If I knew a surefire formula for being a good writer, I’d be rich. I don’t, so I’m not. However, I have picked up a few tips over time — some told to me, most learnt the hard way. None of what follows is writ in stone: I’ve broken them all at one time or another, sometimes even deliberately, for effect. The thing to remember is that if, like Beethoven, you want to break all the rules, first you must know what the rules are.
This all assumes you’re reasonably au fait with the rules of good English: if not, you’ve come to the wrong guy for advice. If you are, read on …
- Just do it. I don’t know how many times people have said to me, “oh, I’m thinking of writing a book …” Don’t tell me, do it. I’m far more interested in what you have written.
- Trust the intelligence of your readers. It’s very easy to assume the readers are immensely thick and won’t pick up on the cunning nuances of your text unless you hammer them out for them. What you end up with, however, is a lot of turgid and impenetrable prose. It’s true that some readers are immensely thick and will always get the wrong end of the stick: there’s no defence against that. Most readers, however, are just as clever as you and will get the message without difficulty. Therefore:
- Just use “said”. “Said” is an invisible verb: the reader isn’t conscious of reading it but the sense gets communicated to the brain anyway. “He snarled”, “he sneered”, “he groaned”, “he gasped”, “he expostulated”, “he informed” … every time the readers come across one of these action verbs, their attention is diverted from the text. Just say “he said”, and let what he said and the context of it put across the sense. (Also, you never know when the meaning of a word might change: H.G. Wells’ The First Men in the Moon has our heroes “ejaculating” all over the place.)
- Avoid adverbs. As above. Taken to its extreme you find yourself writing sentences like “he sneered angrily” with a straight face. Again, let the dialogue and the context do your describing.
- Avoid textual emphasis. Names of ships and foreign phrases should go in italics: normal dialogue shouldn’t. The most irritating example of this that I came across recently was one of Anne McCaffrey’s and Mercedes Lackey’s “Ship Who …” collaborations, which was riddled with italics so the reader knew exactly where all the emphasis should go. Don’t.
- Show, don’t tell. Don’t say your character is witty: have him make a joke instead. Don’t say he’s angry: have him curse. Let the readers work it out.
- Be on the lookout for double entendres. These aren’t necessarily rude: in fact, it’s the least rude ones that are likely to slip through. “His eyes ran down his body …” Try and look at your text with a fresh eye. If you can’t do this, show it to someone else.
- Swear occasionally. For a long time my choice of language was governed by the fact that whatever I wrote, my mother would end up reading. Eventually I learnt that sometimes you just have to grit your teeth and say “fuck”. Only Winnie the Pooh says “bother” at moments of extreme crisis. Make your dialogue realistic.
- Add tension between characters. Just because they’re all on the same side doesn’t mean they necessarily like each other, or have the same goals. It adds interest for the reader.
- Keep up the action. You may know you’ve got a doozy of an ending plotted out in minute detail, but the reader doesn’t and needs a good reason to get that far in the text.
- Consider that you might be wrong. This was said (not to me…) by Oliver Cromwell, a man who knew a thing or two about being single minded. Even he thought it was worth saying. Don’t be a prima donna: accept criticism, even if you disagree with it. Tuck it away in the back of your mind and resolve to do better next time. Conversely …
- Don’t be too eager to obey the editor. “OK, what would you like me to cut?” This doesn’t exactly give the editor the impression that your heart and soul is in your writing.
- Kill your babies. You heard. Sometimes you have a bright idea — it might even be the idea with which you started the story — but the sad fact is it doesn’t fit into the story in its final form. With a bit of luck you’ll have written some glowing prose around this idea which you can store for future use in another story.
There are also numerous “how to” books by all kinds of authors. The one I like best is How to Write Science Fiction by Orson Scott Card, published by Writer’s Digest Books, ISBN 0-89879-416-1. For other hints, you could do worse than Vonda N. McIntyre’s page. SFWA also has a lot of useful articles, though some are not entirely serious.
If you want to know how absolutely not to get published, read here …
And finally …
This is painfully obvious to me as an editor, painfully not obvious to far too many writers. Your manuscript is your introduction to the editor. Just as people judge individuals by first appearances, so are manuscripts judged. It’s unfair but it’s instinctive: it’s human nature. So what if your novel redefines English literature: if it’s hard to read, the editor won’t get past the first page. Use white A4 or equivalent American size paper. Use separate sheets, but keep them together with a paper clip (not a staple). Use plain black type, no fancy fonts, double spaced. If you send photocopies, send good quality ones. Number each page. Indent the first lines of new paragraphs and dialogue: keep the text itself left aligned and unhyphenated. For those few occasions where you want italics (see above), underline the text instead: it’s far easier for the typesetter to pick out from a mass of text. He will then convert them into italics in the final book. Send a covering letter that just says “I enclose …”: don’t go into endless detail about what you were trying to achieve or why the editor should buy it. Let your writing speak for itself. Most publishers and magazines will have writers’ guidelines: send off for them.
It seems picky, but if you’ve slogged for 10 years over the magnum opus, surely just a little more effort won’t hurt?
And for pity’s sake, enclose return postage.