Creating Your Personal Writer’s Bible

Recently I wrote an article for a blog for a FB group of which I am part.  The following is that article:

There are as many writing styles as there are stories written, to be sure.  We all have our own.  But one thing I have come to believe is that everyone, regardless of writing style, can benefit from a personal writer’s bible.

I remember when I first began making a serious study of writing.  I had ‘The Professor’, a knowledgeable editor/writer who prefers anonymity, to guide me.  We met with two other writers weekly and voraciously delved into the inner workings of writing for the better part of three years.  Our meetings were not necessarily a writer’s club, but more of a class or workshop. Each week we focused on a specific aspect of writing, from simple areas like the power of the comma and how to avoid info-dumping, to more in-depth character arcs over series and subtext.

Slowly but surely my character development and plots came into focus, but still there was something lacking in my writing.  One week, The Professor had us bring in one page of our WIPs.  We exchanged this page with the intention of focusing on the descriptive words we chose and why.  This was an eye-opening night for me.  For the first time I realized where I could make a vast improvement, but it was not found in those descriptive words of which we were searching.  It came when one of my classmates said, “you say ‘looked’ a lot.”

I quickly read my page and saw that my characters “looked” no less than five times on that single page!  This was truly alarming to me.  How could I have not noticed this?

The professor said, most likely in an attempt to rally my spirits, that we all have words we use like a crutch.  But that these words, though they help us get our story on the page, should be found and obliterated.

That night I went home and began scanning my work not for what writers deem most important like backstory or plot, but for simple overused words, like “turned” and “looked”.  Over the next week I found over 12 words I used as a crutch that needed to be thrown out.  So I wrote down each word and began searching my document one word at a time to alter each into a more descriptive or useful option.  Though I didn’t know it at the time, this was the beginning of my writer’s bible, because once I bandaged these words, leaving few instances where the offending word still remained (because let’s face it, at some point our characters have to look and turn) I began to see other failed words in the form of phrases.  For example, my characters, when they were angry, never stopped ‘gritting their teeth’.  What I ended up with were a lot of characters with nubby teeth because they had no other option for displaying their anger.

Something had to change.

Like the Christian bible teaches and cautions against fault and sin.  My writing bible was also a teacher and a caution.  I had committed egregious writing sins which needed to be wiped clean from the page.  This bible of mine helped me attain a higher level of writing peace.  (Perhaps the analogy is over the top, but you get my point.)

Over the next year or so my personal bible evolved to included not only crutch words and phrases, but many others, like tautologies (of which the sin was great), purple prose, and superfluous adverbs.  As each shortcoming manifest itself through my own editing or through the help of wonderful beta readers, I would add to my bible the “commandments” of which I should be most warry.

Finally, a wonderful thing began to happen.  The work I’d put in became part of my writing style. The more I corrected these problems, the easier they became to spot as I wrote my first drafts.  I was able to delete the word or phrase before it ever darkened my page, making it easier to focus on those more important aspects like bonding to my characters, creating voice, and developing plot.

A personal writer’s bible took my writing to a more elevated level.  No one is perfect and all drafts are just that, drafts.  But being honest with yourself about your shortcomings, changing what doesn’t work, and taking advice and critique from others is the only way to hone your skill as a writer.  It is a messy business.  Sometimes the red ink can be overwhelming, but as in life, a good bible by your side will make it easier bear.  Bare?  Baer?  Whelp.  Homonyms.  There’s another one for my writers bible.  Best of luck!

8th Law of Joni’s writing Bible

Thou shalt not lose sight of thy plot.

Easy right?

WRONG!

I remember writing my first novel and being so excited.  I thought I had created a masterpiece.  I emailed a few sample chapters to The Professor, as I lovingly refer to her.  She called me the next day and asked me a question that made me think.

“How serious are you about wanting to write?”

Funny, I thought I already was writing.  I told her, “Very serious.  I love writing.”

She then told me we needed to meet.  And that meeting changed everything.  Not only did I learn that what I had typed was not writing, but that I truly had no idea what real writing entailed. Writing is not just coughing up a story.  Anyone can do that.  It is about developing a relationship with your characters.  So much so that their world becomes the reader’s world and their journey (or plot) becomes the reader’s journey.

In the easiest of terms a plot is nothing more than the events your character’s life in a sequence.  Again, simple?

Seemingly, but no.

A plot is like a stippled piece of art.  From a distance it seems like a solid picture.  Like: Jack and Jill go up a hill to fetch a pail of water.  Jack fell down and broke his crown, and Jill came tumbling after.  Easy right?  The stippled art is one solid picture that we think is wonderful.  But, on further inspection of the artwork, you realize there are thousands of tiny dots all working together to create that piece of art, and we see the intricacies.  Like: Jill tricked jack into going up the hill and when they got to the top she pushed him down the hill for the insurance money.  But when he didn’t die, Jill threw herself down hoping to die so she wouldn’t go to jail.

Plots are messy.  Not only are there story arcs, character arcs, plot holes, plot devices and foreshadowing, but there is also subplot to work out.  ARG!  There is so much to worry over and edit out.  Because in this mess we can sometimes lose focus of our main plot.  Our main story arc.

I’ll tell you one thing that truly can help.  After you have written your first draft front to end, you may want to physically write a run down of your plot chapter by chapter.  Not an outline, but a paragraph or so of exactly what happened in the chapter.

Example:  Chapter one.  Jack married to Jill.  He is at work.  Jill meets him for lunch.  Jill seems agitated, but says she is nervous about an interview later.  Jack brushes it off goes back to work.  Jill texts him two hours later and says she wants Jack to meet her for a romantic dinner at the top of their favorite hill.  He agrees.

After you finish this process for each chapter, you must then go through each chapter and ask yourself, “Did this scene add in any way to the plot.  Did the dialogue further my story or character?  Did it move us forward?”  If the answer is no, you have a useless scene that will best serve your deleted file.  (I keep a file called “thebooktitle extras”.  With everything I delete, in case I happen to need it back for some reason.)

If I am writing about Jack and Jill and in chapter three Jack takes a trip to the local bar to cheat on Jill, great! Leave it in there.  That could be why Jill pushes him down the hill, he’s a cheating dirt bag and she knows it.  But if in chapter three he spends the whole chapter at the bar chatting with his Dad about his day at work, it probably needs to be cut down or cut out completely.

You may love the scene between Jack and his dad.  You may think it shows real growth in their relationship.  Cut it.  So much of my stories, never make it on the page.  It’s backstory or side plot that just has to go.  I would estimate that I cut at least one third of every story I write in the first edit.  Mainly because the scene doesn’t matter in the long run.

I’ll be honest here; it hurts to delete that line of dialogue you really loved, or that cute thing your character did that struck a chord with you, but your story will be better because you trimmed the fat so-to-speak.

Good luck staying on plot!

7th Law of Joni’s Writing Bible

Thou shalt show the reader the emotions of thy characters.  Not tell them in a dreary way.

I think this topic may be revisited again someday because it is so very important and there are so many facets to this idea of “showing”.  Today I think I will focus on the very basics.  In elementary school we are taught to tack on an adverb to tell what a character in our story is feeling.  Even when reading children’s books today I see it done constantly.  Why?  It is done because children are too young to understand similes, analogies, alliteration, and word painting so authors are allowed to “tell”.  They also will not pick up on subtle hints of emotion from dialogue.  Also, these words are overused because children’s brains are unused to the written language, and need to be exposed to not only new words, but new emotions.  It is good practice. Here’s an example of what I mean.

Jack pulled Helen’s hair very hard.

Helen spun around to Jack.  “I hate you!” said Helen angrily.

This is blatant telling what Helen feels.

This kind of writing cannot be done in books beyond the children/juvenile realm.  Thankfully it appears less in Mid-grade and should be obliterated by YA and Adult fiction.  So how do we leave the telling and foray into the showing?  First, follow the previous lesson on superfluous adverbs.  In my short example above the “very” and the “angrily” are useless words.  Jack did something mean and Helen just shouted ‘I hate you’.  The words themselves showed us, and the exclamation point drove it home.  But even without an exclamation point (which should be used sparingly in your prose) we would still feel the anger because of the act by Jack and her dialogue.

Yes, that was very basic, but hopefully you got the idea.  Let’s move on to something more complex.  Showing emotion, to me, seems to be a marriage of the right dialogue, the right physical action or inaction, and proper alliteration and word painting.  Today, let’s focus on the right dialogue with the right physical action or inaction.

I hope you already see your characters as real people.  If not, use your imagination and try to visualize them.  What are they doing in the scene?  Let’s imagine that Helen is an adult of twenty-five and her fiance has just told her he just cheated on her.  What would she do?  What would you do?  What are the subtle ways a person can say “I hate you” even without saying the words.  This is where people watching can become very important.  Watch people flirt, fight, or laugh.  What are they doing?  What are they showing us?  In a fight, nostrils flare, teeth are bared, fists are formed, muscles are tensed, insults are cast, voices are raised, faces are reddened.  We have a never ending arsenal of words to draw on that will make the showing easier, and thus our reader will feel more connected to the story.  Nobody wants to be told what to feel.  We want to feel it with our characters.

I am no expert at this and I still find myself practicing this art.  I will use an excerpt from my own book.  How it “was” in my first copy and what it became.  (It is embarrassing to show a first draft of anything to anyone so be kind.)

“You screwin’ that kid?”  Carl suddenly said, his voice was thick with accusation.

“No,” Lila whispered.

Strangely, that was it.  No explosion.  This was not like her dad at all.

Okay, in the example I tell us.  Twice.  I beat us over the head with “His voice was thick with accusation” and “This was not like her dad at all.”  Cut both of those telling pieces and not only does it read better, but the less is more is visible.  You can feel more, insert yourself more into Lila’s thoughts.  Here is what the scene ended up becoming:

“You screwin’ that kid?” He turned to her.

Lila looked at the floor.  “No.”

“Then what the hell was that?”

Hopefully you can see that less is more.  Just from the dialogue and Lila’s action of looking to the floor, we see the accusation.  We feel the tension.  Don’t beat the reader over the head with it.  I guess it all boils down to the idea that a scene will mean more to the reader if they get to use their imagination and work for it just a little.

Good luck with this step in the editing Bible.

6th Law of Joni’s writing Bible

Thou shalt be honest with thyself and realize that thou dost overuse certain words to the detriment of thy writing.

I call the words I overuse my “go-to” words.  These are the words we always use to show what our characters are doing or feeling.  Some people call these words “crutches”.  In our first draft they are fine.  They are place fillers for the actions or emotion we will hopefully add later, but don’t forget about them.  In your second or third edit you must eradicate them from your manuscript.

I keep a running list of my “go-to” words so that when I finish my first draft I can go back and find these little demons and destroy them with what I was really trying to say.  Here is a list of some of my offending words:

Suddenly

Looked

Turned

Felt

Kind of

I think

Eye brows creased

Frowned

Smiled

Racing heart

Clenched jaw

Deep breath

Yes, you may use these.  In fact, I dare you to write a book where someone doesn’t “look” somewhere once or twice, but it cannot be the only thing that your character does.  But, you can’t have your character constantly turning circles, looking, and frowning.  Have her “hitch up one side of her mouth” instead of smile, have him “purse his lips” instead frown, have them “search” instead of look.  We create hundreds of expressions of actions all day.  Take time to note your actions and the actions of others so your characters become more human.  Good luck.

5th Law of Joni’s writing Bible

Thou shalt remove superfluous adverbs from thy prose.

When every writer starts out, we have a tendency to whip out those lovely “ly” words (yes I am aware that lovely is an ly word) to try to get our point across.  It’s not our fault.  We learn it in grade school.  Our teachers want us to learn vocabulary and word associations by having us use adjectives and adverbs in a flooding way that can damage our writing later.  I will give you an example from my own writing.  This is an excerpt from my first attempted Novel about eight years ago.

“I hurriedly scanned the terrain for signs of life.  The silence densely lay across the charcoal ruins like a being itself, the only thing left of the woods; and the breeze that had quickly chilled me on the water had calmed to a sinister motionlessness in the forest remains.”

Yup.  I kept this original version of my story as a reminder of how bad writing can be when you are first learning your craft.  Now, please, don’t misunderstand as we move forward.   Yes, you may use adverbs, but you do NOT need them in every sentence.  One well placed adverb in an entire page can be poignant.  But over use will diminish your verb, your action, by clouding it as adjectives can cloud a subject.

Let’s see how we can rewrite these sentences without most of these adverbs.

“I hurriedly scanned the terrain for signs of life.”  Scanning something is already a quick motion.  If my character were studying the terrain, that would be a slow action.  So if we have already picked the appropriate verb, the adverb “hurriedly” becomes superfluous.   Now it would read.  “I scanned the terrain for signs of life.”

Next: “The silence densely lay across the charcoal ruins like a being itself, the only thing left of the woods;”.  Okay so I am not opposed to the word dense in this sentence, but I am opposed to densely.  We can use dense as an adjective rather than an adverb.  (And if I’m being honest I don’t like everything tacked on after the word ‘itself’.  So I will nix that also) Now it reads, “The silence lay across the charcoal ruins like a being itself;”

Last: “And the breeze that had quickly chilled me on the water had calmed to a sinister motionlessness in the forest remains.”  Yeah.  That’s just bad.  So many unnecessary words here and not just adverbs.  I will of course be getting rid of quickly and motionlessness.  But to do so will have to rearrange the sentence.  There are many ways to do this, but here is the example I’ll give you.  “The breeze that had chilled me on the water felt sinister in the forest remains.”  More concise, yes?

Lets put them all together and see what we have.

“I scanned the terrain for signs of life.  The silence lay across the charcoal ruins like a being itself; the breeze that had chilled me on the water felt sinister in the forest remains.”

We cut the word count down from 49 words to 34!  And not only did we tighten our prose, but the sentences drive the feeling better than did our wordy quickly’s and hurriedly’s.

My advise is to do a search for these types of words.  Especially “very” and “really” and then revise.   It is better, really.  (see what I did there? HA!)

4th Law of Joni’s Writing Bible

Thou Shalt make thy sentences strong.

Wow, finally a thou shalt instead of a thou shalt not.  Okay, on to strong sentences.

When we read a sentence, what we read first and last stand out to us.  The stuff in between kind of jumbles.  Especially when we are reading quickly.  That is not to say that what we choose to put in the middle doesn’t matter, because those of us who like to soak in every word will read EVERY word.  But in order to make your sentence drive it’s point we often have to do a line edit to ensure that our sentences are conveying our true meaning.

#1.  Ensure that your sentences are tight and well trained.  By this, I mean, don’t use twenty words to express a twelve word or even an eight word thought.  In my writing club, the professor (my amazing cousin) and the group would take one of our longer sentences and break them down to a third or half of what they had been, and try to break them in half again, just to practice tightening up our word selection.  I found this exercise to be most educational and helpful in honing my ongoing skill set.

#2.  When trying to strengthen sentences, use the word you want people to remember at the end.  Words like, lied, dead, killed, elated, overjoyed.  This will make your reader hang on that last image with regards to the subject of your sentence.  And no, this is not possible for every sentence, because your thoughts would become disjointed and let’s face it, not every sentence is life or death.  And if you try to make them so, your story will be melodramatic, and no one will take it seriously when something important does happen.  Not everything can be the most amazing, or fantastic.  (We probably all have that friend who won’t stop saying something like “Phenomenal.”  Overuse of a word in everyday situations will lessen the word’s meaning.  Like, phenomenal cake, or the phenomenal service, or the phenomenal bathroom.  So be careful on this point.)

Example 1:  John finally worked up the courage to walk to the front door so that he could finally ask Julie out on their very first date ever.    (26 words)

What are the problems with that sentence?  First, so many “extra words” -to, so that, finally etc.  Second, the sentence is really laying the experience on too thick.  Show your readers, don’t tell or talk at them.  (We’ll have a section on show not tell soon)  Third, my ending word is not the word I want my readers to hang on to.  (Case in point, my previous sentence.)  My ending word for my example should be date, courage, or even knock to drive home the feeling.

So, lets do a cut.

First cut: John’s courage was high as he knocked on Julies door to ask her on their first date.  (17 words)

I managed to cut this sentence to nearly half of what it was.  (And yes there are dozens of ways to cut down a sentence and that is up to the voice of the writer and his/her character.)  But I am still not pleased with the sentence.  It is still too wordy.  It doesn’t give me the image I want.  I will cut it again.

Second cut:  John walked to Julie’s door, screwed up his courage and knocked.   (11 words)

I like this sentence because it portrays more of what he was feeling.  I also like the word knocked at the end because it leaves us wondering, “Is she there?”  “What will happen when she opens it and sees him?”  We all know what it’s like to knock on the door of someone we like.  It makes our hearts pound.  But we can write the sentence again if the knocking is not what we should remember.  What if it is the courage we need to remember?

Second cut part 2:  John stood in front of Julie’s door and gathered his courage.  (11 words)

This sentence works also, if courage is the thing we want our readers to remember.  Maybe asking Julie out is a pivotal growth moment for our character.  You must choose what is best for your story.

This type of sentence cutting works well for our most verbose sentences.  The ones that just go on and on.  Not running on in the technical sense, but the ones that seem to wander like Frodo trying to get to Mount Doom.  We need to cut a straight path.  And remember, after we cut we add in some of the character building words that will boost our story.

Second cut Finished:  John walked to Julie’s door thinking only of his carefully chosen words as he screwed up his courage and knocked.

Second cut part 2 finished:   John knew it all hinged on this moment in front of Julie’s door and he prayed for courage.

3rd Law of Joni’s Writing Bible

Thou shalt not repeat, repeat, repeat… Tautologies

A tautology is using two words that say the same thing.

We all do it.  “Sit down!” I say to my children at least once a day.  Tautologies have crept into our every day speech. Don’t we hear “You can win your free gift if you…” in numerous ads?  Or aren’t we asked to stand up or told we will have an added bonus if we complete some task?  We say these things all the time.  However we cannot use them in our prose.  “Sit” will suffice or having our character stand is all we need.  It is either free or a gift, an addition or a bonus.  The space is either empty or a vacuum.  I’ve even seen water of the ocean and dead corpse in books.  Be careful and edit wisely.

 

2nd Law of Joni’s Writing Bible

2nd Law – Thou shalt not overuse dialogue tags.  

A dialogue tag links the speaker to their words in prose.  They inform the reader which character is speaking.  They are necessary!  Oh, so necessary.  We need to know who is speaking.  We must have ‘said’.  However, we do NOT have to say said after every sentence spoken.  Our readers should know who is speaking and who is being spoken to without beating them over the head with it.

Wrong:

“We’re out of butter,” said John.

“Are we?” asked Darla.  “I could have sworn there was more in the freezer,” she said.

“No, I used the last yesterday making popcorn,” said John.

“Then you should have gone to the store,” said Darla.  “Why do I have to do everything?” she said.

Right:

“We’re out of butter,” said John.

“Are we?” said Darla.  “I could have sworn there was more in the freezer.”

“No, I used the last yesterday making popcorn.”

“Then you should have gone to the store.  Why do I have to do everything?”

We know who was speaking even without the tags after every period.  Reducing dialogue tags cleans up the prose and tells our readers that we trust them to understand what we’ve written.  Readers are smarter than many writers believe them to be.

Now, that being said, we also do not follow the teaching of elementary school teachers.  Do you remember your teachers telling you to NOT use the word said?  I do.  Words like shouted, whispered, laughed, yelled, questioned, were encouraged instead of ever using the word said.  I’m sure the purpose was to help children to understand the emotion of writing, but to never use the word said?  Said is the staple.  It is the word that become invisible as long as we do not overuse it.

Wrong:

“I can’t take it anymore!” shouted Jeremy.

“Why are you shouting?” yelled Eliza.

“This is the hundredth time I’ve tried this,” growled Jeremy.

“Then give it a rest!” snapped Eliza.

“You don’t understand addiction,” pouted Jeremy.

“It’s a video game, Jeremy,” laughed Eliza.  “Relax”

Do you see the problem?  It is fine to use other dialogue tags.  It really is, but the overuse creates melodrama and bipolar characters.  Your reader should be able to infer the mood by the dialogue.  Again, don’t beat them over the head.  Overuse will send readers away not liking your work.

Right:

“I can’t take it anymore!” said Jeremy.

“Why are you shouting?” said Eliza.

“This is the hundredth time I’ve tried this.”

“Then give it a rest.”

“You don’t understand addiction,” pouted Jeremy.

“It’s a video game, Jeremy.  Relax.”

So, using other dialogue tags can work, but I use them only when the character’s actions or situation make it a necessity.  Sometimes we need to be told someone is whispering or shouting.  Just make it flow.  Keep it simple.

 

1st Law of Joni’s Writing Bible

1st Law  Thou shalt not over use the comma. 

This was one of my biggest mistakes when I took up writing again.  I had forgotten as an adult so many of the elementary punctuation rules.  The comma is, in my opinion, one of the most useful gadgets in a writer’s tool box.  When you’ve finished your first or second draft and you’re ready to begin a more thorough edit, like your personal line editing, please pay special attention to your commas.

In case you have forgotten, as I had, here are a few examples of appropriate and common comma use.

Examples

“Hi, Helen, how are you?” asked James through the crack in the closet door.

“Don’t travel into the Forest of Poetry.  You’ll never write prose again,” said Bartholomew, his only sane warning.

“I want white, fluffy kittens that have already had the demons exercised and the hairballs extracted.”  She then sat with a thud upon the white, padded chair.  The nurse, Jenny, tightened the straps of her straight jacket.

Note: Sometimes you may want to include a comma to give a beat or pause for thought, or drive home your point.  But remember, commas, if overused destroy the poignant effect for which you be be searching.  Overuse of this tool will make your characters, in my opinion, sound like melodramatic actors in a bad teenage drama.

Example

If there was one thing that would eradicate Samuel’s desire it was Mountain Dew.

If there was one thing that would eradicate Samuel’s desire, it was Mountain Dew.

Either is acceptable but is Mountain Dew really that important? I submit that it is.  – Enjoy!