The Five Biggest Problems

After looking at manuscripts and concepts for years, I made a list of what I considered the top five problems. Initially, the first several years, I focused on perspective as the major problem. As time went on though, and I learned more about writing, I changed that opinion. If a manuscript's major problem is perspective, then at least the writer got out of the starting gate. To my dismay I have found that many writers never make it out of the starting gate. I then decided that not having a good idea was the major problem with most manuscripts. Years after making that decision, I revised my list once more and what you have below has been updated several times.

So my ranking of problems is more of a creative flow ranking rather than perhaps a percentage as determined by Mayer, Doherty, Donegan, Dalton and McGuire, Certified Public Accountants and Statisticians of Writing.

1. Characters. You engage the reader on the emotional and intellectual levels. Good characters can overcome everything else because they touch the reader emotionally which is the most important aspect of a novel. When Anne Tyler wrote Breathing Lessons the basic story was two people driving from Baltimore to Pennsylvania for a funeral and then back home. Not the world's most startling idea or story. But the characters were done so well the book is a great read. For me, this was one of the greatest lessons I've had to learn over the years: people are more interested in people than anything else.

I just read a book about the battle of Thermopylae that is selling quite well now. What I realized reading it was that the aspect of the book that intrigued readers was not so much the battle, but the Spartans—readers were fascinated to learn how men could become soldiers that would stand and die to the last man in that mountain pass in Greece.

Why is Stephen King the #1 horror writer? There are other writers out there who do horror as well as he does. But he does great characters that draw the reader into the story, and then when the horror strikes, it has more of an impact because of that emotional involvement.

If you want to see a great example of introducing characters and engaging readers with them, read the first ten pages of LONESOME DOVE. Larry McMurty introduces Call, Gus, Newt, Jake Spoon, Deets and several other characters in such a way that you immediately have a feel for them. McMurty is a master of multiple points of view.

2. The Idea. You've got to have a good idea to start with. Too many manuscripts are written about something that really won't interest anyone enough to plunk down hard cash to read it.

I beat to death earlier, and will later, the ability to state your idea succinctly. After you master that, find out if it works as a hook. When you look at a complete stranger on the bus going to work and say: "I read a book the other day about— (insert your idea)." How do they react? Are they interested?

Do they call the police and have you carted off? Or, most likely, do they stare at you blankly without interest?

The idea is the thing that will intrigue readers more on the intellectual side of the house. You put good characters together with a great idea and the sky is the limit.

3. Story. If a manuscript has an intriguing original idea and good characters, then the next issue is: is the story interesting? How many times have you picked up a book or heard about a movie that sounded interesting and then got turned off by the manner in which the story was told?

My first novel published, Eyes Of The Hammer, was about US military forces going to South America and attacking drug labs. Tom Clancy came out with Clear and Present Danger at the same time my book was coming out. The original ideas in the two were similar. But the way in which we told the story was quite different. He told it from the top looking down, while mine was from the bottom looking up. I focused on the Special Forces team, which I knew well, while he took a more global view.

The story is a major stumbling block. I can pitch you ten very good ideas at any moment. But each of those ten would take me quite a while to come up with a good supporting story. In fact, in eight of the ten, I probably would not be able to come up with a good story.

I spend a lot of time working on story after I have an idea. I war game various stories with my partner and we discuss them. Ultimately, and you are going to cringe to hear this, I don't proceed with a storyline until it feels right. This is part of the artistic craft in writing, but a pretty realistic one. You have to feel comfortable that you can write your story and that it is interesting not only to the reader, but also to you the writer.

4. Perspective/Point of View. I have a whole chapter dedicated to this style problem so I won't beat it to death here. But I have found that when a person has trouble writing action scenes the first thing I look for is to see if the author is handling perspective well. When dialogue drags, I check. As a matter of fact, when there is any style problem, the first thing I look at is the perspective the story is being told in, rather like you would check to see if there was any gas in the tank if a car's battery (the idea) was putting out juice, but the engine wouldn't fire.

Perspective is your voice as a writer.

5. Timeline or pacing of the story. I have several chapters dedicated to this area. This comes up very quickly at times because too many writers don't knock the reader's socks off with their opening two chapters. Most of us aren't a good enough writer to spend a hundred pages slowly drawing the reader in. You have to hook them and hook them fast. I have chapter on how to start your novel and a chapter on pacing that addresses these problems.

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