Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Stuff I Have Learned About Writing

By Carol Riggs, @Artzicarol

Part of the How They Do It Series   

JH: Today I'd like to welcome YA author Carol Riggs to the blog to share with us some of the lessons she's learned about writing. While there is no "right" way to write, many writers experience similar trials and frustrations along the way to publication, and hopefully some of these tips can help you avoid a common writing snag.

Carol is a YA writer represented by Kelly Sonnack of Andrea Brown Literary Agency. Her agented novel SHAPERS involves explorations of identity, friendship, and body image. You can find Carol blogging on Wednesdays at Artzicarol Ramblings.

Take it away Carol...

The Learning Never Stops 

I'm currently starting my 16th novel after about 11 years of dedicated writing. It seems the more I write, the more I realize how complex writing is--and how much I still don't know. In the days of my first novels, I just wrote what sounded right to me, and I didn't really revise much before leaping onto the next story idea. What irresponsible fun! But I didn't start improving much until the past four years when I began to learn to revise. Here's some of my journey, and some things I've learned over the years.

Early Feedback and Learning

1. My high school writing teacher said all my male characters were flat and distant.

2. My college writing professor pointed out my profuse use of adverbs--yeah, it's lazier writing, because adverbs usually Tell how something is being done, instead of using more active verbs or Showing the reader what is going on.

I started writing in earnest in the 1990s, before Internet research and blogging were so prevalent. I read how-to books and attended SCBWI conferences, and slowly picked up ways to improve. I quit writing for ten years, but got back to writing in April 2009. I "discovered" the Internet, attended more SCBWI conferences, and found supportive but hard-nosed critique partners.

Further Feedback and Learning

1. Don't repeat character names over and over on the page. Use "he" or "she" after the first mention, when it's clear who's doing what.

2. Don't use dialogue tags ("she said" or "he said") every time a character says a line. Skip it if it's obvious who's talking, or have them do an action instead:
 She grinned. "Hiya, Robert."
3. Character Arc = the journey of how a character grows/changes throughout a novel.

4. Don't use countless variations of dialogue tags beyond "she said" or "she asked." I stopped using tags like explained, begged, pleaded, demanded, and grumbled--because those should be obvious by the characters' dialogue or actions.

5. Dangling modifiers: these happen when the subject is absent or incorrect after an intro comma:
Racing around the lake, it was hard to see the path my sister had taken. 
Wrong! The word "it" is not the character or subject doing the action of the intro phrase "racing around the lake." And it should be. You'd have to fix it to say something like:
Racing around the lake, I couldn't tell which path my sister had taken.
In April 2011, I acquired an agent, and have been REALLY learning to revise and hone my writing. Kelly doesn't let me get away with anything! Not even apt descriptions or similes if they slow the pacing of a scene. Sniff.

Even More Feedback and Learning

1. Don't use renegade body parts that act independently from their owners:
My hand reached for the magazine. 
Or even worse:
Grandma's head jerked up to look me in the eye. (Her HEAD looked me in the eye? No, I don't think so.)

2. Gaze vs. eyes: My eyes darted around the room. This sounds like the eyes have legs.

3. Avoid using "forced pacing" phrases: suddenly, all at once, all of a sudden, later that day.

4. Trust the reader. Stop explaining every little thing; give readers credit to figure things out.

5. Stop Telling in dialogue. Don't have characters say things they really wouldn't say to each other, when both of them already know those details. That's only informing the reader.

6. More subtle telling:
He slammed the door in anger. 
The last two words are unnecessary; slamming the door says it all.

7. Ditch expositiony info dumps. Spread out world-building details and show them as natural parts of the story rather than stopping the action and flow of the scene to explain something.

8. Avoid step-by-step actions where every character movement is described, like tooth brushing, eating meals--or even standing up from a chair. It can be implied. Just say: She left the room.

I could go on and on, but that gives you a taste of what I've learned to look for when revising. When I learn something new, I stick it in a blog post so others can learn along with me. Sharing is one main reason why we blog, right?

Thanks much, Janice, for inviting me to guest post in your corner of the blogosphere!

(Janice: and thanks to Carol for joining me!)


  1. Hey Carol! It has been a while since we've interacted.

    Unfortunately, I'm guilty of using the words "eyes darted"--perhaps too much at times.

  2. Thanks again, Janice, for featuring me! :) Nice to be a part of your very informative blog.

  3. Great tips Carol. I'm impressed with all the manuscripts you've written. And I agree totally that there is always more to learn.

  4. Love these tips. Thank you for sharing and allowing us to learn from your experience.

  5. Thanks Carol, that was valuable!

  6. Hi, Carol,
    Like you, I'm always learning. I agree it's fun to share knowledge through blogging.

  7. Yay for Carol! Like you, I am always learning. Hmmm, that's why I subscribe to Janice's blog ;)