Three books that will enhance your ability to write and edit your work—from sentence structure, to organization, to crafting dialogue and suspense:
*If you’re working with fiction, and only have time to read one of these, read Browne and King's book. But make sure you pick up Zinsser's too!
Tip #1: R.U.E.
In Renni Browne and Dave King's book, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, the letters R.U.E. stand for "Resist the Urge to Explain". The chapter of their book on this concept is worth the book's cover price and several afternoons practicing it.
In fiction writing, active verbs and compelling dialogue should always trump the urge to explain what's happening. More often than not, explaining who feels what and how and when and why becomes redundant. Take the following example:
She turned to her husband and yelled in an angry voice, "You jerk!"
Doesn't calling your spouse a jerk imply anger? And doesn't the exclamation point imply louder tone? Then R.U.E. and write:
She turned to her husband. "You jerk!"
Beyond only dialogue, R.U.E. applies to the frequent urge to narrate. For example:
The hotel was on the wrong side of the tracks. It had been the wrong side of the tracks for years. It was shoddy, run down. It hadn't been cared for by diligent management, or even cleanly management, for years. Two letters were burned out of the sign, the manager's window had bars on it, and the rooms smelled of mildew and stale beer.
Yes, that explains the situation, but it's also dull. Instead of telling your readers information, show them:
Lucy slammed her shoulder into the door marked "B3". It opened. She winced at the smell of mildew and stale beer. What kind of luck drives pretty girls to stay in motels like this? She turned and locked the door, the deadbolt, the chain. Then, before she threw herself under the covers, she grabbed a shoe--just in case anything scurried across her while she slept.
Tip #2: Chapter One
Like the Lead in a magazine article, your first chapter may be the only chance you get to sell a reader on buying, or even reading, your book. Make it count. Avoid grandiose, flowery descriptions to vaguely "set the scene". That may have worked in the classic novels of the past, but unless your readers are dying to read your book, it's best in today's instant society to hook your readers quickly. How? Here's a couple of ideas:
1. Pick your best chapter, and make it the first. If a flashback scene or a scene from the middle of the action will generate suspense, then why not make it the first chapter? You can go back in chapter 2 or 3 to set the scene and fill in the details. In essence, you use foreshadowing to generate instant suspense.
2. Begin with an interrupted scene. In other words, jump into a conversation or the action without explaining first. It will test your ability to reveal information as the action progresses, but it will also force you to avoid dull narration and compel you to R.U.E.
3. Sharpen and resharpen that first chapter. Even if you keep a basic, chronological, once-upon-a-time opening, the first chapter must be well-edited. Use active verbs, cut unnecessary details, and keep the action or the suspense moving. When I edit my own fiction, I edit the first chapter 4 times for every one time I edit the following chapters. You only get one chance to make a first impression.
Tip #3: Cut words
By purposefully slimming and trimming your writing, you will create a "tighter," snappier, more interesting creation. Some common ways to trim words and improve writing at the same time:
Active/passive verbs: "She was slowed down by the traffic" needs to become "The traffic slowed her down." Likewise, "Laughter is caused by comedy" needs to become "Comedy produces laughs." Likewise, "What happened was a tragedy" becomes "A tragedy happened."
Adverbs: Cut most of them out. Replace a dull verb that needs an adverb with a single, exciting verb. Why "move noisily across the floor" when it can "prattle across the floor"? "Throw hard" becomes "hurl". And avoid redundancy. Is there any other way to blast than noisily? So why "blast noisily"? No need to "guffaw heartily". Isn't every guffaw done that way?
Modifiers: Little words that detract from how much something is done (like "a bit" or "sort of" or "pretty much") do exactly that--they detract. Cut them out! Do the same with the word "very." My senior editor used to say, "The only time to use the word 'very' is when you really want to say 'damn' but can't."
Adjectives: Though novels seem to be the breeding ground for these pesky words, nothing slows and saps interesting prose quicker than overt attempts at writing in a "flowery" style. Unless you need that word to describe it, cut it. Adding "blue and orange, layered like a heaven-sent Carribean parfait" to describe a sunset doesn't tell us anything we don't already know. Sunsets are blue and orange, and come in layers--that's already implied in the word "sunset". Cut the rest of it.
In every sentence, look for words to cut. Ask yourself, "How many words can I cut out of this? If I cut that word, does it change the meaning?" If not, out it goes! Adverbs, adjectives, modifiers--are they really necessary? You'd be surprised how often the answer is no. And if it isn't necessary, then it's likely making your writing worse.
Tip #4: Read Aloud
Though you are writing your tale, the craft of storytelling is still a matter of "telling." If your dialogue is stilted, your narration dull, or your logic flawed, reading your work aloud to yourself will often reveal it.
Read through your dialogue like actors with a script. Use different voices or tones for each character--what you imagine them sounding like--and see if the words and tones fit your mind's image. If your ten-year-old boy says, "Perhaps we'll dine at grandmother's this evening," reading it aloud will reveal that your boy is a wealthy, well-trained, polite child from the 1800's. And he's probably British, too. Is this not your child? Then that dialogue needs to change.
Reading aloud will also help your narrative. When your scene is action-packed, does your voice accelerate in quick bursts? Or does it drone on to cover all the action in a single sentence.
Hear the difference between: "Mike pulled the gun from the holster at his hip, fingering the trigger like the familiar friend it had become from his days in the Mafia, spun around the corner with a grim determination, and pulled at the trigger until every last chamber of the revolver was spent."
And: "Mike pulled out the revolver. Cold steel in his hands again. The feel of it threw him around the corner, barrel blazing. Blam! Blam! Blam! Six shots fired in the time it took Antonio to fire two. He dropped to the ground and listened. Was Antonio still standing to fire off four more?"
The first is cool, slow, Humphrey Bogart. The second is quick, heart-racing, intense. Which did you intend? When you're writing, you may be thinking one but writing the other. Reading aloud often reveals which was written.