Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Band-Aids

For those of you who have experienced the querying process, you more than likely have also experienced rejection. For writers, this is all part of the game. It's even expected. But some rejections sting more than others. They aren't the ones in which the characters aren't developed, the plot isn't there, or the genre is one agents just don't represent. The ones that really hurt are the other ones. The ones who have the characters, have the story, and even have the writing ability, but for whatever reason, it's just not coming together.

When this happens, two things take place:
1) Agents cry. We can't figure out what's wrong; We only know something isn't working, and for this we grieve for what might have been.
2) Writers cry. The rejection letter is basically saying, "I love you, but let's see other people." It's the break up that never gets any closure.

How can this be avoided, you ask? As with most things in life, it's the little things that can sometimes make the biggest difference. The last thing you want to happen is have an agent on the fence about your novel, only to have them decide that the writing isn't strong enough to hold their interest. A lot of times this can happen simply because the agent doesn't have time to devote to something she's not 100% positive about.

The thing is, there is no way to know how an agent will react to your writing, which is why before you begin querying, your novel should be exactly where you want it to be. Agents will always have their own ideas about how to fix plot holes or amp up certain scenes. What's harder to do is try to fix a person's writing style, so most times we won't try. That's why in addition to having the story you want, you should make sure your writing is the strongest it can be.

Good news! You can do this without having to edit a thing. I call this the Band-Aid approach to editing. No heavy lifting, no major plot shifts or added content. Just old-fashioned quick fixes that could make or break an on-the-fence agent's opinion of your writing, especially if the agent you are querying is not known to be editorially hands-on.

Top 5 Band-Aids to Apply Before Querying:

1. Conjunction Injunction.
You know that scene in Dude, Where's My Car? (you know you have) where Ashton Kutcher is at the drive-thru and the woman keeps asking, "And then???" Finally Ashton screams, "No 'and then!'"  This is how I feel when I read too many sentences in a row that begin with conjunctions. Grammar aside, it turns the narrative into the kind droning "and then this happened and then this happened" story your four-year-old would tell you.

Sometimes standalone sentences that begin with "And" can be used for emphasis. And that's OK. Other sentences, however, can end up sounding like a mere continuation of the previous sentence, making them sound weaker in comparison. Keep your voice strong, whether in narration or dialogue. Each sentence matters, and if too many of them become weak, they can start to reflect on your novel as a whole.

2. Avoid Entering the Department of Redundancy Department.
In the darkened room, a single light bulb flickered. He stood in front of me, facing me. I looked at him with my eyes, my heart beating in my chest.

For some reason, many writers think that writing this way builds suspense or adds depth to a scene. It doesn't. All three of these sentences have repeated themselves, and your reader is savvy enough to figure that out. Instead take the above scene and remove the fluff.

A single light bulb flickered in the room. We looked each other in the eyes, and my heart pounded.

With these changes, we still know it's dark in the room because there's only one light bulb, and it seems to be dying. We also know that the main character and the man in the room are facing each other because they're looking at each other in the eyes, not with their eyes. How else do you look at people? Likewise, where else would a person's heart beat? (Other than beneath floorboards, I guess... but let's try not to copy Poe.)

3. Don't Always Think Before You Speak.
To paraphrase my former colleague, Nathan Bransford (in the form of a tweet), have your characters say anything except for what they are thinking.

In this other form of redundancy, writers end up repeating exact lines simply by making their characters think one thing and then say it out loud. We all love characters who say exactly what's on their mind, but unless the character tells us she's thinking one thing and then says the opposite, let's assume that whatever she says is what she means. Even if later in the novel we learn she was lying, at least we'll have been spared repetition.

4. Always Remember to Never Remember.
When a writer, particular when speaking in the past tense, wants to emphasize something, sometimes the narrator will begin a sentence with "I remember" or "I always." Lesser offenses begin with "I think." These modifiers are (almost always) surefire ways of turning showing sentences into telling sentences, thus making them weak for no reason.

When a narrator feels the need to say "I remember" in one sentence and not another, does that mean the rest of the story is based on speculation? Do we have reason to believe the story being presented to us is something the narrator doesn't remember happening? It's already obvious the narrator remembers what they are telling you just based on the fact they are telling you.

In all this remembering, sometimes a narrator will go deeper into the past and reveal that they "always" used to do something. Saying they've always done something doesn't actually tell the reader anything. We just have to take the character at their word. If you show the character doing something, then we'll believe them, and we'll believe that they remember doing it.

5. Pass Writing 101.
I hate that I'm about to give the "avoid the passive voice" rule because you all have heard it a million times. Sometimes, the passive voice is useful. In mysteries, for example, "A doorbell rang" is a perfectly acceptable sentence. Who rang it? The killer??? We don't know. And we shouldn't know - yet.

In other circumstances, however, the passive voice just makes for lazy writing. Give your characters a purpose, have them act, and don't leave situations up to chance. What you might perceive as being intentionally cagey could read as a lack of confidence in your own writing.

Please remember that these five Band-Aids are just that. They aren't meant to heal deep wounds or stop excessive bleeding. If an agent doesn't love your story, then Band-Aids won't help you. You'll either need to majorly revise or accept your fate and try someone else. Band-Aids are to ensure your writing is as strong as your story, and to avoid turning silly mistakes into a make-or-break situation. That way, if you get a rejection saying "this isn't for me," you can simply move on to the next one without worrying whether it was because of that misplaced comma.

25 comments:

  1. i think the tip that will help my manuscript the most is the "i remember" portion.
    thanks!

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  2. These are some really good tips! Just reading through them, I can see a few ways I can make my writing better. Thanks!

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  3. This is great. I need this right now, actually! Thanks, Sarah! :)

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  4. This advice is great! I'll definitely be passing this link around.

    Thanks!

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  5. Good advice! Thanks for the post! :)

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  6. Hi Sarah,

    Great post. Lot's of good ideas, but I have a question about the passive 101.

    To me, "A doorbell rang" is active - doorbell being subject and rang being verb.

    I understand that "A doorbell was rung [by the killer]" is passive.

    But anyway . . . a little confusing for me.
    (and now I realize my last sentence started with a conjunction - )

    A little confusing for me.

    thanks

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  7. Your first point reminded me of David Foster Wallace starting sentences with "And but so..." in Infinite Jest. Of course, he used it stylistically, and but so I guess it's all right.

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  8. I'm going to bookmark this post and reread it every day. (Number 5 is my biggest weakness ever.)

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  9. Thanks everyone!

    @Scott - Agree. I meant that more in terms of being vague and unclear about who was doing the action. The more classic example would be "mistakes were made."

    @Barkalounger - David Foster Wallace is always the exception to any rule.

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  10. Great post!! Thanks for sharing!!

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  11. Really great tips. Thanks for taking the time to share!

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  12. Oooh... some of those I recognize in my draft. Thanks for giving me these to look out for!

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  13. Great tips as I take a red pen to my WIP :)

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  14. Great tips ...

    **must not watch 'Dude where's my car?' Must not watch 'Dude where's ...**

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  15. Thanks so much for posting this. I'm in the middle of editing, and editing, and editing, as you do. So this is very timely.

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  16. Great tips for minor medical attention to a narrative. Often I found myself tearing through revisions and edits using these band-aids. Great examples.

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  17. Excellent points. The example in #5 is in the active voice though. If it were in the passive (the doorbell was rung), it would sound clunky whether the story was a mystery, a thriller or a non-fiction piece.

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  18. @Chris - See comment above to Scott :) (Yikes, make one tiny mistake on this blog... I should know better than to try to get away w/ something w/ a bunch of writers!)

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  19. thanks for this post. everyday i try and learn more about writing and posts like this help out a lot. keep up the good work.

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  20. Hi all, this one is making quite a stir...

    http://novel-theservant.blogspot.com

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  21. Thank you so much. Great information. This will really be helpful for sure.

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  22. Thank you for this. 'I remember' is one of my pet problems :)

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  23. "Ring" in "the doorbell rang" is actually, technically, ergative!
    (In linguistics, an ergative verb is a verb that can be either transitive or intransitive, and whose subject when intransitive corresponds to its direct object when transitive.)

    And it's true, the "remember" advice is particularly helpful.

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  24. Thanks! I believe I have some editing to do.

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  25. Nice list of tips. Thank you, Sarah!

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