However, yesterday as I read the opening chapters of novel submissions on the Harper Collins Authonomy website ( http://www.authonomy.com ) it struck me that I’ve learned a fair amount in the past few months. A lot of it simple stuff, but stuff that makes a manuscript shine. Stuff that makes readers/agents/editors choose one story over the thousands out there.
I was once, not too long ago, of the opinion that if one wrote a great story, with a great plot and awesome characters, publishers would buy it and pay an editor to fix up one's writing. Needless to say, I’ve changed my mind. To catch anybody’s eye, one’s writing must shine. It must glisten.
Excellent, powerful, polished writing is more likely to garner a publishing contract than great plots and loveable characters.
Why? Pretend you are an editor with five hundred manuscript submissions on your desk. Or, imagine you’re a reader in a bookstore, thumbing through books looking for one to buy. You choose one and open it to the first page:
“I don’t believe you said that,” Eileen said, turning around and heading toward the door. She was as angry as a wet hen.
“You better believe it,” Cheryl said, rising up and stepping toward her from behind her rich, red mahogany desk.
“You do realize who you are talking to?” Eileen asked, placing her hand around the brass doorknob and turning it.
Okay. So you might be really interested in why Eileen thinks she’s special and what Cheryl said to piss her off. But the writing…is awful!
Five simple things that I’ve learned lately:
#1: use ‘ing’ words sparingly. Although there is nothing intrinsically or grammatically wrong with them, too many slow the pace of the story. I'm speaking of 'ing' words like turning (2), heading, stepping, talking, placing, rising… (Wow! Seven out of the 62 words in the above excerpt are ‘ing’ words.)
#2: watch for repetition of words (In the above four sentences, I twice used ‘turning’ and ‘around’)
#3: get rid of useless words (people can turn instead of turning around. They can rise instead of rising up)
#4: replace clichés with wonderful, powerful phrases that are uniquely yours. For 50 years your readers have been imagining angry wet hens. Today, they pick up your story wanting to experience novelty, participate in adventure, live in a world different than the one with angry hens--the one in which they’ve been living for 50 years.
#5: Within a sentence, tell your readers things in the order that they happened. Readers are using your words to create images in their minds. A good writer ensures her readers can proceed smoothly from one image to the next without having to re-create images to accommodate new information.
So, you set that book down, pick up the next one, open it to the front page and start reading. (Instead of “You start reading the front page of the next book, having set the first one down and opened the second.”)
“I don’t believe you said that!” Eileen shouted. She spun away and headed to the door. The acrid scent of anger trailed her.
Cheryl slowly rose and stepped from behind her rich, red mahogany desk. “You better believe it.”
Eileen paused, her fingers wrapped tightly around the brass knob. “You do realize to whom you’re talking?”
Same story. Same characters. Same setting. Fifty-six vs 62 words. (That would be a difference of six thousand or more words over the length of a novel) Which story would you choose to read?
I invite you to peruse the many novels on the Harper Collins Authonomy website. This site provides writers a great opportunity to study the differences between well-written manuscripts and novice attempts. Anybody can read the books posted by authors. If you register, you can also vote and leave comments.
I'd love you to read the opening chapters of my novel, FIREWALLS, on Authonomy. Let me know what you think: http://www.authonomy.com/ViewBook.aspx?bookid=18428
"He said...She said...They said & we wept--Excuse me, ma’am, your dialogue tags are showing."
Some more tips for the novice writer coming soon!