Writing books is easy, writing good books is hard. Do you want to know how good prose sells more books? Getting every element of your story right is important. But it's the words that make readers come back. Good stories need good words.
In this session, Sacha will show you a series of quick tips to improve your prose, rid yourself of ticks and crutches and polish your stories to perfection.
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Read the Transcripts on Good Prose
My name is Sacha Black, and I'll be talking you through my session how good prose sells more books. But first, who am I? I've already introduced myself as Sacha Black, and I am an author of both young adult fantasy and nonfiction writing books that help you to improve various parts of your craft, characters, and prose. I'm also the host of The Rebel Author podcast. I'm a competition winning and best-selling for writers and author and a developmental editor. I'm also the Alliance of Independent Authors blog and conference manager and responsible for organizing this amazing self-publishing advice conference.
In today's session, we're going to cover why prose matters. In a world where sales are becoming vital to our businesses and our careers, we quite often get wrapped up in the marketing and forget to continue to develop our prose. I'll also talk you through how to find your voice and take you back to basics and bust some myths on the “Show, don't tell”. I'll also talk through common prose mistakes and lastly give you some examples of how to improve your description, too.
Why Does Prose Matter?
I've already mentioned how writers can often prioritize the marketing, and for obvious reasons, we all want to make sales. But at the heart, of our books are our words. Without our words, there is no story, and it's the story, the words and the characters that readers fall in love with. Now, this isn't a fight between pulp fiction and literary fiction. I'm not here to claim one is better than the other. Likewise, I'm not here to claim that flowery prose is better than clean-cut prose. I think there's a time and a place for both. Both are important to both kinds of writer. We can have aspects in our stories that are fast paced and require cleaner prose. We can also have times where we want to world build or go deep on the emotion, and it's at those times that we need more descriptive prose. But beneath both of these things is one fact. Better prose equals a better story, and it doesn't matter your style of prose. You can still improve it, and improving your prose means better stories and more readers, and also forever readers. If you can capture a reader's heart with your voice and your style and the way that you embody your characters, then you are going to get your readers to come back over and over and over again.
The Importance of Finding Voice
What is voice and how do you find it? I think that writers often forget that voice is at the heart of their prose. I'm sure some of you are breathing a collective sigh right now. I mean, honestly, over the years, I have lost count of the number of posts and quotes and motivational spiels I have read and looked for and researched when trying to find my voice as a writer. And I often feel like we're all chasing this intangible beast. Our voice is this glowing holy grail that is just impossible to find. And yet it's still so important.
You know that Stephen King has a voice that brings readers back time and time again. Likewise, with James Patterson, or JK Rowling. Look at what her voice did for her books. They are identifiable. Just from a line of her characters dialogue, for example. I'm sure you can all picture Hermione, for example, and her know-it-all ways and instantly hear JK Rowling behind it.
We know that when a reader finds a voice, they will likely consume books written by that author. They'll read everything that they love when they find a voice that they love.
Two Types of Voice
But what is voice, and are we just trying to define the undefinable? Well, I think the problem is that we're looking at voice wrong. There are two types of voice in every book. Well, actually, there are more, but there are two important ones for this topic – author voice, and character voice. I'll say that again: author voice and character voice. And there's one very clear difference between them.
An author's voice will change. A character's voice does not. A character's voice needs to be consistent in order to create effective characterization, and believability. If, for example, a character is angry, then they need to be angry throughout the story. Of course, the exception to that is a character arc. The completion of their arc might mean that they evolve past or through their anger in which case, that's fine. But, certainly, before they grow and develop through their flaws and their anger, they would need to be consistently showing this angry voice. Another example, if one if you don't want one that depends on the character arc, would be kindness, for example. A character who's empathetic should be empathetic throughout the story, because that's who they are. It's part of their personality. If you're angry characters suddenly becomes empathetic it will jar the reader, and character isn't going to be believable anymore.
Voice Isn’t Fixed
But this difference between author and character voice is why writers often struggle to find and define their voice. They assume that their written voice must be a fixed one – a one-time-only deal. You spend 10,000 hours searching for a singular voice, and when you find it, all you get is a slap on the back and, “Congratulations! Well done, son. You've earned a singular award-winning writing voice for the rest of your life.”
Wrong! What if you were an erotica writer, and all of a sudden you wanted to start writing children's books? I'm pretty sure you're not going to write in the same voice. Or what if you were an acutely accurate historical fiction writer, and you fancy dipping your toes into fantasy. Well, of course, you can't have the same voice. Think about how you behave at work or if you pick up a work call or if you're presenting at work. Of course, you're not going to sound the same as if you were out on a Friday night with your friends, pissed and drunkenly admiring a lovely gentleman or a lovely lady. Look, an example of this is JK Rowling. She is famous for her Harry Potter. And I've already mentioned her voice that is particularly identifiable, but she has gone into adult fiction. She now writes as Robert Galbraith. Of course, the voice there in crime fiction is completely different to middle grade children's fiction
Examples of Voice
So, let's clear something up. The majority of the time when you're writing fiction, people discuss author voice when they really mean character voice. If we're being technically accurate, then author voice is a cumulative sum of several aspects of literary craft (including tone, diction, style, point of view, and tense) the sum of which produces a unique whole that's identifiable to a single individual. But that's a bunch of academic waffle and doesn't really help anyone. Here's an example of voice.
“Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the western spiral arm of the galaxy, lies a small, unregarded yellow sun.”
That is the opening line in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy written by Douglas Adams. In this sentence, you can hear the whimsical humor in just one line. Adams draws out the sentence, making it longer than necessary. And long enough, it develops a kind of tangential feel. He also mocks humanity in an utterly scathing way, without ever actually mentioning humanity. It's brilliant. It's genius, and it's evocative of the humor to come in the rest of his novel. And it's certainly identifiable as Douglas Adams.
How to Find Your Voice
To find your voice, to find what Adams found, you have to do one simple thing. Look inside yourself. There is no secret here, people. There is no magic pixie dust, just pure, unadulterated YOU. You are your own magic sauce. You just have to find the core drivers that fuel your interaction with life. What value do you hold most dear? I guarantee you that if you can identify it, it will start to influence your written voice, and you will start to develop a uniqueness to your voice. But how? Okay, well, look at your words. Look at your values. How do they match or differ? Scour your novels, essays, and nonfiction books or whatever you write. Find the paragraphs that you're most proud of. Find the paragraphs that make you feel like you wrote your truest self on the page. What those paragraphs tell you? What pieces of yourself can you see because it will affect your prose. It will affect your word choice, your diction, and your very sentence-level makeup. What I'm trying to say is free yourself from the misnomer that your voice is a fixed thing. Rebel, my darlings. Let the aspects of yourself that you value most come out on the page, whether that's sarcasm, curiosity, intellect, or something else.
What is “Show, Don’t Tell”?
“Show, Don’t Tell” was made famous by Anton Chekhov, who wrote a letter, I think, to his cousin or brother or somebody he was close to. Anyway, he said a rather longer sentence that has now been shortened to, “Don't tell me the moon is shining. Show me the glint of light on a broken glass.”
“Show, Don't Tell” started as a great piece of general guidance to err on the side of showing, rather than telling, when you're trying to evoke imagery. In reality, what happened was a myth and legend stuck its big oar in and made it a cardinal rule of writing to show and not tell. But guys, there are no rules with writing. Even the full stop isn't sacred anymore. You only have to read Mike McCormack’s award winning Solar Bones to know that because I think the entire book is about 272 pages – and it's one single sentence. One!
So, yes, don't think that you must always show because your books would become lengthy beasts. But “Show, Don't Tell” isn't really about disregarding one technique for the other. It's about understanding the differences between them, and when you're better placed to use showing rather than telling, or vice versa, because you can use telling – and you should use telling – in your stories.
To Show or to Tell?
In crude terms, the best way to know whether or not you should show or tell is to ask yourself a question. In this moment in your book is the detail or the scene significant or important to the story, to the plot, or to your character? If the answer is yes, and the detail or scene is significant, then there's a good chance you should slow down and show the reader this moment, rather than telling them, because the result will be a deepening of your plot or character or the reading experience for the reader. If the answer is no, and the moment isn't important, then you might be better off using telling.
Examples of Telling
Here are some examples of telling. Sandy checked her watch. Mike was due back in five minutes. She was so angry with him. In this example, the facts are told. There's no context. While we know that Sandy is angry, we don't feel like she's angry because the emotion isn't described in sufficient detail.
Examples of Showing
What about showing? Sandy sat on a sofa with such force it groaned under her legs. She huffed and got back up. Never liked the sofa anyway. In fact, she didn't like any of his furniture choices. Sandy paced the living room, checking her watch. Mike was due back any second. Her jaw flexed, her teeth grinding on all the words she was going to throw at him. Here, the sofa suffers because of Sandy's anger. There's even a tiny bit of personification where the sofa groans, and that creates an image for the reader. The jaw flex description is extended this example, too. Jaw flexing is a great body language reaction. It's very visceral, and we can imagine it because we've all been there when we're so cross that our teeth are gnashing against our other teeth and our jaw. In this example, the jaw flexing makes more of the image that was initially created. Sandy not only flexes her jaw, but she's grinding on the words that she wants to throw at Mike. This is more ominous of what's to come. It evokes the sense that the words she needs to say to Mike are so big and tangible, she can actually chew on them, and that image tells us far more than saying she was angry ever does. In the showing example, you'll notice, that not once did we actually use the word angry. When you tell, you're just saying a word that describes the way that your character feels about something, as in, “She was so angry with him.”
When to Tell
So when should you tell? And when should you show? You can mix and match these, but there are times when telling is more relevant, more important, and helps to bring up the pace of your story. For example, action scenes. If you are in the middle of a fight, you hardly want to stop to, and your characters are unlikely to, stop and describe the intricate filigree on a sword, for example, They’re going to get the hell out of the way of the sword so they don't get their arm cut off. It's in action scenes like this where there's a need for a pace. You can have other times when there is a need for a pace and at which point, then, telling is a much better literary tool than showing. You can also tell when you want to avoid repetition. For example, if your protagonist is a member is bar staff, there are only so many times you can show your character pouring a pint. If you want to shift scenes quickly, then you can use narrative summary to shift time, scene, or location. Younger protagonists quite often use telling because, whilst they're still feeling the same level of complexity and emotion, they don't always have the complexity of language to describe it in a showing way. Also, sometimes it might just be in character. Someone might be particularly blunt and not use descriptive language. If you have complex world building that's another example when sometimes you're just going to have to tell the facts rather than going into a seven-page prose dump on the thread of weaving clothes in ancient Mesopotamia. There's only so much that your readers are going to be interested in. And again, avoiding narrative repetition.
When to Tell
So when should you show? Emotional scenes are moments when you should stop and pause, and that means to slow down the pace you have to go into more detail. Important or pivotal scenes. Areas where you want to draw your reader's attention to, to slow down the pace, create more characterization. Again, although I have mentioned telling with world building, there are times where there might be an aspect of your world building that is either relevant to the plot or relevant to your character. Therefore it's important and you do need to show more detail to build that depth. And again with foreshadowing as well.
Common Prose Mistakes
What are the common mistakes to avoid with your prose?
I am just going to do a whistle stop tour here of some of the common mistakes, and how avoiding these mistakes helps to improve your prose and, therefore increase the quality of your stories and the likelihood of more sales.
Repetition is often mistaken for just being the repetition of words, but, actually, repetition is one of these crafty things. It can appear in subtler ways in your stories, and you can repeat yourself without even realizing it. Some examples include sentences that convey the same information but are written differently. Also, things like repeated descriptive sentences. You could have a humming, maybe the humming of the washing machine, or even the humming of a car engine, as an example of where you are repeatedly using a word. You could say rumbling, humming, purring. All of those types of descriptions are very similar, and when you have them in a short space on the same page it gets repetitive for the reader. You could have repeated phrases or parts of description that sound similar despite using different words. So that's, that's an example of humming, rumbling, purring. Multiple characters with similar traits or personalities. If you have a large cast of characters, sometimes it's necessary to have that large cast of characters. You only need to look at Game of Thrones to see what an epic story that was. But also, occasionally, you can have a lot of characters that are just repeated versions of each other, so it's always useful to go back and review your characters to see whether or not you can combine them to avoid having characters that are too similar to each other. Each character should serve a purpose for your plot. Other types of repetition include multiple characters performing the same function (for example having two mentors); multiple paragraphs, scenes or chapters, which established the same plot point; characters with similar names or similar sounding names (and that also goes for words that sounds similar). If you have a sentence with too many similar sounding words, sometimes, yes, it can be used to effect. But if it happens too often, then the effect can be lessened. Repeated words used in different contexts is also another example where repetition can creep into your prose, unintentionally. Using different words to describe the same thing, i.e.- describing heat with the words warmth, hot, molten, lava, and sweaty. And, lastly, repeated scene openings, for example always starting with dialogue or discussion of the environment, which leads me on to no scene anchoring.
Every scene should be anchored in time, space, and point of view. That means when you change scene or you change chapter, your readers need to know the time, i.e. – has an hour past or three days or three weeks. They need to know where they are in space. Have your characters moved location, or are they in the same location as the last scene? Also if you're not writing in the first person point of view, then they also need to be grounded in point of view.
Now the reason for this is that readers may well have put your book down at the end of the last scene. There's no way to know when they’re going to put your book down. Obviously lots of people will read to the end of the chapter, and then, because it's a natural break, they'll put the book down. So, every time you start a new scene or you start a new chapter, you have to make sure that they are located in these three things.
Have a skim through the opening lines in each chapter. Within the first paragraph, they should be anchored. But it's also important to check how you're starting your scenes. If you have multiple viewpoints, then make sure you're checking whether or not it's always the same character. Check whether or not your scenes are always opening with dialogue, or are they always opening with scenery descriptions. Do you, perhaps, open by answering the question from the scene before, or is the same character opening your scenes? Do you always reference the time of day or location? Perhaps your characters are always traveling at the start of the scene. If you find that you have four scenes back to back where you open with a description of the scenery, then it's time to change up your chapter openings. This is a form of repetition. While it's only subtle, your readers will pick up on it, and it gets boring. It doesn't take much to change up the opening lines of each of your chapters.
I still remember the moment I learned what filtering was, my mind was blown because it is such a quick, easy fix, and removing instances of filtering gives your work more immediacy and closeness to the reader. Filtering is when you, the author, add in unnecessary narration, causing the reader to be removed one step from the character. For example, using the words
- I heard
- I saw
- I felt
- I thought
I'm going to give you an example now. This is with filtering: “I heard that owl hooting in the trees and saw the leaves rustle in the canopy.” Now, there's nothing necessarily wrong with that sentence, but the reader doesn't need to read the word “heard” or “saw” because it's implied in the description of the sound. Here's sentence without filtering: “As an owl hooted in the trees, the canopy leaves rustled.” As with the redundant words “heard” and “saw”, you don't have to remove every instance of filtering, especially if removing it will affect the meaning of your sentence. For the most part, removing these filtering words will improve the conciseness and the immediacy of your prose.
There is a conflicting description on the slide. It says, “The lion cub sat in the dawn light listening to her father's roar softly drifting across the desert plains.” Now, at first glance, you might not think there's anything wrong with this, but if something roars, then, by definition, it can't be soft or quiet. A roar cannot roar softly; it's a roar, people. It's loud. It's scary, which means this description has created an impossible occurrence, and it's not a believable piece of description. The difficulty with these kinds of descriptions is that, on first glance, you might just skim over. It's a piece of description, and in some senses, it sounds okay. It's only when you examine the sentence-level meaning of each word that you find the conflict of roar and softly, and it doesn't work.
Adverbs are obvious one. We've all heard the famous Stephen King phrase that the road to hell is paved with adverbs. The problem is adverbs tend to get overused. It's not that there's anything wrong with them as a word. All words have their place, but adverbs are overused, and usually it's to speed up the prose. Adverbs predominantly tell rather than show. In a lot of those examples and a lot of those circumstances when you're telling, you could create a more impactful sentence by showing instead. Adverbs tell the reader how the character is going to do a particular action. For example, she placed the glass firmly on the table. There's nothing inherently wrong with that sentence, but you could remove the adverb “firmly” and the sentence wouldn't lose its meaning. She placed the glass on the table. Both sentences mean and convey the same thing. But what if we replaced the adverb with a strong verb and a little bit of extra description? She slammed the glass on the table. Whiskey sloshed over the side and splashed her hand. The action of slamming is stronger than the concept of firmly. The word slammed is vivid. We all know how therapeutic slamming a door feels. I know I do. I don’t think I’m on my own. The action of slamming is a hard, “crashing into something” motion, which is why it creates a more vivid picture than firmly. Using the word slamming also creates an opportunity to continue painting the picture. Why? Well every action has a reaction, so you can tease out the consequence of slamming the glass down. That's what we did with a little bit of added description – the whiskey sloshing over the side and splashing her hand. That bit of description brings the image to life by completing her slamming action with a consequence. You could take it further. You could have the character deepened her fury because of the spilt whiskey, or perhaps If she's been talking to somebody, then that will end their conversation completely. The point here, though, is that removing the adverb gives you a chance to show more action, and therefore create a pretty picture in your readers head.
Typically, writers will describe a character once and then move on. But readers can't be expected to remember every single detail in your book. I mean, how? I can barely remember what I wrote in my books, let alone a reader. Often a writer will only describe what readers should see, i.e. – brown eyes, blonde hair. There are actually two things that are more interesting to the reader. How this new character makes the protagonist feel and the consequence of any interesting features. Now, of course, eye color, hair color, and clothing are important, but mostly you can forget those. They don't tell the reader about your character. They don't give the reader anything memorable to take away or think about after they've put the book down. If this new character comes in and makes your protagonist feel jealous or afraid, or hot under the neck, then the reader is far more likely to remember them because they've had an effect on the hero. Or perhaps the protagonists could notice this new character having an impact on another character. Perhaps this other character feels awkward or scared by this character you're describing. That is far more memorable than just having green eyes. Adding the occasional reminder is a really good thing. Of course, you don't want to repeat a like-for-like description. You could integrate this repeat, your extra additional description, into dialogue beats or action beats. For example, if a character does have blue eyes and your protagonists notice this the first time they come on the page, then a couple of chapters later you could have the sun shining, and it could highlight the blue in their eyes. Or perhaps your protagonist notices that your blue-eyed character’s mood darkens, and their eyes darken with their mood. There are lots of different ways you can describe your character’s features to highlight reminders. It's just about looking at how you can do that in a unique way each time.
Examples of Description
Let's have some examples: “of average height with brown eyes and a hard stare”. Now, example one is perfectly valid as a description. It does do the job of describing the character, although I hope you'll agree with me that it's definitely vague and boring. If we're being brutally honest, it doesn't create much of a picture in your mind. It's clinical and uses dull, vague words like average, which tell the reader the square sum of basically nothing. Let's continue to improve our prose and choose some juicier descriptive words.
Description two: “He slipped through the crowd unnoticed, his height, allowing him to slide behind taller bodies. I caught his intense brown eyes and faltered. They were so dark they were almost black.”
Now, in description two, we've put what could be boring, average height into action and shown the consequence of it. Instead of just being average height, he's cunning and uses his height to slip through the crowd like a ghost. All of a sudden, a boring feature is interesting. The reader might wonder why he's slipping through unnoticed. Is it on purpose? Is he a spy? Is it magic? Or is he just so unimportant to society that he's inconsequential. We've still only described two aspects of this character's appearance here – height and eyes. Yet, we've built up a better picture of him by giving the description a context. But I think we can go even deeper than that. The heart of all stories is emotion, and the emotional journey that the hero goes on is the highs and lows. Your protagonist goes on their story arc that draws your reader in. So why not play on this when bringing new characters into the story?
Description three: “He was of average height. Average everything, to be honest, except his eyes. They were such a dark brown they almost looked black, but what struck me was what they held a knowing. He'd seen death. No! I glanced again. It was darker than that. His eyes called to death, clutching it like a plaything. I stiffened as he passed and vowed never to cross him.” Again, in this description we have only described the same two aspects of the character – height and eyes. Yet, in this example, I hope you feel the character feels more real than in any of the other examples. The protagonist feels something about this character and is reacting physically. This gives meaning to the feeling, and meaning is depth. Last is the detail in this example. This particular protagonist chose to see death in this character's eyes. Another protagonist might choose to see anger or cold steel. Whatever your protagonist chooses to see will reflect, both on the character she's describing, and on her personality too in terms of what she's noticed. And that is the power of prose – of improving your prose – and of being particular over the words that you choose, the types of description that you create. Of course, any one of these three descriptions is absolutely fine and could be called for at any part of your story. But understanding how to create these different types of prose gives you the power to create the best story you can.
I'm going to end by saying good prose matters if you want to sell more books. I hope that I have convinced you of that today. If you would like more, you can get your free self-editing checklist by signing up to my mailing list. It's a freebie as part of this presentation and will be in the body of the session post. If you would like more information on how to improve your prose, then my book The Anatomy of Prose: 12 Steps to Sensational Sentences is on pre-order right now and is releasing on the 29th of May 2020. If you would like to get more information about writing craft, writing business, marketing, then you can listen to more of me and interviews on The Rebel Author podcast, which you can get on any pod catcher. Or you can use the link pod.link/rebelauthor. You can also visit my website where I do blog. All of my books and podcasts are all on there. And that’s sachablack.co.uk. Thank you for your time today, and I hope you enjoy the rest of the conference.