We all want to write timeless prose and enveloping stories for our readers to sink into. But, beautiful writing doesn't always come naturally. It's a skill that must be sculpted and studied. During my own quest for improvement, I've gathered some treasured advice through the years. Some of it comes from my own personal observations, but a lot of it was passed down to me by people far wiser than me. I can't wait to share these ideas with you.
1: Your voice is beautiful.
“Don’t forget---no one else sees the world the way you do, so no one else can tell the stories that you have to tell.”
-Charles de Lint
One of the most inspiring books on finding your own voice is If You Want to Write by Brenda Ueland. I am so grateful I read this early on in my writing career. Ueland showed me that even if I think my perspective is too commonplace to be important, nobody else sees the world the same way I do. My hometown, my family, my way of life is completely foreign to someone else.
For me, this concept was confirmed once I became an acquisitions editor. I once received queries with incredibly similar plot lines that sounded wildly different from each other. Even if your story has already been told, it hasn’t been told by you. Your voice is what makes your writing beautiful.
It is fine to study different styles or to analyze other's voices to see what makes them work. However, don’t smother your own voice trying to be like someone else.
You do you.
Then hire an editor.
2: Choose vivid details.
Variation and colorful words will elevate your writing. Nouns and verbs should rarely be used twice on a page, or even better within a chapter. Study your manuscript and look for missed opportunities to energize your story with animated words. Let's look at an example.
“The bird sat on top of the house, watching the woman.”
If you discover sentences like this, don’t despair. This is a fine first draft. This establishes the bones of your story, positions the characters, and focuses on the broader plot instead of the fine details.
But don’t stop here.
Zooming in, and being specific with your nouns and verbs will utterly change the way you sound. Find nuanced nouns and verbs that aren’t cliché. Be deliberate about the words you choose. They have more power than you may realize. Let's look at our example and try to elevate it a few different ways. I am going to change each noun and verb to something very specific.
“The wren landed on the wooden rain gutter, a sole witness to the puddle-jumping princess.”
“The raven roosted directly above the knotty, battened door, guarding the witch.”
“The lorikeet settled in the straw thatching, scrutinizing Baba Kalifa.”
Notice how each option tells a completely different story? I'm only focusing on a bird, watching a woman, but because of these details, it opens my mind up to the world in greater detail than before. However, there's a balance to strike here. Beware of purple prose. Flowery words don’t elevate. Instead rely on honest, simple details to express wonderful ideas.
3: Rely on reader schemas.
A schema is a pre-conceived picture built into the readers' head. If I use a word like "Elephant", most readers will already have some sort of experience with the word (depending on the age of your audience) that you can rely on. I don't have to describe it's wrinkly grey skin, or dextrous trunk. It goes without saying and comes across as almost being redundant. Instead, use your time focusing on sensory details that are unique to your protagonist.
In older novels, you often find beginnings with long segments of descriptive, orienting text. Sometimes you don’t even meet the characters until a few pages in. These days, readers want to know the characters first. They'll often skim large descriptive chunks of exposition, or stop reading entirely. Instead, integrate description throughout the action by including things the POV character can see, taste, touch, hear, and smell.
To see it in action, study Orson Scott Card’s first three pages of Ender’s Game. In a lecture I attended, the presenter read us the first three pages, then asked for descriptions of the room. The audience agreed---we all saw a sterile room with stainless steel and white linoleum. The details kept rolling in and none of them strayed from the vision in my own mind. The presenter then told us that there were only two details given about the room: that it had an examining table and that a needle was used.
Trust your reader to fill in the non-essential gaps so you can spend time focusing on the emotive details that matter.
4: Use immersive symbols.
Donald Maas discusses the next three tools in depth in his book "Writing 21st Century Fiction". (One of my favorite books on writing.) There he discusses how symbols are simple objects that represent significant points within your story. They serve as a physical embodiment of non-tangible things. For example, in The Fault in Our Stars by John Green, Hazel's oxygen tank serves as this reminder that death is constantly trailing her, connected to her, something she has to carry with her everywhere. It almost becomes a character in itself, complicating her trip to the Netherlands and interfering with her romantic relationship with Augustus. It's more poignant than a simile or metaphor (which are also great tools for beautiful writing). However, common, or cliche symbols won't elevate, they'll cheapen your theme. And the more symbols you can draw around an idea, the more important the idea will feel, because the reader's subconscious will connect all the associations, whether they realize it or not.
5: Add foretelling parallels.
A parallel is a secondary plot or natural process that subtly foreshadows what is to come in the main story arc. One of my favorite parallels in cinema is the song “Another Day of Sun”, from La La Land. The first time I watched the movie, I wondered, “What did that song have to do with the show other than being a fantastic dance number?” But by the end of the movie, I realized it was a major spoiler. It subtly spelled out the entire plot before we even met the main characters. Go back and watch it. It’s genius.
6: Throw in a reversal or two.
Predictability is a hard thing to manage. As a writer, you have to make your outcomes believable, but at the same time, you don't want your reader to see it coming too early or their curiosity will be satiated. You want the walls to crumble around them, revealing the truth, causing them to catch their breath and re-read the page to make sure what they just read was real. You want to lead them down a road that zooms past their suspected destination into a better harbor.
The third book in the Mistborn series does a remarkable job with this. The last few chapters will leave you reeling and wonder how you didn’t connect all the dots correctly in the first place.
Now go out and write your beautiful words! And if you feel like melting into a good book yourself, here are some of my suggestions:
Goose Girl by Shannon Hale, The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, and Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt.
By Rachel Huffmire
We're all writers, we're all moms, writing our way through the "brambles" of life and our stories.