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Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Guest Blogger: Susan K. Marlow

Mistakes? You Don't Want to Be Branded a Beginner.
Part 1

Oh, those writing mistakes! Those mistakes that brand a new writer as a "beginner" to the editors we hope to impress with our work. I know all about them--intimately--because I've made most of them. News flash: I was a beginner once, too. But as soon as a seasoned writer pointed the mistakes out, I ceased (for the most part) making them. What separates the beginner from those who go on to become mature writers? It's how quickly they identify and overcome these common mistakes. Here are a few you can start to identify in your own writing:

1. Not beginning your story in the right place. A lot of new writers feel the reader needs back story, character expansion, or setting the scene before diving into the story problem. The truth is, the reader wants to be grabbed with a tantalizing "hook" and drawn into the story itself. Character development, setting, and even back story can be weaved into the story once you've got the reader turning pages. And . . . it's all about turning pages. An editor has a stack of manuscripts to read, and he gives himself a couple of minutes to scan each submission. If he isn't hooked by page 2 or 3, he's going to lay it aside and pick up the next manuscript. This happened to me, but thankfully an experienced, published author told me and not an editor from a publishing house! I had time to go back and start the story right where it needs to begin: just before the story problem. (This is especially true for children's literature.)

2. The need to explain everything. Another mistake beginners make is feeling they need to explain everything. I call this "giving the reader TMI." Too Much Information. The reader drowns in a sea of wordiness and redundancies. Trust me. Readers are smart. They can infer much that doesn't need to be explained. Here is a simplistic example: If a mountain lion is chasing a girl, you don't need to add the part about the girl running. The word "chase" assumes somebody is running. If something changes, (like she falls or climbs a tree), that's the time to tell the reader. Sometimes, in their need to "tell all," a new writer intrudes into the story. The reader knows right away that the action has stopped and he's been jerked from the story. For instance, a story is about the misadventures of Jane in the big city. Nothing seems to be going right for her throughout the entire book. A chapter ends, and then . . . bang! The next chapter begins with, "Jane had come to the city to try and find a job. Now it looked like it wasn't going to work out so well, so she decided to try another alternative." Stop! The whole story has been about Jane's problem. Why review this just because it's a new chapter? And lest you think I'm making this up, except for the name and setting changes to protect the guilty, I found this in a recent editing job.

3. Telling and not showing. Explaining is another word for telling. New writers sometimes do a lot of telling. After all, it's much easier to narrate (tell) a story than to show what is happening. Memorize this phrase: Show. Don't Tell. The reader does not want to learn second-hand what happened in scene about two rivals having a conflict at the water cooler. The reader wants to be at the water cooler, listening in to the conversation, sensing the emotions, being involved in the characters' lives. Even experienced authors sometimes slip into "telling" when their fingers are flying over the keys and they want the story to move quickly. I broke off a scene once, just as my character was about to be dumped fromher horse in front of a group of young ladies. I did a scene break and then had my character retelling her humiliating experience to her roommate. My critique partner wisely slammed me for it and said, "But I want to SEE Andi getting dumped from the horse." Oh. Yeah. Good point.

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