I’m reading the latest issue of “Writers’ Digest.” They have a top ten theme and in the tradition of Letterman, have compiled all kinds of top ten lists for writers, from the ridiculous to the sublime. Pardon the cliché. Because I’ve just begun to read it, I don’t know all that will be covered. How useful is it? So far, not too. I’m guessing that will change as I plow my way through the pages. But, it’s fun. For this week’s discussion, I thought I’d list five “wrongs,” that is, blatant errors, things that can turn off the reader, or writing faux-pas that will dissuade an agent or publisher from looking further.
- Writers have the right to break rules. It’s your work; you’re the creator. No one can really tell you what to do. (I believe this applies in a particular way to poetry)
- The opinions I express are mine. They might not apply to the agent you’re querying or your target audience. So, “take what you like and leave the rest,” as they say in 12-Step programs.
Here are my thoughts/opinions:
- Purple prose. Purple prose is a term of literary criticism used to describe passages, or sometimes entire literary works, written in prose so overly extravagant, ornate, or flowery as to break the flow and draw attention to itself. Purple prose is sensually evocative beyond the requirements of its context. It also refers to writing that employs certain rhetorical effects such as exaggerated sentiment or pathos in an attempt to manipulate a reader’s response. (Wikipedia)
- Frequent Point-of-View Shifts. Don’t confuse your reader by frequent changes in POV or by shifting POV within a paragraph. I suggest using a space for a scene change or starting a new chapter if you have more than one POV character.
- Long rambling paragraphs of description. Sure, John Steinbeck or Jane Austen got away with it. But today’s readers, with their ADHD wants a plot that moves. Don’t neglect description but intersperse it with dialogue or action.
- Long blocks of dialogue that give information dumps. See my previous blog on this topic.
- All showing. Okay, okay. I know about “Show, don’t tell.” And I espouse the idea wholeheartedly. But….there are times when you need a summary paragraph. Honest. If your novel covers months or years, we don’t need to know everything that’s happened from beginning to end. But we need to know enough to understand how the character got where he is. So, summarize!
- Characters who are either completely perfect or totally flawed. You want your reader to sympathize with you protagonist, but in order to identify with him, please give him a flaw or two. On the other hand, your antagonist should have a good trait or two, something that will help us understand him just a bit. Now, if you’re writing about Hitler….I don’t know.
- Lack of editing, revision or critique. Don’t send out those query letters yet. Spell check is inadequate. Read your manuscript aloud. Take it to a critique group and/or professional editor. I’ve posted a few articles on revising and editing. You may want to check them out.
- Blatant factual errors. Even fiction requires research. If there are too many factual errors, the reader will not be able to suspend disbelief. If you are writing a novel set in Chicago, you better know the place, visit it or research on the Internet. Get someone in the know to check out your facts. If you’re writing a medical thriller, know the basics. Even as a nurse and transplant recipient, I had to do more research on transplantation for “Winter is Past.” And I even ran a few things by my nephrologist.
- Obfuscation. I love that word. It’s got class. Basically, it mean anything that confuses the reader. Think of things like frequent flash-backs, too many characters, inconsistent point-of-view, switching from first to third person, too many adjectives and adverbs…you get the idea. Think: clarity and brevity.
- Finally and most important: giving up. Whatever you do, don’t say “The heck with it.” Keep on writing. Send out more queries. Try different genres. If you’re called to write, you gotta write or you won’t be happy.