The Online Journal of Writer Kate Sykes
As an editor, writing instructor and contest judge, I read scores of unpublished novels. Many have real potential: an original story premise, compelling characters, a palpable setting, a fresh voice. Still, most of them are destined for the rejection pile.
Why? Because the manuscript contains one or more technical missteps that scream, “Amateur!”
With publishing industry profit margins shrinking each year, few agents or editors will take a chance with an author who doesn’t appear to know his craft.
Fixing these five flubs will make your prose read more like that of a professional and help you get your manuscript the recognition it deserves.
Flub #1: Uncontrolled Viewpoint
Judging by the manuscripts I read, 95% of would-be novelists have no idea how to use point-of-view to seamlessly engage readers. Different viewpoints create slightly different reading experiences, and I could fill a whole book on the nuances of this technique, but I want to focus here on the two most common bungles I see.
First, let’s get something straight. Third person omniscient viewpoint is a relic of a bygone era of storytelling. Use it and editors may think you just crawled out from under a rock and don’t have a clue about the current market for fiction.
I’m not saying 3PO can’t be used as an artistic device. Eleanor Catton did it to great critical acclaim in The Luminaries. But beware! As this review from Book Snob suggests, devices are tough to pull off, even for the pros:
Eleanor Catton is such a brilliant writer; her ability to recreate the voice of a 19th century novelist and manage the mind boggling complexity of a huge amount of multi stranded and circuitous plot lines is nothing short of genius. However, somewhere along the way, the emotion, the power and the passion of true storytelling managed to bleed off the pages, leaving just pretension behind.
The second most common problem I see is ‘ping-pong’ viewpoint. That’s when the perspective shifts back and forth from one character to another in the middle of a scene.
Sure, you can switch from the damsel-in-distress’s point of view to that of her handsome rescuer, but if you do it without providing a scene-break first, you’ll confuse the reader.
Flub #2: Telegraphing the Turning Point
You’ve seen the italicized blurbs at the beginning of scientific papers that summarize the study and its results? It’s called an abstract, and it’s very helpful if you’re skimming the latest research on the mating habits of marsupials.
In narrative fiction, however, summarizing your scene or chapter before it begins releases all the tension you’ve worked so hard to build. I see this kind of thing all the time:
Later that afternoon, Ardis learned Frank wasn’t her real father.
Next comes a scene where Ardis visits the city records office and pulls her birth certificate only to learn that…. you guessed it! Frank isn’t her real father.
Scientists summarize. Novelists dramatize.
Don’t reveal your scene’s climactic event or emotional turning point before we get there. Make us wonder!
Flub #3: Window Dressing
A quote from a song. A treasure map. A preface in second person. A heartfelt dedication.
Anything you hang around the edges of your story tells an editor one thing, and one thing only: you feel the need to legitimize it.
Even a clever framing device that illustrates how the story comes from recollections of an old man in a nursing home, or the diary of the maid, or a manuscript found in an old trunk can seem like something slapped on to give the story more depth.
All of these things may have a place in your book, but only after you have a book deal.
Flub #4: Colorful or Excessive Tag Lines
“He’s not coming back!” Brook wailed.
“Your keys are on the side table,” Lou snapped.
“Nice pleats,” snickered George.
Descriptive tag lines like these reveal an empty drawer in a writer’s toolbox, one that should be filled with techniques that make the dialog itself convey the character’s emotion.
“He said” and “she said” are the only tag lines the skilled writer needs. And she only needs them when it’s unclear who’s speaking. (Which it should almost never be.)
Writers who consistently ground the reader in the setting and who employ vocal rhythms and syntax to identify the speaker need very few tag lines.
Flub #5: Repetition of the Character’s Name
Repeating the character’s name over and over in a scene might sound literary to you, but it sounds stiff to readers. It reminds us we’re reading a book.
Kate awoke early on Sunday to write a blog post before hitting the slopes. The bagel she’d toasted for breakfast lay half-eaten on the plate beside her laptop. Few things in life disappointed Kate like a mediocre bagel. A bagel from Russ & Daughters, now there was a thing of beauty! Kate wished she lived closer to New York so she could eat one every Sunday.
Do we really need that second and third “Kate” to know whose opinion is being expressed? Kate’s the only person in the scene!
Unless there’s a chance the reader may be confused about the identity of the character, use a pronoun. It will draw the reader in closer to the point of view and keep them immersed in the scene.
If there’s one thing that will win you brownie points with editors, it’s the ability to suck readers in, keep them turning pages and buying more books.