07-14-18 Cassandra O’Leary

Thursday, August 20, 2015

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

Happy Thursday Everyone! Thanks for stopping by. I’m Terri Molina, and I write Tex-Mex romance. You can learn more about me (should you choose) at www.terrimolina.com

I understand, more than anyone, no writer is going to have a perfect draft. There will always be edits for grammar or punctuation. However....it 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.

Way back when I first started writing, I joined an online group that was having a contest where you could post a chapter of your work and everyone could comment and judge….like American Idol only with writers. There was an entry I felt needed a major edit and I commented about it, mentioning the too-much-telling and overuse of adverbs and someone (who's work I didn’t have a glowing response to) 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 history....it doesn't matter if it's the best thing since microwave popcorn!

Now, I read close to a hundred of the entries because for some crazy reason people wanted me to....their reasoning being, they want 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??

I’ve learned a lot in the ten-plus years I’ve been writing, and I continue to learn, refreshing my craft with workshops or books or judging writing contests and just working with other authors.
Anyway, since we’re giving advice this month, I’m throwing in my ten cents worth. My advice to new writers is based on contest entries I’ve read and what I felt the writer could improve on.  So….put on your hardhat, debris may fly. haha

First of all, 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 suggest, unless you've read works by the pros who know how to write first person exceptionally (i.e.; Lee Child, Robert Crais, Rick Rhiordan, Joe Konrath)...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 to the scene at hand (and anything relevant can be woven in as secondary characters are introduced. But at a minimum. Less is more.)  For instance, telling us: 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 that...you'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.

Below are my Do’s & Don’ts for writing scenes.

First and foremost, Do 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 (like 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 (a majority of agents and editors really hate them!)
And please 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 waited at the crosswalk for the hand signal to turn white. As she stepped off the curb the street began to vibrate. 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 before this....
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's...you 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 cannot 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)
Don't start your story with a dream if you can avoid it because it can piss off a reader. It's like a tease. They think something exciting is happening only to find out it's a dream.

Image result for read everything
And one more very important thing: READ! Read everything...fiction, non-fiction, graffiti on the bathroom wall...(heh...just kidding..unless it's really good. ;-)) The point is, if you don't read, you can't learn.

A few more things to look out for when you're writing: (and some is repetitive, I know)

Passive voice.
Sentences starting with AS.
Sentences that read like a grocery list (this, AND this, AND this, happened....you know?) Watch out for too much exposition--meaning too much back story too soon (or worse, going into back story to explain what happened previously)
Show don't tell ...in other words, don't use the words: saw/heard/felt/smelled/tasted as descriptive words.
Give the reader the benefit of the doubt to know what you mean. For instance, 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.
"Lettie, we’ve been together five years. 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. I lived it with you."
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've noticed 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 think I’ve babbled long enough. I hope those of you who made it to the end have found something useful to consider when going back to your work.

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


Sarah Raplee said...

You have lots of good advice in this post, Terri. I'm adding a few new words to my 'weasel word' list. It's a list of words I search for when polishing and mostly do away with by rewriting, or at least do away with at the beginnings of sentences, depending on the word.

I'm like you when giving feedback: a straight shooter. I always go back to soften my wording before sending the 'send 'button, because new writerscan be sensitive. I think you hit on almost all of the things I often see when critiquing.

Judith Ashley said...

Thank You, Terri, for an informative post. I totally agree that even once published it is important to keep learning the craft. If you can't afford to take classes (although most are really very inexpensive compared to what you get), decide what you want to work on and check a book out of a library and read to see how that author does it. Better yet, read two or three authors (or more) to see how each one does it.