February 22, 2018 / 4 Comments

Our Story Begins Ten Years Ago…

            For those who came in late…
            So we’re in the middle of a big discussion/lecture/infodump about story structure.  To be more exact, the different typesof story structure, because there are several of them and they all serve a different purpose.  If you missed me blabbing about linear structure last week, you might want to jump back and read that first.  Or maybe re-read it as sort of a refresher before we dive into this week’s little rant.
            Speaking of which…
            Now I want to talk about narrative structure.  Remember how I said linear structure is how the characters experience the story?  The narrative structure is how the author decides to tell the story.  It’s the manner and style and order I choose for how things will unfold.  A flashback is part of the narrative structure, as are flashforwards, prologues, epilogues, and “our story begins ten years ago…”  If you studied (or over-studied) this sort of stuff in college, your professor may have tossed out the term syuzhet. 
            One more note before I dive in.  Within my story there might be a device or point of view, like a first person narrator, which gives the appearance of “telling” the story.  For the purposes of this little rant, though, if I talk about the narration I’m talking about me, the writer, and the choices I make. Because I’m God when it comes to this story, and the narrator doesn’t do or say anything I don’t want them to.
            That being said…  here we go.
            In a good number of stories, the linear structure and narrative structure are identical.  Things start with Wakko on Monday, follows him to Tuesday, and conclude on Wednesday. Simple, straightforward, and very common.  My book, The Fold, fits in this category.  It’s loaded with twists and reveals, but the linear structure parallels the narrative.  Same with Autumn Christian’s We Are Wormwood, Dan Abnett’s The Warmaster, or Maggie Shen King’s An Excess Male.  These books may shift point of view or format, but they still follow a pretty straightforward linear narrative.
            We don’t need to talk about this type of narrative too much because… well, we already did.  When my narrative matches my linear structure, any possible narrative issues will also be linear ones.  And we discussed those last week.
            There are just as many stories, though, where the narrative doesn’t follow the timeline of the story.  Sometimes the writer does this with flashbacks, where a story is mostly linear with a few small divergences. In other instances, the story might split between multiple timeframes. Or the story may be broken up into numerous sections and the reader needs to follow clues as to how they all line up.  These are often called non-linear stories, or you may have heard it as non-linear storytelling (it was the hip new thing for a while there).  My own Ex-Heroesseries employs numerous flashbacks, all in their own linear order.  So does F. Paul Wilson’s latest, The God Gene.  In his “Vicious Circuit” novels, Robert Brockway splits almost every other chapter between present day and the events of forty-odd years ago.
            Narrative structure involves more than just switching around my story elements, though.  It’s not just something I can do off the cuff in an attempt to look trendy.  If I’ve chosen to jump around a bit (or a lot) in my narrative, there’s a few things I have to keep in mind. 
            Be warned, we’re moving into an area that requires a little more skill and practice.
            First off, putting things in a new narrative order can’t change the linear logic of my story.  As I mentioned above, the week goes Monday through Friday, and this is true even if the first thing I tell you about is what happened on Thursday.  Monday was still three days earlier, and the characters and events in my story have to acknowledge that.  I can’t start my book with everyone on Thursday baffled who stole the painting, then roll the story back to Monday where everyone was a witnesses and saw the thief’s face.  If they knew then, they have to know now.  If I have Yakko act surprised to find a dog in his house on Friday and then have the narrative jump to him adopting the dog from a shelter on Tuesday, I’m going to look like an idiot while my linear structure collapses. 
            These are kinda stupid, overly-simple examples, yeah, but you’d be surprised how often I’ve seen this problem crop up.  Writers want to switch stuff around in clever ways, but ignore the fact that the logic of their story collapses when the narrative elements are put in linear order.  This is an easy problem to avoid, it just requires a little time and work.
            The second thing to keep in mind when experimenting with narrative structure is… why?  Why am I breaking up my story instead of telling it in order?  Sure, all that non-linear stuff is edgy and bold, but… what’s the point of it in mystory?  Why am I starting ten years ago instead of today?  Why do I have that flashback at that point?  How is the narrative improved by shaping it this way?
            Now, these may sound like silly questions, and I’m sure many artsy folks would sweep them aside with a dry laugh.  But they really deserve some serious thought. I talked a little while ago about how when my reader knows things can greatly affect the type of story I want to tell.  By rearranging the linear order, I’m changing when people learn things.
            And if this new narrative form doesn’t change when people learn things… again, what’s the point?
            The  third and final issue with having different narrative and linear structures is that people need to be able to follow my plot.  I mentioned last time that we all try to put things in linear order because it’s natural for us. It’s pretty much an automatic function of our brains.  This flashback took place before that one.  That’s a flash forward.  This flashback’s showing us something we saw earlier, but from a different point of view.
            The catch here is that I chop my narrative up too much, people are going to spend less time reading my story and more time… well, deciphering it.  My readers will hit the seventh flashback and they’ll try to figure out how it relates to the last six.  And as they have to put more and more effort into reorganizing the story (instead of getting immersed in said story), it’s going to break the flow.  If I keep piling on flashbacks and flash-forwards, and parallel stories… that flow’s going to stay broken.  Shattered even.
            And when I break the flow, that’s when people set my book aside to go watch YouTube videos.  No, it doesn’t matter how many clever phrases or perfect words I have.  People can’t get invested in my story if they can’t figure out what my story is.  And if they can’t get invested… that’s it.
            Y’see, Timmy, narrative structure can be overdone if I’m not careful.  This is something that can be really hard to spot and fix, because it’s going to depend a lot on my ability to put myself in the reader’s shoes.  Since I know the whole linear story from the moment I sit down, the narrative is always going to make a lot more sense to me, but for someone just picking it up… this might be a bit of a  pile.  Maybe even a steaming one.
            That’s narrative structure.  However I decide to tell my story, it still needs to have a linear structure. Perhaps even more important, it still needs to be understandable. 
            Next time, I’ll try to explain how linear structure and narrative structure combine to (hopefully) form a powerful dramatic structure.
            Until then… go write.
November 29, 2017

Other Awesomer Books

            Monday I posted the usual ego-stroking Cyber-Monday list of my own books and some anthologies I’m in.  Today–as I have in the past–I thought I’d toss out some other books I’ve enjoyed this year that were written by much more talented people than me.  They’re not really in any order, and a few of them aren’t exactly new, but if you’re looking for something for that special somebody (or for yourself), it’s going to be tough to go wrong with any of these… 
            As always, you can prove you’re a morally better person by visiting your local bookstore.  There’s still plenty of time for them to order something for you if they don’t have it in stock.  Plus, some of them have connections and can get you autographed copies and stuff like that…
Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire—the short, simple explanation is that this book is about all those kids who find mystic gateways or enchanted wardrobes or interdimensional touchstones, have fantastic adventures… and then eventually end up back in their normal, mundane homes again and having to cope with real life. The best thing I can think to say is that I’m so ridiculously jealous of this book. It’s just magnificent.

Blackbirds by Chuck Wendig – I am super-late to the table with this one, because Wendig’s been writing this series for five years now.  Miriam Black is a foulmouthed alcoholic who’s gifted (or cursed) to immediately know how and when everyone she touches is going to die. After years of dealing with said ability, she’s seen someone’s future death that involves… her.  It’s funny and dark and fantastic and I think there are five of these books now.

Heroine Complex/ Heroine Worship by Sarah Kuhn –superpowers are real. So are superheroes.  The two aren’t always connected.  Oh, demons are real, too, and they can possess all sorts of things.  Evie and Aveda are such crazy-fun -lovable-exciting characters that you’ll devour each book in a day.  I did.

Killing Is My Business by Adam Christopher—I mentioned the first book in this noir-robot-detective series a while back. Adam’s written more of said series.  They’re still amazing, and now there are mysteries-within-the mysteries.  You should read them.
An Excess Male by Maggie Shen King – I got to read an early copy of this and it’s just brilliant.  A dystopian tale set in future-China, where the one child policy has gone… well, just like everyone predicted.  Our four protagonists are trying to form a family while also each hiding an array of personal secrets and deciding who to trust with them.  It’s a fantastic, slow-burn book that reads like the wonderfully twisted love child of The Handmaid’s Tale and Big Love.
Sleeping Giants/ Waking Gods by Sylvain Neuvel—another one I was late picking up (but got caught up quickly).  A fantastic epistolary tale about the discovery of a giant alien robot and the team that comes together to figure out how they use said robot to defend the Earth.  It’s Contact crossed with Pacific Rim, and if that idea doesn’t excite you we have nothing else to say to each other.
            Good day to you.
            I said good day.
We Are Wormwood by Autumn Christian – a beautifully surreal tale about a young woman growing up with insanity and then… well, descending into it herself with a few nudges from her demon girlfriend.  Christian also has a fantastic collection of creepy/scary/sexy short stories called Ecstatic Inferno that I wolfed down in about a day.  I befriended her on Twitter just so I can constantly prod her to write new stuff for me to read. I’m selfish that way.
Ninth City Burning by J. Patrick Black—okay, this glorious space opera’s kind of tough to explain, because in the future Earth has shifted over to an entirely new form of technology.  In short, its about a group of people developing new weapons, learning to use them, and learning to be them.  It may take a little bit to get into this one, but it’s sooo worth it.

Revolution –by John Barber and Cullen Bunn—I was a die-hard comic fan for years, but got driven out by the constant (and often substandard) crossover events.  I started reading some of IDW’s “Hasbroverse” books last year and was frustrated when they announced Revolution, their own upcoming crossover event.
            Holy crap.  This was my favorite comic book event in at least twenty years. It begins with a conflict between the GI Joe team and the Autobots which gets disrupted when Rom the Spaceknight shows up and uses his Neutralizer to incinerate General Joe Coulton before flying off again. If you were already a fan of IDW’s GI Joe or Transformers books, you can guess how a silver robot showing up and killing the Joes’ CO goes over.  If you’re a fan of Rom… you know what this killing implies.  Revolution is honestly suspenseful and dramatic, and has amazingly solid ties to all the books involved.  It’s clearly a crossover that was planned far in advance, and it made me a regular at my comic shop again.

            And anyway, those are some of my favorite things I read this year.  Any one of them would make for a fantastic gift.  And if you’ve got some suggestions of your own, please mention them in the comments down below.

            Tomorrow… regular old writing advice.  Thanks for your patience.

            Historical reference! It’s like a pop culture reference, but it lets you pass tests…
            I’ve talked about different genre issues a few times in the past.  With the upcoming holiday, though, I thought it would be nice to revisit one that’s near and dear to me.  To be more specific, I thought we could talk about the different forms of horror. 
            Anyone who’s dabbled in horror knows that, when we tell folks this is our chosen genre, our work tends to get lumped into this vague slasher/vampire/Satanist category.  Either that or we’re tagged as someone working through a collection of childhood issues.  Most folks don’t realize horror can be broken down into many different sub-genres, just like drama or comedy or war stories.  Just because Resident Evil is under the umbrella (no pun intended) of horror doesn’t mean it’s anything like It Follows, and neither of them resembles Bram Stoker’s Dracula.  Or Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot.  Or Craig DiLouie’s Suffer The Children.
            So, here’s a few different panels of that umbrella.  Some of them are established sub-genres which have already been debated to death.  Others are just things I’ve noticed and named on my own that I feel are worth mentioning.
            Also, you may notice I’m defining a lot of these by how the characters in the story react/interact with the scary things.  That’s deliberate. All stories are about characters, and horror stories hinge on that.  One of the most common complaints we all hear about horror—to the point that it’s almost a joke—is when the characters do something that makes no sense.  So how my characters act and react is going to have a lot of effect on the story I’m telling…
Supernatural stories—This is one of the easiest ones to spot.  It’s your classic ghost story.  The phone lines that fall into the cemetery.  The pale girl out hitchhiking alone in the middle of night.  The foul-smelling thing in the lower berth. 
            There are a few key things you’ll notice about these.  One of the biggies is that the protagonist rarely comes to harm in a supernatural story.  Their underwear will need to go through the wash three or four times and they may not sleep well for years afterwards, but physically, and even mentally, they tend to come out okay.  If anyone suffers in a supernatural story it’s usually the bad guy or some smaller character.  Also, these stories tend not to have explanations– they just are.  There aren’t any cursed objects or ancient histories at play.  Things happen because… well, they happen.
            The Sixth Sense is still a great example of a supernatural story, as is “A Christmas Carol” by that populist hack Charles Dickens.  Even the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise is more supernatural stories than anything else.
Giant Evil stories—These are the grim tales when the universe itself is against my characters.  Every person they meet, everything they encounter–it all serves some greater, awful evil.  H.P. Lovecraft and Robert Howard wrote a lot of giant evil storiesThe Omen is another good (so to speak) story of the universe turning against the protagonist.  Any fan of Sutter Cane will of course remember the reality-twisting film In The Mouth of Madness.  In a way, most post-apocalyptic stories fall here, too—the world belongs to radioactive mutants, the killer virus, or the zombie hordes.
            Personally, I’d toss a lot of haunted house stories in here, because the haunted house (or ship, or insane asylum, or spaceship, or whatever) is essentially the universe of the story.  Not all of them, but a decent number.  The reader or audience doesn’t see anything else and the characters don’t get to interact with anything else.  House on Haunted Hill, The Shining, Event Horizon, and most of the Paranormal Activity films could all be seen as supernatural stories, but their settings really elevate them to giant evil stories.
Thrillers—Thrillers also stand a bit away from the pack because they tend to be the most grounded of horror stories.  Few creatures of the night, no dark entities, far fewer axe-wielding psychopaths.  The key thing to remember is that a thriller is all about right now.  It’s about the clock counting down in front of my heroine, the killer hiding right there in the closet, or the booby trap that’s a razor-width from going off and doing… well, awful things to my characters.  There’s a lot of suspense focused on one or two characters and it stays focused on them for the run of my story.  A thriller keeps the characters (and the reader) on edge almost every minute.

Slasher stories—These are really about one thing, and that’s body count.  How many men, women, and fornicating teens can the killer reduce to cold meat?  Note that there’s a few distinctions between a slasher story and a torture porn story (see below), and one of them is usually the sheer number of people killed.  There’s also often a degree of creativity and violence to the deaths, although it’s important to note it’s rarely deliberate or malicious.  Often it’s just the killer using the most convenient tools at hand for the job—slasher tales are pretty much a parkour of death.  The original Friday the 13th film series has pretty much become the standard for slasher pics, and it’s what most people tend to think of first when you mention the term.

            A lot slasher stories used to have a mystery sub-element to them, and often it was trying to figure out who the killer was.  Then it kind of morphed into being a twist… alas, often not a very well-done one.   Slasher stories also developed a bad habit of falling back on the insanity defense and got stereotyped as “psycho-killer” movies.  Which is a shame because some of them are actually very clever and creepy.

Monster stories—The tales in this little sub-genre tend to be about unstoppable, inescapable things that mean the protagonist harm.  They’re rarely secretive or mysterious, but they do have an alarming habit of tending toward nigh-immortality.   The emphasis here is that nothing my heroes (or the villains, police, military, or the innocent bystanders) do can end this thing’s rampage, and any worthwhile rampage tends to involve people dying.  There may be blood and death, but the focus with a monster isn’t finding it or learning about it– it’s stopping it.  Or at least getting as far away from it as possible.  Of course, how far is far enough with something that doesn’t stop?
            The original monster story is, of course, FrankensteinGodzilla is a monster, in a very obvious sense, but so are zombies, Samara in The Ring, and even Freddy Kruger.  I still hold that the reason Jason X is so reviled by fans of the franchise is that the filmmakers turned it into a monster movie, not a slasher film like the ones before it.
            My lovely lady also made an interesting observation recently.  In monster stories, you almost always have a moment when the audience feels a twinge of sympathy for the monster.  Look at any of those named above, and you’ll see there’s a point when we empathize with Frankenstein, Godzilla, and yeah… even super-killer cyborg Jason (who seems to settle down once a holodeck dumps him back at a deserted and lonely Camp Crystal Lake and you realize he just wants to be left alone).
Adventure Horror stories—To paraphrase from Hellboy (which would fit quite well in this category), adventure horror is where the good guys bump back.  While they may use a lot of tropes from some of the other subgenres, the key element to these stories is that the heroes are fighting back.  Not in a weak, flailing, shrieking cheerleader way, but in a trained, heavily-armed, we’ve-got-your-numberway.  Oh, it can still go exceptionally bad for them (and often does), but this sub-genre is about protagonists who get to inflict a bit of damage and live to tell the tale.  For a while, anyway.  To quote an even wiser man, even monsters have nightmares.
            The Resident Evil franchise is horror adventure with zombies, just like my own Ex-Heroes.  Jonathan Maberry’s definitely dabbled in it as well, with some of his eerier Joe Ledger books. The Ghostbustersmovies could fit here, too.  There’s long-running shows like Grimm and Supernatural, and some of you may have seen a fun little cable series called Ash vs. Evil Dead
Torture porn—Director Paul Verhoven once commented that the reason Murphy is killed so brutally in the beginning of Robocop was because there wasn’t time at the start of the film to develop him as a character.  So they gave him a horribly gruesome death, knowing it would create instant sympathy for him, and then they’d be able to fill in more details about his life later on in the film.  That’s the general idea behind torture porn.  Minus the filling in more details about the characters later.
            I’m not sure if King himself actually coined the term “torture porn” in his Entertainment Weekly column, but that’s the first place I remember seeing it.  At its simplest, torture porn is about making the reader or the audience squirm.  If you can make them physically ill, power to you.  The victims are usually underdeveloped, unmemorable, and doomed from the moment they’re introduced.  It’s not about characters, it’s about the visceral things being done to the characters.  They’re getting skinned, scalped, boiled, slowly impaled, vivisected… and we’re getting every gory detail of it.  A film industry co-worker once told me “porn is when you show everything,” and this sub-genre really is about leaving nothing to the imagination.  They are the anti-thriller, to put it simply.
            A key element to torture porn is the victim is almost always helpless.  They’re bound, drugged, completely alone, or vastly outnumbered.  Unlike a slasher film– where there’s always that sense that Dot might escape if she just ran a little faster or make a bit less noise– there is no question in these stories that the victim is not going to get away.  That hope isn’t here, because that’s not what these stories are about.
            So there’s seven subgenres we can break horror down into.  And there’s many more.  All fascinating stuff, right?
            Why are we talking about it?
            Y’see, Timmy, when a lot of us start off  as writers, we flail a bit, usually in the attempt to copy stories we don’t quite understand the mechanics of.  As such, we aren’t sure where our own stories fit under the big horror umbrella (or sci-fi, or fantasy, or…).  We’ll begin a tale in one sub-genre, then move into a plot more fitting a different one, wrap up with an ending that belongs on a third, and have the tone of yet another through the whole thing. 
            It’s important to know what I’m writing for two different reasons.  One is so I’ll be true to it and don’t end up with a sprawling story that covers everything and goes nowhere.  I don’t want my thriller to degenerate into a slasher, and if I’m aiming for cosmic-level, Lovecraftian evil it’d be depressing to find all the earmarks of a classic supernatural story.  I also want to be able to market my story, which means I need to know what it is.  If I tell an editor it’s not torture porn when it plainly is, at the best I’m going to get rejected.  At the worst, they’ll remember me as “that idiot” when my next piece crosses their desk.
            In closing, I’ll also toss in the free observation that it’s difficult to merge two of these subgenres because a lot of them contradict each other by their very nature.  Not impossible, mind you, but difficult.  Probably one of the few exceptions I can think of in recent times is The Cabin In The Woods, which does an amazing dancing back and forth between being a monster movie and a giant evil movie.
            So, that’s enough of that.  Feel free to dwell on these points over the weekend while you’re drinking, watching some scary movies, and sneaking Kit Kats out of the candy bowl (seriously—feel ashamed about that. Those are for the kids!)
            Next time… I thought we could talk a little bit about democracy.
            Happy Halloween.  Don’t forget to get some writing done.
            Three weeks until San Diego ComicCon!
            As it happens. I’m actually a bit bogged down right now, trying to get everything set up for SDCC while also doing a ton of edits (and also trying to deal with a killer headache).  To be honest, I was half-thinking of skipping this week.
            Fortunately for all of us, Timothy Johnson stepped up and offered to scribble out some quick thoughts on editing as a tool for improving our writing.  Tim’s an editor based out of Washington, D.C., and he’s got a debut sci-fi/horror novel, Carrier, available right now from Permuted Press (go check it out).  All things said, he has a pretty good idea what he’s talking about.  You can find him regularly on Twitter or Facebook.
            Next week, I’ll be back to talk about sorting through feedback. For now, here’s Tim…
            This post is not about commas. It’s not about mechanics or style. It’s not about verb conjugation or misplaced modifiers.
            I know many writers bemoan the editing process. I get it. It can seem unnecessary and even like a waste of time. But I promise you it’s not. Even though you wrote your story, it’s still a crudely formed lump of clay.
            So, I’m not going to get into the nuts and bolts of grammar. This post is about helping you, a writer, become better at writing. Through editing, you can take your writing to the next level. It’s about how you take the word stream of your writing process and turn it into a cyclical filtration system for distilling tight, compelling prose.
            It’s basically how to become a Brita filter for literature.
            If you came in here thinking, “Ugh, I don’t want to learn stuff. This is why I pay an editor to make my writing good,” stick around. As an editor, I can assure you I’m human, and that’s relevant because there’s a quality quotient that we can achieve based upon the work you present to us. That is to say, if you serve us crap, we might be able to make a crap casserole, but it’s still a crap casserole. Give us better ingredients to work with, and the end result will be better for it.
            So pick up your hammer and chisel, and let’s get to work.
Find your brain stutters.
            If you’re human, you probably say, “um,” more than any other word in a typical day. We say, “um,” when our brains search for the right word but our mouths want to keep going. Similarly, we have the same disconnect between our brains and our fingers, those overzealous bastards.
             Look out for “that,” “this/these/those,” and passive voice.
            “That” is simple. It’s the most overused word in the English language. If you see “that” in your writing, chances are it’s unnecessary and you can destroy it with zero regret.
            “This/these/those” are a little different. We often use “this/these/those” as demonstrative pronouns. That’s basically fancy grammar talk for “you know what I’m talking about, shut up.” And they’re perfectly acceptable, grammatically speaking. The problem is they’re vague, and if our objective is to get our language tight and compelling, they aren’t going to do the job.
           Find these (see what I did there?) and destroy them. Ask yourself what you’re actually writing about, and use a noun.
            Another stutter to look out for is passive voice. For many people, it can be difficult to recognize, and some will even argue it’s not that big of a deal. Well, to those people, I say it’s super popular in legal speak for a reason: passive voice is unclear and confusing.
            We often write passive voice because we have action-oriented minds. We consider more strongly the thing that is happening than the people who are performing the action. You get a pass as a human, but as a fiction writer, you don’t get to rest on your laurels. Writing active sentences will serve you better.
            To find your passive sentences, look for statements in which it isn’t clear who or what the subject is. Most times, you can find passive voice by looking for any form of the verb “be.”
            Let’s write a stupendously ridiculous example that combines all three of these brain stutters:
            “This is something that you are wanted to do.”
            Now, if we unsuck that, it becomes the following:
            “I want you to kill him.”
            See how this edited version is way more direct, clear, and powerful? If this stuff is a bit too abstract for you, let’s dial it back a bit.
Find your weak language.
            Generally, people write how they speak. There’s nothing wrong with that, but one of the points of thinking about your own writing critically is to construct storytelling prose that isn’t boring, mundane, everyday language as if you’re telling someone a story in a grocery store checkout line.
            You can certainly crank the wrench too far and edit the human quality out of your words, so the onus is on you to find a balance where your prose leaps off the page but still is identifiable as yours.
            “To be” is the worst offender of being weak. I mean, “to be” is the worst offender of weak language. “To be” verbs can signify passive language (see above), but most often, they mark an opportunity to do something more interesting. Find all instances of “be/been,” “is/are,” and “was/were,” and see what else you can do with those sentences other than pointing out that the subjects of those sentences exist.
            Beyond existential quandaries, however, authors tend to filter actions unnecessarily. For example, they may relate how the main character felt a bullet hit his arm, rather than writing, “The bullet tore through his arm.” Similarly, authors tend to explain how the main character watched as a comet flew through the atmosphere instead of writing, “The comet blazed across the night sky.”
            Unless your point is the character’s internal experience with these happenings, you are creating a buffer zone between me and the visceral experience. This is akin to pulling your punches in boxing. Are you trying to lose the fight for your reader’s attention? Find all instances of “feel/felt” and “watch/watched/see/saw.” Chances are, you can hack the first part of the sentence off, and nobody will miss it.
            Moving on, Stephen King wrote that the road to hell is paved in adverbs. He then continued to use adverbs, but I digress. What are adverbs? They are essentially any word that ends in “-ly.” So, “happily,” “dangerously,” “doggedly,” “grimly,” and on and on. You get the idea. These words are useful, but they signal a weak verb. Like adjectives, which modify nouns, adverbs modify verbs; however, unlike nouns, verbs have the power to imply additional information. In other words, we don’t need no stinkin’ adverbs.
            Find them and destroy them. While you’re at it, take care of “very,” “almost,” “about,” and the like. They indicate inexact language and have no place in tight, powerful fiction. If we don’t get the idea from the word you’re modifying, you’ve used the wrong word.
            Let’s keep going. I’m good. You good? Good.
            Gerunds. Gerunds are the verb form that ends in “-ing.” Generally, gerunds describe a process that is ongoing, and while there’s technically nothing wrong with them, many authors overuse them and use them incorrectly. Seek them out, and see if the regular form of the verb will suffice. For example, what’s the difference between, “The hobbits were dancing at the Prancing Pony,” and “The hobbits danced at the Prancing Pony”? Five letters and a space, and stronger prose.
            As a final language-strengthening tip, look for repetitive words. It can be jarring to a reader to see the same word twice in a short amount of space, but also variety is the spice of life. If you find you’ve used the same word twice in the same paragraph (even the same page, if you want to be as anal as I am), it’s an opportunity to edit and make your writing more interesting. Seize that chance. Your readers won’t thank you, but that’s the point. They’ll never know your writing was worse. They’ll just be impressed at how good it is.
Oops! You learned something.
            By employing these tips, I promise your work will read better. And, by editing your work, you will force yourself to think critically about your prose. You will slow yourself down, focusing on the small ideas instead of concerning yourself with the big ideas. The small ideas are extremely important, because only through those ideas do we, as readers, understand your big ideas.
            If you keep at it, eventually, you will recognize these weaknesses while you write, and you will discover better versions of your sentences with progressively less effort. It will become automatic and ingrained in your writing. By using these techniques to improve the writing you’ve already done, you will improve your future writing before you write it. More important, you’ll look back and realize that, on a fundamental level, you’ve become a better writer.