16 writing tricks for 2016

Since this is getting to be a tradition, here are 16 of my favorite writing tips and tricks from the last year. Some are oldies but goldies that I’ve gained new appreciation of in my last year as a freelance editor and newly agented writer, and some may be new! Either way, hopefully they help you as much as they’ve helped me.

1 :: imagine it like a movie

One of the best tricks I learned when I was interning under retired agent Mary Kole was to pretend that your manuscript was a movie and you were its director. This helps you make sure that the characters are always doing something and not like, thinking for ages inside their heads or spending too much time explaining things to the reader.

Actors like projects where they have to communicate information by acting— see Mad Max: Fury Road for a great example of this. If all your stage directions to your book actors are “sit on bed, look sad, and think” that’s hard to get your reader engaged. If your instructions are instead “sneak out of house, silently bribe younger sibling, and steal parents’ car” then that’s something we’re going to be more interested in.

2 :: adverbs cost extra

You shouldn’t cut all of them, but you should make damn sure that you’ve tried really hard to cut all of them and have come up with a compelling reason not to for the ones you keep. Imagine that all the words in your book are groceries and you’re on a budget. You can totally buy some expensive stuff, like adverbs, but you can’t buy them with everything. Make sure that the places you’re purchasing adverbs for are the ones that actually need them for you to get the meaning. For example:

Dominic says jovially. can just be Dominic laughs. But you might want to keep the adverb in something like Dominic certainly was not a part of that. because the “certainly” is a part of the character’s voice and tells us that he’s just a little bit affronted you thought that about him. As long as an adverb is pulling its weight in multiple ways, it’s probably okay.

3 :: swears are like spices

On a similar tack, the same can be done with swears. If you find yourself using a lot of curses in your manuscript, especially all in one scene or very early on, think about swear words like sriracha or ghost peppers. If you throw a lot of them at your reader at once, their tongue’s going to get burnt or their mouth will go numb and they won’t really be able to taste any more spiciness.

When you throw a lot of these at a reader in short order, it sets a tone. If a lot of your characters are swearing at the story’s climax, then that’s likely okay– you want it to be shocking for everyone! But if it’s the first scene and everyone’s losing their junk, then that’s not going to leave you with a lot of ammo for the higher intensity scenes later.

4 :: cut thinking/perceiving verbs

I have linked to this article from Chuck Palahniuk so many times in 2015 it’s unreal. It’s honestly some of the best advice I’ve heard about taking my show vs. tell game up a level.

He’s not kidding when he says this is going to be a long process. Months is not an overestimate. It’s annoying as hell when you catch yourself doing it (and once you see how common thinking/knowing/perceiving verbs are, you can’t unsee them) but if you’re serious about becoming a better writer, read this, work through it, and meet me on the other side. It’s worth it.

5 :: KB’s list of ten

These next two are courtesy of one of my CPs and fellow freelancer-in-arms, Kate Brauning. I love them both so much that I have stolen them from her, and I am shamelessly including them in my favorites list.

Don’t know where your plot is going or why a character is even doing a thing? Make a list of ten reasons why they’re doing it, why your worldbuilt world is the way it is, why the villain hates the protag, etc. The first three will probably be boring or the ones that everyone thinks about. 4-6 will be harder to think of. By the time you reach 7-10, you’ll see the cool ideas come out and play.

6 :: KB’s start on the day that it’s different

Another great one from Kate: when you begin your story, make sure you start on the day that it’s different.

This is solid gold on a several levels. For one, beginning when things change means that you start with the action. “The day that it’s different” can also mean that everything is normal, slice of life time until this defining incident that turns things on their head for your protagonist. So if you’re very tricky, you can not only establish how things normally are, but then also show them falling apart and start the book off at a gallop.

7 :: your main character is always choosing something

This article has been tremendous help to me in my most recent revisions. Like, as in, I still have it open in a tab.

What makes a compelling story? When your main character drives the action instead of weathering all these things happening to them. How can you make them do that? By forcing them to make a choice each scene that either brings them closer to or farther from their overall goal.

8 :: post-it walls for plot and tension

I don’t have a picture of it because I am still on vacation, alas, but post-it walls are how I keep plot and subplot threads straight. I use different colors when I can for different timelines, and then follow how each of my subplots advance (each chapter gets a column, and if I see a subplot falling off the map at any point, I know I have to go back and bring it more to front). Granted, this is somewhat challenging to do in a studio apartment, but there are always doors, floors, and ceilings.

9 :: print it out and color code for subplots

I recently read Cheryl Klein’s book on editing, Second Sight, and I loved this trick. This was part of what made my post-it wall go so well: I went through my printed out manuscript, took all these different highlighter colors, and highlighted when a subplot came up. (You can also just use Word’s highlighting feature for this too.)

I’m someone who likes to be able to see the whole of a project at a glance, so doing this and the colored post-it method together was aces. I could look over from my desk and go “oh, there’s not enough green in this middle bit, I should up the election subplot here” and then voila, problem solved. Just remember to update it as you revise.

10 :: only tell your reader what they need to know to get the scene

Infodumping, the bane of literally everyone during first drafts of fantasy. Especially when you’re still figuring out where the story needs to go, it’s hard to know how much or how little to tell people. But when you’re revising and you’re realizing that half of your scenes are, perhaps, your main character sitting on their bed thinking how terrible obscure trade routes have gotten, you start to realize that maybe not all of this information is necessary.

Leave a little room for your reader to fill in the blanks themselves. This is true even in YA contemp, and I can tell you that from experience: hint at other stuff at the edges, but you don’t have to describe it all in detail. I also think of this as the here’s-where-readers-could-expand-on-in-fanfic tip– people are actually really good at imagining the rest of the picture for you if you provide them with some interesting sketches of the major buildings.

11 :: dying/survival isn’t necessary the best stakes

This was actually a hard pill for me to swallow. Like, why not?? IT’S LIFE OR DEATH, HOW IS THAT NOT STAKES? But for conflict and stakes to be effective, they always have to be choices that I don’t know a good answer to as your reader. “She must either give up her rough life or her loving family” how is this a choice? We already know the answer. Granted, some of my favorite stories are the “protag must choose between death and saving people” ones, and that’s also (often) an easy choice. It’s all in how it’s done.

We’re interested more in the stakes if it’s a lose-lose situation: “he has to choose between his bright future and avenging the girl that he loves.” If he doesn’t avenge her, then he lives well but regrets it always. If he does avenge the girl, then he’s ruined his life. What does he choose?

12 :: cut 10% each draft

This one is, again, very Alex-specific and your mileage may vary. I overwrite, often because I figure out where the story needs to go by writing through all the possible options. Oddly enough, almost everything I’ve ever written is over 100k (sometimes over 200k, I know, but no one reads/slays those monsters but me) during its first or zero drafts.

Cutting down not only helps me improve pacing, but if I know go into revisions being like “okay I need to try to get it under 85k this time” then it forces me to look at each word and see if it’s pulling double its weight or just taking up space. If it’s just taking up space, nix or rewrite something else to do its job.

13 :: agency agency agency

This dovetails on 7 from before about characters making choices. We’re interested in following a main character around when they are the ones driving the action. If all these things are just happening to your protagonist because they’re the chosen one, it’s harder to like them because of their choices– outside forces are steering the ship more than the person we’re stuck with!

Especially if you find that your protagonist spends more time waiting for things to happen to them than actively going out and changing things, consider making them more active, more desperate for change that they become its agent. There’s a reason that the Call to Action is part of the Hero’s Journey– it’s terrifying sometimes to realize that you have to be the one changing things, but ultimately a lot more interesting things happen when you start actively moving toward your goals than just getting swept along in the current.

14 :: each image tells me something new

The funny thing about purple prose is that usually the people doing it are trying really hard not to. They want to make their descriptions fresh and new, or relate this emotional response so accurately that it hits you right in the gut.  And usually what happens is that people just go overboard: either describing the same aspect about same thing over and over, or unpacking too much in too little time.

What I try to do when I revise is to look at each descriptive phrase or image I use and evaluate if it tells me something new about the scene or object. If you find yourself restating the same detail but with different words, cut.

15 :: lists of ten, redux: first impressions

Ha! And you thought we were done with lists of ten. NOPE this one is another gem from Cheryl Klein: list out the first ten things that your main character does. This is going to be our first impression of them as readers.

This can be really humbling, especially as the author. Like, you know these characters really well! You’re sure the audience will have the same picture in their heads as you because you’ve totally done a great job, and then you do the list and you’re like wow, my protag is coming off as super whiny and also kind of a jerk to his family.

First impressions set a baseline for how your character acts. Make sure that the first things you’re showing us (they should be a mixed bag of good and bad, as always) are things that you’ve curated.

16 :: you can do anything as long as you do it well

Still my favorite, because everyone has that one piece of writing advice that they just can’t stand. You should know what the rules are, but as long as you break them convincingly no one’s going to mind. How do you learn to break them convincingly? By learning why they’re in place, what disasters they avert, and learning how to write obeying them really, really well.

It’s once you understand what a rule does for you that you become capable of breaking it well– you’re going to have to make other things hang together more tightly because of the rule you’re breaking, and if you don’t know what the rule does for you, it’s hard to tell where the things you need to patch up are.

As always, happy 2016–and happy writing.