Savannah’s Basic Rules for Writing

15 Mar

by Savannah J. Foley

~~~

Over the years I’ve picked up some good tips for writing better from quotes, autobiographies, my friends, and magazine articles. The following is my list, from solid to heartfelt to quirky advice. I hope you can make use of something in here!

 1. Avoid ‘th’ words. The ‘th’ sound is harder for your mouth to make, and it interrupts the flow. Sentences with excessive ‘the’s and ‘they’s and ‘there’s and ‘this’s need to be cleaned up. Get rid of the ‘th’!

 Bad: The wind in the theater chilled the audience and made them clutch their coats tighter to their bodies. “This sucks!” whispered the Duke of Thisby to the attendant. “Make them turn the damn heat all the way up!”

 2. Don’t share every single detail. You’re writing a novel, not a play. When you describe every single action a character takes you leave nothing to the audience’s imagination. Your readers want to immerse themselves in your work, and your words should act like impressionism, leaving them free to fill in the blanks and make it their own.

 Bad: Sandra Dee sat down at her desk. She pulled her homework out of her bag and placed it on the table. She took out a pen, licked the tip, and frowned at the sets of problems before her. She scratched a little at the first problem, and sighed. She fumbled for her calculator as the phone rang. Sandra Dee let it tinkle twice before answering.

 Better: Sandra Dee was in the middle of procrastinating on her homework when the phone rang. “Sandra Dee? Oh thank God, you’re still alive!”

 Get to the action!

 3. Don’t make actions independent of each other. Simultaneous action is good. People are constantly multi-tasking: eating while talking, smiling while talking, twirling their hair while talking, and generally doing a lot of other things while talking. Your writing should incorporate these actions. Make your characters do things WHILE they’re talking, not in between talking. (Hint, make your verbs active, so that they end in –ing. That should take care of the problem).

 Bad:

 “Don’t tell me what to do, father!” Anabelle yelled. She slammed her cup down on the table.

 “I’m the head of this house!” her father roared. He overturned the table.

 “I hate you!” Anabelle screamed. She ran into the next room.

 Better:

 “Don’t tell me what to do, father!” Annabelle yelled, slamming her cup down on the table.

 “I’m the head of this house!” Her father roared as he overturned the table.

 Annabelle ran into the next room, screaming, “I hate you! I hate you! I hate you!”

 4. Don’t be transparent. Don’t really be oblique either; a good, balanced translucency is the key. If you’re too transparent your writing seems amateurish, and then it’s very easy for the audience to guess what’s going to happen next. Surprise your audience!

 Bad: Bella Dove was an average girl in every single way, except for the fact that she had the most beautiful, glowing purple eyes, a birthmark on her right shoulder blade in the shape of a crescent moon with a sword stuck through it, and every now and then strangers in cloaks would whisper ‘The Chosen One’ when she passed by on the street on her way to the mall.

 By the way, if your way of ‘distinguishing’ your special character is to give them a blatantly identifying mark like gorgeous eyes then you need to come up with something more original. Sexy heroes don’t need to have piercing green or blue eyes to indicate their sexiness or desirability, and neither do heroines.

For more about this, see this vlog I did called Your Heroine Does Not Need Violet Eyes.

 5. Don’t use narration as an obvious means to communicate your back story. This means that your characters should never say anything to each other that they should already know, purely for the audience’s benefit.

 Bad:

 Jessica ran up to Bethany. “Hey best friend since sixth grade! How’s your mom, who’s in the hospital for breast cancer for the second time?”

 Bethany giggled. “Good, what’s your progress on that mysterious new kid who’s never in school when the sun is shining and who moved here from Alaska two months ago?”

 Better:

 Jessica ran up to Bethany. “Hey girl! How’s your mom?”

 “Better,” Bethany sighed. “This is her last week on Chemo, thank God. What’s the latest on Chunk o’ Hunk?”

 “He held the door for me after class! I think we might have actually smiled at each other! I heard it’s going to be sunny later, though, so I guess we won’t be seeing him in his PE shorts this afternoon.”

 6. Don’t go too long without giving credit to your speakers. I will never forget the first time I read Anastasia Absolutely, and Anastasia and her father are having a conversation, but the writer stopped mentioning who said what, and after a lot of single-sentence quotes I was so confused! I had to stop, go back, and re-count to figure out who was saying what. From that point on I was so careful in my writing to make sure my speech could be easily followed.

 Bad:

 “Hey Annalisa.”

 “Hey Monique.”

 “What’s up?”

 “Nothing much, what’s up with you?”

 “My cat got hit by a car yesterday.”

 “Oh my god, that’s terrible!”

 “What about you?”

 “Dreading this math class.”

 “Me too! I hate Mr. Pravins.”

 “Me too! He’s like a big, old troll!”

 “You’re hilarious! Come on, let’s make it there before the bell rings.”

 Now, who said that last sentence, Annalisa or Monique? Credit your speakers every now and then!

 7. Don’t repeat words! Unless they’re very common words or it’s done artfully on purpose, you should never repeat words in a sentence (look, I just did it with ‘words’). Audiences will catch that and it makes them uncomfortable.

 Bad: Sherlita took out her knife and raised her arm, bringing it down onto the arm of her opponent, twisting the knife so that it dug in and hurt.

 Acceptable: The tree was a big tree, and it towered over Eliza the way a proper tree should.

 8. Don’t use clichés. I remember the first writer’s meeting I ever attended. I think I was 10 at the time. My grandmother escorted me to the local bookstore in Seattle and I sat in on a group of writers sharing what they were up to, and then I shared my bit. It was a terrible short story about a parrot and how colors got into the world, but hey, I was 10. I will never forget two things about that meeting: 1) how embarrassed I am that I shared that story, and 2) how nice and welcoming the other writers were, and this bit of advice they gave me: “Don’t use clichés like ‘all of a sudden.’ You’re too good for that.” Now, I’m passing that advice on to you. You are too good a writer to use clichés. Come up with something new.

 I feel this example could be best represented by the ending of this short quote/poem by William Safire:

 “Do not put statements in the negative form.
And don’t start sentences with a conjunction.
If you reread your work, you will find on rereading that a
great deal of repetition can be avoided by rereading and editing.
Never use a long word when a diminutive one will do.
Unqualified superlatives are the worst of all.
De-accession euphemisms.
If any word is improper at the end of a sentence, a linking verb is.
Avoid trendy locutions that sound flaky.
Last, but not least, avoid clichés like the plague.”
And this one by Jack Smith:

 I’d rather be caught holding up a bank than stealing so much as a two-word phrase from another writer.”

 9. Minimize adjectives. This one comes from Stephen King. In his book On Writing, he essentially said that adjectives are no good, and add nothing to your story, so you should minimize your use of them as much as possible. Personally I don’t believe in going quite to that extreme, but it is tedious and boring to read books that have too many adjectives. Plus, it makes your story read like fan fic.

 Bad: Lucinda shook her long, flowing, shining mane of vibrant, gold hair into the biting, swirling wind, and gazed into the deep, glowing, fiery sunset awash with vivid pinks and purples.

 Better: Lucinda shook her long, golden hair into the wind as she gazed at the fiery sunset.

 Keep it minimal. Communicate just enough about your setting to get by. Believe me, your audience will fill in the details to the level they prefer.

 10. Keep your names realistic. This is something I struggled/struggle with: realistic character names. I use common names now for my characters whenever possible. This rule can be sidestepped a little if you write Fantasy, but use caution! You never want to have people describe your characters as too fantasy-like, or too revealing of their personality. Also, heaven forbid your character has a Mary Sue name. I will personally come and shame you in front of your friends if you do this.

 Bad names:

 Mary Sues:

Bella Swann

Raven Shadows, Ravyn Ebony, Raevin Nite, etc.

Serissa Gold

Lilandra Phoenix

 Fantasy Female:

Araithia Le’Luna’Leka

Cylaria Aeioutisia

Silandra

Tre’lemar Mooncatcher

Tre’shawna Kirianthas

 Normal with a Twist

Janice Wempsork

Eckletemer Finklebottomz

Sulo von Katzinstan

Lih-lee Ehvins

Adrian Hilwinder

Roze McWallz

Raechael Foxworthy

 Medieval

Arthridious Galantius IV

Gwenevive Tudor

Britilaus Maximus

Sydra le Fay

 11. The Last Rule. And of course, what better advice could I leave you with today than this gem by Elmore Leonard: “I try to leave out the parts that people skip.”

~~~

 Savannah J. Foley is the author of the Antebellum (originally known as Woman’s World) series on Fictionpress. She has written five novels, owns her own freelance writing company, and is signed with the Bradford Literary Agency. Antebellum is currently out on submissions. Her website is www.savannahjfoley.com, but she updates more frequently on her livejournal.

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7 Responses to “Savannah’s Basic Rules for Writing”

  1. Samantha W March 15, 2010 at 1:48 PM #

    Special names can be really bad at times…. Especially when they are so complicated (or have way too many vowels all in a row) that you’re not really sure how to pronounce them. It kind of interrupts the thought process every single time you read it. x_x

  2. Gaby da Silva March 15, 2010 at 2:50 PM #

    I agree and disagree with some points here.

    I completely agree with the first one, sound repetition is bad for the prose, and there’s a difference between cacophony and alliteration.

    On the second, while most of the time it’s good to go straight to the action (unless you’re writing 19th century realism), but there are times when you want to describe every single detail – in your example, for instance, if you need to make the reader feel the levels of boredom Sandra is facing, then you can (even should) describe evry single thing she does to avoid her homework.
    However, do that for the entire novel and all you’ll get is very bored readers. Detail is good as long as it’s in the right place.

    3, 4, and 5 I agree. Especially five – there’s commas, there’s linking verbs, there’s adverb phrases and plenty of prepositions. No reason for characters to do thing in a specific order.

    6, I agree that it’s important to give credit, but it’s also important to think how. You can’t use “Missy said” every time Missy speaks, nor can you use “Jake replied” every time Jake replies. The credit doesn’t even have to be with a spoken action, you can credit dialogue with other action verbs that indicate what the character is doing at the time, or a mannerism.

    On 7, not much to say. It’s just true. There’s plently of words in any language – and http://www.thesaurus.com is always a good help if you need it.

    On point 8, I agree that clichés should be kept away from your narration – but some characters might benefit from it. If you’re writing a character who is supposed to be, say, superficial, or has a small vocabulary, or thinks he/she’s so much better than anyone else, you’ll want to use (certain) clichés with him or her, as it would help convey his character.
    Your Third-Person narrative, now, would be better off without cliches. First-Person might use it, again, if it benefits the character.

    I completely agree with 9! For me, too many adjectives make the text girly (in the wrong sense of girly!), delay the reading and give a Mary Sue-ish mood. Two is my max, maybe three, and do you really need to describe stuff _that_ much?

    Once more agree with 10. Names can be funky…. if they’re justified.
    Say your character is called Ta’lessiaa, but her mother is Mary and her dad is Bob. There’s something wrong there, so either her mom (and dad, and the dog and cousins, and everyone) gets renamed Mi’tzeena or she gets renamed Sophie.

    Also, if you made the name up, what does that imply for the language your characters are speaking? What is the country they live in like? Language (and therefore names) reveals a LOT about your backstory, even if you don’t realize.

    (I just read this. It’s long! Now I’ll do as Sandra Dee ought to and do some actual work….)

    • Vanessa March 15, 2010 at 10:22 PM #

      Gaby, I totally agree with you!

      Sav, this was an AWESOME post! I totally think that Stephen King is a bit too extreme. I wouldn’t say adjectives are bad: but a string of 5 of them in a sentence IS terrible. It’s all about how you use them. Adjectives can sometimes bring color and life to your story (if used properly), and can make for some beautiful sentences.

      As for number 10, I get your point Sav… but, what’s wrong with Silandra? I kinda like that name (for a fantasy, it could very much work)! think names are a difficult issue. It all depends on what you are writing (and what the context of the story is). Like you said, with fantasy you can get away with a lot, because names can be a huge part of story/world building.

      But even a name like Eckletemer Finklebottomz would work, if you’re writing, say… a funny middle-grade fantasy novel, full of quirky little gnomes wearing goggles on their head, ready for any mechanic work. Or a very strange old magician a young boy comes across. It could work. It would be one of those names that boys would read and laugh about – so it depends on who your audience is, and what kind of story you’re writing. This kind of name would obviously not work with a serious fantasy, or a realistic piece of fiction. But kids would love it.

      Other than that note, I think this post was absolutely fantastic! There is so much great advice.

      • Praya March 16, 2010 at 5:44 PM #

        Not gonna lie, am now dying to read a book about Eckletemer Finklebottomz and his adventures with garden gnomes which magically come to life (first story that came into my head).

        I agree- it’s incredibly difficult to give advice about names, because you’ll never really know if it’s a perfect fit until you know the character, and you’ve got the themes of the story down. At the same time, sometimes you think a name is hilarious but someone will point it out to you with a bewildered expression and you’re the only one laughing in the corner. Yes I speak from experience. Haha it just means you’re not conveying whatever element of the story the name is meant to reflect properly.

        I can’t even say the number of times however, that I’ve stopped reading a story on fictionpress, because the first sentence is “Isabella Swann sighed over her desk as her long raven hair fell over her delicate face, hiding the pout on her full lips and the glazed over look in her bright forest green eyes.” (As an example). The rest of the story may be great but if you’re trying that desperately to sell your main character with those (unfortunately) cliched personal traits- right from line one, you’ve lost me.

  3. rkrill March 15, 2010 at 6:48 PM #

    I always appreciate freshening up on writing tips now and again. It’s easy to get lazy! Thanks!

  4. Caitlin March 22, 2010 at 2:10 AM #

    These are nice, the one thing I’d like to say about names is that you absolutely have to think about how your readers are going to pronounce them. If they won’t be able to or if it’s a different name or spelling and it would break your heart to know that the entire world mispronounces the main character’s name than you’re better off picking a name that’s relatively common in the culture of your audience. Or put in a pronunciation guide before the fourth book (many arguments were had J.K Rowling and in the end neither myself, my best friend, or the guy who reads the audio books was right about Hermione.)

    Although when it comes down to it, if your character is Leila and you want us to pronounce it LEE-la and I’m pronouncing it LAY-la in my head, I’m going to keep pronouncing it however I feel like it. (in this example I might actually switch but sometimes I look at the spelling and then look at the author’s intended pronunciation and say, screw them I’m pronouncing it the way it looks)

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