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Avoid Those Beginners' Blunders
by Marg Gilks
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You've written a great story, sent it out again and again, but it keeps being rejected. Why? What are some of the writing blunders you may be committing that set red "amateur" flags waving for agents and publishers -- and invariably earn your story a rejection slip?
They're Only Empty Words
Blonde bombshell, guns blazing, go the extra mile, passed with flying colors, under cover of darkness. Cliches like these pepper our everyday speech, but in a story, they're a red flag. When you think about it, what information does a cliche convey to a reader? What does it mean to pass with flying colors? Why would a sexy woman be called a bombshell? What's attractive about a bombshell? When you use cliches in your writing instead of creating original descriptions that actually engage the reader's senses and emotions, you're writing words that the reader will find very easy to forget.
Like cliches, empty modifiers like adjectives and adverbs are the sign of weak writing, produced by a writer without the imagination or the skill needed to create evocative descriptions that add depth to the story. Used to excess, they clutter up a story with empty words that distract the reader as she tries to envision an image that the words just aren't conjuring.
Used in place of more vivid language, adverbs and adjectives are just as commonplace as cliches. "Fluffy white clouds" -- ho-hum. Why not clouds that hang in the sky like dollops of whipped cream, or that are as plump as popcorn? "They moved quickly down the street." How fast is quickly? Are they running, or speeding along in a car? If you replace the weak verb "moved" with one that's more specific, you wouldn't have to use the adverb "quickly" at all: They dashed down the street, or flew down the street on their bicycles.
"Good writing is supposed to evoke sensation in the reader -- not the fact that it is raining, but the feeling of being rained upon," said E.L. Doctorow, author of Billy Bathgate. A memorable story is one that readers experience. Get specific. Paint word pictures for your readers instead of falling back on tired phrases and descriptors, and you'll create a story that publishers will want to share with their readers.
Tell Me No More!
Many beginning writers, faced with the dilemma of conveying background information or character details to the reader, go the obvious route -- they throw it all at the reader in a big, expository lump of facts often called an "info dump." They tell the reader everything.
Readers pick up a story to be entertained, not to be lectured. Nobody likes to be told what to think; like you, readers want to form their own opinions. Whenever possible, show the reader what she needs to know about a character or a society or a setting -- persuade her to form an opinion that matches your goals in writing the scene or creating the character. If you have to resort to telling, feed it to the reader in manageable bits, woven into the story here and there, so the reader doesn't realize she's learning anything.
"Okay," you think, "the reader needs to know what my character looks like, so I'll have him look in a mirror, and describe what he sees." Or: "Well, if two of my characters tell each other what the reader needs to know, then that's showing because it's dialogue, not exposition."
Don't. Neither solution is effective showing, it's telling with props -- and such a common blunder among beginners that the techniques themselves are considered cliches: "Sarah looked in the mirror and saw a pretty red-haired girl with green eyes and a freckled nose staring back at her." Do you look in the mirror and see that? Or do you notice you need a shave or a haircut, or grin to examine your teeth? If you're not noticing your physical description, your character wouldn't naturally notice this, either.
"As you know," you have one of your characters say, "we have been walking through this desert for the past five days, and it is quite hot. We have no water -- we'll have to find some soon, or we'll die." To which your other character responds, "Indeed. You know I'm the world's foremost expert on skin cancer, and these sunburns can't be doing us any good at all." Are you laughing yet? I hope so! Nobody talks like this. So don't make your characters say things they wouldn't say naturally, just for the sake of conveying information.
Inept showing like this is just as bad as an info dump, and will earn you a rejection just as quickly. As with avoiding empty words, put a little more effort into how you convey information to the reader, so it becomes an experience, not an effort to read.
You'll probably notice when reading a contemporary novel that the story seems to be told in the voice of only one character. If there seems to be more than one character telling the story -- different viewpoints -- if you pay close attention to each scene within that novel, you'll probably find that only one character seems to be sharing his or her perceptions of events in the scene with the reader. The character whose eyes readers see story events through, whose thoughts the reader "hears" in a scene or throughout a story or novel is called the point of view character. This is called "limited" point of view, and it's the most common form you'll see, because today's readers like getting right inside a character's head to experience the story.
The point of view (POV) that most novice writers fall into, however, is "omniscient" point of view. In this point of view, the narrator is all-knowing and all-seeing, popping from one character's head into another, making the reader privy to everyone's thoughts and everything that's going on, even if that activity is off-stage, in the past or in the present or in the future. There is a lot of explaining -- the omniscient narrator tells the reader what everyone is thinking and what is going on.
Sounds pretty good, huh. Look at that description of omniscient point of view again -- the narrator is telling. Telling instead of showing is one of those red flags for rejection, remember? With omniscient, you are leaving nothing to the reader's imagination. You're not allowing the reader to participate, to experience, but merely to observe. For this reason, while omniscient POV is a legitimate point of view, it has fallen out of favor with today's readers.
If point of view hops from one character to another within a scene in your novel or story, it will be perceived by an agent or publisher as poor writing. Manipulating point of view to best effect or maintaining it consistently takes attention and practice, but it's one skill that sets more experienced authors apart from novices, and well worth learning.
Yes, this is the icky stuff -- the grammar and punctuation and spelling that you'd rather not think about. But agents and publishers think about it -- in fact, it's the quickest way for them to tell if a manuscript is worth anything beyond a cursory look. If, in that first glance, they see too many mechanical errors, they're not likely to give the story itself a chance.
Agent Noah Lukeman, author of The First Five Pages: A Writer's Guide to Staying Out of the Rejection Pile, cites misuse of the question mark -- a common blunder -- as reason enough for a rejection. "The same holds true for the exclamation point," and, to a lesser degree, parentheses, he says. Think of it -- a simple little question mark could doom your story.
Punctuation marks are the most obvious red flags. You also have to watch out for the sneakier grammatical pitfalls, like dangling or misplaced modifiers and passive voice. A misplaced modifier occurs when a word or phrase is placed next to a word that it can't possibly describe: Growling furiously, jaws snapping, the hunter trussed the bear cub. It's a good bet the writer intended the bear cub to growl and snap, but written this way, it's the hunter! A dangling modifier happens when a word or phrase has been dropped: While eating lunch, the crocodile swam past the dock. If the croc wasn't doing the eating, this sentence needs the lunchers to be complete -- While we were eating lunch. Both of these grammatical blunders can create reader confusion at best or, at worst, unintentional humor at your expense.
What is passive voice? While active voice describes an action a character is doing, passive voice describes what is being done -- it conveys no action: "she put the books on the shelf" as opposed to the passive "the books were put on the shelf." The very structure of passive verbs suggests that an action took place in the past, not the present. Remember, today's readers want to feel as if they're right there in the story, experiencing events. Active voice is simpler, less wordy, and is more immediate.
Take the time to brush up on grammar and punctuation; take a moment to look up the correct spelling of a word you're not sure of; go over your manuscript carefully when you're done, correcting typos and any other small errors that may detract or distract. It's worth the effort.
You've probably realized by now that writing a good story takes more effort than simply sitting down and dashing off the first words that come to mind. But more effort means a greater likelihood that the finished product will earn publication -- not rejection slips.
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Marg Gilks' short stories, poetry, and articles have been appearing in newspapers, newsletters, magazines, and e-zines since 1977. She considers writing fiction, especially sf/f, the ultimate form of escapism -- in what other field can you create your own universe? Contact her with feedback and queries through Scripta Word Services, her freelance editing business: http://www.scripta-word-services.com/.