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So You Want to be a Writer

14 tips for writers

“There’s nothing to writing. All you do is sit in front of a typewriter and open a vein!” (Red Smith) So you want to be a writer – or perhaps a better writer? In spite of the opening quote, pouring your life’s blood into your writing won’t necessarily make it readable or indeed publishable – but the following tips might help.

Get ’em in the first sentence

When you pick up a book, where do you want the entertainment to start? From sentence one, of course! Here are some opening lines taken at random from my bookshelves.

  • He should never have taken that shortcut. (From my favourite novel, Timeline by Michael Crichton.)
  • “I’m going to get that bloody bastard if I die in the attempt.” (King Rat – James Clavell)
  • Sam Cash looked at his old woman the way a man looked at a steep ridge he’s got to climb on a hot day. (Hang on a Minute Mate – Barry Crump)
  • Friday the fifteenth is a very special day for me. (Watermelon – Marian Keyes)

Do these sentences make you want to read more? In the last book, by the second sentence the speaker has had a baby and by the third her husband has left her. This author has got my attention; now I want details!

If you can’t get ’em in the first sentence, get ’em in the first page

In an informal study on browsing behaviour in Manhattan book stores in the 1990s, Sol Stein, American author, editor and publisher from whom much of this advice is taken, found that a reader deciding on a book to buy will read the front flap first and then go to page one. No browser ever got past page 3. He comments that readers have not got more patient since.

This advice is as appropriate for non-fiction writers as for fiction. Their goals are the same – to bait the reader’s interest sufficiently at the start so he’s hooked into the action. If a journalist provides the who, what, when, where and why in the first paragraph, most readers will stop reading. The best journalists arouse curiosity in the first paragraph with a few details that seduce us into reading the rest of the story.

Show don’t tell

Readers want an emotional experience, to be entertained. Create a picture: Every few minutes his right hand checked to see that his reproductive organs were still in place; rather than simply telling us He didn’t know what to do with his hands. While the functions of fiction (to evoke emotion) and non-fiction (to convey information) are quite different, the techniques of fiction writing can be applied to non-fiction to make it more readable. Information presented in its ‘raw’ state can be boring. Facts and figures seldom inspire people to act. Accurate presentation needs to be combined with effective expression – background, personal anecdotes, images that compel the emotions or imagination. There is nothing wrong with making facts interesting and using metaphors to liven up descriptions of people or places.

Naturally, you wouldn’t want to overdo it, but with a good non-fiction writer, the character of the writing may lure the reader to read just as much as the subject. Bill Bryson is top of the class here: a writer who can make information interesting and facts and figures actually entertaining. I have read travel books, a subject I am not normally even the slightest bit interested in, simply because they were written by Bryson.

Action not description

“You are a story-teller, not an interior decorator,” says Stein. To keep the readers’ attention, you want his/her involvement to be a continuous experience. Static descriptions interrupt the story as do narrative summaries (recounting events that happen out of sight or in the past). Avoid them or put into present time.

A brilliant example of the first three principles, and the one following, is Deception Point by Dan Brown, author of Da Vinci Code. First sentence: Death, in this forsaken place, could come in countless forms. On the second page a character (who we’ve started to like) is forced to send a message with a gun at his head, and on the third he is tossed out of a helicopter. No explanations, no nothing. Which brings me to my next principle…

Keep the suspense going

Suspense is achieved by arousing the reader’s curiosity and keeping it aroused for as long as possible. Who cares if your reader loses sleep, is late for work or misses an appointment – if their excuse is “I couldn’t put it down”, you’ve got it right!

In the modern bestseller the plot is fast and furious. Typical examples are John Grisham’s The Firm and Matthew Reilly’s books (Temple is my favourite), which are action and suspense from start to finish. Reilly, an Australian writer, was in his 20s when he wrote his first book, Contest, which he self-published and marketed to retailers, catching popular attention before attracting a publisher. Reilly is more into plot development than character development as most of his characters are killed off (in gruesomely inventive ways) during his stories. Stealing secret weapons and ancient treasures never ends well, but Reilly manages to keep us on tenterhooks because it frequently seems – but surely not; I’d better keep reading – as if the bad guys are going to get away with it.

Eliminate or strengthen

According to Stein, who’s written, edited and published a number of bestsellers, getting the suspense factor right will improve a book’s chances of publication. So how do you do this? Make an outline of the scenes of your book or story, noting location, character and action in each one. A good story jumps from one scene to another leaving the reader hanging at the end of each scene as they switch to the next one. You might need to change the order of the scenes to keep up the suspense or cut out a weak scene entirely. It’s brutal, but it will strengthen the book as a whole. You may now have to look at the second-weakest scene. Does that need cutting too?

If that’s too painful, you can strengthen a slow passage by stepping up the pace. In fiction, you do this through a quick exchange of adversarial dialogue or by skipping a scene. Lead up to an event and then continue the story after it has happened – let the scene happen in the reader’s imagination. In non-fiction, you step up the pace with short sentences and frequent paragraphing.

Make the characters memorable

The stories that baby boomers grew up with, Anne of Green Gables, The Three Musketeers, Wuthering Heights, A Town Like Alice… ‘classics’, i.e. books that have a timeless appeal, were all about people and what happened to them. For example, many (older) readers may still recall details of the various characters of Jane Austen, Somerset Maugham and Charles Dickens. I read David Copperfield when I was quite young and the eccentric Mr Micawber’s advice on budgeting has stayed with me to this day: “Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen nineteen six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery.” An ageless theme!

These days, I think it would be fair to say that characters have taken second place to plot in much of our popular fiction. Think Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton – do we remember characters or the story? Of course, it doesn’t have to be one or the other. You can have character development and plot – I’m thinking local: tattoos, anger management issues… Yes, it’s Jake the Muss (Once Were Warriors – Alan Duff). No one’s going to be forgetting him in a hurry.

Use words accurately and elegantly

A sloppy writer might describe a character as ‘human’. What else would a person be? Perhaps the writer means ‘humane’; perhaps ‘inclined to err’. Not the sort of guessing we want a reader to do. Use adjectives sparingly. Instead, make your characters interesting by using metaphor, action or dialogue. Don’t waste our time with: George was a big fellow. Create a picture for us: When George came your way, you thought you were being run down by a truck. Naturally, you don’t want to arouse scepticism with an inaccurate metaphor or simile. If a man gets shoved into a bookcase don’t tell us: Paperbacks fluttered out like birds. Hardly. Anyone who’s ever had a book land on their head knows that books do not flutter. They drop like rocks and they hurt. (PS Avoid clichés like ‘drop like rocks’!)

Make the dialogue count – no boring stuff

Dialogue can also be used to describe characters. For example, we don’t have to explain, Jackson was poorly educated (the sort of static description we try to avoid); instead we might have him say, "You be dissing me, man?" The reader gets the message and interest is captured at the same time.

She: How are you?
He: I’m fine.
She: And the family?
He: Family’s fine too.

The reader doesn’t have to pick up a book to experience this sort of conversation. The purpose of fiction is to give the reader an emotional experience. Make the dialogue worth their while.

She: How are you?
He: I suppose I’m OK.
(Something’s going on)
She: Why? What’s the matter?
He: I guess you haven’t heard.
(I knew it! Something IS going on – probably something juicy!)

Cut out the flab!

This principle applies to the non-fiction writer as well. In reporting speech, it is not the journalist’s obligation to reproduce ALL of the words as long as a speaker’s meaning is preserved. You need to be selective:

  • Keep parts that reveal the character of the speaker or define the subject matter
  • Preserve comments that are confrontational, colourful and, of course, appropriate to the topic
  • Tidy up grammar without overdoing it – keep the flavour
  • NEVER misquote or invent dialogue.

I once edited an article about a well-known businesswoman in which the author had included so much of an interview – details, asides, even complete non sequiturs as if every word was gold – that the reader was completely distracted from the points the businesswoman was making. It made for a much weaker article than if the writer had been more selective.

Draft, redraft, polish and polish again

Even great writers don’t get it right the first time. Hemingway is reported in an interview as saying he rewrote the ending of A Farewell to Arms thirty-nine times before he was satisfied. Asked what stumped him, he replied, “Getting the words right.”

Cutting out superfluous adjectives and adverbs strengthens the story. An uncompromising advocate of this approach was Mark Twain (Tom Sawyer, Prince and the Pauper), who is reputed to have said, “If you catch an adjective, kill it!” But they’re not all bad, and there are rules to decide which ones to keep:

  • a necessary adjective, e.g. His right eye kept blinking
  • an adjective that stimulates the reader’s curiosity or moves the story along, e.g. He stood, not quite still, his eyes flicking from side to side with a hunted look
  • an adjective that helps the reader visualise.

Get rid of dispensable adverbs, in particular ‘very’ and ‘quite’. And take care not to say something twice. For example, I hurriedly scribbled the number down. Scribbling connotes hurry. Sometimes whole sentences are flab: He was dirty. Everything about him was unclean. Even the whites of his eyes were soiled. Flab just slows the pace – sometimes you have to be merciless in dealing with it.

Check for credibility

There are three things that can wreck credibility:

  • making the reader guess motivation for an action. Make sure you have prepared the ground
  • incomplete scenes, where the writer has a clear picture in mind of the way a scene goes but forgets to fill the reader in
  • using coincidence or having a character ‘suddenly’ decide to do something because it is convenient to the story.
Lack of preparation, missing info and weak motivation can leave the reader wondering what is going on or why. Too many unanswered questions make a story unconvincing.

The right title

“A good title is the title of a successful book,” according to Raymond Chandler, and in his time this writer of detective novels has had some successful books; The Long Goodbye and Farewell My Lovely spring to mind. (Think Lee Childs with Reacher in a trilby and a dame in trouble!) A good title is important in both fiction and non-fiction. It’s what makes a reader want to read your work. It also needs to arouse the imagination.

You may be surprised to learn that a title is less about describing the story than enticing the reader. The following titles were changed by the publisher before they went to print into the successful versions we know today: Tenderness became Lady Chatterley’s Lover; Hurrah for the Red, White and Blue became The Great Gadsby; To Climb the Wall became The Blackboard Jungle. As with the last example, many great titles use metaphor.

A title that intrigued me was Not Her Real Name. (I caught the tail end of a review of Emily Perkins’ book of short stories on TV.) I had questions immediately. Why wasn’t she using her real name? What dark, dangerous or tragic event was she hiding from? Was she being stalked by a violent ex-boyfriend or a killer she’d accidentally witnessed in the act? A vivid imagination is not always the blessing it might seem! I got Not Her Real Name from the library and sat down to savour the mystery as it was revealed, hint by hint, clue by clue. Disappointment! The characters appeared to be quite happy with their names and the only mystery was the connection between the title and the story. My advice after this deflating experience: entice the reader by all means, but don’t create false expectations.

So start writing. All you have to do is grab a piece of paper, open a vein and get some blood on the page!