Writing a Novel – What to Avoid

State of Being Verbs

Avoid using the “to be” verbs which are: am, is, are, was, were, be, been and being. Any sentence that uses these verbs is “telling,” rather than “showing,” which is what we want. For example, instead of saying: “Sally is a funny girl,” you could say “I like Sally’s sense of humor,” or “Sally makes me laugh.” Even better, you could portray her being funny – maybe have her telling jokes, or making witty comments, which will completely negate the need to say she is funny in the first place, because the reader will already know.

Excessive Adverbs

Try to avoid using adverbs in your writing, especially after dialogue. An adverb is a word that modifies a verb, adjective, other adverbs, or various other types of words, phrases, and clauses, and typically are just adjectives that end with the suffix -ly. They will distract the reader from your story. There are too many instances of “he said incredulously,” or “she said sarcastically.” A good story or dialogue will convey the tone you’re trying to create without the use of an additional descriptor. The reason adverbs are bad, is that they draw attention outside of your story. It’s important that the reader does not feel the author’s presence but instead, should be able to absorb the story without distraction.

Excessive Description

Description is very different from specific details, which are necessary in a good novel. Description, however, can slow down your narrative. Use this rule of thumb to decide whether to provide a description in your writing – Does it relate to the plot and advance the story? If the answer is no, cut it. Writing is all about moving the plot along, and if you pause to provide a two page description of a building, no matter how lovely, you are stopping the action and taking the reader out of your story. Pace is everything. Stick with the action.

Avoid Generalizing

In contrast to excessive description, specific details are very important to a story. Taking a moment to name a street, or a restaurant, or to briefly describe a dress, makes all the difference to your readers. I recently read a book, which I won’t name, that didn’t provide any details. It made me so mad! She talked about a dress she had chosen to wear out that evening, but didn’t say a thing about it! She could have said it was a little black dress, or a slinky red evening gown, or a floral sundress. The fact that she neglected to provide such important details really took away from her story. It made it less believable. Most readers do have some imagination, but you have to give them something to work with. Expecting them to come up with all the details themselves is unprofessional, and frankly, a bit lazy.

Creating Characters – Part 2

Once you’ve figured out what your character’s name will be, and what basic personality traits they will have, it’s important to go deeper, and get an even better understand of “who” your character is. It’s helpful to keep a file, or even a separate Word document with all of your character information to refer back to.

Here are some things you may want to know about your character:

1.) When is their birthday?

2.) How old are they?

3.) What do they look like?

4.) Do they have a family? How many siblings? Are their parents still alive? Do they have any children of their own? Do they have a husband, or a wife, or a significant other, or a best friend?

5.) Do they have any enemies?

6.) What do the other characters like about this character?

7.) What do the other characters dislike about this character?

8.) What are they good at?

9.) What are they bad at?

10.) What do they do? Do they go to school, do they have a job? What hobbies do they have? What do they do for fun? What movies do they like? What books do they like? What music do they like?

11.) Are they optimistic or pessimistic?

12.) What are their favorite foods?

13.) What are they afraid of?

14.) What is their favorite color?

15.) Do they have any pets?

16.) What do they carry in their purse, pocket, backpack, wallet, etc.?

17.) Has anything bad happened to them in their life?

18.) Are they shy or friendly?

19.) How do they walk, talk, and behave that makes them different from everyone else?

20.) Do they have any bad habits?

21.) What sort of facial expressions do they make?

22.) How would they react to good news? To bad news?

23.) Why should we care about them, anyway?

The main thing to remember when creating your characters is to make them believable. Nobody’s going to believe, or even like, a perfect character. Characters need flaws, just like real people need flaws. It’s what sets them apart and makes them different. Find that one thing that makes your character different and run with it. Readers embrace imperfection in characters. It makes the characters more relatable, and everyone wants to relate in some way to the characters they’re getting to know.

As Steven Taylor Goldsberry says in The Writer’s Book of Wisdom, “We adore eccentricity. Most of the folks who populate the real world, never mind invented ones, distinguish themselves by being unusual.”

He’s right. Uniqueness is important. Use your imagination to create a character that people will remember.

Creating Characters – Part 1

Often, the most important part of your story will be your characters. Sometimes, you decide to base one or more of your characters on someone you know. This can be a great way to start. You already know most of the things about them, anyway – how they act, how they speak, what they would or wouldn’t do. But unless you’re writing non-fiction, you will probably have to come up with some of the characters on your own.

Deciding Who Your Character Will Be:

The first thing you must do when creating a character, is to decide on basic defining characteristics. Will your character be male or female? Approximately what age group will your character be in? Is he or she a small child, or a teenager, or a young adult, or middle-aged? Maybe he or she has just had their 100th birthday. Once this has been decided, you must decide what this character will look like.

Maybe your character will be tall, dark and handsome. Maybe not. Maybe he or she will wear glasses, or have blue hair. Maybe your character has a pug nose or bushy eyebrows or very tiny ears. Find that one thing that will set your character apart, and use it. Readers like your characters to have flaws. It makes them more believable, and it’s very important for your audience to relate to your characters. The success of your novel will depend upon this.

How does your character speak? Is his or her voice very low or very high? Does he or she speak in complete sentences or fragments? What words does he or she use often? You need to be able to hear in your mind what this character will sound like, because this will help you immensely with dialogue.

Each character needs to have his or her own distinct personality. Maybe he or she is one of those happy-go-lucky people who always has a smile on their face. Or maybe he or she is very shy and quiet. Your character could be very funny, or dry, or cynical, or romantic, or even some odd mixture of everything. Don’t be afraid to experiment. Try something, and if it doesn’t seem right, change it. Getting to know your characters often continues long after you’ve begun working on your novel, and sometimes, you’ll have a flash of insight and suddenly just “know” that your character has a fear of dogs, or an interest in aviation. Go with it. It’s easy to go back and change things if you need to.

Naming your Character:

Once you’ve figured out who your character will be, you need to name him or her. Try to pick a name that suits them. Often, naming your characters can be one of the hardest parts. But sometimes, you’ll just know. You know that the sweet old lady living down the street is named Betty, or the cute little baby in the stroller is named Davy. You don’t know how you know that, you just do. Sometimes, all you need to do is get to know your character a little better, and the name will just come to you.

Happy writing!

Writing a Novel – How to Begin

When you begin to write a novel, you may already have something in mind. Maybe you’ve had a story in your head for months or years, just waiting to get out. Or maybe there’s a certain character you’ve been creating over time, and you’d like to create a story around him or her. Maybe you have nothing in mind, and have just always wanted to write a novel. Well, here’s your chance!

There are two types of novels: story driven and character driven. Story driven novels happen when you have a specific story you’d like to tell, and you let the plot set the pace of the novel and define the characters. Character driven novels are the opposite – you begin with a character or several characters, and you build the story around them, based on how you feel they would act or behave.

In either case, I believe it is important to get to know your characters very well.

If you don’t know how to begin and have no ideas for a story or characters, here’s the easiest way to start:

1. Decide WHO you want your story to be about, rather than WHAT you want it to be about.

2. Begin to define your character – what does he or she look like? How does he or she speak? What does he or she like? What is his/her name? Write down everything you can think of about this character. You can always go back and change things once you begin writing. This is just to give you an idea of who this “person” is.

3. Once you have your main character, you can begin to define your secondary characters. Decide what their relationship will be to the main character, and write down everything you can about them. Again, you can always go back and change things later.

4. After you’ve come up with a few characters, you may be starting to have ideas of what will happen to these characters. At the very least, you must have an idea of the type of novel this will be. Will it be love story? A mystery? A thriller? All you have to do now is start writing, and let the characters guide the story. The better you get to know your characters, the more you’ll realize that the story is already there, you’re just writing it down.

5. Remember to be true to your characters. If your main character is scared of the dark, you wouldn’t have her going outside at midnight to investigate a noise she heard. Your readers will pick up on this, and you will lose credibility with them.

Happy writing!

Writing Every Day – Why It’s Important

Writing every day is so important. Not only is it a great way to improve your skills, it’s a good practice to get into because it keeps your creativity flowing. If you stop writing, even if it’s only for a few days, it’s really hard to get back into it. Writing can also be very therapeutic.

If you’re not working on anything in particular, it can be hard to think of something to write about every day. Journaling can be a very rewarding activity. Sometimes, writing about the mundane, boring things that happen to you on a daily basis can make them seem much more fascinating, and often, very funny. You may find it more fun to create a fictional journal about the life you’d rather be having. This can be a fun exercise, as well.

Writing prompts are also a great way to get your creative juices flowing. Shut off your thoughts and allow the prompt to guide you in whichever direction it takes you. You’ll surprise yourself. Most of the time you’ll write something you never knew you had in you, which is the best kind of thing to write.

I found this adorable little book called A Creative Writer’s Kit by Judy Reeves at Barnes and Noble. It contains a writing prompt for every day of the year. She suggests committing to sitting down to write at the same time every day for a certain length of time, whether it’s ten minutes, or two hours. And then actually do it. I agree, because it’s so easy to tell yourself that you’ll do it later, or tomorrow, or after you finish some big project you’re currently working on. That’s what separates the writers from the wanna-be writers. The writers actually write.

If you’d rather not buy a book of writing prompts, you can create your own. Anytime an idea for a prompt or a story pops into your head, write it down and stick it in a jar. Every day, draw out a prompt, and write about it. Prompts can be as simple as writing about making a turkey sandwich, or that tall, dark, handsome stranger you saw at the gas station the other day. Which brings me to people watching.
People watching can be a wonderful creative tool. Next time you spot any interesting looking strangers, invent backgrounds for them. Write what you think their lives must be like. You may even be able to use some of them as characters in a novel.

There are many reasons it’s important to write every day. You’ll always be able to think of a million reasons not to, but don’t let them stop you. Be a writer.

Overcoming Writer’s Block

Writer’s block. Every writer has encountered this obstruction of creativity at some point, and everyone has their own way of overcoming it. Some are proactive and try to find a way around it, while some step back and wait for inspiration to strike. As someone who’s tried it both ways, I have to be honest – people who wait around for inspiration to strike will often end up waiting a very long time.

Here are some things I’ve tried that have helped immensely:

1.) Tell yourself you only have to write a tiny bit. Limiting your assignment to one page, one paragraph or even just a few sentences can really take away the pressure, which is often what is causing your block in the first place. Anne Lamott, author of Bird by Bird, also recommends giving yourself short assignments. In her case, she only has to write as much as she can see through a one-inch picture frame, and no more. If you feel inspired to continue – great! If not, that’s okay, too. At least you’ve done something.

2.) Rituals. Many writers have rituals that help to get them in the mood for writing. Some put on music, or sip their favorite beverage, or have a special room for writing, or even go for a walk and think about what they’re going to write about. Whatever it is, it has to work for you. The first few times you try it, it may not have the desired effect, but after it becomes a habit, it often has the ability to gently coax you into the writing spirit. If not, try something else!

3.) Try rewriting a paragraph or two from your favorite book in your own words and using your characters instead of the author’s. The reason this works is that it gets you writing in your own voice and often inspires ideas for your own story.

4.) Write about something else. Take a day off from your story and work on something you’ve set aside. Sometimes taking a day to focus on something else will be just what you need to get back to your project.

5.) Write a description of one of your characters. Or all of them. This works great, because often you discover something about them that you’ve never thought of before, and this can add great plotlines to your story.

6.) Try a writing exercise. Most writing exercises are designed to draw out your creativity with the process of improvisational writing. I have found this to be very effective, and often, it can lead to ideas for future stories. One of my old college professors used to challenge us to a 15 minute “Quickwrite”. He would write a topic on the board, and then tell us to start. This forced us to write off the tops of our heads without thinking about how it sounded. We were not allowed to go back and read it or fix anything until the end. Some of the best writing was achieved in this way, because it forces you to drop your inhibitions. Try it!

7.) Change your scenery. If you’re used to writing in your dining room or your home office, perhaps a change of scenery is all it will take to raise your inspiration levels. Try writing while sitting at a café or on a bench at the park, or on a lawn chair in your backyard. If you don’t have a laptop and don’t like writing by hand, try the library. Most libraries have computers that you can use for free if you have a library card.

8.) Change things up a little. If you already have a writing ritual, and it doesn’t seem to be doing the trick anymore, maybe it’s time to change things a little. Change stimulates your brain, which results in an increase in creativity and a decrease in writer’s block. If you usually write in the morning, try writing in the afternoon or evening. If you usually listen to classical music, try listening to rock. Do something different, and see how your brain, and writing, responds.

9.) Never finish your sentences. Another little trick I’ve heard is to never end your writing for the day with a complete sentence. This will allow you to jump back into the same flow of writing as when you left off. This can prevent writer’s block because you’ll immediately know what to write and you’ll avoid staring at your computer screen for 20 minutes while you figure out what happens next.

10.) Realize that you don’t have to write the story in chronological order from beginning to end. Instead, think of yourself as a movie director. They shoot scenes in random order and then piece them all together to create the final product. Some scenes get cut, some get moved around and some get changed or reshot. You can do this with your story, as well. If the scene you’re working on isn’t working for you, jump to a different scene. You may change your mind and decide not to go in that direction after all, but the good news is – at least you got yourself writing again.

Original Detail

I’ve been reading  a lot of books on the craft of writing lately, perhaps as a way to inspire myself to become a better writer.  Throughout this journey, I have discovered a few authors who amaze me.  Natalie Goldberg is one of them.  Her book, Writing Down the Bones has such good advice and encouragement for all writers, not just beginners.  Here is a snippet about original detail.  It was too good to summarize, so I thought I’d share it with you:

Life is so rich, if you can write down the real details of the way things were and are, you hardly need anything else.  Even if you transplant the beveled windows, slow-rotating Rheingold sign, Wise potato chip rack, and tall red stools from the Aero Tavern that you drank in in New York into a bar in a story in another state and time, the story will have authenticity and groundedness.  “Oh, no, that bar was on Long Island, I can’t put it in New Jersey” – yes, you can.  You don’t have to be rigid about original detail.  The imagination is capable of detail transplants, but using the details you actually know and have seen will give your writing believability and truthfulness.  It creates a good solid foundation from which you can build…  Be awake to the details around you, but don’t be self-conscious.  “Okay, I’m at a wedding.  The bride has on blue.  The groom is wearing a red carnation.  They are serving chopped liver on doilies.”  Relax, enjoy the wedding, be present with an open heart.  You will naturally take in your environment, and later, sitting at your desk, you will be able to recall just how it was dancing with the bride’s redhead mother, seeing the bit of red lipstick smeared on her front tooth when she smiled, and smelling her perfume mixed with perspiration.

Guidelines For Writing Practice

We all know how important it is to practice your writing every day, or at least almost every day.  The author Judy Reeves has some great writing tips in her book Prompts and Practices.  Some of them are similar to things we’ve already talked about, but there are some new things, as well, and it offers great advice to all writers, whether you’re practicing or working on something.  Here they are:

  1. Keep writing.  Don’t stop to edit, to rephrase, to think.  Don’t go back and read what you’ve written until you’ve finished.
  2. Trust your pen.  Go with the first image that appears.
  3. Don’t judge your writing.  Don’t compare, analyze, criticize.
  4. Let your writing find its own form.  Allow it to organically take shape into a story, an essay, a poem, dialogue, an incomplete meander.
  5. Don’t worry about the rules.  Don’t worry about grammar, syntax, punctuation, or sentence structure.
  6. Let go of your expectations.  Let your writing surprise you.
  7. Kiss your frogs.  Remember, this is just practice.  Not every session will be magic.  The point is to just suit up and show up at the page, no matter what.
  8. Tell the truth.  Be willing to go to the scary places that make your hand tremble and your handwriting gets a little out of control.  Be willing to tell your secrets.
  9. Write specific details.  Your writing doesn’t have to be factual, but the specificity of the details brings it alive.  The truth isn’t in the facts; it’s in the detail.
  10. Write what matters.  If you don’t care about what you’re writing, neither will your readers.  Be a passionate writer.
  11. Read your writing aloud after you’ve completed your practice session.  You’ll find out what you’ve written, what you care about, when you’re writing the truth, and when the writing is “working.”
  12. Date your page and write the topic at the top.  This will keep you grounded in the present and help you reference pieces you might want to use in something else.

First Sentences – Exercise

Here’s a writing exercise for you.  Write five great first sentences, beginning right in the middle of the action.  They can be all for your current novel, or they can be ideas for future novels.  If anything, it’ll get you thinking.

Here are mine:

  1. The school had never closed for any reason, other than weather, but today was different.
  2. The old rocking chair that had been sitting in Old Jim’s yard for thirty years was missing.
  3. The smell was enough to stop him in his tracks.
  4. For days on end, there had been nothing to eat but soup.
  5. Kaitlyn’s heart was racing as she walked up to the little blue house and rang the doorbell.

Feel free to post your first sentence ideas in comments.  I’d love to read them!

First Sentences

I know we’re way past this, but today I started thinking about first sentences in novels.  They’re what pull you in to the story.  They set the tone for the entire book.  They’re like the entryway of a house.  They greet you, they give you a brief feeling of what the rest of the house is going to be like, and they let you know whether you should be taking your shoes off or not.

While the logical thing would  be to begin at the beginning, first sentences seem to have the most appeal when they begin in the middle of things.  While “once upon a time” works for fairytales, it doesn’t always have the draw that we look for in a novel.  Some of the best books I’ve read begin where the action starts, and makes it impossible for me to put it down.

Let’s take for example Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert.  Her novel begins with: “I wish Giovanni would kiss me.”  The reader’s immediate response is to read on.  Who is Giovanni?  Is he going to kiss her?  Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t think her opening line would have been nearly as effective if it had begun with her living a normal suburban life with her husband, telling the story in chronological order.  Bringing Giovanni in right away gives it an edge of sexiness – a little bit of excitement.  It’s brilliant.  Fortunately for her, the rest of the story follows suit.

Another great example: My Sister’s Keeper by Jodi Picoult.  “When I was little, the great mystery to me wasn’t how babies were made, but why.”  Doesn’t this instantly make you wonder why she is wondering about babies?  If this story had begun from the beginning, it would have started before her birth, and wouldn’t have created such a sense of mystery.  This opening creates questions in our minds and urges us to read on.

Here are some other great openings.  Hopefully some of them will inspire you.

The Lady with the Dog by Anton Chekhov

They were saying a new face had been seen on the esplanade: a lady with a pet dog.

The Blue Men by Joyce Williams

Bomber Boyd, age thirteen, told his new acquaintances that summer that his father had been executed by the state of Florida for the murder of a Sheriff’s deputy and his drug-sniffing German shepherd.

Gesturing by John Updike

She told him with a little gesture he had never seen her use before.

Covering Home by Joseph Maiolo

Coach discovered Danny’s arm when Danny’s parents were splitting up at the beginning of the season.

Exchange Value by Charles Johnson

Me and my brother Loftis came in by the old lady’s window.

Judgment by Kate Wheeler

When Mayland Thompson dies he wants to be buried with the body of a twelve-year-old girl.

The Remission by Mavis Gallant

When it became clear that Alec Webb was far more ill than anyone had cared to tell him, he tore up his English life and came down to die on the Riviera.

Inventing the Abbots by Sue Miller

Lloyd Abbot wasn’t the richest man in our town, but he had, in his daughters, a vehicle for displaying his wealth that some of the richer men didn’t have.

The Lost Cottage by Davide Leavitt

The Dempson family had spent the last half of June in a little rented cottage called “Under the Weather,” near Hyannis, every summer for twenty-six years, and this year, Lydia Dempson told her son, Mark, was to be no exception.

Nickel a Throw by W.D. Wetherell

These are the things Gooden sees from his perch eight feet above the dunking tub at the Dixford Congregational Church’s Charity bazaar.

Medley by Toni Cade Bambara

I could tell the minute I got in the door and dropped my bag, I wasn’t staying.

The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

The first children who saw the dark and slinky bulge approaching through the sea let themselves think it was an enemy ship.

The Winter Father by Andre Dubus

The Jackman’s marriage had been adulterous and violent, but in its last days they became a couple again, as they might have if one of them were slowly dying.

Appaloosa by Sharon Sheehe Stark

My father’s girl friend’s name was Delores and my mother went by Dusie because she was one.

A School Story by William Trevor

Every night after lights out in the dormitory there was a ceremonial story-telling.

Forgiveness in Families by Alice Munro

I’ve often thought, suppose I had to go to a psychiatrist, and he would want to know about my family background, naturally, so I would have to start telling him about my brother, and he wouldn’t even wait until I was finished, would he, the psychiatrist, he’d commit me.

Cathedral by Raymond Carver

This blind man, an old friend of my wife’s, he was on his way to spend the night.

Some of these examples are borrowed from What If? by Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter.