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My latest top ten writing tips

If you’ve ever tried to write a novel, this picture may speak to you!

Every few years I post my top 10 writing tips here. Why do I keep changing this list? It might be because my list is influenced by the latest unpublished manuscripts that I’ve critiqued for conferences. Does this imply that writers are making different mistakes than previously? I don’t know. Maybe I’ve just changed my mind!

Kay’s top ten, sure-fire, writing tips:

1. Work harder on an original premise: The Napoleonic wars with air power from dragons; a murdered girl relates her story from heaven; an alien universe that tunnels through our own. Respect your ideas, but deepen them.

2. Heighten the consequences beyond the personal. How does the story problem affect the community, say, or an important institution or the larger world?

3. Write in Scenes. These discreet blocks of drama will help you decide what to bring on stage and warn you away from narrative drift. (ref: The Weekend Novelist, by Robert Ray.)

4. Turning point scenes. Shape your story by sketching out “hinge” scenes that transition the major character into a more capable, committed actor in response to the plot challenges. (ref: Great Stories Don’t Write Themselves and Story Structure by Larry Brooks.)

5. Escalate events and tension in the middle. As the major character and the forces of antagonism become more adept and determined, strive to create rising tension and more difficult opposition throughout the middle fifty percent of the novel.

6. Plan reversals. Readers like to be surprised. They’re trying to figure out what will happen, but they don’t like to succeed! Confound readers’ assumptions. Add to that: plan for at least one game-changing piece of information somewhere in the middle. (Ideal at the midpoint.)

7. Make smart use of backstory. If a past event motivates a protagonist, try to avoid bringing on stage that scene from the past, at least at too much length. Flashbacks slow momentum. Instead, reveal the backstory in tight flashback increments or weave it into narration. Another way to keep backstory in present moment is to disclose it in dialogue.

8. Stop crying. Having the major character cry at a moment of great sadness signals “she’s sad” to the reader in an annoying way. Instead, justify sadness by context and portrayal of unique details of a character’s thoughts or action. Underplaying sorrow often brings the reader to fill in what they are not being “told.” (ref: The Emotional Craft of Fiction by Donald Maass.)

9. Cut the fat. Edit out wandering and (most) low-tension scenes, pace-killing detours, heavy ruminations, ramp-ups to scenes, and over-description.

10. Deepen the climax. Strategic thinking about your climax can save it from being just a bigger obstacle-and-resolution scene to something that challenges your protagonist internally at the most profound level.


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