I edit things. I help authors make stories. I help authors make them better. I see a lot of manuscripts at a lot of stages in their life, and when I see mistakes, they tend to be pretty universal, regardless of genre or manuscript length.
Today I’ve collected four mistakes, offered examples, and have some ideas on how to solve them.
I. Skipping on the fundamental genre elements so that you can “stand out” or “write a book people talk about.”
Examples: A hero’s journey with no mentor; a western without either romance or a sense of scope and connection to the land; a dystopia with no sense of loss; a mystery without a clear crime
There are practical requirements based on the genre and type of story you’re telling. First-person means you’ll use “I” when talking as the narrator, in an action story, there’s always a moment where the hero is at the villain’s clutches. You can’t get away from these, because they’re central to the story’s development.
Not having these components will make your story feel “off” to a reader. It might be okay to read, it might be complete, but it won’t feel satisfying, it won’t engage or “click” with the audience. Yes, sure, people will talk about the book, but not in a positive hey-check-this-out way, more like an avoid-this-book-unless-you’re-trapped-in-the-wilderness-and-need-to-start-a-fire-or-need-to-wipe-and-you-can’t-find-pinecones way.
Novelty, uniqueness, distinguishing your story from others is important. And not just because agents, publishers, and editors tell you that it is, or that it correlates to sales. It’s important that your story be in its best shape if for no other reason than people are going to read it, and they deserve your best work, regardless of whether or not they’ve paid for a book or you’re emailing your friend something you scribbled down.
Omitting critical elements in a story and then wondering why the story doesn’t work is like trying to make ice and omitting the water. It’s not functional ice without the water. It’s not a functional story if you take out the building blocks.
As for what those building blocks are, they’re numerous, probably too numerous for a thousand years of blogging. You likely know them from whatever media you enjoy, you might not know their technical names, but you know the scenes where they really work – and the ones where they don’t. Technical names aren’t important, really. I mean, they’re helpful when we talk broadly about story construction, but it’s far more important that you can break your own story down into its constituent beats regardless of their label, since labels can be applied later.
Your story needs those foundational pieces, no matter how boring you think it may be to write a scene where people patch up their differences or ride off to gear up before shooting the badguy in the face at noon.
II. Far too many pronouns
Example: Madison looked at the sandwich on Dakota’s plate. She was hungry, and she knew it. While she was chewing, she thought she looked dangerous. With a sly motion, she slid a knife to her lap, ready for a fight.
Okay, that’s some lousy melodrama. Do you have any idea which character I’m talking about whenever you see a “she” or the “her”? I wrote it, and I barely could tell.
Too many pronouns isn’t increasing your casual relationship to your reader, it’s confusing. It’s really confusing. And a confused reader will try to keep up, but if they can’t sort out what the hell you’re saying, they’re going to go elsewhere.
The fix is both simple and hard. Instead of laying down a buckshot of pronouns, name-check a character here and there, especially when characters of the same gender are interacting. Yes, you can find some other ways to describe the character(s) – call out their physical traits, for instance – but if you only do that as your pronoun-alternative, you’re just making “blonde” or “the short one” substitute for “her”.
The tougher fix, the fix I tell clients to make, is write new sentences. Different sized sentences. Fragments. Big long sentences with clauses like kraken arms. It can be hard have that feel okay as a writer, so often we fall into patterns, especially when we get deeper into a manuscript. But it’s important for moving the reader’s eye down the page, giving them more words and ideas to engage with, and painting the clearest word picture possible. So, practice.
III. Mass produced, cookie cutter writing, heavy on the patterns
Examples: Looking at the number of sentences that have three to five words, then a comma, then three to five more words; how often “and then” appears in text; all the paragraphs are four lines long
Part of my job is pattern recognition. Patterns tell me a lot about a writer. I can often see how they were taught to write, what their attitude is as a writer, how they feel about what they’re putting down, how they feel about the reader, or even what they’re trying to avoid saying. We all have patterns. We favor some words more than others. Or certain sentence styles over others. These markers are fingerprints and illustrate critical elements that editing or even coaching can work on.
For many writers, this isn’t an issue. These indicators don’t stick out like sore thumbs and don’t dominate the story being told. Sure, if you scrutinize anything long enough you’ll find a pattern (for instance, how many sentences have I started with a single word followed by a comma?), but there is very clearly a tipping point where story becomes secondary to how the story is being told, because the constructive scaffolding is dominating the creative landscape.
The fix is to read more. See how other writers use the language. Do they let sentences run long, nearly to some imaginary breaking point, before paying them off? Are the sentences little staccato gunshots that punch their way onto your brain’s canvas? Do they let commas act like hinges in sentences? Do they love starting paragraphs with a word? Are many of their paragraphs seven lines long (I’ll wait here, you go count in this blogpost)?
Manipulation of language, using it for full effect, to the best of your talent, is going to connect you to readers far more than you think. Oh, it’s totally easy to churn out everything in four line chunks, but after reading that for pages, do you think a reader won’t glaze over, no matter what the words are?
IV. Thinking readability is a huge damned deal way bigger than it really is
Examples: Having some knowledge about what reading level the average consumer has and adjusting up or down to suit them; assuming that since the NYT bestseller list written at a certain reading level, that in order to get on it, you have to write at that level.
Readability or reading level was for many years a huge red flag for writers and English teachers. Even today, news outlets trot out charts and quick stories about how smart we are as a society, and maybe they do so with a sigh or with a chuckle.
Obviously I’m not saying your first grader is going to really enjoy the hell out of the New England Journal of Medicine article about accelerated foot fungus, nor is the college professor going to all swoony for Hop on Pop, but those are the extremes. And I’m not talking extremes. I’m talking the middle ground, where people hunker down in these unproductive trenches and hamstring themselves into apoplexy over whether or not they’re going to be understood.
Guess what? If your writing is evocative, engaging, and draws parallels to your readers’ experiences, you’re going to be understood.
When we talk readability, this conversation often comes to a crossroads – do I dumb down or stretch up?
Dumbing down is when you simplify your language. People think this makes them more relatable and genial, but do any of us like being patronized or belittled? Because that’s what people are doing with the simple and slow sentence structure that reads like it’s a pat on the head. Yes, you’re reaching a very wide audience, but so does screaming at a kindergarten class. Treat your readers with more respect, treat yourself with more respect, and if your word choice sends someone to a dictionary or the internet to look up a word, that’s NOT a bad thing to be avoided.
Stretching up goes the other way. Rather than writing something simple, every word (or as many as possible) get the thesaurus treatment so the manuscript (and by extension the writer) seem smarter.
Is it important for you to appear smart, dear writer? Is that why you’re telling the story you’re telling? Is appearing smart going to earn you that validation you’ve been hunting? Will you feel better if someone calls you smart? (Okay, you’re smart, now what?)
The tricky part here is that instead of patting your audience on the head, you run the risk of making them feel stupid. One or two words per manuscript that they need to look up is alright, but do scene after scene and you’re just showing off. And is that why you’re writing, to show off?
Tell your story your way. Don’t do the readers’ thinking for them, don’t assume them stupid or smarter than you, just focus on telling your story your way.
Keep writing. See you later this week.