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Three Characteristics of Strong Fiction Writing

Authors often approach me both before and during the writing process with questions about how to make their writing stronger and more appealing to readers. Usually, I reply with notes on narrative structure, character development, and finding the best possible editor for the manuscript once its finished. Realistically, there are entire degree programs dedicated to the art of writing, and it would be quite overwhelming to simply hand an author a list of all the different methods and tools that can be utilized to improve a writer's craft. However, through my experience as an editor and author, I have identified three characteristics of strong fiction writing I feel are the foundations to those methodologies. Mastering them will help make your writing be more effective, without overwhelming you in the process.


Consistency


Just from a reflective standpoint, consistency in our lives is never a bad thing. Consistency in our surroundings, the people in our lives, and our schedules has a familiarity, a comfort. And readers do recognize this same satisfaction within a novel.


Consistency can be utilized in multiple ways. For instance, if you live in another country and are writing specifically for an American audience, you'll need to make sure you are consistently using appropriate spelling and terminology. Microsoft Word makes this easy for you. Simply go to Edit > Select All to select the entire manuscript text. Then at the bottom of the window, where it lists what language your manuscript is currently in, click to open the language pop-up menu. Select English (US) and then make sure the "Detect language automatically" option is checked and the "Do not check spelling or grammar" is unchecked. These will allow the tools for your chosen language to proof accordingly within Microsoft's Editor.


Another tip to help maintain your consistency when writing is to make character sheets as references throughout your novel or series. On these sheets, list very specific things about each character, such as hair color, eye color, stature, physique, habits, unique features, style of clothing, education, job history, family members, and any important life experiences. Refer to these sheets often. This will help ensure your redheaded female lawyer, educated through Harvard Law, who likes to wear gray pinstriped suits and chews her fingernails as a nervous habit doesn't suddenly, halfway through the trial, become a blond female lawyer, graduate of the local state college, who prefers black pencil skirts and taps her foot to indicate impatience. Trust me, your readers would catch that.


And yet another way consistency can help improve your style is during intentional breaking of the rules. I know, I know. An editor advocating for the breaking of rules! Let's collectively gasp. The Armageddon is near. But truly, as an editor who specializes in fiction, I know my authors are not as obligated to maintain concise grammar rules as a non-fiction trade book might have to. You are able to take artistic liberties when it comes to your style, your flow, and your text's delivery. For instance, I have a client who does not like when I use both quotation marks and italics to indicate the speaking of a news anchor coming from the television. It's a simple matter of where my editing style clashes slightly with their preferences, and that is normal. It's something that can be discussed with a manuscript style sheet to be used for all future projects. However, it is then up to that author to maintain consistency of this style choice. This properly manages reader expectations and makes them less likely to be drawn out of the story, thus making your writing more effective.


Variance


Variation...but I just told you to maintain consistency...I know. Variance is used in alternative ways than consistency is. Consistency is used for details and basic structure; variance only ever refers to your delivery. This is to help reduce your repetitiveness.


Always make sure to vary your adjectives. Otherwise, the repetition makes your audience feel like they are reading the same thing over and over again. For instance, a paragraph that initially reads like the following would be considered repetitive:

John seemed angry with Vanessa, but she couldn't recall what she had done to make him so angry. He furrowed his brow in anger, and the angry tone of his words caused her to cower. When I go through and edit, the corrections might look like the below image, depending on the content of the rest of the page, along with any comments I feel might help the writer avoid these situations in the future.



Though this is an exaggerated example of repeated simple adjectives, the same can be said for lesser-used obscure descriptions. If you say a character is flabbergasted on one page and then use that same word a couple of paragraphs down to describe someone else, that becomes repetitive. Words like that don't meld into the shadows where other common words would, and a reader will notice their overuse.


Another way in which variance strengthens your story is through the use of dialogue tags and action tags. Repetitive use of said bogs down your style, even though it's the most common dialogue tag and many readers report it as being "invisible".


"I'm in trouble," John said.

"How so?" Mary said.

"Because I skipped school," said John. "Now, why'd you go and do a thing like that?" said Mary.

"I don't know, but my mom is gonna kill me," said John.

"You're right about that," said Mary.


I advise clients to watch whether a dialogue tag is even necessary to indicate who is speaking. Then see if the use of an action tag would be more effective to convey both who is talking and what is happening in the scene. Breaking this particular section up with action tags such as descriptions of facial expressions and body language will help develop this scene further and make it stronger.


Variance can also be used in your overall sentence structure. It's best to incorporate sentences of varying lengths and styles for better sentence flow. Just as a basic example, a reader of paragraph one will have a very different experience from those who read paragraph two, though both paragraphs convey the same message: Paragraph One I hate winter. I hate cold. I hate wind. The wind is cold. The wind blows. The wind makes me cold. Paragraph Two

I hate the coldness of winter. The frigid wind blows, chilling me to the bone.


Another quick note to remember—always vary the starting word of your sentences. Too many sentences beginning with the same word creates unneeded repetition.


Moderation


As you can see in the previous section's last example, elements such as participle phrases can be used to vary sentence structure and strengthen the story. However, like all good things, these must be used in moderation. Moderation in writing refers to the limited use of something. This "something" would generally refer to elements and literary devices that might overwhelm the reader when overused.


Take the participle phrase from the previous example that we used to combine and strengthen rather choppy sentences. Overuse of this element would make for an awkward experience for the reader:


Climbing the tree, she scraped her knee on the trunk, wishing she had never ventured up there in the first place. Hopping to the ground, she took a deep breath and then grabbed her shoes, thanking her guardian angel for not letting her fall. Running back inside, she said hello to her mother in passing, hoping her mom wouldn't have more chores for her to do.


While all grammatically correct, these sentences are quite the mouthful. An entire novel like this would create a very particular pacing that would distract from the reader's experience.


Likewise, overuse of literary devices such as similes can dampen a read: She stretched her slender neck like a giraffe reaching for a higher branch. She lifted her hand and waved toward the passing car like a pageant beauty queen. Her husband reclined on the front porch swing like a sloth. Overuse of this literary device causes the author to rely too much on object comparison, not the strength of the actual text. In order to use the mechanics of writing correctly, the reader must not notice the mechanics even exist. Moderation is a fairly effective way of achieving this.


While consistency, variation, and moderation don't cover all the nuances of writing, they cover enough of a platform to substantially improve your initial drafts and first self-edits. Be sure to leave a like and a comment if you felt this guide was helpful!


Please be sure to subscribe to my newsletter for a free copy of my 10 Self-Editing Tips for the Fiction Author brochure, coming in the next couple of weeks.


In the meantime, check out the following helpful guides:

Choosing the Right Editor for You, Not Just Your Manuscript

Which Level of Editing Does Your Manuscript Need?




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