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Writing Strong with Laura Drake

I’ll be teaching the Advanced Writing class here at Savvy Authors in a few days, so I thought I’d share a few tips that will help take your writing from good to sold!

Write Tight

“The secret of good writing,” says William Zinsser, “is to strip every sentence to its cleanest components.”

It wasn’t until I tackled a problem with my latest novel that I discovered how important this was. I had a wonderful idea for a story – no, really, it was brilliant! Except for the fact that it sold as a romance, and the hero and heroine didn’t meet right away. If this was going to work, I needed to crank those first chapters down to their pure essence.

I learned several nuances about writing tight from this exercise:

  • I don’t need all the scenes I wrote. When I went back and analyzed my beginning, my first scene was a couple of pages of description of the world I’d dropped the reader into. I took my Exacto blade and cut it down to one short page of the most important stuff; the sweat from the hot day, the dust from the cattle’s hooves – stuff like that. I learned that a short cameo that leaves questions in the reader’s mind can be a good thing.
  • I’m in love with my words. I get so carried away by my descriptions that I can go too far. They may be pretty, but the reader doesn’t care. They want to see what comes next, and I was slowing the action. Say it once – the best possible way, and then move on.
  • Sometimes what you leave out is more powerful than you can write.

My heroine gets unjustly fired from her job in the second chapter. I had her confronting the person who caused it. It was pithy. It was clever dialog. It felt good to vindicate my character! Then I cut it. As good as it felt to write the scene, it just wasn’t critical to the plot. One of my critters pointed out that by not writing that scene, it made the reader root for the character more. The character was now the underdog, mistreated, but undaunted. I didn’t know that!

Sit down and have a face-to-face with reality; no dodging, no excuses. I looked at my chapters not by how well it was written, but instead, was the scene, paragraph, line essential? Because I didn’t have room for anything that wasn’t. And I was surprised at how much wasn’t!

I had an epiphany! (Don’t worry, I went home and changed clothes afterward.) The difference is, instead of writing as I wanted and then cutting the fat, I wrote down the bones, and added muscle. I guess both ways work, but I know I’ll only write bones and add from now on. I found it very powerful.

So, did I get it tight enough so the H/H meet fast enough? No. They meet on page 40!  It became a Women’s Fiction instead of a Romance. But I’m so glad I tried, because I learned so much from the exercise. And man, those 40 pages are tight, gripping, and kick some serious a$$!

Here’s a few practical examples of how to do that:

Before:

Laughter, talk and music from a jukebox somewhere combined to make quite a din.

After:

She walked into wall of warm air laced with the smell of yeast and spices. Voices and laughter overrode a jukebox blaring, ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight’ from somewhere in the dim recesses.

See how the first is ‘telling’, where the specificity of the details in the second actually puts you in that pizza joint?

Before: (the name of the place is Yukon Pizza)

“What’s pizza got to do with Alaska?” Ian said, holding the door open for her.

After:

“What’s pizza got to do with Alaska?” He held the door open for her.

There are only two of them in the scene at this point, so I can drop the tag. After all, the ONLY time you need a tag is when the reader would be confused as to whom is speaking. Do you see how it brings the reader more into the scene? Look closely at your tags. They’re distancing too.

Then I read it over one more time, and came up with another small change.

After – after

“What’s pizza got to do with Alaska?” He held the door.

This scene is in her POV and the next line has her walking through the door. So I also can lose the boring physicality. Small nit-picky stuff? Maybe, but this stuff wears on a reader.

Before:

After they’d enjoyed several more songs, Mac tapped his watch reminding her that they’d better get moving if they wanted to catch the show.

After:

There wasn’t one. I cut the whole thing. God, I knew this exercise was going to be embarrassing. Let’s see, what’s wrong with that? Anyone want to tell us in the comments?

I learned something from this exercise. That breaking a huge manuscript into scenes, and using laser focus and a brutal red pen makes a big difference.

Adverbs.  Sadly, happily, quickly, slowly, hardly, completely – please, just stop!

Don’t get me wrong, sometimes in the middle of a quick-paced action scene, it’s all you can do.  But I’ve read published works that use at least one adverb per sentence, and that’s just lazy.

You don’t agree?  Let’s look at it.  I’ll use my own words as an example.

“She quickly hopped into the bed of the truck as the cattle trotted up, curious.”

First, you can’t physically quickly hop.  Hopping takes as long as it does – you’re in the air most of the time, right?  Try the sentence without the adverb.  Does it lose anything?  I don’t think so.

Do a “find” in one of your chapters for “ly” and highlight them all.  You’ll be stunned by how many there are.  Go through them one by one.  Is the adverb needed?  If so, consider rewriting the sentence to convey the meaning some other way – perhaps with body language.  It’s much more compelling.

Dialog tags.  The ONLY time a tag is needed is when more than two people are present, and the reader wouldn’t be able to tell who is speaking without the tag.  Many times, your character has such a distinctive voice that the reader will know from his dialog who is saying the line.  Don’t believe me?  Check it out in your writing.  You may be surprised.

“I’ll walk you back to your ship,” she said, falling into step beside him.

“I’ll walk you back to your ship,” she fell into step beside him.

This is a very small nuance, but can you see how the second is more natural and ‘flows’ better?

A yowl from the cabin next door punctuated his statement.

“What was that?” she asked. It sounded like someone had pinched a baby.

I know – the pundits say, “he/she said” is invisible to the reader.  But if so, why put it in?

Please, please, don’t get me started on adverbs in dialog tags!

“Can we leave now?” she asked hopefully.

Do not go there.  I’m a big girl – I can take you out.

Unnecessary thoughts. Something happens – your character has a thought about it – someone speaks – your character has another thought. It breaks up and slows the scene, and it doesn’t add enough to warrant the break. Example:

When he stepped out, he had no smile for her. He avoided meeting her gaze. Even though his clothing was freshly pressed and his shoulders were back, he looked drained, as if he’d just run the obstacle course.

The presentation must have gone badly.

Do you see how the thought is not only unneeded – but that it weakens the sentences above it? Trust your reader to get it – they’ll appreciate it more. Save thoughts for what we couldn’t guess from the context or body language. That can be powerful – showing that the character is keeping something from the others in the scene.

Throwaway words.

I’m just becoming aware of how often I do this – throw in unneeded words at the beginning of a sentence. It’s not only wordy, it’s distancing. I’m a big one on ‘when.’

When the woman touched his shoulder, the kid shrugged her off.

Better:

The woman touched his shoulder. The kid shrugged her off.

Oh yes, I understand that.”

She knew it was hopeless.

See what I mean? They add words, but not meaning. Along those same lines:

Why use “moved” which tells us nothing instead of jogged, or stumbled?

Why use “started” rather than just showing someone doing something?

“Almost” is another word that doesn’t work well very often. Either someone does something or doesn’t. How do you ‘almost’ do something like smile?

These are only a few tiny snippets of the work we’ll do in class. Hope to see you there!

[box] BIO:

Laura DrakeLaura Drake is a city girl who never grew out of her tomboy ways, or a serious cowboy crush. She writes both Women’s Fiction and Romance.

She sold her Sweet on a Cowboy series, romances set in the world of professional bull riding, to Grand Central. The Sweet Spot won the 2014 Romance Writers of America®   RITA® award in the Best First Book category.Her ‘biker-chick’ novel, Her Road Home, sold to Harlequin’s Superromance line, and has expanded to three more stories set in the same small town. Laura’s first women’s fiction, Days Made of Glass, released January, 2016.In 2014, Laura realized a lifelong dream of becoming a Texan and is currently working on her accent. She gave up the corporate CFO gig to write full time. She’s a wife, grandmother, and motorcycle chick in the remaining waking hours.

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Laura Drake is a New York published author of Women’s Fiction and Romance. Her romance series, Sweet on a Cowboy, is set in the world of professi...