Sunday, May 29, 2011

Ten Tips for Writing to Sell

We all want to, right? But it's not easy and I don't know that there's one specific recipe for success. So all you can do is write the story you're passionate about and hope you hit a nerve in your audience.

Ten tips for helping you on your journey:
1. Grab 'em hard and don't let 'em go. It's like going fishing, because they call it your hook. Begin where the story actually starts, without giving me a weather report or some backstory before I get to some action. I want to be dragged in, kicking and screaming if necessary, and not want to be let go.

2. Be clear about who your characters are and their relationships to one another. If a main character's best friend is also a relative, boss, co-worker, whatever, tell us up front, instead of calling them one thing one time, another the next. It's easy to confuse your reader right out of the story.

3. Pursue a clean line of action for your characters, and know where you're going with them. They should each have a clear goal, even if it changes further in to accommodate character arc.

4. Use the element of surprise. If you've come up with an immediate ending to your story, it's probably been thought of by other writers. See if you can 'what if' your way into a more surprising ending or a twist we didn't see coming. Kind of like the movie Sixth Sense.

5. Remember things happen because of something else. It's called scene and sequel, cause and effect, action and reaction. If someone does something, there should be a reaction or response shortly after. From the moment your story starts and something happens, something else will happen because of it. Make sure you use it properly or you'll leave us unhappy.

6. Structure your story for maximum punch. The three-act structure used in screenwriting and fiction works for a reason. People like it, it keeps your story on track and gives you guideposts to keep you going. Act 1 is the set-up, showing us your characters and what's going to happen, Act 2 is the progress of the set-up and what obstacles confront your characters, making it seem like there's no way they can win, and Act 3 is the resolution of the story, how it ends satisfactorily, hopefully.

7. Make your dialogue count. Don't have your characters talking about nothing. Every conversation, every word uttered should be to move the story forward. But don't have talking heads or maid-and-butler dialogue - you know, where someone says "As you know..." and tells the reader something they should know but wasn't made clear somewhere else. Hate it - and most everyone else does too. Makes the reader feel stupid.

8. Leave out the extras. I mean all those extra people who have no business other than to give us one line of information or open the main character's door or whatever. Every character is in the story for a reason. I'm not saying you can't have one or two throw-aways. I think everyone does. But each character should have a specific function to move your story along, so don't overpopulate your writing.

9. Formatting, grammar and spelling. Come on, people. You've got a computer with spell-check and grammar-check, right? Nowadays, there's really no excuse for not having perfect formatting, grammar and spelling. There are online tools to help. Ask a friend or relative or, heck, even an English teacher to check your writing. They don't have to know anything about writing or story mechanics to fix typos and grammar.

10. Don't leave a smoking gun on the mantle. Never heard this one? I hate a movie or book that has the character using or focusing on an object with undue description or detail, which makes me think it's going to be important later. And guess what? The object never appears in the story again. So I'm left wondering why that object was so important and why the writer didn't tell me. I go away dissatisfied with my experience.

Hope these tips help you tighten and tone your story.


  1. I'm getting a lot more into the craft part as it relates to screenwriting these days - but it so much applies to all fiction!

  2. Smoking gun. I recently read a book that carefully described the contents of a room in the second chapter, down to the contents of every drawer. I foolishly figured this would be important later since the author spent so much time on it. Nope. Just padding. Perfect example.

  3. These are really good tips. Thank you.