With so many writing conventions and diverging schools of thought, it’s impossible for a single human being to learn it all (except for Yeezus, of course). However, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t make the effort to keep improving our craft. Giving up is for poets and the French (bonus tip: don’t make fun of poets or the French on your blog).
So, in the spirit of not giving up, here’s another list of writing-related lessons I’ve conjured up while drinking an ill-advised mix of Mountain Dew and Stella Artois (mostly lessons that were re-learned and reinforced):
1. Unnecessary scene changes to your readers is as tea to Phoebe Buffay (Hint: “Tea gives Phoebe the trots.”).
Maybe you actually want your book to make people rush to the toilet, but for those of you who don’t, you should carefully assess the number of settings you push your characters through in a single chapter.
Essentially, you have to consider whether a change in setting is necessary. Do you absolutely need the change in ambiance? Are you trying to jump through different settings to expose the reader to the different places you created during your manic world-building episode? Can you get the same plot advances, character development, and evoke the same emotions by having everything occur in the same place? If you answered yes to that last question, make it occur in the same place. Otherwise, you’ll waste time and word counts shuffling your characters between locations.
However, when combining events and dialogue that used to be in separate scenes, be careful to avoid shoddy transitions and convoluted dialogue/actions when putting it together.
2. Don’t apply critique from one beta reader at a time. Compile and synthesize feedback from several people before making major changes.
A single beta reader can offer useful insight. However, making substantial changes to your manuscript simply based on one person’s opinion may be jumping the gun. Instead of freaking out because this one guy thinks your character descriptions focus too much on left nostrils, wait until you get feedback from multiple people saying the same thing. When everyone loves or hates a certain aspect of your work, you can make your changes with a little more peace of mind.
This is advice I’d heard and read several times before but it’s easy to forget when your beta reader is so damn articulate and confident in his or her opinion.
Just remember the advice of Treebeard, and don’t be hasty.
3. Showing is better than telling, but give readers enough clues to infer important facts.
I’m a firm believer in showing character feelings through their actions and dialogue. Readers should be required to make some inferences to figure out the entire story. If the narrator expressly tells the reader too much of a character’s emotions, the writing is flawed—in terms of my old school perspective, anyway (there may be exceptions for first-person narrators reporting the POV character’s feelings).
When focusing on showing rather than telling, however, you need to provide enough evidence for the reader to make the proper inferences. As the author, you know your character’s psychology and proclivities, but your reader can only work off what you show. So, while something may be clear to you, it may be because you have inside information which your readers do not. Be sure the clues are in the writing and not stowed away in your head (or on One Note or Scrivener).
It’s also important to note that certain theories you’re aware of may not be in the reader’s library of knowledge. For example, if your narration reveals that a character’s parents were divorced while he was young, you might think your readers would infer that the character has commitment issues. However, not all your readers may be privy to this theory.
If you want your readers to infer a fact, be sure that you’ve given enough clues for the majority of your target audience to work with.
4. Dialogue tags should be included only when absolutely necessary.
Dialogue tags (e.g., “said,” “asked,” “answered,” “shouted,” “grunted”) indicate the speaker of a certain piece of dialogue. It would be odd not to see a single tag in a novel, but the ideal is to have as few as possible. The rationale is that tags detract from the flow of the narration.
Where the speaker can be reasonably identified by context, a dialogue tag probably should not be included unless it does something miraculous for the pace of the scene.
5. Not everyone appreciates a good joke, but not every scene should be made light for the sake of a laugh.
I’ve had readers admit to laughing out loud at a joke but tell me that particular joke is inappropriate because it kills the seriousness of the scene. It all comes down your intended balance of humor, tearjerker scenes, and character bad-assery. I personally like hearty helpings of comedy slathered over the entire narration, leaving only a few bits for emo kids to cry over.
Getting this feedback on my jokes, I’ve looked more carefully at the humor in my MS and realized that I need to do more to integrate my jokes with plot and character development. I also realized I need to stick some more pathos in there.
Now, as I go back to edit my novel (for what’s hopefully one of the last times), I’ll leave you with this: