Without a Paddle

I rock.  At least in my house where I hold the dubious title of Bop It Queen.  I’m also the reigning Scrabble Champion (DH actually marked the calendar the ONE time he beat me) and a pretty mean contender when it comes to Trivial Pursuit.

Give me a basketball, however, and I’ll stand on the free-throw line for two years before sinking a shot.  Celebrity trivia will trip me up every time and I stink at Rock, Paper, Scissors.  I’ve had to pick the kids up in the cold and dark so often after losing that I just grab for the keys instead of debating my “move”.

We all have strengths and weaknesses, and it’s a good thing to know what they are.  Especially for a writer.  If we fail to properly assess our techniques, we will find ourselves

Up Submission Creek without a PADDLE.

PLOT: Even the most rudimentary writing needs a plot.  The story must go somewhere, or there is no purpose.  Not for our MC, not for our story and certainly not for our readers.  The Encyclopaedia Brittanica states that plot is ” …the structure of interrelated actions…” 

James Scott Bell writes about his LOCK system in regards to a satisfying plot.  Lead Character.  Objective.  Confrontation and Knock Out.  These same components have been summarized in many different ways, but in essence they all mean the same thing.  A reader wants to be transported from Real Life into a story that has conflict, a climax and a resolution. 

AUDIENCE: Writer, know thy audience.  After hanging out on writing forums for a year and engaging face to face with other writers and their work, I have learned that we often fail to understand who we are writing for.  I have seen YA’s written with picture book themes and manuscripts for adventure-seeking men obviously penned by women. 

Each age group and genre has vastly different expectations.  As a rule, men do not want to read touchy feely dialogue and teens no longer care about talking bunnies in search of their mommies.  Not sure what you’re writing?  Check out Anne R. Allen’s Blog .  Once you know your audience, read a couple dozen books to get familiar with the style and language they seem to like.

DEVELOPMENT as in Character: Flat Stanley is an awesome book.  Yet most writers should strive hard to make their characters anything but flat.  To keep our readers invested, we need characters they care about.  Lynn Price tells how.   

DIALOGUE: Kill me now if your characters hold actual conversations.  Readers DO NOT want “Hello.”  “How are you today?”  “Good.”  “Great.”  “So…it’s cold outside.  Did you get the driveway shoveled?” 

Repeat after me.  “Ninety percent of what we say in life is really boring.”

The key to great dialogue is imparting character, not information.  It moves the story forward.  Don’t make your characters talk the same.  Likewise, don’t let them all have quirky speech patterns.  Keep in mind things like age, sex and genre when writing.  For a giggle, read here.

LANGUAGE: This goes hand in hand with dialogue and audience.  Write for your readers, not at them.  Don’t condescend and don’t use big words you yourself had to look up.  Both of these will kill a reader’s love for you faster than dumping your spouse for the waitress on your tenth anniversary. 

Sentence length and structure, as well as paragraph development, belong in this category.  Don’t confuse your audience with poorly constructed writing and Harvard words.  Rather, gently stretch their skills.  Teach, don’t preach.

EXPOSITION: AKA, back story.  If you have never heard of an information dump, now is the time to learn that agents, editors and the reading public despise this technique.  Why?  Read for yourself.

So how does one provide necessary information?  Artfully, I suppose.  I should be able to show you it is cold, the wind is blowing and a storm is moving in without telling you.  An example: 

She shivered and zipped her jacket against the wind.  Her tears froze on her cheeks as she screamed at the snow-filled sky. 

I have no sympathy for the villian explaining his evil plot to the tied up victim.  I’ve had an entire novel to show my villian’s motives through action, character development and dialogue.  He had forty-seven chapters to visit his mom’s grave, sift through his old diary, threaten his shrink for saying the wrong thing and generally act unstable in certain situations.  If I haven’t managed to convey the message by chapter forty-eight, my book shouldn’t be in your hands. 

If you’ve made it this far up Submission Creek with only one paddle, I’ll throw you another one to make your trip a little easier.

SETTING: Description of characters and places often comes in the form of exposition.  A good writer can bypass this tendency by choosing his words carefully.  Adverbs and adjectives do not create setting, nor do they qualify as good descriptors.  In fact, they can detract from our writing significantly. 

Not sure what I mean?  Robert K. Lewis will explain.

So there you have it.  Two paddles to help you navigate the publishing waters.  Plot, Audience, Development, Dialogue, Language, Exposition and Setting.  The key to making it work, however, is knowing how to use them. 

What are your writing strengths?  Do you consiously tackle your weaknesses?  If so, how?

~happy canoeing!

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16 responses to “Without a Paddle

  1. Great resources and info!
    As Stephen Kind said, “The road to hell is paved with adverbs.”

  2. Thanks Yvonne.

    I prefer to pave my way to publishing heaven. Any words of wisdom on how to get there?

  3. I think my book’s biggest weakness right now is I’ve taken so much time showing my villain’s villainy, I’ve neglected showing his good sides. He has them. We all have both. But in my head, he’s mostly a selfish bastard where even his goodness is twisted and I don’t know if that’s honest to the character. It’s certainly not honest to who he was historically.

    BTW, I REALLY like this email feature on your blog! It makes following you really easy. LOL

    • Thanks for your thoughtful comment.

      I think it is easy to paint our villians as one dimmensional. They seem to be the epitomy of all the nastiness we conjure up. Giving them good traits feels wrong–aren’t they villians? However, it is important that they have some redeeming qualities or the story feels stilted.

      I’ve been up the creek without my paddles before and characterization is probably one of my biggest issues. I don’t analyze, I just write–and often end up with Flat Stanleys all over my manuscript. I have to go back and inflate them!

      I need to subscribe to the blogs I follow. It would be a lot easier than checking each blog every day in case there’s a new post. I’m sure it would save me tons of time!

  4. Catwoods,
    When I read your blog , I thought of the lesson, only lesson I learned and remembered from two years of a creative writing class in a community college, which was ‘don’t state something out right if it was implied already.’ I thought of your ‘teach, don’t preach.’ It was a hard lesson. Everything I write I think about this and prune ruthlessly when I realize I said it already even if it was only implied. I did not have to say it outright any longer. I have to think carefully about what I am saying and whether I said it already. For example if it is evident from the dialogue you are angry you certainly do not have to state this outright. Eliminating your redundancy makes your writing that much tighter.

    • Siggy, great point. Redundancy can kill a manuscript. Jean Oram http://www.jeanoram.com/ is a master at cutting already said words. It was fun to share her progress on a previous novel she edited. Each day, we would watch her word count plummet as she pulled excess phrases from her manuscript. Like you said, it is ruthless work, but the payout is big.

      In a time when word counts are shrinking for published books, this lesson is extremely timely. Thanks for pointing that out.

  5. Nicely done! I could never get past about 20 on Bop It. My son easily got 100 each time – but with the musical sounds, not the words.

    Great links and great advice – thanks 🙂

    • Thanks Jemi.

      The voice thing throws me off everytime with this new Bop It. I like the brain power it takes when concentrating on it. Kind of relaxing in an odd sort of way. At least until I have to shout at it!

  6. Lots of great advice here. I’ve been studying the audience for YA (teen) novels by reading releases for the last two years. I was surprised how edgy they are — writers must not skip this step, no matter what genre they focus on.

    • Patricia, YA has definitely broken some boundaries from my childhood. It is very interesting to me to read these books with an eye to my 13 year old. It was one thing when she was still reading Where the Wild Things Are and I was reading YA. Now, it really hits home what kids are exposed to–in music, in movies, books and real life.

      Innocence has definitely been stripped in so many ways. If we assume kids are still reading “See Spot Run” we are in big trouble.

  7. Some really good advice in this post. Thanks for all the links. I think my weakness is to hurry through one scene to get to another that I really want to write. When I edit, I have to go back through and slow many things down.

    • Barbara, I find myself rewriting where I skimped the first time around too. I think it is easier to do it that way than cut massive amounts of already written work.

      Or maybe I’m just too lazy to write an extra 20,000 words that will get cut on a rewrite.

      Anyway, I tell myself the way I do it is how I am supposed to, as it seems to work. I would bet you are fairly comfortable in how you write as well. And as long as we know that things need fixed and what areas to look for, we are doing okay.

  8. Cat-

    Great advice as usual…this part made me giggle! It’s so true!!

    “DIALOGUE: Kill me now if your characters hold actual conversations. Readers DO NOT want “Hello.” “How are you today?” “Good.” “Great.” “So…it’s cold outside. Did you get the driveway shoveled?”

    Repeat after me. “Ninety percent of what we say in life is really boring.”

    -Charlie

  9. Good stuff.
    There are exceptions to each of these rules, of course, but the general principles are sound.
    Cut everything that’s not essential to the story.

    • If there were no exceptions, what fun would the rules be? I love when I give myself tacit permission to break the rules. Hopefully my readers appreciate it as well…

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