QueryTracker Blog

Helping Authors Find Literary Agents

Monday, October 25, 2010

Tuning Up Your Mechanics

A good story is like a well-tuned car.  When everything works well, you can just get in and enjoy the ride.  When your headlights don't work, the muffler has fallen off, and your trunk is being held closed with a bungee cord, the problems are all you can think about.

Here are some tips to help your readers enjoy the ride rather than worying about the springs sticking out of the seats.

1. Mechanics

You’d never take your car on the road if the tires were full of holes. So don’t send out your manuscript without perfect mechanics: grammar, punctuation, and spelling.

I see a lot of writers who expect their crit buddies or beta readers to fix their mechanics, but those writers are cheating themselves. They’re never going to get an in-depth critique that will help them make their story better. Nobody worries about critiquing plot, characterization, or dialogue when they’re reading work by someone who misuses every other homonym.

If you’re not good at grammar, that’s okay.  Take a class at your local community college or buy/borrow some reference books.  Strunk &White's The Elements of Style  and The Chicago Manual of Style are great resources to rely on until great grammar and punctuation becomes second nature to you.

2. Tightening

When a reader says you need to tighten your writing, she means you need to remove clunky, extraneous words and phrases.  Often they're hard to see until you know what to look for, but they rattle around like loose screws.  Here are some tips to help you find and get rid of them.

a. Use strong verbs rather than adjectives and adverbs.
Example: She flung the door open is better than She pushed the door open forcefully.

b. Remove redundancies.
Example: “What were you thinking, you idiot?” he said irritably tells us that the person is angry twice — once through dialogue and once through a verbal tag. Just stick with the dialogue and cut the verbal tag completely.

c. Say everything as efficiently as possible. Pretend that you’re being charged for every word you use. Don’t you want to make sure you’re getting your money’s worth?
Example: He walked right up to her, so close they were nearly touching, trying to intimidate her with his size becomes He moved closer, using his size to intimidate her.

d. Avoid cliches.  We often use cliches because they so often fit.  "Prim and proper" or "tall, dark, and handsome" may very well fit your characters.  The problem is, they fit a lot of other people's, too, and since you want your story to stand out from the rest, you need to make your descriptions unique.
Example:  It was raining cats and dogs becomes It was raining, huge warm droplets that pattered on the blacktop like thousands of tiny feet.

3. A Fresh Coat of Paint: Being Unique

When you go to buy a car, you want the most mechanically sound car you can find, but if you're like most people, you also care how it looks.  You can really make your writing stand out if you can find unique ways to say things.  Don't be afraid to indulge in a little wordplay, trying out unusual turns of phrase or comparisons.

a. Indulge in the sensory details.  For each scene, you need to close your eyes and imagine how the situation smells, tastes, sounds, looks, and feels.  You probably won't describe each sense in most scenes, but knowing will help you choose the most relevant and striking details.
Example: Like soft, dark wings, his voice folded around me. I was at once enveloped by warmth and aware of coldness at the base of my neck. Legs stretched out in front of him, feet braced apart, he was watching me.

b. Use metaphors and similes.  Don't be afraid to compare something to something else, directly or indirectly, as long as you do it in your own words.
Example: A traffic light flashed by; the wire that had once held it aloft eddied across the road in a black tangle. Green and red and gold chips were spattered across the asphalt like misplaced casino currency.

Want to learn more?  A few books that have really helped me get better at editing my work include

* Write Tight
* Revision and Self-Editing
* Self-Editing for Fiction Writers: How to Edit Yourself Into Print
Make Your Words Work: Proven Techniques for Effective Writing

Carolyn Kaufman, PsyD writes fantasy, scifi, and nonfiction. She loves helping writers "get their psych right" in their stories, and her book on the same topic, THE WRITER'S GUIDE TO PSYCHOLOGY: How to Write Accurately About Psychological Disorders, Clinical Treatment, and Human Behavior is now available for pre-order. Learn more about the book at the WGTP website or ask your own psychology and fiction question here.


She Wrote said...

Excellent. One of the better postings of late.

Sage Ravenwood said...

Great post for me, seeing as I'm deep in the trenches of revision right now. (Hugs)Indigo

Stina said...

Great post! Love the part about the fresh coat of paint. I'm at that phase write now. :D

Too bad picking between the billions colors and shades is so tricky. ;)

Lydia Kang said...

Excellent advice! I like Strunk and White. It's to the point and has great examples of what not to do.

Silke said...

Great advice. You're right about the mechanics needing to be right or you never get a good plot critique - because everyone is picking on the mechanics. :)
Can I pick something apart though?
Legs stretched out in front of him, feet braced apart, he was watching me.
If his legs are stretched out in front of him, it implies he's sitting. So how can his feet be braced apart? (Unless he's resting them on something.)
Sorry! I'll shuddup now. :)

Yvonne Osborne said...

Bravo! I love the comparison of a well-tuned car to a shiny manuscript. And I can always use another reminder to search for the perfect verb.

Carolyn Kaufman | @CMKaufman said...

Isn't it interesting how descriptions strike different people different ways? I have little trouble imagining someone bracing their feet apart while sitting, but that obviously strikes Silke differently. Will have to think about that...

Linda Gray said...

Love the metaphor; it's perfect. And the Tightening section is SUCH good advice for those of us who do tend to go on a bit! Thank you.
p.s. re:"legs stretched out in front of him, feet braced apart," I know what caught Silke up short, because I had the same reaction. As soon as I read "legs stretched out in front of him" I visualized UNBENT legs.

Christina Lee said...

This is spot on!!