Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Common Errors Found During Critiques

I've been lost in critique land for days.

Every time I over-commit myself on critiques, I swear I'll never do it again. Until the next time I do it again.

For the last four days, I haven't written a word because I've been trying to complete all the critiques I'd committed myself to doing. While several of them were for my own well-loved and long-suffering CPs, most of them weren't.

When you do a series of half a dozen critiques in a very short period, you're reminded of some of the DOs and DON'Ts of good writing. The reason I can recognize these problems is because I've had them called to my attention in my own manuscripts--more than once.

I thought I'd share a few of the more common errors. I'm using A-B-C-D to help make it easier to remember these problems.

A--ACTION: Always start your novel with action. Do not begin with descriptions of any kind. That includes describing the weather, the location or what your characters look like. Descriptions and other narrative generally make for weak openings.

Now I know there are famous novels and best-selling books that begin with lengthy descriptions. When you're famous and best-selling, you can break this rule, too. Until then, start your book with action.

By action, I don't mean a fight or a car chase. I mean, start the story with something happening, something out of the ordinary or something interesting. This is your "hook," the way you engage your reader in the story.

Included among problematic openings is backstory. Backstory is a specific kind of description that deserves its own paragraph.

B--BACKSTORY: Backstory is exactly what it says: it's the story behind the story, the history of what went on before the story gets going.

I'm the queen of backstory. When I start a new novel, I just regurgitate backstory. It's the way I warm up to beginning a novel. However, I've learned that, once I've gotten the backstory out of my system and am actually writing, I need to lop off all the backstory up to the point where the action begins. This usually requires that I cut out somewhere between ten and fifteen pages.

Writing that backstory serves a useful purpose. After writing it, I'm deep into the story, and I KNOW my characters' backgrounds. I will often drop bits and pieces of that backstory into the novel over the course of the book. However, most of it will never make it past the final edits. That's okay. By then, the backstory has served its purpose. I've learned who my characters are, and I've built the world in which they live. I have to know this information to write the book. My readers don't necessarily need to know this information.

C--CHARACTERS WHO ARE NOT CONSISTENT: This was the most common error I encountered this weekend. In at least four of the critiques I did, the characters' motivations were all over the map. One minute a character would be intelligent and professional; the next minute, s/he would be TSTL (too stupid to live). When a character does not have internal integrity, the reader loses empathy and interest.

By "integrity," I don't mean that the character has to be an upstanding citizen. I mean that the character should have a certain consistency and, after a few chapters, the reader should be able to predict how the character will respond to situations. Again, I'm not saying that the character can't surprise the reader. However, the surprise should be consistent with the personality that the author has established for the character.

I've said in the past that, when I'm having trouble with one of my characters, I fall back on two books: Debra Dixon's GMC and Tami Cowden's Writer's Guide to Heroes and Heroines. My blog of 10/14/05 gives more information about these books if you're interested in learning more about them.

Essentially, it boils down to knowing your characters' goals, motivations and conflicts; and being able to recognize your characters' archetypes. If you have a character's GMC and archetype firmly fixed in your mind, you'll know how s/he will respond. Inconsistent characters irritate a reader. Characters who are TSTL make them throw the book across the room.

D--Plot DEVICES: The best way for me to explain this problem is to describe an experience I often had while reading Gothic novels or watching the movies made from those novels. A bright young woman (often a governess) would move into a house reputed to be haunted. Noises would occur during the night. The governess would hop out of bed and head bravely off to check on the noises; going into deserted wings, lonely moors or fallen-down ruins all by herself. All the while, I'd be shouting, "Don't do it!!!"

This is an example of a plot device that makes NO sense, but exists only to further the story. Other examples of such devices are unbelievable coincidences and completely contrived situations.

This problem often goes hand-in-hand with inconsistent characters. In the critiques I did over the weekend, I questioned an action a policeman took, which seemed not to be in line with procedures for rules of evidence. The writer in question responded, "Well, she has to do that in order for XYZ to happen in the next chapter." That's a perfect example of twisting the plot to suit the writer's need instead of letting the plot develop organically, true to the world the writer has built.

When you are self-editing your manuscripts, look for these errors. You'll be surprised how often you'll find them. And--be assured--if you don't find them, your critique partners will.

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