Monday, October 12, 2009

Marks of the amateur-- starting a list

By popular demand--

This is something I'd never really contemplated before becoming an editor, but every editor I've spoken to since knew immediately what I meant. That is, "What tips you off about a submission that this isn't an experienced writer? What are the marks of the amateur?"

Now I don't mean to be insulting here. These marks don't actually mean that the writer is an amateur, rather that we see these mostly in submissions by newer or inexperienced authors, and so we sort of automatically assume.... well. What's important is to make sure you don't inadvertently trigger our "oh, amateur" assessment.

So anyway, when I was in England (very nice-- I want to live there, seriously, and I've narrowed my future home choice down to Somerset, Wiltshire, or the Yorkshire Dales), I asked my friends who had edited what they would put on this list.

Just to get started, and please add on or ask questions as we go:

1) Improper dialogue formatting. That's first for me, because, uh, if you've been reading for decades and never noticed there's a comma after the quote tag and before the quote mark, and a capital letter starting the quote, and the punctuation INSIDE the quote mark, and a new paragraph with a change in speakers, well, you are apparently not really absorbing writing conventions as you read. That will make the work of editing this rather onerous.

2) A whole lot of introductory participial phrases. One or two or three, sure. Sometimes the meaning of the sentence calls for that. But for whatever reason, whenever there are many intro participles on a first page, the submission proves to be a little amateurish in several ways. Hey, I don't make the rules. I'm just reporting.

3) Lynn said semicolons, but really, I'm okay with the occasional semicolon, even in fiction. (Theresa is sighing-- another round in the Great Semicolon Battle.) But more than one or two semicolons on the first couple pages? Trying too hard to sound mature, are you? And improperly used semicolons? Even worse. It looks like a 10-year-old wearing mascara.

4) Clumsy quote-tagging. Everyone agreed on this. I am the most lenient (yes, really-- I am a positive libertine compared with Some Sticklers Recently in Yorkshire), as I don't mind the infrequent "hissed" or "grumbled" if that's in fact what the speaker sounded like. But the default for tagging your dialogue should be "he/she said" or an action.
He adjusted the rearview mirror. "I think we're being followed."
A bunch of "creative" quote tags-- He intoned, she simpered, he ejaculated (I couldn't help it, sorry!), she expostulated, she exclaimed, he temporized-- indicates to me that the writer is more obsessed with the tags than with the actual thing being said by the speaker.

5) More than a couple homophone mistakes (then/than, here/hear, etc.). This suggests the writer is making too extensive use of spell-check rather than actually READING the sentences.

6) Starting the passage with whatever the latest trend is-- an unattributed line of dialogue, a "cute meet" and (this is important, because a good writer might do this and I'd like it) doing it badly. Yeah, those are so old they should be interred with Milton Berle, but I'm still seeing them, and what they say is, "I don't care about what makes my story unique. I want to sound like all the others."

7) Starting with odd stuff that we might put in the published edition, if we got that far, but shouldn't be in a submission (acknowledgments, dedications, a history lesson). But you know, I do like maps. Go figure.

8) Too many names in the first couple paragraphs. Who is the POV character? That's the name we need.

9) POV shifts on the first page. This presages a book full of headhopping that I really don't want to have to fix. Not to mention this must be a submitter who has not read my many posts and articles (and book!) about POV. :) (I am NOT against multiple POV-- but keep it controlled, and open in one POV and stick with it awhile, okay? So I know you know how to do that? (Again, a good writer might have a good reason for doing this, but I'll know the difference when I see it.)

What else? We'll make a list.



Riley Murphy said...

Crap, I can't believe I'm saying this, but too many adjectives. Alicia, hallelujah, I been saved!

Uh oh, what about too many exclamation marks? That could be a killer. I had a look at some of my old stuff recently - and believe me, if I ever attempted to read it out loud now I’d be hoarse, because I'd be shouting my way through the darn MS.


JohnO said...

Well color me bucked from the horse, but I kept reading for the mark of the amateur about starting a list (because, you know, that's one way to read the title).

Anonymous said...

I'll have to go undercover on this one but a good 10% of the sample pages in the queries I read do not use quotation marks.

Every time you don't use quotation marks, God kills a kitten. Please, think of the kittens.

Edittorrent said...

Anon, I agree. And using a non-standard font, or 1.3 spacing, or...

Don't be creative about things like that! Save creativity for the story!

Two exclamation points, one paragraph (note above). I think that's the mark of an amateur. :)


Wes said...

One that slips up on me is changing verb tenses.

Leigh Hutchens Burch said...

I hope it doesn't make me sound like an amateur to ask, but what is a "cute meet" in regards to an opening passage?

I've just never heard the phrase before and I am curious.

Edittorrent said...

Wes, yeah, forgetting you're in past tense-- I've seen that. :)

Amber, a "cute meet" is Hollywood shorthand about an eventually romantic couple who meet in the opening scene in some "cute" way, like she picks up his briefcase, thinking it's her, and he chases her through the airport, and she thinks he's a mugger, and....

Trouble is, there are few "cute meets" that romance editors haven't seen five times. And the "cute meet" seldom actually introduces this plot or gives a glimpse of the actual romantic conflict, so it's usually just a stunt. And it's favored by newish writers who (to my mind) aren't really very well-acquainted with their own story.

Andrew Rosenberg said...

What about being boring?
Then again, a lot of published writers do this too... ;)

Edittorrent said...

Iapetus, more specific? What's the mark of being boring?

Starting with a cliche... starting with something devoid of conflict?

Andrew Rosenberg said...

Marks of being boring: Explaining everything to the reader.
ex: This is a tree. It has leaves. They're red, because it's fall. And it's a bit chilly. Because it's fall.

Repetition, redundancy, belaboring points, excessive exposition, complete lack of action.

Edittorrent said...

Short sentences too-- little bytes of info, no connectivity. Yes-- boring!

nicbeast said...

Man, I can say I've done all but one of those...but I haven't sent in a submission yet, so there is hope!

Edittorrent said...

Nicbeast, which one did you miss? :)

I think probably "too many names" is very common-- we all try to cram too much on the first page.

Edittorrent said...

Too many adjectives, noting that down, Murph. I might say "over-modification," because too many adverbs too?



ObiDonWan said...

Spelling "lose" as "loose". It's become viral.

Edittorrent said...

Obi, there are several of those. Ideas as ideals-- I just saw that!

Jami Gold said...

Thanks for the list, Alicia!

*mumbling to myself - 'Okay, I'm fine on that one, I fixed that one, Yep, that's good...'* Whew!

This may be a topic for another post, but what about the actual formatting of things? There's so much conflicting information out there as far as Times New Roman vs. Courier New, underlining vs. italicizing, etc. It seems like someone could form a judgment based off things like that without reading a single word?

Jami G.

Dale Cynwyn said...

How about poor proof reading? For example: "Too many names in the first couple of paragraphs."

Sorry :p


(it's a good list)

Dave Shaw said...

Hmm - no mention of stories that don't fit submission guidelines yet ("Well, yes, it's a thriller, but there is a little romance on page 263 - you know, the one night stand with the rebel girl that the protag had to kill the next day.").

And I'm surprised no one's mentioned mantasies yet.

Andrew Rosenberg said...

There seems to be latent interest in Mantasies. (maybe just on this blog)

Maybe that "genre" just needs a breakout novel that really defines the "right way" to do it... ;)

Then again, no.

Edittorrent said...

Dale, oh, add an "of"? That's not necessary with "couple" (although it might be preferred). I never say "of" with "couple"-- probably a Midwestern thing-- so I don't type it, I guess. Interesting... we don't use "of" with "few" (a few paragraphs")-- "few" is just used as an adjective. But with "couple of paragraphs," let's see. "Couple" becomes the noun there, and "of paragraphs" is the prepositional phrase (so paragraph becomes the object...) I wonder if that happens in any other construction. Must check. Thanks!

Edittorrent said...

Yeah, I think the blanket-submission ("So they've never published a cookbook before. That was before they saw MY cookbook!") works.

Amateurs are probably the only writers naive enough to believe that the world really waits for another book-- theirs.

Wes said...

I believe I recall a post many months ago about not starting a novel with dialogue. Am I remembering correctly? I've tried to find it in the archives, but can't. Can someone point me to it?

nicbeast said...


Ok, maybe is 2.

#7 & 8...but 7 is iffy... :-p

Andrew Rosenberg said...

I've heard a few of those:
"Don't start with a dream sequence"
"Don't start by looking in the mirror"
"Don't write a prologue"

Someone should write a book about these "rules"

Dale Cynwyn said...

Really? I'm English so maybe it's a dialect issue. So you use "couple" as an adjective? I'd see it strictly as a noun which denotes a group of two. I wouldn't say "a herd cows" or "a murder crows" or "a flock sheep".

But I'll forgive a colloquialism.

Andrew Rosenberg said...

Or as they say in the South, "a couple few cows"

Anonymous said...

What about factual mistakes?

Published books by Big Name authors sometimes slip by with errors, but I notice many more in contest entries I judge. Historicals are the worst. Granted, those manuscripts don't have the advantage of having been edited by a professional, but if there are glaring factual mistakes, I find the manuscript usually has other major issues, too.

Dave Shaw said...

Dale, here in the States the following are all common:

a couple of (whatever)
a couple o' (whatever)
a couple (whatever)

I've even seen the middle one phonetically spelled 'coupla'. You know how us bloody Yanks are. ;-)

Edittorrent said...

Dale, I found some usage site on the web where Americans and Brits exchange such conundrums. They call differences in usage "pondian"-- "I guess that's a pondian issue"-- meaning "across the Pond" (the Atlantic, I guess?).

Anyway, "it's a pondian thing". You're right, we'd never say, "A herd cows." But then, we'd never say, "A few of horses." (But we would say, "A few of them." Hmm.)

A wonderful language! Confusing though.

Genella deGrey said...

I'm still shocked that some writers don't use quotation marks. Ugh.

Telling instead of showing should make the list somewhere.

Dale Cynwyn said...

'Pondian', heh. Nice.

It would be easy to say the difference between couple and few is that couple is a noun and few is an adjective and so different rules apply.

But the dictionaries don't quite agree. Couple is listed as an adjective (and noun) in Chambers, and as an adjectival compound as 'a couple of'. Merriam-Webster points out that it can be used correctly as an extra determiner, for example 'a couple more examples' to indicate degree.

M-W also says this:

Function: adjective
Date: 1924

: two; also : few —used with a "a couple drinks"
usage The adjective use of a couple, without of, has been called nonstandard, but it is not. In both British and American English it is standard before a word (as more or less) indicating degree "a couple more examples of Middle English writing — Charles Barber". Its use before an ordinary plural noun is an Americanism, common in speech and in writing that is not meant to be formal or elevated "the first couple chapters are pretty good — E. B. White (letter)" "still operated a couple wagons for hire — Garrison Keillor". It is most frequently used with periods of time "a couple weeks" and numbers "a couple hundred" "a couple dozen".

Which is another way of saying 'Pondian' I suppose.

I always did prefer Chambers, but if the dictionaries can't agree, we can't have much hope of resolving it. (Or should that be 'we can't have much hope resolving it'?)

Rose Green said...

Whenever I read those opening paragraphs on agent websites (like Miss Snark's crapometers and everyone who's done things like that since) I'm struck by the number that start out with things like, "It all started when..." or "It was a normal day until..." Just really talky, without much going on.

That, and starting with an incredibly intense scene (ie, usually murder or rape) before I've had time to get to know or care about the main character.

Edittorrent said...

Rose, yes, often prologues are very intense, and sometimes don't even name the character! I think thrillers do that a lot.

Kelly Bryson said...

How about instead of writing believable dialogue, throwing around obscenities? Three 'f-bombs' in two sentences says lack of creativity to me. It's a bit like overuse of exclamation points.

Edittorrent said...

Again with the semicolons. This would be a non-issue if Certain People would just accept that I'm always right.

@KayKayBe But I like throwing around obscenities. (kidding) (sort of)


em said...

I love seeing the list.
Thanks Alicia!:)

Dave Shaw said...

Gee, Theresa, have you ever, just for a moment, thought that you might be wrong? You would have been mistaken, you know.


Sarah Ahiers said...

This is an awesome list and i'm happy to say that i'm free of all those amateur issues (i, too, did not know what a "cute meet" was and i was glad to find out that is something i would never do). However i do occasionally partake in a prologue...
I have a writing buddy who i would never call amateur who is a big fan of short sentances. But that's his voice, he has a very stark style.

Glynis Peters said...

I come here to learn by my mistakes...I am never disappointed and always learn more than one thing!

Jami Gold said...

Hi Alicia,

I thought of another one. How about overwriting? As I'm always wrestling with my word count, I try to use the fewest amount of words necessary for the reader to visualize the action. I think that's a good thing. :)

Here are some examples I thought of (and please tell me if I'm wrong about any of these!). I included the implied words that I don't think are necessary in parentheses.

- He approached (her).
If you're in POV strong enough, and another character is approaching your POV character, then you shouldn't need to specify.
- He stood (up).
The reader wouldn't assume the character stood down! :)
- He (reached out with his hands to take hold of) held her shoulders.
Unless the rest of the paragraph has been about his eyes and not him as a person, the reader would assume that he used his hands. :) And does it change the reader's visual while they're reading if you don't include the "reached out" ? In most cases, probably not, so it seems unnecessary.

Again, please let me know if I'm wrong about any of these, but to me, they seem like padding.

Jami G.

Maureen McGowan said...

"And improperly used semicolons? Even worse. It looks like a 10-year-old wearing mascara."

This made me snort. Thanks, Alicia.

It was great to see you in Toronto last weekend.

Anonymous said...

It always makes me laugh to see editors/agents/writers so down on creative quote tags. They annoy me too, so I understand.

But...I remember an assignment in middle school where we were given a sheet of 100 something alternatives to "said" and then we were told to write a story without using the word "said." Because that made our writing better and more creative.

I just hope they don't do that any more.

Talitha said...

The best way to get rid of short, choppy sentences is to prescribe a dose of "The Best of Bad Hemingway". It is both effective and hilarious. As an added bonus, it takes the sting out of criticism.


In terms of amateur moves, I'm surprised that no one has mentioned excessive use of parentheses. I try to remind myself that I'm not writing Lisp or Scheme, but fiction. However, unless you or someone you love is a programmer obsessed with (computer) languages, you may not get the reference.

d'anne said...

Pssst... Dale, you're not English, you're Welsh! Look at your last name! ;-]

Jayaly said...


Yes they do still teach 'any word but said' in schools. My son did it last year when he was seven.

I nearly bit my tongue off trying not to contradict teacher, although I may have, um, *accidentally* introduced the concept of using action tags instead. And written him a story to prove my point, but that was an accident too. Totally.

I didn't challenge, but I may have subverted. Just a little bit.

Heh, do I get an amateur slap round the ear for my flagrant use of 'and' at the beginning of a sentence and other such crimes of wordsmithery?

Annette Lyon said...

Amen to everything you said! I love a good semicolon--when used right and sparingly.

I had a critique friend (who is usually quite good) say that my speech tag gave a weird image and suggested I change it to "he ejaculated."

After trying to choke back laughter, I graciously disagreed. I think I reverted the passage to the trusty old SAID.

Michael LaRocca said...

Three "F bombs" in two sentences could mean I'm writing dialogue that mimics my little brother's speaking habits. :-)

Actually, great list and great comments.

I'm not automatically opposed to a prologue, but it's often a bad idea.

The number one mistake I see in the books I edit is starting the story too soon. "No no, don't stop reading yet, wait for the good part!" Nope. Not waiting. Start with the good part, and in fact delete everything that isn't good part.

It is vital that you as the author develop the back story in full, but that doesn't mean you have to give the whole thing to the reader in a big fat infodump. Just gimme the interesting parts, in small doses as they become relevant.

That's not necessarily the mark of an amateur, just the mark of an author who isn't ruthless enough in the self-editing department.

Iola said...

10. Improper thought tagging. We are now in an era where we have a point of view character, and we understand that the thoughts are from those person. You don't have to go all Enid Blyton and have speech in double quotes and thoughts in single quotes.

Really. You don't use quote marks for thoughts. Because that just says to me that you haven't read an adult novel this century.