Too Much Salt Isn’t Good for the Writer

I don’t understand how any author can begin writing a novel without a completed outline and without having any idea of how the story will end; this is called “unstructured” writing. It’s lazy and frankly, it sucks. Authors who practice this are proud of their ability to “write by the seat of their pants.” But that ability may just be their own (and only) opinion. I talked to one such writer, who is not yet published but working on it, and he told me that when he figures out how the story will end, if it requires a new character or some character history in order to make sense, he simply goes back through the story and salts-in some nuances, incidents and back-history, etc., so that his ending will makes sense.

I’m sorry, but…what? The need for salt is an admission of omission–and it’s not good for your story’s health. If characters move a plot forward, and the whole plot isn’t known until you are half-way through the writing, what have those characters been doing? Their actions, their dialogue, it isn’t leading your reader anywhere for more than half the book. How can that possibly work? I firmly recommend a structured style. Have a completed outline; the more fleshed-out the better, before you write a single word. Know who your main characters are and what drives them to do the things they will need to do. I write a good twenty pages or so about each of my main characters and probably ten or more pages on secondary and sometimes tertiary characters. When this or that occurs, I know exactly how every one of my characters would react because I know them so well. Only about 20% of what I know about a given character actually makes it into the book. But 100% of what that character does and says is based on my character notes. Once you adopt a structured writing style, you are on your way.

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Here are just a few more tips or hints that might help you become a stronger writer:

Grow thicker skin: You can’t take advice from anyone, not even agents and publishers, if you’re skin is too thin. And if you truly want to be a better writer, you need to be able to accept criticism.

Write every day: Even if it is just to type on a blank piece of paper, “I just don’t feel like writing today.” I only feel that way once in a great while, but whenever I do, I type out that line. Half of the time I type those words standing up behind my chair, but then I end up pulling out the stool and sitting down. Next thing you know, I have my manuscript file open and I am editing/rewording things. An hour later, I may have just completed a darn good start to a great new chapter (maybe not in consecutive order, but it’s just what I felt like writing about at the time; I do not shackle myself with chronology–some of my best stuff was written in this way).

Come back to it fresh: When finished writing for the day, put it away for at least 24 hours. Then go back to what you wrote, fresh, and read it aloud. This practice helps me to hear if my dialogue rings true, and if there is a nice word-rhythm and sentence-tempo (choppy structure can cause readers to stumble over words and sentences in their heads, and that‘s not good.) Ask yourself, after hearing it fresh, if it accomplishes what it needed to. The characters (should) move the chapters forward, and each chapter should move your plot forward. Does it?

Become a people-watcher: If you want to create realistic characters, get out there and start watching people. Take a recorder or a pad and pen with you, and note any characteristics, idiosyncrasies, nervous ticks and bad habits you come across that might make for an interesting character. If you see some cute little blond thing on a street corner, who is throwing pistachios up in the air and catching them in her mouth while simultaneously playing God Bless America in armpit farts, well, that’s kind of interesting… what else does she do? Listen for interesting voices and speech patterns. Note whatever it is that makes you look and pay attention to some people. Note how strangers react to good news or bad news. Train yourself to be a full-time people-watcher, and your characters will be stronger for it.

Get serious about your feedback: If you want to know if a reader will find your work “good,” piece out your writing to people who are capable of returning honest critiques. This means mom and dad don’t get to be critics. Their gushingly-positive feedback would no doubt make you toe-dance in your pinch-me-tight patent  leathers, but it will not improve your writing.

Read Others’ Works: Painters study the masters. Would-be authors should study published authors in their genre. Get a feel for how the authors’ stories are paced, their styles. Just read as much as you can, because subliminally, you can’t help but absorb writing styles that most engage you, in the subject matter that most interests you. Absorbing styles and tempos that won other writers publication can only make you a stronger writer.

If you ask for advice, and get advice, take the advice. First of all, don’t ask advice from people who are not entrenched in the publishing industry or who are not published authors, themselves. Why would you want to repeat a process that got them, well, not published? When you do ask advice of people who are in a position to offer it, remember this rule: A wise person doesn’t need the advice, and a fool won’t take it. So don’t be too wise on the subject you are asking for help with, and don’t be a thin-skinned fool, either.

Don’t be afraid to, every once in awhile, break the rules. It has been my experience that authors who play it too safe tend to write (yawn) some pretty boring stuff. Whether it be your straight-laced heroine hauling off and popping the antagonist right in the mouth, or a hero who accidentally detonates the bomb and blows up the building (oops), once in awhile, you have to break the rules–if only to wake your reader up.