Ralph Hornbeck is a new writer for EQMM whose short story “Strangler Fig” is in this month’s Department of First Stories. Though he’s new to us—in fact, “Stranger Fig” is the first piece he’s ever published—he isn’t new to mystery fiction, as he graces the board of the Florida chapter Mystery Writers of America. In today’s blog post, Ralph distills 14 rules of writing from the advice of many great authors. — Janet Hutchings
Ever wanted to write a mystery but found your prose lacked pop? Was the best thing anyone could say about your first novel was it had occasional flashes of mediocrity? Don’t you get tired of articles that try to create suspense by asking a series of questions instead of using simple declarative statements? Don’t we all?
Although I have never written a best-seller or even read many “books,” I have done the next best thing—I have read lists of writing advice by authors whose names I have heard other people say out loud: Edgar Allan Poe, Elmore Leonard, and Stephen King, among others. Like me, you may have even seen some of these author’s books on the shelves while on your way to the water fountain in the public library.
I like their lists because they are much shorter than their novels, so I am less likely to be distracted by a squirrel before I am finished. The titles also helpfully tell you just exactly how many rules you need to know: “10 Rules for Good Writing,” “6 Questions/6 Rules,” “8 Rules of Writing.” Sadly, these self-described experts disagree on which rules you need to know. They can’t even agree of the number of rules, though apparently it’s even.
Lucky for you I am here to help. I have read all the rules and picked out the 14 best ones for your consumption. I have taken the liberty of improving them where I thought it was needed. You’re welcome.
- Ration your exclamation marks. You are only allowed to use 20 exclamation marks your entire life. Save them for extremely important occasions! Be judicious!
- Be clear when using pronouns. Pronouns are confusing and confusion is the devil’s workshop. Stay out! Bad: “Bob knew he should stop using pronouns.” Is “he” referring to Bob or someone else? Unclear! Better, but repetitive: “Bob knew Bob should stop using pronouns.” Best: “Bob knew the face in the bathroom mirror should stop using pronouns.”
- Don’t confuse similes and metaphors. Similes are comparisons that use “like” or “as” to allow you to show a familiar object in a new light, or quickly describe a place or person. Feel free to sprinkle them throughout your writing. Metaphors, however, are similes’ evil twins. Shun them like a nerd at a frat party punch bowl.
- Be subtle. Subtlety in fiction writing is good, but it can be hard to maintain. When you first start driving the vehicle of Subtlety down the two-lane highway of Fiction, sometimes you will drift into the breakdown lane of Obscurity, before jerking the steering wheel back and plowing into the oncoming tractor trailer of Obviousness. Stay between the lines!
- Avoid adverbs. You can usually find a better verb that means the same thing as your verb/adverb combination. For example, don’t write “he ran fast,” write “he sprinted.” Likewise, you should stay away from adjectives, as you can usually find a strong noun that is better than your weak adjective/noun combination. For example, instead of writing “dried meat”, say “jerky.” Prepositions are also kind of lame, and interjections are stupid. “Oof?” “Phew?” Who says these words? And don’t get me started on conjunctions. To play it safe, only use nouns and verbs in your stories.
- No weather. Don’t write about the weather. Unless it’s raining in your story, then you can write about the weather. But it has to be raining really hard—the Statue of Liberty should be holding an umbrella instead of a torch.
- Show, don’t tell your character’s emotions. It’s tempting to tell the reader what emotions your characters are experiencing. For example, “When Jane said she was pregnant, Bob was surprised.” The word “surprised” does all the work for the reader and leaves them no room to use their imagination. Instead, paint a vivid word picture of how the character’s body is reacting so readers can feel the emotion themselves. Better: “When Jane said she was pregnant, Bob’s eyebrows flew up his forehead, but like the swallows returning to Capistrano, they eventually resettled in their customary home above his eye sockets.”
- Don’t use the word “suddenly”. If a story was dragging and needed some excitement, writers could use the word “suddenly” to start a sentence. It was like sprinkling salt on a bland piece of pork shoulder. Instant drama! Sadly, editors have caught on to this trick and will rip it right out of your paragraph. Instead, use the word’s more upscale cousin, “all of a sudden.” The editors don’t seem to be wise to that yet. You’re welcome.
- Vocabulary isn’t everything. Parents sometimes tell their babies to “use your words.” But it’s not enough to find the right words. It’s also important to get them in the right order. Wise Yoda may have been, a good writer was he not.
- Murder your darlings. Darlings are the sentences that writers fall in love with but don’t belong in their manuscript. By all means, remove them if they don’t fit. But don’t delete those precious gems. Instead, collect all your darlings and put them together in their own story. A story that is made up only of darlings. That story, my friends, will absolutely rule.
- Avoid controversial words. You never know who you might offend when you use loaded words, like “trigger,” “cancel,” and “moist.” I had the following sentence in a story—he canceled his order for Glock triggers because they were moist—and an editor’s head literally exploded.
- Don’t misuse “literally.”
- Avoid the passive voice. Passive voice is weak. “A good time was had.” The subject of the sentence is unclear—who had a good time? However, aggressive voice is also bad. “Have a good time or else.” But the worst is passive-aggressive voice. “If you really loved me, you would know what I think a good time is.”
- Don’t underestimate the intelligence of your readers. After all, if they can afford to spend money on your book, they probably have disposable income from a real job with good dental benefits. Unlike writers, who spend months creating a book for which we will be lucky to clear a few hundred bucks after we pay for the ads.
I hope that these maxims help shorten your journey from solitary scribbler to esteemed author. Remember, use your words! You’re welcome!