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When PGA expert Stephen Dundas was recently asked how amateur golfers can improve, he gave a rather blunt response:
Ask any professional and they will tell you that the most important part of the game is putting. This is where you can save many shots in a round. So why is it that very few golfers actually practice their putting? Probably because it's not as fun as smashing a driver or hitting the perfect iron shot, but putting is where you will be able to save more shots than any other part of your game.
How many of us, as writers, can relate to that temptation? You finally get home after a hard day at the office, then after cooking dinner and putting the kids to bed you realize you have maybe an hour to write.
So you indulge in the fun of building new worlds and Googling exotic names. The next night you're just as tired, so you do the same thing.
You repeat this process until you find a premise that has enough weight for a novel. Then you stumble your way through 80,000 words – but the result doesn't sound quite as good as your vision.
What went wrong?
Like the incompetent golfer, you got really good at hitting that perfect shot off the tee, only to spend the rest of the time chasing the ball in circles because you don't know what you're doing.
Agency intern Taryn Albright has discussed this widespread issue on her blog. She explains that she'll encounter a great premise the author managed to sell in their query, but as soon as she reads the manuscript she drops it. A good premise can and will be murdered by bad writing.
If you need to break out of that cycle, here are some key elements to work on as part of your putting game:
Narrative voice. The voice in a novel is basically how the narrator "sounds" to the audience. How is the story told? Are your narrators excited about telling their stories? Do they convey a sense of urgency? Or do they simply sound like beat reporters covering the news?
Readability. Can you describe someone getting lost in the woods without the reader getting lost in your sentences? Do you use language suitable for your target reader? Or do you often get feedback from people saying they had to read a sentence twice to understand it?
Motivation and causation. So you're dying to include this brilliant fight scene on a drawbridge between hobbits and black ops robots… except your plot doesn't mention any actual need for that battle to happen. Do you tweak your plot to justify that scene, or do you randomly shove it in there?
Dialogue. Do you use dialogue as a chance to show characters' education level, preferred slang and emotive reactions? Or is dialogue a simple formality so characters can advance the plot?
Developing a strong yet readable voice is one of the hardest things for new authors to do. Yet it is essential that you do so. After readers grasp your premise in the first chapter or two, they have to depend on your storytelling for another 80,000 words. A strong voice is the difference between going in circles or hitting the target.
How do you do that on those nights when you're exhausted?
Here are some tips:
Do more writing in your head. Instead of just daydreaming about fun worlds, learn to get lost in the process of writing. In the shower, in the bathroom, driving home from work, any time you have to yourself, you need to be planning word-for-word narration of a scene. By the time you get to your computer, you have the whole scene memorized.
Use everyday scenes as practice. Is it boring to watch grass grow? Think outside the box. Figure out a way to write a suspenseful short story about someone watching grass grow. No robots, no magic, no torrid love affair – just someone who desperately needs grass to grow and is worried because it's not growing fast enough.
You'll howl that such an exercise is impossible. Then you'll figure out a way to use the narrative voice to express the urgency of the situation. And you'll be a better writer.
Borrow emotional memories. Think about something that happened in your life that caused intense feelings. Write about it. Does it sound more intimate, more enthusiastic, than plots you make up? What's the difference, in terms of the writing? How can you capture that same enthusiasm in fiction?
Justify your characters' actions. When you've done an outline of the plot, return to every single action or plot point and put one note at the end: S/He did this because… Then force yourself to think of good reasons for every single one.
There are many other things a writer can do. Get creative. Think about your personal weaknesses and how to confront them.
Then, when that next brilliant premise comes along, you'll have the confidence to write the whole thing in a stronger voice.
Candance Moore is a YA author. Visit her at candancemoorebooks.com.