Best Books On Writing Well

ppp_prd_087_3d_people-cooperationOne of my workshop students recently asked me to recommend some books to him to help nurture his writing craft.  These are the ones I suggested: William Zinsser’s ON WRITING WELL; Strunk’s THE ELEMENTS OF STYLE; and Stephen King’s ON WRITING.  I don’t think any writer needs any other writing reference book.  And as much as these books will help (and they will), the most important thing toward developing your craft, of course, is to write every day.  Getting yourself into an excellent writing workshop environment is also invaluable — as with any field, having a mentor to help you along accelerates your development in whatever your chosen field.

Prefacing Dialogue With Thoughts

I often encourage writers to improve their passages of dialogue, whether in fiction or memoir, through the judicious use of a character’s internal thoughts or environmental descriptions.  Often these brief asides that precede a quote add contrast to what’s said, advance characterization, or simply break up long chunks of dialogue.  However, you can also overdo this.  Constant references to either internal thoughts or environmental descriptions that precede almost every line of dialogue are distracting.  I’m a big fan of the well-considered use of such references – in fact, they’re an essential ingredient to masterful writing – but you also should take care to not diminish the immediacy of the dialogue by interrupting too much to share such references.

Character Overload

Sometimes novelists, short story writers or memoirists make the mistake of introducing too many characters — specifically too many minor or walk-on characters — at the opening of their narratives.  Of course, more complex stories tend to rely on numerous characters.  Nevertheless, they each have to be ladled into the narrative soup, so to speak, at the appropriate times.  It’s one thing if an opening includes a walk-on character who will never reappear and is so obviously wallpaper — a waiter serving your two main characters, for example — but then don’t develop that waiter’s personality or “character.”  As readers, we’re looking from the first page to make an emotional connection to the protagonist and any other major character who appears at the start of the narrative.  Accordingly, we get confused, or even upset, when we connect to someone right from the top who we later find out will never reappear and didn’t really matter.  Establish your protagonist and your major characters first, and, in general, don’t crowd your opening pages with the development of other, less important, individuals.

When To Use Sentence Fragments

A sentence fragment is one that doesn’t contain both a verb and a noun – either of them are missing.  And, yes, they should be used, especially in dialogue.  Fragments add a certain conversational and informal tone to the narrative, and thus they’ll help to characterize your speakers.  Fragments are also very useful in narrative to highlight, emphasize or especially reinforce an important statement.  A fragment, when used effectively, adds pop, life or even lyricism to the writing style.  Still, you have to be careful not to overuse sentence fragments because they can easily become jarring or annoying — what’s “lyrical” with the judicious use of a sentence fragment becomes “atonal” if too many are used.

Executing Proper Points of View

A lot of writers seem to be confused about the proper use of point of view.  For example, in several new works I’ve read, the author, from a third-person perspective, “gets behind the eyes,” or gets into the interior thoughts, of any and every character in the manuscript.  But that’s not how a third-person point of view, whether limited or omniscient, is supposed to work.

Generally, a fiction writer will present his or her story from either the first-person, third-person limited or third-person omniscient point of view.  In a first-person point of view you can get into that character/storyteller’s mind.  In a third-person limited point of view, you can likewise get into that particular character’s mind — but, strictly, no one else’s.  Of course, you might have two strong protagonists and may want to structure your story from both of their points of view.  That can be done if you know what you’re doing, and if you intend to structure your story in that way.  The Harry Potter series is a good example of this approach.  The story is told mostly from Harry’s third-person limited perspective; at times, though, the limited point of view shifts to other characters — but, again, not every character.  In general, don’t give yourself free reign to just jump into several characters’ minds.  Especially don’t do it unintentionally.  The final, popularly used perspective is that of third person omniscient.  Here, you look down on all the action as if you were omniscient, and you can comment, somewhat objectively, in the detached voice of the author, on the characters or events that transpire.  But still, this doesn’t mean that you can get behind the eyes of any of the characters.  Dickens and a lot of older, classical novelists expertly structure their novels in the third-person omniscient point of view.

The adherence to strict point of view perspectives has become less important in newly published works.  As a general rule, though, it’s neither recommended nor considered acceptable to lurch back and forth into the minds of any characters that you choose.  Once you decide from which perspective you’ll present your story, stick to it.


Characters and Chit Chat

In an attempt to position dialogue as conversational, many writers fall into a trap of inserting throat-clearing words or expressions at the start of characters’ quotes.  All of these words, such as “well,” “uh,” “God,” “umm,” and “so,” among many other culprits, are familiar prompts in actual conversation but they often muddle what should be otherwise sharp narrative dialogue.  It’s fine, of course, to distinguish one of your characters with a tendency to speak with such mannerisms, but when several characters preface their comments with “Well . . . ” then you have a problem.  It can become difficult for readers to distinguish between characters when each of them start their sentences in similar ways.  More to the point, the otherwise unintentional inclusion of meaningless words at the opening of quoted dialogue doesn’t make the narrative appear to be conversational — it makes it distracting, burdensome and slow.  Unless you intend to intentionally use such throat-clearing to stylize one or two characters, it’s better to cut these empty words out of your quotes.

The Right Title For Your Book

Creating the right title for your novel or nonfiction work is critical.  It not only should communicate what your story is about but it ought to catch the eye of the reader, and, more importantly, the agent or editor you’re trying to solicit.   I always found that the best titles have double or even triple meanings.  Take SWEET DATES IN BASRA, by Jessica Jiji.  Her novel is a story about a Jewish boy who falls in love with a Muslim girl in idyllic, 1940s Basra, Iraq.  This title works on several levels: 1. From a literal perspective, the dates — the actual fruits — from Basra were among the sweetest in Iraq; 2. From a poetic, sentimental perspective, the title reflects a lost Iraq that no longer exists, e.g., the sweet dates of the protagonist’s youth; and 3. From a narrative perspective, the sweet dates represent the very few times these two lovers had a chance to meet.  That’s a literary trifecta!

How To Write a Thriller

I had an opportunity recently to chat with a fellow writer about the elements of a terrific thriller.  We  both agreed on the following points, and that all of these ought to be present:

Get right into the action, and explain later what happened and why; make sure the structure incorporates cliffhangers, a race against time, and danger always lurking near the protagonist; give the protagonist the initiative to solve the problem; make sure the protagonist’s personal stakes are high; make your protagonist plausible and heroic, but not a superhero; and outline very carefully before you start to write.  Of course, as with all great writing, each sentence should be exquisitely written.  The joy of thriller writing is found not only in suspenseful plot but also in the beauty of words in perfect context.

Use the Right Verb!

Verbs are to literature as vitamins are to good health.  The right verb is the most critical part of any sentence – that’s what will communicate urgency and strength.  If a writer fails to use the right verb, and especially if he or she overly relies on “to be” and its conjugations, that writer will tend toward an overuse of adverbs (the literary equivalent of junk food) in an attempt to add urgency and power to the narrative.  Adverbs, past perfect tense and emphases such as exclamation points weaken powerful writing.  As a general rule try to discipline your craft by using “–ly” adverbs only when you absolutely must.