Manuscript Killers: The Overts Part III, Accidentally Lethal

Manuscript Killers: The Overts Part III, Accidentally Lethal

manuscript killerAfter covering Parts I and II of Manuscript Killers, we’re moving on to Part III. This installment is reserved for the accidental fatalities where we focus on character. Why? Because terrible characters will kill our babies quick, fast, and in a hurry. How many times are women dingbats, homosexuals disgusting, people of color violent, antagonists shallow, or main characters white men who have all the answers and must educate the world around him?

            The unfortunate thing is that we as writers learn to depict characters this way. We study novels of time past, best sellers, highly rated stories reviewed by die-hard fans, and we learn a pattern. Then, subconsciously, we create in that pattern. We write characters from groups that we don’t identify with and either consciously or subconsciously depict inappropriate things because we learned this is what heroes do, this is how villains behave, and this is why the damsel needs to be saved. We write in these stereotypes because we read them.

            Publishing professionals have pardoned this ridiculousness, but now, thanks to the power of online reviews, they have to set standards regarding the way the books they represent and promote depict (or don’t depict) people. Now they’re figuring out that people want to see themselves in heroes—and to stop seeing themselves in villains.

            In this article, I’m going expose some no-no’s so that we can do better as authors.

Cisgender, straight or whitewashing by accident

            You know to avoid stereotypes when it comes to ethnicities, however, what if your people of color don’t depict their culture, but depict Caucasian values? There’s a reason women of color wear satin bonnets, and why men of color wear do-rags (and why cornrows are a preferred hairstyle).

            There’s a reason why Jewish men have beards and wear the yarmulke, and why Hindu women wear the bindi.

            Not all androphilic men are emotional and overly feminine. Not all gynephilic women are butch. However, if every one of them in your story are, then this may be a problem (depending on the book/theme/genre—think, farce/satire written by said demographic).

            Not all transgender people are transsexual—non-binary people are transgender, too. Not all queer people are fully LGBTQ2S+ supportive.

            If you portray people of a different color, religion, gender/identity, ethnicity, culture, nationality or sexuality, it is vital that, in avoiding the stereotypes, you’re not also cisgender, straight or whitewashing these characters. While it’s okay to avoid giving a homosexual man “the accent,” it’s not okay to make him notice a beautiful woman to the point of her making him nervous. As a straight woman, I can say with confidence that a conventionally beautiful woman would NEVER put me off my game, so I imagine her enchantment wouldn’t work on him, either. Just because he was born with male paraphernalia does not make him subject to a woman’s appeal.

            If you put somebody who’s “not like you” into a story in a significant way, you *must* be as intentional in depicting this person’s culture as you are with avoiding the stereotype that would destroy it. And I’m not saying that you have to be thorough with secondary characters, I’m saying don’t show your rabbi eating pork, or your Hindu cooking live lobster, or a person with curls “smoothing out her hair.” Or first-generation Asians wearing shoes in their homes.

            Research is your friend.

Cutout attributes

            Ever notice that most antagonists are all-around unattractive? Maybe their voice is whiny, they’re overweight, ugly or completely unlikable—contrasted to the amazing, fit, strong, intelligent and all-around perfect hero.

            There’s a reason anti-heroes are a thing. It’s time to stop equating beauty with goodness. Make your villain handsome. Depict her as ideal wife material. Then give your hero missing teeth, or a jagged scar across his face, or a limp, or *open-mouth, hands on cheek gasp* make him obese. Or a little person. With high sex appeal. (Again, sensitivity/accuracy audience.)

Bad guy just because

            One of the biggest issues I’ve had with books (and not even just books, but movies, shows etc) is that the villain is bad for the sake of being bad. He has no depth, no backstory, no real purpose. He’s there because the protagonist needs a nemesis.

            He’s unattractive, he has a terrible mustache, he’s everything people tend to despise, or a fanatic. This is such a two-dimensional character. For me, some of the most compelling antagonists are kind to people. They are loving to animals, generous with their money, play caregiver for someone at home, and are loved by somebody innocent (child, three-legged dog, whatever). Perhaps they never harm innocents and are “bad” because they “clean up the streets.” Give him purpose to his evil.

The hapless stereotype

            Unfortunately, secondary characters are a crutch for writers. They rely on the foolish character to need the main character to explain things to them (instead of the author putting the work into showing it).

            Don’t rely on what the world accepts as cursors in depicting your characters. Writers from the eighteen hundreds to the two thousands have relied on readers’ acceptance of ridiculous women. Do any of your favorite older books have a woman who has no ambition, no agency, no fight, no sense? These are the secondary main characters whose ineptitude has allowed the (usually male) main character to shine.

            How many women have caused accidents because of a spider, or scream uncontrollably because of some shocking image that none of the men react similarly to?

            Gay men are often “overly emotional,” and the characters excuse his behavior on account of him being gay. Women and gay men aren’t overly emotional by nature, and if someone is emotionally unbalanced, they need therapy, not an, oh, s/he’s excuse.

            We’ve studied from the greats and we learned the pattern—straight, white males are the key; silly, dependent, subservient women are their right hands; and shallow cardboard cutouts are their foes.

            But these weak, unlikely characters from novels of time past will kill your book in today’s market. Relying on tropes that authors have gotten away with for centuries is a no-can-do these days, and we’ve got to redefine what makes good primary, secondary and tertiary characters.

            This (so far) finishes the three-part series of Manuscript Killers: the Overts. Hopefully some of this proves useful as a starting point or finishing point in your quest of developing strong narratives with strong characters.

            Happy writing.

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Manuscript Killers: the Overts Part II, The Isms. 

Manuscript Killers: the Overts Part II, The Isms. 

            In Part I, we examined a few manuscript killers including plot holes, over-editing as the all-knowing author, pacing, cramming, cutout attributes and repetition. This is the second installment of Manuscript Killers: the Overts, the isms. Let us begin. 

The isms

             Some authors write a story without ever realizing they’ve glorified an ism. Have a disabled character who is always thankful when some random passerby holds the door open, or helps them across the street, or saves them from walking into a busy roadway? Ever consider that in real life, they probably didn’t need the help? The ADA has worked wonders in raising awareness and influencing laws, such as requiring doors of public places to open with minimal force. So just because someone is wheelchair-bound doesn’t mean they can’t open the door. It’s a nice gesture (I like when the person in front of me holds the door), but to make that character oh so thankful because, unless this person came around, they would have been destitute is ableist. To assume that all people who struggle with mental health issues are violent is equally sanist.

             If your heroine steps back and lets a man lead while asking him to educate her about things along the way (barring experts briefing her on something), it sends a message that women prefer the backseat, or they’re incapable of common sense. If it’s important he lead, let them lead together, but don’t make her subservient. This is the accidental glorification of sexism.

             Portraying immigrants as poor speakers of the dominant language, or using color to portray a fear are isms (they were driving through a black neighborhood. Uh, okay? Ever heard of Black Wall Street? What are you implying with “black neighborhood?”).

             A common degrading and marginalizing practice is to depict religious people as fanatics. I’ve seen many apocalyptic stories that have Christians pillaging families for their virgin daughters. Uh, so atheist men don’t want your virgin daughters, just the Christian ones? How often do we see Muslims or Middle Easterners as cardboard-cutout terrorists? Is the point of stating their origin to give me a sense of them as a character, or to accept their “propensity” for violence? (Some of the kindest, most generous and gentlest people I know are Muslim.) 

            Westerners are also intolerant and capable of terrorism. A few of them shot up schools. A few others planted drugs on the people they swore to protect and serve. No demographic is immune. 

            Portraying the hero as fit and attractive juxtaposed to the heavyset and unattractive villain could be a case of lookism

Propagandism/promotional criticism 

            Ever read a book that degrades one religion to promote another? Perhaps it depicts people of faith (whatever faith) as uneducated morons who still believe in fairytales, pagans as spell-casting blood-drinkers, and atheists as immoral evildoers. 

            You’ve got to ask yourself, am I writing this to promote my own beliefs, or because this is so for the manuscript? Am I bringing my hate and intolerance into fruition, or am I just telling a story with characters who happen to be…

             Criticizing a group in order to promote one’s own is the most unattractive thing in human beings. Nothing will make me drop a book faster than –ist propaganda.

Throwing in marginalized characters and calling it diverse. 

            There’s been a recent push for diversity in novels—which is great—but comes with its drawbacks, too. In an effort to make their manuscripts “desirable” or “up with the times,” many authors feed into these blunders by adding marginalized characters for the sake of having them.

             Countless writers have tossed in members of marginalized demographics as side characters who have no arc, no background and no depth, just so they could pitch their story as being diverse. (No-no.) Conversely, many other authors have recognized the lack of marginalized characters in their own stories and include these demographics in an effort to change their own tendencies of unconscious omission. They do not use it as a marketing tool, but as a way to keep themselves accountable for inclusion. (Perfect.) There are also many authors who don’t feel the need to include marginalized characters and continue writing the way they always have. (You do you.)

             Just remember, if you include marginalized persons, keep stereotypes in mind and make a conscious effort to avoid cardboard cutouts. If your character and you don’t look the same, share the same sexuality/identity/mental capability, believe in the same deities or come from the same nations, find a sensitivity audience and a good resource to help you understand, embrace and appropriately depict their culture.

             If you resort to stereotypes thinking it’ll be fine this time, expect them to do your manuscript more harm than good—lazy writing and lazy research are finally being recognized after centuries of being called out. But one no-no from above reigns supreme: depicting a human being who isn’t like you in the same manner you would depict someone who is, and then calling it diverse. 

Manuscript Killers: The Overts, Part I

Manuscript Killers: The Overts, Part I

            After critiquing hundreds of poems, short stories, novelettes, novellas and novels, I’ve noted many manuscript killers over the years and wanted to share the list I’ve compiled so far. I call these the Overts. They can be both obvious or sneaky, and there are a lot of them. Let’s consider a few in Part I of this series.

Plot holes

            Plot holes are parts of the story that just don’t make sense—whether factually, chronologically, contradictorily or any other way, plot holes are ideas, words or events that go against the laws within the book (legal, natural, magical, character code etc).

            Plot holes are probably the biggest Overt of them all not only because it can ruin the book, but because it includes topics of Plot, Setting, Character, Theme (and let’s just throw in Style). These can be painfully obvious, but they can also be quite sneaky and even trick your readers into believing they don’t exist (until someone reads closely).

            For example, we’re given a real-world setting that couldn’t have existed. Maybe in the 1940s a couple meet at a European bistro in a town that had been blown up in real life, or someone refers to California as a state in 1845. (This does not apply to spec fic.)

            A sneaky example: a fire is set in a hospital, but the sprinkler system never goes off (however, the author has gripped us in the moment with the flames, so we don’t notice… yet. But when we do, we realize the system would have quenched the fire and prevented Bad Guy from escaping, and thus, Story from moving to its next plot point).

Over-editing as the all-knowing author (rather than a first-time reader)

            You’ve written a great story, but as you edit, you think Chapter 10 would be happier as Chapter 6. However, there’s a scene in Chapter 8 that *must* happen before Chapter 10 can take place. (A character introduction, a slap, a tryst…)

            Or, maybe, you’ve deleted a few key sentences. Because you and your betas already know this information, you overlook its necessity—however, without those words, new readers struggle with context and clarity. This is especially true for queries.

            Or you’ve written a gorgeous narrative but want to make it shorter/snappier, and end up editing out the addictive voice that would have grabbed your readers. This is especially true for queries—a lot of writers of various skill will give you feedback in forums. Be careful in applying it—I’ve seen many an author edit out beautiful voice.

Pacing

            Focusing too long on the wrong thing, dragging out a scene that should’ve ended pages ago, or being too abrupt with a depiction that needs more time are pacing issues.

            Pacing can be an issue for both internal and external movement. Too many actions can be crammed into one day, or too few actions across chapters (depending on the plot and what drives the story). A subplot love story that happens too quickly (an emotionally rounded couple marry two months after meeting) or too slowly (it’s page 300, and for the thirtieth time, two good friends “almost tell each other” what everyone else knew by page 20) can be equally frustrating for readers. On the one hand, readers may find a sixty-day true love romance between two strangers unconvincing. On the other, dragging out the admission of love just so it can happen on the last page can be overkill. These are common tropes and work when done well, but the key is doing it well.

Cramming in too much

            It’s okay to make a Part II, a pamphlet, a “further reading,” a mini-series, a bonus story, a double novella, a novel + novelette in one book binding etc. It’s also just fine to take some of the points from one book and put it in a different book altogether.

            Non-spec-fic novels at 120,000+ words can be very problematic. Few people are willing to read 500 pages of romance. Have mercy on our attention spans and let us feel more accomplished by reading two novels featuring these protagonists at 60,000 words each. Or, learn to love that delete button (which to be honest is more likely the issue).

            I prefer to read novellas. If I could buy a 350-page book consisting of either two standalone novellas in a series or a single story, I’d choose the double novellas. Personally, I’m more likely to finish a so/so novella than a so/so full-length, let alone a so/so bloater.

            Disclaimer: sometimes it’s okay to write the bloater (which wouldn’t work as two shorter stories unless they were in a non-standalone series/volume, which can come with its own set of issues if readers don’t know to expect this from the beginning. Dust by Kara Swanson, The Restorer by Amanda Stevens, and Snow White and The Civil War: Survival of the Fairest by Cathleen Townsend are the first books in non-standalone volumes for stories told across multiple full-length novels. Check them out).

            Titanic is a very beautiful movie, however, few people are willing to devote three hours to it. Your Titanic may be beautiful and have a strong audience, so if it makes sense, by all means…  Word of advice? If you choose to write the one-book bloater, consider this: the length may not be attributed to story and development, but to verbosity. You’ll definitely want honest betas who aren’t shy to pinpoint where exactly they’d stop reading, and why. You’ll also want Audience betas who read such books regularly.

Repetition

            If you’ve shown us once, then you don’t need to tell us again. Usually readers can connect something at the end of the book to something from the beginning, especially if the author grabbed our attention the first time. However, if hundreds of pages separate the two points and betas show a disconnect (and the first instance can’t be written any clearer), then go ahead and remind us.

            In conclusion, there are many Overts, and several ways to avoid them. Make sure your story isn’t moving too fast, or spend a third of its word count repeating itself. If you’re writing a historical, make sure the items, nouns/words, culture and places match up. Keep laws (legal, magical, moral, character’s code…) consistent. And if your word count is significantly higher than the average for its genre, consider either separating it into two pieces (even if they’re both sold in one) or—the more likely issue—get out your red pen and don’t be shy.

            In the spirit of avoiding cramming, there will be a Part II and Part III of Beware of the Overts. Keep an eye out for them.

The Guilt of Writing

The Guilt of Writing

I used to write poetry and dabbled in short stories as a kid, yet never considered penning novels until I was an adult. Now, I rarely write poetry, though shorts still sift through the deepest trenches of my mind.

For the past few years I’ve written full-length novels, helped others edit theirs, and even peeped a few shorts, articles, etc for friends. I’ve had brief hiatuses during major events and in my life, yet I’m still in the same place, striving to hone my craft and inviting people to check out my work in case they’d like to represent it.

And still, these short stories whisper in my ear, write me.

As an unpublished novelist, I felt guilty at the thought of spending precious time writing anything other than a novel—how dare I waste the resource of mental energy on something I don’t plan to publish?

I’d backed myself into the emotional corner of, nope, snag an agent first and then maybe you’ll deserve the luxury of frivoled time. I’d felt like I needed permission to write about what excited me because it isn’t a novel, and you haven’t “made it” yet.

Then one day, just to get these whispering sprites out of my ear, I wrote one.

I was in the middle of editing one novel while scribbling another, and this idea kept buzzing around like one of those mosquitoes you can hear but can’t find, and you just know it’s gonna bite you sooner or later… So, I gave in, and I wrote the whispers.

And I felt so much release. I felt so energized, revitalized, refreshed as a world builder.

Standing at only 12 pages (barely enough time to give readers a grasp on a novel’s situation), my short was the most pleasing thing I’d written that month. (Granted, it was the first day of the month…)

As a survivor of my own shackles, I wanted to share this story with other authors—both published or aspiring to be. Your story has worth. Your story even has a market. Your story has a place, and you deserve to drop whatever you’re working on to write it, even if you don’t plan on publishing it.

I was in the middle of editing one book and writing another—I had neither the time nor the right to take my attention away from the task at hand. But I did it anyway, and when I wrote the last word, I sighed with satisfaction and peace. I was riding the high of something completed, something finished, and something powerful, and it propelled me to finish what I’d started before it.

You don’t need permission to write a new exciting story—novel-length or micro. You don’t need to finish the story you’re in the middle of before moving on to another. (Okay, barring contracts and deadlines.)

But if you need to hear it, then let me scream it from your rooftop (with a harness and a bunch of inflated airbed thingies on the ground because I’m terrified of heights and exceptionally uncoordinated), WRITE OUT OF YOUR NICHE! WRITE THAT GOOFY STORY ONLY ITS AUTHOR COULD LOVE! STOP WRITING WHAT’S GOT YOU STUCK AND FRUSTRATED AND PEN WHAT KEEPS CALLING TO YOU.

Trust me, you aren’t sabotaging yourself, your dreams or your works in progress. In fact, you’re investing in them all.

Tell The Story

Tell The Story

I’ve been guilty of this because I’m a novelist. I’ve put too much emphasis on the novel.

I happily write novellas, but the idea of writing anything shorter never came naturally to me. Simple thoughts and beautiful accounts have flourished in my head, but they were all “too short.” Despite how often I dwelled on powerful events or daydreamed about how two lovers met, I struggled to find a valid reason to put them on paper.

I’d set these ideas aside, fully intent on making them scenes in a novel-length manuscript, but only recently did I realize my error—I was putting novel expectations on a story that was never meant to be longer than a few pages.

I’d only considered these images as random, irrelevant snippets of a brilliant story, but… these snippets were the brilliant story. They didn’t belong to a larger work. They were the work.

I completely dropped the ball in realizing the novel I was trying to fluff this idea into was happier as a short story.

Instead of stressing over how to make the novel satisfying, or putting the idea on a backburner until more comes to me, I now write the story as it wishes to be written, knowing that I can either add to it later, or take away from it during editing.

Hear me, dear novelist, if an idea comes to you that seems “too short” or inadequate, then accept it as a short story and write that perfect piece of flash fiction.

Hear me, dear short series veteran, if your work in progress wishes to drag across the pages, then let it and see where it goes—your delete button works (trust me, I tried it while you weren’t looking).

Very little is more freeing as authors when we remind ourselves that we don’t have to make an idea fit the word count we’re used to. Don’t compare the value of your short story with your expectations of a novel. 3 pages or 333 pages, they both are equally valid and worthy of being written.

So, write it.

Keeping Your Readers Engaged

Keeping Your Readers Engaged

reading-1223519_960_720The trick to keeping your readers engaged is to keep your writing engaging. How is this accomplished?

Opening is everything.

Have a good opening, especially with chapters. Don’t use your character brushing her teeth or tinkling while waiting for the shower water to get hot as a means of opening your chapter if that’s how the previous one started. It doesn’t work that way. Readers are mystical things. We’re easy to please… until we get annoyed. Starting every chapter the same way as the previous is a surefire way to get us there.

Short and sweet, fewer and neat.

Write a whole bunch on what you’re trying to say. Then delete 50-75% of it. Pare it down until you use the fewest words that pack the biggest punch, and trust your readers to connect the dots (but be reasonable—most people don’t want to become philosophers when reading fiction. Or, rather, most people don’t want to become philosophers just to understand your story).

Progression

Make sure there’s enough progression to keep your readers interested. Thrust them out of the daily busywork, and propel them into the next scene where, months later, the king comes and kills all of his own people because his jealousy over their simpleton lives ate at his ever-busy heart. Something.

Action, Action, Action!

If you don’t move forward with the plot, then add a bit of interesting action. Like the 5-year-old peasant who taught himself how to shoot the arrow that killed the king who slaughtered his simpleton friends and loved ones. Or Love Interest’s ___ist comment that made Romance Hero reevaluate the pursuit.

Focus on the right thing.

The most important piece I can offer is to keep in mind the overall Plot of your book. The plot isn’t about the way the waiter delivered the king’s meal, it’s about the king growing discontent with the demands and necessary ugliness of his responsibilities, or the moment where the boy started tying strings to sticks.

So, let’s not dedicate pages or even chapters to focusing on the king’s gown preparation every morning (though, talking about the newest addition to his train can add dynamic—victorious kings cut off a rivaling king’s train and add it to their own).

Your readers don’t need to see the minute details, but what they need to see is the finished product. When most people wake up, they get dressed and shower. You don’t need to show readers this; they trust your characters had to urinate and used toilet paper, or maybe even a wet wipe. And washed.

The point of the last two paragraphs is to warn you not to get focused and fixated on minutiae (trivial details) when they’re IN THE MIDDLE OF A WAR AND GUNSHOTS ARE BLARING PAST THEM, CANNONS JUST TOOK OUT THEIR VOLVO, AND THE MAN RIGHT NEXT TO MC CAUGHT A LEAD BULLET WITH HIS TEETH WITHOUT ANY OF THEM CHIPPING, TALK ABOUT HARDCORE!

The final point of the last three paragraphs: prepare your readers with what they should expect to see, and then show them the final product (not the process!). The MC is tasked with digging a quarry. Then, the hole in the quarry was deeper than anyone else’s. We don’t need to see his routine EVERY day until he completes his task. Unless that’s the point of the book.

Freshness.

Give your readers movement, or something new in every chapter, so they don’t feel like they’re rereading the previous one. Why do many agents pass on a book? Because the story sounds identical to another without enough differentiation. Why would a reader stop reading? Because each chapter is the same as the last and nothing has happened.

Ending is everything.

End your chapters STRONG. A good amount of them should be cliffhangers that leave your reader thumbing through pages all night without realizing it until the blue hints of sunlight stain the morning sky.

Or, end the chapter in a spot that makes the reader take a breath, a satisfied sigh, triumph.

Don’t end your chapter in an odd place, or in the middle of a scene, leaving readers feeling confused and irritated. Because readers are naturally irritable people.

Satisfying, believable actions.

It’s like having the stereotypical blond trip over nothing when she’s running away, or doesn’t look where she’s running and smashes her skull into some obvious object, or refusing to shoot the man who has a knife to her dog’s throat (I pity d foo who’d put a knife to my dog’s throat). Give your readers something they can gobble up, not something they’d spit out.

Make your story and dialog believable. Or, at the very least, plausible (think Ryan Reynolds and Sandra Bullock The Proposal). There are times where believability is OK to be shattered—IF it fits with the character or story and is done right. Because if it doesn’t fit or isn’t done right, then it is both unbelievable, and unacceptable.

Humor is okay.

Keep humor in your story, but only if you’re good at it. I can’t tell funny jokes, and by the time I construct a brilliant comeback, the chance to deliver it is three weeks gone. However, my characters somehow excel here. Sometimes. Other characters are naturally unfunny.

The bottom line.

Avoid monotony, know the overall point of your story, don’t spend pages on insignificant scenes or detail, give your readers something fresh to consider, make sure your request to suspend disbelief is reasonable, be concise and—the advice I always, Always, ALWAYS recommend—write for yourself but edit for your readers. You may wish to indulge in minutiae because it’s important to you, but your readers don’t need the distraction. Use it like salt, not like water.

All about Imagery

All about Imagery

all-about-imageryImagery is an important part of setting, which is one of the 5 elements of a story.

Imagery is one of the most powerful tools you as a writer can use to submerse your readers into your characters’ world. However, this tool is often overlooked.

Take painters, for example. They tell stories with a single image.

Some artists paint pictures of flowers or people having lunch on a forest floor, whereas others prefer the shocking portrayal of a dead man in a melting universe.

Some artists paint landscapes with sharp images of vivid pinks contrasting against deep blacks. Others prefer pastel colors.

Even brushstrokes play a significant role in depicting their world.

Writers are artists. We tell stories with words rather than literal colors, but it is so important for us to paint the full picture and to focus on all five senses.

When a cop shows up at a crime scene, the first thing he senses is the rotting stench of decaying flesh. They almost always smell it before they see it. So, when writing about crime scenes, let your readers smell what the character smells.

If your main character cuts someone’s throat, describe the soft gurgle of the man choking on his own blood.

A sunset is rarely just one color. Especially if there’s pollution.

Surely there’s more than a sharp feeling when accidentally cutting a finger.

What about the bitter flavor of ammonia forced down the throat of a captive?

Many descriptions focus on sight, some focus on sound and a select few focus on touch, but the two other senses—taste and smell—are often overlooked. Paint. That. Picture.

And, like a painter, your style of description will be different than your colleagues’. Their audience won’t always be the same as yours, their tastes may not be the same as yours, their focus is likely to differ from yours. And that’s okay.

Some people write stories where no true evil exists. Others prefer drama, a handful will spelunk into the darkness of humanity. Some focus on spirituality, and others will build all new worlds. Find your place, take it proudly. Only one person can write your story. But whatever you do, don’t skimp on important imagery, and don’t infodump on the unnecessary.

Styles Differ and It’s Okay

Styles Differ and It’s Okay

lighthouse-816546_960_720So, you’ve written a great novel, you love the voice, but then you read someone else’s and realize how terrible yours is. Or, is it?

It’s so easy to compare your story to someone else’s and feel that theirs was so brilliantly written whereas yours doesn’t compare. But, why do we do this to ourselves?

Books are just like paintings. They depict a story, sure, but each style is so different than the next. And that’s okay.

Take the realistic Mona Lisa, for example. Millions of people love the simplicity and accurate nature. It’s straight forward and needs no decoding to understand. I’d say its literary equivalent would be general fiction.

But not all paintings are meant to be accurate portrayals. Think of the surreal painting The Persistence of Memory. What is that painter saying? I almost equate this to satire or absurdity.

What about impressionist painting The Starry Night? So much fluidity and movement. I compare these to science fiction and fantasy because such an emphasis is placed on the environment, which is important to build in these genres. I also compare it to retellings, because the painters take what they’re given and recreate it in a way that’s special to them.

Some are abstract and welcome discussion, a few are violent. The Scream is downright horrifying.

People who like the peace of Mona Lisa won’t exactly care for the violent image in Massacre of the Innocents. So, if you’ve written a Mona, and read someone’s Massacre, you’ve got to keep in mind that, yes, while it evokes strong imagery and emotion, its audience is not the same as yours, and does not mean yours is lacking.

If your prose is strong, your images are on point and your writing is as tight as it needs to be, then don’t worry about comparing your novels.

If, however, your prose is on the weak side, your images are uninspired and your writing is either so tight, characterization suffers or so loose that you say the same thing eight times in a chapter, then find a writing group and adjust these issues.

According to Google, there are almost 130 million books out there, and most have found an audience.

If you’ve written a great book but don’t feel it’s as jarring as another, don’t worry. Write what’s appropriate to YOUR story and YOUR category and YOUR genre and YOUR style. Only Stephen King can get away with writing like Stephen King. Be the next you.

Avoiding the Infodump

Avoiding the Infodump

workshop-746539_960_720So, you read about infodumps, and now you want ideas on how to avoid them? Great.

This list is NOT all inclusive, but it’s a start.

Break up the characters.

Do you need to introduce more than one or two at a time? Sometimes you do, and that’s fine. But when you do…

Give appropriate information.

I read a published novel, and every time the author introduced a character, she gave the dossier—name, approximate age, height and weight.

This can be relevant if you’re dealing with aliens or fantastical races, but if you’re dealing with humans, the information can be introduced later at more appropriate times.

Instead of saying, the woman was about five-foot one and a hundred and fifty pounds, describe the scar across her face, or the fight that left her limping for the rest of her life. This gives your characters dimension—she’s more than her height and weight.

Describe organically.

In other words, let it just be natural.

When people meet someone for the first time, they may notice height and weight, but they notice other things, too. Voice, smile, teeth, eyes, nose, ESPECIALLY when these characteristics are abnormal. You can have ten underweight characters, but only one of them will have a voice poisoned by a lifetime of cigarettes.

Delete what doesn’t belong.

I said it before—I don’t care about where a cashier got her tattoo unless it adds to the plot (a place being investigated for using pig’s blood as pigment, or illegal/governmental/cult branding). Otherwise, yeah, I don’t care.

Choose better descriptions.

Instead of saying a chair lay on its side after a ruckus, you can say overturned chair. Instead of saying, a yellow bucket chair with brown stripes and a green outline of a naked woman, a seashell lamp, and a red and black plaid couch, you can say, the seventies called and want their furniture back.

Some precise descriptions are fun to write and fun to read, but you’ve got to know when and where.

Avoid repetition.

Okay, remember the published book that introduced each character by the dossier? Yep, by the third character, I skipped lines until the moment where I just stopped reading altogether.

This is a dangerous position to put a reader in. She is an established writer with a loyal fan base, and while she “earned the right to publish newbie no-nos” in theory, it may have cost her part of her existing readership, as well as any future newcomers who haven’t read the other titles that won her audience. My point is not to tear the writer down, but to tell you, dear aspiring/established author, how you can best keep my (and other first-time readers’) attention.

Scatter the info.

Remember in infodump where you walked into my cabin and found out everything there was to know about it in that one scene?

Welp, I listened to my critique partner. She didn’t need to see the brown micro fiber loveseat by the fireplace, or the curved leather couch with entertainment system in the den, the kitchen sink, or the study.

My MC will eventually sit on the couch. She can touch the micro fiber then. Or drop a glass in the one-basin sink.

Be concise.

You’ve got 5 men. One plowed fields his entire life, another diagnoses anything from flus to hemorrhoids, the third breeds a healthy strain of livestock, the fourth makes so many calculations in a day, he doesn’t need a calculator and the fifth likes cookies and milk and the color red.

You’ve got 5 men. An agriculturalist, a doctor, a farmer, an accountant and Santa. (And a reader who wasn’t tempted to skim.)

A red-and-white-striped peppermint candy. Uh, you mean a candy cane?

There are clever ways of describing something, but sometimes it’s better to keep it simple. Know when to be clever and know when your readers will only cross their eyes in confusion.

Be clever when you’ve already used the word on the page, be concise if your word count is pushing 110,000.

And for the love of everyone subjected to the story, do NOT get clever to boost word count. Word count should be focused on pretty words that move plot and characterization forward, not scarce plot and characterization held together by the skimpy fabric of pretty (but empty) words plastered in between.

Get another opinion.

Ask a friend to read your work. This person doesn’t need to be a professional editor or critic, this person just has to be a reader. After all, readers buy the book, and liking a novel or hating one requires no expertise at all. People who read a lot know when things feel forced or unnatural, when something isn’t clear, when there’s too much or too little information, or when they’re bored. A good reader who gives honest feedback is one of the best things you can have in your literary arsenal.

Infodump

Infodump

stress-543658_960_720So, you’re reading a great passage and really like the writing. You’re eager to get to the second paragraph, and then it happens. So. Many. Details.

Perhaps too many characters are introduced at a time and the focus is on the wrong descriptions, leaving nothing tangible for the reader to remember the character by.

Or maybe there are too many things in a room, a paragraph-long sentence describing the flashing of Christmas lights, or backstory on characters who readers will never see again.

These things, dear people, are called infodumps.

I had a friend go through my first few chapters, and that was one thing she dinged me on. I described a whole cabin from front to back. The layout was important for the novel, but given all at once, NO ONE is going to remember it all. Glad she pointed that out.

So, I changed my tactic. I gave details slowly. Anything I wanted people to remember had to be given in increments.

Even though talking about crossing through the study to get to the den was an important detail for a later scene, the things IN the study, though also relevant later in the book, weren’t important to include at that time.

If you present a big chunk of information (or a small chunk of highly detailed information) to establish a character or setting, you risk giving your readers flashbacks of their ex’s family reunion–they’re going to be overwhelmed and need a break.

Don’t do that to your readers because nothing makes someone skim faster than too much info, especially when it’s irrelevant.

Check out avoiding the infodump for a few ideas on how to present information without overwhelming your reader.