Forty years ago, I enrolled in a report-writing class in our Adult Education system and found it cancelled by lack of numbers. I was offered instead, a fiction writing class conducted by a writer of pulp detective stories and my sense of humor prompted me to accept the alternative. Other than it leading to my first published story in a long defunct men’s magazine, I remember only a few highlights of the course, none of which I use today.
It did prompt me to write my first novel, using a portable typewriter perched on my knee during engine room watches at sea, and led to me using fiction writing as a form of stress relief from a twenty-four/seven technical career in the offshore oil industry some years afterwards. I still have some of my early manuscripts and they are, quite frankly, atrocious.
I’m not sure what prompted me to put aside the dubious pleasure of writing for myself and start writing for other readers to enjoy, but the habits of success ensured that I began by a detailed analysis of the process and a plan to succeed. Fifteen published books and several magazine shorts later, I’m still working on it.
Its central tenet lies in the understanding that my task as a writer is to disappear from the reader’s consciousness, leaving them caught up in a smoothly advancing story “now”, unaware that they are reading as they experience the story unfolding around them. Supporting this tenet are twenty-three pillars of acquired skill, none of them original, but all functional.
(1) Punctuation: Keep it simple, tailored to the needs of your targeted readers;
(2) Use simple words vividly rather than trying to impress with your erudition;
(3) Imprecise words: - “He picked up something heavy and hit the man on the head” is much better as “David snatched a fist-sized rock from the pile and slammed it into the back of John’s head.”;
(4) Unnecessary words, phrases, adjectives: - The morning sun’s silent rays burned Julia’s skin as she walked from the grassy open field into the deeply forested woods. Immediately, the late spring air felt cooler. She sat down on a grey rock, took off her Cordura nylon backpack, pulled open the sticky Velcro fastener of the side pocket and took out a plastic bottle of soda water. She opened the blue screw-type top and drank thirstily. Her green and gold speckled kerchief felt scratchy against her sweaty skin, so she loosened it. Crows cackled wickedly from somewhere in the dark woods. A small ladybug with one wing torn off was crawling on the rock’s rough surface.;
(5) Space fillers: About; Actually; Almost; Like; Already; Appears; Approximately; Basically; Close to; Even; Eventually; Exactly; Finally; Here; Just; Just Then; Kind of; Nearly; Now; Practically; Really; Seems; Simply; Somehow; Somewhat; Somewhat like; Sort of; Suddenly; Then; There; Truly; Utterly
(6) Overuse of adverbs; A well chosen adverb can create vivid images, but many of them are simply unnecessary. Take “she slammed the door forcibly” and ask yourself how else do you slam a door? Add to this the repeated “ly” that most of them end in creates a clickerty-clack rhythm in your writing that palls very rapidly.
(7) Overuse of past tense: - Differentiate between the immediate past of “Harold lied” and the more distant past of “Harold had lied.”;
(8) Overuse of participle phrases: - “This is a really boring movie,” she said, fidgeting in her seat. “You said it,” he agreed, handing her the popcorn.” Considering for a moment, she took a handful. “I really shouldn’t be doing this,” she said, her voice dropping.;
(9) Illogical use of “as” and “while”: - “Hey, Jim. How about another drink for this guy and give me a refill of my usual,” while she said this, Anna leaned forward and dropped one leg to the floor. Jennifer’s head shot up as she looked around. “Damn coasters,” the barman said, as one fell to the floor. ;
(10) Run on prepositional phrases: - “He won the race in the rain, under record time, with new shoes …… etc.;
(11) Repetitious words or phrases; These sneak into our writing like thieves. Consider the following: “By the time he reached the party, there were a collection of his friends there before him. Now the MC was there, it was time to start. There was an air of excitement already.”
(12) Convoluted phrasing: - “The place turned out to be a Laundromat” is better as “It was a Laundromat.” “She launched herself forward at him.” Is better as “She jumped at him.” And “He raised himself from his chair and came to stand by the bar.” Is better as “He stood and came to the bar.”;
(13) Weak sentence structure: - “Harold clenched his fist outside Henderson’s door” is weaker than “At Henderson’s door, Harold’s fists clenched.” because the significant action comes at the end. Just as “Harold saw Henderson in the car park when he glanced out the window.”, is weaker than “Harold glanced out the window and saw Henderson in the car park.”;
(14) Dialogue tags: Don’t leave them hanging out to dry at the end of speech. Use alternative attributions where possible;
(15) Over-inflated imagery: - “His doubts assailed him, a swarm of wasps buzzing around inside his head, ready to sting in an instant.”, is patently ridiculous;
(16) Unnecessary phrases of realisation or discernment: - “He saw there were three men coming over the hill” is better as “Three men came over the hill.” “He discovered he was not alone in the room.” is better as “He was not alone.” and “Barbara realised a sound was coming from the closet.” is better as “A sound came from the closet.”;
(17) Too much passive voice: “Harold found himself trembling.” is both passive and weaker than “Harold trembled.”;
(18) Over-telling: - “Harold looked at Henderson’s door. He could storm in there, expose Henderson as incompetent, as venal, as the womanizer he was … and Ruth need never know how their future had been threatened. He was fantasizing.”
(19) Monotonous sentence rhythm: - “Harold looked at Henderson’s office. It was three o’clock. He looked around. The rest of the office was empty. It was very quiet. He rubbed his chin. An office girl returned. He sighed, bending over his work.”
(20) Continuity: Don’t leave gaps in the action;
(21) Reader orientation. Keep control of the way the reader experiences the story;
(22) Show, not tell! Don’t say that you’re angry, sad, or happy. Prove it by your choice of words, the tempo of your sentences. Let the reader experience the events: and
(23) Use effective images: 3000 people can die in Turkey as the result of an earthquake and few take notice unless it affects them directly, while the death of a beloved pet is heart-rending.
If you want to see how these are applied, check out my last two books as Amy Gallow, “A Fair Trader” at Whiskey Creek Press and “A Soldier’s Woman” at Eternal Press, and “The First-Born” a science fiction romantic adventure will be released by Eternal Press on October 7th.