Wednesday, July 23, 2014

How to Write Like a Pro, Even As a Beginner

In the thirteen years I've been editing professionally, I've had clients from all different levels of experience. Some come to me after having had several novels published traditionally, and some seek me out after completing their very first book.

Nine times out of ten, I can spot a first-time novelist because of certain tells in the manuscript that don't appear as often in work by more experienced authors. Here are some habits to avoid so you can seem like a seasoned writer no matter where you are in your career.

Overwriting/stating the obvious

Using too many words to describe something implies you haven’t learned how to self-edit, which is an important part of writing. I see the following most often.

Unnecessary mention of body parts: shrugged her shoulders, nodded her head, blinked her eyes, clapped his hands, kicked with her leg, held her hand in his (where else would he hold it—in his mouth?). I'd also say both of her hands is long-winded, when her hands or both hands would do. We all know how many body parts we have, what they do, and where they're located, so pick the right verb and eliminate the body part altogether.

Obvious location of things: the sky above, the ground underfoot, the weather outside. Unless a character is God, or walking on his/her hands, or has a wind machine in his/her house, readers know where the sky, ground, and weather are in relation to that person.

Obvious directions: fell down, lifted up, raised up, lunged forward. The simple verb will do, because you can't fall up, lift or raise down, or lunge backward.

Extra steps in describing actions: She reaches out and pulls him to her. You can't pull someone to you without reaching out first. I’d say “reach” is almost always redundant when it’s followed by another verb, such as in these sentences: She reached up and smoothed down her hair or She reached down and grabbed her bag from under her seat. Another example of including too many steps: She gets in the car, starts the engine, and drives away. We all know she started the engine before driving away. She probably also closed her door, put on her seat belt, put the car in Drive, and pressed the gas pedal. Don’t bore readers with details they already understand.

Obvious adverbs: crept slowly, rushed quickly, gripped firmly, hollered loudly. The adverbs in these examples are built into the meaning of the verbs so no qualifiers are necessary.

Bad dialogue

The following are the most common blunders.

Dialogue repeating what the narrative just stated: I looked at the picture and didn’t recognize the man in it. "I don't recognize him," I said. Put a period after picture and cut to the dialogue.

Awkward, unnatural dialogue: “You are upset I divorced him? I am surprised. After all, he likes to wear my underwear, and furthermore, he is a slob.” The lack of contractions makes this sound too formal, and when was the last time you heard someone start a sentence with “after all,” or say “furthermore” in a casual conversation? Make sure the dialogue fits the occasion and character. A lawyer making closing arguments should speak differently than when he’s having beer with friends, and a teenage crack addict shouldn’t talk like a sixty-year-old grandma. Read your dialogue out loud to check how it sounds. I recommend reading your entire book out loud to screen for any clumsy sentences.

Obvious dialogue tags: "I'm sorry," he apologized. Or: "Don’t ever do that again!” she admonished. The dialogue clearly indicates the speaker’s intent in both cases so the tags are redundant.

Fancy dialogue tags: she uttered, bellowed, chided, groused, etc. Said doesn’t need to be used for every line of dialogue, but when writers try too hard to avoid that word, its substitutions can be distracting. If something other than said is used—whispered, for example—have a good reason for it, e.g. the scene being intimate, or characters hiding in a closet from a killer in the house.

Too many direct addresses:

          Will I see you tomorrow, Butch?”
          I don't know, Luanne.”
          Oh, come on, Butch, say you'll be there!”
          OK, Luanne.”

In real life, you can chat with someone on a plane for hours and never learn that person’s name because our names don’t come up that often in conversation.

Excessive dialogue attribution:

          He and I sat in his car.
          "Are you getting out?" he asked.
          "I'm waiting until the tornado passes," I say.
          "You’re a chicken," he says.
          "At least I didn’t call for my mommy," I say.

When only two people are in a conversation, readers can figure out who said what. Attribution isn’t needed for every line.

This list isn't comprehensive, and contains copyediting issues rather than structural ones, but keeping these suggestions in mind will help tighten and strengthen your work.

What do you find distracting when you read?

© 2014 Elyse Dinh-McCrillis

Elyse Dinh-McCrillis is a writer and editor who has worked with authors such as Brett Battles, Richard Bard, Naomi Hirahara, Jordan Dane, and Laura Benedict. She specializes in crime fiction, and might stab you with her red pencil if you write things like "I could care less" or "I literally died." For more info, visit The Edit Ninja. She also blogs as Pop Culture Nerd.

We hope you enjoyed this edition of Writer Wednesday!
              ~ The Black Cat 

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

The Writer’s Competitive Edge, or How Twelve Equals Ten

This message is about the unconventional path my story took to be in Mystery Times Ten 2013. The adventure has convinced me that a writer should embrace every opportunity as a competitive edge.
 When people talk about having a competitive edge, they focus on the skills needed to win a contest. After all, “to compete” means being motivated toward success and “to have an edge” indicates knowledge that gives the competitor an advantage or an improved chance for achieving a goal.

I’ve discovered two important practices that benefit my writing: (1) sending my short stories to open calls for consideration, and (2) joining a short story writers’ critique group with members who actively submit to similar calls and are willing to share what they’ve learned from their experience. By participating in Buddhapuss Ink’s Mystery Times Ten 2013 competition and StorySuccess, the online critique group for the Guppy Chapter of Sisters in Crime, I’ve improved my writing and reached a wonderful goal.

“Confidence in the Family,” the last story appearing in Mystery Times Ten 2013, is my first short story accepted and published in a print anthology. About this time last year, I remember discovering the Buddhapuss Ink call for submissions.

Previously, I read Barb Goffman’s “Truth or Consequences,” included in Mystery Times Ten 2011. It was nominated for an Agatha award at Malice Domestic, the annual conference for readers and writers of traditional mysteries in the Agatha Christie style. So, I knew serious authors submitted their stories for consideration to the competition.

After reading Buddhapuss Ink’s submission guidelines, I realized one of my stories that had been reviewed and improved by the StorySuccess critique group might fit the requirements. I gave the story a little more tweaking, then sent it off.

When the winners were announced, I saw that one of my critique partners, Georgia Ruth, had placed in the top ten with “Dear Courtney,” which had been reviewed by the critique group. In an email, MaryChris Bradley, our editor, explained to me that while my story was not among the top ten, it was one of two that the editors had decided to include as bonus stories in the ebook version. Hurray! I told folks, even if I was the last draft choice, I had made it into the big league. How could I not be happy?

Then, in November, I got even better news. MaryChris wrote that the editors had decided to include the two bonus stories in both the print and ebook versions. Talk about a reason to give thanks at Thanksgiving! And, it wouldn’t have happened without writing a story, having it critiqued to improve the quality, and submitting it for consideration.

Each new experience with Murder Times Ten 2013 has added joy to my life. The printed books arrived just before Christmas, so I could share them with friends. I signed them at the Murder in the Magic City (Birmingham, Alabama) and Murder on the Menu (Wetumpka, Alabama) conferences in February—my first appearances as an author. In May, I used the cover for a bookmark I carried to the Malice Domestic conference, where I was listed as an author in the program and moderated a panel. Then—perhaps best of all—in June, I got to meet my online critique partner Georgia Ruth face-to-face when I attended the High Country Festival of the Book in Boone, N.C. 

Paula Gail Benson and Georgia Ruth 

Since “Confidence in the Family” appeared in Mystery Times Ten 2013, I’ve had “Ghost of a Chance” included in the anthology A Tall Ship, A Star and Plunder (Dark Oak Press and Media, Memphis, TN, January 2014); eight stories published in online journals, the most recent being “Apple’s Lure,” in the July/August issue of the Bethlehem Writers Roundtable at along with a story by Georgia Ruth at; and two stories accepted for print anthologies scheduled to be released next year.

Thank you, Buddhapuss Ink, MaryChris Bradley, all the authors included in Mystery Times Ten 2013, and all my critique partners. I’ll always be very grateful to be numbered among you!

© 2014 Paula Gail Benson

Paula Gail Benson

A legislative attorney and former law librarian, Paula Gail Benson regularly blogs with others about writing mysteries on Writers Who Kill. Her personal blog is Little Sources of Joy and her website is

A Note from the Black Cat

Our thanks go out to our guest blogger today—Paula Gail Benson—for her contribution to our WRITER WEDNESDAY #WW Series. We hope you've been enjoying these posts and that Paula  has inspired more than a few of you to follow in her footsteps and "embrace competition" by  submiting your stories to writing competitions.
  Speaking of competitions, this seems like the perfect time to make an announcement . . . DRUM ROLL PLEASE . . . Buddhapuss Ink LLC is once again putting out an OPEN CALL FOR SUBMISSIONS for our Mystery Times 2014 short story anthology! (Insert wild applause and cheering here.) 

 Want all the details? You'll find them on our website.