Get it? You’re newbie is showing? Ah we are talking about the deeper stuff today 😀 .
Writing seems like it just shouldn’t be that hard, and yet? It’s deceptive. Seasoned storytellers make it look easy, and that does us no favors. Sort of like when I was four years old and, high off an episode of Wonder Woman, went flying out the back door and got the bright idea to do a handspring just like–OH SWEET EIGHT POUND SIX OUNCE BABY JESUS THAT HURT.
Many of us who eventually decide to become novelists did so because we grew up loving books. Then, probably just as many of us, thought we could also do that seamless triple front handspring (write a full length novel) with zero professional training, no practice and no falls.
Yeah about that.
After years of writing and working as an editor I’ve gotten better at articulating what differentiates the newbie writer from the pro, so I figured I would put together a checklist of some of the bigger offenders to help.
I’d love to say I’ve grown beyond ever making these oopses, and for the most part I have. But it took seventeen years of practice and I still have to make sure every now and again, that my newbie isn’t showing.
Beware of Low-Hanging Fruit
Many new writers will default to tropes and cliches and not-so-subtle ways of coaching a reader she is supposed to care. Every editor has their bugaboos. My mentor and friend Les Edgerton’s peeve is the single tear coursing down the cheek. Les is all, “What the hell is that? Does the character have a clogged tear duct or something?” Yeah Les is blunt and ruthless and that’s why he is damn good at teaching writing. He whipped my @$$ into shape.
***Grab his book Hooked. It is seriously one of the single best writing resources ever penned.
My peeve is when any character “weeps bitterly.”
See, instead of the writer actually developing character, she just inserts great weeping and gnashing of teeth—the shill (melodrama) for the gold (authentic drama). Making readers care is an art and is some seriously hard work, so coaching readers to care is lazy/newbie writing.
Another variety of low-hanging fruit is with description. My latest pet peeve is “emerald eyes.” In fact just any precious or semi-precious stone is going to make my left emerald eye twitch.
Not there there is anything inherently wrong with aquamarine, emerald, sapphire or ruby eyes (okay maybe ruby is interesting). Just that it is all too…easy. It doesn’t really take a wordsmith to come up with the jewel of “emerald eyes.”
Good description is more than just the physical makeup of another character. It is telling of who that character is (the person being described) and even more importantly? It is telling of the character who is doing the describing. Description, what that character notices and how she notices, tells a lot about that character’s paradigm (how she sees the world).
The example I love using the most is from Jessica Knoll’s brilliant book Luckiest Girl Alive. Tif-Ani (protagonist and anti-hero) is meeting her fiance at a bar where they are having drinks with his client and the client’s wife. Here is how Tif-Ani describes Whitney the wife.
The client and his wife, body mean with Equinox muscles, cheery blonde hair swept away from her face in a ninety-dollar blowout. I always eye the wife first; I like to know what I’m up against. She was wearing the typical Kate uniform: white jeans, nude wedges, and a silky sleeveless top. Hot pink, I’m sure she spent a few minutes debating it—was she tan enough, maybe the navy silky sleeveless top instead, can’t go wrong with navy—and over her shoulder, a cognac Prada the exact same shade as her shoes more age revealing than the skin starting to pucker in her neck. (Page 82)
Not only does this description tell us a lot about Whitney (she is fit, wealthy and older) but it also gives is an in depth view into Tif-Ani. How she sees the wife is extremely telling. She notices all the ways Whitney might be competition—she is fit with great hair and expensive clothes—but also shows us Tif-Ani is extremely insecure.
She spots the chinks, how Whitney’s neck is already aging. She also projects her insecurities onto Whitney and is likely correct. Whitney knew to wear NUDE wedges and a COGNAC purse because to matchy-matchy the two is what “old women” did. Tif-Ani knows the designer brands like Prada but also ties Equinox (a luxury fitness center) into her perception as well.
This is far more revealing than, “She was stunning and fit with long blonde hair and expensive clothes and emerald eyes.” This description digs deep and gets to the marrow of storytelling, harnesses the essence of WHO Tif-Ani is and shows us her paradigm.
She is guided (or rather misguided) by status and achievement. Since Tif-Ani’s arc is to realize her worldview is flawed what we will eventually see his how her descriptions (impressions) of others shift as the plot problem forces her to face what she has become and change.
Another way we can see if our newbie is showing is to pay attention to pacing. Often, when reading the work of emerging writers, it feels a lot like being stuck in a car with a teenager learning to drive a stick shift. With each “scene”, there isn’t a hook and then a steady build of pressure until some form of release. That is because, in actuality, there IS no scene…just filler.
See, a scene has very specific anatomy; it is a microcosm of plot. There is the hook, the problem, then rising tension, then then resolution (win, lose, draw). The character has a goal…but then. But since a lot of new writers don’t yet understand what a scene is and how it works, what they have is fluff.
Since there is no goal, there can be no setback. No setback? The writer is manufacturing drama, since drama is not happening organically.
What then manifests is usually one of two things. Either the reader will feel like a Fly on the Wall of NOTHING HAPPENING (lots of description), or the characters will seem like they need Xanax. Their emotions will be all over instead of inevitable, and there is a LOT of overkill.
For instance, maybe the writer is trying to create a strong badass heroine but instead? The character is really just kind of a bitch. She’s getting bent out of shape way too easily and thus quickly becomes unlikable.
I did this back in my first “novel.” It was like I could sense something needed to happen and so I just tossed in some kind of a ridiculous misunderstanding or fight. My protagonist didn’t need Xanax, she needed a frigging exorcism.
That is what I like to call Soap Opera Writing. See in soap operas, there is no overall plot, only “bad things happening” and thus a lot of new writing resembles Days of Our Lives. Lots of overacting and overreacting.
If the character is breaking down in sobs every three pages? It’s tedious. Same with physiology. We get so much heart pounding, and pulse racing, and blood hammering that we wonder how the hell the character didn’t suffer cardiac arrest two pages in.
Did I Mention Filler?
Again, this is often a result of a writer being weak at structure. If a writer doesn’t get the anatomy of a scene, odds are, they’re weak at how to structure the overall plot, too. This is why agents often only need a few pages of writing to know everything they need to.
Description can be filler. Lots of describing every detail of the room. Describing the weather. Description, though, should always be serving the plot and doing more than taking up space.
With every scene, first check and make sure it is a scene. What is the goal? If there are just pages with two characters talking about a third? Or rehashing stuff we already went through? CUT. Sure, all this fluff maybe helps us make a word count goal, but that’s all. It isn’t serving the story.
Even I have to go through my own work and look for this stuff. If a “scene” seems to be falling flat, I ask What does she want? Then What stands in the way? Since I tend to have a comedic writing style, I can often drift off into very funny dialogue that is highly entertaining on the surface….but is doing nothing to propel the plot.
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