Dec 15, 2011

Deja vuing: Characteristics of emerging writers

A do-over from a September post...

Check out other Deja Vu postings listed at Creepy Query Girl's blog...

I'm almost finished with a graduate program that requires a LOT of academic writing. This is a totally different genre from fiction, as Calvin demonstrates so succinctly.

Fiction writing, on the other hand, defines itself by carefully orchestrated simplicity. As authors, we take our readers by the hand to lead them down our winding story road. If we lose them, in most cases it's because they fell into a plot hole or were stolen by an evil, off-topic tangent.

Just like little kids first learning the mechanics of writing, we all have weak areas that show up in our writing. Our mastery of language comes through in what we write. This is why college professors, MFA instructors, and editors urge writers to read Strunk & White’s Elements of Style (see great rap below) and other books on writing. If writing is an art, our grammar, word choice and structure are the canvas on which our stories are painted.

The difference between a master and a student is simply this: enough practice to recognize/catch these tendencies in the first draft. (And I’m nowhere near able to do this – which is why I have critique partners!)

1.A whole lot of nothing. In other words, your words take the reader nowhere. It takes 850 words to get your MC out of bed, or the MS reads like a playbook of movements – from the house, to work, to lunch, etc., with zero plot points to tie it together. Yawn. *checks watch*

2.Rambling/useless chapters. This is similar to #1 except the concept extends to chapters instead of scenes. Chapters are like rungs in a ladder – they’re supposed to take a reader to the next level. If they don’t move the story, your ladder turns into a treadmill.

3.Plotted like a potato plant. Here in my part of Alaska, we grow a lot of potatoes. To plant one, cut a potato in half and watch it grow. An emergent writer starts out with a great idea and then, presto, soon there are shoots popping out of the ground every which way. The reader has no clue which is the main idea because there’s so much going on.

4.Overwriting. Agent Mary Kole wrote a great post on how this rears its ugly head. All I’m going to say is: don’t tell us what you’ve just shown us is happening in your MS. It’s the equivalent of leading us there and then grabbing our face while yelling: “Look!” See here for more detail on this error.

5.Not enough tension. The reader needs to know why he/she is reading your story. Even a formulaic romance has the break-up. This is one I’m struggling with and it reminds me a bit of keeping a bunch of rubber bands tight while juggling a ball with one hand. According to Kristen Lamb, conflict must be constant.

6.Grammatical errors. Spell check is great but if you correctly spell a misused word, it’s still misused. Whether it's the incorrect use of they're, their or there, or the misunderstanding that you DO NOT add a possessive to a plural word (ie parent’s when you mean the two people who raised you) routine errors shout AMATEUR.

7.Thin skin. Emerging writers are reluctant to send out their work and react with anger/fear/sorrow when given constructive criticism. Sometimes they avoid it, or say they’re writing just for themselves. My response to that: keep a diary. Stories are meant to be shared.

So what did I miss? Share more characteristics in the comments!

The Elements of Style rap

The Elements of Style from Jake Heller on Vimeo.


Cassie Mae said...

This is great! I think also the opposite of someone who's afraid. Someone who's so confident that they don't take any critiques and they think it's perfect and it's going to be the next big money maker.

Sarah B said...

I was giving advice on writing to a friend this morning who is JUST starting out and everything you mention here would apply. A great list for beginners.

And you make an excellent point that the master knows how to identify the problem and fix it. (Masters and students all start off with the same mistakes.)

Lisa L. Regan said...

Truer words were never written! I love this post because it is so dead-on. I'm guilty of having done every one of these things. Still working out the kinks and always looking to improve but some of these things still creep in from time to time!(Now I just have a new set of writerly problems!)

Laurel Garver said...

I love the Calvin and Hobbes cartoon because my day job is in academic publishing. I swear some PhD programs train the worst habits into people!

Your plotted like a potato plant hit close to home for me. Keeping the central story central can be a struggle sometimes. I frequently have to run plot ideas through the "is this too complicated?" filter.

Jennifer Hillier said...

"Fiction writing, on the other hand, defines itself by carefully orchestrated simplicity." Yes, perfectly said! Great post.

Do you find it hard to switch back and forth between academic writing and fiction writing?

Happy to be a new follower!

Lydia Kang said...

So true! These are really important points that I learned too.

Thanks so much for joining the Blogfest!

Amy L. Sonnichsen said...

Okay, I totally have to listen to this rap while I'm editing!

This is a great list. I'm very weak in a few of these and need to work on them! (Esp. pacing and plot. That plotting like a potato plant really rung true.

Thank you, Melodie!

Sarah said...

I can certainly agree with the differences between academic and creative writing! Great (re)post, wise words.

DL Hammons said...

Hey Melodie, I'm a new follower and I can relate to everything you've included in your list. I've stumbled across just about every one of them at some point. But then when I was starting out I didn't have a list like yours to follow! :)

Thank you for re-sharing this for the blogfest! :)

Nancy Thompson said...

I still have to be careful of overwriting. And I first started critiquing, I had very thin skin. Now I'm tough as nails.

I love that video. Too funny!

Colin Smith said...

One thing that occurred to me while writing recently: if your novel sounds like a history textbook, you're doing something wrong. You're telling an engaging story, not stringing dates, facts, and events into a narrative.

Good reminders.

Sarah Pearson said...

This is an excellent list. There are some good reminders for me as I undertake the edits on my first novel :-)

Alison Miller said...

Love this post. I'm in revisions right now and these are exactly things I need to remind myself of. Thanks!

Monica B.W. said...

Congrats on finishing the graduate program!! That's awesome! Also, thanks for the lovely links--esp. the one about overwriting.

And thanks so much for stopping by my blog the other day and sending good vibes! YOu know you helped me a lot!! :D

Pk Hrezo said...

excellent points! And you highlighted 2 of my fave bloggers. I used to be the worst at overwriting... redundancy was a huge issue. But all these things are easily avoided and edited out once we know what to look for.
Thanks for t he reminder! :)

Botanist said...

All very good points. I'd like to add: lecturing the reader. Sometimes the writer is so caught up trying to show how clever and detailed their backstory is, they forget to tell the actual story.

The Golden Eagle said...

Great list!

I need to work on several of those points--especially the one about potato plants. The first novel I finished had a gazillion different ideas.

Thanks for sharing the video. :)

MISH said...

Thanks for sharing these gems! They are priceless!
Nice to meet you *waves*