Friday, September 4, 2009

Newbie "Tells"

Alicia posted some of the things she considers "marks of an amateur," and she spent some time explaining why adverbs used as empty amplifiers can weaken prose.

I agree with her (of course), but would add that other kinds of empty amplifiers hurt the prose, too. Bling punctuation is a good example of this, and one we've blogged about in the past. Look on the sidebar for a link to posts about ellipses if you need a refresher. The bottom line? Strong conflicts don't need gimmicks and bling. They're strong enough without them. (And if they're not strong enough without them, you might want to look at strengthening them instead of adding a chain of exclamation marks.)

Other things that can make me doubt your readiness--
-- loads of present participial phrases
-- misplaced modifiers
-- dangling modifiers
-- errors in usage
-- too much exposition or "set-up"
-- comparing your work to Hemingway's*
-- telling me you're agented when you're not**
-- selling yourself short***
-- lack of respect for the genre****
-- lots of grammar or punctuation errors*****
-- query letters that read like bad ad campaigns******

More than all this, though, is that you can just tell when a writer is not in complete control of the narrative. Maybe there are so many vague, ten-dollar words that you lose track of the action. Or maybe the prose is so flat that the characters vanish into the page. They don't know how to focus on action and exploit conflicts, or they don't know how to write sentences that crackle with energy. There are long meanders through character histories and resumes. Characters die in chapter four, and then reappear without explanation in chapter nine. Characters change their hair color, occupation, and even gender mid-story. Characters dress in parkas and boots to go snorkeling in Jamaica.

The point is that each newbie manuscript is unique to some degree, and often manuscripts fail in unique ways. There are common faults, and these should be avoided at all costs, of course. But it takes work to control a narrative. It takes careful, deliberate thought. There's a long learning curve in fiction writing, and it can be hard to accurately assess where you are on that curve. That doesn't mean you stop trying. It means you have to understand what you're in for. There may be frustrating moments and hurt feelings and loads of self-doubt.

But there's also magic. Everything you do along the learning curve brings you closer to that magic when you suddenly understand that all story is character, and all narrative is story. When you understand that, you'll know that there is no failure in writing. There is only a learning curve and, eventually, magic.

* Don't do this. But especially don't do this if you're writing romance. Hemingway is the opposite of romance. (A shocking number of writers talk about Hemingway in their queries. Why?)

** You think we can't google this? Imaginary agents can only negotiate imaginary deals.

*** "I'm not very good at this, but I'm willing to learn more." Great. You do that, and after you've learned what you need to know, write something new to sub.

**** "I am writing the great American novel, but thought I would write romance to support myself along the way." Yeah, because it's so easy to make a living writing romance these days.

***** I'm not talking about optional usages. I know when an author has deliberately chosen to use or not use a particular comma convention. I also know when they they're just sprinkling commas like glitter because they suspect commas should go somewhere.

****** "Theresa, do you yearn to discover new talent? Crave the excitement of seeing a book climb the bestseller charts? Call today to learn more about this exciting manuscript!"

Theresa the Picky


Wes said...

Hard to call you picky when you object to this. "Characters die in chapter four, and then reappear without explanation in chapter nine."

Edittorrent said...

Wes, alas, that sort of, uh, lack of continuity is all too common.

When I read something like that, I think that the writer isn't actually living in the story.

Riley Murphy said...

(For this, you have to imagine me bowing down. I know, I know, hard to believe, but I am)

Theresa, you're a saint! Albeit, a picky one, but hey I'm not going to hold that against you. You'd likely chop my arm off if I did.:D


Jami Gold said...

Thank you Teresa,

Between your and Alicia's lists of the marks of amateurs, I'm feeling better about things, actually. :) The biggies that I used to have problems with (the occasional modifier and the PPP problems), you've helped me solve.

Now, I'm just waiting to fall into despair again when I hear how I've messed up all my past participle phrases. :)

Jami G.

Edittorrent said...

That kind of continuity error can happen on a smaller scale, too. I remember in particular a sex scene where the man's penis was described as a weapon in one sentence and as a bobblehead doll in the very next sentence. You could get whiplash trying to keep up with that sort of thing.

An author in control of the narrative wouldn't do something like that. They would pick a central metaphor and work it. And they would understand how the metaphor spins out through the rest of the scene and manuscript.


Unknown said...

A great post, Theresa. And your last comment lifts my veil of self doubt for a moment when you talk of metaphors. The frills make a central metaphor.

Although, I have added your post to my now two-page "To do list for editing" for when I finish my ms and start the serious job of revising. I don't want to forget one bit of all your great advice.

Genella deGrey said...

"Other things that can make me doubt your readiness--"

*******The Mantasy