Here is another post in my WRITERLY WISDOM series I first ran back in 2013. Six years later, I’ve updated the material and made sure it still applies to today’s writers. This week we learn about the difficulty in writing a great story from my friend Margot Finke…
Writing a Masterpiece Ain’t Easy!
by Margot Finke
Like any other job or career, a writer must spend time learning the craft of writing – an apprenticeship if you will. The rules are available for those who take the time to learn them. And once you learn the rules, you can take an occasional deep breath. . . and break them with impunity.
Active and powerful words are a BIG Plus:
The creation of active and powerful plots is much the same whatever the age or the genre. It is all in the words you choose, the dialogue you use, and the way you put it all together. Whether you are trying to appeal to adults, kids on the cusp of adolescence, or teens with raging hormones, success depends on HOOKING your reader.
If you plan to whip up an action packed book that will HOOK reader interest, here is a preview of the ingredients you’ll need to dig out of your imagination and your well-honed craft box.
Think out of the box
Tight writing + action and pace
Active and powerful verbs.
A plot that’s cool and fast paced.
Characters alive with authenticity.
Dialogue that is true to the characters.
A background rich with possibilities or mystery.
Your own unique writing voice.
Hints and clues that are woven into the fabric of the plot, and tell of past history and things yet to come.
End of chapter HOOKS that keep readers turning the page.
· A Thesaurus (either a book or Shift F7 in Word) is your best friend when looking to replace problem words.
· For further clues regarding weak “Stuff” to cut from your chapters, visit my
When completed, your MG or YA masterpiece needs to be somewhere between 30,000 and 80,000 words. Yes, I know Jo Rowlings upped the ante with her succession of Harry Potter books, and if your plot and characters have the same appeal as her Harry, you too might get away with a bumper word count. However, first-time authors might be wise to err on the side of fewer words. Adult books can have a much higher word count.
WARNING: there needs to be a pile of really good “meat” in the plot sandwich to make that larger word count worthwhile.
Action does not have to be a gun fight, a car chase, or a fight to the death. Great action means keeping your story moving along. Scenes that have good pace, great humor, or introduce intriguing clues also qualify as action. Your plot, characters and dialogue, must tease, lure, and draw the reader in. If your story keeps the reader turning the page, eager to discover more about the characters and the plot, then you have ACTION covered.
Lack of Action is when. . .
Stagnant “waffling on” does not move the plot along to the next cool scene. You add long descriptions that interrupt the build up to a momentous scene. Lots of “telling,” rather than using actions and dialogue to show what happens.. If your book is billed as a mystery, a thriller, an adventure or the like, chapters that drag will turn off readers. NOTE: short punchy sentences build better pace and tension.
From my young teen ghost mystery, the “Revenge of Thelma Hill.” Note the shorter sentences and the word choices.
Heavy rain clouds hid the moon, turning her room into a dark cave. Half awake, Frannie shivered. Brrrr. . . Might as well sleep in the fridge. She tugged the comforter over her ears. The prickle of goose bumps slid up and down her spine. The room had frostbite. Wow! Could this mean the return of the gray ghost? Why didn’t I put that camera closer; like under the pillow?
Nervous excitement battled dread. Was the ghost there? The urge to know overwhelmed her. Pushing herself up on one elbow Frannie peered at the foot of the bed.
Frost covered her quilt, the dressing table and the curtains. Icicles dangled from her bedside lamp, their eerie white light shimmering over everything in the room. The Ghost hung in mid-air, swaying gently. A low moan escaped her. The gray spidery veils clung to her like a drowned woman’s gown.
Frannie gasped. Her breath went in just fine, but it refused to go out again. The camera lay on the bedside table, forgotten.
As a professional Critique Service Provider, here are snippets of advice, hot from my latest manuscript critiques.
Wordiness: (Tight writing rules)
Nothing kills tension and fast pace quicker than wordiness. When fingers hit the keyboard, and their owner has a fresh document begging to be filled, many writers never know when to quit. I prune and trim acres of unnecessary words, sentences and paragraphs. Think of these words and sentences as frills on a fussy looking ball gown. Rip off those frills, and you have an elegant and exciting gown. Your writing needs to be like that gown – elegant and exciting. Sure to make an editor drool. Tight Writing keeps the pace and action moving along. It is also vital for tension building. A few short punchy sentences create tension far better than one long ramble.
The writer who understands the value of verbs already has the battle half won. Great verbs, active verbs, and powerful verbs, they all have the same goal – pages and chapters that crackle with excitement, dynamic plot twists, and vibrant dialogue. Strong verbs create strong characters, memorable plots and evocative scenes. If your plot and characters read like a bowl of over-cooked noodles, look at your verbs. Your verb choices probably don’t deserve all the blame, but they definitely led the retreat into a big yawn!
Lack of Focus:
Focus is a juggling act. Everyone admires the way a juggler keeps all those balls in the air at the same time. He can do this because his focus never wavers. A good writer must also juggle. It our case, it involves juggling the plot, the subplot, the main character, and the lesser characters. While keeping these vital elements in place, a writer must also juggle word choices, character enrichment, pace, and the action. Lack of focus on one or more of these fundamentals, and your story loses momentum. The pace and action wanders, and other crucial elements scatter.
Having a really good critique group nit-pick your chapters will help a lot. And picking the brains of the published and established members of the group is a bonus. Their advice and support will be invaluable.
“Stuff” That Only Adds to Your Word Count:
These I find in manuscripts everywhere: irritating tag-ons, and add-ons that waste space, yet offer zero in the way of plot enlightenment pace or action. Some are adverbs that snuggle up to weak verbs. Some are overused and tired adjectives. Others appear as twenty ho-hum words that need to be exchanged for 8 more evocative words that explode with meaning.
Here are examples:
Prune the Fluff: very, some, just, like, that, and words ending in LY.
Verbs to Strengthen: Any verb preceded by WAS or ending in ING. Plus: ran, sat, looked, talk, ate, fell.
Adjectives That Need a Boost: pretty, happy, nice, good, big, small.
Unneeded Thoughts: it seemed, perhaps they will, maybe they can, he felt, they feel, would catch, would do etc.
Runaway Sentences and Descriptions: Put those long compound sentences under a microscope. Cut them in half. Do this by using more active and powerful verbs, and breaking it up into at least two shorter sentences that offer more punch and active content.
Today, writers must compete with action heroes, action movies, and computer games that hemorrhage violent bloody battles. This is especially true for men and boys. These movies and games do not bother with good story lines – violent action rules! The trick is, for you to offer compelling stories that also have fast pace and action. Give them heroes and heroines they can root for and identify with, and you will HOOK your readers. Research your readership ( your niche market), and bring them characters and plots that have meaning to them. When done right, tension intrigue and action can effectively GRAB readership.
The Author’s “Voice”:
And finally, it all comes down to the “Author’s Voice.” The unique way you string sentences together: your word choices, verb choices, and the phraseology that makes a story YOURS. Sometimes voice comes early. At other times it takes time, experience, and lots of rewrites.
Margot Finke is an Aussie transplant, now living in Oregon with her husband and family. She has sixteen published books (PB to young teen), and runs a well known Manuscript Critique Service.