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.”