Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Coping with the Advice Machine

By: Ann S. Hill 
Does your head spin sometimes with advice that smothers your enthusiasm for writing another word? You’re not alone. Here are a few nuggets of advice that have frustrated me:


1)     Limit the use of “to be” verbs. 

      Okay, but if you are writing in close third person with one POV character, the only way to get certain scenes across is to have them reported by another character. That character will necessarily use the verbs “was,” were,” and “had been” to relate that scene in which your POV character was not present.

2)     Keep things in the present. 

      Action. Action. Action. Good advice, usually. But same problem here if one is in the situation explained above.

3)     Provide conflict on every page. 

      Really? How then might the author portray a character’s personality if he or she is not an S.O.B.? A character who is kind, generous and admirable (of course he has the required faults also) will have situations that are pleasant in order to display this characteristic. 

      Think Atticus Finch in endearing scenes with Scout. Peers have suggested the creation of a storm for conflict during such scenes, but isn’t that just gratuitous conflict that feels like author manipulation? What does it have to do with the story? 

      All of my chapters contain conflict but not every scene. I’m still trying to figure out how to fulfill this requirement while keeping to my storyline and character profile. Especially in scenes with subplot resolutions. Can’t we give our characters a break and let them have a few pleasant days or portions of days? We do have them in real life.

4)     Rivet your reader with deep point of view.

     Don’t use tags which tell. Most of the time this is effective. But, anyone else find that these attempts can slow down the scene and sound just plain wordy? I probably need more practice …

Wading through books on writing technique, attending critique sessions, and searching volumes of notes on writing advice — some of it seemingly conflicting — can be daunting. But we push through, write and rewrite, and finally produce a manuscript that we believe meets the multiple requirements. Then what?

One more piece of advice: Read your chapters out loud.

Find a time when the family is gone and you are undisturbed. Have a glass of your favorite beverage nearby (nonalcoholic preferably). You’ll need it. This project can prove challenging for the vocal chords.

Amazingly, a manuscript read aloud discloses weaknesses we’ve overlooked. We find typos, misspellings, and words that are poorly chosen. When reading to ourselves, those problems escape our attention because our brain corrects them. But when we read them aloud, they jump off the page like an animated word from a preschooler’s Sesame Street episode.

Suddenly we become aware of phrases or sentences that are cumbersome or downright convoluted. So have a red pen handy. That brings up another point: read from a paper copy. This helps identify areas to polish far more effectively than reading from the computer, particularly in locating missed quotation marks, forgotten periods or undeleted additional punctuation marks after making edits.

This oral test is a must for finding errors in syntax. Sometimes a sentence flows better with minor changes, a moved adverbial phrase, for instance. If an author’s sentence patterns are all too much the same, he’ll notice this fact when reading aloud. What could be more boring than reading a work filled with subject, verb, and complements always in that order?


What about the story’s progression? Perhaps a sentence needs to be moved so that ideas or events flow naturally. Inexplicably, this mistake in order becomes astonishingly more apparent when one’s written words meet his ears.

Completing this project with an entire manuscript will require a significant investment of time, but the venture is straightforward and relatively simple to perform. This last prudent step before releasing a book into the hands of agents and editors might spare an author later regrets.

An author yearns to hear, “Your prose flows like poetry. It’s a pleasure to read.” One final oral audition may be the very assistance necessary for a writer to achieve such coveted praise.


New writers who become frustrated with seemingly unyielding rules as I was, need to take hope. While mindful of the rules and writing advice, apply them where they help you achieve goals, but set them aside when they are simply not applicable. While most advice has validity, you must not allow rules to stifle your creativity or storytelling ability.


About the writer:  After hearing the call to write in her thirties, Ann set the ambition aside while life happened. Now that she has retired from her career as a dentist and her children are adults, she is seriously attacking that parked ambition. She spends significant time on her true passion and has recently completed her first novel, Wait for Me. She has written several short stories and is currently working on a concept for her second novel. In the meantime, she remains a voracious reader and film aficionado.