Friday, November 18, 2016

Pointers for Punching Up Your Prose

By Lucienne Diver, @LucienneDiver

Part of the How They Do It Series

JH: I think every writer enjoys a handy list of ways to improve their writing (I know I do). Lucienne Diver visits the lecture hall today to share a few of the things she sees as both an agent and an author, and what we can do to avoid making the same mistakes.

Lucienne is the author of the VAMPED young adult series—think Clueless meets Buffy the Vampire Slayer—and the LATTER-DAY OLYMPIANS urban fantasy series from Samhain, which Long and Short Reviews calls “a clever mix of Janet Evanovich and Rick Riordan”. Her short stories have appeared in the KICKING IT anthology edited by Faith Hunter and Kalayna Price (Roc Books), the STRIP-MAULED and FANGS FOR THE MAMMARIES anthologies edited by Esther Friesner (Baen Books), and her essay “Abuse” was published in DEAR BULLY: 70 Authors Tell Their Stories (HarperCollins). Her first young adult suspense novel, FAULTLINES releases from Bella Rosa Books.

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Take it away Lucienne...

One of the problems I see so often in fiction (my own included!) is excess wordiness. It slows down the pacing and obscures your meaning. It gets in the way of really packing a punch. So, I thought I’d address some of the common issues I come across in my guest blog today.

Adjectives and adverbs galore

The most common thing I see among beginning writers is one adjective (or more!) per noun and/or one adverb per verb - "The piebald horse slowly limped toward the rundown fence." This is a lazy way to paint a picture, and it gets tedious in short order. Very is a particularly overused modifier. How much stronger is it to say that your heroine is furious than that she's very angry? Make each word count. Shake up descriptions with metaphors and similes, choose the words with the strongest impact, the ones absolutely on-point for what you're trying to say and you'll find that you need fewer modifiers to get your point across.


"You horrid witch!" she said hostilely. (The hostility is made clear by the language used, the exclamation point and the context. You don't need to tell us what you should be showing us.)

It's not a wordiness issue, but also beware dialogue tags that don't have anything to do with the way people produce speech. I'm thinking about things like she snorted, he hushed. A sentence like, "Oh no," she demurred illustrates both my points!

Extra tags

“It wasn't fair, she thought.”(If we're in her point of view and it’s on the page, then it's something she thought. You don't need to tell us. The same goes for things like she heard, he felt, she saw...)

Waffle words

Things like just, barely, only, nearly, almost, seemed, tried, decided. I'll confess right now, my Achilles' heel is the word "just". It's gotten better now that I'm aware of it, but I still have to take out at least every third "just". Sometimes these words are necessary, don't get me wrong. Maybe your hero "nearly caught the door before it closed" or "just missed slamming his fingers in the door" but use these waffle words sparingly. Did he seem to hesitate or did he actually hesitate? I'd hazard a guess it's the latter. Likewise, did he try to throw the ball or did he throw it, maybe poorly, but that's not the same thing, and describing the failure would be much more illustrative.

Putting the cart before the horse

I see things all the time like, "Tucking her hair behind her ear, she took the file." For one, these two thoughts don't clearly go together, but for another, it’s awkward to have the dependent clause come before the main thrust of the sentence, the primary/independent clause. There are no absolutes in writing, so I won't say that you can never do this, but make sure it's the strongest way to get your point across.

Passive voice

Passive voice: "The cart rolled into her." Active voice: "He sent the cart careening into her." Active voice is always going to be more powerful than passive. Wait, did I say always right after I said there were no absolutes? I guess I stand corrected.

There you have it. I hope that some of these help you to punch up your prose!

While I’m at it, I also invite you to see how well I did in my new novel, FAULTLINES!

About Faultlines

Six months ago Vanessa Raines lost her best friend.

Lisa had changed, pushing away everyone close to her, even Vanessa. She had quit soccer. Started wearing dark and dismal clothes. She refused every offer to talk and suffered whatever she was going through in silence. Now she’s really gone. Suicide they claim, but Vanessa knows that isn’t right. It can’t be.

Vanessa blames herself for letting Lisa chase her off. She wants answers, so that she can put to rest the rumors surrounding Lisa’s death and so that she can move on, heal. But Lisa left no note and the journal she was always scribbling in—which might tell all—is mysteriously missing.

As Vanessa struggles to come to terms with the loss of her friend and to reconstruct the last months of Lisa’s life, someone calling themselves “Poetic Justice” begins taking revenge against those he or she thinks drove Lisa to suicide. Everyone at school believes Vanessa is this mysterious “Poetic Justice”. It’s easy to blame the former best friend, and Vanessa makes an obvious target.

Struggling with her own guilt, Vanessa is determined to ignore the threats and allegations aimed her way. But as the Poetic Justice’s vengeance takes a darker turn, retaliation against Vanessa begins to escalate, from cyber bullying to violence, putting both her and the little sister she adores in the line of fire. To protect them both, she has to find out who’s behind the attacks before things turn deadly. And hope she can survive the truth.

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  1. Lucienne, this is a great post! I see so many of the things here that trouble me when I read a book. The cart before the horse thing, though, that is TERRIFIC! It's a pet peeve of mine, but I've never been able to define it precisely for critique partners. You nailed it. Thanks!

  2. Yup, me,too. I have been taking out every third 'just', which I just noticed peppered my prose just recently, just in time for my latest edit.
    Now I just need to search out those other waffle words... (Actually I have already wrestled down most of the others you mention, no doubt nearly and almost...)