Thursday, December 13, 2018

Tips On Becoming a Better Writer

By George A Bernstein, @GeorgeBernstein

Part of The Writer's Life Series

So you’ve written your novel, and edited the heck out of it, but how do you get it good enough to actually get published? I went through that problem for a long time, slowly getting to where I had to be as a quality writer.

Here are some suggestions, now that you’ve written a workable product. How do we turn an everyday Volkswagen into a Lexus?

My first suggestion to every new writer is to find a GOOD writers conference (or 2 or 3!), hopefully somewhere near enough to drive to—unless you’ve got cash to burn. Then I recommend you fly to Maui. That’s the Cadillac of conferences.

A well-run conference is usually operated by local writing groups. The Florida Writers Association, for instance, hosts a 3-day event every October, usually in the Orlando area, and the Mystery Writers of America does the three-day SleuthFest each year in Boca Raton, FL, around the first of March.

While these better conferences will almost always have several agents and editors to whom you can pitch your work, the real reason for going is for the classes. You’ll find a plethora of sessions on every phase of writing, publishing, promotion and how to find agents and editors. More classes than you can possibly attend. Many conferences also have contest to which you can submit your gem, and get professional feedback, even if you’re not a finalist.

Once you start listening to professionals showing you what makes great writing, you’ll be stunned at how little you actually knew. Often there are critique sessions at these conferences, too, and you’ll have a chance to network with other aspiring writers, and maybe establish some critique partners. And if you’re lucky, you may connect with an agent or editor who will be willing to read your work. Personal contact can get you past their slush pile, even if they don’t eventually take you on. At least you may get some real feedback.

Okay, you’ve attended a conference or two, and are fired up over transforming your work into the gem you know it should be. Here are a few things to make your novel stand out as exceptional.

The first thing to do is to go back and shorten your chapters. Three to five pages each, sometime even less. Occasionally, one may need to be a bit longer, and that’s okay. I took many chapters from my first novel, Trapped, and made three or four chapters out of them. Start a new chapter every time you change a point of view. All my Detective Al Warner novels have several of little more than one page.

Look at James Patterson, Baldacci, and Silva. You’ll see that even though it’s all the same basic scene, there are chapter breaks. This makes the story more immediate, and keeps the pages turning. Instead of wishing this damned chapter will finally end so you can go eat, you’re reader will want to stay for the next short one, just to see how things pan out. Believe me, it works. I’ve had many readers tell me they’ve had a hard time putting down any of my novels.

In the same vein, keep paragraphs short—seldom more than 3 sentences. This keeps white spaces on the page, and makes everything easier to read. Nothing is more daunting than looking at a paragraph that’s a half-page long.

And anything you want to stand out—to make important—should be on its own line.

Keep dialogue brief and punchy. In real life people ramble and make many verbal pauses, but that’s a no-no in a novel. Use contractions, as we all do in every day speech, and don’t overdo accents that are tough on the reader to follow. You want your audience to know who is talking without adding a “tag,” (“he said” “she said”) by use pacing, and maybe colloquial words, like “y’all,” and “Miz Maren,” as my character Kevin does in Trapped. Detective Al Warner, a product of a tough, rural youth, drops his “g’s” on words ending with “ing.” It becomes part of his voice. An attorney may talk with precision, while an athlete might use sports metaphors.

And when you need tags, stick as much as possible with “he said; she said,” when you do need one for clarity. Groaning, muttering, cursing, etc. get pretty quickly overdone. Let you reader know the speaker was “groaning” by how it was said, not by describing it. Several professionals have complimented my limited use of tags in all my novels. Direct inner thought is usually done in italics, compared to described thoughts, that are in regular fonts.

i.e.; “What the Hell’s going on? She thought. How can he treat Kevin like that?”

Challenge yourself on your dialogue. A popular technique is to read it out loud to someone else. You may suddenly see how stilted it might sound. And avoid characters using lengthy dialogue to “dump” information. It’s not realistic. Feed that data in as you go rather than trying to explain whatever it is in one wordy burst. It always sounds unnatural.

Then, in your final edit, change static words into more descriptive action words. He “shambled across the room,” rather than “walked.” She “studied his face” rather than “looked.” He “darted out the door,” rather than “ran.”

Cull out extra words, and try not to repeat a descriptive word in the next sentence. Things like, “The two of us went together” or “he signed his name,” are unnecessary words as they say the same thing.

Finally, review your outline (You DID prepare an outline, didn’t you?), chapter by chapter, and see if tension and flow might be better served by moving some chapters around. I often find the need to do this to keep things humming.

All little things that may help differentiate you from the pack of those who aren’t serious about being a real professional.

Good luck.

George A Bernstein is the retired President of a modest, publicly held appliance manufacturer, now living in south Florida. He spent years attending writing seminars and conferences, learning to polish his work and developing a strong “voice.” He works with professional editors to ensure his novels meets his own rigorous standards, and all of his books are currently published by small indie press, GnD Publishing LLC, in which he has an interest.

White Death is the fourth of his Detective Al Warner Suspense series, with the others; Death’s Angel, Born to Die, and The Prom Dress Killer, all garnering rave reviews. Bernstein has become known for crafting endings no one expects. His fifth Warner novel is already in the works, to be published in 2019. Readers have likened Bernstein’s Detective Al Warner to Patterson’s Alex Cross.

Bernstein is also a “World-class” fly-fisherman, setting a baker’s dozen IGFA World Records, mostly on fly-rods, and he has published Toothy Critters Love Flies, the complete book on fly-fishing for pike & musky.

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About White Death

Detective Al Warner is back at work, recovered from his deadly final encounter that ended the hunt for The Prom Dress Killer.

Meanwhile, Ashton Kerry is furious his in-laws, who both died in a flaming boating accident, left him nothing in their will, but his wife’s massive trust fund provides all he can spend. Determined to have his own stash so he can ditch his family and be with his mistress, he enlists the Cuban mafia to ship cocaine via his company, packaged as brochures. Kerry is paid a nice percentage of their value. But in setting this up, the Cubans murder five of his employees, drowning them in a fake auto accident. Then Kerry’s ties to the Cubans become more complicated–and dangerous–than he ever expected.

Warner’s gut tells him the accidental drowning of five factory workers is highly suspicious, and his “gut” is seldom wrong. It’s one of two cases the “Hero of Miami” is zeroing in on. The other puzzler is the exploding rash of deadly ODs from fentanyl-laced heroin—White Death. The drug is so lethal, he suspects the fatalities may be intentional. Soon everything erupts into a series of stunning revelations and deadly confrontations, with Warner once again thrust into mortal danger.

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  1. Some great advice, especially shortening the chapters.

    1. Yes, Pam! When I read his reasons, several lights went on.

  2. Good advice, especially as I'm revising my backlist titles. Those definitely have some longer chapters. However, I get annoyed by very short chapters, but that's my personal preference.