Writers Bloc series
Featured columnist: Andrea Semple, novelist


Let's talk about one of the most crucial aspects of writing a story - style. Here's what I've learned:

1. Less is more.
The real joy of reading is using your imagination. If a writer gives too much, the reader will have nothing to imagine at all.

2. Don't get pretentious.
Many novels which don't make it past the slush pile fail because the author has tried too hard to impress, using obscure words and references in order to make himself or herself sound intellectual. Be true to yourself, and your readers.

3. Avoid passive verbs.
Okay, grammar time. Verbs come in two types - passive and active. Active verbs are those where the subject is doing something, such as 'He chopped an onion.'

A passive verb, on the other hand, is used where something is being done to the subject of the sentence, such as 'The onion was being chopped.'

Or consider this passive sentence: 'The plant was watered'.
Compare it with the active sentence: 'She watered the plant.'

The passive tense sounds pompous and boring. Make the subject take control of every sentence.

4. Avoid adverbs.
Adverbs are the words which describe how something was done, such as the word 'firmly' in the sentence 'He closed the door firmly' or the word 'aggressively' in the sentence 'He shouted aggressively.'

Obviously, sometimes adverbs are useful and can't be avoided, but if a scene and the action is realistic, the reader will know how something happened without needing the adverb.

As Stephen King says, "the road to hell is paved with adverbs."

5. Ban all adverbs from scenes of dialogue.
Okay, this is a tough rule, but stick to it, if you can.
In the following examples the adverbs are in capitals:

Example 1: "Help me!" she shouted DESPERATELY.
Example 2: "I love you," he said AFFECTIONATELY.

If you have created believable characters, the reader will hear the desperation or affection without having to be told.

6. Resist clichés.
Clichés can spell the death of any novel, so avoid sentences such as 'He ran at breakneck speed', or 'She avoided Marco like the plague,' or 'Sally felt under the weather.'

The word 'novel' means new. When writing a novel you should be looking at new ways to say things, because that's the whole point.

7. Ignore the advice of your old English teacher.
At school you were probably taught to avoid the word 'nice' and never to start
sentences with 'but' or 'and'. When you're writing a novel, the only rule you really need to follow is what sounds right. If a character is likely to say the word nice, let them say it.

8. Consider how text looks on the page.
If you want your novel to be accessible, go for short paragraphs and lots of dialogue. This creates lots of white space and makes a book look easy to read.

If you're going for the Booker prize, have five hundred word sentences and paragraphs that go on forever.

9. Be consistent.
Once you've found your style, stick with it. The best writers are those which have a 'voice' you can instantly recognize when you open their book.

10. Be unique. When I first started to write "The Ex-Factor," it took me ages to find a style which was my own. In fact, I had to rewrite the novel about three times before I was fully satisfied that it sounded like me rather than my favorite authors. Once you've discovered your true voice, no one will sound quite like
you. And that's the way it should be.

Bio: Andrea Semple is the author of "The Ex-Factor" (Strapless, Oct. 2004) and "The Make-up Girl" (Piatkus).

Visit Semple's official site here.

Sign up for Semple's writing tips newsletter here.

About: The Writers Bloc series is an ongoing column featuring practical advice for writers. Nope, not a support group. Not until someone busts out the tequila, anyway...