Guardians of the Language

International bestseller, John Lescroart once said something to a small group of authors that has always stuck with me.

“You are the guardians of the language so choose your words precisely.”

He was talking to a group of about 20 other authors who had submitted three pages of manuscript for his review. The daylong critique felt arduous and all of our manuscripts had a range of faults, some easier to repair than others. In fact, he stated that he could tell from the first page if a manuscript was ready for publishing since most of the editors and agents look for the same thing. I was amazed at how many of us mid-career writers were still making these mistakes. However, the lessons learned that day were not about correct grammar or story elements. They involved the more subtle aspects of good editing that separate excellent writing from everyday dross.

So here are some major manuscript errors that you should avoid in your writing.

  1. Avoid the adverb. Use of –ly words leads to telling the story, not showing it, which we all know is a major sin in creative writing. However, the insidious terms sneak in as the Muse is whispering in your ear and you are in the full blow of streaming words to paper. Sometimes the –ly expression is the best way to go. However, most come from lazy or too-quick writing. After the story is completed, search most of them out and kill them.
  1. Echoing words. A great phrase gets stuck in your head so you use this great phrase over and over again until it sticks. See? Great, phrase,stuck/stick, and over are all overused in one sentence. However, when you are editing, look for repetition across paragraphs as well and don’t let characters repeat statements that someone else has already said (example: “What do you mean ‘who am I?'”). It slows the pace and is unnecessary.
  1. Unclear pronoun. If you are mentioning a he or a she, make sure we know the name before the pronoun occurs. Example: Before he became a man, he heard Dad often say “Roger, stop eyeballing them women!” This is far better as “Before Roger became a man, he hear Dad often say “Son, stop eyeballing them women!”
  1. Overuse of exclamation marks. Unless your character is shouting, don’t use the exclamation mark. People don’t think or talk in great emphasis. If you read your material out loud, you can hear if this punctuation fits or not.
  1. Avoid “It is,” “There is,” and “There are” phrasing in all of your writing. These expressions are inherently weak and lead to dull, passive sentences. Yet they are easy to fix as well. “There are a lot of writers who use these verbs,” easily changes to “A lot of writers use these verbs.” Take the weak sentence starts out and the action in the story increases dramatically.
  1. Passive verbs. You probably know this one, having heard it repeatedly in any writing class. However, the terms still sneak in. In addition, avoid “is able to…” If a person is “able to” do something, then just state that they did it.
  1. Overworked words. Since writing paints an overall image in the reader’s mind, the author should choose specific words that support that picture. Obvious examples include verbs such as do, walk, get, look, or take, just to name a few. In less than a second, you can think of more exact terms to use that evoke a stronger impression. This also includes more complex concepts such as colors. Is the object “white” (that might be good enough) or could it be cream, eggshell, cloud, or snow shaded?

Remember your writing may be good, but it can always improve. Seek out and destroy these and other pesky errors to make your material as tight, interesting, and clear as possible.

These winter days make me miss the long hours and warmth of summer.

These winter days make me miss the long hours and warmth of summer.

How to Choose the Best Conference for You

Conferences are often expensive, both in terms of fees and travel. Therefore, most people, particularly early in their careers, are limited to one large trip a year and maybe one or two small, regional events if they live close enough to a big city that hosts them. As a person who has attended a variety over the years, I can tell you that each type has its pros and cons. In order to choose one, you must have some idea why you are going in the first place.

First, consider where you are in your career. Are you at the beginning and want more “how to write” type advice? Then the smaller regional ones are great and affordable. Use them to hook up with local people in the business or find area writing groups. If the conference is in a fairly large city, such as the Houston Writers Guild Conference, then you may get an opportunity for meeting a handful of literary agents or editors. The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) offers a number of smaller conferences across the country along with a major event in February. After attending a regional convention. you should come home fired up to hit the keyboard and burn through paper. They should leave you with a “yes I can!” attitude towards putting your work forward and getting it finished.

Do you feel like you know how to produce a good story? Do you have a manuscript ready and are developing an author platform? If so, then you may find small regional symposiums frustrating. After a while, the speakers are usually saying the same things. It’s time to move up to the larger conferences that include some manuscript review, experienced authors, and definitely interaction with editors and agents. At the midsized ones, the workshops often cover the subtleties about writing, such as developing strong characters or how to create winning query letters. The Pikes Peak Writers Conference, Chicago’s Love is Murder, and Midwest Writers Workshop  are goods examples. This point in your career is also a good time to make your first large conference as well since many offer craft style seminars. You should also pay attention to any advice about marketing yourself since agents want that in place before investing in your book. When you go home, you may have a “I really need to edit!” feeling but you’ll know how to fix your letter or manuscript to make it more presentable.

Finally, if you feel your manuscript is ready and you want the ability to really push it into agents’ or editors’ hands, then spend the money to go to a large, national conference. It’s time to meet the international experts and start networking, particularly if you have book out with a small press and are looking to move on to a bigger publishing house. The cons are the expense and the crowds. They can be overwhelming for some folks. This makes it harder to really slow down and talk to the professionals. The pros include meeting true top-of-the-line experts, participating in established pathways to pitch to agents, and receiving valuable information about marketing and life-after-publication. These conventions also provide valuable information on the state of the industry as well. The Writer’s Digest Annual Conference and San Francisco Writers Conference are good examples. One word of advice is to research the seminars to make sure you will get your money’s worth. Consider going to a genre-specific conference if possible because the bang for your buck will be higher. I have attended ThrillerFest for three years because that is what my material is. Romance writers would not do as well here and have other, better conferences for their work.

As I hear about conferences and dates, I’ll post them at the bottom of my blogs. However, I hesitate to say any of them are better than others. For most, you get  what you put into them. If you go and just listen to the speakers, you will walk away more knowledgeable but not necessarily in a better position in your writing career. If you submit items, interact, join in discussions, and/or participate in speed-dating the agents, you’ll benefit much more.

More conference suggestions:

RT Booklovers Convention 2015 in May 12th-17th in Dallas, Texas. Focused on romance writing, it offers writer’s boot camps but seems largely focused on the love of books and meeting established authors. It may be a good place to sell your new book.

The Writers’ League of Texas 2015 Agents & Editors Conference June 26-28 in Austin. The name says it all and the Writers’ League is one of the biggest groups in Texas. Prices go up after April 5th.

New York Pitch Conference March 19-22 (four times a year) is extremely different from other conferences. If your manuscript is polished and ready, this may be for you. You spend one day developing an excellent pitch and receiving comments on your manuscript based off your pitch. Afterwards, you are put in a room with editors from some of the top publishing houses and pitch your idea. It is a rare opportunity to meet some of these industry leaders in person and avoid the slush pile.