#WriteTip: Elevating Your Writing

Sam av

This is now part four of a series about how I write stories. You can find previous posts here:

In this one, we’re going to discuss a few tips for how to strengthen your work. This one kind of assumes you know what you’re working on and what you want to achieve.

Remember, this is just a discussion of things that I do. You should pursue your own way. My way is not the only way nor is even perhaps correct.


Embrace Your Style

The way that I write is character-driven. In this style of writing, the focus is on character development and relationships between them more than anything. I’m not out to create a generic, lovable, relatable hero to attain glory in a magnificent plot. I’m not attempting to pursue a classic tale of good vs. evil. I’m not particularly poetic. I’m no good at spinning a mystery. I don’t have the patience for sweeping setting and excruciating detail.

When I write, I want you to know the people I write about. I want you to feel for them. I want them to hurt you, and I want you to get excited, bite your fingertips, throw the book in frustration, and cry.

For me, the plot is a vehicle.

There will likely be plenty of writers who don’t like the way that I write or say that I don’t know what I’m talking about…and that’s fine with me. I write because I like it, and because my readers like what I do. This is my distinct style.

“Great chapter, each one makes me feel so many different emotions and is sooo addicting.” -Reader, on one of my fanfics

Could I improve? Of course. I always aim to do so. But I don’t believe my style will change because so far, it hasn’t. Every piece I write is strong in character emotion and not overly focused on worldbuilding (this, I am working on). I know my strengths and weaknesses and I have areas I am working to improve.

But for this blog entry, I’m going to try to tell you how to do what I’ve just described. How do you hurt a reader?

For starters, you make your characters real. Make them human. Give them flaws and aspirations, fears and secrets. I could go on for months about character creation alone, but to pull off a character your readers can never forget, you have to make them unique and possessing of a powerful personality–not an overbearing one…just deep and complex.

Real people fuck up. Kind of a lot, actually. Characters shouldn’t always have a full understanding of every situation and how their words and actions are going to affect those around them.

Real people can be wrong. Characters that always know exactly what is going on or exactly what a person meant by what they said are boring.

Real people don’t miraculously have the answers. Knowing exactly what to do in every single situation is simply not feasible.

People don’t all talk with the same cadence. Everyone has their own style, whether they’re loud and boisterous, unable to keep their mouths shut, shy and quiet, formal, or crass.

Make your characters interesting and readers will be drawn to them for different reasons. Don’t aim to make every character likable. I don’t like everybody, for example. You probably don’t either. Hell, I don’t even like half the people I meet. If someone is completely irritated by one of your characters, so be it. So your character is annoying. At least your reader feels something for them, even if they are just counting pages until he or she dies.

Prepare for Death

Character death is marvelously fun. But in order for a death to be meaningful, you have to prepare your reader for it.

And I don’t mean prepare as in, let’s soften the blow so the reader is ready for this.

Oh no.

I mean quite the opposite. Let’s make this really hurt. And to do that, it takes a little bit of lead up. Don’t kill a character right away (unless that’s how your story starts, of course). Spend some time developing that character. Give the reader time to get to know them, to love them, to care about them.

And then off the character.

Better yet, leave that character’s story slightly incomplete. Like, maybe they were on their way to fulfill their life’s dream and now will never get to, like telling someone they were sorry or that he or she loved that person.

Make it slow. Don’t kill them off too suddenly. Give it time to sink into the reader so they have time to freak out properly, wondering if you are really doing this to them.

Make it resonate. Refer back to the character or bring up things that remind people of them for a long time to come. Break your other characters with this death. Make this death count. Let chaos reign.

Complete the cycle. Let the grieving happen. The anger. And the healing.

Rhythm & Pacing

Certain types of scenery will have a certain ‘feel.’ I try to capture this with the word choice and rhythm. Sometimes, I use longer, flowing sentences (word people will tell you that long sentences are bad). Sometimes, I go shorter. There are occasions when the sentence calls for angry, clamoring words like crash, slam, and crunch. When the situation is softer, use softer words like whisper, brush, and press.

Certain scenes also need a certain pace. When we’re in the middle of the action, we should get to the point. This isn’t an anime. We can’t take time out to rehash a backstory. Actions are often rushed, chaotic, confusing, and high-intensity. By contrast, a seduction would take more time. The pacing should be more drawn out, slow, and rife with sensations.

You should always consider the reader. Is what you have written and the way you have written it going to be an invitation to skim the words? Or do you have them riveted?

I am also a huge fan of the one-line sentence. This would be a sentence that is given its own paragraph to stand out and have more impact. This is about as close as I get to poetry.

The months slid past, a continuous cycle of the same old shit. Fighting, planning, predicting, being wrong, patching up wounds and moving on. In time, she almost had herself convinced she’d dreamed it up, sliding back and forth between both opinions as often as the sun set in the west and rose again in the east. He either kissed her or hadn’t. He either loved her or didn’t. She either dreamed it, or it was gorgeously real.

Of course, she couldn’t just ask. What if it wasn’t real?

What if it was?

 Chapter Structure

Chapters should be as long or as short as required to complete the concept. A good rule of thumb is for a chapter to be the proper length to finish in a single sitting. I shoot for between 1500-5000 words per chapter, which is 6-20 pages in a paperback novel.

Every chapter should be like a mini book, with its own conflict, climax, and resolution. It should feel like a satisfying endpoint that wraps up the chapter.

If possible, you should try to leave it on a cliffhanger. If you can get the reader to convince themselves that they have to read one more chapter, you’ve succeeded.

Be Brave

One of the hardest things is detaching yourself from a fragile ego. Somewhere along the way you start to question your own writing.

  • What if this offends someone?
  • What will people think of me if I write this?
  • What if my family/friends read this?
  • Can I really let anyone read this?
  • Is this too dark?
  • Should I shy away from this fucked up thing?
  • Is this too bold?

Forget all of that.

Now, let’s walk that back a little bit. Because you don’t want to be completely offensive. But if your character is offensive because your character is an asshole, let that go. If your character is offensive because you secretly wish to offend someone and you’re living vicariously through a character, you have a different problem entirely.

But don’t shy away from what the book needs, even if it takes you down dark and twisted rabbit holes. You don’t have to publish it if you’re concerned…but if your book has a direction it’s pulling, you should at least indulge it just to see.

I once wrote an erotica fan fiction (yes, me.). It was a bit on the darker side and a bit on the controversial side, and when I mentioned it in conversation on the internet one day, I got shredded by a troll on Tumblr. I almost trashed it. A couple months later I got brave and just posted the whole fucking thing.

I wrote up a big ol’ disclaimer. 5000 words of explaining myself. And then I trashed the disclaimer and instead wrote this:

Got ripped apart on Tumblr by a vicious troll while I was writing this and got cold feet. I wrote it in October and am only posting it now.

I wrote a 5000 word disclaimer, then discarded it.

My final verdict on me writing this: there was a story in my heart that needed to be told. I told it. You don’t have to read it, but I DID have to write it.

Flames will be deleted and I won’t respond to them.

Any questions, feel free to ask them.

That said: excessive trigger warnings… you’ve been warned.

If they hate it, they hate it! I had to write it!

And it quickly soared to my number 2 story, only a runner up because the #1 story is 3 years older than it is and had a lot of time to rack up views. I get the best, most heartfelt, fervent feedback from it.

Because there are things we don’t talk about…but that doesn’t necessarily mean we don’t want to.


S.K. Balk lives in the frozen wasteland of Northern Michigan. She is the author of the dystopian medical sci-fi THE BLOOD OF NERYS (also available in print).

Check out the #WriteTip category for more writing advice and tools from Frankie and Sam!

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About oneofthedragons

Samantha K. Balk and F. R. Donaldson met on An Archive of Our Own, one of the many fanfiction sites online, when Sam asked Frankie to illustrate the fanfiction that would one day lead to Sam's first novel. They've been friends ever since! This blog was created as a way to share the oftentimes difficult journey any new author experiences on the uncomfortable quest of an introvert for attention to his or her most personal work. It is meant to remind you that authors don't just appear fully fledged like a George R. R. Martin, that all of us start out unsure and feeling inadequate. Feel free to ask us anything. Sam: sammykaye9@gmail.com Frankie: reluctant.fraggle@gmail.com

Posted on September 23, 2016, in #WriteTip and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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