Thursday, May 3, 2012

Strengtheining your Writing... With Verb Choice

One way to strengthen your writing is through verb choice. For your first draft, just get the words down. Then go back over it and look to replace the weak and repetitive verbs.

Replace Weak Verbs

Last time I spoke about adverbs, including how adverbs are often used in an effort to make a weak verb sound stronger. Usually a better option is to use a stronger verb and lose the adverb.

For example, "walk" is a perfectly fine verb. But it's also vague. One way to let the reader know how someone is walking is to use an adverb.
  • He walked drunkenly into the room.
  • He walked quietly into the room.
  • He walked steadily into the room.
  • He walked heavily into the room.
All get their point across. But not as well as using a stronger verb that conveys the same meaning.

Instead of having your character walk steadily, have him plod into the room. Instead of him walking drunkenly, have him stumbling or teetering. If he's actually drunk, that can be either mentioned or hinted at in the storyline.

Rather than walking quietly, he could be creeping or stealing into the room. Choose accompanying verbs that fit your character or scene to enhance the imagery.
  • Larry crept in after the bell and slid into his seat while the teacher's back was turned.
  • Michael stole through the side door, slinked down the hallway, and peeked into the first open doorway.
Alternatives to walking heavily, are stomping, thundering, or trudging. Each of these verbs has a different shade of meaning, each more powerful and more descriptive than walking heavily.

Replace Repetitive Verbs

Do your characters smile? Mine do. A lot. But I don't want to keep saying, "He smiled. She smiled. They smiled." How many times can we use the word smile on one page or one scene, or even in one chapter, before it become tiresome or boring?

To avoid boring repetition use variations of the same verb. Your characters can beam, grin, laugh, or smirk.

But don't stop there. We can find new ways to say the same thing, ways that can be very telling about our character, giving the reader subtle insights into the character's personality or thoughts.

For instance, when he notices a certain someone, our character might break into a grin. Or, the grin might instead creep across his face. Or maybe it only flashes across his face. All three are better choices than to say that he noticed her and grinned, and all three give an insight into how the character feels.

Combined with the appropriate accompanying text you can shine even more light onto what his emotions are. For example, when the grin creeps across his face he could be fighting how he feels, only becoming aware of how he feels, or he could be a creep himself and thinking of some terrible thing he could do to her.

 What about you? Do you have advice for choosing verbs that can strengthen your writing? I'd love to hear it.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Strengthing Your Writing... By Using Adverbs in Moderation

My second blog post included a list of tips for strengthening your writing. The following week, I wrote about the fist topic in that list: dialogue. Then I took rather long break. But now I'm back, and I intend to write every week. This week I'll discuss using (or not using) adverbs.

Adverb Use

Adverbs are words that modify a verb, adjective, or another adverb. Consider the following sentence:

     Adverbs are often lovely words, and usually end in -ly.

Did you spot the two adverbs? If you guessed lovely and  usually--nice try, but you'd be wrong. Usually is an adverb, but lovely is an adjective (it modifies a noun). The other adverb is often--it modifies the adjective lovely.

Adverbs often tell how or when something is done:
  • He sang beautifully.
  • She walked haphazardly through the town.
  • He struggled daily with his addiction.
  • I immediately answered the phone.

Adverb Abuse

Adverbs can be very useful. They can also lead to lazy writing. Instead of spending the time to come up with verbs that give the exact meaning you want to convey, it's tempting to simply modify a more common verb.

For example, you can say, "He walked quickly into the room," and make your general point. But consider some verb choices that can convey the exact meaning you want. Here are some possibilities:
  • He hurried into the room.
  • He scurried into the room.
  • He rushed into the room.
  • He raced into the room.
  • He darted into the room.
  • He scampered into the room.
In each example above, the nuance could be slightly different depending on what's happening in the story, or even depending on your character's personality. A hero-type would be more likely to race or rush. A mousey-type might prefer to scamper or scurry. But a very busy person might also scamper or scurry, as would someone who's always fussing about.

Avoid Overuse

If you overuse adverbs your writing can become tiring. Consider the following (thankfully) short passage:

"He walked hurriedly into the dining hall, looking about anxiously for a familiar face, nervously hoping he'd eventually see someone he knew. He stopped suddenly, and slowly began to grin. There, alone at the far table, twisting uneasily in her chair, sat Lisa Hornswallow. He walked decisively in her direction. She knew even less people here than he did. She'd gladly agree to let him join her."

Okay, that's a little bit overdone. But even if you don't do it that heavy-handed it can get annoying after just a few pages. Even if you use colorful adverbs.

By choosing stronger verbs you can get rid of most of the adverbs. Better verb choice can also allow you to condense some of the sentences. Also, try thinking of a different way to phrase or arrange things. Here's one way to get the same feelings across with less words and a lot less adverbs:

"He rushed into the dining hall and glanced about, eyes straining to spot a familiar face. There. A grin crept across his face. Alone at the far table, Lisa Hornswallow fidgeted in her seat. He strode in her direction. She knew even less people here than he did; of course she'd be glad to see him."

Think of adverbs as salt. A little can do a lot to improve the flavor of your writing, but if you add too much--yuk!

What about you? Do you tend to use lot of adverbs in your writing. Do you think you could strengthen your writing with a strong verb or a turn of a phrase?

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Strengthening Your Writing... Through Dialogue

Last week I gave a list of tips to strengthen your writing. Today I expand on one aspect of that list: dialogue.

Dialogue Attributes

Dialogue attributes are the little tags that go next to a piece of dialogue to let the reader know who said what.

In grammar school, teachers typically instruct students to find a “better” word than said when writing stories. Therefore, many characters in these stories will scream, laugh, growl, whisper, or laugh their statements. When my daughter was in first grade, she told me about a poster on her classroom door that read “Put said to bed.” It then went on to give a large list of alternates to this “boring” word.

That advice might be good for grammar school, where young writers didn't have the skill to show the emotion in what was being said through the words themselves or in the accompanying action. But for those of us no longer in the elementary grades, we need to find a better way to convey these emotions.

Consider the following snippets of dialogue.

Example #1
     Charlie hurled the chair across the room and glared at her. “Where is it, Lisa? Tell me! Where did you hide it this time?”

Example #2
     Julie crept into the room. The gunman had fallen asleep in an upright position on the sofa. Tommy slept on the floor a few feet away.
     “Tommy. Tommy, wake up,” she said.

It's not hard to figure out that Charlie was yelling in the first example, or that Lisa was whispering in the second.

You don't always need a dialogue attribute. I didn't use one in the first example above, and you probably knew Charlie was the one screaming. But if you do use a dialogue attribute, use said or asked. People are so used to seeing those words that they become virtually invisible. If you use words like hollered, screamed, chided, or lamented, they tend to take the reader out of the story.

Action Beats

Another way to distinguish who is speaking is through the use of action beats. Beats are actions that the speaking character is doing. They not only let us know who is speaking, but it helps to move the story along and can show us what emotions the characters are feeling. Refer again to example #1 above. Charlie hurling the chair and glaring at Lisa are action beats. By convention, the person performing the beat in the paragraph is the same person talking.

In example #2 above, I could have used an action beat instead of the dialogue attribute. I've expanded this snippet to include action beats in example #3 below.

Example #3
     Julie crept into the room. The gunman had fallen asleep in an upright position on the sofa. Tommy slept on the floor a few feet away.
     She inched over to her brother and shook his arm. “Tommy. Tommy, wake up.”
     He rolled onto his back and opened sleepy eyes. “Julie? How did you—?”
     “Shh!” She clamped her hand over his mouth.

In this example, the action beats move the story along, let you know who said what, and let you know how it was said.

New Speaker Means New Paragraph

A crucial way to let the reader know who is speaking is to change paragraphs when you change speakers (as was done in example #3 above). If the same character's dialogue extends more than one paragraph, use an action beat or dialogue attribute to make that clear to your reader.

Also, in a dialogue exchange between only two individuals, an action beat or dialogue attribute often isn't needed, and sometimes will only bog down the pace of the scene. Notice the difference between examples #4 and #5 below.

Example #4
     Suzie slid into her seat without a word. She hated eating in diners.
     “How kind of you to finally show up,” said Carl.
     She picked up a menu and feigned interest in the food choices. She'd rather not have to look at her ex-husband. “Nice to see you too, Carl.”
     He drummed his fingers on the table. “I already ordered for you.”
     “I hate when you do that,” she said. “You never order anything I like. You probably ordered me a salad or a grilled chicken wrap.”
     “You said you don't like the burgers here,” he said.
     “Oh? You actually listened to something I said?” She crossed her feet under the table.
     He sighed. “Would you put that menu down. I told you I already ordered for you.”
     “Did you order desert, too?” she asked.
     “I don't plan on being here for desert,” he said.
     She hid her smile before lowering the menu. “Fine, then. You can eat what you ordered for me. I'll just have a slice of apple pie.”

Example #5
     Suzie slid into her seat without a word. She hated eating in diners.
     “How kind of you to finally show up.”
     She picked up a menu and feigned interest in the food choices. She'd rather not have to look at her ex-husband. “Nice to see you too, Carl.”
     “I already ordered for you.”
     “I hate when you do that. You never order anything I like. You probably ordered me a salad or a grilled chicken wrap.”
     “You said you don't like the burgers here.”
     “Oh? You actually listened to something I said?”
     “Would you put that menu down. I told you I already ordered for you.”
     “Did you order desert, too?”
     “I don't plan on being here for desert.”
     She hid her smile before lowering the menu. “Fine, then. You can eat what you ordered for me. I'll just have a slice of apple pie.”

Which of those two examples flowed better? In both cases you could tell who was talking. But example #5 moved quicker and gave you a stronger sense of the tension and animosity between them, rather than distracting you with all the unnecessary actions and attributes used in example number four.

The Way Real People Talk

One final point. Often the best way to improve the dialogue in your writing is to listen to the way real people talk. They use contractions. They don't always speak in complete sentences. They often interrupt each other. They don't necessarily answer the questions put to them. And many times their words contradict what they're really thinking.

Now it's your turn. Do you have any dialogue tips you'd like to share?

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Ways to Make Your Writing Stronger


Over the next several weeks, I'll be posting articles on ways to strengthen your writing. Here's a quick list of some of the things that will be covered.

  1. Use dialogue attributes sparingly.
    *  When you do use them, use “said” and “asked” rather than things like “screamed,” “whispered,” “growled,” etc. Show how things are said (though context and dialogue) rather than telling how they are said.
    Use action beats to denote who spoke as well as to move the scene along.
  2. Choose strong verbs over adverbs. For example, say “He crept into the room” rather than “He walked quietly into the room.”
  3. Avoid cliches like the plague.
  4. Don't use “was verb-ing” combinations (called past progressive or past continuous tense) unless you are talking about an action that was on-going in the past. “He was reading the note she left when the shot rang out.”
  5. There's a time and place to use the passive voice, but most of the time it shouldn't be used. (Did you catch the passive voice in that sentence?) Active voice is when the subject in the sentence does the action: “He walked down the hall.” Passive voice is when the action is done to the subject: “He was led down the hall.”
    * The word “was” does not automatically make something passive. To say “I was there,” is not passive since the subject, “I,” is the one who did the action.
    *“Passive verbs” are not the same thing as “passive voice.” For example, “I saw him sitting” is not passive voice, although there isn't a lot of action going on. The subject “I” did the action (of seeing him), so this is active voice.
  6. Be conscious of your pacing. Alternate tense, action-packed scenes with slower scenes. If it's all non-stop action your reader may need to put the book down to get a break. If it's all slow, your reader may put the book down and never pick it back up again.
  7. Vary your sentence and paragraph length. Vary your chapter length. This can help you with pacing.
  8. Weasel words” just weaken your prose so much that they should all be avoided. It seems like they help, but they really don't. You should create a list of weasel words so that you can search for them in your writing and weed out as many as you can. (Start with all the italicized words in this item number.)
  9. Use contractions so your writing does not sound like it is stiff and stuffy. People do not usually speak without using contractions. If your characters do not use contractions your dialogue will sound stilted and will not appeal to your reader.
  10. Read your writing out loud to catch phrases or things that don't sound right. Better yet, have a friend read it out loud to you. Pay attention to any wording they trip over.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Are you put off by procrastination?

What's the difference between a published writer and a wanna-be writer? Talent could have a lot to do with it. Opportunity, contacts, even luck.

But all too often the biggest difference is that the published writer actually wrote something. The wanna-be didn't.

The wanna-be writer might have great ideas, great talent, but lousy discipline. If you don't put your bottom in the seat and your hands on the keyboard and actually write something, you'll have nothing to publish.

Is writing your dream? Are you living your dream? Or dreaming your life? What's keeping you from writing?

The second thing many wanna-be writers don't do is submit their work. This involves some research to find the right market. It may seem complicated or intimidating, but it's not so bad once you start.

I know there are a lot of talented writers who do spend time writing but they haven't been published. Yet. If you keep writing and keep putting your work out there, you are miles closer to getting published than someone who hasn't tried to market their work or who doesn't spend the time to complete that article or book.

So, are you writing? Are you researching who might be interested in publishing your work? What have you done so far to get published? It will help tremendously if you join a writers group or attend writers conferences. A good critique group will help motivate you to write on a regular basis. Have you done any of that? Or are you putting it off?

I want to write, but I have to clean my kitchen.” “I told my friend I'd go bowling with her.” “There's this show on TV...”

Yes, it's important to have a life. But it's also important to prioritize. Do you need to go out with your friend every week? Are there any TV shows you can cut out of your schedule? When you sit down to write, do you check your email first? Just play “one” quick game of Spider Solitaire?

If you want to be a serious writer, you need to get serious about writing.

I had a friend in college who would wait until two days before a term paper was due before he'd start writing it. He usually got 'B's. He'd say to me, “I only spent two days on this and I did as well or better than lots of kids who spent weeks on it. If I had spent as much time as them, I would have gotten an 'A'.” He sounded proud of that fact, but I knew he was really insecure. He was afraid that if he spent weeks on the paper and didn't get an 'A', it meant he wasn't smart. But he must be a genius to get a 'B' with just two days effort.

His insecurity made him procrastinate. And kept him from getting 'A's.

What's making you procrastinate? Is it fear of finding out you're not as good as you think? Is it poor discipline? Are you easily distracted? You need to first identify the problem, then deal with it.

If you're afraid you might not be good enough to get published, that's all the more reason you should write. You need the practice. You also need to grow in the craft. Take a writing course (either online or at a local college), join a critique group, or buy a few good books on writing. And, just as important, read the kinds of books you want to write. All while still finding time to write.

If you have poor discipline, you need to set some rules. Perhaps only check your emails three times a day (morning, noon, and night). Perhaps limit Facebook time to one hour a day—say, from 9:00 until 10:00. If you're doing something else during that hour, you don't go on Facebook that day. Set your schedule and then stick to it.

If you are easily distracted, find ways to get rid of the distractions. Get the cleaning done quickly so you don't keep thinking about it when you should be writing. Or get someone else to do it. Put a sign on your door telling your family you are not to be disturbed between the hours of 4:00 and 7:00—whatever works for you. I renamed the games on my PC. Minesweeper is now called Timewaster 1. Spider Solitaire is Timewaster 2. Those names make me think twice before I click on those games.

How about you? Can you identify what keeps you from writing? And what can you do about it?