Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Your writing doesn't have to be perfect, but it should at least be close.

Over at the Murderati Blog, J D Rhodes talks about the "writing rules" and a debate between two other writers as to why you should or should not follow them. One of the writers had posted a "Do and Don't" list after slogging through a bunch of short story contest entries. I won't give the play by play, just go read JD's post.

Last year the website, along with Penguin Putnum (I think it was them) hosted a crime fiction novel contest. Contestants were to put up the first chapter of their conpleted novels for review by the general public. The readers would them comment on the pieces and give a vote of one to ten stars. The top twenty five vote getters moved onto the semi-finals and posted chapter two. The top ten went onto the finals, which were sent to "professional" judges (published authors and such.)

Anyway, the contest was pretty much about popularity...who could get the most votes. Now, that's not to say some of the entries weren't good. I didn't enter the contest, but I had been in the previous contest for the Romance category (I made the second round and finished tied in the top ten, but I didn't do enough spamming for votes I guess.) Anyway, during the romance contest I kind of made a name for myself as (as one person put it) a hardass when it came to critiques. I didn't hold back any punches, didn't sugar-coat to make the writer feel good, I stricktly pointed out what I felt was wrong with the piece and how I thought they could fix it. Only one or two contestants spewed insults at me, the rest thanked me for my candor.

When the Crime contest started I posted a notice saying I would not be reading/rating the entries unless they were sent to me via personal invitation. But, before accepting any invitations I posted a caveat for everyone to read so there would be no misunderstandings where my comments on the work are concerned.

For me the hardest part of the contest was commenting on an entrant's story, because in no way did I want to discourage or hurt anyone with my opinion. However, for anyone who "knew" me, knew I also prefer to be honest in order to help the writer improve.

Now, something I noticed during the contest. The guidelines state that the chapters can be up to 10K words. Well, it appears several of the contestants (at least from what I read) decided to combine a few chapters. Their reasons, I assume, were so the reader would have more to read and get more drawn to the story.

Well, for me, for the most part, having to read such a long chapter only put me off a lot of the stories. Why? Because, aside from the time constraints, it made the chapter feel overwritten.

Like with anything in writing, there are no clear cut rules on chapter length. Your first chapter should be as long or as short as you want it to be...but it should also grab you within the first few pages and end with such a cliffhanger that you have to turn to next chapter.

I understand, more than anyone, no writer is going to have a perfect first or second or even thir draft. There will always be edits for grammar or punctuation. doesn't mean you should toss your manuscript "out there" and hope no one notices or cares that you misplaced all your commas, or even used too many.

On an entry (I didn't particularly care for because of the amount of edits I felt the story needed) someone (who's work I didn't care for either) posted this comment in regards to my critique:
Yes, we all know that there will be revisions and more editing; however
sometimes we need to look past that and just read the story

Uh....No. Agents and editors aren't going to look past bad writing so they can find out where your story is going. If you can't grab them in the first few pages your story is doesn't matter if it's the best thing since microwave popcorn! (um...I love mircowave popcorn)

Now, I read close to a hundred of the entries because for some crazy reason people wanted me to....their reasoning being, they wanted to learn and I'm known as the resident Hard ass where my comments are concerned and I tend to give detailed feedback (when I can), without sugar-coating. I didn't set out to get such a reputation, but I do know, if you can't take it from me (when I'm trying to help) how are you going to take it from an agent or editor??

So, here is my advice to new writers based on what I've read of the entries and the comments I left on the works I felt aren't quite there yet.

To those who chose to write in first person...and for some reason, thriller and/or crime fiction newbies seem to think they're supposed to...I would suggest, unless you've read and studied works by the pros who know how to write first person exceptionally (i.e.; Lee Child, Robert Crais, Rick Rhiordan, and love her or hate her--Patricia Cornwell)...don't try it at home.

The mistakes I see a lot of new writers make with first person are they tend to spend too much time in the narrator's head, explaining the who's and why's of everything until it becomes monotonous to read. Granted, with first person your main character is telling you the story....but the reader doesn't need to know the background of every single thing that affected the character's life....because it's really not that important (and if it is, it can be woven in as secondary character's are introduced. But at a minimum. Less is more.)

Don't write a whole passage about how John met Jane twenty years ago at the vet when they were waiting for the free rabies shots given each year and the dogs fell in love so it was natural they would too but it didn't quite work out because...blah blah blah! None of that has anything to do with who the character is as a person or why the reader should relate to him/her. All it's doing is taking the reader out of the story. And once you do've lost your reader because (unless they're related to you) they aren't going to want to go back and read to figure out what the heck you're talking about.

With first person, you have to tell the minute details as they are happening to you (the MC) because you want the reader to have the same pieces of the puzzle so they can also try to figure out who dun it...assuming it's a mystery you're writing...but regardless, with first person, you don't want the reader a step ahead of the character.

Now, I would never claim to be an expert (in anything) but over the years I've learned a few things, so I'm going to pass along my Do tips for writing scenes. (And several Don't's). It's kind of a mishmash of tips, so try to keep up. heh

First and foremost, make sure the scene you're writing is necessary to the plot.

  • Don't throw in a description of the scenery for the sake of trying to tell the reader you character is now standing on top of a mountain. In other words don't open with a panoramic view of your setting just to introduce your character sitting in his study smoking a pipe by the fire.
  • Don't give a history lesson on your setting (saying when the town was founded, or who founded it, unless it plays an important part in the story.)
  • Don't overdo your prose by using too much descriptive narrative or exposition-such as going through the minute details of the character's everyday mundane life (she went home, made a cup of tea, put on some opera and went to bed--y a w n.)
  • Don't do a prologue (there's a lot of debate about this one, but most agents and editors really hate them!)
  • And Don't open in present day with something exciting happening, then jump back in time to explain how the character came to that part. It's not only annoying, it's intrusive. When you do that you're basically doing this:
... Jane stepped off the curb, the street vibrating under her feet. She barely
had time to register the danger before the truck rammed into her. She flew
through the air, her last thoughts of Jacob as she landed with a heavy thud
against the concrete. But, wait....let me tell you what happened first....

  • Don't describe your characters through their own eyes, build them through someone else's eyes. (meaning, when you're in Jane's pov she could describe John's traits...and so on)
  • Don't start sentences with THEN, FINALLY, SUDDENLY (because nothing ever really happens suddenly).
  • Don't use too many AND's or THAT' don't want your sentences reading like a grocery list of action.
  • Don't use any of the following words or variation of these words--see, hear, feel, taste, smell---to explain what the characters saw, heard, felt, tasted, or smelled...SHOW it.
  • Don't introduce too many characters in one scene. If each of the characters are integral to the story, introduce them in their own chapter and in a way that shows how they're affected by the incidents that have happened so far (meaning, how are their lives changed by what happens) And again, don't give the everyday mundane actions they go through each day.

For any novel (regardless of genre), something has to happen immediately. Usually something life-changing for the main character. You can not spend the first ten pages introducing a character and giving us his/her life story (as it was or is now) because you will bore the reader (especially this reader). Just give the minimal facts that are relative to the character (who s/he is/what's his/her job/what type of personality s/he has) and weave the rest in as you go to further develop him/her...but do it in a way that isn't TELLING. In other words, don't say, John is a cop. Instead, show what makes him a cop....maybe open with him at work. Don't say Jane has a soft heart for stray animals, instead show her sneaking a can of tuna fish from her mother's cabinet and leaving it in the bushes for the cat that's been prowling around at night.

When writing your dialogue try writing it as you speak (unless you're writing historical or period pieces of course.) Don't have your characters constantly say each other's names when speaking to them.

"Hi Jane."
"Hi David."
"How was your night, Jane?"
"It was fine, David.
I went to a movie."
"That's nice, Jane. What did you see?"
"Well David, I
don't remember because I fell asleep."

Annoying huh.

Another thing to look out for in dialogue are your tags. If your writing strong dialogue, it isn't necessary to use a tag to identify how the character is speaking. You don't need to say...

"They're coming back," she proclaimed!

The dialogue and the previous action should convey the emotion in the character's voice.

When starting a novel, figure out who your main character is and write from their POV. Show everything through their eyes as they see it unfolding. Otherwise, your story will read like an article in a magazine with no real emotional connection for the reader. And, don't talk at your reader. As a reader, I want to be pulled into the story, I want my emotions challenged...not my intelligence (which is what I mean by talking at me, like you're trying to explain everything.) You don't need to hold the reader's hand. As Dave King states in his book SELF-EDITING FOR THE FICTION WRITER, resist the urge to explain! Because, really, if you have to explain the who's and why's of your story...then you're not doing your job.

Here are a few more tips from the comments I made on entries in regard to what to look out for when writing.

  • Don't put thoughts in quotes. Quotes are for actual speaking dialogue only. Thoughts should be in italics.
  • Don't use adverbs when a stronger verb will work.
    She pleadingly looked around the empty city
    How do you look pleadingly? Show it better.
She searched the empty streets, her heart pounding, searching for someone,
anyone who would help her.
  • Watch out for too literal descriptions (sometimes referred to as flying body parts...rolled her eyes; threw up her hands, etc)
    For example:
    She ducked into an alley, pushing herself up against the wall as far as she
    could go.
    Try saying she ducked into an alley, pressing against the wall...etc)
  • If you plan to start your story with a dream, make sure it's there for a reason. Otherwise it's like a tease and can really piss off a reader. They think something exciting is happening only to find out it's a dream.
  • And one more very important thing: READ! Read everything...fiction, non-fiction, graffitti on the bathroom wall...(heh...just kidding..unless it's really good. ;-)) The point is, if you don't read, you can't learn.

Here are just a few more (nitpicky) things to look out for when you're writing:

Passive voice.

Sentences starting with AS.

Sentences that read like a grocery list (this AND this AND this know?)

Watch out for too much exposition--meaning too much back story too soon (or worse, going into backstory to explain what happened previously)

Show don't tell other words, don't use the words: saw/heard/felt/smelled/tasted...just say what it was. (instead of this: She heard the beep of the answering machine and hung up. Say, she hung up the phone when the answering machine clicked on. It's not necessary to say it beeped since that's a given on all machines. And sometimes you gotta give the reader the benefit of the doubt to know what you mean. Like, don't tell them someone closed the door after they opened it. In other words, don't hold the reader's hand.

Another no-no with exposition is putting it all in dialogue.

"Leave John and come away with me."
" You know I can't do that. I own him. He
is the one who made it possible for me to attend law school. Before he
showed up
I had to work long weekend shifts. I was almost ready to give up
the crazy idea
of becoming a lawyer while working as a stripper so that I
could give my mother
and Johnny a decent place to live. Now John is about to
go to college and Mom
doesn't have to work so hard as a maid in order to pay
for everything because
her arthritis is so bad."
"Yes, I know. You told
me this a zillion times."

This is called info dump through dialogue. Never have one character say something to another character that they already know. If any of this is important, feed it in later.

Another thing I noticed during that contest is sometimes writers will chose to use their first chapter as an introduction to the story, then tell the reader, "but wait, the second chapter will explain everything." Well, I'm sorry but I have to reiterate...unless you grab the reader in the first few pages of the first chapter they aren't going to bother looking for the next chapter!

Okay....I'm done. :)

I hope those of you who made it to the end have found something useful to consider when going back to your work. Feel free to leave your comments or writing pet peeves.

Regardless....I wish you only the best in you endeavors.

As an aside, come back August 11 when my guest blogger will be Raul Ramos y Sanchez, whose debut novel America Libre is in stores now. Stop by with questions and comments and one lucky poster will win a copy of his book.

Hope to see you then.

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The Romance Reviews

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