Pub Rants

Category: Beginning writer mistakes

Dancing With The Stars Analogy

STATUS: Today was my final round of meetings. I’m taking tomorrow off and then heading back to Denver.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? MAD WORLD by Gary Jules with Michael Andrews
(I rather like this remake of an old Tears For Fears song.)

When I was at the Backspace Conference last week, a fellow agent made an analogy that I thought was rather apt. Here’s my lame attempt to paraphrase the thought.

For all other forms of art, say being a dancer or a painter or a musician, the general public rather believes that it takes years of practice to master the art form. In fact, the artist might do an apprenticeship, take classes, study under a master, or have many practice tries that are then thrown out.

People, in general, don’t actually believe that if they take one tango class, they are ready for Dancing with the Stars.

But for whatever reason, this same viewpoint doesn’t apply when it comes to writing novels. Lots of aspiring writers really do think they can hammer out a first novel without studying the art form, without participating in a critique group, without learning the mechanics and boom, get a publishing contract. Get a big advance. Become a bestseller.

Now I know that my blog readers don’t think this way—because you read this blog as well as other industry blogs. You guys are smart enough to know otherwise but I’d say that for at least 50% of the queries we receive, the writers contacting us did very little to master the craft of writing. In fact, they probably didn’t even bother researching elements of the biz.

And yet they think they are ready for Dancing With The Stars. They get angry with agents who they perceive as impeding their success because we aren’t recognizing their talent. And these same writers make it that much harder for you savvy people to be heard through the noise.

So my little rant for the day.

Am I Hooked Or Not Hooked?

STATUS: Today was pretty quiet because of the President’s Day holiday. I like that. I accomplish a lot and it isn’t even Saturday.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? FAT BOTTOMED GIRLS by Queen

For 2009, I’m pretty much on conference and contest hiatus. There’s just too much of a time crunch to take on extra tasks or travel but last year, I had promised to participate in a very interesting contest. When January rolled around and it was time to say ‘yes’ to the commitment, I was true to my word.

So over the weekend, I did the Secret Agent contest on the blog misssnarksfirstvictim. Obviously the secret it out but over the weekend, I was reading and commenting on 60 submitted first pages.

The question I had to answer was: “Am I Hooked? Why or why not.”

In other words, it was exactly like reading our slush pile but in this case, the submitters got feedback.

Yeah, I thought that might perk up your ears a bit. And it’s definitely worth popping over there to read the entries and my response to them. I signed each of my comments with the moniker secret agent.

Since I have the wonderful Sara, it’s been a while since I’ve read the slush slush (so to speak) and I’ll tell you right now that two problems rose to the surface on why I said “not hooked, wouldn’t read further” on some of the entries and I’m going to share those two things with my blog readers right now.

The two top problems were:

1. To much telling instead of showing the character in the scene (or too heavy a reliance on back story to jumpstart the story).


2. Not enough mastery of the craft—in other words, the writing needed to be tightened. Too much wordiness, overuse of adverbs, immediately explaining what was just revealed in dialogue, etc.

So if you are wondering how an agent reads and responds to an opening page, you might want to give that blog a look and read through the entries and the comments.

And here’s another interesting thing to note. When I did the contest, most of the the participants had already responded to each entry. I deliberately did not read any of the response comments until I had left my own comment first.

I was amazed at how often the things that tripped me up where spotted and noted by the author writers participating and reading the blog contest.

You want those folks for your critique group. I’m just saying….

The Art Of Getting Blurbs

STATUS: Completely slammed today so I haven’t had a chance to do anything with my trip notes.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? MONEY BURNS A HOLE IN MY POCKET by Dean Martin

So I’m going to be totally lame and let a lovely author make my point for me today. An author of mine alerted me to this post by Lauren Baratz-Logsted over at Red Room and I personally think that every author and aspiring writer cut and paste this advice into a file that you can review over and over.

There really is an art to requesting a blurb. A way of handling it professionally. A way of being gracious if a request is declined. A way of being gracious if a request is granted (goes without saying) but sure enough, one misguided author has managed to flub it completely.

So here’s the link to Lauren’s advice.

Not to mention, Red Room is a rather cool place. You might want to look around a bit. Lots of good stuff for writers on this site.

Can A Manuscript Jump The Shark?

STATUS: One of my goals for this travel week was to get caught up on the fulls we have requested. The week is drawing to an end. I’d better hop to it!

What’s playing on the iPod right now? SOS by Rihanna

You know I almost never respond to questions in the comment section but one astute reader asked a question that really got me thinking. Have I ever asked for a full manuscript, started to fall in love, and then had the manuscript jump the shark halfway or three quarters of the way through the full?

The answer is yes. In fact, that should be in capital letters– YES. It doesn’t happen often but when it does, it can be a huge sad moment.

It’s one reason why agents always read until the end—even if they are sure they love the voice, the plot, and what have you. There really is such a thing as a manuscript suddenly taking a sharp left turn and leaving the agent stunned and confused.

What’s interesting though is this. I don’t keep a running track record but I do know of a few authors whose first projects I read, really liked, had this happened so I ultimately passed on that novel who then went on to get agented (and sold) with a later manuscript. Sometimes it’s just that last little kernel of knowledge that the author needed to learn about plotting before having it all click on a more mature manuscript.

In fact, one of the authors I have right now is a writer I passed on originally for her first manuscript (not exactly for this reason but for something close). I then took her on for her second novel and sold it at auction.

So when I see it, I always tell the writer that the manuscript diverged too suddenly for me (and why) but we see talent here and would be open to seeing future stuff.

Sometimes they take us up on it. Sometimes they end up represented by an agent friend (which is how I ended up knowing about it). Otherwise I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t remember as I don’t keep track.

What Established Authors Have To Say

STATUS: As much as I enjoyed Worldcon (the SFWA and TOR party were quite fun on Friday), I must say I’m just relieved to be sitting here alone in my office just working away.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? FOR ONCE IN MY LIFE by Michael Bublé

On Saturday, I attended a panel entitled “Writing 101: Authors Take Questions from the Audience.”

Now this may be an odd panel for an agent to attend (being that I’m not an author) but I do think it’s valuable to hear what established authors have to say to aspiring writers. At the very least, it’s going to be a healthy reminder to me of what struggling writers face out there in the trenches.

Besides, I was just interested in hearing what war stories Harry Turtledove, Kate Elliott (I’m a big fan) and Kay Kenyon had to share.

It was a good panel and I’m glad to have attended. I think the best pearls of wisdom that I gleamed from their talk are these two:

1. All writers have felt like they’ve been kicked to the curb at some point in their career (be it trying to land an agent, accessing an editor at a publishing house, or sifting through the myriad of rejections). You are not alone and the best you can do is to keep writing because that’s what writers do. All established authors have at least one manuscript that will never see the light of day. Many have several.

2. Wherever you are now in your writing is not where you will always be. These established authors said that they couldn’t reread their first published novels because ack, they are so much better now; they can hardly believe that such dreck actually was published (my take: even established authors are hard on themselves!). You will learn and grow as a writer and your rejections today might simply be a memory tomorrow.

Good advice I think.

Don’t Mistake Voice For Character Development

STATUS: It was a nice quiet day. Only something like 25 emails versus my usual 60 to 80 on any given work day. Gosh I love half-day Fridays in publishing!

What’s playing on the iPod right now? COME MONDAY by Jimmy Buffett

I’ve been reading sample pages again this week (a desperate bid to catch up before I go out of town all next week for RWA in San Fran).

And here’s another “problem” that has me thinking this week. I see a lot of young adult sample pages and one thing I’d like to highlight is that writers should not mistake voice for character development in their manuscripts.

In other words, I’m seeing a lot of sample pages with fun, light (dare I say—chick litty) kinds of voices where the main characters will use a lot of OMG or “hello? How could they not know” type of phrases as a way capturing girl teen speak.

Now I understand why writers are using this. It’s a fun, more light tone to convey the lighter nature of the novel but that alone does not define your main protagonist. In other words, that’s only ONE facet of character development. That alone will not be enough and that’s why I’m passing on a lot of sample pages as of late—pages with good concepts but an over-reliance on this voice technique and almost no other character development outside of the voice.

I need to see more original character development so the young teen protagonist strikes me as a unique individual (worthy of a story) and not a conglomeration of how teen girls talk.

It’s Friday and I’ll just throw it out there. Let me know if it makes sense. Have a good weekend.

Beginning Writer Mistake (Take 4)

STATUS: TGIF! Really, what more is there to say?

What’s playing on the iPod right now? WHEN YOU COME by Crowded House

Let’s round off this week by focusing on one more mistake Sara and I have been seeing lately. We call it the opening-chapter-back-story-info-dump.

That pretty much sums it up.

But if you want more details, this is when writers feel like they can’t begin their story until the readers know and understand the back story, or the history of the character who opens the novel, or how the world works (if this is SF or fantasy). So, the opening chapter usually has nothing to do with the direction of the rest of the novel but the writer hasn’t mastered the ability to integrate it seamlessly as the real-time story unfolds.

The writing is almost always explanation (telling instead of showing) with very little dialogue, scene action, or character development.

Auto NO response every time.

This is often why prologues don’t work.

And don’t be fooled, the chapter back story info dump is sometimes disguised by coming in chapter 2 or chapter 3 but can be characterized by many pages where the above telling versus showing happens at the expense of dialogue, plot, character, or scenes to move the story forward.

So don’t just breathe a sigh of relief if you’ve checked your opening chapters and it’s not there. The large info dump chunk can sneak in later. If the chunk comes later and the rest of the novel is decent until then, we agents will allow some wiggle room because that issue can be easily edited if it’s just a one time snafu. I find that if this problem exists though, many of the other beginning writer mistakes are present as well.

Have a happy editing weekend!

Titles: Another Writer Mistake?

STATUS: I’ve got a lot of phone calls to do to start my day.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? 50 WAYS TO LEAVE YOUR LOVER by Simon & Garfunkel

This one is certainly a lesser evil and in comparison to some of the other writer mistakes we’ve talked about this week, low on the totem pole. But I do think it’s worth mentioning although I’m pretty sure I’ve already discussed this at least once on my blog.

The overdone title.

A couple of thoughts to keep in mind:

1. Sometimes simple works—and works really well. (TWILIGHT for example). Don’t make a title more complicated then you need.

My client Jenny O’Connell has a great example of this with her two current back-to-back releases from MTV/Pocket Books: LOCAL GIRLS and RICH BOYS.

My sense is that you can probably figure out the direction of the story just from the titles. The first book, Local Girls, is about two teens who have grown up on island of Martha’s Vineyard. They are the local girls until one teen’s mother gets remarried to a rich tourist and takes the family from the island to Boston. The story takes place the next summer where the once local girl has returned as a tourist and will the friendship survive?

Rich Boys is, yep, you got it. A local girl hired to babysit a wealthy summer family’s little girl becomes entangled with the wealthy family’s older son who, after a disastrous first year of college, is bent on wreaking havoc.

Simple but grabby.

2. Avoid the pithy title with the long, rambling subtitle. I cannot tell you how often I see this. The title can be something like (and I’m making this up off the top of my head), The Survivor Chronicles (which could be a rather cool title if you think about it!). And then the author ruins it with the lengthy subtitle such as (and yes, this is an exaggeration)—a memoir about a young abused woman coming of age, discovering her bi-polarism, embracing her sexuality and finally triumphing against all odds.

Heck, I don’t need to read the book anymore…And yes, unfortunately, I do recognize that the professionals in the publishing industry are often guilty of this but as writers, there is no need for you to fall into this trap.

3. In general, avoid titles that might be hard to pronounce or difficult to spell.

4. To Be a Long Title or Not to Be a Long title? That is the question. And the answer is that it depends.

AND THEN WE CAME TO THE END works because as readers, we totally get it and the longer title is memorable.

Same with I’D TELL YOU I LOVE YOU BUT THEN I’D HAVE TO KILL YOU. We’ve all used a similar phrase often so the longer title works.

But then you have the power of the short title such as Brooke Taylor’s UNDONE.

This title can be read in so many ways. It leaves a question in the reader’s mind. What is undone? Does it mean incomplete? Or, to come undone? In this case, it’s the first question. What is left undone is the 5 wishes of a teen girl who dies and her best friend, Serena, decides to complete the list and in doing so, discovers who she really is.

The short title can be evocative.

And speaking of short titles and writer mistakes, you might want to check out this soon-to-be released slim volume called HOW FICTION WORKS by James Wood. Funny, he’s tackling all the issues that I’ve just talked about on this blog. Powerful stuff.

Beginning Writer Mistakes (Take 3)

STATUS: When I do my blog early in the day, I feel like I’ve actually accomplished something! Time to channel this energy into all my other tasks for the day.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? YOU’RE THE ONE THAT I WANT by Olivia Newton-John and John Travolta

I’m still thinking of those sample pages from last night and it totally reminded me of another writer mistake which didn’t become crystal clear until this morning. Definitely another pitfall to avoid.

Okay, the writer writes a solid, action-oriented scene where the characters involved make crucial discoveries that move the story forward. Another plot piece snaps into place for the reader. This is great. This is exactly what a good writer should be doing. This scene works.

Then in the next scene, characters arrive that weren’t in the previous scene and now the writer feels like it’s necessary to recap the previous scene in dialogue for the newly arrived characters.

Sometimes this is necessary but when it happens repeatedly in the story, it’s just bad writing. Not to mention, it’s going to feel repetitive as the reader already knows the information.

As for dialogue revealing back story, sure that’s a good tool but yet another writing element that should not be overused.

Here’s another thing to be on the look out for. Do your characters just sit around having conversations rather than actively doing something in a scene? This one can be hard to spot as the dialogue can be really good, crucial even, but if readers start paying attention, they’ll realize that nothing BUT dialogue and conversations are happening in the novel.

You don’t want that either! Trust me, I’ve seen this. As an agent, it might take me 80 pages to catch on but eventually I will and I’ll pass on the manuscript.

Beginning Writer Mistakes (Take 2)

STATUS: First day back in the office after being away is always a bit busy. There’s just a lot of catch up to do.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? WHAT YOU NEED by INXS

Tonight I was reading some sample pages (this time from material requested) and I hit on yet another newbie writer mistake. Actually, I need to clarify. This writing mistake isn’t relegated to just new writers. I see this error happen for seasoned writers as well. Writers who have enough talent on the page to keep me reading for a100 pages or so before I finally give up in exasperation.

Curious as to what it is?

It’s the mistake of telling instead of showing but in the guise of dialogue that seems to revolve around in active scene but if one analyzes what is actually unfolding, there isn’t any real action happening.

In other words, the characters are basically sitting around talking about their past actions or research or a discovery but the reader is getting privy to that information after the fact rather than having the writer write the scene where the discovery is made.

I’ll tell you right now that this is a tough error to spot as dialogue SEEMS to be moving the story forward but if you look closely enough, the dialogue is simply recapping an event or a discovery that happened off stage. Once the writer has fallen into this trap, it’s hard to break from it and ultimately the whole manuscript ends up suffering despite the occasional really fine bright spot or two in the narrative where a scene unfolds as it should.

And I wish I could share actual examples but I can’t. My clients don’t make these kinds of mistakes and the materials I’ve requested are private (proprietary info) and can’t be shared without permission. I can’t imagine too many writers would want to volunteer for that “honor” on this blog.

And will I try and point this out in my letter to the author? Sure but since I’m not going to dissect a scene where this occurs, I’m not sure how helpful my general commentary will be. I can only hope these writers seek external help from critique groups and/or already established writers to pinpoint this pitfall.

It’s definitely a writing foe worth vanquishing!