The trials and tribulations of a self-published steampunk writer

Friday, 3 August 2012

Top 5 signs of bad writing...

When I had finished my first draft of Red Mercury I wanted a bit of advice before I started trying to review and edit it. I read a whole heap of blog posts and websites on this - all really useful.

I thought I'd gather together the 5 hints and tips I found most useful. It was terrifying when I went through my first draft and found how often I'd fallen foul of these classic first-time writer pitfalls...

1 - 'Useless words'
Many words can be cut from a sentence without affecting its meaning. Classic examples are "just" and "that". I was amazed at how often the word "that" is utterly superfluous. I'd recommend doing a search of your manuscript for both these terms and challenge each and every instance. Using "that" was a particular crime of mine - I found 200 instances where I'd used it in my 40,000 word manuscript. I kept two of them.
Other examples of this are phrases like "he thought to himself". Well of course he did. He isn't going to think it to someone else (unless the novel is set in a world of telepaths). "He thought" will do just fine.

2 - Strong verbs beat adverbs, every time
"Crept" is much better than "moved quietly". "Trudged" is much better than "walked slowly".
I had been aware when I started writing that "adverbs were bad" and I tried to avoid them, but a whole bunch of them snuck in when I wasn't paying attention.
I did a search of my manuscript on "ly" and it popped them all up, one after the other, in an embarrassing but useful stream of signposts to chunks of flabby writing. I deleted almost all the adverbs I found and the manuscript was much improved as a result.

3 - Use 'Said'
Another crime I committed was to use a lot of dialogue carriers other than "said". I think I was worried that "said" was a bit boring, so I used things like "he whispered", "he shouted" etc.
Although these aren't as bad as having adverbs describe speech (see above), they're pretty bad. Maybe once in a hundred pages it's okay, but I learned my lesson when I was reviewing - stick with "said". If the speaker's tone isn't clear from the dialogue itself, rewrite the dialogue.

4 - Head-hopping
My first draft of Red Mercury had the point-of-view flipping backwards and forwards between characters with nearly every line! This isn't something I'd thought about at all while writing, but on reviewing the text it became a major distraction, and made the writing difficult to follow in places with the viewpoint character apparently thinking about things they couldn't possible know.
Big recommendation here is to start your writing aware of the perils of head-hopping. Keep the point-of-view in each scene in one person's head throughout. Starting like this will make editing much easier. The hardest part of the reviewing and rewriting of my second draft was getting rid of the head-hopping.

5 - Cut the backstory
I had a whole heap of backstory in the first draft of the book. From reviewing it myself, and from the comments of my beta-readers, it became clear to me that whilst I needed to know this stuff, the reader didn't.
My elaborate alternate history of the United States and secession of Florida was an example of this - all the reader needed to know was that Florida isn't part of the Union in this world and the two nations have an uneasy relationship. And this was something that readers could deduce from bits of dialogue and the attitudes of the characters, they definitely didn't need the page and a half of explanation I'd put in the first draft.

Hopefully those 5 pointers will help any other first-time writers out there. They certainly helped me improve the later drafts of Red Mercury. I recently re-read the first version of it again and cringed the whole way through. Whilst I make no claims that the finished publication is any kind of high literature, it's a hell of a lot better than  the first draft was!

Useful links
Here are some of the sites I visited in my quest to get some advice:

i09 - good writing advice, with a particular focus on science fiction

Mette Ivie Harrison - a good list of things to watch out for

A great Guardian article - with some lovely tips from Elmore Leonard