This blog was featured on 06/02/2017
Lessons for a New Writer

I’m about to self-publish my first novel, The Space Between Time. Since my education and background are in theater, when I first began writing, I thought I needed tips from good writers to help me improve my work. I joined a writer’s group, signed up for writer’s blogs and read books about writing. 

For a few years I absorbed as much information as I could. And I read a lot. I’ve learned a great deal along the way from the well written books, but I was surprised to have learned more from the not so well written ones.

I recently read two books with great stories, but with not such great writing. The surprising thing I discovered was that both books have won awards. This gave me pause. I was tempted to write the authors and point out things I thought could be improved in their writing. Instead, I thought about all I’ve learned from my theater background, writer friends, from reading fiction, and books on writing, and I'd write this article instead. These are tips I'm using to improve my own work.

Learn the basic plot outline. When I was a theater student, I learned the basics of plot outlines. Almost every story ever told, whether it’s a short story, novel, movie, or play use the same basic elements of structure. They might be slightly different depending on the time period the story was created. Greek and Shakespeare plays, for example, have slightly different structures than modern stories, but all the elements of storytelling are there. If a writer doesn’t hit the crucial points in the outline, the reader isn’t satisfied. 

Constructive criticism is crucial. Even though it hurt when my friends pointed out problems with my story during the early drafts, in the end I was grateful. I think of how embarrassing it would be to publish a book that is not well written. I will never get another chance to make a good first impression. So, I will always seek out good advice from my writer friends to help me improve my stories.

The information dump. There are always important details the writer wants the reader to know, but to stop the action to dump this on the reader all at once is not good. In one of the above mentioned books I read recently, I was irritated by huge sections where the author had dumped lots of meaningless information about side characters. It didn't seem to be necessary to the story being told. These particulars might be important for a later book in the series, but not pages and pages of it in the first book. Spread the information out a little. Find the most opportune time to share this knowledge with the reader, but keep it short. Give a hint for the reader's future reference, and then move on.

Use of adverbs. When my writer friends first talked about cutting out the adverbs from my work, I didn’t believe them. I thought that adjectives and adverbs spruced up my writing. Then I read a series of books that I loved. However, the writer used an excessive amount of adverbs. By the end of the third book I was irritated by the shear number used. That’s when I understood what my friends had been talking about. I went back to my novel and cut out almost all of the adverbs.

Keep the main character in hot water. It’s the main character we care about. When bad things happen to them, we want to see how they will get themselves out of the situation before the next even more dire situation hits them. Keeping the character in hot water until the climax of the story helps make the end resolution so much more satisfying.

Creating the world with language. In fantasy, sci-fi, and historical fiction you have to send the reader to the world you’ve created. When creating worlds, writers often think of the physical environment. However, the language also needs to be different than the everyday language we’re used to. If a writer uses current idioms or slang, it throws the reader out of being immersed in the story.

Showing the action and emotions. Since I’m trained as an actor and director, I think of the visuals when I’m writing. What is my character conveying with his or her body language and facial expressions? I’ve worked at creating that in my book, because I appreciate it when I read fiction books that include descriptions of how the characters look. It helps me understand how they feel. Yes, we get to hear the character’s thoughts, but knowing that their stomach is clenched, or that they’re frowning, helps me get a deeper understanding about their emotional state as well.

Revise, edit, revise, and edit again. My writer friend Debrah said something that I’ve heard other writers say. It's been very helpful to me. “Your first draft is crap.” Once you’ve finished that first draft, celebrate and then begin the revision process. It takes lots of effort to hone in on the important aspects of your story so that it is engaging and flows in a logical manner. In addition to that, you need to make sure the typos, grammar and punctuation are cleaned up. You want to keep your readers coming back to read more of your work. If I read a book and there are only one or two typos, stray words, or even awkward sentences, I just read over them and don’t think a thing about it. But if there are lots of mistakes, I get frustrated, and consider not finishing the book. That is probably more of a problem for people like me, who self-publish their books. It’s worth it to find a reputable editor to help you clean up both your story outline and your technical mistakes.

Since I’m a relatively new writer, I offer these tips for those of you who might be just starting out. But as I’ve learned, take what serves your writing, and leave the rest. You are the only one who knows what you want to say. The more you write the more you’ll learn about yourself and your writing style. We each have a unique voice to share, we want to hear yours.

You can read more of Lucinda Sage-Midgorden's thoughts about writing, and life on her blog, Sage Woman Chronicles. Her first novel, The Space Between Time will be published in early June. She can also be found on Facebook, Twitter, and Goodreads.

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  • Lucinda, thank you for this, especially the issue with adjectives and adverbs. I know for a fact that is a downfall of mine. Your point is very well taken and I need to be reminded! I'm writing a memoir, perhaps three-fourths of the way to completion and I try to stay focused on the excess. Editing helps to tone down. Thanks for the reminder!