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Catherine Coulter: 9 Simple Ways To Be a Better Writer

Categories: How to Improve Writing Skills, How to Write a Mystery, Writing Thrillers, What's New, Writer’s Digest Magazine February 2014 Online Exclusives Tags: thriller, ThrillerFest.

In her session at ThrillerFest, Catherine Coulter—who has had a stunning 62 New York Times bestsellers—shared her wisdoms on how to “Kill ‘Em Clean: Writing Sharp, Fast and Deadly.” These are the basics, Coulter said, you must master before you worry about finding an agent, or dive too deeply into your book.

“Always kill with lean writing,” she said. “Sloppy writing is not acceptable. … You don’t want to end up being a murder victim in your own book.”

1. Nix the adjectives.

“Treat adverbs like cloves of garlic,” Coulter said. “A few go a long way.” Moreover, listen to the way your prose sounds—“If you wouldn’t say something aloud, then don’t write it. All you’ve got to do is read it aloud, and therein lies the truth.” Coulter added that nothing any of us write is set in stone—you’re allowed to tear up the bad stuff, and start anew.

2. Avoid other words for “said,” and avoid redundancies.

Cut “She joked.” “He quipped.” “Damn you to hell, he yelled furiously.” As Coulter said, it’s like writing, “I’m sorry, he apologized.” You don’t need all the excess word fat. You want to be as straightforward as possible. Coulter said every time you use a substitute for “said,” the reader blinks—and you’ve pulled him out of the scene. Instead, you want constant forward motion. “Never let him escape with weak writing. … You’ve got to trust yourself that what the characters say will indicate clearly what they’re thinking and feeling.”

3. Excise the exclamation marks.

In Coulter’s opinion, you’re allowed three per book. Ditch the rest. Good prose shouldn’t require them, except in rare cases. “Three is all you get, so use them wisely.”

4. Forget the euphemisms.

Blue orbs for eyes? Nope. Coulter said to make your prose nuanced—you want the perfect word to convey your exact meaning, and you don’t want your readers to get stalled out for even a millisecond.

5. Don’t fall into stereotypes.

“Make your characters unique and true to themselves”—especially bad guys. “Make them real.” And concerning physical appearance, make your characters stunning knockouts only if that’s a key factor in how fellow characters see them. Coulter once gave a character a broken nose to prevent him from being too handsome. “Have a very good reason for whatever you do.” And give characters some sort of “tag,” some quirk that will make them real.

6. Use caution in sex scenes.

They’re difficult to pull off. Coulter’s advice: “Do not, on pain of death, do nitty gritty body parts.” “And do not overwrite.” “Don’t use dialogue that would make the reader barf.” Make the scenes funny and fun.

7. Avoid endless introspection.

Pacing is key, Coulter said. And too much introspection kills pacing. Furthermore, she said that if a character can say something aloud instead of think it, then by all means say it aloud.

8. Skip over-the-top violence and language.

Have an intense violent scene that doesn’t actually do anything for the plot of the story? Cut it. “If you’re doing it for shock value, it’s gratuitous and you don’t need it.”

9. “And above all, don’t take yourself too seriously.”

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12 Responses to Catherine Coulter: 9 Simple Ways To Be a Better Writer

  1. dochas says:

    Good tips, too bad she didn’t take her own advice before she wrote “Riptide”.

  2. Runte says:

    As an editor, I’d have to agree that about 95% of the beginning writers who cross by desk could benefit from applying these guidelines; but I’d also have to say that most published writers will break any one of these if it ‘feels right’.

    Interestingly, most of these common errors are a result of schooling — watched my daughter struggle with a language arts assignment to find 25 different ways to say “said”; another to inject more adjectives into her writing; even though she was a sufficiently good writer already to know this was backwards. Most of what I do at workshops on writers’ block is undo damage done by English high school and middle teachers. They mean well, but….

    Good writers can hear their own writing, and know what words need to be there…

  3. catbr says:

    With 62 bestsellers this woman must know what she is talking about! (oops, there’s one exclamation mark) I tend to agree with her tips as I have read books by some authors who in my opinion drag things out in their never ending descriptions. I find this very boring.

  4. HelloNorbu says:

    I broke most of her rules in my last comment.

  5. HelloNorbu says:

    My book I have been working on is essentially about introspection.
    So according to Coulter I am in trouble. I have had to be come skillful in making the objects of introspection into characters in their own right to keep the ‘action’ going.

  6. rampmg says:

    Thank you for the insights…Now I’m off to re-read with this in mind.

  7. IULIAN says:

    Thank you for this article, very much to the point. One thing though: I think the first point was supposed to be 1. Nix the Adverbs.

    Anyway, really good, thanks!

    Iulian

  8. Thank you so much! This was amazing to get to hear from one of my favorite authors, Catherine Coulter. I cut my reading teeth on Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Mary Higgens Clark and Catherine Coulter! Thank you so much for this wonderful information from such a legend. I will keep in my notebook forever.

  9. Dare Phillips says:

    Apparently Ms COULTER need to pass her axioms on to Clive Cussler. I’m sure he would appreciate the writing tips since he violates four of her nine ways to become a better writer.

    • DonMaker says:

      I have never read anything by Ms. Coulter, but I tried to wade through two of Cussler’s books. Talk about stereotypical characters and unbelievable plots, not to mention melo-dramatic prose! Yet, every time I read one of these articles on “how to write”, I come back to the same conclusion: Whatever works for you in captivating your audience is what you should do, regardless of the “rules”. If some people like Cussler’s style, then great for him.

    • Runte says:

      She specified “better writer”, not “best seller”.

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