When you read your story, does it sound off, maybe you can’t quite put your finger on it, but you know you’ve done something wrong? Sometimes–maybe even lots of times–there are simple fixes. These writer’s tips will come at you once a week, giving you plenty of time to go through your story and make the adjustments.
I have a huge bookshelf of self-help books for writing. If I get stuck, I roll my chair around to face my floor-to-ceiling shelves and explore tips from Donald Maass, Bob Mayer, Strunk and White, James Frey on whatever my problem-du-jour is (last week, it was opening paragraphs because my agent wanted my mss to start not in the frying pan but the fire.). These books are a wealth of information and take a long time to digest. I thought I’d take a few of my favorites and distill their highlights.
Bob Mayer is the NY Times Best-Selling author of 23 books and an instructor for the Writer’s Digest School. If you dabble in the military milieu as I do, it doesn’t hurt that Mayer is a West Point Graduate and Green Beret. Here are some of my favorite ideas from his seminal book, Novel Writer’s Toolkit: A guide to writing great fiction and getting it published (Writer’s Digest Books 2003):
- As a writer you will start having dreams about your story and your characters. That is your mind working even when you consciously aren’t.
- Diagrams, like maps, will help to keep you oriented as you write (Mayer means pictures of your character’s house, town, bedroom–wherever he spends time.)
- …translate your idea into story via an outline. I estimate I spend 25 percent of the time it takes me to complete a novel before I even write word one. Every day spent outlining and preparing saves me at least five days of actually writing.
- I constantly find …[these general] problems in manuscripts… 1) hooking the reader, 2) dialogue tags, 3) repetition, 4) time sense or the ‘remote control effect’, 5) setting the scene, 6) characters talking to themselves, 7) misuse of pronouns, 8) the difference between a memory and a flashback, and 9) slipping into second-person point of view
- The inciting incident constitutes the hook. It’s a dynamic event and should be seen as such by the reader.
- By the end of your second chapter, you should have 1) introduced the core problem that will be resolved in the climax, and 2) introduced your protagonist
- How long should a manuscript be? …as long as the quality of writing can support AND long enough to tell the story well.
- …once your characters come alive, they, not you, direct where the story will go through the choices they make.
- Motivation is the most important factor to consider when having your character make choices.
- Symbolism is one way writers show things to the reader, rather than tell them.
- Read… a lot… Read to study style and also for story ideas.
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Jacqui Murray is the editor of a technology curriculum for K-sixth grade and creator of two technology training books for middle school. She is the author of Building a Midshipman, the story of her daughter’s journey from high school to United States Naval Academy midshipman. She is webmaster for five blogs, an Amazon Vine Voice book reviewer, a columnist for Examiner.com, Editorial Review Board member for Journal for Computing Teachers, IMS tech expert, and a weekly contributor to Write Anything. Currently, she’s editing a thriller for her agent that should be be out to publishers this summer. Contact Jacqui at her writing office or her tech lab, Ask a Tech Teacher.