Writing Tips

Writing Tips From An Expert

I’ve been re-reading an article with writing tips from someone who appeared to be quite expert in the field when he appeared at the Romance Writers of New Zealand conference last year. Despite having the flu, James Scott Bell managed to convey some very salient points.

I’d slipped this article of his away under all the other paperwork on my desk, and it wasn’t until I did a little office cleaning that I found it again. I have been reminded that I probably ignore the simple but rather obvious advice he offers.

He talks of what he calls “the five biggest fiction writing mistakes” and I thought I’d share them with my readers. Portions of this post are taken directly from his handout and I acknowledge James Scott Bell as being the originator of this material.

Happy People in Happy Land

His advice suggests if our characters are happy and content at the beginning of a story, this will not necessarily attract a reader’s sympathy when they end up with a problem.This fits with what we’re told – start your story with a live changing event. Even if they were happy moments before the start of the story, have your characters up the creek without a paddle right from page one.

A World Without Fear

Fear must feature. Death should hang over every scene. What? He divides his explanation of death into three distinct areas, which then makes sense. Physical, professional and psychological. Of course in a romance story the psychological “dying on the inside” is the one most likely to feature. Fear is paramount. It can range from worry to blind terror but it needs to exist in every scene. (Oh boy, I definitely need to go back and look at a few of my scenes.)

Marshmallow Dialogue

Crisp, tension-filled dialogue is needed. Dialogue with conflict. Dialogue which differentiates each character. James suggests producing a voice journal written in each character’s voice, talking to you on a variety of subjects so you learn to recognise their differences. To get rid of puffy, overly sweet (marshmallow) dialogue, cut those fluffy words, compress the dialogue until its tight.


Avoid allowing the reader to guess what’s coming next. Throw something unexpected into every scene. Ask yourself what might happen next, make a list concentrating on description, action and dialogue. Don’t choose the first thing to pop into your mind (it’s likely a cliche) but force yourself to list at least five alternatives.

Lost Love

James aligns writing a book with falling in love. But he suggests counseling might sometimes be required during this love affair. Losing the verve with your material will show. Recreating your backstory will help deepen your characters and thus regain the impetus of your story. Even if you have an extensive bio of each of your characters, James suggests you write another. Focus on the year your character turned 16 and write about all that happened to her/him at a crucial time of their lives. Include romances, heartaches, tragedies. Then focus on what that character yearns for. Find whatever it is providing a lack, a need, a hole in their soul. When you return to your story, your writing will likely be revived with this new detail of your characters.

Good luck with trying these tips with your own writing. After re-reading James’ handout, and dissecting it even closer as I share it with you, I’m feeling invigorated and ready to return to my work in progress. Thoughts of improvements I’m going to make are running around inside my head already.


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