Friday, June 05, 2009

What Not to Write

Since I began writing fiction I’ve critiqued a lot of manuscripts. A. Lot. When I first dipped my toes into the writing world, I started out reading chapters for friends, giving them pointers on which scenes were runway ready and which might be better suited to the back of the closet. From there, I volunteered to judge writing contests, and eventually moved on to join published critique groups and run my own manuscript critiquing service. While I always get a thrill out of reading something amazing before it hits bookstore shelves, I have to admit that not every manuscript that’s crossed my path has been star quality. And even the fabulous ones sometimes have glitches that detract from my enjoyment of the story. It’s like I’m reading a Prada, and all of a suddenly a pair of flared 70’s cords pop up off the page. Not cool.

When I was a baby writer (not that I’m claiming to be an old-age writer at this point, mind you) I had a few wonderful published authors take the time to help me out along with way with workshops, classes, advice, and mentoring. I never could have figured out this crazy business without them. So, this summer I’m giving a series of online workshops in an effort to help other writers and pass on the wisdom that’s been passed on to me. I’m currently doing a Query Letter and Synopsis workshop, next month (first week in July) I’ll be doing a class on Surviving National Conference, and in August I’ll be giving a workshop on Polishing for the Golden Heart Contest – or, as I like to think of it “What Not to Write”. (With a healthy nod to Stacey and Clinton on TLC.)

So, as a little teaser (and hopefully some helpful hints to all you Killer Fiction writers out there), I wanted to post a few of my fav quick fix mistakes that I see all the time, even from multi-published authors. These are simple, easy ways to polish up your manuscript that can make a huge difference in the reader’s experience.

1. Repetitive words
If at all possible, try to avoid using the same descriptive word more than twice in the same paragraph. I see this ALL the time. I think we get a word stuck in our heads and we tend to use it more than we should. I know sometimes it’s hard to find fifteen different ways to say, “kiss”, but if every other word is kiss, it makes for very clunky reading.

2. Mitigating adverbs/adjectives
Words like “slightly” or “mildly” should be used sparingly in your manuscript as they really take away from the punch of your story. No hero should be “slightly” intriguing. Go all the way – he’s intriguing. And, there’s not much at stake if your heroine is “a little bit” afraid, right? So, whenever possible, get rid of those descriptors that make anyone or anything less than they are.

3. Action then reaction
Whenever possible, put the character’s reaction after the action they’re reacting to. (Yeah, I’m aware that’s a total mouthful.) If they react first, before the action is shown to the reader, it can be a little jarring, pulling the reader out of the story as she tries to figure out what’s happening. I see this a lot in mystery and suspense manuscripts, as I think the tendency is to want to keep the reader guessing. Which is great with your plot, but not so great when they can’t picture what’s happening in your scene.

4. Tense trouble
One thing I see a lot is trouble with when to use past or past perfect tense with verbs. (past: walked, past perfect: had walked) Simple rule of thumb: If you’re writing in past tense, anything that happened before the point your story picks up should be in past perfect tense.

Those are my top 4 biggies. But, I know we have some wise women of fiction that contribute to this blog, so feel free to post your own pet peeve fiction faux pas. What are some thing that you see a lot of? What jars you out of a story? Any quick-fix tips?

~Trigger Happy Halliday


terrio said...

*raising hand*

I'm terrio and I have Tense Trouble.

Sometimes I think I couldn't find an active verb if it hit me in the nose. Thanks for these tips and for taking the time to help out us aspiring writers.

The one thing I'm good at is eliminating the "that"s. And reading everything aloud is my savior. If it tangles you up at all when read aloud, it probably needs fixing.

Gemma Halliday said...

And reading everything aloud is my savior. If it tangles you up at all when read aloud, it probably needs fixing.

Great tip! I somtimes do this with my galleys to find typos, too.


Christie Craig said...

Great advice Gemma. And it's things we all need to be reminded of, time and time again.


LuAnn said...

I like to suggest ... drop the s on toward. There is no such word as towards. The same goes for backward, forward, etc.
The same goes for the word "that." An example: He said that she didn't get the box that he wanted to put his hat in the last time that he asked.
It's much better to say: He said she didn't get the box he wanted to put his hat in the last time he asked.
Doesn't it read much more smoothly?

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