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

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.

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.)

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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.

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