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Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Breathing Life Into Your Fiction Writing by Author Janalyn Voigt

If you’ve ever read a passage that drew you with minimal fuss to its story’s heart, you may have longed to infuse your own writing with equal vibrancy. The happy news is that it can be done, and by you. It does require a little effort to learn, but bringing immediacy to your writing is well worth your time. 
Which of the following two sentences do you prefer?
Sentence 1: Emily stopped eating her pastrami sandwich as she cocked her head to listen to her husband emphatically giving instructions to someone he was talking to on the phone.
Sentence 2: Emily bit into her pastrami-on-rye but, as her husband barked into the phone, paused midchew.
My guess is that you chose the second. 
The first sentence is 28 words of telling and about as exciting as, well, peanut butter and jelly. The second engages you far better in fewer words (just 15). Why? To find the answer, let’s dissect the first sentence.

Distant Point of View: “Emily stopped” and “she listened” both cast this sentence in distant point of view. The reader is not inside Emily’s head but outside watching what she does. Distant point of view can creep into even the best manuscripts uninvited. To oust it, search for words like heard, listened, saw, looked, smelled, thought, wondered, and the like. One aside: using distant point of view isn’t “wrong” and can sometimes be just the thing that’s needed. Still, it usually should be removed to increase immediacy. 

Use of Adverbs/Adjectives:  As Chip MacGregor advises, it’s best to write with nouns and verbs. Not that you can never use adjectives or adverbs, but when you choose nouns and verbs well, they don’t need any helpers. Notice how the simple change from pastrami sandwich to pastrami-on-rye evokes a sharper mental image.  “Emphatically giving” becomes “barked” in the second sentence. Finding an “ly” word in your manuscript signals the opportunity to find a stronger noun or verb.

Out of Cause-Effect Order:  Placing events out of order of occurrence jerks the reader back-and-forth in time. The effect can be subtle. In sentence 1 Emily stops eating her pastrami sandwich as a response (effect) of overhearing her husband’s phone conversation (cause).  Putting the effect before its cause makes the reader back up in time, slowing pacing and creating distance. 
This point is a little hard to grasp, so here are more examples:

Out of order: Susan answered the phone when it rang.
Correct order:  When the phone rang Susan answered it. 
Out of order: Judy smiled as memory struck.
Correct order: As memory struck Judy smiled.

Note: When two things happen at the same time, you can state either of them first. Both these sentences are correct: 

Smiling, Judy dialed the phone. 
Judy dialed the phone, smiling.

Wordy: As I mentioned, Sentence 1 weighs in 13 words heavier than its lean, mean challenger.  This may seem counter-intuitive, but when it comes to writing less is really more. Paring down to essentials only enhances the artistry of your writing. Ideas that can be grasped at once make your writing easier to follow. To find wordiness in your own writing, look for long phrases and lots of phrases within a sentence. 
Learning writing techniques is not all that different from acquiring musical skills. Most people who play the piano for the first time don’t start with a Bach fugue. It takes practice, persistence, and patience to write like a Master.

The High Queen is dying… At the royal summons, Shae mounts a wingabeast and soars through the air to the high hold of Faeraven, where all is not as it seems. Visions warn her of danger, and a dark soul touches hers in the night. When she encounters an attractive but disturbing musician, her wayward heart awakens.

But then there is Kai, a guardian of Faeraven and of Shae. Secrets bind him to her, and her safety lies at the center of every decision he makes. On a desperate journey fraught with peril and the unknown, they battle warlike garns, waevens, ferocious raptors, and the wraiths of their own regrets. Yet, they must endure the campaign long enough to release the DawnKing—and the salvation he offers—into a divided land. To prevail, each must learn that sometimes victory comes only through surrender.

Visit Janalyn at her website here.


  1. Janalyn, so appreciate your post today. Since I've started using deep POV and eliminated those "ly" words, my writing has improved a great deal. You are right on with your suggestions. Thanks, and Merry Christmas.

  2. Janalyn, this is great stuff. Good examples, easy to follow.

  3. I still have trouble with that "order" thing. Good advice! I can remember cause, then effect...

  4. Yes, it's rather counter-intuitive that the more you hone your writing, the shorter your sentences will be.

    Still, I confess to reveling in the occasional classic descriptive paragraph or two (Thomas Hardy was SO good at drawing pictures with his words, and I'm reading Anna Karenina now, where we have paragraphs just devoted to the scenery/weather). Yet that kind of writing just won't fly these days. I think this is also why people are veering from the King James Version into simpler-written versions of the Bible...but that's a whole new kettle of fish right there!

    Thanks for the post, Janalyn.

    1. I didn't mean to imply that shorter sentences are best. Using shorter sentences is an important technique but doesn't preclude writing longer ones. Choice of sentence length has a lot to do with the pacing you want in a particular segment of your story, but that's a post for another day.

      You're right that the classic descriptive paragraph or two probably won't fly these days. Like you, I bemoan that fact. The style nowadays is to include your character in all description and not to let it run on too long.

      I enjoyed your comment.

  5. Janalyn! Great advice. Simple, but part of the writing craft so many have yet to learn. Then again, some of us need to remember. Thanks for sharing.

  6. Oh wow. I especially struggle with the out of sequence cause and effect. I think I'm doing better but I need to keep this post nearby! Great advice!

  7. This is why it is so awesome for me to have you in my crit group! Good post, my friend. Happy New Year!

  8. This post has made me want to go straight to my writing and analyse it!


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