Even the Beatles did a song about being a writer with the basic philosophy that it is an easy road to fame and fortune. It is a profession where anyone with access to paper and ink thinks they can join the ranks. The longer I do this, though, the more I believe that it is very important to learn the basic craft of writing a novel before exercising one's genius. If you talk to coaches of teams, they always stress learning the fundamentals first, and I feel the same way about writing. Too often, inexperienced writers jump deeply into too complicated a story before having the tools in order to set up the basic structure to make that leap.
I just spent several days looking through manuscript submissions and saw so many basic mistakes it made me wonder if the writers even read books, never mind had studied writing. It's like the architect I mentioned earlier. Before one can build a spectacular bridge, it helps if one has built a couple of simple bridges to gain the experience.
Here's a checklist of things that I constantly find in manuscripts. I address each of them in the various chapters that follow, but I want to list these up front to gain some focus:
• Hooking the reader. Many writers spend too much time giving background information, introducing various characters, etc. before they introduce
• Dialogue tags. The words inside the quotation marks have to get across to the reader the necessary information and emotion. Trying to make up for the lack in written dialogue by overusing dialogue tags is very common and very jarring.
• Repetition. Using the same words over and over again, or same phrases, is very jarring to the reader.
• Time sense and pacing of the story. I call this the remote control effect. A story should flow in some sort of logical time sequence. Too often stories fast-forward, then rewind to a flashback or memory, jump forward, slow down, speed up, etc. etc. until the reader's head is spinning.
• Setting the scene. Often I begin reading a scene/chapter and am totally lost for several pages as to where this action is occurring, who is in the scene, when this scene is in relation to the last scene.
• Italicizing thoughts; the same with putting a character's thoughts inside of quotation marks. I'm not a big fan of either, although I'm sure I could go to a bookstore and find this technique successfully done. Putting a character's thoughts inside of quotation marks can easily confuse the reader who expects this to be dialogue. My problem with italicizing thoughts, while a common technique, is pondering the difference between those character thoughts the author italicizes and those he or she doesn't.
• Characters talking to themselves. This is a weak technique to give expository information or thoughts to the reader. What do you think of someone who wanders around talking to himself or herself all the time? Also, this technique used in conjunction with an actual conversation can be very confusing because the reader will not be sure which dialogue is directed at the other participant in the conversation and which is directed back at the speaker.
• Misuse of pronouns. If you have two men in the room and use the phrase "Blah, blah, blah,"he said. It had better be very clear which he you are referring to. The technical definition of a pronoun is: one of a class of words that function as substitutes for noun or noun phrases and denote persons or things asked for, previously specified or understood from the context. It needs to be very clear whom your pronoun refers to. Don't confuse the reader.
• The difference between a memory and a flashback. This is also covered elsewhere.
• Slipping into second person point of view. Any time you address the reader as I am now addressing you, then you are into second person POV.
Now let's get into the actual tools so we can learn about them in order to avoid these common problems.
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