There comes a point in every writer’s life, after much study, improvement, and editing, when they look back and realize… their old stuff sucks.
So, what would I tell myself at seventeen, knowing what I know now about writing?
Don’t be pretentious.
Everyone knows you read Dickens, and Brontë, and Doyle. Don’t write like they did. That style went out of print over a hundred years ago, and all it adds is bloat that in thirteen years, you’ll be slicing through with an editorial pen, cursing the day you made an 80k novel 250k words.
Move the plot along.
Okay, so there ARE books out there that are huge, and long, and slow in places… but your book doesn’t have to be one of them. If it has no purpose on the plot, get rid of it. If the character goes nowhere, even if you love him to pieces, remove him from the storyline. If it’s redundant or information we’ve heard too many times already… kill it.
Show, don’t tell.
Yes, we’ve all heard this a thousand times but do we do it? Do we even understand what that means? It means, instead of having a character’s thoughts fill the page we can have them take an action that reveals their thoughts. You don’t have to say, “He was angry,” but “He punched the wall.” Instead of giving a long, drawn-out character history (if you even need it), have rapid-fire dialogue between two characters or just plain throw a line out once in awhile that makes the reader go, “OH MY GOSH.”
Your reader doesn’t have to know everything.
As the writer, you need to know the entire back history of your character… your reader doesn’t. They need only what’s relevant to your plot. I don’t care how persecuted and misunderstood he is, if it doesn’t move the plot forward, dump it. Save it for your book signings.
Have a plan.
There are three books every writer writes.
The first one is the “epic.” It’s long, it’s sprawling, it overflows with characters, loose ends, dead plot lines that seemed awesome at the time until you realized you have no idea what to do with them, and bloated descriptions. The second book is the one where you take out everything that is bad from your “epic,” and it winds up less than half as long. The third book is where you read through each chapter and do revision, with a clear goal in mind of where this story and these characters are headed. You polish up the descriptions and dialogue until it shines. That is the story you want to print.
Ground your world in reality.
Even if you’re writing a fantasy world, it needs to be plausible. Characters must be consistent, not waffle back and forth between different personalities or react the way you need them to, to get you where you want them to go. Your plot should drive the characters, not the other way around.
Don’t be afraid to write simply.
Deep down, we’re all egotists who want to get complimented on our writing style, but too much style can get in the way of the plot. It’s better to have someone flipping pages, incapable of putting your story down because it moves so beautifully and engages them emotionally, than to have them stop and say, “Oh, what lovely prose!” Do a little bit of both if you can, but always choose substance over style.
Try present-tense once in awhile.
Not only does this cut down your word count considerably (and in doing so, clean up your writing a lot) it’s fun to write, since it keeps your reader in the moment. Yes, it can be jarring for a first-timer but once you start doing it, going back to the world of “-ed” is a shock.
Read everything aloud.
If you get confused, change it. If you need to gasp for air midway through, your sentence is too long. If you find yourself skim-reading ahead to get back to the dialogue, cut some descriptions.
Pay attention in the editing process.
We all use worthless words and redundant words – like “that,” “rather,” “quite,” and “was.” Figure out the words you abuse the most and do a word search. Each time you find one, decide if you really need it or not. Usually, you don’t. Also, don’t start every paragraph with the same word and/or letter. Vary between letters and words. Your reader won’t notice if you do, but they might if you don’t (it’s really obvious to open a book and see “The” six times in a row).
Choose a name and stick to it, but don’t over-use it.
It’s confusing trying to keep up with names so keep it simple. Don’t refer to characters by a bunch of different names (nicknames, last names, middle names, full names – yes, Tolstoy, I am looking at you!). In first person, call Mother and Father just that, unless another adult is speaking to them. Also, people usually don’t use someone’s name unless they are a) singling them out in a crowd or b) really making a point. Don’t pull a James Cameron, and have a name at the beginning or end of every single thing two characters say to one another.