As the Strelitzia Contest’s first round draws to a close, the entrants are adding the final touches to their partial submissions. The Strelitzia Contest is a contest for as-yet-unpublished authors run by Romance writers Organisation of South Africa, which includes a mentorship phase. I am a mentor as well as one of the organisers, so I’m going to use my next few posts to give advice to the entrants, and I hope it will benefit my blog readers too.
In a series of three posts I’ll be sharing 12 writing tips, so four in each post. Some of these may seem very basic, but at all stages of our writing careers it’s good to refresh ourselves on the basics.
Writing tip #1: Use strong, active verbs
Words like ‘got, had, went, came, moved, looked’ are pet peeves of mine because they're bland words that convey very little information. For example, “She went through the garden” tells us nothing about how she is moving or her state of mind, while words like ‘strolled, strode, ambled, minced, hurried’ tell us a great deal more. When you’re revising and polishing your work for submission, look at every single verb and ask yourself if that is the strongest word you could use. Could ‘looked’ be ‘gazed’ or ‘stared’? Could ‘walked’ be ‘strode’?
Don’t hold back with your verbs, and don’t be afraid to use strong words. This is fiction – you’re supposed to be dramatic! As long as you’re not using words that don’t fit the context, no one is going to think you’re over the top - in fact, they'er more likely to enjoy your book!
What do I mean by not fitting the context? If your heroine is mildly annoyed with the hero, don’t have her scream, pout or glower at him just to add action because it will make her look slightly unhinged and not very relatable. However, a frown or raised eyebrow will fit the context and will be stronger than ‘she looked at him’.
Writing tip #2: Vary the body language
Beginner writers often over-use characters rolling their eyes or one character looking at the other. It’s an easy trap to fall into, even for the most experienced of writers, and it’s often one of our blind spots. We give a character a certain gesture as a quirk of their character, but when they do it on every other page, it’s the reader who ends up rolling their eyes.
Watch the body language of the people around you in real life. Research gestures and reactions, and try to add a little variety to spice up your prose. Having a character angle away, avoid eye contact, stare into the distance, rub their eyes, brush back a stray strand of hair, with eyes crinkling or brows pulling down, can tell us just as much about a character’s state of mind as an eye roll.
Whatever reactions you give your characters, ensure you don’t over-use them either. Like spices added to a dish, too much of anything in writing can overwhelm the reader. You want the flavour to be subtle, not overpowering.
Writing tip #3 – avoid ‘was -ing’
I really cannot say this often enough! Sure, there are certain tenses where the ‘was -ing’ verb construction is necessary to show that the action is continuous, but when used in place of a direct verb, it just makes for weak writing.
A good use of ‘was -ing’ would be: “She was running late when the phone call arrived”. This usage shows us that the action (running late) was continuous and did not suddenly cease for the phone call.
A bad use of ‘was -ing’ would be:
“It’s that way,” Tim was saying as he pointed ahead.
A much stronger phrasing would be:
“It’s that way,” Tim said as he pointed ahead.
Though strictly speaking the strongest wording would be:
It’s that way.” Tim pointed ahead.
But the use of dialogue / action tags is best left for another day.
Writing tip #4: Starting to / began to
I see this sentence construction in books by experienced writers as well as beginners. “She started to laugh” or “He began to walk.” Why not simply have her laugh or him walk?
Example: “She began to remove the books off the shelf” would be stronger if written as “She removed the books off the shelf.”
Why is the former version considered weak writing? Because it makes it appear as if the reader is afraid to commit to the action, and readers can sense when an author lacks confidence. Be decisive. Be confident – or at least fake it by editing the hesitance out of your writing.
Notice a theme in today’s blog post? Yes, it’s all about making our verbs (action words) as strong, direct and powerful as possible. This series will continue with more writing tips in the next post. Subscribe to have the posts delivered straight to your Inbox.