So You Want to Get Published? A Few Writing Tips.
This post is a slightly altered version of a similar post I did for Segullah earlier this year. Since The Red Brick Store is particularly interested in cultivating good writing (and increasing our magazines’ ratio of quality submissions), I thought it might be worthwhile to post it here as well. The tips and suggestions I offer will probably benefit writers of creative prose (fiction and nonfiction) the most, but writers of poetry and academic essays might find a few interesting morsels as well.
I’ve taught some classes, been involved with a number of contests and lit mags, and taken a look at quite a few manuscripts-in-progress over the years. There are some common errors that beginning writers often make–-errors that can get your manuscript tossed within the first couple of pages–-and some important things more experienced writers do well that get their submissions noticed right off the bat. Most of you are probably aware of these things already. Even if you can’t name them, you read enough good writing to have an intrinsic sense of what works and what doesn’t. But sometimes it helps to have a nice little list, especially if you’re a list-lover like me. So here’s my list, for you:
(Oh, and a caveat: As with almost any artistic endeavor, rules are broken ALL THE TIME. That’s the great thing about art–-you’re allowed to fiddle around. The only thing I ask is that you know you’re breaking a rule, and you know why you’re breaking it. If that’s the case, then by all means.)
1. Use interesting, visual, precise language. Too many beginning writers think that in order to get published they must “impress,” and in order to impress, they must use flowery language or complicated syntax. Bah, I say to that. And humbug. Your first and most important job as a writer is to serve your reader, but if you’re all caught up in dazzling people with your erudition, the only thing you’ll accomplish is coming off like a bloviating bore. Promise.
Verbosity is a problem for lots of beginning writers, though. I think it’s a phase almost every writer must pass through. In Gary Provost’s Make Your Words Work, he uses an example from one of his own early novels (one that never got published, and you’ll see why):
“So he stood torpidly on the pebbled border of the lifeless highway with his arm outstretched across the corroded asphalt and his thumb sought some sort of concession to his distress, and once again he found himself making nugatory conjectures.”
Great example of what not to do, no? And props to Gary Provost for outing himself for our own enlightenment.
2. Verbs are your true friends, the ones who stick with you and help you and make you feel good about yourself. Pay attention to them. Give them lots of loving care.
Take a simple verb like walk. The things you can do with such a verb! You can saunter, you can shuffle. You can stalk and scamper and skulk. And these are just synonyms starting with s. Take care that you don’t get overexcited and fall into the land of verbosity, though, and start using verbs like ambulate. “Walk” is boring. “Ambulate” is pompous and overdone. But “skulk” is interesting and visual and precise.
Adjectives and adverbs, on the other hand, are like those creepy girls from high school who pretended to be your friends—acting all easy to get along with and like the answer to your prayers—but the minute you turn your back, they stab you in it. Adverbs ending in -ly are the worst. Although every once in a while an -ly adverb might prove useful, be wary. We watchful. They’ll getcha.
Example: What’s better, “pulled angrily” or “yanked”? “Moved quickly” or “dashed”? See? Told you.
3. Master the use of significant detail. A good piece of writing engages us on a sensory level by creating a world we recognize. Descriptive, sensory language that reproduces the sights or smells or sounds of a scene is what draws a reader in.
But here’s where things get tricky: a writer has got to know when to use those sensory details.
In Writing Fiction, Janet Burroway says, “No amount of concrete detail will move us unless it also implicitly suggests meaning and value.” You can’t simply tick off a list of your character’s physical characteristics and think you’re doing your job. Here’s an example of what NOT to do:
“She looked over at the man, who was handsome and blond and tall, maybe 6’2”. He wore a bright blue windbreaker, and his sunglasses hung on a string around his neck. She noticed that he had a little mole next to his upper lip and recognized his shoes as similar to a style her husband wore.”
Although some of those details are mildly interesting, they are not all necessary. First of all, what your character is doing and saying is usually much more revelatory than an exhaustive detailing of his physical characteristics. This isn’t to say that all physical description is bad—it’s not—but it’s best to give a few key bits of sensory information that convey the overall essence of the character and then let your reader’s imagination do the rest.
In The Elements of Style, William Strunk, Jr. says,
“If those who have studied the art of writing are in accord on any one point, it is on this: the surest way to arouse and hold the attention of the reader is by being specific, definite and concrete. The greatest writers . . . are effective largely because they deal in particulars and report the details that matter.”
4. The above bad example also illuminates a “rule” I didn’t know existed until I read about it in a book—but once I learned it, I felt like I’d received a mini-revelation. It’s what John Gardner in The Art of Fiction calls “The failure to run straight at the image.” Amateur writers, he says, often engage in
“needless filtering of the image through some observing consciousness. The amateur writes: ‘Turning, she noticed two snakes fighting in among the rocks.’ Compare: ‘She turned. In among the rocks, two snakes were fighting.’ . . . Generally speaking, vividness urges that almost every occurrence of such phrases as ‘she noticed’ and ‘she saw’ be suppressed in favor of direct presentation of the thing seen.”
See how in the example for #3, the writer uses phrases like “She looked over at the man” and “She noticed”? This is the “observing consciousness” Garnder speaks of. You don’t need to do it. And if you rid your prose of it, it will be more direct and vivid and all around punchy.
5. Understand scene and summary, and when and how to use both. A scene is a detailed exploration of a specific moment in time; a summary usually condenses a longer period of time in a relatively short amount of space, and usually entails more narrative explication. Both scene and summary are necessary and useful in fiction and creative nonfiction–but if you don’t use them well, your writing won’t be nearly as effective.
As Jerome Stern says in Making Shapely Fiction , when you want everyone’s full attention you “make a scene” like a child in a tantrum, using the writer’s full complement of “dialogue, physical reactions, gestures, smells, sounds, and thoughts.” When you’re telling a story, a moment of great import should almost always be realized in a scene instead of summarized. It allows your reader to be there in the moment, experiencing the emotion and significance of the event.
Often, writers of creative nonfiction forget how important scenes are in their writing. While a personal essay allows more “telling” than a short story (meaning that you may “tell” your reader the insights you’ve gleaned from your experience, usually in summary, instead of “showing” them in scenes), personal essays are most effective when they utilize the tools of a fiction writer. Janet Burroway in Imaginative Writing says,
“As an essayist, you may (and should) employ image, metaphor, voice, dialogue, point of view, character, setting, scene, conflict, human connection–and you are also free to speak your mind directly, to ‘tell’ what you mean and what matters. The success of your essay may very well depend on whether you achieve a balance between the imaginative and the reflective. Often, the story and its drama (the showing) [the scenes] will fill most of the sentences–that is what keeps a reader reading–and the startling or revelatory or thoughtful nature your insight about the story (the telling) [the summary] will usually occupy less space.”
6. Listen to your prose. Good writing has a musicality to it, and sometimes the only way you can “hear” your work is to read it aloud. I’m a big fan of reading work out loud, even if your coworkers or kids wander by and think you’ve lost your marbles.
But be careful that in an effort to vary your word order, you don’t create convoluted or confusing sentence structure. And watch the tendency to rely on introductory phrases containing infinite verbs as a way to mix things up. (And don’t worry, most of us don’t know what an “infinite verb” is—I stole the terminology from John Garnder, myself, and I’m a certified English teacher—but I’ll give you an example).
“Wondering what became of their mother, Angela’s children proposed they search for her in the office.”
The first phrase in the sentence—“Wondering what became of their mother”—is the one containing the infinite verb. And while there’s nothing horrifyingly wrong with this sentence on its own, constructing sentences this way over and over can be a hallmark of a writer who isn’t quite certain how to spice up her sentence structure. I see it a lot in beginning fiction. And it bugs the heck out of me. I admit it might be a more personal pet peeve of mine, but I was gladdened to see that John Gardner doesn’t like it, either.
There are so many other important points to cover. Like how you must “kill your darlings” if they drag your story down. And verb tenses! Past or present: choose one. And how you mustn’t, under any circumstances, start a story with a person waking up in the morning and proceed to regale us with a scintillating account of what she had for breakfast. Figure out when your story starts and start there! You also mustn’t “solve” a particularly complicated plot problem by having your character wake up and discover it was “all a dream.” Oh heavens, no.
Then there’s point of view. So tricky. If you start out in 3rd person limited, you can NOT decide to pop into the head of some random person on the bus and tell us what he’s thinking. Sorry. And dialogue must reveal character or move the plot forward somehow; readers don’t have the patience to sit and listen to your characters’ meaningless chatter. And don’t preach. And find the humanity in your characters, even the baddies. And what’s your story about, anyway? Understand your own vision–-the point of it all–-and focus on what matters.
And the biggest biggie of all: only conflict is interesting. Something must be at stake. Your character must want something intensely and encounter obstacles.
I could go on and on, which is why, I guess, people write books about such things. But I’m not writing a book, I’m writing a blog post that’s way too long as it is. But I hope you’ve gotten something out of it, at least, and that I succeeded in kicking you in the pants instead of scaring you away.
I hope some of you decide to sit down and face that blinking cursor and write. And after you write, revise. And after your revise, submit. And after you get a rejection, revise again. And resubmit. And keep doing it until someday, you get that wonderful little email in your inbox that says, “Hey, you, we like you’re stuff. We want to publish it. You’re a writer.”
You know you want to. You know you can.