Category Archives: beginning writers

believable prose

In addition to hooking our readers in the first couple of paragraphs, our writing needs to have verisimilitude—whether we’re writing memoir or fiction, it needs to be believable, smooth, and carry the reader into the dream of our story. Paying attention to these six points can help this happen:

  • Correct use of words—nothing will throw the reader out of the story faster than incorrect word usage. Know the difference between effect and affect. Capital and capitol. Site and cite. Complement and compliment. Lie and lay. Just because journalists and politicians make these mistakes doesn’t mean it is all right for serious writers. On the Internet you can look up lists of often confused and misused words. By using words correctly, you build the reader’s trust.
  • Sentence formation—vary sentence length, making sure sentences are constructed properly, without dangling modifiers, or incorrect referents. A scene with high tension might have shorter sentences, and even some fragments. A sequel that describes place might have lush, longer sentences. Notice the rhythm your sentences have, and vary it. We writers need to become aware of our tendencies, and work to overcome them.
  • Economical writing—our prose is dragged down by extra words: two (or three, or four) adjectives where one would do; extra attributions—he said, she said—where the meaning is clear without them; wandering, or circling descriptions, or weak verbs where a powerful one could eliminate unnecessary adverbs.
    Hint: I participate in a weekly critique group. Each week, we bring up to ten pages. For the six nights prior to that group, I review the section—honing, searching for strong verbs, deleting extra words. Every night I find ways to strengthen the writing. As I near the evening of the critique group, I read my selection out loud. It is amazing what I catch by listening to the words rather than reading them.
  • Avoid cliches—cliches are the easy, fall-back way that people describe a situation: “time will tell,” “old as the hills,” “scared out of my wits,” “fall head over heels.” Writers need to do better! Cliches are a sign of writerly laziness. It’s fine to use one as a placeholder in a first draft, but by the second draft, come up with an original phrase.
  • Retain standard punctuation—avoid multiple exclamation points !!!, or the useful ?!. They do not have a place in serious writing. Instead, use words to create that feeling.
  • Strong verbs—using strong verbs reduces the need for adverbs and adjectives, and lessens our reliance on the verb “to be.” Search your work for “was” and “were.” You may be stunned by how many instances you find.

Remember, most suggested rules have been broken in ways that succeed. But don’t count on it!

© Skye Blaine,  2016

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opening hooks

When writers begin a new piece, our first instinct is that we need to fill our readers in on what went before, so they are prepared for the story that is starting now. Sometimes our first instincts are not correct—and opening with back story is not the way to invite the reader in.

We need to hook our readers first. We must compel them to read on. There are a number of ways to incite the reader forward:
● Focus on one character, and make that character specific and unique, so the reader gets curious (second example, below)
● Raise a question, a problem, a situation, or a theme that the reader needs to have answered (first example, below)
● Answer or raise, or both, some of the questions of who, what, when, where, why
● Soon after, or in the opening itself, something must occur that raises the question of how things might turn out.
Do all novels or memoirs fulfill these specific hooks? No. But there must be something in the writing to drive the reader forward, to forget that he or she is relaxing in a recliner, and that the laundry really does need folding.

Look at this example, The Invention of Solitude, by Paul Auster:
“One day, there is life. A man, for example, in the best of health, not even old, with no history of illness. Everything is as it was, as it will always be. He goes from one day to the next, minding his own business, dreaming only of the life that lies before him. And then, suddenly, it happens there is death. A man lets out a little sigh, he slumps down in his chair, and it is death.”

This opening paragraph seems general, but as the reader, aren’t you convinced that soon, in just a few pages, you will find out what man has died? And why? He’s not even old! What happened?

And from Waiting to Exhale, by Terry MacMillan:
“Right now I’m supposed to be all geeked up because I’m getting ready for a New Year’s Eve party that some guy named Lionel invited me to. Sheila, my baby sister, insisted on giving me his phone number because he lives here in Denver and her simple-ass husband played basketball with him eleven years ago at the University of Washington, and since I’m still single (which is downright pitiful to her, considering I’m the oldest of four kids and the only one who has yet to say “I do”), she’s worried about me.”

MacMillan develops voice and character in this opening paragraph with “simple-ass husband” and “downright pitiful.” The reader wants to get to know this character better.

I encourage writers not to worry about the opening at beginning of writing. New writers can get stuck, writing and rewriting the first page. Often, it is not until the novel or memoir is finished that we come to understand the full arc, and where the story actually needs to start.

© Skye Blaine, 2016

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dialogue

Many beginning writers find dialogue daunting, so they try to avoid it, by not bringing their characters on scene. However, there are a few simple ways to strengthen the conversations your characters have, and make them believable to your readers.

Lewis Turco, in his book, Dialogue, gives an example of weak, overstated dialogue:

“Hello,” he croaked nervously, “my name’s Horace. What’s yours?” he asked with as much aplomb as he could muster.
“Hi,” she squeaked uncertainly, turning in her chair to look at him. “I’m Gail Adams,” she said blushingly.
“Pleased to meet you,” Horace declared. “I’ve been watching you for about an hour,” he offered with a quaver in his voice.

Turco calls this an example of author intrusion—the reader is over-guided, and the illusion of reality is lost. Here are steps to avoid unbelievable dialogue:

  1. When giving dialogue attribution, generally use “said.” Occasionally you may use “added,” or “replied.” The “he said” and “she said” fall into the background—they guide the reader, but do not intrude.
  1. Sometimes tags (another word for attribution) aren’t needed at all. If the person speaking is already identified in the paragraph, you can eliminate tag, as in this example from my novel-in-progress:

Moss’s heart turned to stone in his chest. “Aw, jeez, no. Please! You know how I feel about this dog. I worked hard to save her; I want her to be my dog now.”

  1. Allow the strength of writing to eliminate most adverbs, such as “nervously,” “uncertainly,” and “blushingly,” in Turco’s example. Your readers are smart! If you handle dialogue well, they will glean subtleties that are only implied on the page. You can show those same adverbs with body action, instead.  For example, instead of “blushingly,” you could say, after the dialogue, Her face pinked up, or Her hands jumped to her face, now hot. Something like that.
  2. When you have a long stretch of dialogue, you don’t need to identify (tag, or attribute) who is speaking each time. Hopefully, each character has a unique way of talking that is identifiable. Include tags now and again, as in the example below #5.
  3. Start a new paragraph each time the dialogue switches to the other speaker.

In the following example from my own writing, notice how little attribution is used, or required, to guide the reader:

“Mr. Moss?”
“Carol?” A man’s resonant voice.
All her life, people had mistakenly called her Carol. “No, it’s Carolina.” She hated when people were careless with her name.
“Just Moss, no mister. Have you lost a dog?”
“Yes! Oh my God, have you found her?” Unsteadily, she slid down to sit on the floor.
“Describe her,” he said.
“Do you have her?”
“Tell me what she looks like. I have a right to make sure she’s your dog.”
“Let’s see. She’s impossibly tall and skinny, with a wiry, gray coat. Her hair hangs over her eyes. What else do you want to know?”
“Her name.”
“Zephyr. Her name is Zephyr. Do you actually have her with you?”
“It’s your girl. She needed surgery, and I’ve been nursing her.”
“What happened? When did she get hurt? We need to come, right away. My daughter’s been frantic.”
Pause.
“Daughter? How old?” His voice had stiffened a bit.
“It’s her dog. Rowan’s eleven.”
“Nope.” Lengthy silence. “You can’t bring a child here.”
His tone was implacable and … something else she couldn’t quite place.
“What do you mean, I can’t bring my child?” Carolina’s voice rose. “Are you a pervert or something?”
“No! Good heavens, nothing like that.”

Strong dialogue is much sparser than the way people actually speak—and yet it is the spare quality that makes it seem real. Also, dialogue is strongest when it illuminates conflict between two people, and avoids the trivial patter that is found in much human conversation.

© Skye Blaine, 2016

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Filed under beginning writers, writing, writing craft, writing tips