Wednesday, October 3, 2012

4 WOW Wednesday: Chris Eboch on Learning to Improve Your Writing

Today's WOW guest is Chris Eboch, whose novels for ages nine and up include The Eyes of Pharaoh, a mystery in ancient Egypt; The Well of Sacrifice, a Mayan adventure; and the Haunted series, which starts with The Ghost on the Stairs. Her book Advanced Plotting helps writers fine-tune their plots. Learn more at www.chriseboch.com or her Amazon page, or check out her writing tips at her Write Like a Pro! blog.

Chris also writes for adults under the name Kris Bock. Kris Bock novels involve outdoor adventures, Southwestern landscapes, and romantic subplots. Read excerpts at www.krisbock.com or visit her Amazon page.

Learning to Improve Your Writing 

by Chris Eboch


I’ve written dozens of novels and hundreds of short stories and articles, plus I have a Masters degree in Professional Writing and Publishing. But I have to say, I’ve learned the most about good writing by editing other people.

For example, I’ve worked with over a hundred students while teaching a correspondence school course through the Institute of Children’s Literature. Roughly half of the students’ first assignments suffered from a lack of conflict. I already knew stories needed conflict, even stories for young children. But after reading story after story that didn’t have any, and explaining to students why they needed conflict, I finally got it.

I had a sweet “slice of life” story about a child and father looking for frogs after a rain. I’d revised it many times, making it longer and more detailed, then shorter and faster paced, more scientific, then funnier. It didn’t sell. One final revision added a simple but vital conflict. The story sold to Highlights magazine.

I prefer being able to spend time working with critique clients, but there’s nothing like having your own “slush pile” to give insight into what editors see. Several times in the last two years I’ve been asked to judge or critique local writing contests. Many of these entries were fairly advanced, but even the best ones were not quite publishable, with only a couple of exceptions. And once again I saw many of the same problems over and over, even at that advanced level.

The better novels had an interesting character and plot (at least so far as I could judge based on the opening pages I had). The weakness was typically in the voice. Voice can be one of those hard to define, “I’ll know it when I see it” things. It’s also often viewed as something instinctive, almost magical. Perhaps for those reasons, many people don’t try to learn voice.

But “voice” really just means style, and of course there are many techniques you can learn to improve your style. Some are simple, some more complex and harder to master. That’s a good thing, as we can keep learning, step-by-step.

For example, dialogue attributions must, at a minimum, be clear, so the reader is never confused about who is speaking. But even clear attributions can make the dialogue either flow smoothly or sound clunky. For strong dialogue, first you might learn to use “said” rather than all those alternatives that just call attention to themselves and look amateurish, such as demanded, inquired, responded, suggested, etc.

Next you might learn that you don’t have to identify the speaker with every line, if the speaker is clear from the conversational pattern. You can start cutting a few of those repetitive saids.

Then you might learn that you can often identify the speaker with an action or gesture, and cut the dialogue attribution altogether. (Ironically, now you’re removing nearly all of those saids that you included in the first step.) Not only does this make the dialogue smoother, but it helps keep the reader grounded in the scene because they can picture the characters as they move, gesture, and change expression.

Other areas where voice comes into play are pacing, close point of view, and showing rather than telling. I don’t have time to explore all that here, but once again those are areas where you can make small steps toward ultimately strong writing.

Is a strong voice the key to writing success? Not necessarily. Some published works get by with weak voice because of a marketable hook, a dramatic plot, or the author’s fame. And voice alone won’t interest editors or readers unless you have the concept, character, and plot to support the voice. But improving your writing style bit by bit can make the difference between almost-there and success.

So how do you learn these lessons? Fortunately, you have lots of options!

Courses through correspondence schools such as the Institute of Children’s Literature, or local classes, workshops and conferences with a craft focus.

Books on the craft of writing. My book Advanced Plotting covers pacing, with articles on how to build a scene and writing cliffhanger chapter endings. I like Scene and Sequence, by Jack Bickham, Manuscript Makeover, by Elizabeth Lyon, and my favorite for style, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, by Renni Browne and Dave King. I’ve been hearing good things about The Emotion Thesaurus, too.

Blogs are a great not only because they are free, but because you can learn a little bit every week or every day. Besides this one, check out The Other Side of the Story by Janice Hardy, and Jodie Renner Editing. The Institute of Children’s Literature has some great online material available to non-students, including regular online “workshops.” And you’ll find my blog, with lots of information on showing versus telling, pacing, and more, at Write like a Pro! Scroll down to the labels on the right to see past topics.

Critique groups and other beta readers are also a big help. If you don’t have experienced critique partners, cultivate some. Some regional SCBWI groups help match up critique partners, and listserves or discussion boards are another way to connect with people.

Finally, unless your critique partners are all professional writers and editors, chances are eventually you will go as far as you can with their help. Then it may be time to hire a professional editor, or at least get a critique at a conference. Many well-published writers and writing teachers can be hired for private critiques (myself included; see rates and recommendations on my blog). You can even hire some well-known former editors from traditional publishing houses. In addition, some agents and editors occasionally give free critique feedback on their blogs, typically of query letters or first pages.

It’s easy to feel impatient and want publication now. It’s tempting to believe that since you took one course or read a couple of books on writing, you’re ready to submit your work. But learning to write well is a long, ongoing process. I’ve been writing for over 20 years and teaching for 10. I have 16 traditionally published children’s books and have been moving into writing for adults. And I keep learning. The market is harder than ever, so give yourself every advantage. And who doesn’t want a few new tools in their bag of tricks?

Besides, the journey is half the fun! We can’t control the end result, so we might as well enjoy and grow from the process.

Happy writing,
Chris

4 comments:

  1. Great information, Chris! And yep--it's a good thing the journey is fun (since it's often a long one). I enjoyed your website info too. :)

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  2. Thanks, Carol, and thanks for stopping by!

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  3. Great post! Thanks for this. I'm also amazed at how much I've learned by critiquing for others. I recognize mistakes and think..."oops! I do that!" It really helps a lot which is why I think reading for others is a win/win.

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  4. Thanks for joining us here, Chris! You raise a lot of great points. (And I totally agree with Michele!) I learn so much from critiquing and thinking critically about things I read. But as you point out, it's all a process, and even though it is a complete cliche, the more we learn, the more we realize how much we still don't do as well as we'd like.

    Best,

    Martina

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