I generally like blogging about the larger issues, namely structure, because that is the killer. If the story’s plot is fatally flawed there’s little hope of connecting with a reader. If we need a Dungeon Master Guide, a GPS and a team of sherpas to navigate our story’s plot, then finding an agent is the least of our worries. So plot matters, but, to be blunt, there other rookie mistakes that can land us in a slush pile before an agent (or reader) even gets far enough to notice a problem with plot.
So today I am putting on my editor’s hat and going to give you a peek into what agents and editors (and even readers) see in those first 5-25 pages that can make us lose interest.
If Your Novel has More Characters than the Cast of Ben Hur, You Might Need Revision…
Whenever the author takes the time to name a character, that is a subtle clue to the reader that this is a major character and we need to pay attention. Think Hollywood and movies. If the credits roll and there is a named character in the credits, then we can rest assured this character had a speaking part. Many characters in our novels will be what NYTSBA Bob Mayer calls “spear carriers.” Spear carriers do not need names.
I did not know this, years ago, and I felt the need to name the pizza guy, the florist, the baker and the candlestick maker. Do NOT do this. When we name characters, it is telling our readers to care. Sort of like animals. Only name them if you plan on getting attached.
We do not have to know intimate life details about the waitress, the taxi driver or even the funeral director. Unless the character serves a role—protagonist, antagonist, allies, mentor, love interest, minions, etc.—you really don’t need to give them a name. They are props, not people.
And maybe your book has a large cast; that is okay. Don’t feel the need to introduce them all at once. If I have to keep up with 10 names on the first page, it’s confusing, ergo annoying. Readers (and agents) will feel the same way.
If Your Novel Dumps the Reader Right into Major Action, You Might Need Revision…
Oh, there is no newbie blunder I didn’t make.
Anastasia leaned out over the yawning chasm below, and yelled to Drake. She needed her glue-sticks and Bedazzler if she ever was going to diffuse the bomb in time. Blood ran down her face as she reached out for Dakota’s hand. They only had minutes before Xing Xio would be back and then it would all be over for Fifi, Gerturde and Muffin.
Okay, I just smashed two into one. Your first question might be, Who the hell are these people? And likely your second question is Why do I care?
Thing is, you don’t care. You aren’t the writer who knows these characters and is vested. We have discussed before how Normal World plays a vital role in narrative structure. As an editor, if I see the main character sobbing at a funeral or a hospital or hanging over a shark tank by page three, that is a big red flag the writer doesn’t understand narrative structure.
Thing is, maybe you do. But, if we are new and unknown and querying agents, these guys get a lot of submissions. And, if our first five pages shout that we don’t understand narrative structure, our pages are likely to end up in the slush pile. Also, here is the thing about narrative structure. It is hardwired into our brains. Even three-year-olds “get” narrative structure. Don’t believe me? Try to skip part of Where the Wild Things Are and see what happens.
If three act structure is wired into the human brain, why mess with what works? Besides, when we are new, we get less leeway about trying to reinvent narrative structure, and the thing is—and I can’t emphasize this enough—three-act structure has worked since Aristotle came up with it. There are better uses of time than us trying to totally remake dramatic structure.
It’s like the wheel. Round. It rolls. The wheel works. Don’t mess with the wheel. Don’t mess with narrative structure.
Some other picky no-nos… .
Painful and Alien Movement of Body Parts…
Her eyes flew to the other end of the restaurant.
His head followed her across the room.
All I have to say is… “Ouch.”
Make sure your character keeps all body parts attached. Her gaze can follow a person and so can her stare, but if her eyes follow? The carpet gets them fuzzy with dust bunnies and then they don’t slide back in her sockets as easily.
Too much Physiology…
Her heart pounded. Her heart hammered. Her pulse beat in her head. Her breath came in choking sobs.
After a page of this? I need a nap. After two pages? I need a drink. We can only take so much heart pounding, thrumming, hammering before we just get worn out. That and I read a lot of entries where the character has her heart hammering so much, I am waiting for her to slip into cardiac arrest at any moment. Ease up on the physiology. Less is often more.
Again, I will recommend Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi’s Emotion Thesaurus. This is an inexpensive tool that will keep you from beating up the same words/descriptions. You can thank me later .
The beginning of the novel starts the reader off with lengthy history or world-building. The author pores on and on about details of a city or civilization or some alien history all to “set up” the story.
In my experience, this is often the hallmark of a writer who is weak when it comes to characters and even plotting. How can I tell? He begins with his strength—lots of intricate details about a painstakingly crafted world. Although not set in stone, generally, if the author dumps a huge chunk of information at the start of the book, then he is likely to use this tactic throughout.
This type of beginning tells me that author is not yet strong enough to blend information into the narrative in a way that it doesn’t disrupt the story. The narrative then becomes like riding in a car with someone who relies on hitting the brakes to modulate speed. The story likely will just get flowing…and then the writer will stop to give an information dump.
Also, readers read fiction for stories. We read Wikipedia for information. Information does not a plot make. Facts and details are to support the story that will be driven by characters with human wants and needs.
Sci-fi/fantasy writers are some of the worst offenders. It is easy to fall in love with our world-building and forget we need a plot with players. Keep the priorities straight. In twenty years people won’t remember gizmos, they will remember people.
I will do more of these in the future, but the points I mentioned today are very common errors. Many editors and agents will look for these oopses to narrow down the stack of who to read. These are also habits that can frustrate readers should the book make it to publication. I know some of you are thinking of self-publishing and that is certainly a viable path these days. But, if we have 42 characters by page five? We are likely going to frustrate a reader.
Avoiding these pitfalls will make for far smoother, cleaner writing.
What are some troubles you guys have? Maybe some questions you want me to address? Throw them up here. Takes a load off my brain so I don’t have to think this stuff up all by myself. Any tips, suggestions, books you recommend we read? Did this blog help you? Confuse you?
I love hearing from you!
To prove it and show my love, for the month of July, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. If you leave a comment, and link back to my blog, and mention my book We Are Not Alone in your blog…you get your name in the hat THREE times. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly.
***Changing the contest.
It is a lot of work to pick the winners each week. Not that you guys aren’t totally worth it, but with the launch of WANA International and WANATribe I need to streamline. So I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).
And also, winners will now have one business week (5 days) to claim the prize, because what’s happening is there are actually quite a few people who never claim the critique, so I never know if the spam folder ate it or to look for it and then people miss out. I will also give my corporate e-mail to insure we connect and I will only have a week to return the 20 page edit.
I will announce the June winner on Friday. Need time to tally the names. THANK YOU.
At the end of July I will pick a winner for the monthly prize. Good luck!
I also hope you pick up copies of my best-selling books We Are Not Alone–The Writer’s Guide to Social Media and Are You There, Blog? It’s Me, Writer . And both are recommended by the hottest agents and biggest authors in the biz. My methods teach you how to make building your author platform FUN. Build a platform and still have time left to write great books.