With the help of another writer, I managed to figure out at least some of the issues keeping me from publishing a second book. A few of my problems are sequencing. There were several variations of this, some easy to fix, others more difficult. The good news is that they are all fixable.
If you've been writing for a while but still getting rejections, you might want to think about what I'm going to say. It's the kind of issue that may make you decide: this isn't my problem. But I urge you to reconsider.
Think about this. You get rejections that say your writing is competent but "not for us". Or, your critique partner marks passages that she says make no sense. But when you explain them to her, the paragraph you have written makes perfect sense to both of you. You think: What the heck was her problem that she didn't understand that? It was clearly written—she's got to be an idiot or had a brain fart or something. And so you move on to correct other things.
These may be symptoms of a sequencing issue.
Sequence issues can be broken down into a few categories. Each category has to be fixed in a different way and that is why you need to be able to separate them.
This is this simplest and you can generally find them pretty easily.
Beth and Joan went into the bar. She ordered a drink.
Beth is your heroine. When you wrote this, the scene was in your heroine's point of view so it seemed okay. In your mind, the "She ordered a drink" part is clearly Beth.
Or, perhaps because Joan was the last name referenced in the preceding sentence, you may think your reader will naturally know Joan ordered the drink.
It doesn't matter if it is clear to you as the author. It's not clear to the reader. You actually need to replace "She" with a name to make it clear which woman ordered the drink. Easy. That's a problem most writers catch on rewrites, although the occasional pronoun confusion still slips through at times.
Sequence and Causal Effect
This is much more difficult and it is one which causes me grief all the time. It is what makes others say my writing is confusing. Here is a simple summary of this issue. When humans read and process information, they make assumptions. In an action sequence, one assumption is that the action in the first sentence caused the action in the second sentence.
There was a loud knock at the front door. Glancing up, Tricia screamed when a mouse scampered across the floor.
The innocent reader or critique partner will read this and say, "Huh? Why did Tricia scream at a knock on the door? Did it startle her or something?"
The author is going to reply, "Huh? I can't see what is so confusing about this. There was a knock at the door. THEN Tricia screamed BECAUSE she saw a mouse running across the floor. I SAID that. I SAID that she screamed when she saw a mouse scamper across the floor. There is nothing wrong with that paragraph."
The critique partner is then going to shrug and say, "Well, okay. I see that you wrote that Tricia screamed WHEN a mouse scampered across the floor. I guess it's okay. Maybe you should just replace 'when' with 'because'."
Author said, "Oh, fine. I'll do that."
But that is NOT OKAY. It does not address the problem.
The human brain is going to read the first sentence, which indicates there was a knock at the door. The innocent reader is now waiting for a reaction. The reaction they read next is that Tricia glanced up and screamed. By the time the reader gets to "when a mouse scampered across the floor" the reader is confused. Or the reader is making the assumption that the loud knock startled Tricia and she's a nervous woman who screams when someone knocks at the door. Then Tricia saw the mouse. Or whatever.
You've now lost both your reader and your potential publishing contract.
So that paragraph needs to be rewritten to reestablish the causal relationship between the sentences and the sequence of events.
There was a loud knock at the front door. The sudden noise scared a mouse out of hiding and it scampered over the carpet just as Tricia glanced toward the door. Tricia screamed at the sight of the rodent running toward her…
You see the difference?
The loud knock scared the mouse. The mouse scared Tricia. That is the sequence and causal relationships. If you change the order around it will be confusing no matter how clearly you write the second sentence.
Too Much Action in One Sentence
This one is also difficult. I have a tendency to try to write economically and densely. When I was a programmer, I'd do anything to save one byte and made the code more efficient. I have a habit of wanting cut out all "unnecessary" words and transitions. I want to pack everything I can into once sentence. Unfortunately, what works with computers does not work with people. We need time to process information. We need to see what is going on. Most importantly, we need transitions if characters are going to move from one place to another.
The carriage came to an abrupt halt. Before Chilton could react, the footmen opened the carriage door and escorted him into the library.
The innocent reader or critique partner will read this and say, "Huh? How did he suddenly get into the library? I thought he was sitting motionless in the carriage."
The defensive author is going to say, "What? I said, the footmen opened the carriage door and escorted him into the library. Obviously, if they escorted him into the library, he wasn't still sitting in the carriage. He's now in the library. Sheesh."
The critique partner is going to say, "Oh, okay. Fine. Whatever. So now he's in the library."
There was just way too much action packed into that sentence without any transitions. The reader couldn't follow along properly. One minute Chilton was in the carriage, the next he's in the library, with no transition or sense of movement in between except that one, paltry word "escorted."
The carriage came to an abrupt halt. Before Chilton could react, the footmen opened the carriage door. They yanked him out and escorted him up the front steps and through the front door. Then, before he could summon up a protest, they marched him straight down the hall and into the library.
You see the difference?
Now I'm not saying this is deathless prose in the corrected examples. In fact, the writing is still pretty bad, but at least it doesn't leave you with the feeling of having missed something. Or maybe it does.
But at least it's a start and I feel like I've learned something.