Monday, August 9, 2010

Let the Story Speak

What advice would I give a newbie writer? What elements would I tell them to focus on to deliver a good story? Me giving writing advice is kind of a joke. I can tell you how to sell, I can give marketing tips, I can tell you how to keep your "voice" online true to your real voice in person -- but what I can share with a new writer about character development, getting "deep" into your POV, or layering plot lines would fit into a few short paragraphs.

I make this stuff up as I go. I stand by something I read from another writer-- "anyone can write". But what elements will truly make your work stand out and get noticed? I think every writer - or everyone who dreams of writing and has attempted it -- will tell you what their weak points are when asked to give advice. Wouldn't our advice for improvement be to focus on what we struggle with the most?

If you want anyone to read your work - whether it's a friend, family member, a reader, potential agent or an editor, you need to remember one thing: Make it shine. If you choose weak verbs, use lots of passives, tell your story rather than show as much as you can, or repeat phrases and words throughout the piece it will ultimately be a work someone walks away from. But before you get to even judging those things you need to have a firm grasp on format, grammar and punctuation.

Those were my weakest points and have been were I have made the most improvement over the past year. I still don't understand all the nuances of comma usage and when it's okay to "break the rules", so I wing most of it and hope my crit partners catch the worst.

I've had a lot of people ask me to read their work - and I don't mean writers. I mean people who dream of writing and who have a story to tell. Readers who have been inspired by my story and decide to follow their dream to write as well. The hardest part for me has been to get past the poor formating and polish-- lack of paragraph breaks, incorrect formatting with dialogue, no dialogue attribution, run on sentences, inner thoughts expressed as dialogue, confusing fragments, typos, incorrect word usage (your, you're, their, there and they're), and their ability to pick a tense and sticking with it.

These mistakes are not limited to the aspiring writers who send me their work. I've judged contest entries that made a lot of these same errors as well. It pulls the reader out of the story and makes them look at the writing itself. The writing should fade into the background and the story should leap to the forefront. Perfection (or as close as you can) in the basic grasp of format, punctuation and grammar will be key in getting your story to speak for itself.

It will also be what makes your work stand out to an editor. They can help with parts of your story that are inconsistent (like timeline or conflicting facts in your world), a weakness in a character, or a plot with holes in it, but they will never take on your story if they see errors strewn across the first chapter. It's a red flag showing your writing will require more work on their part. It's a cold hard fact that they have a writer who doesn't seem to have a grasp on the craft of writing. They'll pass on your manuscript before they even find out if your story was worth reading in the first place.

It's also what will make a pro pass on your query or your synopsis as well. Learn to perfect the basics as best as you can to in order to become a true storyteller. The story will be prominent and the words will fade into the background. Allow the images you paint to color the imagination of your reader and transport them to the world in your mind.

In all good writing, isn't it the story that speaks to you? Not the writer's poor crafting?

[caption id="attachment_3135" align="alignleft" width="200" caption="Stole this from Ana's site because I have no pictures on my computer!"][/caption]

And to show that I can and do learn from my own mistakes, I'm hosting a contest today where I will giveaway a printed bound copy of my first manuscript, Vampire Vacation. As a bonus, it will be signed and numbered. These are copies I was originally going to send to book reviewers, but I found so many typos and areas that needed tightening I couldn't bring myself to do it. It is currently going through its fourth edit since it was printed back in late December, but I sincerely hope you can enjoy the story despite the many flaws.

An entry consists of subscribing to our blog (RSS link over on the right hand side bar) AND commenting on this post. Winner announced in two weeks. Sorry, no international entries at this time.


  1. Oh, man! Is this one of those deals where members are not eligible to win? I've already got an eBay account and a bidding war going!! ;)

  2. Great ideas, CJ. You cast such a broad net, and all of these points are so important. Boy, have I been guilty of all of them! My favorite piece of editing: the "hadectomy", taking out all those little pesky "hads", the passive voice you mentioned.

    Super job, as usual.

  3. Hi CJ.

    Critiquing the manuscripts of aspiring authors has shown me just how sage your advice about proof reading, revising and improving prose is. But even the manuscripts that were well proofread and had strong prose did not necessarily stand out. It's not enough to do nothing wrong; you must do something right as well.

    I'd add three pieces of advice based on the manuscripts I've seen destined for the slushpile.

    The first is that a stand-out manuscript has creative balance. It has reasonably brisk plotting, believable characterizations, snappy dialog, and intriguing world building. It is very common for compositionally competent manuscripts to be outstanding in one area but hopelessly weak in others. Disorganized plotting seems to be the most common fault.

    I once read the first 100K words or so of 300K+ word novel, because I knew the writer was a person of great intellectual distinction. The prose was strong and in many places beautiful. His world building effort was, frankly, stupendous. Unfortunately this enormous book had almost no plot and what little was there was nonsensical. The result was the opposite of a page-turner. It took an heroic effort to turn to turn every page, despite the manuscript's many excellent points.

    The complementary problem is the briskly plotted story that suffers from unbelievable characterizations, lousy dialog, and stock scenery. The characters in these stories transparently act as the plot demands at each point. As a reader, you burn right through a manuscript like that then put it down with a profound feeling of disappointment -- even anger. Yet I think such a manuscript has a far greater chance of being published than the otherwise wonderful story that suffers from bad plotting. In fact I can think of a number of published books that are well plotted but mediocre to bad in every other way.

    I think it's OK for a draft to be creatively unbalanced, but as you revise your first task should probably be to add balance. Next you should strengthen your prose. Finally, correct spelling, grammar, punctuation and format. I would not submit an unbalanced manuscript to an agent with the idea that he'll help you fix its creative faults. I'd make it as balanced as I could first.

    The second piece of advice is to feed your imagination, and to do so from unusual sources. So many of the otherwise good manuscripts I've seen resemble each other so much that they seem to paraphrasing the same underlying Ur-story. Lots of these are fantasies of Greek Gods, the spawn of Neil Gaiman's "American Gods" via Rick Riordan's "Percy Jackson Series". I've seen a ton of vampire stories. A standout vampire story must be really, really hard to do these days. Not that you shouldn't try. I've seen some real stand-out vampire stories, but they tap creative sources other aspiring vampire writers haven't.

    The final piece of advice is have a strong first chapter. Good first chapters seem to elude writers. I've seen many manuscripts that are far, far better than their first chapter, and professional editors I've talked with agree this is very common. So study the books that catch you in the first chapter -- even better the first page. Learn how they do it. What are they doing differently from the authors whose books you want to put down after a few pages. After a while, you'll begin to see certain formulas you can copy, particularly from the kinds of books you like best.


  4. C.J.

    You are such a passionate writer with a huge fan base, it won't be long before you are a NY Bestselling author!! I wish you nothing, but the best!


  5. Amen to this blog, C.J.

    From all the stuff I've read and critiqued on and, especially, all the blogs that are taking the place of real news, I see how badly our education system has failed. Basic grammar and spelling are an uncommon commodity these days.

    Great advice.

    Now, I have had to thunk of somethig to topp dis.

  6. Thank you! Looking forward to your first post this week as well!

  7. You're welcome to an e-version if you'd like. But you'll still need the cold showers after some chapters ;-)

  8. Ah... from your enthusiastic and supportive fingers to the eyes of the fates... I can only hope! Wishing you well in your own writing and thanks for commenting today, Nicole!

  9. Excellent points you made, Matt! Thanks so much for commenting.

  10. Coming from one of my first crit partners that is certainly nice to hear! Thanks for stopping by, Brynna.

  11. I've had a hard time with WDC lately - I get the oddest reviews and when I try to review other's work I get discouraged b/c it needs so much bloody work! I know my own emphasis in school was not in writing, language arts, or English class - but science and art.

    Could other would-be writers be facing the same issues I had or are they learning bad habits from all this damn text-speak and shorthand while Fb/Twittering? You are right though, no matter how we try to pretty it up, the basic fact is that people aren't using their writing skills on a daily basis and then they get lazy and forget what do to.

  12. S[censored]! That's right. I come down the hall, looking like a prune and my wife just knows. "What's you been reading?" she asks, innocently. "Uh, who says I've been reading anything?" I say, eyes lowered...

  13. This is an excellent post, C.J. You covered so many of the bases that need to be covered if a writer even hopes to get any kind of a professional edit. No one should submit crap. It's demeaning to everyone involved.

    No one is perfect: hence the need for self editing and professional editing as well. I cringe when I hear a writer tell me they don't need a professional edit. They are nothing but high nosed asses. We all need editing. No exceptions. We all handle editing in different ways, but the end result should be the same: polished work.

    You are so right when you say that one needs to do in order to get better. We are athletes at the keyboard, notebook, or whatever we use.

    And, my friend, you so well added that the story is important. All the great writing skills will go for naught if there is a boring tale. The magical pull of the story. Pure heaven!

  14. I wish I had the confidence to write! However, I have the desire, nay, passion to read! I'm so glad for all you great writers out there!

    I thought Matt Leo's points were excellent. I like a book that pulls me along with it, versus one I feel I have to brute force my way through each page. (Brisk plotting). I love to totally feel immersed in a new world and believe it. That's why I read, the adventure and the escape. (World Building). If it's contrived you just sort of roll your eyes and think "oh brother" or "how campy." You want to know the characters, they need to become like friends so you care what happens next... If you don't really get to know the characters then you don't really get a vested interest in the plot or storyline... It's like reading a newspaper. You read it, your mildly interested and then you move on barely recalling what you read the next day... (and the newspaper is in the waste bin).

    Anyway... I'm rambling...

    Good Blog CJ,


  15. Man, I'm guilty of not knowing my grammar rules ... or how to spell. Yes, I rely on spell-check (thank you, firefox). And just like C.J., I also "wing it" when it comes to grammar. Hehe. But I think I make up for it by editing, proofing, and re-editing my work until my eyes bleed out and my finger tips are callused. I know how important it is to not let that weakness show!

    And yes, it is a turn-off when critiquing for someone else. In my personal blog, I posted a "rule" for myself: Never post chapters for a review group without revising and editing at least once myself. Why? Because I noticed that when I don't, my crit group just points out all the grammar and spelling mistakes - but nothing about the characters or plot arc, which is what I really want. So I've amended to take care of the spelling and grammar as much as possible so my crit partners can focus on the story. Yup.

  16. This was an eye opener! Thank you for putting together a list of the "not so nice" things we should be looking at. Great article.

  17. You guys really crack me up! Yes you, C.J. and you, Greg...

    C.J! what a post, between the post and the comments you've received, I reckon you covered about the whole of the week's subject. And, as I write this comment, I'm wondering how Greg is going to respond beyond "...thunk[ing] of somethig to topp dis"

    Call us the "A" Team? (He's says, laughing!)

    I'm off to read Greg's missive - and looking forward to it

    Nice one, C.J., truly! :)

  18. Can I add my congrats on one of the most insightful responses I've seen to one of our posts...
    Good one, Matt :)

  19. Great post CJ! I have a firm grasp of grammar and spelling but I fail on the next level you mentioned with passive verbs. Sure, my sentences may be gramatically correct but they lack the punch that is needed. I think you made a good point and with as many things I have critiqued in the past year, I often forget that the true basis is the grammar, spelling, puncuation. It does take the reader out of the story like you said and nothing else can really be fixed until this part is.

    Oh - and David - ALL of you guys crack me up okay? I click on this on blog to read posts and am thoroghly entertained the entire way though. Event the comments give me a chuckle! It's a great way to lift my spirits after a tough round of editing that's for sure.

  20. Thanks, Robert! Always good to hear from you! I'm hoping you comment means you're secretly hoping to win a copy of my MS! ;-)

  21. Thanks for stopping by, Debbie! So good to see new commenters sharing their thoughts with us. And yours were dead on about not getting into the story! I don't even want to think about all the crap sitting on my shelves that I couldn't get into and refused to recycle because of the money spent. After a few years, I guess I should give it up and just donate them - looks like I know what I'll be doing this fall!

  22. Once?!? You're better than I am, then! I re-read, revise and edit about four times before I submit it to anyone for a look-see. And I'm still appalled at the basic mistakes I miss each time!

  23. Thanks for the kind words, David. Your piece with the oranges was a delight to behold as well!

  24. I'm not a stickler for grammar, but it's important to know the standard rules so that when you do break them, you break them with a good reason. Standard American English is a dialect, with no more intrinsic claim to correctness than any other dialect. Its usefulness to the American writer is that it is not *perceived* by American readers as a dialect. Because it is taught to everyone, it is neutral; because it is neutral, departing from it attracts attention. The question is, where do you want your reader's attention? On the narration or the action?

    Where you want to depart from standard grammar when you wish to draw attention to that fact. There are two common situations where this happens. The first is characters who speak non-standard dialect (which is just about everyone). In dialog, characters should make grammatical "errors". It also follows that first person novels should probably have narration that is less grammatically perfect than novels with omniscient narrators. Think Huckleberry Finn. It's part of the peculiar challenge of first person narration: making the narrator vivid and believably fallible.

    The second situation is when you want to interrupt the flow of speech and so given certain words enhanced weight. Grammatical rules are commonly broken for rhetorical effect. Poetic license is to the prose writer what the "blue note" is to a musician. It is technically off key, and you don't want to overuse it, but it can add expressive depth.

    Take this sentence Abraham Lincoln (man that cat could wail!) wrote for the Gettysburg Address: "But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground." It is not "grammatical" to start a sentence with a conjunction, but Lincoln does that here in order to give the piece the correct rhythm. He's just said something that is so obviously true that it's a platitude: "It is altogether fitting and proper that we do this." Rather than weaken the platitude further by joining it to a negative conjunction, he leaves it be. Then he cuts across it by starting a whole new paragraph with "but." This makes the rhythm of the speech correspond to its logic; his argument is striking out in a contrary direction.

    Also note the lack of additional conjunctions later in the sentence where they are called for by standard grammar. This is a rhetorical device called called "asyndeton". Removing the conjunctions gives the sentence a kind of hammering rhythm that drives his point home. A misguided editor might change Lincoln's sentence to: "However we cannot in a larger sense dedicate this ground; nor can we consecrate or hallow it." It means the same thing, but although it is more "correct", it the greater linguistic neutrality of these words does not enhance their impact.

    The Gettysburg Address is a masterpiece of English prose, one that deserves to be studied for its beauty; it's eloquence; it's logical rigor. But not for it's grammatical perfection. By means of 272 carefully arranged words delivered at a just the right moment, Lincoln didn't just persuade a nation to keep up the fight. He changed the way the nation saw itself so that it was unimaginable for us not to fight on. Fantasy writers should take note, because that is what fantasy as literature does for its readers. In fantasy, certain choices have such cosmic significance that to choose wrongly is the moral equivalent of suicide. To achieve that, you have to write with power that transcends grammatical convention.

    That's not a license to be sloppy. You want to obey grammatical rules for the same reason you want to break them: to direct the reader's attention where it belongs.

  25. Great post, CJ, and interesting discussion. I work as an editor by day and an urban fantasy writer by night. It's two entirely different hats, but the editing hat is important to both "jobs." I think one thing that's difficult is realizing editing takes multiple passes through a manuscript. My tendency is like most--I want to revise/edit everything in one pass and it just can't be done. Something always falls through the cracks. I do a pass just looking for "was' and "were." Some I keep, but many I get rid of. Spell- and grammar-checks are pretty useless, too.