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Monday, February 17

Are You Missing Opportunities to Make Your Writing Stronger?

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

There are a lot of rules in writing. Some are solid ones, like rules of spelling or grammar, but others are more nebulous, like how to start a scene or whether or not to use adverbs. I like to look at these ambiguous rules as opportunities to improve a sentence or scene. Some "rules" have become common because they're hard to explain to new writers and it's easier to just say no.

But these are all moments that can help you revise your novel and show off your skills. They're opportunities to strengthen your novel.

Since I just wrote about "waking up" opening scenes, let's use that as the first example.

1. The Opening Scene

There's nothing inherently wrong with a waking up scene, and as long as that scene does everything a good opening scene ought to do it'll work just fine. But when you start with something that's been done thousands of times, you give the impression that there's nothing original in your work. The first impression your novel makes is "Oh great, another waking up scene. How original."

Right away, you're created a negative impression on an agent or editor, or even someone who reads a lot and has seen this same opening a hundred times before.

You've missed an opportunity to wow a reader with something fresh that shows your novel and your ability in the best light possible.

Think about anything you know really well and have seen/read/heard a lot of. Now think about the times you experienced one of those that used something a lot of other people used. Didn't it feel old? Predictable? Unoriginal?

That's how a clichéd opening feels to those who read a lot of openings. Even when these openings are done well, they still give off the impression that there's not going to be anything new or exciting in the work. And that's not what you want someone reading your work to feel.

(More on crafting strong opening scenes here)

Openings are not the only opportunities you have to wow a reader. Here are some places and situations that you could be missing, or could be doing more to make the most of your writing:

2. Titles

This is the first thing readers see when they pick up your book. Is your title original? Does it give a sense of what the novel is about? The type of novel it is? Is it compelling? It might not seem that important, but let's look at one of the more common titles: Second Chances. A quick look at Amazon shows how many books have this title--either those exact words or those words in some form (like Love's Second Chance) Pages and pages of books with the same title.

When an agent or editor gets a manuscript with this title, how excited do you think they are to read it? What do you think is their first reaction?

My agent said the title of my book (The Pain Merchants) so intrigued her during my pitch she knew she was going to ask for pages before I ever said a word about the novel. Ironic since my publisher changed it, but what if it had been called The Shifter all along? Would she still have asked for pages? Would she still have been as excited to read them? No way to know, but I do know the title made her physically sit up and pay more attention to my pitch. Even she says her head snapped up when she heard it.

3. Adverbs

Adverbs get a bad rap. They're fantastic first-draft words that show exactly where you have an opportunity to flesh out and punch up an emotion or action. After a first draft is done, do a search for -ly words and find the best way to revise without the adverb. You've already decided an emotion or action was needed in that spot, so make the most of it.
The zombie moaned menacingly and dragged itself down the dark hall.
Not very scary. Not very menacing. But this is clearly a writer's brain saying "this needs to be scary and menacing" to the writer.
A dry moan echoed in the dark hall. Bob jerked straight, eyes straining for some indication of where the damn thing was coming from. He backed away, shotgun out, hands trembling. Another moan, closer, but still out of sight. No, not had sounded..lower.

Where are you, you freaking dragger?

He pictured it--legless and dead, crawling along the shadows right for his ankles.
Feeling nervous now? One adverb can inspire a longer scene that creates just the right emotion and tension to keep readers reading.

(More on taking advantage of adverbs here)

4. Scene Enders

The whole point of a scene ender is to get the reader to read on to the next scene, but many writers use them to break up when events happen in a novel. Nothing wrong with that, but if your scenes aren't ending on something that makes readers want to keep reading, you're missing an opportunity to keep them reading. A book they can't put down and stay up all night reading is one they'll tell everyone about the next day and recommend to all their friends.

Take advantage of this opportunity to grab readers by the shirt and drag them on by making sure every scene ends with a reason to keep reading. It doesn't have to be a major cliffhanger, just something to tease readers to turn one more page, read one more scene or one more chapter.

(More on where to end scenes here)

5. Clichés, Metaphors, and Similes

I'll admit it, I love a good cliché. I use them all the time in everyday life and even on this site, but I leave them at the door in my fiction. Like the waking up opening, they're things readers have seen before so they make a novel feel familiar and predictable.

Same with common metaphors and similes. How many times have you seen a blanket of snow, a head spinning with ideas, or see a smile as bright as the sun? Some are so common they've become clichés, but others are just missed chances to show an aspect of your character or world.

I once wrote a pirate character who'd spent his life at sea. When he referenced things, he often uses sea metaphors or similes, because that's what I felt he'd be used to. People went white as a sail, or something was hard as a north wind. My character Nya doesn't get goosebumps or have a chill run down her back, she gets shiverfeet.

How a character speaks and how she refers to her world is another way to show that character and that world, and show off your writing skills to boot. While you don't want to dip into purple prose trying to "write fancy," think about how your character would use a cliché, metaphor, or simile and how that fits into your story and world.

(More on avoiding purple prose here)

Traditionally "bad" writing could be good writing waiting to happen if you take advantage of it. There are so many opportunities in a novel to wow and thrill a reader, and the more we use them, the better our books will be.

Are you missing opportunities in your novel? Have you seen missed opportunities in other's? 

Looking to improve your craft? Check out one of my books on writing: 

In-depth studies in my Skill Builders series include Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means), and Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It). My Foundations of Fiction series includes Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for plotting a novel, and the companion Plotting Your Novel Workbook, and my Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft series, with step-by-step guides to revising a novel. 

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize (2011), and The Truman Award (2011). She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing, including Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It), Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, and the Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft series.
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  1. Cliches, metaphors and similes get me every time. I really should watch out for them but I tend toward them and have to go back and rewrite them during revision so they aren't so "cliche" lol!

    1. You can have a lot of fun with them, especially if you write genre.

  2. Even worse than the wakening opening: the wakening-to-amnesia opening. If you're not Roger Zelazny, I don't want to hear it.

    You're right about punching up the first drafts, too. I don't do it quite so much with adverbs, but I go through looking for passive sentences and converting them to sentences in which something does something other than "be".

    As for metaphor and simile, because I'm writing secondary-world fantasy and I've spent a lot of time on worldbuilding, I deliberately create phrases that sound like they would be cliches in my secondary world, but are fresh in ours.

    1. Ooo you're right about that one. How often have we seen that scene?

      There's something fun about making up other world cliches, isn't there?

  3. Another excellent post! I'd love to learn more about coming up with titles. I usually shift through titles when I'm writing but I'm never happy with anything I come up with. You always have unique insights so I'd love to hear more of your ideas on creating titles.

    1. There's a title article in the works, actually. I'll see if I can get it done for next week.

  4. Oh yes, the dreaded cliche or scene-that's-been-done-a-million-times. I often catch myself employing one of those thinking it sounds clever, and then realizing later that it just sounded familiar. Thanks for the reminder of the dangers of well-worn phrases and plot points.

    1. I think that's one reason letting a ms sit between revisions is so useful. As you said, "clever" on a first draft really does feel "familiar" on a second.

  5. Thanks for mentioning that something can be fine in the first draft even if it has to go in the second. I'm deliberately trying to loosen up during the first draft of my current WIP. I have to remind myself sometimes that I'm just mapping right now -I can stop and find the right words later.

    1. You really can. First drafts are great for brain dumping. Of course, for those who want to get it right before they move on, this can cause just as much frustration :)

  6. Great tips. And I can't believe how many books have the same titles when I search for a particular book on Goodreads. That's so true.

    1. I've read some funny posts from agents about cliched titles. I always check my title ideas now before I commit. A quick check on Amazon and you can see how many books have that title.

  7. Hi Janice
    Some great tips here, thanks.
    Your example of the adverb change is excellent, something I need to start doing more of in future edits. I tend to follow the no-adverbs rule as much as I can, but using them as placeholders and going back to beef up the scene makes far more sense that outright avoidance!
    Also, using metaphor from your character's perspective definitely the way to go. As a fantasy writer, it's so much fun making up random sayings for characters :)

    1. Us fantasy writers have all the fun. It's right up there with creating curses! How many body parts can we swear by?

  8. Great as always! The thing about adverbs being placeholders for better writing is perfect. About the title thing - I've always been terrible at titles. Could you maybe do a post on how to come up with one...?

    1. I have a title article in the works and that should run next week.