Pub Rants

Category: Beginning writer mistakes

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!

Beginning Writer Mistakes

STATUS: Tonight I’ll be back in Denver and ready to start my week.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? SHAKE IT by Metro Station
(Can you tell I’ve been spending time with a 14 year old?)

Over the course of the year, I often participate in writer conference charity events where the prize is a read by yours truly. In other words, when I read for charity, Sara is not prescreening. Same with certain referrals sent my way.

Since the materials weren’t requested, I’m seeing sample pages from writers of various levels of ability, and with these unscreened pages, I see two very obvious beginning writer mistakes. Both of which could be easily fixed once the problem is pointed out and once the writer gets a little “formal” training regarding the writing process (either through a class or via a good critique group).

Here they are in case anyone reading this blog finds this remotely helpful.

1. The old adage still holds true. Show, don’t tell. In other words, newbie writers will often have a scene and then follow it with an explanation of the scene for the reader. Or, the newbie will simply explain what they want from the scene rather than write the scene well and let the scene speak for itself through character building, setting, and dialogue.

I will often see this in above average sample pages as well—in other words, writers are exhibiting a lot of expertise with a scene and then they can’t resist telling or offering an explanation! But as I mentioned, this is an easy aspect of writing to learn and fix.

2. Problems with dialogue. This issue exists on two levels. One, the newbie writer will include dialogue that doesn’t further the story, help the scene, or explore character. (in other words, the dialogue is pointless). Or two, the writer will have a bit of dialogue (and it can be well executed) and then there is a summary of what the reader should have gotten from the dialogue immediately thereafter.

These two issues will mark the writer as a newbie every time and with a little instructive teaching, can be tackled and resolved. As an agent, I don’t have time to go through and mark the manuscript to point this out. My assumption is that these key writing skills should be learned before querying the agent. It’s just a pass—sometimes with a comment referring to this but most often not.