October 6, 2014

The Difference Between Great and Almost-Great Books

By Irene Hannon 

After 45+ books, I’ve learned that the difference between great and almost-great books can often be summed up in two words—the basics. Getting those right can give you a winning edge. So here are 12 genre-neutral tips (because good writing is good writing) that can help put the final polish on your writing.

  1.  Start in the right place, i.e. right in the middle of the action. Create a high-impact opening that immediately lets readers know something big is at stake. Begin with a bang—sometimes literally in suspense, but figuratively in any book. The opening must also leave readers with a question that makes them want to read on to find the answer.

2.     Pay attention to chapter and scene endings. Again, leave the reader with a question or make the reader curious about what’s coming next. Give him or her a reason to keep reading.

3.     Never take the reader out of story. If you must weave in technical information or backstory, find a way to do it in the context the scene. Don’t stop the action for a data dump from a disembodied narrative voice.

4.     Don’t head hop within a scene. This is disruptive to story flow. It’s better to let the readers, along with the point-of-view character, try to figure out what the other players are thinking by viewing  their actions, inflections and gestures through the eyes of the viewpoint character.

5.     Pay attention to rhythm. For example, short, choppy sentences convey tension and urgency. This is a good technique for a charged scene in any genre. So use sentence length and construction to help convey mood through rhythm.

6.     Cut adverbs. Eliminating adverbs strengthens writing by forcing us to choose better words. Don’t say she walked slowly; pick a stronger verb. She ambled, crept, limped, and trudged.

7.     Make limited use of dialogue tags (he said/she said). Most of the time you don’t need them and they bog down the pace.

8.     Use as much dialogue as possible vs. narrative to advance plot, deepen characterizations, and share background info. Dialogue keeps the story active and immediate and the reader feels engaged and in the middle of the action.

9.     Write tight and cut ruthlessly if something doesn’t advance the plot or offer new insights into a character, cut it.  Author Elmore Leonard was asked once how he did this. He said he simply left out the parts readers skip. That’s a great rule. Everything must be deliberate and there for a purpose or it should be cut.

10.  Always take the time to choose the perfect word. Walked conveys a whole different meaning than sauntered.

11.  Don’t overuse pet words. We all fall into this trap, and new ones keep cropping up. Make a list of your overused words, then search for them after you finish each chapter.

12.   Limit descriptions, especially of settings. Popular fiction readers have no patience for long, lyrical passages. They want the mood and place captured quickly so they can move into the action.
Irene Hannon, who writes both contemporary romance and romantic suspense, is the bestselling author of more than 45 novels. Her books have been honored with two coveted RITA awards (the “Oscar” of romantic fiction), a Carol award, a Daphne du Maurier award, a National Readers’ Choice award, three HOLT Medallions, a Retailers Choice award and two Reviewers’ Choice awards from RT Book Reviews magazine. A former corporate communications executive with a Fortune 500 company, Irene now writes full time. Her Private Justice series includes the titles: Deceived, Trapped and Vanished. She can be found at

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