Monday, December 12, 2011

Jill Williamson's 10 Tips to Becoming a Better Writer

If you haven't already received your feedback from the free write contest, you should be receiving it sometime today. I'll be perfectly honest - it all depends on how well my kid naps this morning. I know you're anxious, so I'm doing my best to get your entries returned to you.

The winners of the 265 word free write will be announced tomorrow. I'm very excited!

Me and Jill in Chicago.
Some of you may have already seen this on Jill Williamson's Teenage Author site. She's sweet enough to let me share it over here. Jill Williamson is the author of the Blood of Kings series, a two time Christy award winner, and has a new book - Replication - coming out at the end of this month.

10 Tips to Becoming a Better Writer

Learning to become a great writer takes time. As teenagers, you are at the beginning of that time. Do not be discouraged! You can learn the tricks to becoming a better writer now and by the time you’re my age… well, let’s just say, “Move over Christopher Paolini, here you come!”

These tips are rules. Once you learn the rules, you, as a great and extremely talented crafter of the written word, will know when it is okay to break them. Truth? I still am not sure when to break them. Don’t tell anyone, okay? Yes, there are lots of rules to becoming a great writer, and you may tire of hearing them all over and over, but once you understand them, your writing will greatly improve and an editor or agent will notice the difference.

So here they are, drum roll please, my Ten Tips to Becoming a Better Writer…

Tip #1– Read, Read, Read

One of the easiest ways to learn great writing is to read great writing. Pick up books like the kind you want to write and read them. This will help you learn what works and know your competition.

Tip #2– Know Your Reader and Genre

When you are ready to begin writing, decide who you are writing for and what you are writing. Write a picture book for kids. Write a junior detective reader. Write a young adult fantasy. Write a young adult historical coming of age story. If you try to write all of these things in one book, it’s going to be very confusing and there will not be a market for it. If you are writing for fun, then, hey, do what you want. But—if you are writing to become a great writer, then start by following the rules. Once you are up there with Lois Lowry and J. K. Rowling, you can do what you want.

Tip #3– Point of View

Decide which person’s head you will be telling the story from. I suggest telling the story from a single persons head, or point of view, for your first novel. Head jumping can be a very tiresome thing, and usually makes me want to toss the book in the trash. What I mean by head jumping is this:

     Kate looked at Edward. He was a silly little boy. Why did he think he could get away with taking her things all the time. It was a real pain having him for a little brother. She wanted to ship him off to Australia media mail. That would teach him.

     If she wouldn’t always boss him, then he would behave more. He really only wanted Kate to play with him. The other kids in third grade didn’t have a big sister as cool as her, but she always yelled at him. It made him sad when she did, but at least she was paying some attention to him.

     Mr. Jones always took his son’s side. How could he not? Kate was going through some bizarre teenage girl phase that he didn’t understand. She constantly tortured the family, especially Edward. As a good father should, he stepped in, but Kate always took it as a personal attack.

See what I did? In the second paragraph I went to Edward’s point of view, then in the third I went to Daddy’s. That’s a no no because it confuses the reader. Yeah, it’s true that there are lots of published authors out there who do this, but I think it’s very confusing. If you want to use more than one point of view in your book, switch at chapter breaks or at least at scene changes.

Tip #4– Problem?

I’ve read books where I was in the third chapter before I knew what was happening. I’m not talking about a great suspense novel, I’m talking about rambling on and on without any sign of a plot. A story must have a plot. The easiest way to explain this is to give your main character a major problem to solve. Maybe they chose to get involved in the problem like Nancy Drew nosing around in a crime, or maybe it was thrust upon them like Harry Potter becoming a wizard, Eragon finding a dragon’s egg, or Anne Shirley being an orphan. Readers need to know in the first five pages, preferable the first page, what the character’s problem is. Then the reader can decide whether or not they want to read on. If you don’t have a problem, you don’t have a story. Sorry.

Tip #5– Show, Don’t Tell

Okay, this is the first time you will hear me say that. It took me at least a year of desperate searching to understand what that meant. You’ll hear it a thousands of times in your quest to becoming a great author, so commit it to memory now.

Honestly, at first, authors think they are being clever and poetically descriptive. What they are really doing is being lazy and littering their work with red flags that scream, “HELLO, I’M AN AMATEUR!” As an author, we want to SHOW our readers what is happening so they feel like they are actually one of the main character and they are getting excited, scared, cold, sick, or hungry along with your character because you write in a way that draws them in.

Why? Because today’s generation of readers were raised on television and movies. They want to be entertained and that has translated into book writing. If you want to be a great writer, you’ve got to get used to it.

Tip #6- Delete Adverbs

An adverb is a part of speech that modifies a verb, an adjective, or another adverb. For

example: “She was beautiful”; “He drove perfectly”;  “They played very well.” Adverbs are often formed by adding ‘ly’ to an adjective. Ex: Weakly, hungrily, or tirelessly.

Amateurs love to use lots of adverbs.

For example: She was beautiful. –This doesn’t really show us much. We as readers have no choice but to take your word for it. We may believe you once, but if your writing is filled with you telling the reader what to believe, we’ll get annoyed with you. We want to see her beauty.

Better example: She was small, with big brown eyes and lashes that seemed to blink in slow motion. Her hair fell in black waves over her shoulders and down her back.

Yak! FYI: I will never put “Good example,” because that would insinuate that I can write good     examples, but I hope that you see what I mean. Readers need specifics. Once you give them to us, we can see her and we believe she is beautiful without you ever having to tell us so.

Tip #7– Be Specific or CUT, CUT, CUT!

When you are writing your first draft, just write it. Zip on through and get the story in the computer. (Yes computer. The days of writing by hand are in the past.) As you go back through, look for those boring snoozer words that really mean nothing of interest. Good writing is in the details and specifics.

For Example: John climbed the tree and looked at the mountain.

Zzzzzzzzz. Snort. Drool. Zzzzzzzz. Oh! I’m sorry. Must have dozed off. Tee hee.

Better example: John shimmied up the swaying willow and gazed at the monstrous peak of Mt. McKinley.

Okay, so I replaced the boring, non specific words with concrete ones. Ones that help the reader see what you want them to. Instead of climbed, John shimmied. Instead of tree, I used swaying willow. That is very specific, and if you ever tried to climb one, you would know they sway. Instead of looked, I used gazed. It just seemed more right for the scene. Instead of mountain, monstrous peak of Mt. McKinley. Yep. Mt. McKinley is monstrous, the second tallest peak in North America, and that alone tells the reader (who knows his geography, anyway) where the story takes place.

This is true with any word. Be specific, but if you feel that being non specific is the right thing to do, go right ahead. Like I said, once you know and follow the rules, you can break them when you want to. Confused yet? Ha ha ha ha ha!

Tip #8– Get Rid of, or Make Simple, the Said Tag

This is another one of those places where and agent or editor will take one glance at your manuscript and scream, “AMATEUR!” The dreaded said tag. And even worse, the dreaded said tag with even more dreaded adverb attached.

For Example: “Get out!” Sharon screamed angrily.

Ick, ick, ick! Here’s why: “Get out!” Does that look like someone might whisper those words? Nope. So you don’t have to tell us that Sharon screamed. And angrily is even more redundant. You’ve only got so many words to write a good story. Wasting them on saying the same thing over and over is a bad move. Watch out for redundancies and lazy telling.

Better Example: “Get Out!” Sharon slammed the door.

This example uses an action tag. Not only does the action fit the words she has spoken, but it tells us that she spoke them without using the word ‘said’ at all. Whoo hoo! Have a party. ‘Said’ is one of the most abused and over used words in literature. That being said, it is far better to write, ‘“Get out!” Sharon said,’ than to write ‘“Get out!” Sharon said angrily,’ or ‘“Get out!” Sharon clamored.’ When in doubt, ‘said’ works best, but I know that you can do better using action tags.

Tip #9– Avoid Flashbacks

There is nothing more confusing that a flashback in the middle of nowhere except, two or more flashbacks spread throughout a novel. If you must tell a past event, get creative. Put it into dialogue or put little pieces here and there throughout the story. This is far more mysterious than blurting it out by going back in time for three pages, and let’s face it, I skip over it anyway. If you absolutely are itching to tell a character’s past, do it in a prologue, or sneak it in another way. If you refuse and must have a flashback, make it short. Please!

Tip #10– Write, Write, Write!

You would think this would be obvious and yet, I waste more time thinking about nothing, biting my fingernails, writing to do lists of what I’m going to write, and eating in front of the computer, than actually writing. Randy Ingermanson, a really smart writing guy, said it takes the average writer a million words typed to get published. That is the equivalent of ten novels. Currently, I’m closing in on 500,000. Sigh! So, you best get typing now and stop wasting your time reading this e-zine!

Bonus Tip #11– Rewrite, Rewrite, Rewrite!

What’s this? A bonus tip? How thoughtful of me! It is also said, by many wise writing guru people that the real magic, the real amazing gift of the writing craft comes in the rewrite. So write your story. Put it aside. Write something else. Then come back and rewrite that first one. Rewrite it until you feel real good about it. The problem is, some people (like me) never feel real good about it and we could go on picking the poor book to death until it is just a sad skeleton of a former healthy novel. That, however, is a different kind of problem altogether.


  1. Wow! What great tips! Thanks, I'm so encouraged now to write :)

  2. I have a question, what about dream sequences? How do you feel about those? Would they count as a flashback, especially if you're in first person?

  3. Here's my question, I love you, there's so many ways to say that, you can whisper it, say it, so many ways, would you still drop the 'said line' for that?

  4. A quote my mom always uses is "A good story is not written - it is rewritten." :)

  5. Great tips! Thanks for sharing, Jill! :)

    Oh, *groan* I sooo know what you mean about being willing to pick the poor book to death...grrr, my characters are making me mad lately in that they are refusing to cooperate. :(

    Ahhh, well, the joys of writing. :)

  6. Haha! Loved this post :) Funny and had great tips :D

  7. Thanks for all the comments, guys! I'm glad they were helpful. :-)

    Becki, I suppose it depends what you are doing with your dream sequence. Flashbacks and dreams sequences can be used, as long as they move the plot forward at the right time. Jeff Gerke told me that I could use a flashback, but I had to save it until the reader was DYING to know that. Then they would read it and savor it. So I'd say that a dream sequence might need that same caution. What are you trying to show with it? Does it move the plot forward?

  8. Alana,

    There are no rules for dropping the said tag and certain phrases. It depends on the scene and your characters and what they would do in that situation. If you want your character to whisper it, then go ahead and use a "he whispered." If they are standing at a launch of a space shuttle, he might have to scream it. Or maybe it's a mother, and she hugs her child and says it.

    It just depends on the characters and the situation they are in.

  9. Great quote, Ellyn! It reminds me of my favorite writing quote:

    “Books aren't written - they're rewritten. Including your own. It is one of the hardest things to accept, especially after the seventh rewrite hasn't quite done it.”
    ― Michael Crichton

  10. Hmm, words to chew on, Jill. Thank you!

  11. What an absolutely great and helpful post! Thankyou so much, Jill!

  12. Aw, two of my favorite peeps in one place! Love that. And great picture by the way ;-) Solid tips for sure.