Saturday, April 24, 2010

writing tips

More tips!

* Don't introduce too many characters in a single scene, especially in the first and second chapter, but not a good idea anywhere. The reader can't keep track. Beginners tend to introduce too many characters in the first chapter.

* Once you've introduced a secondary character, make sure that character reappears at certain intervals, otherwise reader will forget who he is. And if he disappears for long chunks, is he really that important?

* Mix it up. We tend to skim names when we read, so make sure character names vary. Make sure they don't sound or look alike, and don't start with same letter.

* Don't stick two stories together. You know what I mean. You've written 150 pages of one story, get sick of it, think of another plot, but don't want to waste those 150 pages so you just stick the two together and do a little sanding at the seam. I've seen this A LOT. You aren't fooling anybody.

* try to get rid of words like:


Watch out for the words was and been. This can sometimes indicate weak writing, but not always.

* Easy on italics. Apparently some people don't mind italics, because I sometimes pick up books that contain whole chapters of it. I won't read these books, and I wonder how many other readers feel the same. I would say no more than a page or two at a time. Different formatting can sometimes be substituted for italics, such as a block of text with wider margins and condensed spacing. To me, that says this is just as important as the other text.


  1. For each novel, I have a spreadsheet with a list of names in two sets. One set I sort by first name, the second set I sort by last. This helps me see if my character names clump around a particular letter. With family members, obviously there will be a common last name, but and sometimes I give characters the name first letter intentionally. But as a rule, I try to spreads things out across the alphabet. The spreadsheet helps.

    Another thing this helps with is using the same name twice by accident. I actually created a little problem for myself because I didn't have a spreadsheet for my first novel. I wasn't thinking about Lost Dog as being part of a series either, which also contributed. So in Lost Dog I named a character Jimmy, a very minor, off the page fellow. When I started Chasing Smoke, I'd forgotten all about Jimmy, and ended up naming a new character Jimmy as well. In one sense, not a big deal, since there is no way the two would ever be confused, and besides, that first Jimmy was so minor.

    Except he's not minor. He's the brother of one my main characters, and as the series developed I came up with a story in which he figures prominently. Oops.

    If I had planned a series from the beginning, perhaps I wouldn't have made this mistake. Oh well.

    Another thing I do is try to make the police procedure in my stories very true to life. Nothing wrong with that, but when it comes to the numbers of characters on the page, this can create problems. In actual crime scenes, there may be quite a crowd of investigators on hand. In a story, this could be a problem. The solution is to use a single character to stand for what might be a group in real life. Instead of a medical examiner and an assistant, use just a medical examiner. Four uniformed officers become one or two. Multiple crime scene specialists condense into one. A real life complex crime scene may have more, but on the page all those people just gum up the works.

    I see fiction as representing real life, not documenting it. As a result, certain things must be done in service of story and character which might be true in spirit if not true in fact.

  2. Bill, what a great idea! You are so organized! Love the idea of a spreadsheet. I'm going to try that. I always have some disposable name like your Jimmy who ended up not being disposable. I find I use it again and again in different books and don't realize it. Weird thing that recently happened in memoir -- I changed most names to protect the guilty. Gave two main characters the names Adrian and Ruth. Then was going over proofs of Bad Karma. Main characters: Adrian and Ruth. So weird. Two books written 12 years apart, and Ruth is still the bitchy mom. heh.

  3. oh, also like the way you handle crime scenes, because yes, those can quickly become overrun by characters.