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Secrets of Superb Writing: 8 Tips From Cecil Murphey, co-author of 90 Minutes in Heaven

When Cecil Murphey (co-author of the best-seller 90 Minutes in Heaven: A True Story of Death and Life) became an author, he promised God two things: that he’d never stop learning, and that he would always give back to other writers. 114 (!) books later, Cec has made good on that promise by offering numerous scholarships to writing conferences, mentoring aspiring writers, and speaking to large groups of writers each year. Guest column from Dena Dyer, author, speaker, and entertainer from Texas. Her fifth book, Let the Crow's Feet & Laugh Lines Come (Barbour) will release in June 2010.

When Cecil Murphey (co-author of the best-seller 90 Minutes in Heaven: A True Story of Death and Life) became an author, he promised God two things: that he’d never stop learning, and that he would always give back to other writers. 114 (!) books later, Cec has made good on that promise by offering numerous scholarships to writing conferences, mentoring aspiring writers, and speaking to large groups of writers each year. I recently had the privilege of hearing Cec at the Hill Country Evangelical Free Church in Fredericksburg, Texas, where he led a session called “Secrets of Superb Writing.”

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Guest column from Dena Dyer, author, speaker,
and entertainer from Texas. Her fifth book,
Let the Crow's Feet & Laugh
Lines Come
(Barbour)
will release in June 2010. For more
info, visit her
website or her “Mother Inferior” blog.

With humor and honesty, Cecil touched on many mistakes beginning writers make—and gave us tips on how to avoid them.

1. Avoid “purple prose.” This refers to writing in which the author strains to sound dramatic and powerful. Usually, the result is melodramatic and strained. Examples: "When she saw his visage, her heart leaped into her throat. His feet flashed through the stripes of the late afternoon sun. The trees moved their limbs like an abstract artist piecing his design in the sky. Her dad’s mouth slammed shut like a bank vault a minute after closing." Write like you talk, Cecil advised us. That led to his second tip:

2. Be yourself. “People worry about others stealing their stuff,” he said. “But if you really write well and sound like yourself, no one can copy you.”

3. Be revealing. “If you don’t want to be self-revealing, don’t become a writer,” he said. “After all, I’d rather be disliked for who I am than be liked for who I’m not!”

4. Avoid clichés. “If it’s something you’ve heard before, don’t use it.”

5. To write good dialogue, listen to the way people really talk. “We don’t go around using other people’s names all the time,” Cecil explained. “But many writers use their characters’ names repeatedly in dialogue. It’s distracting.” ("CSI: Miami," are you listening? David Caruso needs to quit saying everyone’s name all the time!)

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6. Let your sentences average no more than 20 words.
“Years ago, short sentences were seen as choppy, but it’s simply the way people read now,” he explained. Similarly, he advised us:

7. Don’t be afraid to change with the times. “Words change and usages change,” Cecil said. “Don’t get hung up on that. It’s okay!”

8. End sentences with your strongest word. Instead of “Richard rattled the bushes with a stick he broke loose from a tree on the way in,” try: “With a stick he had broken loose from a tree on the way in, he rattled the bushes.” Bushes is stronger than the preposition in.

And finally, Cecil encouraged his audience to be true to themselves, follow their calling, be persistent, and keep growing and learning. “If you do these things, you will succeed,” he said. Great stuff, from an icon of the publishing world. For more of Cecil’s writing tips, visit his new blog.

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