Youíre no longer a novice. Youíve been writing for a while, maybe for years. You have multiple completed manuscripts. Youíve perfected your query technique and the art of the synopsis, so agents and publishers at least ask for a partial manuscript when you query them, but few ever ask for the full manuscript and if they do, they return it with ďSorry, not for usĒ form letters.
Why? What are you doing wrong? Why canít you get published?
I donít have all the answers. If I did, Iíd be published, but Iíve had several epiphanies over the last year that I can share. Maybe these notes will only be useful if they come to you through your own discovery process, but they are a compilation of the flaws I have found in my own writing and in othersí work Iíve critiqued or judged. Often, these issues are well-hidden behind beautiful prose, but they are significant enough to prevent publication, even though the writers may win/final in contests and seem to be ďon the vergeĒ.
Characters the reader canít get involved with are the single most common problem. Interestingly enough, the reasons are not what are usually pointed to as problems. Your characters probably do have sufficient goals, motivation and conflict. They are probably overflowing with tension. If not, there are hundreds of articles to help you with those issues. Iím talking about something else.
If the editor doesnít love your characters, s/heís not going to buy the book, and they canít love your characters if your characters wonít bare their souls to the reader.
The Humor Problem
You must balance humor - you canít be funny all the time
People should love your characters, right? Your heroine is a laugh-riot. Sheís smart, sassy, and indomitable. Sheís funny. All the time.
That, in a nutshell, is the problem.
Why are people are funny? Itís because theyíre M&Mís. You know exactly what I mean. They are too soft inside, so they hide behind a hard, candy shell. They deflect all attempts to find out what is really going on inside them by being funny. If theyíre funny, no one sees that they are hurt, nervous, scared, attracted, or otherwise vulnerable.
Because of humorís deflective nature, it is impossible for someone, particularly a reader, to get to know a character who is always funny, both in dialog and internal thoughts. You can have smart, sassy dialog, but you absolutely must balance this with internal thoughts that show the characterís vulnerability, or your audience will never identify with them. The readers will laugh, but theyíll never feel close to the character and therefore, theyíll never get involved in your story the way they must if itís going to work.
If an editor is going to love your characters, you must give the reader a way to see into the characterís inner emotional life.
Ł If you have funny dialog, balance it with revealing inner thoughts.
Ł If you have funny, sarcastic inner thoughts, balance it with meaningful dialog and conflicts. Introduce a friend or relative that this character can relate to in a calm, not-funny manner, showing that the character can be close and kind to another human being.
Ł In all cases, donít be funny all the time. If you are funny all the time, then as a whole, the book becomes less funny because there is a surfeit of humor. People get queasy on a diet consisting solely of M&Mís. You need a balance. There must be stretches of descriptions or actions which are, frankly, not very funny.
The Anger Problem (or Bombshell Heroine)
You must balance anger - your characters canít be angry all the time
People should love your characters, right? Your heroine is smart and indomitable. Sheís a fighter. All the time. She never backs down. She never quits.
Gee whiz, take a valium, a glass of wine and turn on the air conditioning. Unload your gun.
If your heroine emotes all over the stage, all the time, sheís going to come across as a child unable to control her temper, having tantrums because sheís not getting her own way. Itís exhausting for parents when they have a child like this. Itís exhausting for readers when the heroine is constantly angry or nearly hysterical in every scene, no matter what her justification/situation is. The same is true if sheís just strong/stoic/sassy. Thereís got to be something more to her. Something inside. Even the Greeks knew that every hero and heroine had to have an Achilles heel. Some vulnerability we could identify with and know about. Some calm, rational conversations between your characters can really give readers a break.
So let your characters take a step back and think about their problems. Be reflective. Try to resolve at least a few situations without degenerating into anger every time the characters interact. A few fights are okay, but constant bickering and fights between the hero and heroine are as unattractive in a story as it is when you see a couple arguing in public. Bystanders wince. They know thereís no hope of a lasting relationship if all these two people do is argue.
Ł If you have angry fights in your dialog, balance it with revealing inner thoughts. Let them regret their words and think about apologizing. Let them calm down. Give them a tender moment, or at least a quiet time. Let the two characters share a joke.
Ł If you have angry, sarcastic inner thoughts, balance it with kind or even humorous dialog or actions.
Ł In all cases, donít make your characters angry/sullen/sassy all the time, or no one will like them.
Just like overdoing the humor, in tense stories you need stretches of descriptions or actions, and dialog, where there is humor, or at least calm, well-considered behavior. Where the characters at least appear to be rational adults, even if part of their development is to learn to grow up. We have to believe they have a chance of being a rational human being by the end of the story.
Donít tell me your character is angry, have her throw a book across the room
We all know we are supposed to show and not tell. The problem is, we often think this only applies to things like action, backstory, or events. We take pains to show in dialog and action what is going on or has happened to make our characters the people they are.
But then we spoil it by saying: Clarissa was angry. Or even worse: John loved Clarissa because she was so intelligent and strong. Well, dear author, have you shown us Clarissa acting intelligently? Has she figured out who killed Mr. Green in the Library? Or, is your hero just saying that as if itís true, when we see no evidence of it at all? Show us the proof. Have Clarissaís face turn scarlet, yell foul words and then throw the hatchet at Mr. Green, thereby killing him in the library. Have her show us her anger. Donít tell us. And if you want John to fall in love with her because sheís so intelligent, then by George youíd better show her acting intelligently before he makes that statement, or I will doubt his intelligence and reasoning abilities.
I challenge you to spend time on your hero and heroineís emotions and to portray them without ever using a convenient one word term, like Ďangry.í This is obviously not something that should, or can, be done all the time, but it should be done a great deal of the time especially for the hero and heroine.
Describe their inner life to me. Make me understand and feel it.
Sigh. There are thousands of good books on writing. Everyone has their own voice and their own style, and thatís great. But donít overdo it. I wince when I see seminars on ďdeveloping your own voice.Ē Donít go to them. Whatever you write is already in your own voice, so my best advice is forget you ever heard about voice and just write. Your choice of words is your voice. Period. Just like a diet is what you eat.
You can improve your style and expand your vocabulary, but don't make your style more important than your story.
Thatís the single most important piece of advice I can give you. In fact, if youíve already struggled through my previous advice on characters, you realize this is part of what Iíve been saying all along.
Just donít overdo it--particularly your voice.
If your voice is sassy, sarcastic, chick-lit, donít get so carried away that your readers canít see the softer, human side of your characters and your story. Tone it down. Write the first draft super-sassy and then go through and remove about eighty-percent of the sarcasm, jokes and snide remarks. Itís not going to kill you and it will bring the reader more deeply into the story. They will like your characters better--even without the smart or funny remarks.
Make me care about your character and her story. Then make me laugh. Donít reverse the order.
If your voice is sensual and evocative, donít overdo the adjectives and descriptions. A little goes a long, long way. Just like sassy writing, write what you want in the first draft and then go back and remove eighty percent of the adjectives and adverbs. One pair of ďrosy lips that tasted like ripe peachesĒ per book, please. And cut down the number of flashing emerald eyes, sapphire eyes, and onyx eyes, not to mention the heaving bosoms that look like ripe melons. Iíd set a limit of using one phrase like that per book, or less. Less fruit and rocks, more flesh. Grope all you want, but try to stick to actual human skin and muscle.
Try to give the reader a reason to care.
Thatís the challenge. Youíre not trying to prove you can come up with the most unique descriptions or have the most unique voice. Youíre not trying to write the most sensual words per paragraph. Youíre trying to get across a feeling or image to your reader to reveal something about your characters and their dilemma. If you must use an image, make sure itís the right image and fits. Get others to tell you what it brings to their mind. It may shock and sadden you (and indicate how truly perverse your mind really is).
Donít let your style overshadow the truth you are conveying to your reader.
Read Outside the Genre
Itís not so hard. Itís important. Read outside the genre in which you are writing. Take notes of how authors reveal characters. How they describe things. Read the classics. If youíre a woman, read some fiction by men. If youíre a man, read some fiction by women. Take note of the differences. Think about technique, style and what writing is the most evocative for you.
Join a Critique Group
Join a critique group that is at your level or higher. If you can get into one with a published author, so much the better. But, donít accept critiques that are: ďPut a comma here.Ē Youíre past that, or should be. You need: ďyour hero is inconsistent or unlikable in this chapter, or youíre constantly repeating this same information.Ē
When you do critiques, use a contest judging form if you have a tendency to focus only on grammar.
There are plenty of contests that post their judging forms on the web. Ask permission to use the form, or make up your own form based on one of these. They will make you focus on how the story is working and whether your characters come to life, instead of punctuation. Buy a book for grammar.
Let It Rest and Enter Contests
You need fresh eyes and harsh critiques for the final editing.
Donít do all your edits back-to-back. Complete your first draft and go through it once. Then polish the first three chapters and send it to contests. Put it aside and work on something else while you wait for the results. When you get the comments back, read them and then put them away. After at least another month, go back, print your manuscript out and read it through with totally fresh eyes and with the contest comments in the back of your mind. Try to see it as a novel you just purchased. Does it seduce you into reading more, or are you bored after the first paragraph?
Are the characters real or perfect pieces of cardboard?
Really look at the contest criticisms. It only hurts the first time.
Are the contest judges who gave you low scores really just spiteful, hateful people, or is there an ion of truth in their comments?
Once youíve given it a rest and thought about all the various reactions to your manuscript, you can do more meaningful revisions.
You will learn more from judging contests than almost anything else.
This only works, however, if you make one rule. You canít take points off an entry if you canít precisely explain to the contestant where the fault lies. If the story just doesnít grab you, figure out why and then you can knock points off and explain it on the evaluation form. This will force you to understand and articulate what works and what does not. The recipient will learn, and you will learn.
This is how almost all of my epiphanies have been triggered. I never understood how humor alienated the reader until I read someoneís entry. It was beautifully written, smart, funny, and completely didnít grab me. Why? Then I realized what was missing. The heroine had no soul. Or at least none that the writer revealed to me. In addition, several scenes were set up explicitly to invoke a humorous reaction and while it was funny, it left me with a distaste for the characters. It became a parody, which I donít believe the writer intended (it was in a Chick Lit category).
Almost all of this rambling dissertation is concerned with one overriding factor: too much of any element can make your manuscript fail to catch an editorís eye. Too much voice is probably the most difficult concept, but it is really at the core of each of the problems discussed above. A voice that is too sassy, sarcastic and humorous. A voice that is too sensual. A voice that is too...much. Everyone tells you to develop your own style, but the problem is, they donít complete that statement. Develop your own voice, but not to the point of excess.
Donít let your voice kill your characterís story.
Books by Amy Corwin