How to Improve Your Writing

Whether you’re a beginner or are simply honing your craft, we’re all seeking to get better. What, then, is the best, most efficient, way to improve?

First, here’s some advice that gets tossed around a lot that I find dubious:

• Read – That’s usually the first thing that people tell you to do if you want to become a better writer. I read. I read a lot, 8 books finished this month. I’m not sure, however, how much any of that reading is doing to improve my writing. Maybe there’s something wrong with me, but I simply don’t learn much about writing by reading fiction.
• Write – That’s the second piece of advice you’re going to get if you ask, “How do I become a better writer?” I wrote a quarter of a million words before I got serious about learning to write, and I’m not sure that the last sentence that I wrote was much better than the first.
• Start with Short Stories – While there is value in starting something that is easier to finish, if you want to write a novel, you’ll learn more by writing that first novel than by writing a hundred short stories. There are a lot of differences between the two forms.

I’m not saying that there’s no value in the above advice. It’s just that I didn’t find any of it particularly useful or efficient.

If I could go back to myself when I started my casual study of writing almost two decades ago, I’d tell myself to do the following:

Step 1 – Accept that, no matter how good I think my writing is, the first stuff that I produce is going to be crap not worthy of being read. By anyone. Learning to write is not an easy or quick process. Maybe some are born with an innate gift, but I wouldn’t count on you being one of them.

Step 2 – Read about writing. Find books and blogs that offer tips and advice. Don’t devote all your time to this or let it interfere with actual writing, but definitely make this a part of your life. Never stop reading about writing and trying to improve your craft. You never know where that tidbit will come from that takes your craft to the next level. (And I’m not just saying this because I both blog about writing and plan to write a book about it.)

Step 3 – Write. Whether a short story or a chapter of a novel, create a finished piece (again, think a whole chapter, not a whole novel).

Step 4 – Revise what you wrote. Make it the absolute best you can make it. Pour your heart, soul, and time into it.

Step 5- Once the piece is perfect, get feedback. I’ll post Monday on how to get feedback, but this step is key. Having someone who knows more than you tear to shreds a piece you thought was good is the fastest, best way to learn (once you get past the emotional devastation, anyway).

Step 6 – Go back to Step 2 and repeat until you’re getting mostly positive feedback from people whose opinions on writing you trust and respect.

Step 7 – Keep learning. Keep writing. Actively search for new knowledge. Seek out feedback and see what you can learn from that feedback.

Review of Playing for Keeps

In Playing for Keeps, Mur Lafferty tells the story of a group of people with powers so worthless that they’re not considered adequate to become a part of the city’s elite group of heroes. When the hubris of those very heroes leads to their downfall, it’s up to the misfits to save the day.

Why to buy this book: It is competently written, and the ebook edition doesn’t cost a bunch.

Why not to buy the book: While the writing is competent, it is not spectacular. Though there are no major stylistic annoyances, the plot drove the characters whether than my preference of the reverse. My biggest complaint was that it sometimes wasn’t clear what was happening and why it was happening.

Bottom Line: I don’t regret reading it, but it didn’t feel special to me. I give it a middle-of-the-road 3 stars.

Filtering – The Biggest Technique I Have Yet to Master

Whenever I learn a new writing rule, I go through a process to incorporate it into my work:

1. Skepticism – I read in Self Editing for Fiction Writers that you shouldn’t use “, gerund” in your writing. My first thought was, “I do that all the time, so the authors of that book must be mistaken.” Example: The character stared at the sky, wondering if…
2. Acceptance – The more I thought about it, the more I gradually began to agree with them. I still think the technique is okay sometimes, but my default is now: The character stared at the sky and wondered if…
3. Working to Incorporate It – At first, I had to look for places where I had done it incorrectly and make the correction.
4. The Wrong Way Starts to Stand Out – As time went on, the incorrect version stood out more and more to me. I didn’t have to look for it. As soon as I typed it wrong, I’d hit backspace and correct it.
5. Internalized – Now, I don’t even have to think about it; I automatically type “and” instead of the comma.

Overall, I’m pretty happy with my writing, but there’s one technique that would take it to the next level if I could just manage to internalize it – Filtering.

Filtering refers to the process of channeling everything that happens in your book through your POV character. But there’s a right way and a wrong way to do it.

The wrong way is as follows:

Joe watched the bird fly across the sky.
Joe heard the water plunging from the cliff and splashing onto the rocks below.
Joe smelled the odor of fresh baked bread wafting from the inn.

Joe is your POV character. In most cases, Joe watched (or heard, or smelled, etc.) simply is wasted words that give no emotional context. The bird flew. The water plunged. The odor wafted.

The correct way:

Use filtering to give an event emotion and context.

Take, for example, this:

With great fanfare from the accompanying trumpeter, the soldiers unfurled the flag on the pole. Its gold squares on a black field stretched over the land.

A flag unfurled. Great. What should I feel about this? What does it mean? Why is it in my story?

Instead:

A sounding trumpet drew Durloc’s gaze to the top of the parapet. His heart soared as the soldiers unfurled the flag. Under that banner, we shall rule them all, he thought.

And:

At the sound of a trumpet, Seraius looked to the top of the parapet. The filth that called themselves soldiers proudly unfurled their garish flag. He clenched his fists. This shall not stand, he thought.

Instead of worthless words that tell me nothing about the story, I have paragraphs that engage the reader and set up the conflict that is to come.

Time to Over Explain Over-Explaining

Over-explaining is a bad habit. It demonstrates either a lack of confidence in yourself or in the reader; it wastes words; and it increases the potential for the reader to lose immersion in your work.

I place over-explaining in two categories:

1. Redundancy –

Her stomach growled. She was hungry.

With the first (showing) statement, the author is clearly trying to indicate that the POV character is hungry, but he doesn’t feel that the showing is strong enough. His solution: add a redundant (telling) statement.

That’s horrible.

The proper method of correction is one of the following:

a. Leave the showing statement alone. Yes, it’s not entirely clear. However, most readers are going to pick up on the meaning with contextual clues.
b. Add more emphasis to the showing statement. Turn that simple declaration into a paragraph involving hunger pangs eating her stomach from the inside.
c. Delete the showing. Perhaps a simple declaration of her hunger is the best bet. It’s clear and concise. Yes, it’s cheating a bit, but, if it works…

Note that redundancy can take many forms. Perhaps there are two showing statements, or two telling ones, that say the same thing. Another common mistake would be to have a showing or telling statement that conveys the same information as the surrounding dialogue.

2. Repetition –

Chapter 2 – Group acquires the Weapon of Awesomeness which they plan to use against the Force of Evilness
Chapter 5 – “Watch that bag closely, Bob. As you know, it contains the Weapon of Awesomeness. If we don’t have it when we come up against the Force of Evilness, we’re toast.”
Chapter 10 – I can’t believe I almost dropped the Weapon of Awesomeness into the Lake of Fireness. What would we have done if we didn’t have it at the lair of the Force of Evilness?

You get the picture.

If you have an important item, you need to occasionally focus a POV characters thoughts on it in a natural way, but you don’t want to continually bring up details about it. Emphasize the important detail once, and, after that, just show that the party still has it.

Another example of this is from A Memory of Light. Sanderson states quite clearly early in the book that most of the men Lan is leading don’t have actual Malkier blood. He then goes on to bring up this point twice more. Worst of all, it didn’t even turn out to be that important. I got it the first time. By the third, it completely broke me out of the story as I’m thinking, “Why the crap is he telling me this again?”

Hopefully, this post will help you identify over-explaining in your writing. When you find it, eliminate it with extreme prejudice.

Review of Zero Sum

In Zero Sum, Mr. Shier continues the story of Dieter Resnick, and more stuff involving happens to him involving the convoluted magic system the author employs.

Why to buy this book: The writing technique is sound, and the voice is good. If you liked the first in the series, you’re probably not going to absolutely hate this one.

Why not to buy the book: Though a lot happened in the first book, it still felt character driven. For this book, I felt the characters got lost in all the plot development. My biggest indictment is that a lot of major events happened to the characters that should have evoked emotional responses. Truthfully, I felt nothing. Side rant with minor spoiler ahead – If you’re going to introduce a potential romantic relationship, the reader has certain expectations. I think it’s fine that the two didn’t get together in the first book. Drawing out a relationship can be a good thing. However, the lack of development of that relationship throughout the second book just got tedious. Readers (or, at least, I) will accept character stasis for only so long.

Bottom Line: Overall, it was a solid read but left me disappointed at the lack of emotional development. It wasn’t bad enough that I’m giving up on the series, but it wasn’t good enough that I’ll buy the next one without reading reviews first. That leaves me at 3 stars.

Know When to Show ’em, Know When to Tell ’em…

Sorry for the lack of a post yesterday. Apparently, tis the season for me to get knocked on my butt by random bugs.

Let’s take a look at two passages:

A. She was hungry.
B. Her stomach growled as emptiness gnawed at her. She clutched her belly and stared at the bread through the bakery window as if it were her very salvation.

Which is better?

A year ago, determining the answer to that question would have been quite simple to me. I would have said, “(A) is telling. (B) is showing. Showing is better than telling. Thus, (B) is better than (A).”

The more I learn, the more I disagree with my old self. There are so many more considerations, and I grow less sure of my original assertation every day. Let’s look at it more in depth:

Showing > Telling

Is this statement true in all cases? The first example that pops into my mind where it isn’t is a transition between scenes where I want to move forward in time and space but where nothing interesting happens. It seems intuitively obvious that summarizing that transition using telling is far superior to showing uninteresting activities in detail.

Of course, some would say that it’s better to leave out the transition altogether. That argument may, at times, be valid, but it does not speak to the original premise. Saying that C>A does not eliminate the need to prove the B>A.

If Showing isn’t always better than Telling, we need to adopt a more nuanced approach, so let’s look at the all the considerations:

1. Engagement – Item (B) is much more engaging than (A). Showing draws the reader in more than telling.
2. Clarity – Item (A) clearly states what you want the reader to know. I think that most people will get what you’re trying to convey from (B), but, anytime you leave open the opportunity, someone is going to miss it. What you absolutely do not want to do, however, is to use both (A) and (B).
3. Story Space – If a description is not relevant to your story, you should leave it out. If a description is relevant but not important, you should mention it but not dwell on it. If a description is important, you should spend more story space — words — on it. (A) is more concise. If the fact that she’s hungry is relevant but not important, it’s a winner. If the hunger is important, (B) is better.
4. Active – Existing in a state of hunger is not active. Growling and clutching is.
5. Pace – Using three words in a short sentence is fast pacing. Using two sentences for a 29-word description slows pacing.

I still think that showing should be a writer’s default method for conveying stories, but the situation is not as easy as always show, never tell.

How to Create Tension

The more I study the craft of writing, the more I’m convinced that the driving force to engage a reader is a relatable character displaying emotional responses to tense situations. If you miss any of those three key elements — a relatable character, filtered emotion, or tension — you’re not going to hold your reader’s interest.

Quite honestly, I haven’t quite figured out how to define the creation of the first two of those essentials. The third, however, is quite easy, so I’m going to focus on it. Instead of telling you that you need to add tension or even explaining how to add tension, I’m going to show you.

Step 1: Give your character a goal.

Jack wants to go up a hill.

Example –

Jack wanted to go up a hill, so he did.

Commentary –

Okay, not exactly the most tense scene in the history of writing. Give me a break; we’re only on step 1!

Step 2: Create opposition to the character achieving his goal.

It’s rained a lot lately, so the only path up the hill is quite muddy.

Example –

Ready for a bit of exercise, Jack struck out for the hill, but he failed to consider the amount of rain that fell yesterday. Thick, stinky mud covered the dirt track leading to the top. He stuck his foot off the paved parking lot onto the trail, and it sunk several inches. A goopy mess coated the previously pristine white Nike.

Sighing, he considered turning back. No, he thought. I’m not going to let a little rain stop me.

Jack slogged up the path, often losing half as much ground with each step as he had gained. But he persevered. Reaching the top brought him tremendous satisfaction.

He looked at the trail below him. “Oh crap, now I have to get back down.”

Commentary –

Okay, a little more tense, but not exactly riveting.

Step 3: Increase the character’s motivation to achieve the goal.

Instead of wanting exercise, Jack needs something at the top of the hill. Let’s say it’s a magic pail of water that is the only thing that can save his dying wife, Jill.

Example –

Knowing it was his only shot at saving her, Jack struck out for the hill. He knew the slog to the top would be difficult considering all the rain, but he didn’t have a choice. If he didn’t get that pail of water, and get it fast, Jill would die. He had only hours.

Thick, stinky mud covered the dirt track leading to the top. He stuck his foot off the paved parking lot onto the trail, and it sunk several inches. A goopy mess coated the previously pristine white Nike.

Imagining himself slipping and breaking his leg or injuring his ankle kept his pace cautious, but his need for quickness spurred him faster. He desperately sought the right balance between safety and speed.

Often losing half as much ground with each step as he had gained, he persevered until reaching the top to claim the life-saving Water of the Oracle.

He looked at the trail below him. “Oh crap, now I have to get back down without spilling it all.”

Commentary –

See, this is picking up. It still could go a little further, though.

Step 4: Increase the opposition.

A hill is too easy. Now, he has to climb a mountain. Rain and mud? Really? Now, there’s a blizzard. And let’s throw a stone-hurling Cyclops in his path.

Example –

“I have to do what?” Jack said.

“You heard me. Climb Mount Oracle to reach the Water. If Jill doesn’t drink it within the twelve hours, she’s dead. There’s nothing else I can do.”

Jack peered out the window at the swirling snow with trepidation. Reaching the summit of the mountain was no easy task under ordinary circumstances. In a blizzard, it would be well-nigh impossible. But he had no choice; Jill was his wife, his one true love.

A white blanket covered the roads as he drove to the base of the trail, and the parking lot was in even worse shape. He pulled his coat around him as he stepped from the car. I don’t know which is more likely, he thought, falling off a cliff or freezing to death.

It was a long, slow slog even on the relatively level part of the trail. Jack looked upward in dismay when he reached a slope that led seemingly to the sky. A man would have to be bloody insane to try to climb that in this weather.

Insane or desperate.

After several attempts, he managed to hook a rope around a tree above him. Though he struggled to gain purchase for each step, the rope held him steady. Cold seeped through his gloves, and his fingers grew numb. He shivered, knowing that failing to hold his grip would send him into a hundred-foot fall.

A rock bigger than his head flew past him within inches of his shoulder. Frantic, he glanced about and spotted the creature. Its single red eye dominated its face, and…

Commentary –

Okay, I think you get the picture. Tension is easy to create. If you don’t have enough, make sure you have clearly defined Steps 1 and 2. If you need more of it, just turn up the volume on Steps 3 and 4.

Oh, since I left you hanging, I’ll tell you how the story turns out: Jack manages to get the water and save Jill, but, before then, a bad fall causes him to break his crown.