8 Easy Hacks to Help You Write Page-Turning Prose

  • 2019-01-05 preparatory workshop by Robyn Bachar
  • 21 people in attendance
  • 8 Easy Hacks to Help you Write Page-Turning Prose
  • Slides: 8EasyWorkshop.pdf
  • Robyn Bachar - local author
    • ravnoschick
    • NaNoWriMo 2006
    • first novel became her first published novel (contract signed in 2009)
  • Sharing what she learned
  • Every word counts for NaNo but you will want to know how to cut words (after NaNo)


  • Building blocks for creating strong writing in creating your story
  • Story is not the most important thing
  • Plot is not the most important thing
  • Your prose can't be flat if you want to hold the reader's interest


Craft is the body's structure

  • Helps support your characters and move them through the story
  • Damon Suede: Stories don't critique actions or comment on actions; they're not about actions, they are actions.

Action, Movement, and active voice

  • Hack: to cut, clear, sever, or shape
  • Unnecessary words, run-on sentences
  • Transitive verb requires a direct object (noun, pronoun)
    • Impacts someone or something
    • Jane spiked the punch.
    • action
    • shows how the subject acted or reacted -> strong verbs create strong writing

Part 1: Flexing your craft muscles

  • First round of edits received: grammatical changes!
  • e.g., semi-colons, dialogue tags
  • not just grammatically correct but they should be strong writing
  • don't add a dialogue tag to every single line of dialogue

First 4 hacks

  • Be Active, Not Passive
    • passive voice: someone was verbing
    • The pain made Jane cry out. vs. Jane cried out from the pain
    • Tired: Jane was walking down the street
    • Wired: Jane walked down the street
    • Inspired: Jane [verbed] down the street (e.g., mosy)
  • Kill your Adverbs. Viciously
  • Death to Dialogue Tags
  • Truth about semi-colons, em-dashes, ellipses


  • Victorian
    • Jane strolled down the street
    • Jane sashayed down the street
    • Jane glided down the street
    • Jane minced down the street
  • Hero
    • John struts down the street
    • John flew down the street
    • John strode down the street
    • John charged down the street
    • John blasted down the street
    • John powered down the street
  • WEAK: After a few minutes, Jane still felt nauseated, yet her anxiety had begun disappearing. The memory of John, his pickup truck, cliffs, and trees began appearing more vivid in her cloudy thoughts.
    • get rid of ing words (disappearing, appearing)
  • BETTER: Jane still felt nauseated, but after a few minutes, her anxiety faded. The vivid memory of John, his pickup truck, the clifss and trees returned as her mind cleared.
  • Strong verbs make strong characters

Adverbs are weak writing

  • Grammatically correct but can be replaced with a stronger verb
  • Empty adverbs clutter your sentences and add little to no value
  • Avoid: actually, totally, absolutely, completely, literally, probably, really, unfortunately, ironically, incredibly, hopefully, and finally.
  • Search for -ly words (they are useless)
  • Tired: Jane walked quickly down the street
  • Wired: Jane [verbed] down the street
    • sped
    • rushed
    • hurried
    • darted
    • dashed
    • scurried
    • zoomed
    • sprinted
  • Examples
    • He whispered quietly (redundant)
    • He ran quickly (redundant)
    • He drank thirstily (how did he drink it? gulped?)

Death to Dialogue Tags!

  • They identify who is speaking or asking a question (that's it)
  • House style for Harlequin: use said or asked (that's it!)
  • Turn dialogue tags to action.
  • Read it aloud--if you're running out of breath, you're going on too long.
  • Eliminate unnecessary tags. If it is between just two people, you don't need to tag them every time.


  • The winky smile
  • Indicates a longer pause between two clauses.
  • Avoid these in fiction and definitely don't use them in dialogue.
  • Many times, the semicolon can be replaced with an em-dash, a comma (avoiding comma splices), or you can change the semicolon to a period.
  • en-dashes show number ranges or relationships between things like teaching and psychology
  • Use an em-dash rather than a parenthesis in dialogue.
  • How to make an em-dash?
    • alt 0151
    • word + two hyphens + word will turn automatically into an em-dash

Exclamation points

  • Imagine every tie you see an exclamation point in the book, the character is shrieking the sentence at the top of their lungs, sounding like a tween girl at a Miley Cyrus concert. Use italics to indicate emphasis! Don't use an exclamation mark!

Elipses Imagine ... your words ... read by ... William Shatner

  • In fiction, ellipses indicate a pause in speech or thought.
  • Ask yourself, "Do I really need this pause?"
  • Most of the time you won't need that pause.
  • Don't use it if someone is being interrupted. Use an em-dash.
    • A: YES. But it depends on what you're using capslock for. In Science Fiction, you can use this to describe text coming from a computer. Use it for formatting rather than emphasis (use italics for that).

Part II: Dem Bones - how to create strong stories and healthy pitches

Story Hooks (never begin at the beginning)

If you're going to be published, there are a couple million works of fiction in Amazon; you have 30 seconds to hook a reader. * The same is true if you're trying to hook an agent or editor. You have to get them the first three sentences. * "Begin at the beginning, go on till you come to the end then stop" Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland. NO NO NO!!! * Hero's Journey, Joseph Campbell * Ordinary world is boring. You can have your characters start there, but that's not where you want to start your story. * Star Wars, A New Hope - start with drama (hooks you right in) - doesn't start with whiny Luke Skywalker wanting to hang out with his friends - start with where something changes, then fold in details - start with the gun shot, then go into why someone is shooting


  • Think of your back story like salt; a pinch of salt seasons the soup. Too much salt ruins the soup.
  • It's a rookie mistake to front load the first chapter with the world-building.
  • If you have a big block of text with no one speaking, take it, break it up, sprinkle it in other areas.
  • Exposition dumps slow the story's pacing; it's boring.

Head hopping: don't change pilots mid-flight

  • Keep your story steady by not changing pilots mid-flight
  • POV switching mid-stream
  • omniscient narrator knows everything but most people don't go with this anymore
  • first person is easier
  • third person: there are lots of people running around. Don't head hop between characters.
  • You can switch if you're doing third person POVs scene to scene, chapter to chapter; but stay with that narrator for that scene.

Choose your verb

  • Using active language in taglines, pitches, and defining your brand
  • Focus on what you do, not necessarily random descriptions
  • Word choice is personal; it's how our voice is defined.
  • Suit the action to the word, the word to the action -- Shakespeare
  • Your characters are defined by what they do
    • characteristics aren't character
    • what do your characters do?
    • once you know this, you know how they will respond to plot points in your book
    • what is their special ability?
    • choose a core verb for that character
    • characters with opposing verbs will clash; ones with complementing verb
  • Merriam Webster app
    • put in your verb, check the thesaurus for the antonyms of your MC's verb to help create friction (source of conflict)
  • Team Good
    • rebel, resist
    • collect
    • inspire
    • invigorate
    • stimulate
    • pardon
    • free, rescue
  • Team Evil
    • squelch
    • oppress
    • control
    • subjugate
    • dominate
    • suppress
    • enslave
    • destroy
  • Say you have two characters
    • both on team good but do things very differently
    • Luke Skywalker (neutral good)
      • fixes
      • pilots
      • trains/learns
    • Han Solo (chaotic good)
      • smuggles
      • captain
      • improvises

What is your verb as a writer?

  • Elaine - challenge, coping, overcome
    • historical fantasy normally but a memoir this year (husband almost died)
  • Leslie
    • describe, transportive, create
    • teach, instruct, enrich, create order out of chaos
    • wrote non-fiction last year
  • First time writer: learn, explore, journey
  • Ellie
    • entertain (tell a good yarn)
    • thriller
    • to thrill (main verb; explore synonyms)
  • Think laterally; take thrill, go laterally, see other synonyms in that field and find one that fits better than just thrill
  • Mr. Ronin (new)
    • noun would be: Compassionate; Helpful
    • advance, ease, facilitate, champion, endorse, minister, sustain, protect
  • Barbara
    • Explore relationships
    • growing, developing, exploring the past
    • examine, investigate, research
    • writes mystery novels
  • Tanasha
    • Captivate, mesmerize, enchant, enspell
    • fantasy

Robyn's journey

  • evolved from a pantser -> plotter
  • crossed the 50K word mark, got married December 2nd the first year
  • writing for fun is fun; as soon as you are published, it becomes work
  • when you're on a deadline, you have a schedule, the publisher is waiting for you
    • you have to outline
    • with NaNo, would get stuck at 25K words
    • with an outline, just note [this is the scene where ...] and then move on
    • this also prevents you from falling down the research rabbit hole
    • put it in brackets (e.g., [coffee shop])

Tips for outlining

  • I use scrivener. I love scrivener.
  • A writing program built for writers by writers.
  • Gives you the ability to move stuff around easily.
  • Can put all your character info in a character session (quick, easy reference).
  • Article on Romance University: do all roads lead to story mapping?
    • three act plot structure (While You Were Sleeping)
    • this was very helpful
    • being able to relate this to a movie I was familiar with was helpful
  • Goal, Motivation, and Conflict, Debra Dixon
    • what the character wants, why they want it, what's stopping them from getting it
    • Star Wars, Wizard of Oz examples (that everyone is familiar with)

First time?

  • Find a buddy you can word war with
    • challenge poeple to write the most words in an hour
    • loser has to buy you a sandwich

Professional Journey?

  • From college student to a professional writer
  • Find a writer's group. Find an organization like RWA (if you write romance) that will help guide you into finding trends within your genre, places that are inquiring, agents that are inquiring. RWA conferences will do agent and editor pitch sessions (5-10 minutes). The more you do it, the easier it gets. Having a network (like the romance network on twitter, with interactions between established authors, new authors). Not all authors on twitter will reply to tweets.
  • Small critique groups are helpful (being able to talk it out with other authors is super-helpful). E.g., the Writing Journey
  • It's all about networking, which is super hard for writers
  • Go to "bar con" (the bar at a convention)


  • Chicago North (RWA) Chicago Spring Fling - last weekend in April
    • Discussions, topics and panels aren't exlusively romance (Deepening your point of view)
  • Biannual, local writer's conference (a smaller one, a good way to introduce yourself into the experience)
  • Good conference workshops (might be relatable for other genres)
  • Windy City also does biannual writer retreats (James Scott Bell suspense author came and did presentations)

Agents, editors

  • Will use what you've self-published as your resume; they want to hear what you will do next.
  • Write the next book; the more books you have in your back list, the more likely you are.
  • e-readers will read your whole backlist.
  • Robyn has 16-17 books in her series.
  • Ellie: it is very difficult to get an agent for a book already self published (unless it is something like the Martian) or if it is in a series that is already self-published. If you've retained audio, foreign rights, some agents will do audio rights for authors self-published on KDP or foreign rights (nearly impossible to organize yourself), but they have to have had success in self-publishing (thousands or tens of thousands of sales for a self-published books).
  • Self-publishing can give you more freedom.
  • Since 2006, the market has changed (it changes day by day; a very different world now from 2006). Not every author's journey goes through NYC. Some are successful as self-published authors. Some are successful with a hybrid path.
  • Audio books are the new big thing. Read your stuff out loud.

Character names

  • Avoid long character names or alliterative ones in the same book
  • Use nick names
  • Avoid names that sound the same