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Monday, December 12, 2011

Amateur Mistake We All Make

So you want to be a novelist and you are writing the greatest story anyone ever wrote, or at least a good story you'd like to read. Great!

The good news is, if you are smart, savvy and determined, you may in fact become a published novelist whose work will be read by many others and not just your mom. The bad news is, unless you are exceptionally talented, well studied and alert, you are probably making many of the newbie mistakes that all the rest of us made (and sometimes still make) when we're just getting started. Here are a few I've made and a few that always mark a manuscript -- to me, anyway -- as amateur work.

1. Telling, Not Showing

One of my ultimate favorite rules for writers is the exact opposite of this: Show, don't tell. So your main character (MC) is nervous? Don't TELL me, "Joan was nervous." Say something like, "Joan felt her breath coming faster, less evenly. Her hands shook so hard, she had to put them in her pockets so no one else would notice. She kept breathing in short, shaky little gasps." You won't have to tell us; we'll know.

2. Using the Passive Voice

What exactly does that mean? There are complex descriptions, but the basis is this: You're in passive voice when you show the object receiving the action ("The ball was hit") rather than showing the actor doing the action ("Larry hit the ball"). It's another way of removing the reader from what's going on, something you never want to do.

3. Doing Too Much Name-Calling in Dialogue

I've been guilty of this one myself, but usually in the first draft stage. I try to be good at catching it in revision. Here's a quick example of what I mean:

"Hi, Ed."
"Hello there, James."
"So, is it warm enough for you, Ed?"
"Ha-ha, James. You know I hate the heat.
And yeah, it sounds just that bad when you overdo it in your own book. Ugh. Thank goodness for revision!

Overdoing the Modifiers

All of us who learned to type (or keyboard) remember that "the quick brown fox jumped over the lazy yellow dog," but when every noun is preceded by two or three adjectives and the adverbs start being tossed around liberally, it not only becomes tiring for readers, it can even confuse the point we're trying to get across. An excellent way to cut down on modification is to use specific nouns and carefully chosen verbs: Not "The very fit athlete walked really, really fast toward the lake," but "The Olympic medalist speed-walked toward the lake." One writing teacher told me to "use the exact right words, sparingly." I got the point.

Overdoing the Drama

A friend once cajoled me into reading her first manuscript. I got maybe half-way when I had to ask her, "Doesn't anything good EVER happen to your characters?" She didn't realize that making her character a victim who suffered at everyone's hands, who made nothing but bad choices and had nothing but evil occur in her life did NOT make the MC sympathetic; it made her seem like a wimpy, tragic doormat who couldn't make a good choice, even (literally) to save her life. It was NOT a fun reading experience.

The good news is this friend was willing to learn, believed me, and made some powerful changes that greatly increased the quality of her work.

The point here is, if you're a newbie and you're making newbie mistakes, forgive yourself, learn from the experience, and move on. You just may become the novelist you hope to be.

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