Every Wednesday night I attend a writers’ workshop here in Coquitlam, BC. We take turns reading what we’ve written that week, and offer up our feedback on what we hear. It’s a great chance to see what works and what doesn’t, and, for someone who spends most of the day alone with her computer, it’s a welcome opportunity to socialize.
Listening to others’ stories, and getting feedback on my own, it occurs to me that there are some things that come up frequently when writing fiction – little writing “tics”, for lack of a better word, that spoil what could be some pretty good, even very good, stories.
Some of these are things I did myself when I first started out, until I had enough editors (and a couple of publishers) verbally rap me on the knuckles. If you haven’t had your knuckles rapped yet, well, allow me to be the first.
In no particular order, here are 10 rules for getting rid of the “tics”:
- Drop your adverbs. I’m not the first person to suggest this, and I won’t be the last. Stephen King goes on at length about adverbs in his book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. And Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules for Good Writing urges you to never modify “said” with an adverb. Why do they loathe these qualifiers? Because, if your dialogue is well-written, the reader will understand how it’s being said. Example: “I hate my life,” he said mournfully. Really? Is there any other way to say it? I think not.
- Kill your unnecessary characters. I say this because it’s too easy to find yourself writing about a character you’ve grown to like but who has no discernable role or purpose in being there. It’s a little like having an actor onstage who has nothing to do but stand there; the audience is mystified. War and Peace is full of characters – I don’t think anyone knows how many – but that was War and Peace, one of the best loved novels of all time. Tolstoy got away with it; most of us won’t.
- Don’t be afraid of pronouns. It’s great to have a good name for a character, but if you overuse it, readers get sick of it. If you begin by telling us that Ben is driving the car, we don’t need to begin every other sentence with Ben’s name. “He”, “him”, and “his” all work well. And if he starts talking, let him talk for a while, even if he’s interrupted, without telling us, once again, that Ben is speaking. Which brings us to:
- Dialogue. Try to write like people actually speak. It’s amazing how many characters in otherwise well-written books – books that have gotten published – speak like aliens. Very few of us speak in perfectly formed, scrupulously grammatical sentences. We also say a lot of boring things like, “Pass the salt” and “Where’s the remote?” Generally, these do not further the plot; leave them out. Also, in real life, when we’re interrupted, we do not suddenly stop in mid sentence to allow the other person to interrupt us. If you want to see this in action, attend any one of a number of badly performed stage plays. Try to avoid writing it this way.
- Writing in dialect. Just . . . don’t. Alice Walker wrote The Color People in the dialect of oppressed African-Americans of the South. Irvine Welsh wrote Trainspotting in the dialect of a group of Scottish heroin addicts. Roddy Doyle wrote The Commitments in the dialect of a bunch of Dubliners. These are great books, from great writers. It can be done and done well. Most of us, however, shouldn’t attempt it. I’m just saying.
- Leave out the boring bits. By this I mean if you want to take your character from point A to point B, you don’t necessarily have to show him getting into his car, turning the key in the engine, and backing out of the driveway. Unless there is some significance to those actions, you can switch to point B; the reader will assume he drove there. Unless he’s Superman, which is a whole other kind of writing.
- Keep (somewhat) to the chronology. I like backstory as much as the next person. Correction: I love backstory. If I had my way I would write only backstory. In my experience, though, it can take over. It can keep you from getting on with the narrative, and it’s distracting. If you need some backstory, try to write it in digestible chunks, with just as much as is needed to explain your characters. If you need a lot of backstory, start with it and move forward to the present.
- Footnotes. Footnotes have a well-deserved place in academic writing, non fiction, and even creative non fiction. But in fiction, if you find yourself needing a footnote, you probably need to do some re-writing. In Infinite Jest, the late David Foster Wallace added 388 footnotes to the text of his 981-page narrative. Most of those footnotes, which covered 96 pages, were irrelevant, uninteresting or both.
- Don’t over explain. There’s a reason for Google: it lets us check out a word we don’t know when we come across it for the first time. (We used to go to our Oxford English dictionaries but we now use those to prop up our bookshelves.) If you want to use a word like “persiflage”, it’s not necessary to add, in brackets or otherwise, “frivolous, light-hearted talk” – especially if you’ve made the meaning clear in the context of the story. Although, personally, I’d just write “frivolous, light-hearted talk”.
- Italics. Writers go back and forth on the subject of italics, which are often used to show us a character’s inner thoughts. William Faulkner used italics in The Sound and the Fury to indicate shifts in the narrative, which, although it was one of his best books, probably contributed to the confusion on the part of many readers. The general feeling these days is to leave them out, except for emphasis (as in #7, above) or when giving the title of a book, play, or movie.