Fiction Writing and Other Oddities

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Mistakes to avoid in writing

None of the things I'm going to mention will kill your writing career, nor are they spectacularly insightful. In fact, they are things I heard a hundred times when I was still trying to find a publisher. Most are just common sense and will probably make you go...well, duh.

All of them made me go...well, duh, when I heard them, but the problem was, even though I knew them intellectually, I didn't know it right down to the bones. My creative side completely ignored them.

These are so obvious, you're going to laugh until you stroke-out, but here's another secret: you can read all of these and nod your head sagely, but until your creative side absorbs these lessons, you may have a rocky road ahead of you. My road has certainly been rocky and is still strewn with boulders the size of houses.

So...drum roll...ta da! Here is what I wish I had really understood when I started writing.

Write what you love.
(Didn't I warn you about 'well, duh'?)
Now I'll explain this. Back a million years ago a new writers organization formed called Romance Writers of America. They let folks who yearned to be writers join. I yearned to be a writer, so I joined. At the time, I read mostly mysteries and science fiction. And Georgette Heyer. No other historical writers. I just liked Georgette Heyer. Oh, and then I found a used bookstore and got a few nice Harlequin contemporary romances that were written by British writers and mostly set in England.

So sure. I read romance, right? At least in my mind, I did. I liked it. I expanded into gothics, which I really liked because it was like...a mystery with a happy ending (i.e. heroine gets the rich guy who turned out not to be the murderer even though she suspected him for like...the entire book). Cool.

Now, folks who read romance should already be thinking...well, you're not reading any romances written in the 90's or this century. And you're not reading any American authors except a few gothic writers (i.e. Mary Stewart, Victoria Holt, Dorothy Eden, Virginia Coffman, and Barbara Michaels--those were it, and I have no idea if in fact they were from North America or the U.K. I actually didn't much care for any other romance authors, although to be honest, I didn't try that many).

But I insisted I could write romance and I tried to write romance. Even though I have never read a romance written in the last 20 years. I went to a RWA conference and had no clue who any of the authors were--even the huge big names. Okay, I admit, I must have, like, lived in a cave or something, but I'd never heard of Julia Quinn or Nora Roberts or any of them. (I'm still fairly clueless about the big names in the industry--quite frankly, I have no idea.)

By now, you're probably thinking: this woman is completely clueless. You would be correct. But then again, years ago I met Isaac Asimov in the formal gardens behind the Governor's mansion in colonial Williamsburg and knew exactly who he was and got to shake his hand! I was so in awe, I completely forgot to take his picture. So anyway, it shows you where my head was at.

So, I tried to write romance. Not only that, I tried to write historical romance, because I absolutely adored Georgette Heyer. I had no freakin' idea that absolutely no one would publish a sweet historical anymore. I didn't even know the difference between traditional Regency (Heyer's genre) and Regency Historical. When I found out that what I wrote was traditional Regency, I also discovered that this genre is no longer being published and that the only historicals being published are Regency Historical, which are another kettle of fish (they are very sensual and the male/female relationship is the prime focus of the book).

Thankfully, a smaller publisher, Cerridwen Press, decided to give traditional Regencies another chance and is publishing me. (My first book comes out in May! Yay!)

But the moral of the story here is that I should have been more aware of current genres, what was being published, and written something that I not only love but that is actually still being published. I was lucky that Cerridwen is giving me a chance, but you really can't depend upon that kind of luck.

I was stubborn, however, because I knew that romance is the biggest category of fiction so I refused to give up the idea that I would write romance.
Anyway, we've beaten that dead horse into a puddle. So what else?

Target your book for a specific market, preferably for a specific publisher.
If you want Avon to publish you, then read Avon books. Your job, should you chose to accept it, is to write a book that "feels like" the other Avon books you have read. Each publisher's books have different things they go for, so you really can't just write a sort of "generic book" and send the same version to all publishers. Of course there are exceptions to this for some big breakout book, but the exceptions are fewer than you might think.

This point was brought home to me when I finally got a publisher. All of a sudden, I knew exactly how to tailor my book to fit the line. This is sort of a catch-22 for writers because you don't know what publisher will eventually buy you, so how do you tailor it?

You can revise your manuscript before you send it out, however, and match it as well as possible to the "feel" for a specific house. This is more difficult if you have an agent because chances are good they will take your MS and submit it to multiple houses and there shall be no tailoring. Oh well.

How did I change my manuscripts once I had a publisher? (I have to add, this was like a weight lifting off my shoulders--I mean all of a sudden, instead of trying to guess how I should frame my story, I knew! Eureka!) The following is only relevant for my publisher, but it gives you an idea of how it affects your manuscript.

I write stories for the Cotillion line of Cerridwen Press. They are traditional Regencies, which is a romance, so there does have to be a romance and it needs to be the major plot, but it is not so intensely focused on the male/female relationship. You can explore the society around them and have other elements of adventure/mystery, etc. (You can see why I liked this, due to my fascination with mysteries.) There is no explicit sensuality, which worked for me because as a writer, I'm find I'm not so intensely focused on just the male/female relationship.

So anyway, now I know that: my stories have to stay under the 75,000 word mark (tough, but I can do it with a lot of editing). Knowing that, it becomes very easy to edit out those scenes which make you go...hmmm. Oh, come on. You know know what I mean. You write something and then when you go back, it stops you. You go...hmmm. Then you read it again and the writing doesn't seem that bad to you and you decide after reading it a third time that it really is okay and you leave it.

Honey, I'm here to tell you that anything that makes you pause and anything that makes you even think, hmmm, has got to go. For me, trying to stay under 75,000 words alleviates a lot of the agony of deleting scenes or lines that make me pause, because I'm looking for places to cut anyway.

So, what else? I know the style. I know the heavily sensual won't cut the mustard (whew) so I can cut down on those elements.

If you want this in brief, I know how long my manuscript can be, how to format it for my publisher, what their "house style" is for grammar and punctuation, and I know what elements I can and cannot include. Because what I write fits so well into the Cotillion line, this has been enormously freeing and a huge weight off my shoulders because now I can write what I want, and my manuscripts fit within the "house parameters" for that line. I don't have to try to layer in sensuality, lush descriptions, and other things which just don't seem to fit with how I write and which therefore have an unpleasantly "additive" feel to them when I do try to add them.

Of course, we shall see if this is still working out for me when I get their decision about the second manuscript I've submitted to my editor.

The bottom line for other writers is that houses vary on everything from the length of the manuscript to levels of sensuality. Avon, for example, likes very sensual stories with very lush descriptions. They also like fairly dark stories (at the moment, anyway). My writing is totally inappropriate for Avon--it just doesn't mesh with their current lines.

So bone up on what your target publisher is doing these days and what sort of stories they like to see. Your goal is to send them a manuscript that fits within their line so well that they can't pass up the chance to publish you. But if the publisher you "want" seems to publish things you can't stand to read or stories that are not like the ones you like to write, I would politely suggest that maybe you're looking at the wrong publisher. If you try to shoe-horn your book into a style foreign to you, it will always just not seem right.

Delete anything that makes you go: hmmm
I already sort of explained that above. When you edit your stuff, you'll find those sections or sentences or even just a word that momentarily stops you. When you find them, after reading them a few times, you'll think: it's okay. I can get away with that.
You cannot get away with it. Believe me. Just delete it. Maybe save it out to a file if it is some amazing piece of verbiage, but delete it from your manuscript. If it makes you go hmmm, it will make an editor stop reading and reject your book. Editors are busy, tired people. Occasionally, they are looking for a reason to buy you. More often, they are looking at a reason to stop reading your submission, stamp it with REJECTION, and move on with the futile hope of eventually seeing what the top of their desk looks like again.

My editor found every single place where I thought I can get away with that. I ended up having to delete every blessed one. It would have been much better if I had just deleted them in the first place. I knew better, I just didn't want to admit it.

Your opening line and first page must grab the reader. Once grabbed, you cannot let go.
Yes. Published authors can get away with anything. Published authors often have to edit their book so heavily that the third chapter becomes the actual first chapter when it is published. However, editors know that a published author can probably "pull this off" later in the book so if it is a little slow to start, they know the pace and story will improve and the editor will keep on reading. Although after a certain amount of time, they may stop reading even a published author--it is not all just roses and wine.

This leeway is not granted to unpublished authors. If your first sentence is boring or you think it's a shocker that is bound to make the editor sit up and take notice, well, think again. The editor will read the first line, snicker, and stamp it with REJECTION.

I sat in on a session at a writers conference were they randomly read a handful of manuscripts. Out of this random sampling, several started with the line: Sex sells. Several started with the heroine putting on her wedding gown in front of a mirror and suddenly deciding she can't go through with it and running out of her own wedding. Several started with the hero having a pounding headache.

In other words, out of this random sampling, most were not unique at all, and the ones that tried to be the most unique ended up being the most common (and unfortunately laughable). And the editors totally hated it when the opening line was meant to be a shocker/attention grabber. They had heard all of those "shocking" lines before, ad nauseum.

What to do?
Don't try to be cute or shocking.
Open with the predicament. You know what I mean. Either your hero or your heroine is about to plunge into a problem. Open with your main character (even in a romance, one of the pair is going to face more difficulties than the other and it is really more that character's story, so start with him or her). You want to: open with your main character; show where they are; what they are doing; and why they are doing it. By the end of the first page, your readers should have a pretty good idea of that character's circumstances and what the first problem is that this character is going to face. The faster you identify the problem, the better.

That is what is going to draw the reader into the story, i.e. understanding the character's motivation and sympathizing enough with him/her to hope that the horrors faced by the character will be overcome. That is what keeps the reader reading.

Of course then you have to keep them reading. So you have to delete all the hmmm parts. Tighten it up. Don't drift off into byways and highways, unless it's literary fiction or you just don't give a darn.

Man, I thought I had some other things, but my mind has just gone blank so I'll end here.
Good night and hope for the best.


Eleanora said...

That was a truly *good* article! I've read my weight in "how to write" books, which is probably one of the reasons I'm not writing ...and your article out does most of them! Great read, excellent points, beautifully presented. thanks you!

Amy said...

Thanks! I really appreciate that. I keep hoping I can save some other poor schmuck from making the obvious mistakes I have made. It probably took me twice as long as the average writer to get published just because I wasn't thinking clearly. I didn't focus on exactly WHAT I was writing, i.e. what is the focus? The male/female relationship or the adventure or the mystery? If you can't clearly answer questions like that, you're going to run around in circles a lot of the time.
Anyway, thanks! I hope it helps and I hope you'll try your hand at writing again.