We all reach that moment in our writing when we seem to be blurting words into a void, with no idea of whether they are working or not. We peck and nibble away at our prose, wondering if it’s really getting any better.
I had reached that point in revising my novel when a writing mentor saved my life. She has identified with surgical precision what’s working and what isn’t, and what I need to do about it. Here are the top 3 tips that have worked for me:
1) Keep your villain’s villainy subtle and convincing.
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I had worked hard to make my villain creepy, so that the thriller would be chilling from the start. Worried that he wouldn’t be scary enough, I must have laboured the point, as though trying to whip up a chorus of booing for pantomime villain instead of creating a nuanced, believable character. ‘You’re insistent on telling us what a horrible piece of work he is,’ my mentor wrote. ‘Let the reader sense that, not be hammered over the head with it.’ She liked the scenes in which I showed him as vulnerable. ‘If you write like this, the reader will get that he is damaged and obsessed,’ I learned, ‘without you needing to spell it out as much as you do.’
This tip is working as I rewrite this character, and creating him is a grim joy – after all, we are all fascinated by the evil things people do and what drives them to do it, and a three-dimensional character is always more interesting to write.
2) Keep the focus on what characters do and say, without always spelling out how they feel.
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It was a new idea to me that I could trust the reader to understand emotions without being spoon-fed them in signposts weighing down the text: ‘her heart sank,’ fear rose in a wave,’ ‘anxiety jangled her frazzled nerves...’ It seemed risky to remove these emotional pointers – what if it made the text bland and hard to interpret? I needn’t have worried – it the clues are there in the context and in the characters’ words and actions, the signposts are not needed – and the writing flows so much better without them.
3) Don't describe every raised eyebrow, sip of coffee or heavy sigh.
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‘Ease up on spelling out too much,’ my mentor wrote. ‘It leads you to be repetitive and slows the pace.’ She added, ‘If you’re writing a powerful scene, readers bring something to the party themselves – their imagination. They can picture the lifted eyebrow, the fixed gaze.’
Looking back over my writing after receiving these comments, I laughed out loud. It was full of raised eyebrows, humphs of annoyance, frowns and above all, fulsome indications of where everyone’s eyes were focused at all times, ‘He looked down. He glanced up. He held her gaze.’ Trimming away most of these details made the prose pacier, and gave power and resonance to the ones left in. If a character holds someone’s gaze now, you had better believe it’s significant!
A single fact I didn’t know before underlies all the top tips noted above – that I can trust the reader. ‘They will get it,’ my mentor assures me patiently, ‘they really will.’ Readers bring their imagination to the party. Who knew that?