1. If you’re holding something back for later, drop it in now.
Last Thursday, a friend and I both had one of those explosive days you live for as a writer: the day when your story just electrifies you, delights you, reveals itself to you. She told me she had just written the scene that told her it was just another 25 pages until the supernatural elements of her book could be introduced. I’d just written a scene that was wholly unexpected: a dude who wasn’t supposed to reveal his true nature for many (many) pages to come suddenly whipped off his mask.
This reveal not only changed my whole book but radically improved it in an instant.
This trick comes from a writing teacher I reviled except for this gem. Don’t hold on to the secrets. Don’t write an entire book knowing that in the last 30 pages, all will be revealed. It drains your writing of life-giving creative energy. By “giving away the store”, I was seemingly left with nowhere to go. In fact, I was forced to imagine greater. My story expanded in the most delicious ways because I didn’t hold back.
So my advice to my friend who’s waiting 25 pages to unleash her tasty goodness: just do it now.
2. Write something beautiful, something grotesque, and something odd on every page.
This one came from a poet who’d just published her first novel, and it’s what her editor said transfixed her. The poet had always used these tricks in her poetry, and had unconsciously carried it over to her fiction. The effect: pages and pages of surprises in the sentences, creating a unique texture that illuminated her world in unexpected ways.
3. Don’t let the reader catch you writing.
This is from Elmore Leonard and a habit I had to break in my early years. If you’re overly-enamored with your own scintillating, bombastic, lyrical writing style, chances are your readers know it all too well. My voice often over-took my story, and instead of carrying my readers away on a fantastic journey, I was demanding they stand in awe of my cleverness. The point is this: you’re a storyteller first. The voice has to be in service to the story, not your ego.
4. Don’t confuse, don’t bore.
This from my MFA director Tod Goldberg. Written in big letters on the board, first day of class. If your readers are busy trying to sort out why someone said such-and-such, how they got from the parking lot to Rockefeller Center, who it is they are talking to, when their mother became reanimated because you could swear she died in the first ten pages, they are being carried way on a fantastic journey. They are confused. Confusion equals disengagement as we readers try to conjure the answers that are not on the page.
And boredom, well that’s easy too. If you’re bored writing your story, your readers will have already put your book down. The fix? See #1.
5. Stop with the semi-colon. And the em-dashes. And the parenthesis.
This is from my god-like genre teacher, Stephen Graham Jones. We all do this. We all suddenly fall in love with some punctuation device that to our minds displays brilliance, adds essential information, and in the case of parenthesis, delivers a dollop of writerly humor.
Readers get exhausted by these devices. Semi-colons create complex sentences that can feel like a challenge to some. Most of those sentences can live independently of one another, so drop in a period instead.
Em-dashes—which, to our mind, can create urgency, provide delightful intrusion, or give crucial tangential information—work maybe every five or six pages, but more than that, it’s a red flag to readers. We start tracking your over-use of the device rather than read your story. It’s like using a word like “stupendous” on every page—we will notice. And it will annoy us.
And as for parenthesis (those semi-smiles of bardic narrator grandstanding), they often break the fourth wall just so you can impart your own sense of humor rather than the character’s. Or worse, it’s a piece of exposition that the writer couldn’t figure out how to include any other way and shoe-horn it in awkwardly. The answer is simply to not employ them. We probably didn’t need that info to follow the scene anyway. And we certainly didn’t need the distraction of your joke.
So that’s it: my top 5 best pieces of writing advice.
What are yours?
Trai Cartwright, MFA, is a 20-year entertainment industry veteran and creative writing specialist. While in Los Angeles, she was a development executive for HBO, Paramount Pictures, and 20th Century Fox. A new Denver arrival, Trai currently teaches creative writing, film studies and screenwriting for Colorado universities, MFA residencies, writers groups, conferences, and one-on-one as an editor for fiction and screenplays. Learn more about Trai and her work at her website.