting from the dialog you’re trying to highlight. It should be clear from the dialog. “Said” is sufficient by itself in almost every circumstance.
Better yet, try to avoid “said” whenever possible. Usually, you can indicate who is speaking from the paragraph in other ways.
“Give me that idol!” he screamed angrily.
As opposed to:
His face became red as he pounded his fist on the table. “Give me that idol!”
3. Show, don’t tell! Look at the paragraph above. Isn’t the second example better? And it’s obvious who is saying it — you don’t need to add “he said” at the end.
When I’m working on my second draft, I go back and make sure that I am showing, not telling. Maybe it’s my legal training, but I imagine myself cross-examining a character:
“He was mad.”
“How do you know that?”
“Well, his face turned red and he pounded his fist on the table.”
So that’s what I use instead.
4. Trust the reader. You don’t have to spell out your plots completely. The bad guy doesn’t have to detail his evil plan. It should become obvious sooner or later anyway. Admittedly, I kind of knew this all along. In fact, in my first novel, I even make fun of the “bad guy monologuing” cliche.
But it applies to all parts of your writing. Don’t explain that someone was happy or sad or angry — show it instead and the reader will get it. You don’t need to have your character think about what they’re doing; just have them do it. Don’t spell out everything that’s going on like some bad made-for-TV movie. You have readers – they are by definition smarter than the average person. Don’t dumb it down for them.
5. If you’re skimming over your own work, so will your readers. Leave out the boring parts. You don’t need to describe every detail of the room, or of the main character’s face. Readers will fill that in themselves.
Don’t go too far in the other direction, though. A few touches can set the mood better than anything. You don’t have to describe every object on the desk, but pointing out how well arranged, neat and tidy the objects all are tells us more about the person who owns that desk than a paragraph of character description. Lighting, smell, and textures can convey an enormous amount of information with few words.
These, then, were the five rules that made me go “Of course! Duh!” These are not the only rules for writing, just the ones that hit me recently. There are many other rules that I already knew, and I’m sure there are more I have yet to learn.
And, of course, a final disclaimer: I hate to use the word “rules” because there really are no rules in writing. If it works, it works. I can point out plenty of examples of wonderful literature that breaks all these rules. But if you’re that good of a writer that you can do that, then what are doing reading this?
Michael A. Ventrella interviews authors, agents, and editors on his blog. This article is an expanded version of one of his blog posts. Visit his site at www.michaelaventrella.com, follow him on Twitter and Facebook, and buy one of his books.