September 4, 2018
Many years ago, in a city far, far away (okay, it was Hartford, Connecticut, if you insist on destroying the magic), I had the magnificent fortune to meet Carroll Dale Short, or Dale, as he preferred to be called, a featured speaker at the National Writers’ Workshop. He based his presentation on his recently released book, A Writer’s Tool Kit: 12 Proven Ways You Can Make Your Writing Stronger—Today!
We shared a background in radio and he expressed interest in the premise of my novel—a young DJ’s coming of age in 1980s Connecticut. Dale was gracious enough to offer feedback on a chapter of the book. He inscribed a copy of A Writer’s Tool Kit for me in exchange for my promise of a signed copy of Glimpse of Emerald upon its publication.
A Writer’s Tool Kit has earned a valued spot amid my permanent collection of favorite writing books, and survived two major household moves—one more than halfway across the country. In his book, Dale focuses on a dozen tools to benefit writers at all stages (amateur through Pulitzer Prize winner). Let’s explore a handful of them.
Transitions link together paragraphs and, indeed, stories. These words or phrases guide your reader from one idea to the next. Things like:
“Yet … ”
“But before Mildred could warn Herbert … ”
“Meanwhile, on the other side of town … ”
And, “Worse still … ”
Transitions are hooks that capture your reader’s attention and pull her along into the next part of the story. They act as a bridge between one paragraph and the next, one chapter and the next. They’re the cliffhanger at the end of a season—the “Who shot JR?” moment, if you will.
Transitions may constitute fewer than 600 words in a 100,000-word novel—rendering them mathematically insignificant, a minuscule segment of your manuscript—but they’re a critical element of the storytelling craft.
Transitions are small but mighty tools in your writing arsenal. Execute them well and you’ll captivate your audience; bungle them and you risk losing your reader.
This knock-knock joke always makes me snort with laughter.
“Interrupting cow wh—”
Timing is everything. In acting. In comedy. Even in writing. No—strike that. Especially in writing. While you don’t want to drag things out unnecessarily, it’s equally important not to divulge a punchline too soon. You need a buildup of appropriate length, one that carries readers forward, deeper into the story.
Dale says, “A punchline, in comedy, is a crucial piece of information—whether a sentence, a phrase, a word, or even a physical gesture—that is purposefully saved until last.” (A Writer’s Tool Kit, p. 26)
Dialogue as Exposition
Dialogue is one of the most-effective ways to impart information to readers. The trick is to do it believably—without resorting to a device commonly known as “as-you-know-Bob” exposition. Here’s an example (this wasn’t an actual exchange between my husband and me … but it could have been):
Hubby: “Why don’t we go out to breakfast Saturday morning and then start on those three new raised-bed garden plots you’ve been wanting to build? We’ve lived here for three years and we haven’t established a proper garden yet. Plus, we’ve just gotten the cinderblocks delivered from the home-improvement store, and you already laid out where you want the beds to go.”
Me: “I’d love to, dear, but as you know, I’m due to be away all day Saturday. I’ll be giving a talk and conducting a workshop on character development at a writers’ conference in Chattanooga sponsored by a local writers’ guild. It starts at nine and it’ll take me an hour and a half to drive my blue Ford Focus there along U.S. Highway 127. Besides, as Chattanooga is in the Eastern time zone, I’ll have to account for the extra hour in my travel time—so I’ll need to leave by six thirty in the morning. That means I simply won’t have time to go out for breakfast.”
Pretty clunky, huh? Never mind that a couple who’ve lived somewhere for three years would presumably both know how long they’ve lived there … not to mention it’s hard not to notice a heap of cinderblocks bulky enough to build three raised-bed plots. Besides, I’m pretty sure I’d remember having laid out the positioning for said garden beds.
And I’d told him about that writers’ conference six weeks earlier—where and when, as well as what I’d be speaking about. Plus, my non-colorblind husband has seen my car out front every day since October 2010. He also knows how far away Chattanooga is, and which time zone it’s in—and which route I’d take to drive there.
Here’s how that conversation (had it actually taken place) likely would have sounded:
“Hey, you want to go to breakfast and then start on those raised beds on Saturday?”
“Can’t. I’ll be in Chattanooga.”
“Oh, right. Your writers’ conference. When’s it start again?”
“Ugh. Well, have fun leaving at six thirty.”
In this case, I’d rely on narrative description to reveal other details—like the make, model, and color of my car and the route I’d drive; and I’d probably take note of the pile of cinderblocks on my way out of the driveway.
Another key to great writing is to draw your reader in through the effective use of sensory images. Your reader’s got five senses. Don’t be afraid to engage all of them!
Don’t tell us it was hot. Instead, describe how you could swear you detected a distinct aroma of eggs frying when you entered the chicken coop. Conversely, don’t say it was cold. Instead, detail for your reader how you had to use a hair dryer to thaw the air inside your car—and let it escape via the sunroof before you could climb inside … or you might mention seeing three dogs stuck to fire hydrants on your way to work. Now, that’s frigid!
Be as concrete in descriptions as you can. And for goodness’ sake be creative! Don’t grab for the nearest cliché; stretch your imagination to come up with something fresh, something novel, to describe what you’re writing about. And don’t let your reader get bored and walk away before you’ve gotten to the meat of your story.
If your protagonist is clearing the sidewalk during an unexpected storm, let us feel how the unforgiving sleet pellets cling to his sopping hair, pelt the back of his neck, drench his jacket, and drip icy rivulets down his back … how his chilled fingers ache as they grip the metal handle of the dented aluminum shovel … how his canvas tennis shoes squish soggily through heavy, semi-frozen slush as he plods toward the garage when he’s done shoveling, then reaches aching arms upward to replace the clunky old shovel on the rusted railroad spike jutting from the wall.
A Writer’s Tool Kit has been an invaluable resource in my own personal writing. I would definitely recommend you add it to your bookshelf—and refer to it often in your writing regimen.
Rita M. Reali is an award-winning author whose work has appeared in Reminisce magazine, the S.H.A.R.E. pregnancy-loss newsletter, and newspapers across Connecticut and Tennessee. She’s spoken about editing at writers’ conferences and delivered presentations on proofreading to several professional groups. Rita also runs an editing and proofreading business, The Persnickety Proofreader, and blogs under the same moniker: https://persnicketyproofreader.wordpress.com. Her debut novel, Diagnosis: Love, was published in 2015; she published her second novel, Glimpse of Emerald, in 2017.
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