Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Cutting to the chase and other things

Who the hell does this Lowrance guy think he is, giving writing advice? He's not exactly burning up the best-seller charts, is he? You know who SHOULD be giving writing advice? That James Patterson guy, that's who, or maybe that chick who wrote that 50 Shades of Masturbation book. Those are writers who know how to deliver what the people want, right there.

So okay, if your goal as a writer is to sell lots and lots of books and become famous and make movie deals and appearances on Oprah, I'm not your man. Can't help, because I don't know the first damn thing about how to get to that point in a career.

But if you want to write solid short stories, well, I've picked up a few things, mostly from writers who are better than me. But they've worked for me. Here are some of them.

Cut to the chase. You know those scenes in TV shows where, when a scene ends, they transition to a shot of , say, a hospital, before catching up with the characters INSIDE the hospital? Just to give you a heads-up on where the next scene is going to take place? Have you ever really required that shot of the hospital? Transitional scenes are just clutter, usually. The reader doesn't care about Jack's scenic drive from one key scene to the next, while he contemplates all the stuff he just learned in the previous 4 pages. To keep a short story really moving, end a scene with a break, and then dive directly into the next relevant moment.

Keep descriptions of people and places brief. I mean, really brief, as brief as you possibly can. Unless Lulu's appearance is really, truly unusual, a single sentence should do the trick. If your character finds herself in a doctor's waiting room, you don't need to describe the color of the chairs, the paintings on the wall, the magazines on the table-- unless, of course, by describing those things you're revealing something relevant about your character (maybe she's weirdly compulsive and counts how many copies of Entertainment Weekly are in front of her, I dunno). One nice trick to describing a room effectively, I've found, is using smell. That's a sense that we often forget about when writing, but it's amazingly evocative. "The waiting room was small and close and smelled like a stable." Ta-da, done.

Ease off on the internal monologue. One sure way to slow a story down and bore the reader is to indulge in a character's introspection and soul-searching. Especially in a short story, nothing kills the momentum more thoroughly. Consider this: when Hammett had to have the Continental Op ponder his current situation, he handled it by writing something like, "I stood by the window, gazed down at the street, and thought my thoughts." That was it. And it totally did the job. We don't need to know everything the character is thinking. All we need to know is that he's thinking. The rest should become apparent by what he does.

Kill all adverbs. You've heard this a million times, I know. And some of you STILL fight this one. "But sometimes adverbs can be useful, not all of us want to be Ernest Hemingway and besides adverbs are colorful and friendly and they MAKE ME FEEL LIKE A WRITER!!" No. Stop it now. While the occasional adverb might be useful, your best bet is to not second-guess where their usefulness will reveal itself and instead kill, kill, kill them. I promise, it will make your story tighter and more emotionally resonant. And while you're at it, try to stick with "said" for dialogue attribution. "Grumbled", "replied", "countered", "argued"... these are all weak compared to "said", and if you're doing it right, the reader will get the tone.

By that same token, mortally wound all similes and metaphors. You aren't Raymond Chandler. Nothing pulls me out of a story more than the writer exerting his writer voice, some clever little metaphor comparing the dame's hair to the after-effects of a nuclear holocaust or the fella's eyes to a pair of black licorice jelly beans left on the sidewalk. These are the sort of things that remind the reader that they're reading a story. And it's especially bad if you're trying to describe something rather complex-- like, say, a fist fight. The more complex the scene is, the more careful you need to be to use clear, brief language and short, declarative sentences.

Watch your tense. I actually see this a lot. Beginning writers have a strange tendency to lose track of whether a scene is past tense or present tense (and sometimes even future tense!). Jack either "went" or "goes". Pick one and stick with it.


Don't moralize. If your story is in third person-- hell, even if it's in first person-- don't tell me that Jack is a bad, bad man. He's a rapist and a killer and a puppy molester, I get it. I don't need the author to point out that he's an immoral, one-dimensional bastard. In fact, why don't you show me another side of him? Why don't you show me Jack taking care of his invalid mama before heading off to drown some kittens? That would actually make him interesting. But whatever you do, don't judge your own character. That instantly makes him a cartoon.

So there you go. Using these tips, I've managed to clear over a hundred dollars this year in my illustrious writing career. Fame and fortune, baby. It all comes down to keeping the story moving and giving us fully-fleshed out characters.

Or you could just go the James Patterson route, I guess, and hire someone else to do it for you. Or write some cheesy, derivative porn, that works too.


  1. That's a few solid pointer, all right. Thanks, man.

  2. Yes those killing kitten rapist types are so much more loveable when they have a soft spot for their mamas. Great stuff Heath!

    1. duh, kitten killing. Maybe we should talk about proper grammar too :)

  3. Very inspiring.... as in, inspiring me to finally give up, as I know I'm guilty of probably ALL of the above. Except maybe abusing adverbs, because I'm still unsure of exactly what an adverb is. (I did a lot of drugs in high school.)

    I'm going to go fill out applications for janitorial jobs now.

  4. The 'not Raymond Chandler' bit hit home with me. I am so tired of what I've come to refer to as "chatty' first person writing. Every bloody line doesn't have to be cute. Just give me the information. Chandler knew had to parcel that stuff out. His many imitators, not so much.

  5. Some nice advice in there, Heath. Good stuff for beginners and intermediate writers alike.