Second Blunt Truth about Writing

In the last blog, I wrote about a college kid that was looking for a mentor to help him finish and publish his novel. I discussed why no one stepped up as a mentor for him the last time. Today, I wanted to address the other part of his message.

The individual knew in his heart that it was a great story and he had put part of his soul in it.

I am not intending to mock or belittle this person’s statement. I’m sure he feels like his novel is going straight to the New York Times number one spot and he really did put his heart and soul into it.

Big deal.

The blunt truth is that he is not alone.

All writers put their hearts and souls into their manuscripts.

Every author bleeds out his memories, feelings, politics, beliefs, and more into every crafted story. That is, if they are any good. The writers who say, “I don’t do that,” are probably creating barely coherent dross. In addition, all authors think their fiction rocks, no matter if it is a novel or short story. We know our work is wonderful because we loved creating it. We simply have to convince others of that. Right?

The truth is not that clear or perfect. If a writer’s material wasn’t flawed, why would we need editors? Critique groups would be useless because all we would want is adoration. The creator doesn’t see the flaws because they are too close. Like parents who believe their son is perfect while others are convinced he’s only average or a brat, we must distance ourselves from the work or get someone to help us in order to see the flaws that can ruin even the best of tales.

In addition, the kid’s statement had two effects on me. The first was a simple “hope he doesn’t put that in his query letter.” After years of hearing conference speeches, putting out queries, and creating pitches, I repeatedly notice the fact that the agents and editors don’t want to read about how perfect your work is, nor do they consider the amount effort you invested in it.

It is just business to them.

It may be an emotional roller coaster for you but they don’t care. They look at how marketable your idea is, whether the story flows, and if it is in a genre they like, among a dozen other issues. Making statements about heart and soul indicates that you are a newbie author who lacks professionalism. In addition, they also don’t want to know how much your family, friends, spouse, or even fifth grade class liked it. None of those people are truly objective or qualified enough to pass judgment on whether the material is publishable or not. In addition, most of them are too kind to tell you that your work sucks to your face.

The second effect of the kid’s comment was that I felt mildly offended. The implied statement that comes after “I put my soul into my work” is that “and other writers do not sacrifice as much as I have.” The kid probably didn’t think about it that way, but the words are still there, hanging in the air like a foul stench.

I wondered if this new writer thought about the implied comments and nuances of his statement. He should have because many of the most powerful sentences come cloaked with extra depth and subtle meanings. Good writers use this fact to their advantage. If you don’t believe me, then consider using the words, “Mexican bakery,” “pawn shop,” “old buildings,” and “overflowing garbage cans.” into a sentence or two without adding much else. These words provide a touch of the neighborhood’s ethnic flavor, social-economic status, cleanliness, and local population attitudes in a quiet, subtle way.

In conclusion, remember that you’re not alone. Whatever you feel now about your work, others have experienced some point as well, including the elation, frustration, depression, and other -tions. You can discuss those feelings with your peers for mutual support and emotional venting. It is cheaper than seeing a shrink. However, realize that a career in writing and publishing is a matter of profits and losses. To succeed, you must be professional in your correspondence. So leave your heart and soul in the manuscript, and out of the business end of your work.

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.