books with Athena

books with Athena

Sunday, October 28, 2012

8 Sure-Fire Ways to Improve Your Book—Tips from a New York Times Bestselling Author


This week we have some serious nuts-and-bolts advice from our own Ruth Harris. Ruth learned this stuff from both sides of the editorial desk, as an editor at Bantam & Dell, publisher at Kensington--and as a New York Times bestselling author of women's fiction and thrillers. Since I'm in the middle of editing my new Camilla Randall mystery this week, I'm using these tips right now

Number 8 is the biggest problem for me. It's amazing how many times I say the same thing. Just because your critique group has to be reminded of the plot every week doesn't mean your reader needs a recap in every chapter. Yup. I gotta use that delete button.

And remember Ruth has her own blog now, which provides links to wacky and fascinating news stories that can help jumpstart ideas for your own fiction: Ruth Harris's Blog.

If Ruth doesn't respond to comments in a timely way this week, she may be fighting the effects of the Frankenstorm about to hit the East Coast of the US. Take care, all of you back there in the path of Sandy and her stormy friends!...Anne

8 WAYS TO IMPROVE YOUR BOOK—AND MAKE YOURSELF A BETTER WRITER
by Ruth Harris

I’ve been a professional writer for over four decades. I started out writing cover copy and flap copy at Bantam and Dell, then built a freelance career writing magazine articles. Finally, I graduated to writing paperback original mysteries, then to women’s fiction and eventually to well-reviewed hard cover publication and appearances on the New York Times Bestseller List.

If you like TV's "Revenge" this is for you!
None of it came fast but, over time, I became aware of my bad habits, figured out how to correct them and my books improved. My advantage was that I was an editor and worked with lots of writers, helping them to make their books better & in the process learning more and different ways in which writers undermine their own work.

Their problems and my problems won’t necessarily be your problems but I’m reasonably sure some of my “fixes” will show you how to take your draft and greatly improve its quality.

1. Embrace the power of the delete button. In my experience, cutting almost always makes a book better, more readable, more exciting. I think it was Elmore Leonard who advised taking out all the unnecessary words.

Specifically, that means delete all the spongy, weasely, weak words—you know, the ones that beat around the bush, the ones that don’t get to the point, the ones that aren’t crisp and precise, the ones that drag out a description without adding anything to it except length.

I duplicate my document before I begin so I can go back in case I get too enthusiastic but then I go ahead and cut like a maniac. Even though it seems terrifying, take out everything that doesn’t advance your story or help define your characters. See if the resulting clarity doesn’t vastly improve your book.

Sorry about this, but don’t just kill your darlings. Kill everything that doesn’t move the story forward. Any gems that don’t make the cut can be saved in a “future” file and used in another book where they pull their weight.

2.  Sharpen dialogue. Just as you leave our the um’s and ah’s of real life, leave out chitchat about the weather, the local gossip, the “warming up” before you get to the nitty-gritty.  No one wants to wade through digressions or long speeches that have nothing to do with your story or characters. Ernest Hemingway said that he wrote narrative in long hand but used the typewriter for dialogue—the rat-tat-tat was similar to the speed of talk.

Dialogue should be short and go fast. A scene with dialogue should have lots of white space. Allow your characters to give speeches at your own peril!

3.  Don't confuse the reader. It's "Dick and Jane": notice it’s not "James and Jane" and that’s for a reason. You want to help the reader as much as possible—it’s known as readability—and you’re not doing yourself or your book a favor by screwing up when you name your characters.

Example: The hero is Ken Brady. The heroine is Kathleen Boies. The villain is Kendall Brackner. The names are similar and the initials are identical.

Trust me, you are not enchanting your reader. You are driving him/her crazy, struggling to remember which of the K’s are OK and which aren’t.

Make a list of all the character names in your book and change names and initials wherever they need to be changed. Don’t confuse your reader. A confused reader is an unhappy reader and you know what that means: no repeat sales.

4. Utilize the almighty cliffhanger. The cliffhanger is the secret writer’s key to compelling the reader to turn the page. End every chapter on a note of suspense or irresolution. No exceptions. The reader, dying to know what happens next, will turn the page, will stay up till three AM to finish your book and then the next day tell her/his friends “you have to read it!”

The cliffhanger worked in beginning-of-the-Twentieth-Century weekly movie serials, in soap operas on radio through the 40’s and 50’s and then on TV. The cliffhanger hangs on today, you will find the little buggers right before the commercial break.

The cliffhanger worked then and it works now. Use it.

5. Have a flight plan. I’m a pantser, not a plotter. For me, a detailed outline results in a book that’s DOA. However, I do plan ahead in the form of lists of key scenes, turning points, notes about characters—anything I can think of that will propel the book along.

If outlines work for you, keep using them. But if you’re a pantser, at least begin with your fly zipped and your belt buckled. Let’s call our no-system system a flight plan.

6.  Know your crutch words. Every writer has them. To this day, I use “begin” even though I know better. To this day, I have to go back over my manuscript and get rid of it. Example: “She began to run for the bus” becomes “She ran for the bus.”

Simpler, more direct and more powerful and yet another example of the power of the delete button.

Do you abuse adverbs? A search for ly will ferret them out.

ID your own crutch words, be on the lookout for them and let them know who’s boss.

7.  Know your genre. You wouldn’t join an ice hockey team if you didn’t know how to skate. Ditto, genre. A hard-boiled romance? Really? With lots of tough talk? Dark alleys and gritty industrial setting? Beaucoup cursing? Well, lotsa luck.

Romance, thrillers, horror, romcom—all have conventions and readers expect those conventions to be honored. Disappoint them, and you and your book are toast.

Do your homework and study the genre(s) you work in. Read widely. Keep up with shifts and changes in the genre. Learn what your readers are looking for and be sure you give it to them. If you don’t, you’re wasting their time and your time.

8. Don't repeat yourself. Once is enough. This is a fairly common problem and not always quick or easy to fix because it involves actual thinking. Be on the lookout for places where you convey the same thought two or three times in different words. Usually, this kind of repetition means the writer hasn’t quite thought through what he/she is trying to say.

If you find yourself falling into this trap, you need to do the hard work of clarifying your thoughts and then conveying them clearly.

Decide exactly what you want to say and then say it. Do it right once and you don’t have to do it again

***.

Which one of these tips is most important for your own editing? If you're a pantser, how much of a "flight plan" do you have in writing? 

COMMENTERS: I've had to turn off the Anonymous comments because of a barrage of robospam. It was either that or put the CAPTCHA  back on. If Blogger won't let you comment, email Anne at annerallen dot allen at gmail dot com and I'll post it. 

I'd also like to have people weigh in. Would you rather I turn the "word verification" back on, or keep the anonymous comments blocked? 


BOOK NEWS!!! After a year's wait, Anne's mystery,  THE GATSBY GAME is now in paperback! Only $8.99 on Amazon US and £6.99 on Amazon UK. It's Anne's most critically acclaimed book--and offers a possible solution to a mystery that has been called one of Hollywood's Ten Most Notorious Sex Scandals. It's also available as a $2.99 ebook on all platforms. (link to Barnes and Noble in the sidebar.)

And guys, you don't have to be afraid this is too much of a "shoe novel" for you: "Dead End Follies" reviewer Benoit Lelievre said "I never thought I would have so much fun reading a chick lit novel, but this was great, even for my hardboiled sensibility." Vine reviewer John Williamson said, "Anne R. Allen has really taken mysteries like this to a new level. This is a guaranteed 5-star read that shouldn't be missed.

Opportunity for short fiction and poetry writers: Suzannah at the fantastic Write it Sideways blog is starting a literary journal that looks as if it's going to be a very prestigious venue for your work. She's also looking for editors and other staff (positions that will look fabulous in a query letter.) Find out more about the new literary magazine, COMPOSE at Write it Sideways.

35 comments:

  1. Congratulations on the book now in paperback, Anne!
    I've definitely learned my crutch words. And added a few new ones, just to keep it fresh.
    I tend to select names after I write the story (except for the main characters) and make sure they are all different. And simple!

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  2. #6 is the one I have to work on the most during editing. There are lots of phrases I like to use (i.e. "of course") and when editing, I have to make sure they're not all over the place! I also like to start sentences with a conjunction, another thing I have to look for.

    As for commenting - I'd rather NOT type the capcha, so getting rid of the anonymous is okay with me (since I don't comment anonymously).

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  3. I'm a pantser dealing right this second with the question: how much planning is too much planning? I'm trying to decide what to write for NaNoWriMo and started working on an idea a few weeks ago. As soon as I got to the point of having a whole cast and plot, the thing went flat on me and I don't care any more. I keep hoping my writing will go more smoothly and more quickly if I plan ahead more, but it seems to be in conflict with my natural creative process. So maybe flopping around is just the way it is.

    I make a list of character names as I write my books, alphabetized by first letter so I can make sure none of the major characters have the same first initial. Occasionally, I use the same letter more than once, but it's always for really peripheral characters who sometimes don't actually make it into the book, but get named as I am figuring out my story.

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  4. Alex—Wow, you select names after you write the story? Would never work for me. I have to know their names & they have to be the right names. I spend lots of time naming characters. A few times, I even changed a MC's name when I realized it just wasn't letting me write.

    Odd, isn't it, how individual our work processes are?

    Stacy—I'm guilty of that, too: Starting sentences with a conjunction. Have to go back & get rid of them. Sort of like a nervous tic, I guess.

    Kit—I'm with you. Over planning means a DOA idea. Finding the balance between squeezing the life out of an idea & wasting tons of time & work on plot threads that go nowhere is not easy. In fact, I still haven't figured it out to my satisfaction.



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  5. I tend to repeat myself in conversation. I hear myself do it. I guess I better check my writing! I am a pantser. I love writing that way. I get to be surprised by what my characters do. I do have to edit away crazy, off story or narcissistic behavior though. Those cahracters...who do they think they are? Thanks for the advice, Ruth. Very helpful.

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  6. Christine—thanks for the kind words. Yes, those characters who think they're hot sh*t. Who do they think they are anyway? Who do they think runs things around here? LOL

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  7. Fantastic tips Ruth! I'm absolutely AWFUL on the extra words front - I need to learn to stop chucking them in, I do it everywhere, essays and letters as well as novels - so adverb hunting may be just the thing for me!

    Thanks so much :)

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  8. Charley—If you start an Adverb Hunters reality show, you'll have people lined up around the block to join you! ;-)

    Adverb Abuse is such a common affliction & so well known it's already in the DSM.

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  9. I just have to say about repeating oneself there is the exception of writing for children where repetition is encouraged to a point in that kids tend to remember the message if you are a bit repetitious. Or at least that is my experience, but of course, you don't want to talk down to them either, so you have to balance everything. Thanks for sharing these tips. E :-)

    http://elysabethsstories.blogspot.com
    http://eeldering.weebly.com

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  10. LOVE your eight points and they are so helpful. Thank you.
    Patti

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  11. Great post, Ruth. My bugaboo is also point number 8, "Don't repeat yourself." I find that I'm sure of what I want to say, but don't trust my words to communicate themselves to others. So I'll restate the point, and restate it again. It's a kind of cowardice with words. I remember the professor who led one of the writing groups I was in saying, "Say it once. Trust your words to communicate."

    Re: "I think it was Elmore Leonard who advised taking out all the unnecessary words." I recall Stephen King saying those words in his book about writing. He cited the Chicago Manual of Style as the source.

    Have a good week, all.

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  12. Great article! Thanks for the info. I actually have a strange love for the delete button, and sometimes have gone a little delete-happy.

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  13. All these points are good - thanks for the post!

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  14. Elysabeth—Thank you for bringing up the instance of writing for children. Both your points are excellent...it's all about finding the balance.

    Patti—So glad you found my post helpful! Thanks for the kind words.

    Sandy—Thanks! It's about having confidence in your manuscript &, as your prof said, trusting your words. I have a feeling that particular kind of confidence is something that develops with time & experience.

    You may well be right about the source of that quote. I suspect it might be a case of success having a thousand fathers. ;-)

    Kelly—You & me, too. Viva the delete button! I always work on a duplicate doc so if I get too carried away, I can just go back, reduplicate & start again.

    Fiona—Thank *you*. Glad the points here are a help.

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  15. Great tips and thank you for taking the time to post them! I've struggled with many of these from repeating myself to adverbs ... and I love what you said about character names.

    Names can confuse, slow down or stop a story.

    Thank you again for sharing!

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  16. Ryan—Thanks for the flattering words &, yes, character names are crucial. In addition to what I said above, the names also have to be easily pronounced so the reader doesn't stumble & try to guess every time a "foreign" name is mentioned.

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  17. I admit it: I'm a pantser. When I started to write my first novel, I had nothing more than a vague idea of a war between two different kinds of vampires and an opening scene involving a girl's coming-of-age ceremony involving the vampire she's had a crush on forever.

    That somehow evolved into a trilogy.

    I tend to think in scenes. I get an idea rolling through my head like a movie clip, and I write it down. I make a bunch of these, then start stitching them together and filling in the gaps until I have a book.

    I probably spend more time on editing than a person who snowflakes, though, and I certainly couldn't write a whodunnit or something with a plot twist without pre-plotting.

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  18. Keri—Thanks for commenting. I totally agree about editing. IME editing/revising/rewriting make ALL the difference & the time spent on them is never wasted.

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  19. Oh, I love to repeat myself. It's a fear of not having enough clarity for me. I try to catch as much as I can in the hopes my crit partner will find the rest.

    I'm a pantsing planner. I like to write my story as it comes, but if I'm stuck, a good sit down with the plot points and an outline help get past it.

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  20. Great tips! I like the grouping, especially the tips on tightening the prose. I have a crutch word file that I religiously apply to all rough drafts.
    I did post an article on self-editing on my blog a few days ago, and some of the tips echo your tips, Ruth, although I put more emphasis on the Writer vs. the Editor in the author's head.
    Good post, one I hope will receive more reads and more comments.

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  21. Carrie—Love the phrase "pantsing planner." Yes, a sit down with plot points & an outline (if you roll that way) can be a big help. For me, I find that talking out the problem with my DH helps--sometimes he comes up with the perfect solution. Sometimes I do—it seems as if I've known it all along but didn't know I knew it. (if you can follow that)

    AA—OMG, a crutch word file! Now, that's professional. And also super smart. A perfect example of "Know thyself."

    You & I must be thinking along the same lines. Last week I wrote a post that emphasizes Writer over Editor: Hold Your Nose And Type—The Upside of Writing Fast. Here's the link: http://romanceuniversity.org/2012/10/22/hold-your-nose-and-type-the-upside-of-writing-fast-with-ruth-harris/




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  22. Ruth--I sure hope you're OK. I just saw our CA evening news and New York looks like something out of one of those "plague wipes out humanity" movies. Thanks for keeping up with us today in spite of having to batten down the hatches.

    And all of our friends in New England--the news people couldn't even tell us what's going on there. We're sending you good thoughts. Take care.

    Sandy--What Elmore Leonard said in his famous 10 Rules for Good Writing was "leave out the parts that readers tend to skip." A whole lot of writing advice since has echoed that, but I like the way he said it best. (I'm one of those readers who skip.)

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  23. Anne—M & I both fine & very lucky indeed to have power but the city is undergoing extremely difficult days.

    Thanks for the ELeonard clarification.

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  24. I am a little late to comment on this wonderful post but here is one last thought. Rule Number 9 Let that book, ms,story, etc.sit all alone for an extended length of time--at least a month (three months in my case). I am currently struggling with an edit of my first book which took several years to write. I have learned so much in the meantime. I am appalled by my many greivous errors that now seem so apparent. My personal theory is while I am sleeping, reading,and absorbing information from other writers, my writing skills grew. Don't laugh! I can't think of any other explanation, but I know I will resist the impulse to send out something I have just written until some time passes.
    Ruth, everything you mention is so true, but until a writer takes it to heart and actually does these things, it's just so many words that can sound like cliches (kill your darlings!)
    I especially liked your suggestion to make a copy first as a sort of insurance policy. This might encourage the fearful to go ahead and cut, revise, etc leaving a back door out.
    Thanks again.
    Judith Schara

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  25. Ruth--I'm so glad to hear you're OK and that you have power! So much of what we heard last night sounded like NYC Armageddon.

    Judith--Ruth will agree, I'm sure. Letting a book "rest" is one of the most important things you can do for your writing, especially for new writers. (More especially for all you NaNoWrimos!)

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  26. Great post. I usually need to work on not stressing out over editing during a draft. I think with more experience, we make fewer mistakes in the initial drafts, but the point is to get the story down and not constantly edit as I go. It's tough.

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  27. Judith—Anne is right—I completely agree with your excellent suggestion for #9. We all need to designate a "cooling off" period.

    Anne—Armageddon or Apocalypse: take your pick. The city is stunned. Eerie with few people & little traffic under hovering grey clouds.

    Stephsco—Editing while writing is in the same league as texting while driving: A Very Very Bad Idea.

    One of the (many) important things a writer needs to learn is to get out of his/her own way. Trust the work; trust yourself. Easier said than done but nevertheless vital.

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  28. I wish all writers would read your #3. Screen writers, too.

    I learned from your list. Thank you.

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  29. Lori—Thanks! As you say, #3 matters. Drives me crazy when a writer doesn't pay attention to basics like making sure characters and their names are quickly & easily differentiated.

    Bottom line: confuse your reader at your own peril.

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  30. Fabulous news on the book! And great post. Informative, generous, and helpful, as always.

    Sarah Allen
    From Sarah, With Joy

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  31. Sarah—Thanks! Really happy to hear the post was a help.

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  32. I think Number One is my favorite tip. When I've had to pare a personal essay or excerpt of my memoir down for a 5-minute reading, it always improves the text. I have easily deleted as many chapters of my book as there are in my book. I have an entire second book of deleted text! And when I'm editing, I find that almost every author is guilty of using a particular word too many times. It's usually a big word that they've fallen in love with without realizing it. Most recently, I had a client who used "crucible" way too many times. Because it's not a common word, it stands out on the first use. By the third time, I'm screaming in comments "WORD CHOICE!"

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  33. Meghan—Thanks for posting this! I'm glad to find out I'm not the only one who has (at least) a second book of cuts, deletions & out takes for every book published.

    The delete button can be your best friend. It's amazing (& not that infrequent) that cutting an entire chapter/scene does amazing things for strengthening a book.

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  34. Congratulations on the book, Anne.

    I dislike using the same words repeatedly so I am annoyed when I read books by best selling authors who do the same thing. I'm not going to name and shame on here but once I read a chick lit book with the word 'incredulous' written six times on one page!Repeated words to me show a dull lack of imagination and laziness - so why should best selling authors be allowed to get away with it?

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  35. LK—Couldn't agree more. That's what copy editors are for. Awareness of crutch words + the delete button can fix the problem too. If the author said it once & said it effectively, that's all that's needed.

    Easier said than done, tho.

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