Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Rookie Writing Mistakes to Avoid

Dan is back for his second post! And this one is on the mistakes that rookies make.

It's a widely accepted belief, in the writing community, that an aspiring author's first book will be absolute crap. Sure, there are exceptions to this rule, but they're rare. Most authors who succeed in finding publication have at least one novel in the drawer already.

This would suggest that, for all our pretenses to the contrary, writing is a matter of skill as much as it is art and inspiration. If we accept that much, then there are two important corollaries:
  1. Writing should get better with time (i.e. practice)
  2. A writer's current efforts should reflect how much time he/she has practiced

Writing Experience Tells in the Prose

It's no accident that most literary agents want part of your novel (often the first few pages or chapters) along with the query letter. The letter itself is a test of writing, but so is the prose. Good, clear, professional-grade writing stands out. When a writer has years of practice under the belt, the prose tends to be clean. It flows well. It's easy to read. And it introduces information at a reasonable pace.

Unfortunately, the writing samples from less-practiced authors are also easy to identify. Anyone who's been part of a writer's group or pitching contest knows what I'm talking about. I'm happy to forgive a couple of small mistakes in a writing sample. We all have different styles and editorial quirks. Yet when someone's writing isn't quite there yet, there are often some obvious signs.

Rookie Writing Mistakes

I thought I'd share some of the more prevalent issues I've come across from new writers. These are my opinions, of course, but they also reflect the common complaints from agents and editors.

1. Clichés

One of the most obvious issues with under-developed writing is the use of clichés. These over-used phrases or situations are like writing crutches: new writers use them to support their prose, rather than finding a more creative way to go. There are many clichés that agents and editors often see in the first chapter, but the most glaring ones are books that open with:

  • A character waking up in the morning (and possibly having breakfast).
  • Kids playing in in a field and find something (anything!)
  • The main character looks at a reflective surface and describes himself/herself
Are these valid pieces of writing? Sure. But they're so over-used and repeated in books that we're all sick of them.

2. Typos, spelling errors, or grammar problems.

Virtually all writers make technical mistakes while cranking the words out: extra words, missing words, typos, mis-spelled words, that sort of thing. These often happen in first drafts, but can also be introduced during revision.

Most agents won't reject a query letter for a single typo, but two or three starts to really count against you. They wonder, if this is the shape of the opening pages, where the author probably spent the most time, how much editing will be required for the rest of the book?

In my current novel I've made two "polishing" passes where I look for little mistakes, and correct them. I was all but certain the book was near-flawless, until my wife started reading it. She's not even to chapter ten, and already found three or four things I needed to fix. Mistakes happen, but that's what spell check and proofreading and critique partners are for. When you let a bunch of them slip by, you leave the impression that you're rushed (best case) or simply don't know better (worst case).

3. Info-dumps

Here's an issue that plagues much of fantasy and sci-fi, but can happen in other genres, too. It's called an info-dump: a long stretch of background information or backstory dumped on the reader very early on in the story. Look, of course you're building a fictional world and need to convey all kinds of facts to the reader. But the info-dump is the easy way out, and it shows. It slows down the pace of the story, lets the tension out, and often convinces the reader to go to another book.

Even worse is when info-dumps are provided by a know-it-all character ("As you know, Sam, that old wizard has been meddling in the Shire for a long time..."). Yech. This, again, is the mark of inexperience: seasoned authors learn how to weave backstory in with the action and dialogue, without simply dropping a pile in the reader's lap.

4. Age category, word count, or genre incompatibility

An important part of authorship is knowing some things about the business of publishing. Some of the issues that come up in query letters and writing contests:

  • Using the wrong genre (or something that's not a genre) to describe the book.
  • Classifying the book as multiple age categories, like "My book is an MG/YA..." There can be only one!
  • A word count outside of the acceptable range for the book's category and genre. Literary Rejections has a nice article on acceptable word counts.

Another common but harder-to-fix issue: a book that's intended for one age category but reads like another. For example, a book pitched as MG but written at a college reading level.

What Have I Missed?

What are some other rookie writing mistakes that you've seen (or committed)? Please leave us a comment and share them.

 Caitlin: I think the most common mistake I see in newbie writers is too much telling. I actually think it's okay, and even necessary, to "tell" sometimes. For example, I have no problem with lines like this, "Jake met Jane three years ago outside of a rodeo. She was trying to cheer up a kid who had puked cotton candy all over his seersucker shorts. She hollered at Jake and told him to make himself useful." Yeah, it's quickly "telling" us how they met, but it also has details and it's "showing" us some stuff too.

But no one enjoys reading a book that has lines like, "Jake wanted Jane a lot but he didn't think he deserved her because he was too shy. He had always been shy. He didn't think he'd ever date a girl like Jane."  Show us he wants her! Show us he's shy! Show us he thinks him being shy is a defect/makes him unworthy!  Too much telling gets boring very quickly. But, honestly, a lot of the fun of writing is learning how to "show" instead. :)

Lisa: What I see too often is loose writing. Sentences that could be cut in half or deleted altogether. Paragraphs that take six sentences explaining something that could be explained in two sentences. Those paragraphs actually look like explaining, and explanations are boring. When loose writing is involved, it's often about overwriting and telling as well. For instance: Tight writing - Charlotte scowled at the guy waggling his eyebrows. Nope, she wasn't having none of that. Too friendly for her to trust him. "Go away."
Loose writing - Charlotte doesn't trust a lot of people, especially when they're too nice. She doesn't trust nice. She thinks they're fake, so she keeps her distance. Obviously, she has been burned too many times. The guy waggles his eyebrows at her, and she scowls at him. "Go away."
My favorite things to growl at an unedited novel: "Get to the point!" or "Oh, my God, I get it. Move on already."
And then I realize I'm being a grouch and make up my mind to be helpful instead. :)

Karlie: Starting either way too soon or way too late in the character's life. I mean, if thirty-year-old Peter had a traumatic third grade experience, that won't have a lot of bearing on the present. And I don't really want to know it if it doesn't further the story.

On the other end of the scale, if we jump right into an intense scene, I'm not as invested in the outcome, because I don't care about Peter yet.

It's hard to balance the two of these - dropping tantalizing bits of Peter's shady past throughout the narrative, at exactly the right moments, yet giving them out early enough to make us care. Even for seasoned authors it's a hard line to walk, and I haven't figured it out completely yet. I'm sure Lisa will tell you that. :)

Please Help Spread the Word!

Click To Tweet. Rookie writer mistakes to avoid, by @DanKoboldt. #1: Avoid cliches, like a character waking up in the morning. #pubtip
Click To Tweet. New post on rookie writer mistakes to avoid, by @DanKoboldt. #3: The info-dump. #pubtip
Click To Tweet. Rookie writer mistakes to avoid, by @DanKoboldt. #4: Genre, word count, or age category problems. #pubtip

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Turn It Up Tuesday - Once You've Learned To Be Lonely

Karlie here with more lyrics!

I've been dusting off some old songs I haven't thought about in years...particularly a few Reba McEntire albums I discovered on a bottom shelf. And this one - well, it just struck home.

Once you've learned to be lonely, taught yourself to accept the silence, it's hard to adjust to anything else. It becomes a new challenge to teach your heart to need someone again. And there's some fear in that step, too.

Julia resigned herself to growing old alone years ago. But when she meets Graham, it changes everything and reawakens abandoned desires. But as secrets come to light and shared tragedy reveals itself, Julia starts thinking that maybe some people aren't meant to love.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Keeping Your Joy: NOT Burning Out On Writing

Karlie with you today!

So. I've heard a lot of authors complain that they just "don't feel it" anymore. That the desire to put the words on the paper is gone, and writing becomes a chore to slog through rather than a privilege.

And I can't imagine anything more heartbreaking.

Yes, there are days when I feel like throwing in the towel. Doesn't everyone? Sitting and staring at the computer screen for hours on end is no fun and definitely not encouraging. But the innate desire to tell a story has always been with me. That saying about writing for the same reason you breathe - if you didn't, you would die - may sound exaggerated, but for me, it's not. I'm a storyteller. The end.

But as I'm sure we've all experienced, too much of a good thing makes you sick of it.  Have you ever wanted something with all your soul, only to get it? After spending all your time on this gift, you wake up one morning and realize you never want to see it again.

How do you keep your joy? Are you prepared to spend your life doing this? What do you do to avoid burnouts?

For me, it's partly never focusing completely on one project, and knowing when to step away for a bit. I always have three manuscripts in the works, and that kind of helps me stay motivated. And when I start getting seriously frustrated, I take a walk. Do the laundry. Crank up my music. Anything to give myself a break from the gaping plot holes and awkward sentences...and it usually works.

What about you?

Dan: I recently read a quote along the lines of "Anyone who can be talked out of writing should be." In other words, this is a tough business with lots of heartache and rejection. If you don't have a burning drive to get through all of that, you might as well go do something that makes you happier. But even the most dogged authors have slumps or off-days. To avoid total burnout, I like Karlie's idea of having multiple projects. I also recommend making some writer friends. Fellow writers are more likely to understand what you're going through, and to help you stay motivated. Also, if you happen to be a competitive person by nature -- which I am -- take a look at what your competitors in the genre are doing. Odds are, they're not all getting burned out, or sitting down to take a break.

Caitlin: Karlie, I do a lot of the things you mention (i.e., stepping away to do laundry, trying to have a few different projects going, allowing yourself some breaks.) All that works well!

Another thing that has been helping me lately is having a guilty pleasure project. I'm working on something now that I know isn't marketable and that I also don't think represents me well as a writer, so, honestly, I'll probably never let it see the light of day. But I am LOVING writing it. I only let myself work on it once I've met my other goals (or I feel too burned out to work on my priority projects), but the little stolen moments with this "guilty pleasure project" are just fun! And that has me remembering how much fun writing in general can be. :)

Lisa: How I keep my joy is never pandering to the masses. I don't try to follow a trend or what people perceive to be the next big thing. Writing the story that I want to tell is more enjoyable. One thing that I used to do that was detrimental was try to shape my story so that I didn't offend any of my family (one of whom is a preacher). That was exhausting and I was ready to throw in the towel. I finally figured out that I did a lot of things in real life that my uncle wouldn't approve of so why was I trying to please him in a book he'd never read?
I think that's the ticket - always write for yourself.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Dead To Me

My Turn It Up Tuesday is another song from the disturbing album of Melanie Martinez's Dollhouse. Dead to Me is about a girl either wanting to think of someone as dead in order to get him our of her head, or it's about her actually wanting to  kill him. That's up for interpretation. This song fits my book, Spin the Love, because Whispy does want Teddy dead. It's a matter of self-preservation, her sanity and her life, as well as keeping her parents safe. This dilemma isn't whether or not to kill Teddy; it's about whether or not she can kill him before he kills her.

I need to kill you
That's the only way to get you out of my head
Oh I need to kill you
To silence all the sweet little things you said
I really want to kill you

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Fears of the (Publishing) Future

Caitlin here. A few weeks ago, Dan and I were talking about the future of publishing and whether print books and bookstores are really on their way out. 

I don’t really think so, but I can see bookstores having less of a presence. This does make me sad in some ways, especially as I love the indie bookstore in my neighborhood (shout out to Hooray for Books! :)), but it doesn’t make my knees clank together in fear the same way it intimidates other writers I know.  

I read a lot of books on my e-reader and I don’t see a huge problem with readers reading my books on them. I think the growth of e-readers has helped writers more than it’s hurt them (though I get that that is arguable!). 

So, if I’m not afraid of a predominantly e-reader future, what does make me afraid?  

Well, the Amazon-Hachette stuff is certainly disturbing, but, honestly, my biggest fear is the growing sense that content in general, and books specifically, are free.  

When I got my recent book deal with a Harlequin imprint, I asked one of my friends (a non-writer) who reads a ton of romance a few questions about where she finds books, how she decides what books to read, etc. I had also heard that new writers can’t charge much more than $3 for a book and I wondered what she thought of that. Would she be willing to pay over $3 for a new author, or only on books by authors she knows? 

She looked at me confused and basically said, “I never pay for the romances I read.”


And, I guess, why should she? There are so many writers who post their books for free. Sure, it's their prerogative, but it gets consumers thinking that it’s not something worth spending money on. That a few hours of enjoyment aren’t worth even a dollar. I find it hard not to be a little frustrated at those writers.  (Though, in fairness, I rarely look for compensation for my short writing.) 

What do you think? Do you think people will become less and less willing to pay for books? Are authors who post books for free hurting the industry? Even if they are, can we really be frustrated at them for simply exercising their right to share their own creations however they’d like?  

What’s your biggest fear in regards to the future of publishing? Do you see any trends that are helping writers?
Dan here. I'm excited and a little nervous that my conversations with Caitlin can be come the subject of her next blog post. But it is a timely topic, and one that new authors should be thinking about. As (over)confident as I am about building a writing career, I'm worried that by the time my book is sold, edited, copyedited, and published, there might not be any brick-and-mortar stores left. And that would make me a little sad. Admittedly, I'm part of the problem: I had a Kindle 2 and now have a Paperwhite. That's how I do 90% of my fiction reading, and I make no apologies for it.

I'm not nearly as worried about e-books as I am about the future of books in general. It's not just free books competing with our books: it's the internet, and video games, and social media. In this hyper-connected world, people just don't have as much time to read any more. Technology makes it possible to read any book you want while on the subway. That's wonderful news. Unfortunately, that same technology also lets you play Bejeweled instead of reading at all.

On the bright side, Amazon -- no matter how you feel about their business practices -- knows how to sell things. In particular, they know how to sell books. So, while the format may change, the pricing may fluctuate, books will continue to be sold. Someone will have to write those books. That's where we come in.

Karlie: This haunts me too. Dan, you hit the nail on the head when you said free books aren't the only problem. How much longer before books are out-of-date and under little demand? But on the other hand, there are writers making a very good living. So there is hope for us. :)

I'm one of those few people who would rather have the hard copy than read from a Kindle. My brain isn't wired that way. I probably pick my Kindle up once a month, if not less. But I do buy all my books through Amazon, so I guess you're right about that, too, Dan. ;)

Despite the rise of the e-book, I firmly believe there will always be a market for paperbacks/hardcovers.     The feeling of walking into a bookstore can't be replaced by the ease of clicking the Instant Buy button.

Lisa: I'm the most old fashioned one on here, though I don't expect anyone else to be. As an author I don't mind the e-readers, and I don't feel too badly about the free books since I believe an author puts one or two books out there for free with the hopes and expectation that readers will choose to buy his/her other books. As an author, I'm really not afraid of the progress and shifting that many other writers have started voicing their opinions about. As a reader, I AM worried. I don't have an e-reader. My daughter does and tried to get me to read a series that she loves on hers. No. I tried, but I just couldn't do it. I couldn't lose myself. I must feel paper under my fingertips. I also like buying them from the bookstore too (which is where I finally bought that series my daughter was talking about). Bookstores are beautiful things. So, when someone says papers books are on their way out with the dodo bird, I'm not liking that idea at all. My copy of David Copperfield literally falls open when I get to some of my favorite passages or scenes. Anne of Green Gables has my tear stains on it from where Matthew dies. Wuthering Heights has my fingernail marks from my anger at Katherine. My eyes gleam as I look over my favorite books sometimes. My imagination says: I was in there - in that world. My books, the ones that can be held in my hands, are my imaginary world and they call to me to come e-reader can't hold a flame to my bookshelf. I could go on and on...I just like a book. It means something to me.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Those mysterious writerly beings

The day in the life of a writer - is it as mysterious as it sounds? There's a meme floating around the interwebs that goes something like this: A seriously professor-like man is sitting at an old-fashioned typewriter, typing away. Written over this picture is: This is what people think of writers. The next picture is a monkey showing his teeth, standing in front of the same typewriter instead of sitting and banging away at it like it's a dodgy bug. The words over this picture is: This is how writers really are.

Which one are you truly? What's your day really like? Does your family/friends/coworkers think you're more like the monkey or the serious professor-type? Do you have a job? If so, how does it translate into writing? How do you work writing time in between work, spending time with kids/husband/wife, or dare I say a social life? 

Karlie: I usually only get in about an hour of writing time a day right now, because we're right in the middle of busy season. Am I the monkey or the serious professor type? I guess it depends on who you ask, LOL. In the wintertime I'll get up to four hours a day in. But I'm constantly thinking about my plot/ does that count?
As for my family? Well, they've become used to me missing movie time, or scribbling on a notepad during dinner, and randomly quoting my own characters. They haven't had me committed. Yet. 
Deadlines are my best friend, and so are my critique buddies! I procrastinate all the time, so they push me into actually getting something done. 

Caitlin: Well, I'm not like either of those writers because I don't use a typewriter. Heh. But seriously, I guess I'm more like the monkey. I bemoan how I never meet my ambitious writing goals and then I bemoan how I probably spend more time and energy bemoaning a lack of writing time than, actually, you know, writing. I also find myself at parties or hanging out with my husband thinking, "I should really be writing right now. There's so little time!" But I'm trying to stop that. Yes, we all have little time on this earth, but, as much as I like writing, I don't want my life to only be writing. Plus, if all I did was go to work and write I don't think what I'd write would be very interesting or authentic. Basically, I'm still working on striking the right balance, but I hope I'm getting there.

Dan: I have a day job, so I do my writing in the mornings (if I'm lucky) or at night. My mental image of the "writer" meme is more along the lines of a shabbily dressed individual half-hidden behind his laptop at a coffee shop. For some writers, that's probably not far from the truth. We love our coffee! But I do most of my writing at home, in between all of the other things like meals, family time, and endless home improvement. How is it that most (aspiring) authors have full-time jobs, families, and still manage to find time to write? Some of us sleep less, but for the most part I think that we do it by giving up other things -- reading time, hobbies, video games, television -- to make time to write. And we have writer friends, critique groups, or (if we're lucky) deadlines to encourage us to keep doing so.

Lisa: I guess I have to be honest here and group myself with the monkey. If I didn't, someone would come on here and argue with me. I don't get to write every day - but almost every day. And on those days I get a good bit of solid bit of writing/editing time. The monkeying around comes in when I'm plotting. I'm a little crazy/excited/emotional...all kinds of things. And while editing, it's a calmer time. Editing...I'm an editor, and that's what pays the bills right now, and that definitely bleeds into my writing life. 

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Turn It Up Tuesday - Titanium

Hiya, it's Karlie, filling in for Lisa!

My song for today is Titanium. I favor Madilyn Paige's version over the original artist - I heard it on the Voice and fell in love with it.

Vivian is an assassin whose brutality crosses every line. Controlled by evil, she is forced to obey her master's every whim. He commands her with fear, so she turns her rage on the people she can tear down.

A ghost lives inside Vivian. The shadow of the girl she was, long before her mother left her to the darkness. It's what makes her vulnerable, what makes her cower in fear before the only man who could ever break her - her father.

She's titanium. Criticized, shot down, and threatened - all his bullets ricochet right off her stone hard heart.

But they bounce off. She feels them. And they leave their scars.