Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Writer Beware

During my month-long vacation from writing, I invested plenty of time plowing through some of my TBR pile. I read a couple gems (like Lilith Saintcrow's Night Shift)a few ho-hums, and three absolute stinkers (Two of which I just couldn't make myself finish because, yanno, reading is supposed to be fun, not irritating).

I found it interesting that all three of the stinkers irritated me for the same reasons--amateurish mistakes, clunky writing, and an assumption that I couldn't remember anything they'd written on the previous page.

So here, for your enlightenment, I'd like to list a few things to watch for in your own writing. Should any of these raise their ugly heads in your manuscript, prune ruthlessly.

1. Telling instead of showing. This drives me nuts. Some authors refuse to show their character's emotions through dialogue, action, and body language and instead, hijack the book's momentum with a page or two of useless, heavy-handed exposition designed to convince me their character feels upset and has valid reasons for it. Other authors show me their character's emotions but then second-guess my intelligence and proceed to rehash what they just showed me with a page or two of useless, heavy-handed exposition.

Don't do it.

Think of your favorite movies. The camera captures the action and the character's emotional response within milliseconds of each other and leaves you secure in that knowledge while the scene changes and the action rushes forward. Do that. Stepping in with exposition instead is like a director telling his actors to maintain blank faces and then hiring a narrator to fill in all the gaps for his audience.

Show your audience and trust them to get it.

2. Beginning a paragraph with a character's name and then reminding me halfway through the same paragraph which character I'm reading about. In fact, it bugs me when an author does this on the same page, unless there are multiple characters present. If you start the chapter with "Sarah Hightower hated her bright yellow couch" and there are no other female characters introduced, don't reference Sarah's name five times a page. I get it. I'm with you. I haven't paused to wonder if we're still talking about Sarah.

3. Frequently reminding me of something I already know. If your character has a specialized skill--let's say she can sense the presence of angels--that's cool. Work it into the plot as soon as you can, acquaint me with her skill, let me know she's the only one who can sense the presence of angels and then, just let her exercise her skill. Don't feel obligated to remind me every single time she senses the presence of angels that she's the only one who can do it. Especially since writing in deep POV would mean that the skill is something she takes for granted and wouldn't spend much time explaining to herself.

Trust me to remember how you've set up the conceit and then just run with it. Second time I get reminded, I'm still with you. Third time, you get an eye roll. Seventh time, I'm ready to look up your home address and tell you just what I think about an author who would sabotage a perfectly good story by hitting me over the head with facts I already know.

4. Cheating me out of a character's emotional arc. I really hate it when I'm immersed in a story and something Bad happens on page 51 to the main character (who is already in over her head) and she is devastated until page 52 where she is inexplicably joking around with the hero. That makes no sense and turns your heroine into a two-dimensional farce.

Take the time to explore the impact of the plot/conflict on your characters. You don't have to wallow in it. The plot still moves forward. The conflict still escalates. But your characters should move forward bearing their new emotional wounds and fears and those help determine their new responses to whatever comes next. I can't take seriously any character that has the emotional range of a teaspoon. (Little shout out to Hermoine.)

There you have it. Happy writing! (And much happier reading!)


  1. I hope you will do more research this year, on the kind of things you publish on your blog. I am begining to doubt much of what you say on your blog. I chose iUniverse as my publisher because of your recommendations, and yet I have had a very hard time with them. I gave them my manuscript for formatting, and it came back with more than 300 mistakes. I then sent in a list of suggested corrections, and they promised to make those corrections in 1-1/2 weeks. After three weeks however, they sent me the same manuscript, with the same mistakes, for approval!!!

    Is this not insanity? I have had to send them the same manuscript with the same suggestions for corrections, and I will not be surprised if they send it back, in the same condition, after three weeks!

    Worse still, if you are having problems with your PSA, and would like to send a complaint to iUniverse, you have no one to turn to. the President/ CEO, Editors, and others officals, do not make their e mails available in any way! Is this the kind of publisher you rate so highly? Is your website a promotion forum for iUniverse? Are you a scam?

  2. Dear Oscar,

    I have never recommended iUniverse as a publisher. In fact, I've never heard of iUniverse. Are you sure you aren't confusing my blog with someone else? It sounds like you went the self-publication route and I assure you, that is NEVER an avenue I would encourage any writer to pursue unless they'd exhausted all other options and felt comfortable with their ability to do self-promo and somehow get their book on a bookstore's shelves.

    Since I've never mentioned iUniverse here, I wonder if the title of my post is what confused you and led you to the wrong place. There is a website called "Writer Beware". Perhaps that is where you found your recommendation? I'm not sure, but you might check there.

    At any rate, no, I don't promote self pubbing and/or iUniverse and no, I'm not a scam. :) I'm a writer on the road to publication sharing what I've learned about craft, the business of publishing, and how to survive life with three boys.



  3. WTF? Who is this guy? You seriously think you found a rec on C.J.'s site for some self-publication scam?

    Get real.

  4. Well, Oscar, I did a quick google and found your answer.

    You went to Writer Beware's blog and found this post: http://accrispin.blogspot.com/search?q=iUniverse

    If you have issues with the content, you'll want to email Victoria Strauss, who runs Writer Beware, and let her know your experience.

  5. CJ,

    Excellent post. You touch on several valid points. Like you, being reminded of the character's name repeatedly gets annoying. I don't go around thinking of myself by name, so why would my characters.

    OK, there are days I mutter my name three times in succession after doing something dumb, but we won't go there. :-)

  6. #3: I tried to read a book several months ago (this is what happens when I get suckered by a pretty cover---that'll teach me to be shallow) in which a character said something, followed by a single paragraph of 5 or 6 lines of internal monologue, followed by "So like I was saying..." and repeating word for word what was said just a few lines above.

    My memory is disgraceful, but even I can remember what was going on 2 paragraphs ago.

    Anything that makes me think "even I know better than that" earns a book a one-way ticket on the bullet train to the donation box.

  7. Fantastic post. Again, the rules of good writing and good acting seem interchangeable! I often tell my students to show me through physicality (how are you picking up that cup, knowing you're in a hurry?) rather than through what we actor types call "indicating" (looking at your watch and sighing loudly while tapping your toe). Emotional arcs, too, must be woven into any performance. (I'm having a devil of a time honing mine as Lady M right now!)

    You might add another. "Do your research." For instance, be sure you're addressing the right person when you publicly criticize someone. And then, if you realize you made the mistake, come back and apologize. Just a thought. Oh, and it's also actually really advisable to actually do your research when writing your novel, too. ;)

  8. Keli - Lol. You refer to yourself in the third person sometimes, do you? ;)

    Kerry - I totally agree.

    Danielle - LOL. Perhaps I should have added that salient point! And yes, the rules for acting and writing are interchangeable. Writing is simply playing every part (including the director).

    Still need to find time to get with you about that post...


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