The most important thing for you to keep in mind is that for every tip or rule we suggest, there are a million examples of writers doing the opposite and doing it incredibly well. What you do and how you do it is entirely up to you, and yes, you should make every effort to surprise your reader by taking a cliche or a stereotype and blowing it to pieces. But be aware of common traps and don’t get caught up in them – your writing will become that much stronger!
Also, my favourite writing resource ever is the Turkey City Lexicon, which you can read here. Aspiring genre authors: READ IT.
Every example I give, unless explicitly noted, is my own work and absolutely not from an open submission.
Don’t open with exposition, philosophy, or a description of the landscape. I cannot tell you the number of submissions I read that began along these lines:
This isn’t very exciting. It tells us nothing about our hero (or if he’s even the book’s protagonist) and it dumps a lot of information on the reader without providing any larger context. It’s not a particularly fun way to open a novel. But it’s not as bad as a truckload of exposition…
SO BORING. I got bored writing it. Don’t open a book this way! Figure out a way – a natural, organic way – to deliver any information you deem essential in such a way that it’s not just one giant infodump. And if you must infodump, get it over with and move on to something else.
Jane Austen famously opens Pride & Prejudice with some tongue-in-cheek philosophising… (‘It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife’) and one of my favourite opening lines, from Lady Chatterley’s Lover, are philosophical as well. It can be done! But it must be done gently, ironically, thoughtfully, and briefly.
Basically, these are all good (by which I mean, bad) examples of show, don’t tell. Don’t tell your audience information; that’ll bore them. Show them. Have an astronaut on System Three look down at Glamgal and think about it. Have Damian Bosworth-Heithal ride down that road between Calamud and Ambival. (And maybe get attacked by a slavering dog-monster.) Write it so that a character is thinking, talking, or otherwise interacting with your setting. There’s a reason so many books begin with a character’s name, and then that character doing something. It’s quick, immediate, and gets things moving from the start.
Don’t have characters look at themselves in the mirror and then describe themselves. This is a super old-school cliche. Either don’t describe your characters or let the things you want the reader to know about them come out in conversation or otherwise in a natural, organic fashion.
Don’t begin a novel or story by having a character wake up. Another old cliche.
Avoid paragraph-long sentences. Or ‘sentagraphs,’ as they’re known around my house. Break your prose up into sentences of varying lengths. Compare:
Charidis was the eldest daughter of Canathor, the king of Ambival and the archduke of Amial, a lesser holding on the outskirts of Garafath, the muddy marshes reputed to be haunted by the ghosts of dragons long departed but today home only to occasional flashes of blue marsh gas, which could flare late at night, terrorising the elderly farmsteaders who lived on the outskirts of the marshes and led their quiet lives ploughing, weaving, baking, washing, living, bearing children and dying all while covered in a thick layer of rich marsh mud.
Charidis was the eldest daughter of Canathor, king of Ambival and archduke of Amial. Amidal, a lesser holding on the outskirts of Garath, was reputed to be haunted by the ghost of long-departed dragons. But today Amidal was home only to occasional flashes of blue marsh gas and elderly farmsteaders, who lived, bore children and died all while covered in a thick layer of rich marsh mud.
I mean, neither is perfect, but one it at least sort of readable.
Don’t wear your research on your sleeve. By which I mean, it doesn’t matter how detailed your world bible is, or how much research you’ve done into the kind of underwear people wore in Spain in 1566. The most important thing is to ensure that your novel is a smooth read, and if you get hung up on making sure that every single thing you researched or made up goes into your book, it’ll show. Your book will be slow, and readers will get bored.
Amaria gasped as Bertrande, his breath hot in her ear, lowered his hands to her corset. It was a malaca-braid centalia double-boned corset from Emile’s in Paris, a little shop just south of Notre Dame, and she’d bought it only a month earlier, shocked at the cost but unable to leave the store without it. The fabric was thrice-woven silk imported from China, dyed a honey-gold colour with ivy cunningly embroidered in such a way as to hide the fifteen seams that ran the length of the garmet. Crimson laces were threaded through thirty sterling silver grommets, imported from Italy and found only in Emile’s corsets.
Enough with the corset details! I mean, really. All we care about is what Bertrande and Amaria are going to do once his hands are on her corset.
My background is in academia, and believe me, it’s the hardest thing in the world to do weeks of research for a paper only to find that you’ve gone haring off in the wrong direction, or that everything you’ve looked into can be boiled down to a single sentence. You want to show your work. You want everyone to know that you are now basically the world’s expert in, say, Spanish underwear from 1566.
But you can’t. It doesn’t matter. Keep the details limited to what is essential for plot and character and story. All that stuff about Amaria’s corset up there? Needs to go.
Use action words.
I’m going to write a sentence in the passive voice, and then the same sentence in the active voice. In one, things are being done to someone. In the other, someone is doing something. Use the active voice unless you are very carefully and deliberately writing in such a way to reiterate that things are being done to a passive character. Also don’t do this very much, as it’s pretty tiring to read. Using the active voice will carry your readers along with you; using the passive voice will make it harder for them to become invested in the action and to care about the characters.
Trent was being mean to Gloria, which was making her cry.
Gloria cried. Why was Trent being so mean to her?
Do not be afraid to cut.
Basically, everything I’ve written up above is a long way of saying: if it’s not working, cut it down. If you get bored while writing something, your audience will get bored reading it. You don’t have to get rid of everything you’ve cut – save it somewhere else! Find another use for it! Revisit it and rework it and drop it back in later! But you need to be honest with yourself about what’s working and what isn’t.
I have read hundreds of novels – submissions and published alike – that could have been so much stronger if they’d just been cut down. Be brutal. If you’re not, someone else will be.
Spend some time apart from your novel.
Once you’ve finished your novel, you need some time and space away from it. Work on something else for a while. Move your brain onto another project. But you’ll have to come back to it eventually, and when you do:
Find a beta-reader you trust.
Find someone who likes the kind of book you’re writing, has read a lot of them, and (most importantly) will be honest with you about your book. That honesty is crucial – you need someone who won’t just tell you you’re a genius, but someone who can say: I see what you’re doing here, and in this place it’s great but here it doesn’t work at all.
Listen to them. You might (indeed, you probably will) disagree with them about your work. You may not want to change the things they’re suggesting you change. But consider it. That’s what they’re there for.
Good luck! Writing is hard work, and it’s a never-ending learning process.