We can have the best story ideas in the world, but to be blunt? There’s a lot to be said for delivery. While these problems might seem picky, there are some fundamental errors that can weaken the writing. If our writing loses power, this can become distressing or distracting to readers.
Many readers (not being editors or professional writers) might not be able to articulate specifically why they lost interest in a story, but often the answer is simple. It can be an accumulation of the small things. The little foxes spoil the vine.
Most of us make one or more of these errors, especially when we’re new. Hey, that’s called “being NEW.” No one is born with the natural ability to write brilliant, perfect novels coded into their DNA. It takes time and practice, so give yourself permission to make mistakes…then learn, suck it up and back to work.
It writes the words or it gets the hose *pets fluffy white dog*
To maybe make you guys feel better, I’ve written well over a million words in blogs and articles alone. I’ve also written three books, two novels and scads of short stories. As much as I have written—and EDITED—even I have to seek outside editors to look for these issues.
We ALL make these oopses. But, hopefully, this blog will give you a nice little checklist so you can clean up your own work as much as possible before handing it to a pro.
Not only will cleaning up these oopses make the editing process faster—because your editor can actually get to the MEAT of your work instead of being distracted by small errors—but the bill should be smaller because your editor can work faster because there are fewer problems to correct. Also, if you’re sending sample pages to an agent and he/she sees too many of these newbie blunders?
Oh, and a biggie? In The Digital Age, sample pages are the most POWERFUL tool we have for making a sale. Our first five pages can be the most important in the entire book ;) .
Today I’m again donning my editor’s hat to give you a peek into what red flags editors, agents (and even readers) see in those first five pages.
Red Flag #1
If Your Novel has More Characters than the Star Wars Prequels, You Might Need Revision
Don’t even get me started about Jar Jar Binks.
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 (good ones, NOT the SW prequels). If the credits roll and there is a named character in the credits, then we can rest assured this character had a speaking part.
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 us 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. Just 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.
Red Flag #2
If Your Novel Dumps the Reader Right into Major Action, You Might Need Revision
Oh, there is no newbie blunder I didn’t make.
Lola leaned out over the yawning chasm below, and yelled to Fabio. She needed her twist-ties and lucky purple rabbit’s foot if she ever was going to defuse the bomb in time. Sweat ran into her eyes as she reached out for Malfio’s hand. They only had minutes before Juliette would be back and then it would all be over for Katy, Skipper and Mitzi.
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?
We don’t care. We (the readers) aren’t the writer who knows these characters and is vested. On this blog, we’ve 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 (or might be trying to “reinvent it”).
Thing is, 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… .
Red Flag #3
Painful and Alien Movement of Body Parts? Time for Revision
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.
Red Flag #4
Too much Physiology? Time for Revision
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. Get a copy of The Emotion Thesaurus.
Red Flag #5
Too Many Evil Adverbs? REVISE!
Most of the time, adverbs are a no-no. Find a stronger verb instead of dressing up a weaker choice.
She stood quickly from her chair.
She bolted from her chair.
Also be careful of redundant adverbs.
She whispered quietly…
Um, duh. The verb whisper already tells me the volume level.
She can, however, whisper conspiratorially. Why? Because the adverb isn’t denoting something inherent in the verb. To whisper, by definition is to be quiet BUT not necessarily to conspire. The adverb conspiratorially indicates a certain quality to the whisper.
Avoiding these pitfalls will make for far smoother, cleaner writing and help you more easily spot what and where revision is needed.
Some books to help you clean up your prose and become a master at your craft? Story Engineering by Larry Brooks is a MUST HAVE in your library. I LOVE ANYTHING written by James Scott Bell, but my favorite is probably Plot & Structure. Hooked by Les Edgerton. Save the Cat by Blake Snyder. Buy these and study them.
You will thank me later.
(And, of course, for social media/branding help, there is my book *bats eyelashes* Rise of the Machines—Human Authors in a Digital World).
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 APRIL, 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. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. 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).
BOTH CLASSES COME WITH HANDOUTS AND FREE RECORDING.
A seasoned editor can tell a lot about your book with only five pages. Learn to hook hard and hook early. I am running the Your First Five Pages Class. Use WANA10 for $10 off. This is the perfect class for diagnosing bigger story issues or even getting a work agent-ready in time for conference season. This class is April 25th 6:00-8:30 PM NYC Time. Gold Level is available if you want me to critique your 5 pages.
Also, if you are struggling with plot or have a book that seems to be in the Never-Ending Hole of Chasing Your Tail or maybe you’d like to learn how to plot a series, I am also teaching my ever-popular Understanding the Antagonist Class on May 10th from NOON to 2:00 P.M. (A SATURDAY). This is a fabulous class for understanding all the different types of antagonists and how to use them to maintain and increase story tension. Remember, a story is only as strong as its problem ;) . Again, use WANA10 for $10 off.