Style issues – sentence, scene, paragraph and more

Last night I tackled the third part of How NOT to Write a Novel: 200 Mistakes to avoid at All Costs if You Ever Want to Get Published. The authors discuss all kinds of style-related topics. Some made me laugh, some made me nod, some concerned me.

What made me laugh was the part about overly chatoyant choice of words and highfaluting terminology. What made me nod was the part about using vocabulary your expected reader will be able to understand. And it concerned me when the authors pointed out that one has to take special care when using not-so-common words. As the writer I need to make sure I have fully grasp the concept of the word myself before I use it.

If your read my About Me page you may know that I am German. Yet I write in english. Not exclusively, but chiefly. Writing is hard enough in your native tongue. When you write in a foreign language it is even more difficult. Concerned I reached out to Sandra Newman and Howard Mittelmark via Twitter (@sannewman and @HMittelmark) and almost instantly got some words of encouragement. “Native speakers get them wrong too. You might have the advantage of being forced to think before you write.” Howard wrote back. Thank you again! That actually is true. I spend a lot of time choosing words – especially when at first it sounds a little off. Now I am more resolved then ever to include an editor into the process _before_ I will show anything to a potential agent.

And here are some more points I took to heart from Part III – Style:

  • Exclamation marks are like speed bumps and almost exclusively reserved for dialogue. Use with utmost care.
  • While describing something or someone: no “bullet” lists, no explaining the obvious.
  • avoid time-jumps/gaps in the timeline
  • Using “said” is divine (I think I read that one in Stephen Kings On Writing: 10th Anniversary Edition: A Memoir of the Craft, too) – “asked” and “shouted” when the character does so.
  • Dialect and different speech mannerisms can help the reader recognise certain characters.
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Characters – is this the hardest part?

Here we go – I finished Part II of How NOT to Write a Novel: 200 Mistakes to avoid at All Costs if You Ever Want to Get Published – which concentrates on character development and character representation within your novel.

The authors, Sandra Newman and Howard Mittelmark, raise some very interesting points and include a Pop Quiz at the end of this part. I took the quiz – and apparently I suck. Way to much stereotyping and it seems my characters would behave to predictable, too. Dang! But hey, first step to solve a problem is knowing there is one. Now I know I will have to look into this and become better.

What did I learn? Here are some points I think are most important:

  • Don’t over-describe, don’t stereotype, no perfect people with perfect manners, thoughts and traits – they would be boring.
  • Ideas and mindset of the character has to fit into the time-setting of the story.
  • The villain needs a reason for his actions. The reader should be able to at least understand, but not necessarily relate to it – e.g. opportunity, money, revenge… . And the foe can’t be other-worldly smart nor a low-key opponent.

Additionally I learned new things about the roles of lovers/friends of my character and how to weave them into the social web of my story. I especially loved the box with the bulleted list naming traits and items that might make the reader dislike my character instantly.