One Writer’s Learning Curve

Posted: August 4, 2010 in Uncategorized, Writing
Tags: , , ,

Yeah, I’m still wet behind the ears when it comes to writing, but here’s what I’ve figured out:

1. Grammar only gets you so far. There’s more to writing than clusters of mechanically perfect sentences. But you must master grammar, anyway. Why would an editor or agent take on your  “diamond in the rough” if you can’t even be bothered to take care of the basics of punctuation, etc? Especially when they have their pick of marketable projects without these issues.

2. Too much description has a tranquilizing effect on the reader. Purple prose is a hallmark of bad writing. And who gives a flying fig about the pattern on the china or the silken texture of the bathrobe, anyway? Only describe stuff that matters, stuff that the reader really needs to know.

Sadly, you probably won’t recognize you’re doing this on your own. (At least I didn’t.) Get thee a critique partner or workshop group.

3. Dialogue tags can make or break a scene. Not everything needs a tag. Or an adverb.

4. Gestures (he winked, his eyes widened, his lips curled, etc.) are often poor substitutes for true emotion. Are there real thoughts behind those cliches? If so, share the thoughts instead of the gestures.

5. Writing fiction is less about linear action and more about heart. A constant stream of “he did this, and then this happened, and then he did this…” makes for a cold, clinical briefing. If you want to write a  story with emotional power, break up the action with interior thought, characterization and backstory.

6. Voice is not a made-up hoodoo term. It’s the distinctive flavor the author injects into the story. Great authors have it in spades, and it makes their books unforgettable. Don’t ask me how it works? I don’t know. I just know a great voice when I read it.

7. I don’t really know that much. And maybe you don’t, either. So take all the good advice and critique you can, whenever you can. It really helps.

In fact, I’m very interested in what YOU have learned so far. Please tell me about it with in the comments below.

Hungry for more?

Try this recipe for Kitchen Sink Cookies. They are chock full of distinctive flavor.

  1. catwoods says:

    Your tips are the bomb diggity. I happen to agree with them all except the last one about you not knowing what you’re doing. I find this hard to believe!

    Best luck as you continue learning your way through the writing process! I’ll take all your tips and tricks you can throw my way.

  2. jmartinlibrary says:

    Cat: I always get a lot out of your advice, too. 😉 We’re in this together.

  3. Jemi Fraser says:

    Oh man – I used to have drafts littered with dialogue tags. They cropped up everywhere. Once I realized my addiction, I was able to take steps, but it was tough!

    I’ve learned so much in the past year and a half, but I agree – there is SO MUCH more to learn 🙂 At least it’s a fun journey 🙂

  4. Kellie DuBay Gillis says:

    Hi, Jenny! Really great post. I particularly identify/struggle with #5. That whole interiority thing. Hoping to conquer some of these things in my next project. (BTW, I’m one of MK’s newbies as of the end of July!)

    • jmartinlibrary says:

      Hi Kellie! I’m thrilled to meet you. I’m a newbie, too, but welcome to the MK Mafia! Are you on Twitter or a blog? If so, I’d love to follow…

      And yeah, the whole interiority thing is a toughie.

      Thanks for stopping by!

      • Kellie DuBay Gillis says:

        On Twitter (@KDuBayGillis) and working on my website/blog now. I’m so behind in this whole social marketing internet presence thing. Love the MK Mafia moniker! I think we need to beg her to plan a “family meeting” where we can all meet in person. You, Jamie and Karsten crack me up.

  5. jmartinlibrary says:


    I love your *addiction* story! There must be a dialogue twelve step program out there.

  6. […] Andrea Brown Literary Agency and passes along a few of things that she’s picked up in “One Writer’s Steep Learning Curve“.  This is a great list of lessons learned (and continuing to learn).  I especially […]

  7. Virtual Sinner says:

    re #2: P.D. James must not agree.

  8. Rebecca says:

    Sometimes I feel like I study craft SO much and still don’t know anything. Like the gestures thing, I’m so much on a “show don’t tell” kick that I didn’t realize how overused “eyes widened” is. Sometimes I feel like I will never be a half-decent writer. I should’ve gone to school full time for THIS.

  9. jmartinlibrary says:


    you’ll get the hang of it. I’m a slow learner about a LOT of things. You know what helps me? Read some really awesome, really exceptional fiction in your genre. Deconstruct how they tackle these issues.

    Also, I try to keep one thing in mind: Whether I write in 3rd person or in 1st, I always write as if the POV character was interpreting everything (action, plot, thoughts, flashbacks, etc.) for the reader.

    Keep at it!

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