The following is intended to be a hodgepodge of literary resources for aspiring authors, especially those considering submitting their content to Burning Bridge Publishing.
EXCELLENT ACTION VERBS
Barged, Bolstered, Bloated, Brimming (filled to the brim), Bustled**
Careened, Charred, Chugged along**, Clotted, Coasted**, Compelled*, Crept**, Crippled
Depreciated (belittled), Derides, Dunked, Dwarfed (minimized the effect/significance of)
Eked Out, Excavated, Exhumed
Fauceted, Fawned, Finagled (cheated), Flailed, Flaunted, Flogged, Floundered (flail helplessly), Flowed, Foraged (rummaged)
Heaped (cast a pile), Hobbled**, Induced*, Instigated*, Invoked*
Jabbed, Jarred, Jaunted**, Jeered
Peddled (to deal out), Peppered, Perished, Pirated, Plodded**, Prompted*, Puppied, Purged
Scampered**, Scrawled (write illegibly), Scratched, Scuttled (to scurry)**, Scurried**, Settle back, Shanghaied (stole), Shuffled**, Skedaddled**, Skimped (be frugal about), Sloshed**, Slugged, Snagged, Sparkled, Spawned, Spearheaded, Splintered**, Spritzed**, Spurned, Spurred*, Staggered**, Stifled, Swaggered**, Swatted / swatted around
Tousled (to disarray), Throttled**, Triggered*, Trotted**
Accused, Appealed, Asserted
Babbled, Bellowed, Blustered (protest/complain/threaten), Bragged
Challenged, Chided, Churned, Confessed, Croaked, Crooned (low hum, as if lullaby), Crowed
Defied, Deflated, Discerned
Gloated, Griped, Groaned, Grunted, Gushed
Heralded, Herniated (“his eyes herniated”), Hissed, Hooted
Recited, Regurgitated, Relented (conceded), Riffed
Scoffed, Soothed, Spat, Sputtered, Stammered
Taunted, Teased, Tisked, Thundered, Twitched
* Check every instance you use “made/make/making” and “cause/caused/causing” and replace with one of these words, or an action verb that’s just as strong
** Check every instance that you use “walk/walking” or other “motion” verbs; replace with one of these if necessary
*** If reader can already feel the mood, go with “said.”
NOTE: This is not a comprehensive list of strong action verbs, just a “beginner’s kit,” if you will. Also, there are several other common words, including “look/looked/looking,” “hold, held, holding,” “take/took/taking,” etc., which can often be strengthened with a more acute, specific verb. However, note that you can’t change every instance of these common words into a stronger verb; just like you can’t change every dialogue tag from “said” to a more specific word, sometimes using “look” is much more appropriate than “glance,” “stare,” “gawk,” “inspect,” etc.
WEAK vs BETTER vs SUPERLATIVE writing
Weak writing conveys what you’re trying to get across, but doesn’t capture your reader’s attention. It reads like a news article, baring the facts without usually inciting the reader’s emotions. This kind of writing focuses on telling the story, not showing it. When you first write a story, you’ll find yourself mostly using weak writing, and that’s okay. In fact, it’s encouraged. You need to focus on facts and details about what happened first, telling it as simply as possible. When you go back over and edit your story a second time, that’s when you can turn words like “caused,” “walked,” and “fell” into words like “pressured,” “ambled,” and “careened.”
Better writing utilizes words that aren’t as overused and cliché; they get the point across in a fresh way. Instead of telling a story (“I felt sad,” “I was so mad,” “I was frightened”), you show your story (“I cried,” “I clenched my teeth,” “I trembled”) in a way that won’t be misunderstood. A common pitfall here is to use too many description adverbs; most people overuse “very” and “extremely” and other “-ly” words at this stage. But by the final draft of your story, every sentence… every word… needs to have graduated from weak writing into better writing. If not, then your story will get buried in the landfill of ho-hum literature. That place reeks, and no reader can stand the smell of it for long without wanting to flee from it.
Superlative writing gives the reader a visual of what’s happening in a figurative way that ignites their passion for the story. It riles up the reader’s emotions, vesting their interest in what happens next. But beware: not every sentence can be like this. You don’t want to overdo analogies because it can muddy up the story, and your point often gets lost in that muck. You don’t want to overdo hyperboles because you lose credibility as a writer if your reader can’t be sure if what you’re saying is literal or figurative. Finding a balance between exciting your reader and yet being thorough enough to get your point across is crucial.
Weak writing: “Jake’s anger caused him to grab and shake Simone’s neck.”
Better writing: “Jake lunged at Simone, grasping his neck.”
Superlative writing: “Quick as a bullet fresh out of its barrel, Jake charged Simone, choking him mercilessly.”
Weak writing: “At first I didn’t think I would get emotional over it, but I cried because of how sad Allison’s story was.”
Better writing: “Allison’s story gripped my heart by surprise as I attempted – to no avail – stifling my tears while she sputtered.”
Superlative writing: “Though I had crafted an emotional wall between us, Allison’s story burned through my barrier, drowning me in a deep abyss of my own sorrow.”
Weak writing: “I couldn’t have been more bored with what Jacqui was saying, though I couldn’t let her know that.”
Better writing: “I found myself repressing the urge to yawn, afraid Jacqui would discover that her story was even less compelling than my algebra textbook.”
Superlative writing: “As Jacqui monotonously moved her lips, I found myself transported into a doldrum world full of gray fields and tasteless berries.”
Now you try it. Turn some of these weak sentences into more compelling and action-oriented stories.
Weak writing: “I wasn’t surprised that Herman fell asleep, seeing as how tired he was.”
Better writing: “
Superlative writing: “
Weak writing: “It caused me to wonder how so many forests got burnt down in such a short span of time.”
Better writing: “
Superlative writing: “
Weak writing: “I felt so hungry, but I knew I had to finish this presentation first.”
Better writing: “
Superlative writing: “
Did you incorporate symptoms of Herman’s sleepiness in your writing, whether it be yawning, heavy eyes, or snoring? Did you accentuate your wonder with a stronger word than “caused,” perhaps with “inspired,” “suspected,” or “mulled?” Did your reader hear your stomach rumble and feel it ache during the presentation? Certainly there are a million ways to approach these sentences, especially depending on where your paragraph is going, but if you leave the paragraphs as they are above, then Herman won’t be the only one falling asleep during the story.
NEED a REGIMEN to START WRITING your STORY into SOMETHING SPECIAL?
Write the first draft. It’s gonna be crappy. Don’t worry about that, just get the ideas down on paper. Start with an outline if you want to organize your ideas first, then write as you go. Remember, you don’t have to start from beginning and write to the end. In fact, this is discouraged. Instead, write the chapter that you want to write about that day. Make a list of chapters that need to be written, and then, every day, choose one of them to write.
Print it off. Don’t just open the document in Word. Make corrections on a physical copy of your manuscript with a red, blue, or green (not black) pen as you see things that can be made better.
Rinse, lather, repeat. In fact, repeat 2 to 4 more times. If you find yourself struggling to get through your book before the 5th read-through, then that’s a strong indication that your book isn’t where it needs to be. If you find your book doesn’t need many corrections before the 5th read-through, then that’s a strong indication that your writing abilities aren’t where they need to be.
(Need help with ideas on how to improve your story? Pick up Arthur Plotnik’s Spunk & Bite. This book isn’t meant to change your writing style, but will spice up your book if you incorporate its ideas.)
Editing: Target Practice… and you’re the target.
Then comes the editing process. When you’re confident in your book after editing it at least 3 times, send it to a few people you trust will be candid with you. Get feedback from at least 2 people that have some sort of literary expertise. Ideally, this would be a high school teacher, college professor, or your uncle who works as a lawyer (and therefore has increased critical thinking skills). Do not ask your mom, brother, or maid-of-honor to be your editor, unless they’re in the writing business, and even then I’d be hesitant.
Remember that your editor’s opinion is just one opinion. While it’s wise to weigh more heavily the advice of those who have more expertise in the field, you’re going to find you don’t agree with everything your editor says. Overall, instead of sweating about particular sentences that your editor wants you to change, try looking for common themes that several editors bring to your attention. If one of your editors indicates that he or she doesn’t think a particular character in your story has value, it’s good to note that. If two of your editors indicates it, then it’s important to explore that. If several of your editors are stressing the same points, you need to do more than just take what they’re saying into consideration.
When You Yawn, They Snore
Before you publish your book and expect readers to spend time on your story, you should be able to read your own book at least 5 times, and that’s on the conservative side. Keep reading your book over and over – what parts do you find you dread reading because you know it’s boring? Those are key giveaways that you need to make those parts better, or take them out.
A common pratfall for young authors is that their stories are often boring at first, but they justify this by saying something like “you have to get to chapter 5 for it to get interesting.” This is an unacceptable mindset, and if you find yourself using a justification like this in your query letter, you’re better off saving your stamp and writing yourself a rejection letter.
Remember that if your interest isn’t being kept, then how much less will a reader maintain their interest in the story. If your first five chapters are crucial to building to the rest of the story, but are mundane or long-winded, then it’s time to troubleshoot the problem. One potential solution is to condense those long-winded chapters into one packed chapter: it’s better to cheat the story of its build-up than to make the reader want to put the book down. A second option is to wait to reveal some of those integral plot points until later in the story: just because all that “boring stuff” has to happen first chronologically, doesn’t mean you can’t rearrange the order of the story to where the less-interesting chapters happen after the reader is already hooked.
Now, that’s not to say you’re allowed to have “boring” chapters. You’re not. But perhaps this example may help: say you’re writing a mystery thriller in which your main character is a mafia leader who is trying to figure out who the undercover cop is amongst his associates, and to do this, you first want to explore the mafia leader’s training in the business and the assembly of the mafia. Obviously, these events take place first before the bulk of the story, but that doesn’t mean that chapter one has to be “Don Antone’s Childhood,” chapter two “Don Antone’s Early Years in a Mob,” chapter three “Don Antone’s Assembly of the Mafia,” chapter four “Don Antone’s Reader Has Been Asleep Since Chapter Two.” Instead, chapter one should hook the reader – perhaps with Don Antone wrongfully killing his friend when he suspects he’s the undercover cop, which already shows the reader the type of training he’s received. Maybe chapter two can take place with Don Antone having an intense confrontation with his brother, whom he believes is perhaps in cahoots with this as-of-yet-unnamed undercover cop, and this can naturally lead to a conversation about Don Antone’s childhood to allow the reader a look into that realm of his background. Chapter three can be a pleasant-but-awkward conversation between Don Antone and a detective who tracked the assembly of the mafia years ago. Chapter four can be a romantic dinner between Don Antone and his wife, where the two of them discuss their early years leading a mafia.
Point being this: there are better ways to engage your reader than essentially handing them a study guide and saying, “memorize this if you want to enjoy the story.” Think like the reader, not the author who’s been through the story several times. A reader should never be bored with your story, no matter how central the chapter is to the rest of the book.
(For candid feedback on how your story is shaping up to be, check out Review Fuse and Writer’s Cafe, two credible websites where authors share their stories and get it critiqued by other writers for free.)
You want your reader to be thinking about your story after they’re done reading it; this is how you’ll know you’ve achieved a narrative that resonates after the book is put down. Unfortunately, many storytellers achieve this by way of deceptive techniques. In fact, a few critics disliked the critically-acclaimed movie Inception for this reason. Many consumers lauded the movie as “excellent,” though they admit that “you have to see it twice to fully understand it.” This is a telltale sign of a failed story. Oh, sure, Inception won over the hearts of many esteemed critics, and probably you too, if Rotten Tomatoes is any indication – and it is. So, while unfair to imply that Inception was a failure, it’s worth hearing the argument that some critics formulated against it. For instance, take away the special effects and excellent acting – that is, put Inception into the form of a book – and you’ve got a story that neither grabs your attention nor would you care to read twice. Any story that you need to read twice because the author couldn’t get you to understand it on the first time through is not a compelling story. Inception got away with this because of its other merits (especially its enticing, memorable final scenes), but most people who went to see it twice ignored the fact that the first hour of the movie was one massive information overload that simply fried their brains the first time through.
For this reason, never, ever, ever start your story with a dream. Ever. Sorry, but that’s just the way it is. If you start your story with a fantasy without telling your reader it’s a fantasy, you’re going to frustrate them so much they might put the book down when they find out that what they just read never happened. If you do start your book with a dream and tell the reader upfront, then you’ve lost their interest before they’ve even delved into your book. Dreams can come later in the book, but even then, dreams should be brief and used sparingly.
You might disagree with the “Inception Deception” example. You may argue that only idiots dislike Inception. Regardless, the fact remains, you don’t want to create a story that forces your reader to need to read it twice. On the contrary, you want to create a story that forces your reader to want to read it twice. You want a story that’s so creatively endowed, the reader can’t help but want to take the protagonist’s journey again (e.g., the Star Wars saga, the Harry Potter series, etc.). You want a story that challenges the reader’s assumptions so firmly, the reader can’t help but want to read it again now that they have gained a fresh perspective on the story (e.g., The Sixth Sense, Memento, etc.). You want a story that resonates with your reader, not one that will outright deceive your reader. You need to be able to capture the attention of your reader like a Hollywood-caliber movie can, though you won’t have Leonardo DiCaprio or state-of-the-art CGI at your disposal.
If you can create a story as compelling as this, then you will have done something that many writers have tried to do, but most have failed to accomplish: generate a story that isn’t forgotten within minutes of its conclusion.