Quick tips

Check this page periodically as the list of tips grows.

• If editors and agents are telling you that they can’t “connect with your main character,” check your choice of narration. I’ll bet you are writing in third person—he/she. Furthermore, I’ll wager that you aren’t writing in limited third person either, but rather standing back from your hero or heroine and writing from a more distant third person, or even in omniscient narration. So rewrite a couple of chapters in first person, at least temporarily. Many students to whom I’ve recommended this tip are astounded at how this enables them to not only get to know their young character better, but also to make the voice of the character sound more authentic—less like the adult author who’s writing about them. You can always “translate” your manuscript back into third person later.

• Often writers get so caught up in the exciting series of actions in their plots that they forget to stop and let their main character react to what is going on around them. And that’s a big mistake. Nothing can ever be said to happen in a novel until the main character has reacted to it, both in an interior way (thoughts and feelings), and in an active, exterior way. With apologies to physicists everywhere—especially to Sir Isaac Newton—I’ve invented a new law, one which I like to think of as Nancy’s Fifth Law of Thermodynamics, for writers. That law basically goes like this:


Something happens, your protagonist reacts, and then this reaction spurs him or her to take some new action—which in turn leads to another plot event. This is the chain reaction that, like a nuclear reactor, fuels your book.

Put your manuscript on an adverb diet. I confess here to a strong adverb allergy, but it is one shared by many other writers (like Stephen King and Les Edgerton). Why do we dislike adverbs so much? Because they are a form of telling, not showing. You should always strive to let your characters act out their emotions, without simply slapping a label on them. Here’s an example.

“Lizzie, how many times do I have to tell you not to borrow my clothes without asking?” Sally asked angrily.

It’s not necessary to apply the adverb label “angrily” to tell readers that Sally is ticked off at her sister; this has already been shown well in the actual words Sally speaks. Trust your readers; they will understand. If you want to add a little more oomph to the line, consider choosing a strong descriptive verb as your dialogue tag, substituting “yelled” or “shouted” for “asked.” Better yet, add what is called a beat: a brief description of some action your character takes that shows her emotion.

“Lizzie, how many times do I have to tell you not to borrow my clothes without asking?” Sally slammed the door and stomped out of the room.

• The only thing I’m more allergic to than adverbs is exclamation marks, and I need to keep a barrel of Benadryl handy because so many manuscripts I read are riddled with them. That’s okay in casual correspondence; I’m as guilty of exclamation mark overload in my letters and emails as anyone. But in a book, you need to rein yourself in. Editors  consider exclamation marks as one sign of an amateur. Why? Because exclamation marks are lazy. Instead of making sure that you have chosen just the right words to express the emotion or drama of the moment, you give up and dump in a bunch of punctuation marks instead. F. Scott Fitzgerald said that using punctuation marks was like laughing at your own jokes; Elmore Leonard said that writers should be allowed only one for every 65,000 words. I say they are like habanero peppers; a little goes a very long way. So delete exclamation marks wherever you find them. And I’ve got the link to a 12-step recovery program for recovering exclamation mark addicts if you need it.


• One of the best exercises you can do to develop your dialogue skills is to shamelessly eavesdrop on other people’s conversations at restaurants, stores, and other public places. For example, listen to the ways people order food. “I want a hamburger and fries.” “Give me a burger and fries.” “Could I please have a hamburger and a small order of french fries?” The differences in something as simple as the way a character orders lunch can tell your readers a lot about him or her.

• Somewhere along the line we all seemed to have a teacher who told us to use synonyms instead of repeating the same word over and over. That may be a good general rule, but when it comes to dialogue, simpler is better. Don’t be afraid to use “said” and “asked” more often than anything else. With repetition,  these simple speaker attributions become almost invisible, as if we were actually listening to the characters speak rather than reading about it on the page. This is what you are aiming for with dialogue, to make it seem natural and uncontrived. Save words like “grumbled” or “exclaimed” for when they are necessary for real impact. Frequently you can even dispense with dialogue tags entirely, especially in two-person conversations.

 [© 2013 This article is subject to copyright. Please do not use or reproduce without express written permission from the author.]

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