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Friday, August 28, 2009

Guest Blogger: Susan K. Marlow

Part 2

4. Changing points of view during a scene. TV shows and movies can get away with this, and maybe even the classic writers of old, but it's not a good idea to bounce around from one character's thoughts and viewpoint to another's, all in the same scene. I've seen this many times in beginning writers' work. In fact, changing POVs (points of view) was the very first thing a critique group pointed out to me during my first writers' group meeting. My character was just getting ready to be trampled by a wild stallion and her brother pulled her to safety. Then I switched points of view and told the story from the brother's viewpoint as he rescued his sister. I had no idea I was doing something that is a "mistake." It's OK to switch POVs between chapters or if you use a distinct scene break, but avoid jumping around during the same scene.

5. Run-on sentences. I'm always amazed when I read new writers' work and wonder if a sentence is ever going to end. It's like they're so busy putting thoughts on paper they forget there needs to be a period now and then. Instead, they connect phrases and clauses with "and" "but" "then" "so" and other connectors that are best used sparingly. Here's an example: "Sarah, the office manager, wanted all the memos to be typed so they would be easy to read, but Jane just couldn't figure the keyboard out, no matter how many times Jane tried to teach her, and it drove Jane nuts." It's best to use short, snappy sentences (especially if you want to build suspense). Save the longer sentences for a quiet, sleepy feeling. But be careful you don't put the reader to sleep!

6. Pet word. Every beginning writer (and sometimes experienced authors) have a basket of "pet words." These are words that flowed so well when we use them that before long we've crossed over into "overuse." A good critique partner (or editor) catches there favorite words right away. Mine was "just." Other pet words may include "that" "then" "very" "really" and "OK." You don't even know you're using them! However, that wonderful "Find" tool in the Word program helps you track them down and use a different word or (better yet) cut them out. Even now I cringe like a beginner when my critiquer says things like "first use" "second use" "third use" and she's still on the same page. Most recently, my pet word was "toss." Things were always getting tossed! And I didn't even know it until she pointed it out to me.

7. Pest words. Pet words quickly morph into "pest words." These are bugs that infect your writing and can brand you as a beginner. "ly" adverbs are a perfect example of pest words. "Really, happily, clearly, wisely, lovingly, carefully, frantically . . ." There is no end to these verb modifiers! While the beginner believes he is expanding his description (Jon held tightly to the railing), in reality it is considered weak writing. Intead, go through your manuscript and find "ly" adverbs and try to think of a strong, vivid verb to use instead. (Jon gripped the railing). Sarah talked loudly could be Sarah shouted. The boy ran quickly through the forest = The boy dashed through the forest. Again, this is a beginner's mistake that most of us don't realize we are making and it easy to fix!

"ing" words are another pest problem. I've seen many manuscripts come in where the character can't say or do anything without an "ing" word attached to the dialogue tag. "I can't hang on much longer!" Jon said loudly, holding tightly to the edge of the cliff. Sounds OK at first glance, and honestly, a few of these are OK in a novel. It's overuse we're talking about here. This could be changed to: Jon clung to the cliff's edge. "I can't hang on much longer!" The exclamation point clues the reader into the fact that he's probably shouting. I replaced the "holding tightly" with "clung."

8. Passive verbs. Beginning authors always use passive verb forms. It's a sure sign, so look out and fix this one before sending anything into an editor or agent. Passive = slow. Active = action. A passive verb is when you use a state-of-being verb (am, is are, was, were, be, being, been) and have all that great action happening TO the subject of the sentence instead of the subject DOING the action. This wearies a reader's mind in no time and makes the story slog along like it's caught in molasses. For example: The meeting was called to order by President Baker. Change to: President Baker called the meeting to order. Or . . . The dog was hit by the car. Change to: The car hit the dog. Again, the occasional use of passive verb forms add variety to your story, but overuse will brand you as a beginner.

Learning to self-edit your own work saves you a lot of misery (from rejection letters) and money (from paying an editor to do what you are perfectly capable of doing). Once you are aware of the mistakes, it takes only determination and vigilance to keep from falling into these beginner traps.

Editor's Note: Susan Marlow has authored a book for students, Reach for the Stars Young Fiction Author's Workbook

Susan K. Marlow

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