Thursday, January 21, 2016

Writing With Quiet Hands

By Kristy McCaffrey

It’s that time of year when writers often decide to sharpen their skills, test the boundaries of their abilities, and become better at their chosen craft. I recently had the pleasure of reading Writing With Quiet Hands: How To Shape Your Writing To Resonate With Readers by author and literary agent Paula Munier (Writer’s Digest Books, 2015), and I couldn’t resist sharing some of the gems within.

If you’re an accomplished craftsman, the idea of quiet hands might be familiar. Quiet hands are confident and sure. In writing, inspiration is often considered the most necessary ingredient but without a mastery of craft even the most galvanized idea will fall flat.

“The scariest moment is always just before you start.” ~ Stephen King

* * * *

What are the tools of craft in writing? Voice, tone and style.

Munier says, “With your voice, you express your truth as a storyteller. With your tone, you communicate the emotion, atmosphere, and mood of your story. With your style, you articulate your story and give form to that expression.”

* * * *

A Word On Structure
The right structure for a story is critical to its success. Choosing the right place—the setting—can make a story shine, or fall flat. Basically, there’s a beginning, middle and end (the classic three-act structure). Whether you’re a plotter or a fly-by-your-pants writer, Munier advises not to overthink this formula. Other considerations: where to enter the story and where to exit it. Setting a time parameter can help a writer focus on the necessary events needed to unfold the story. Generally speaking, the shorter the time frame, the better. The best advice Munier has on structure is to “know your genre.”

“The debut writers in your genre are the writers you are competing against. The Sue Graftons and Stephen Kings and J.K. Rowlings of the world broke out and found their audiences years ago in a marketplace far different than the one all wannabe best-selling authors face today. They’re not your competition; they’re way beyond that.”

* * * *

While a common complaint from editors is a lack of connection with the main character, Munier says the reason she most often stops reading a story is a lack of narrative thrust. Scenes must build, characters must be complex, and everything must lead toward a climax. So, make things happen. In many stories, not enough transpires. Have your protagonist drive this action. Raise the stakes, with bigger and bigger obstacles. Add a deadline to enhance the urgency. Don’t overdo descriptions, but also don’t overdo dialogue. Above all, strive for clarity. Bottom line—pacing is crucial.

But she also stresses the importance of not pulling back on a first draft. Her advice is to write whatever works and let it take as long as it takes.

The second draft, however, is a different beast. Munier describes it as a “...supercharged developmental edit...” It’s here that you identify themes and weave them into the story, look at the imagery and symbology of the work, and milk the drama.

Many beginning writers tend to write in chunks—a chunk of description, then a chunk of backstory, then a chunk of dialogue. Instead, Munier suggests that each scene be a “tapestry of character, dialogue, action, backstory, inner monologue, and setting...”

Embrace revision and acquire editing skills. At the very least, learn to copyedit your own work (spelling mistakes, grammatical errors, typos, redundancies, inconsistencies, awkward sentences, etc.). You may pay for copyediting or developmental editing, but as a professional you should learn as much as you can and apply to your own work before sending it to others.

Things to address in revision:
Character Names—keep them simple and make sure the reader isn’t confused by similar names
Don’t write in dialect—ever
Tone Down The Hyperbole—don’t write melodrama
Watch Dialogue Tags—stick to ‘said’
Lose The Clichés
Swap Weak Verbs For Strong Ones—weak verbs include all forms of “to be”
Lose The Adverbs—let the verb do all the work
Use All The Senses

And finally, develop good writing habits: write every day, have a quiet work space, live a healthy lifestyle. Habit is more dependable than inspiration.

“Writing is nothing less than a path to enlightenment. The best writers are the writers whose work is enlightened by experience and polished by craftsmanship. These are the writers who write with quiet hands.” ~ Paula Munier


  1. Sounds like an interesting read. Thanks for sharing, Kristy.

    1. This book is like having a cheerleader in your writing corner, offering nurturing advice and wisdom. Thanks for stopping by, MK!