Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Pitfalls Facing Newbie Writers, Part III

Previously, in the posts on pitfalls for newbie writers, I've talked about being industry savvy. However, it is very important that you be craft savvy, too.

Today, we're going to talk about some of the most common mistakes made by newbie writers in their manuscripts. All of these have been talked about in other places before now, but that's because these are the mistakes that are most often seen in critique groups:

1) Telling instead of showing--Consider these two descriptions:

Tom was so angry he could barely speak.

Tom took a menacing step toward Mike, slamming his fist into his other hand with a loud twack.

Both are descriptions of anger. In the first one, I "told." In the second one, I "showed." When you show, you use action words and more vivid descriptions. Re-read your material and replace the telling with showing.

I have a quote from Anton Chekhov hanging in my office. It reads, "Don't tell me the moon is shining. Show me the glint of light on broken glass."

2) Too much backstory--Another common mistake is to front-end load a manuscript with a huge amount of backstory--the history of what went on before the story starts. When you begin a manuscript with backstory, you are weighing down your first pages with static narrative. Static means not moving or a lack of action. Not a good way to start out.

Obviously, you need to know what happened before your manuscript starts. However, it is not necessary to tell the reader everything in the first few pages. Write the backstory if you wish and then dribble in a line or two as you go along. You want to tantalize your readers; have them wonder what is behind the feud that erupted into gunfire on page one. You want them to be curious as to why your heroine is traveling across the desert. That's called suspense! Create anticipation; don't dump your entire narrative in the first few pages. And, for heaven's sake, start out with action. If you don't, you'll lose your reader, agent and publisher before they get to page two.

3) Adverbs--I know a fellow writer who spends his time in his critique group circling all the adverbs the other writers use in their manuscripts. Adverbs are a beginning writer's way of shortcutting. When you say, "Beth looked down shyly," everyone knows what you mean. However, you're cheating yourself. You've just missed out on the opportunity to say something like, "Beth dropped her head to hide her blush, afraid to meet Jacob's eyes."

I'm not the absolute purist my writer friend is. When I critique my own work, I cut out all but a handful of adverbs--no more than one every couple of pages. Sometimes an adverb can be used to emphasize something. In my work-in-progress (WIP), I had my hero catch the pickpocket who took his wallet. "You can have your wallet back now," Marley offered magnanimously. I'm being a little sarcastic here, having the pickpocket "offer" to give back the wallet as if she were being generous.

Save your adverbs for when no other word will do as well.

4) Make sure you use the correct word--There are half a dozen words that newbie writers often confuse. Among these are: Your and You're, Its and It's, and Their, They're and There.

Your and You're: Your is a possessive. It refers to someone's property as in your book, your dog, your house. You're is a contraction, a quick way of saying "you are." The easiest way to make sure you use the right word is to actually say out loud what the contraction means: For instance, when you type "you're dog," you are saying "you are dog." Hello? Instead of referring to your hero's dog, you've just insulted him.

Its and It's: Again, "its" is a possessive as in its leg, its puppies, its nest. It's is another contraction; this time for "it is." Same rule applies. Say the contraction out loud. When you do this, "it's hind leg" turns into "it is hind leg" instead of describing the cat's hind leg.

Their, They're and There: Their is the possessive as in their books, their house, their daughter. By now, you know "they're" is the contraction for "they are." When I replace "they're house" with "they are house," I know I've used the wrong word.

Finally "there" refers to "that place." For instance, when I say "put the groceries there," I'm really saying, "put the groceries in that place."

If a particular word gives you trouble, tape a cheat sheet to your desk. That's what I did until I finally learned how to use lie and lay correctly.

I recently critiqued the first three chapters of another writer's manuscript. She made mistakes with all three words above (its/it's, they're/their and your/you're). When I handed her pages back to her, I commented on her issue with contractions. She responded, "That's what critique partners and editors are for; to fix those words for me."

I didn't bother pointing out that, if she continues to make such basic mistakes, she is unlikely to ever sign a contract which will put her in the hands of a New York publishing house's editor. I did decide that I was going to be "unavailable" to do any more critiques for her. I want critique partners who can return the favor by critiquing my work. Sloppy and lazy writers do not make ideal critique partners.

I have more craft mistakes to talk about. We'll look at those in later posts.


Jay Hudson said...

Maya,I like your blog. I'm always eager to learn as no one person can know everything.
I'm curious about the Writer Gods that say "strike" the adverb. I love Mark Twain, but I think he was wrong on that account. Right, or wrong, I love adverbs. If adverbs serve no purpose , then the folks who created English grammar made a terrible mistake. However, I know every MFA in America would probably follow the leader, but why? I think adverbs are pretty, just like dandelions are really flowers that some jerk in authority decided to wage war against.

I know that adverbs and dandelions are sometimes a nuisance, but they add flavor to life.

I really like the posts you make on the groups. I find them all very interesting and informative. Keep up the good work.
If you want to join a smaller writing group, that is part writing, part social, and mostly just a play house for writing friends, we would love to have you join us at jayswritersworld at Yahoo groups.

Jay Hudson

Maya said...

Jay: Thanks for your post.

I once loved adverbs. I was shocked the first time I saw Stephen King rail against them in his "On Writing."

Since I've become more aware of them, I now use them more judiciously, and I think my writing is strong for it.

Thanks for the invitation. I appreciate it enormously.

Warm regards,