Self Help

On April 23, 2021, Fantasywriter6 wrote, What are some ways that y’all would suggest to improve writing technique? Aside from writing all the time, obviously. How can I learn to make my language, mood, and overall technique better? (If this is a dumb question, and the answer is just “you have it or you don’t,” then sorry!:) I just have recently read a work done by a peer, and, I mean, I generally think that my language is pretty good, but when I read her work- even just aside from the plot and characters, her language, pacing, and overall voice were phenomenal. I’d like to get better at all of that!

A discussion followed.

Me: Not a dumb question! I’m adding it to my list. In the meanwhile, if you’re thinking about language, I’d suggest you read Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style, a very old book, which came out in a new edition last year. I used to lick the elegant sentences off the page!

FantasyFan101: I know how you feel. My friend’s writing is, as you say, phenomenal. I’d just say, think about yourself. What do you sound like in your head? Smart, curious, happy, sad etc.? If you’re doing close focus 3rd POV, my favorite, make your voice sound like the character’s personality. My friend from above has a character that is very resentful and has had a lot of loss, and the story definitely revolves a lot around that when she’s writing. It makes her romance especially hard, because she doesn’t want to possibly lose another loved one. She tries to keep herself cold and cut off from any possible friendships. The voice of the story always has to do with the characters involved. Technique, I don’t know. It’s your story, so write it as you want. The mood also depends on what your characters are feeling. If they’re happy, describe everything brightly and joyfully. Sad, you know what to do.

Katie W.: I’ve found that analyzing things you really like can be quite helpful. Not just “Oh, that’s really good,” but “What is it about this story that appeals to me? Which techniques does the author use to create this effect?” Once you have those answers, you can look for a way to incorporate that into your writing. You can also absorb those things by osmosis, but it takes longer and the process is harder to put into words. If you can manage it, I would suggest asking the peer you admire how she got to be so good and see if she might have any tips. But analyzing and osmosis work, too.

Christie V Powell: It’s definitely something you can learn, not something you have or don’t. In addition to Strunk & White, may I recommend Writing Tools by Roy Peter Clark? It’s another excellent book that talks about the little ways you can play with language to make it work for your story.

And, of course, read a lot! I usually get so involved in reading stories that I don’t pick apart details as I go (except sometimes some big picture things like plot structure points), but even if it’s by osmosis, you’ll pick up a greater vocabulary and greater mastery of word usage.

Just saying, comparisons with a peer may be unreliable. We are hard on ourselves! I started wondering (ignoring the timelines of their lives, which overlapped by only one year) if Charlotte Brontë may have thought Jane Austen above her in writing quality. Or vice versa. But if you read the two, the question dissolves because their work is so different in mood, tone, and style. They’re both great.

Having said that, it’s always worthwhile to work at our writing. I’m with Christie V Powell on reading a lot, which makes osmosis happen.

I’m also a fan of close analysis of what’s going on in prose I admire. A minute ago I looked at the beginning of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (high school and up). The first paragraph is one long sentence after another until the penultimate one, which is just eight words: Reserving judgments is a matter of infinite hope. The shortness packs a punch.

On a technical level, I see how effective sentence variety can be. Fitzgerald also changes things up with a dash in an earlier sentence. We can include a question or two or an exclamation. Even a colon followed by a series can wake up a bit of prose.

And isn’t that sentence fascinating? The whole paragraph immerses us in the thoughts of Nick Carraway and sets him up to be a reliable narrator. (Please argue with me if you disagree. I’d love to know your thoughts on this.)

You can find the paragraph online, and you don’t have to be at least in high school to read the excerpt. We can learn from it about jumping into the strangeness of a character’s mind.

I took a look at Christie V Powell’s suggested Writing Tools and read some of the sample Amazon offers. In the beginning, Roy Peter Clark advises writers to start sentences with subject and verb, and he provides examples of the effectiveness of that approach.

I thought, Whoa! What about Shakespeare’s “To Be or Not To Be” speech from Hamlet? I googled it and read it, and the subject and verb are all over the place. To his credit, Clark goes on to include examples that don’t follow his recommendation and that are still terrific. He draws our attention, as mine never had been drawn before, to subject-verb placement and the effects we can achieve. Cool!

I’m attentive to word repetition when I revise. Generally, I don’t want words to repeat in the same sentence or paragraph, sometimes not even in neighboring paragraphs. These include handy little ones like even or just. Sometimes, I’ll recast a sentence to get rid of them because they create a sameness in our prose.

Paragraph length can be varied too. An infrequent one sentence paragraph can heighten a dramatic moment. But this should be used rarely, or there’s the danger of seeming gimmicky.

We can scrutinize our adjectives and adverbs (the weakest parts of speech in English prose) to see if we need them or if we can substitute stronger nouns and verbs for them, like rushed instead of moved quickly. We can bring in detail to show whatever we’re describing, rather than beautiful building, we can show the reader the marble columns, the balcony guard wall decorated with a frieze of dancers—and so on. The reader will glean that this edifice is beautiful.

Then we can zoom out to consider bigger issues. We can consider how an admired author revealed character through dialogue, action, appearance, and, in the case of an MC, thoughts and feelings. We look for consistency. If there’s change, how was it set up?

We can look at plot twists and whether they were both surprising and believable at the same time. If yes, how did the author prepare the reader? What can we learn?

Same approach with setting and worldbuilding. Did they support the story, or were they just window dressing?  I think a little window dressing is okay, since the author is allowed to have fun, but the world and the setting need also to be woven into the story so that the plot doesn’t work without them. We can think about how the author accomplished that. When did the worldbuilding and the setting enter the story? How was it done?

Of course, we’ll pay special attention to the issues that are hardest for us. How does this author accomplish whatever those are (plot for me)?

We can be critical too. Is there anything in the book we’re studying that doesn’t work? What could we do to fix whatever it is? I twitch when I spot a little mistake that could easily have been revised out of existence. Didn’t somebody notice?

The biblical story of Joseph has myriad plot twists. Two of these three prompts pick a twist to fool with, but you can look the story up if you don’t remember the details and choose different ones.

  • Joseph is oddly clueless about the resentment he will cause by revealing to his brothers the dreams that predict they will bow down to him. In your version, he guesses how angry they’ll be and tells only his brother Reuben, the one who is kind to him. Write how Reuben handles the secret and what happens to the story.
  • Without making any changes to the story, write the scene when Joseph tells all his brothers about the dreams. Choose three brothers and Joseph to bring to life during the revelation and what follows. This one and the one above seem to me to be especially character driven.
  • For a ghost story, the Jews fleeing Egypt in the time of Moses break their promise to take Joseph’s bones with them. The ghost is not pleased. Write what happens.

Have fun, and save what you write!

  1. Delyla P. says:

    That was one of the best posts for me, because I really struggle with revision, and everything to do with it.
    I have just one other thing to say.
    I wanted to know if you were still doing your book tours, and if you are, will you be coming to mid – southern Florida any time soon? I live an hour south of Tampa, and it would be the best experience of my life so far if I got to meet you.

    • Gail Carson Levine says:

      Oh, Delyla, that’s so nice! My publisher hasn’t sent me on a tour in several years, but when I go to events, I always post the information on the blog, so you’ll know. Maybe I’ll find myself in Florida one of these days. I’d love to meet you!

      And I’m glad the information about revision was helpful.

  2. Beth Schmelzer says:

    Love the prompts at the end of this post. New imagines for me regarding Joseph, his dreams and relationships.

  3. Do any of y’all have any tips on writing strong beginnings? My problem with them is that I’ll craft a perfect first sentence, and then follow it up with too much description and not enough action, or just info overload with the action, and I have a hard time following up most of them. So I guess my question is: How do you write a beginning that isn’t too informative and can keep going with the readers interest?

    • Delyla P. says:

      I think that it mostly depends on the genre of story that you’re writing.
      For example, in fantasy, you could follow up your beginning with a meal, which sounds weird, but I’ve found that many fantasy books start at meal times. Maybe you could even safe some of your information for flashback scenes.

      I don’t have any advice for any other genre, seeing as how fantasy is the only thing I read or write.

    • I followed “So You Think You Can Write” on youtube for a while, where they critiqued the first few hundred words of people’s stories (including a couple of mine). They’re critical, but in a fun, light-hearted way, so it didn’t sting too bad. Just keep in mind, if you decide to watch a few episodes, that this is for the revising stage, not the beginning. If I try to think critically like this while I’m beginning, I hear buzzers and critiques in my head and can’t draft a word.

  4. Thanks, I’ll try that and see how it works. I think it could work for any genre, since it’s basically establishing their normal and worldbuilding, and that works pretty much anywhere.

  5. ReaderandWriter says:

    I loved this post! I learned some very great things!
    I have been wondering, I really struggle with making my MC my ‘friend’. I was wondering how do you make your MC have a more vivid personality and how to make them your ‘friend’.

  6. ReaderandWriter says:

    I am 13 years old and am a MAJOR bookworm. I was wondering if anyone knows of any good books to read. (Fantasy is my favorite genre.)

    • Have you read The Stormlight Archives by Brandon Sanderson? They’re REALLY long (about 1000-1500 pages), but they’re amazing.

    • Well, for starters there’s Harry Potter, any of Gail’s books, the Wizard of Oz series, the Princess Acadamy series by Shannon Hale, and then there’s three loosely connected books by Merrie Haskell, they’re connected by little hints here and there at the other books. Then there’s the Andari Chronicles by Kenley Davidson, a bit intense but definitely a good read (just not for bedtime), and I think the author’s written some other fantasy as well. Mellanie Celler wrote the Hidden Mage series, and then a bunch of fairy tale retellings that are amazing but I can’t remember the name of the series. She did Little Red Riding Hood and turned it into a battle for the monarchy, so completely revamped, but still managed to keep the main elements of the story in.
      C.S. Lewis: Chronicles of Narnia. Pure gold, although I personally am less fond of the first one, which is basically the creation story of Narnia and only the end takes place in Narnia, but the ending is great.
      Then, of course, there’s collections of old myths and folktales. There must be hundreds of great treasuries out there. Your local library probably has them. Some books combine information about a myth with a guide, such as the Unicorn Lovers Only information guide, which isn’t just about unicorns as a cute, innocent, sparkles and rainbows and love kind of creature, but it’s about the evolution of the legend and the different kinds around the world, and stuff like that, and the best part is that they write as though they were writing about narwhals or elephants, as though unicorns actually exist. (There is a possibility, although a slim one). Also, the book refers you to more books, some of which are fantasy.
      The Island of Dr. Libris is half fantasy, half modern-world, and all funny. Although it does have many characters from old classics in there, and if you don’t like books that do that sort of thing, maybe not for you.
      That’s all I can think of off the top of my head, hope it helps.

    • NerdyNiña says:

      C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, of course, are the fantasy trailblazers and are practically required reading. Here’s some other fantasy I’ve enjoyed:

      -The Hero’s Guide to Saving Your Kingdom by Christopher Healy is a fun read
      -Beauty by Robin McKinley (and any of her other books)
      -The Goose Girl by Shannon Hale (and its sequels)
      -The Bookwanderers (I don’t remember the author, but great fun for book lovers)

      And non-fantasy:
      -The War That Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley (and anything else she wrote)
      -The Enola Holmes series by Nancy Springer
      -The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare (The Bronze Bow is also excellent)
      -The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart
      -The Penderwicks series by Jeanne Birdsall (it’s been called a modern Little Women and the last book proves it…)
      -Projekt 1065 by Alan Gratz (he writes great historical fiction, I would recommend every book of his I’ve read)

      Hope these are helpful and that you enjoy the ones you read!

    • Miss Maddox says:

      Most of my favorites have already been mentioned here, but I’ll add that The Underland Chronicles by Suzanne Collins, Keeper of the Lost Cities by Shannon Messenger, The Unwanteds by Lisa McMann, and Lockwood & Co. by Jonathan Stroud are really great series. Anything by Kate DiCamillo is awesome. If you’re looking for a good standalone novel, My Diary From the Edge of the World by Jodi Lynn Anderson is awesome. This one isn’t fantasy, but Book Scavenger by Jennifer Chambliss Bertman is really fun and intriguing, especially for bookworms.

    • Song4myKing says:

      Yes, yes, yes, to many of these suggestions! And I will definitely be looking into some of the recommendations I didn’t recognize, for my own reading!

      Evelyn mentioned the Chronicles of Narnia, and that the first one isn’t her favorite. This is a good thing to take more of. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (Chronologically, the second book) was actually the first one written, and it works as a stand-alone. I usually recommend that people start there. The Magician’s Nephew in many ways feels more like a prequel, rather than a starting point.

      Ruby mentioned Brandon Sanderson. Though I haven’t read the series mentioned, I’ve read others by him and I highly recommend them, if you don’t mind long books! One shorter one that I’ve loved is The Rithmatist. It has a bit of a steampunk feel to it, and has great characters.

      I also love the Queen’s Thief series by Megan Whalen Turner. One great thing about this series is that you can read at least the first couple of books as standalones. I actually read the second one first and loved it and didn’t realize it was part of a series until I most of the way through.

      The False Prince and it’s sequels are great too, by Jennifer Nielsen. She’s also written some great historical fiction books. A Night Divided is about a family separated by the Berlin Wall.

      Eloise Jarvis McGraw wrote a number of great ones. Moorchild is one of my favorites, a fantasy about a changeling. Mara, Daughter of the Nile, is another of hers and has long been a favorite in my circle of friends. It’s historical fiction about a slave girl turned double spy in ancient Egypt.

      Elizabeth Marie Pope wrote two really good books (and I wish she wrote more): The Sherwood Ring, in which the MC’s ancestors come back as ghosts to tell her intriguing stories about their lives during the American Revolution; and The Perilous Gard, which set in Tudor England, and involves sinister Fairy Folk.

      • Song4myKing says:

        Second paragraph: “… to take *note* of” not “to take more of.” My inner editor didn’t notice until after I hit “submit”!

      • I love A Night Divided, but my favorite book by Jennifer Nielsen (that I’ve read) is Words on Fire, about the book ban on Lithuania (I hope I spelled that right) by Russia, and it follows a young book smuggler. I’m a bookworm and someone who thinks culture is something key to our identies, so the idea of one country trying to smother another’s culture is something that makes me pretty angry. It’s a thrilling read.

  7. Delyla P. says:

    Fantasy is the only genre I read, and I’m twelve! [Also, a MAJOR bookworm!]

    I’ll have to start with the best; Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, The Land of Stories, and The Girl who Drank the Moon.
    Not many people know that How to Train your Dragon is actually a book series, and the same author [Cressida Cowell] also wrote Wizards of Once and is coming out with a new series pretty soon I think, but I don’t know what it is yet.
    Percy Jackson very good, and has 2 side series The Heroes of Olympus, and The Trials of Apollo. Then there is The Kane Chronicles.
    The Chronicles of Narnia are pretty good too, though not one of my favorites.
    Obviously, any of Gail’s books are amazing, but Ever and The Two Princesses of Bamarre will always be my favorite [although, I am a Greek myths nerd and can’t wait to read Sparrows in the Wind!].
    They aren’t really fantasy, but some of my favorite books of all time is Little Women and the whole Anne of Green Gables series.
    Wings of Fire is good, it’s pretty dark, so if you don’t like that stuff, I wouldn’t read those. It is also a very long series with 15 books.
    Aru Shah soooooooooooooo good and the last book just came out, but I haven’t read it yet. 😔
    Artemis Fowl is pretty good too, but I’ve only read 1 & 2.
    The 39 clues were good at first when I read them, but there are a lot of character deaths, and I just thought the series went on for way to long, but you could try those too if they sound interesting.
    Emily Windsnap is good as well.
    I read a book once called The Very Nearly Honorable Leage of Pirates and am waiting on tiptoes to get to the library so I can borrow 2 & 3!
    Whatever After is pretty good to, but not the normal length of book I normally read.
    If you like Little Women, Little Men is its sequel.
    Castle Hangnail was one of my favorites, as was The Whizz Pop Chocolate Shop plus its sequel The Curse of the Chocolate Phoenix.
    The Disney Villains series is very good, by Serena Valentino.

    I think that’s all. please post again if you need the authors to any of those.

    • I forgot about the Lord of the Rings series, how could I forget those! They’re amazing, one of the books that will be a classic forever. Thanks for pointing that one out Delyla P! Have you read the Hobbit, which is a kind of prequel? It’s really good, all about Bilbo Baggins and his adventures with Gandalf and some dwarves, I think, and the slaying of a dragon. I tried reading some of J.R. Tolkien’s other books, namely the Silmarillion, but it’s really heavy on description and backstory, like the first ten chapters at least are backstory and a ton of description. I love that stuff, but even I can’t read an entire page describing the leaves on a tree with absolute glee, unless the leaves are forming a circus and doing acrobatics or something equally exciting. Which reminds me, the Mary Poppins series is absolute funny, amazing, fanciful stories, jumping from one to another with frightful rapidity. It’s a nice, lighthearted series, and I enjoy the books a lot. They’re quick reads, at least for me, and some of them are laugh-out-loud funny.

    • I wouldn’t call the first 10 (and especially the first 5) Wings of Fire books dark, but I can definitely see what you mean with the Lost Continent arc. As for book recommendations, I agree with everyone else and would also add anything by Dianna Wynn Jones (Howl’s Moving Castle is her most popular book, but there are a whole bunch more), Patricia C. Wrede’s Enchanted Forest Chronicles (otherwise known as the Dealing with Dragons books), and The Dungeoneers by John Anderson (I think), which is basically the (occasionally hilarious) background of a D&D character.

  8. @ Evelyn, The Lord of the Rings are one of my most favorite series of all time! I have not read the Hobbit, though I watched all three of the movies.
    **SPOILER**
    I hated at the end when Thorin and his nephews were killed by the orcs. The younger one was my favorite. [Killi, I think]
    **END SPOILER**
    I still want to read the Hobbit though, and the Silmarillion sounds interesting. That one is about when the ring came to the hands of men and the big war that “defeated” Saron, right? (i.e., What they explained at the beginning of the Fellowship of the Ring movie.)
    @ Katie W. I haven’t read the 15th Wings of Fire or finished the 14th. I may have to reread 11 – 13 first because it’s been a while.
    I tried reading the Dealing with Dragons books, but I found that for me anyway, they were kind of slow, and I usually like to read darker books, so I only read 1, 2, and the first chapter or so of 3.

  9. Delyla P. says:

    I just got the Goose Girl [recommended by NerdyNiña] today.
    I’m already on chapter three, and I think it’s so good! I wouldn’t say what I like about it so much, in case any of you haven’t read it yet.

    • Miss Maddox says:

      I haven’t read The Goose Girl yet, though I want to (it’s on my birthday list, actually). It sounds really good. I really love Shannon Hale’s other series, Princess Academy, though. I’ve reread it several times and I’m always in awe of how amazing it is!

  10. Instead of an allowance, my parents and I worked out a deal, were if I do my dad’s laundry, I get a new book of my choosing every three loads.
    Maybe you could try and work out something like that with your parents.

  11. Great post!
    FYI, Charlotte Bronte hated Jane Austen. She called Pride And Prejudice, ” An accurate daguerreotyped portrait of a common-place face; a carefully fenced, highly cultivated garden, with neat borders and delicate flowers; but no glance of a bright, vivid physiognomy, no open country, no fresh air, no blue hill, no bonny beck. I should hardly like to live with her ladies and gentlemen, in their elegant but confined houses.” Apparently she was angry about critics putting them in the same category because they were both women writers.

  12. rainwriter says:

    This is sort of a weird question, but does anyone have any advice on naming chapters? I love books that have named chapters, but whenever I try to come up with names they never sound quite right.

    • Study the books you have with named chapters and look for patterns. Are the names short or long? Do they directly describe the events in the chapter or its themes? How many adjectives/adverbs do they use? Are there a lot of proper nouns? Do they quote/reference other pieces of literature? (i.e., naming a chapter after the poem that appears in it.) Are there puns? (I hope so. Puns are awesome.) For practice, make your own list of names for a book with numbered chapters. Or (I did this once) pick a TV show whose episodes have cool names and use nothing but modified versions of those names for your chapters (Just as an exercise, of course. The TV show people might not appreciate the book being published like that.) And if you can figure out why your titles “never sound quite right,” you can start figuring out how to fix it.

    • Hmmm, I haven’t had much experience with naming chapters, but I’ll give it a shot.
      First off, you could try numbering your chapters, and then giving a short summary of the chapter. I guess not really a summary, but like listing a couple of the main events. For example: Chapter Three, in which a color-changing elephant is found and questioned, and the queen is utterly bamboozeled.
      Second off, see where the characters are, either physically or mentally, and name accordingly. For example: Chapter Nine, On the Island, Chapter Ten, Still on the Island, Chapter Eleven, Still on the Island and Wishing We Are Not, Chapter Twelve, Off the Island, Finally! Chapter Thirteen, In a New and Way more Terrible Place. Alternatively: Chapter Ten, Mildly Annoyed. Chapter Eleven, Very Annoyed. Chapter Twelve, Wishing I Could Shoot Fire At Everybody.

      Hope this helps!
      Third off, based on what’s happing

      • Arrg, ignore the third off, I had something really great for it but then forgot it, so I thought I deleted it but apparently I didn’t, sorry.

    • Song4myKing says:

      I actually love naming chapters. I think it’s because the process is relatively low stakes. That is, no one’s going to buy or not buy my book based on its chapter titles (probably not, anyway!). Also, a chapter tends to be easier to name than a book simply because of size. A chapter tends to be more or less about one thing. A book tends to be layered and nuanced and about many things.

      One fun thing I’ve done with chapter titles is using common phrases or sayings that fit. One chapter is “Who Goes There?” and it’s about someone showing up where she shouldn’t. The following chapter is called “Friend or Foe?” and it deals with the question of how she will handle what she learned, and whether she will become a friend or foe of the MC. Another chapter is titled, “Out of the Frying Pan.” I don’t follow that up with “Into the fire,” but I leave it to my reader to fill in. In that chapter, the MC and her siblings get out of a bad situation, but are faced with a different, and equally dangerous problem.

      But some of my chapter titles are a lot simpler. One (in the same book) is “The Church” because the MC is hiding in a church. One is “Snow.” That chapter is about a much bigger issue than the snow, but most of it takes place during a snowfall, and the snow influences the conflict too. In another WIP, my chapter titles for the first part are the simply the days of the week. That may very well change though, since I’m still in the first draft. The days of the week are more like labels than titles right now, while I’m working on it. But I might keep them, because that section takes place over the course of exactly one week and that week is like a race against the clock. Keeping them might give the reader a clearer sense of time, and a reminder of the increasing tension.

      In the end, it’s up to you whether you want your titles to all fit a theme, or be random; to add humor or intrigue to the story, or simply label the setting or happenings. As Katie W. said, see how it’s done in other books. Play around with it. And most of all, have fun with it!

  13. I don’t know if this is what you mean, Katie W., but I’ve noticed that in both the US and the UK, some chapter titles start with ‘In Which’ and then describes something about what happens in that chapter.
    For example, The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill (an amazing read, I will recommend that and any of her other books to anyone and everyone.) does this.
    I believe chapter one is ‘In Which a Story is Told,’ and Chapter two is ‘In Which an unfortunate Woman Goes Quite Mad.’ (For anyone who’s read this: please correct me if I’m wrong. My aunt just borrowed my copy earlier today, so I couldn’t look in it.)
    I hope this helps. ;P

  14. Are there 2 Ella Enchanted movies? I saw one with the actress that played Mia in the princess daires [I can’t remember her name] and I thought I saw one on Netflix a long time ago with a different actress.

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