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  • Writer's pictureCandace Nola

3/29/2024 The Mort Report: Writing Tips from Mort Stone


Mort Stone took some time this week to write this article on writing tips, mostly focused on common issues that he sees as a reader and reviewer.


Always helpful to hear tips from the readers point of view, as being the writer, we can often become too close to the story to see some of these common issues.


Happy Reading!


 

Simple Writing Tips


Writing well can be a tricky business and, even when you manage to do that, it is extremely difficult (and rare) for indie writers to become successful enough to do it full time.


As a reader (first and foremost), reviewer, editor and writer, there are some simple things I see that can help authors to improve the readability of their stories. The key word here is “simple” – just something to keep in the back of your head.


These tips are not aimed at a specific genre, so I hope you can find at least one that offers some assistance in the future.

 

1.       Names:

 

The average reader does not read a book every day or week. In fact, writers should consider that there may be gaps of weeks between reading sessions for the same story, since life tends to get in the way most of the time. So how do we prevent the reader from not getting your characters confused?

 

·         Tip 1

If you are writing multiple stories, it doesn’t matter over what period of time, it will help if you keep some kind of record of the names you have used and plan to use for your stories. I have an Excel sheet with four columns.

The first is the name of the story.

The second is full name (first, middle, nickname, last).

The third is the first name you will be referring to your character throughout the story.

The fourth is the surname.

Then I color code them per story, so if I use the alphabetize feature, I can still keep track of which story I used them in. This way I can assure not using the same name for multiple characters.

 

·         Tip 2

Something I have picked up a lot is how many names can resemble each other or sound the same, and then it becomes easier to mix the characters up.

For example:

Names starting with the same letter – John, Jim, Joe, James, Jack…

Names sounding the same – Hugh, Sue, Lou, Drew…

Using diminutive names – Annie, Jenny, Janie, Judy, Laynie…

 

The way I try to avoid this (not always possible, I know), is to write down the 26 letters of the alphabet and select a letter for a name, then remove it. Afterwards I can compare them for similarities.

 

·         Tip 3

One of my personal philosophies is to keep things as simple as possible. I will usually look for more common names for my characters, unless I want to make someone stand out.


For example:

If your common characters have names like Constantine, Hercules, Zeus and Apollo, none of them will stand out.

However, if we take THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, the characters have names like Jack, Frederick, Catherine, Paul, Ruth, etc. But the main characters are called Hannibal and Clarice.

 

And I also try to avoid difficult to pronounce names, because the last thing I want is to break the reader’s speed when they are trying to work out a name.


For example:

If you have a character from Sri Lanka, a name like Kumar Dilshan might work better than Muttiah Muralitharan or Srinivasaraghavan Venkataraghavan (real names, in case you are wondering).

 

Also, try to avoid names that are too unique to famous people, or you will create a mental picture for the reader which might not match your character.


For example:

If you want to give an average accountant a surname, Schwarzenegger might not be the best way to go.

 

·         Tip 4

Many years ago, I started studying up on screenplay writing, and I got a tip I am still using today. Granted, this might not work for different methods of writing, especially those who do not like to plan out their stories too much, but it is something I’ve found useful, especially when your story has a lot of characters or when you want to go back and re-visit some of the same characters in another story in the future.


Get pictures of your characters.

A lot of people will use actors for this, but you can Google the Ford employee of the month if it works for you. I always look for something unique (or at least describable) for the picture. I usually don’t go into too much detail when I describe characters in my stories, but I try to give the reader something to connect with.


For example:

If my character is called Rick and I want to use a picture of a young Joaquin Phoenix, I might describe Rick as someone with a cleft lip.

I usually make a page with 6 – 8 faces and I would write their character names and, for example, occupation, so I can remember where they fit in the story.

This is also helpful if I can’t work on a certain story for a period of time and have to get back to it in the future.

 

2.       Know Your Audience:

 

Choose your words carefully.

You should decide who you want as your audience. Do you want to impress your peers or do you want the widest possible audience, thinking beyond your own borders and trying to get an international fan base? Because you have to consider that there are a large number of people who likes to read English books, even though it is not their first language.

If you want to show your fellow writers how clever you are and how many big words you can use to describe something, by all means, more power to you. I might feel compunctious about your accismus, but your callosity makes me squush with ennui.

 

I come from a country of non-readers, meaning that in this country, when a local author reach 5000 sales it is considered a best-seller. This gives me the perspective of not only knowing how difficult this business is, but also some insight into how easy it is to lose readers. And the biggest issue with people who do not read a lot is that their word knowledge is limited.


The fastest way to lose a reader is to make them feel stupid because they do not understand what you are saying.


Now, I am not trying to make a point that you should dumb it down, but sometimes you have to consider the average Joe and the words and things they might know.

 

·         Tip 1

Consider how common the words may be that you are using, especially when it comes to descriptions. I know very well that while the words are flowing this is not something that should give you pause, so write it the way you want to. But when you read it back or go into editing, consider what your words might tell someone who only has basic English skills.


For example:

I wrote a story years ago where the word “ululation” just perfectly described what I was trying to convey. In my usual genre, it is not an uncommon word. However, when I read it back I asked five people I knew, who weren’t avid readers, if they knew what the word meant. The only one who ventured a guess thought it might have something to do with happiness, confusing it with “jubilation”.


I ended up changing it to “agonizing cries of an animal”.

It basically said the same thing, but more people could understand what I meant.

 

·         Tip 2

If you want to consider getting an audience outside your own country, keep in mind that products and sayings will differ around the world. We all know that you should “show not tell”, but if what you are showing is unknown to the reader, they lose the entire description.


For example:

I am going to use something unique to my country to make this point. What does these sentences tell you –

“The taste would have been better with some Ultra Mel.”

 “I needed some Handy Andy for this job.”

“That guy could use some Twinsavers.”

 

I specifically wrote them so the context does not describe the use – if you ventured a guess, how many did you get right?

Ultra Mel is a liquid custard used with dessert, not frozen like I have seen in the USA.

Handy Andy is a multipurpose cleaning cream, usually for the kitchen and bathroom.

Twinsavers are facial tissues, like Kleenex.

 

Remember, description should assist your story, not hinder the reader.

 

3.       Unnecessary words:

 

There are some words that are used way too much which does nothing to improve your story. I have this pet peeve about the word “then”, for example. When people start describing actions with:

“Then he did this. Then she did that. Then chaos happened.”

Any story that takes place chronologically does not need the word in the description.

“He did this. She did that. Chaos happened.”


While this is a very necessary word in the English language, it should only be used when needed. But how do you spot this?


Well, whenever I come across it, I always reread the sentence without the word. If it still makes sense and has exactly the same meaning, it is not needed.


Here are a few examples of words to look out for, especially at the start of the sentence:

-          Immediately

-          Almost immediately

-          Now

-          Began to (As in “I began to notice that…” could be “I noticed that…”

And, of course, the word “that” can also be severely overused – this is a little more difficult, since there is merit in using the word sometimes, but try reading it back out loud and listen if it becomes excessive.

 

4.       Tenses and more:

 

It is always recommended to write in the tense you read the most, and for me that is past tense. Of course, this is not always possible depending on the story that you write. The same can be said about first/third person.

There are three things that is important to consider – keep in mind this is for the same chapters, at least:

-          Stay in the same tense (past/present, etc.)

-          Stay in the same narrative (first person/third person)

-          Indicate a shift in POV (Point Of View)

 

This might seem super simple, but as a part time writer or someone who might work on multiple projects at the same time, you might be surprised to see how easily this can happen. And it is not just something that happens with indie writers.


For example – THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN was a book I read many years ago and it pissed me off at the time. They writer does a decent job of setting up the main guy as the killer, but when she did a description of a killing, she changed from the direct way of addressing the character throughout the story. This small change immediately informed me that the writer was not describing the same character anymore, and I managed to figure out the twist because of it.

 

I have a very simple tip – before you start writing for the day, read back the previous paragraph of beginning of the chapter (which is not dialogue) to get the feel of whose eyes you are looking through.


When you are using “I”, don’t start referring to “he/she”.

When you are using “does”, don’t think in terms of “did”. Remember, past tense will more commonly end with a “d” rather than “s”. You should also not come across something like “had had” when writing in the present tense.


If you change POV, I always prefer the “***” method. Remember that the reader is watching the “movie” in their head, and it is extremely frustrating when you have to backtrack because the character in your head is not the one being described anymore.

 

***

 

I hope there was something useful for you and that it will help you in the future. I wish you only the best of luck with your stories.

 

ms

 

 

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