Fiction Writing and Other Oddities

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

CRAFT: Improving your writing

I've been judging writing contests lately, not that I'm published yet or have any great claim to knowledge, and I've noticed something that's been on my mind. Some writers just sound...immature. Not emotional immaturity -- I don't really know how you'd know about that aspect, but their writing is immature. I've noticed that most published writers do not have this quality.

Immature is probably not a good word for this, but I do believe that writers can improve so I wanted to use a word that implied it would be possible to get over it. Maybe it is, maybe it isn't. What this quality is, however, is extremely hard to define. I believe that is what makes it so hard for many of us writers who get to a certain level to get over that last hurdle into publication. We may have wonderful characters, great plots, understand scene and sequel, and do it all, but our writing just isn't what it needs to be. It's not polished.

It is painfully obvious when I read contest entries that some writers are not polished, but many times, I don't even mention it because I can't define what the writing is lacking and how to fix it. I am sure, however, when I read it that it is not going to get published no matter how great the story itself is. So, struggling with my own rewrites and the fear that my writing is also immature, I'm going to try to describe what I think some of the issues are. It isn't easy.

1. Too many short, choppy sentences or incomplete sentences. Like this one.

    Many writers of suspense, mysteries or Chick Lit have developed a style that uses a lot of rapid-fire, short sentences. That is fine for a really tense scene or an action scene because the short sentences move the story more quickly, however this style can really get old very quickly. I sat in on an agent discussing some of the submissions they had seen and one of the things this agent mentioned was his dislike of incomplete and abrupt sentences. It is okay once in a while but not if the whole story is written in this style. You want to have a more flowing structure except in those passages where the staccato paragraphs are necessary because of what is going on. They should be the exception and not the rule. If you constantly use very short sentences, it develops this unpleasant rhythm very quickly, along the lines of See Jane run. Isn't Jane fast? Jane is tired now.

2. Sentences which are all alike. These can be short sentences, or long sentences, or sentences which all have the same structure.

    Here is an example.
    Robert came home from work a few minutes early only to find his wife in bed with Albert, the guy next door and Robert's used-to-be-best friend. Robert hadn't expected his marriage to end so abruptly nor had he expected to lose his only friend in the process. Robert also didn't expect to be indicted for murder because he wasn't good with surprises but he was very good with a gun.

    Okay, what was wrong? The fact that every sentence started with "Robert".
    You can make the same mistake by having every sentence start with a phrase, such as the following.

    Realizing that he didn't want to go to jail, Robert dragged both bodies into the garage and stuffed them into the trunk of his late-model Oldsmobile, thinking it was really too bad that he had to use his wife's car because if she had been in a position to know, she'd be furious that her trunk was about to be stained quite badly. Walking back into the house, he cleaned up the bedroom and changed the sheets since although he wasn't as neat as his wife, he wasn't such as pig that he wanted to wallow around in the results of his handiwork. Trembling with exhaustion, he finally cooked himself dinner and relaxed in front of the television, thinking nothing would really start smelling until at least tomorrow afternoon.

So, you want to vary your sentence length and your sentence structure, both. Most of the time, you also want to use longer (not run-on like me, but long-er) sentences to avoid the "Dick and Jane ran up the hill" syndrome. One thing you are battling is reader boredom and there is nothing that will bore a reader faster than sentences that all sound the same or pages upon pages of very short sentences. It sort of gets on your nerves after about 2 pages. (I'm telling you this based on my own frayed nerves after reading contest entries that average 25 pages, some of which have short, choppy and partial sentences throughout without any breaks at all. There may be one or two slightly longer sentences, but no nice refreshing paragraphs of more flowing text.)

3. The other problem I see in many manuscripts is a lack of vocabulary. I could argue this point--there are a lot of people out there who say you should never use big words, but frankly, I get bored with excessively simple writing. I like there to be at least a few interesting words, otherwise you again get that "Dick and Jane" effect. One thing to note is that you may want to step back and sort of unfocus your eyes and see if your sentences seem to all be short words on the page with nothing longer than six or seven characters. This is a very good clue that you may need to vary your wording a bit to give your writing some interest.

These things don't seem like much, and they aren't, until you have to read a bunch of manuscripts that do these things to you. Remember, editors and agents are reading many, many manuscripts each day. The last thing you want to do is get on their nerves or bore them. Believe me.


Kat Campbell said...

I think you've named this syndome perfectly! As a writer and editor for a new, and very small, publishing company, I have been frustrated with submissions exhibiting all the problems you've described and worse! Frustrated, because underneath the poor sentence structure and repetitive phrasing, I can sometimes see a great plot, with too much editing needed to make it marketable by my small company. The best advice I received as a writer was: read, read, read. Everything you can find in your own genre and whatever you can find on the writing craft. The best advice I can give as an editor: Whether its for a contest or a publisher, always send your best work. The myth that "if the story is good enough, the editor will fix it", is just that, a myth.

Amy said...

Thanks! It's good to hear it from the editor's side. This is a rough industry and anything a writer can do to perfect his or her work ought to be done first. I just wish I was more perfect! :-)