Starting Your Novel…and Killing Words

I’m writing this post because this message hit home yesterday. An editor can usually tell within the first page or two if a manuscript is good or acceptable. A novel’s first pages encapsulate much of the story and establish character, setting (time and place), voice, pace, and even audience.

I started my novel a while back and wrote it piece by piece–a piece here, a piece there, knowing the pieces would need to be shuffled around and reworked. I started in a mysterious tone. I really liked it. But, alas, it didn’t work.

Actually, I broke all the rules. So I spent yesterday killing words.

There were words and paragraphs and chapters that I loved. The wording was precise and exact and descriptive and I thought, um, beautiful. But I killed them. I can easily kill the words of other people when I edit, but it was really hard to kill my own. I’ve done this before to my own work, but never, ever this much.

Do you know how it feels to kill words? (Maybe, just maybe, you should.)

After killing words, I like the new chapter. I think I’ve created a platform, a story opening, that I can jump into the depths from and swim across the pages.

So if you are wondering about your own manuscript, I can not only help you kill words and get the opening right, but now I can really and truly sympathize and empathize! We’ll cry together, hug, and then be happy! Check these things in your own novel opening that you may need to address:

  1. Do you open in scene? Some manuscripts open with interior thoughts of the characters or with description of the place. Ask yourself: is anything happening?
  2. Do you give too little information? Some manuscripts attempt to create a sense of mystery, but in doing so, don’t give the reader enough information. Some manuscripts don’t make clear what is happening or the importance of what is happening. Ask yourself: do you make clear where the characters are and what is going on?
  3. Do you give too much information? Some manuscripts start with pages of backstory or description or flashbacks. As an editor, I’ve killed five to fifteen opening pages of different manuscripts. (It’s easy when it’s not my own!) A reader only needs enough information to understand the scene in progress.

Good and successful manuscripts are well-balanced with action, motivation, a little description, and some thought. They begin with a main character in a scene with an immediate goal to achieve. They pull the reader in to turn the page and see what happens next.

TurnStyle helps with the editing of full manuscripts, but also with first chapters. Let us know if you need to make sure you are on good footing in your opening!


Meet Mary and Kathy at TurnStyle Writers

TurnStyle offers serious help for serious writers.

Whether you write fiction or nonfiction, writing is all about telling stories that engage, surprise, and stimulate. For six years, TurnStyle founders Mary Buckner and Kathy Rhodes have been assisting Nashville writers to find their voices and tell their stories. Services are customized for each individual, ranging from one-on-one coaching and editing to full co-writing and re-writing. Both Mary and Kathy love to share their passion for the written word.

Mary (M.M.Buckner) is the award-winning author of five novels, two memoirs, and a young-adult collaboration. Her work has been published in five languages and well received on three continents. Mary holds a Master’s in Creative Writing from Boston University.

Kathy is author of two book-length memoirs, and her essay, “An Open Letter,” was singled out for review in The New Yorker. She has organized and taught at various creative nonfiction conferences and served as editor of two literary journals. Kathy holds a BA in English and Education from Delta State University, where she won the Annie Caulfield Winston Writing Award, and she did graduate studies at the University of Memphis.

For more information, contact:
Mary – marymbuckner at
Kathy – kathyrhodes at

Talk to us about your current project.

Getting Started — How to Write More Abundantly

According to a recent survey, four out of five Americans say they want to write a book someday, but only a few will ever do it. Why? Because it’s so hard to get started. Someday never seems to become this day─today.

But I’ll tell you a secret. Once you get started, the going gets easier. So here’s my advice. Sit down today and make a short list of your reasons why you want to write. Look at your list, and ask yourself, “Do I truly yearn to write?”

If your answer is yes, then at the bottom of your list, write in ink your starting date and time. It might be tomorrow, or one day next week, or next month. Read your starting date aloud, and if possible, share your plan with someone who loves you.

Then whatever you have to do to get ready─make room in your schedule, set up your writing space, get your computer fixed─do it. Don’t worry about what you’re going to write. Just get the necessary basics in place.


When the glorious starting day arrives, sit down at your appointed time, put your fingers on the keys, or on pen and paper, and just start writing anything that comes to mind as fast as your fingers can move. If you can’t think of anything, write a list of colors, flowers, animals, or whatever interests you. This is your warm-up. You are strengthening your finger muscles and your sitting muscles─because writing requires a lot of both.

If you need an idea, write about what you did yesterday. Turn your warm-up into a journal. Journaling is fun!

IMPORTANT: NO ONE WILL EVER SEE YOUR WARM-UP. Do not worry about spelling or grammar or punctuation. Do not worry if it even makes sense. Just write.

If your warm-up turns into a thought session about the story or memoir you want to write, that’s fine, but don’t push. Let it come naturally. You may surprise yourself. Once you begin writing about a person, place, or idea, you may unknowingly launch into narrative that has worth. After fifteen minutes, wipe the sweat off your brow and tell yourself, “Well done!”

You’ve started!

15 Tips for More Abundant Writing

1. Every day, look at your list of reasons why you yearn to write. If you yearn to write, then you are a writer. Believe it.

2. Put writing first. Write when your energy is highest. Get up early, or stay up late. Carve out a time and protect it like you would for an important meeting.

3. Pick a starting time, and stick with it. Set a low goal at first─15 minutes a day, 5 days a week.

4. Close your door. Tell your family this is your private time.

5. Eliminate distractions: turn off the TV, get a babysitter, unplug the phone, stay off social media, avoid Facebook.

6. Don’t force yourself to be brilliant. Give yourself permission to write junk.

7. Don’t worry about mistakes. You can fix them later.

8. Go off on tangents. Follow strange paths. Allow yourself to PLAY.

9. Don’t show your work to anyone until you feel ready.

10. Take walks just to think about what you have written and where it might go.

11. Join – or start – a writing group. Meet often, support each other, and hold each other accountable in a gentle way.

12. Read the best writing you can find: the classics, the award winners, the authors you love.

13. Take writing workshops.

14. Read books and articles about writing craft.

15. Writing takes PRACTICE. Keep playing. Keep believing. Your writing time will naturally increase, and you will become prolific.

Why Learning Craft Is Important

What is craft? The techniques writers use to capture a reader’s attention in the telling of a story are referred to as the writer’s craft. Essential components of craft are establishing a clear voice, choosing precise words, incorporating a useful organization, developing effective sentences, and creating vivid characters and a compelling plot that illuminate your underlying theme.

Imagine a professional musician playing an amazing piece—smooth and fluid and polished—with every note perfect. Imagine another musician who isn’t in tune, misses notes, and leaves out measures. Which one would you prefer listening to?

My son was a classical guitar major in college. He had years of study under the masters. He learned theory, took private and group lessons, and practiced hours every day. He attended the presentations and performances of other students, and he performed, too. He even bought his own tuxedo. It took time and tunnel-vision for him to master the skills and techniques, to perfect each finger movement, each sound, and the timing of each note. He learned the tricks of his trade. His fingernails had to be long and perfect. He had numerous bottles of fingernail hardeners and strengtheners and clear polish, fancy files, and even had to learn to fashion a fingernail out of a ping pong ball and cement it to his nail base if one of his broke.


It takes commitment and dedication to be a skilled artisan. As a writer, you should want to have this same commitment, dedication, and reputation for quality.

Why does it matter? Because the reader can tell the difference. He may not be able to put into words that there is too much narrative and not enough action, or too much backstory, or passive construction, but he knows when the book is “so-so” or “so good I couldn’t put it down.” He also knows when there are mistakes in grammar and punctuation.

This means the burden is on you to keep learning craft.

The goal of many writers is to publish and sell their work, while others write for friends, family, or business. Today, so many people are writing books that your manuscript must be as sharp as possible to get attention from agents or publishers. Although it is easier than ever to self-publish a book, if it lacks proper grammar, structure, or even clarity, no one will enjoy it. Those who take the time to learn the craft of writing do themselves and others a huge favor; they give the term “self-publishing” a good name and make the label of “writer” worthy of respect.

There are various avenues one can take to write like a professional. What are some things you can do?

– Read a variety of books on the craft of writing. Study premise, character development, plot, dialogue, point of view, scene, and setting, for example. A few suggestions: On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, Second Edition by Renni Browne and Dave King, The Elements of Style by William Strunk and E.B. White, The Writing Life by Annie Dillard, and On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction by William Zinsser.

– Attend workshops and conferences that bring in successful published authors to teach classes on craft.

– Hire a writing coach for one-on-one sessions on techniques, organization of your writing project, or getting started and following through to meet your goals.

– Join a writers group that critiques and discusses craft. Get feedback on your writing and learn from other writers.

– Go to writers’ meetings, lectures, and events offered by the public library, bookstores, and book festivals, as well as writers’ meet-ups in your city, to soak in all you can about writing and publishing from professionals and peers.

– Read books in a variety of genres. Read with a critical eye and ask questions. Where did the author start? How did she handle character introductions? How did she build suspense and tension? What is the conflict and when was it introduced? How did the author approach showing and telling? How did she handle dialogue and description?

– Read the genre you want to write. Read books by a variety of authors. Read for voice and craft and not just for the pleasure of it.

– Writers write. You can’t be a writer if you don’t write.

– The more you do it, the better you get.

– You don’t wait for inspiration; you just do it.

– Don’t worry about it being good. Put the words on the page and then read it out loud, and you will hear places that don’t sound right and are in need of improvement.

– Some people just want to publish a book. They don’t want to take the time to learn to write. They want the finished product.

– People who regard writing as a profession write consistently. Those who regard writing as a hobby usually don’t.


Look what’s new at TurnStyle Writers! Twice a month, editors Mary Buckner and Kathy Rhodes will post about the craft of writing. Visit us on the 1st and 15th of each month to read about such topics as voice, writing in scenes, plot, point of view, character development, dialogue, and much more. Refresh your knowledge and improve your skills! And please leave a comment, offer feedback, or ask a question. We’d love to hear from you!