I wish Fire up Your Fiction: An Editor's Guide to Writing Compelling Stories by Jodie Renner had been available when I was a novice writer. It is jam packed with the most wonderful advice - advice I give novice writers in my critique group all the time.
Jodie Renner is a free-lance editor (specializing in suspense) who I've been aware of for some time. I respect her, so when I saw she'd written a book about writing, I jumped on it. Sadly, for me, I'm past the point where this has anything new to offer me. Actually, I suppose that's not a bad thing. It means my skills have grown to a place where I don't have to worry about embarrassing myself. I'm just so incredibly bummed this book wasn't available when I was stumbling around, trying to figure out how to write well.
There's so much good advice in this book, it's hard for me to pick out what to share, so I'm just going to pick some sample from a few of the later chapters.
Her chapter on Pacing for Power
...sometimes, at a critical, tense, or emotional moment of a stroy, you actually want to expand time, to slow things down to give the reader a chance to realize the significance of the problem and appreciate the challenges the character is facing to overcome obstacles.
At times of life or death, show every little critical detail.
(I've known this for a while, but Hugh Howey used this technique in his book, Wool, reinforcing this lesson for me in such a big way that I blogged about it here.)
Then she gives specific tips and examples about how expanding the moment is done.
For example, she writes:
Write longer, more involved sentences. This forces the reader to pay more attention and concentrate on every word.
Show your characters' increased apprehension and other heightened emotional reactions to what's going on around them.
Pause for significance. Isolate critical info on its own line so the reader doesn't miss it.
Those are just a few of the tips.
In her chapter Dialog That's Real and Riveting, she identifies when you can get away with cliches.
And on the great "use only said" debate, she agrees with those who say that said is the way to go, but she has some exceptions that include shouted, whispered, mumbled, yelled, murmured, and screamed. (Notice there's not a single adverb in the bunch.)
There's a lot more to this chapter as well, like how to show tension with dialog. There's also two other chapters that deal with other aspects of dialog.
Putting direct thoughts in italics can be very effective for expressing a sudden strong emotional reaction. Showing these visceral reactions of your characters helps us get inside their heads and hearts more deeply and bond with them more. Showing a thought-reaction in italics works best when used sparingly, for a significant or urgent thought or reaction.
Later, she goes on to say:
Don't have your characters think in complete sentences. Expressing thought in grammatically correct, complex sentences is just not realistic. Many of our thoughts are emotional reactions, flashes or images, expressed through a few well-chosen words.
Another thing I like about this book is she disabuses some of the groundless "rules" new writers like to latch onto. For instance:
Rewrite ing verbs whenever you can and you'll strengthen your writing and increase its power. But use -ing verbs when needed for background or ongoing action. (emphasis hers) You need -ing verbs for continuous action, one that's already taking place when something else happens. For example, "When we pulled up to the house, a man was washing a car in the driveway." Or "Christy was heading out the door when the phone rang."
So much good stuff for a novice. And one of the best things about it is that for every "rule" that a novice is likely to latch onto, she explains the why behind it. That's a crucial point in my opinion because they say you have to know the rules before you can break them, but I think that's wrong. I think you have to understand why the rule exists, so you know when it's appropriate to break them. And that's what this book will give novice writers that they so seldom find elsewhere.
And for anyone who's interested, Snow White & the Eighth Dwarf is free on Amazon this weekend. Get your copy today.