Friday, April 14, 2006

Two Common Writing Weaknesses

A few things before we get to our topic for today.

Congrats to Jennifer, who nailed all eight titles plus the “Christian meeting place” yesterday. Dee, you were very close—basically got the books, just forgot to mention the meeting place. I say you both deserve a free book from me. E-mail me with your request, okay?

In other news--yesterday was The Photo Shoot. Took a hike on the Tubbs Hill trail in Coeur d’Alene to get some head shots and full body shots of me by the water and boulders and brambles, etc. ’Twas rather breezy, to say the least. Not good. Some lucky gals get that sexy mussed up appearance. I look like I’ve been dragged through a wind tunnel. Next week I’ll view the results. Oh, boy.

Finally—don’t forget to check back here Monday for the announcement of my marketing plan for the Kanner Lake series. Spaces will be limited for reader participation, so it’ll be first come, first served.

Okay. Yesterday I mentioned that in critiquing manuscript after manuscript at the Mount Hermon Writers’ Conference, I saw two areas of weakness crop up just about every time. Those two issues are (1) not starting the story fast enough, and (2) waaaay too many words (lack of tight writing).

If you’ve read this blog for any length of time, you’re now saying, sheesh, tell me something new. True, you’ve heard of these issues before. Problem is, it’s one thing to talk about them and study how to overcome them; it’s another to spot them in our own manuscripts.

1. Too slow a start. Yes, I’m a suspense writer, admittedly writing for readers with little patience. Suspense readers tend to want the story to start on page zero. I realize that some genres can allow themselves a first page without a dead body. But you still need to get to your story quickly—whatever that story is. For new novelists, the safest bet is to put the inciting incident in the first chapter, with a strong hook at the end of that chapter. Yes, inciting incidents can sometimes be delayed, but that’s a tricky business. That “delay” has to be compelling in itself. For many new novelists, that delay ends up being mere set-up—explanation of the characters, the motivation, the setting, etc.

We have discussed how to handle backstory on this blog before (check the archives at left) so no need to revisit it all here. Just remember the basics. Questions keep the reader turning pages. Therefore, don’t fill in all the information up front. The best backstory imparts a bit of information and raises another question.

It’s particularly tempting to try to get away with lots of set-up when you’re writing in first person, especially first person with attitude. After all, the appeal of a strong first person voice is the voice itself. But don’t weaken that strength by having the character tell page after page of set-up. That strength will shine even more (hah! a new mixed metaphor) when the voice and attitude are revealed through action.

What is the inciting incident to your story? Is it in the first chapter? (A “yes” answer doesn’t count if you’ve added a prologue with a bunch of backstory.) If it is in the first chapter, do you take pages building up to it? Does your first chapter have a strong hook to compel the reader to turn to chapter two?

2. Too many words. This is something all novelists face. Really, the only way I know to learn tight writing is just to keep writing. It takes a number of years at the craft to be able to see this weakness. It’s particularly hard to see in our own writing. Even when someone sits down and edits to show us tighter writing, we’re likely to think, “Oh, no, I gotta have that line!” Well, if it’s a telling line, you probably don’t.

I also saw way too many words in the necessary sentences. Good information/characterization/whatever in the sentence, but 50% more words than necessary to convey it. The goal is that every word in your sentence should count.

Ask yourself: (A) What is the essence of this sentence? What information must I convey? (B) What is the aura/tone I want to convey? Then play a game—find the shortest number of words to convey A and B. Too many words bog down the sentence. It’s like asking the reader to wade through mud to get to the meaning.

Check the archives for our Action Scene Edit last June for more discussion on tight writing. That scene was edited for five or so different issues, tight writing/sentence rhythm being two of them.

And that’s enough for one day. (Another long post, huh, Becky.)

Have a blessed Easter, BGs.


Katie Hart - Pinterest Manager said...

My advice for practice writing tightly - write book reviews. Summing up a novel in 100 words works wonders on your prose. But be careful - my next novel ended up being only 37,000 words in the first draft.

Stuart said...

Good advice as always. :)

I have AN inciting incident in ch 1, but not THE incident the novel turns on. :p

What do you think about bridging conflicts? Those that span a time and get characters into position for a much larger and deadly conflict?

And tight, concise, precision, non-redundant writing. ;) It does take lots and lots of practice.

And for a long post it sure went by quick.


*fades into the shadows, laying in wait for Monday.*

D. Gudger said...

I've printed out my manuscript thus far and have weilded the red pen rather heavily. Thanks to the discussion of these issues in the past, I have cut a lot of blather. Since I'm writing for a teen audience, I want it to start with the conflict in the first paragraph (I cut my original first page set up) and have been killing of the "tell vs. show". I'm on my way to better writing!
Thanks BC and BGs!

~ Brandilyn Collins said...

Stuart, it's hard to answer your question without reading the manuscript. It is best, I think, to set up THE inciting incident quickly, because it's this conflict that establishes the journey your protagonist will embark upon. This conflict therefore sets up the driving question of the novel--will the protagonist succeed on this particular journey, or not? Or some combination of both? Or will he succeed, but with a Pyrrhic victory?

Sometimes inciting incidents come in two parts. Part A happens, then part B pulls the protagonist into the conflict. If this is what you're talking about, it works fine, because it's building upon the first incident, not embarking on something new. This happened in Brink of Death, first in my Hidden Faces series. The prologue showed the murder--part A. Part B--the protagonist getting pulled into the case--happened over time. First she was pulled in as a neighbor and someone wanting to help. Then she ultimately was pulled in as forensic artist a few chapters later. But the whole story was based on the solving of the murder, rathen than taking off on some new tangent.

Bonnie S. Calhoun said...

thanks for the reminders Brandilyn. I've moved a flashbak scene and turned it into the prologue and I've been editing for a week now. These pointers will help get me back on track!

Have a happy and blessed Easter!

Anonymous said...

Well, I was looking for information about body decomposition and figured if anyone's site had the info, yours wood GRIN. Of course I'm findng way too many other things to work out from your very helpful blogs..thanks so much for this!
I'm working on my first mystery...

Have a blessed Easter

Pammer said...

Thanks for the tips, and I just in time too.

Hope you have a great weekend.


Mikesell said...


As one of those you helped at Mount Hermon, thanks again. Seeing how to restructure my first and second chapters (and everything that follows) has me pumped up about my wip again.