Jaye Wells

Craft Thursday: Stupid Writer Tricks

Welcome back to Craft Thursday, campers. I spend a lot of these posts going all militant-Oprah-y on your asses,so today I thought I’d take the discussion back to actual writing craft.

That’s right–I’m going to share some of my tricks.

Okay, now, simmer down. I know you’re excited. I mean who doesn’t love writing tricks? But before I share them, I need to lay some caveats on you. First, these work for me. You may disagree with them. That’s cool but remember that no piece of writing advice applies to every writer. Second, these are not earth-shattering nuggets from the gods that will suddenly transform your ugly duckling of a manuscript into a magical swan. These tips apply to helping your word craft–they won’t fix gaping holes in your story or weak character development.

With all that understood between us, behold–Jaye’s Top Five Writing Tricks

5. Be a rebel. That’s right. I’m kicking this off by telling you to ignore every grammar rule Mrs. Gillespie taught you in sophomore English.  Besides the fact she undoubtedly taught you some horrible habits (see no. 1 below), she also had a grammar stick up her pooper.

Fiction ain’t about following rules, son. (The screech you just heard was Mrs. Gillespie spinning her grammar grave) And God help your soul if you ever write one of those “introductory statement, three supporting sentence, summary statement essay formats” in a novel. GOD HELP YOU!

Don’t misunderstand. I’m not telling you you shouldn’t KNOW your grammar rules. Instead, the deliberate flouting* of grammar rules can be an effective way to add a little flair to your sentences.

For example, one of my favorite stylistic choices is to begin sentences with conjunctions. I am well aware this makes the grammar mavens cringe. But it’s an excellent way to bring attention to a sentence or idea. And it’s fun.

Don’t get me started on proper grammar in dialogue, either. If your characters don’t recklessly mangle grammar like real people then you’re going straight to writer hell, where Mrs. Gillespie (in a red latex devil suit) will force you to write essays like, “What I Did for Summer Vacation” for eternity.

*shudder*

But you can not–repeat CAN NOT–be willfully ignorant of grammar and then proclaim your mistakes part of your avante garde style. You have to know the rules to know how to break them for effect. If you need to learn proper grammar, I’d suggest you start with Strunk & White.

4. Adverbs are lazy. Yes, I know. This is repeated so often I considered not repeating it here. Also, some of you are pulling out my novels to look for any instances of lazy adverb usage so you can call me a hypocrite. I’ll save you some time–I use adverbs all the time. Sometimes they’re unavoidable.

And yes, plenty of successful authors use them prolifically (see what I did there?). For example, I’ve been reading the Harry Potter series to my son and J.K. Rowling uses them in almost every damned dialogue tag and sentence. They certainly didn’t harm her career.

But I would submit to you that your writing would certainly benefit from less adverbs. You’re a writer–use your imagination to come up with a way to describe something in a fresh way. Here’s a sample from SILVER-TONGUED DEVIL.

After  a few tense moments, we both spoke at once. Our words tangled in the air like alphabet confetti. Self-conscious laughter followed. “You first, ” I said.

If I were an adverb apologist, I would have written that passage like this:

Our words stumbled awkwardly over each other . We both laughed self-consciously. “You first,” I said ruefully.

Anyone who chose the second passage as their favorite needs to go sit in the corner. Go on.

3. Tension requires brevity. Say you have a big scene. Huge fight. Your protagonist is cornered. Do you really think that writing this scene in long, flowery sentences–the kind filled with asides and tangential phrases enclosed in em-dashes or set off by the dreaded semi-colon–are going to convey the sense of urgency you’re hoping to impart to your reader?

Of course not. You want to keep people interested. You want to keep the action fast. Keep your sentences short. Period.

2. Backload. This is a trick I learned from Margie Lawson (one of many–seriously, take her deep editing course). Backloading is simply a technique wherein you save your power word for the end of a sentence.

Instead of:

She raised the gun and cocked a hip.

It’s:

She cocked a hip and raised the gun.

Bam!

Why does this work? Because humans tend to remember the last word of a sentence. Therefore, if you want to power up your sentences, you’ll save the strongest word for last. The cool thing is that most people won’t be able to tell why your writing is suddenly reading like you’ve injected your sentences with steroids. But you’ll know and you’ll smile.

1. Watch your Thats. This is another very basic technique that nets huge results. The first time a critique partner pointed out my that problem, I had no idea how much I used the word. When I did a search of the document she was critiquing, I found that I’d used it something like 2,000 times in a 400-page novel.

Some of you might be asking, well, so what? I use “that” all the time.

Stop it. Stop it right now.

Quick lesson: That is used in restrictive clauses. Restrictive clauses are parts of a sentence that restrict the meaning of another part of the sentence. For example, “Eyes that are blue are pretty.” If you took out the that, the meaning of the sentence would change. To wit: “Eyes are beautiful.” The speaker intended to say only blue eyes are beautiful, not all eyes.

Two things. First, if you read “Eyes that are blue are beautiful,” and didn’t hear fingernails scrapping down your mental blackboard you have a problem. It should read, “Blue eyes are beautiful.”

In other words, the restrictive clause isn’t need at all because blue is a perfectly awesome on it’s own as an adjective without mucking the sentence up with the unneccessary restrictive clause.

Make sense?

Also, some of you probably read this sentence above, “The speaker intended to say only blue eyes are beautiful, not all eyes,” and wondered why I didn’t write it this way, ” The speaker intended to say that only blue eyes are beautiful, not all eyes.”

The that isn’t needed. Trust me, it’s not. The sentence meaning doesn’t change by removing the that. And that is the rule of thumb–if removing the that changes your meaning, leave it. If not, you must destroy it mercilessly, if you’ll forgive the adverb.

For some reason, a lot of people use that when they shouldn’t. It’s like they like to just throw them into sentences for a little spice. Don’t be tempted to do this. That is the spice of the devil!

Nine times out of ten, you don’t need it at all. And the few times you feel you do, you could probably rewrite the sentence without changing the meaning. You’ll probably also make the sentence better. Trust me on this.

Questions?

 

*Thanks to Minveradamama who informed me on twitter that I used “flaunt” when I meant “flout.” Never let it be said I don’t take edits well.

4 Thoughts on “Craft Thursday: Stupid Writer Tricks

  1. Andrew McQueen on February 2, 2012 at 11:33 pm said:

    On the word “backload”, is that something you use for any circumstances when writing fiction?

  2. JayeWells on February 3, 2012 at 7:59 am said:

    Andrew, I’m not sure I understand your question. I use the term as I explained it in this post.

  3. Andrew McQueen on February 3, 2012 at 12:11 pm said:

    I couldn’t help but ask about that particular term, because it had me thinking on how it’s used. And I’ve read other names in urban fantasy and “backload” had me thinking about on it.

  4. Thanks…all very helpful. I will now be on the look out for “that”, similar to my paranoia regarding “just”. I have a very bad “just” habit. Soon I expect I’ll need a 12Step Group for it.

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