Tuesday, December 1, 2009

A grumpy editor’s advice to beginner writers

If there’s one question I dread, when people hear that I’m a) an author or b) a fiction editor, it’s “Can you read my/my sister’s/my cousin’s novel?” This is happening with greater regularity, the longer I’m in the industry. And, more often than not, it’s very difficult for me to be diplomatic when faced with utter dreck. Because, believe me, the majority of the people whose manuscripts I see are nowhere near ready for publication. Sometimes it’s very difficult to control a fit of sporking.

So, you’ve watched Twilight and now you’re going to write a killer vampire novel. You’ve never hefted a pen or tapped at a keyboard since high school or college but you’ve got this story. You’ve just got to write it. You’re going to be the next (insert name of she whose name we will not mention) and you’re going to score a six-digit deal with a big publisher.


Wrong. (Insert sound of editor’s head smacking her desk.)

Most writers whose novels land on my “please will you read this” pile happen when said individual, carried away by their own enthusiasm, whacks out those words with little thought about plot or characterisation. The resultant mess would achieve instant rejection from any slush reader, editor or agent who’d be offered the manuscript. And people wonder why they can’t get published. Then they usually run off to lulu.com or waste money on some sort of self-publishing deal. This is one of the reasons why that sector of the industry gets such a bad reputation when it comes to the quality of some of the titles unleashed upon unsuspecting readers.

Before you utterly ruin all chances for your novel making it to print or ebook format with a realy publisher, here are a few tips to help you get started.

Mary Sues or Marty Stus: Do yourself a favour. Google is your friend. Go find out exactly what a Mary Sue is. Then make sure your main character isn’t one. Only George RR Martin can get away with platinum hair and violet eyes. Previously unpublished writers get snickered at behind their backs by editors who’ve Seen Everything (capitalisation intended). When you create your character, do not make them all-powerful. Give them flaws. Don’t let them succeed the first time. Keep them real.

Where are you going with this? Some authors do, and some don’t know where the story is headed, but I generally advise writers to plot their novel before they start putting down the words. I’ve found the Snowflake Method to be very useful. You needn’t follow it slavishly, but it will be a good start. In fact, if you type “how to plot a novel” into Google’s search field, you’ll come up with dozens of good references online.

I’ll say it again: Google is your friend.

Another good friend is the absolutewrite.com forums page. I suggest spending at least a month participating there before you even begin plotting your novel. Talk to other writers. Learn from other people’s mistakes, but remember that every published author’s story will differ from another’s. Then, I’d also suggest joining an online critique group. The one that I’ve found to be the most useful is The Critters Workshop (www.critique.org). The only way you’re going to learn about the dos and don’ts of writing is if you see what sort of mistakes other writers make.

Another rule I keep yelling is: show don’t tell. Make your readers see, taste, touch, feel and hear your world. Don’t just tell them there’s a house on the hill. Show us that the house needs a coat of paint, its roof has caved in and the ivy is choking the windows. That’s already saying a lot more about that house than: “The broken-down house stood on the hill”.

Writing a good novel is not something you can learn to do at university. A good tertiary education in English literature is no guarantee that you’ll be able to sell your first novel, although you will (it can be hoped) walk away with better grammar skills than your average Joe. Learning to write a good novel requires years of practising your craft. You’ll also need a thick skin, because you’re going to need constructive criticism in order to improve your stories.

Trust me. No author is so good and perfect that they can do without a good editor.

Nope. Not even Stephen King.


Lea Schizas - Author/Editor said...

Loved your post and now following.

I've smacked my head against my desk many times.

Although the Snow Flake method works for many, there are those, like me, who have an idea what the story is about, where it's headed, and who the characters are and allow these characters to move the storyline forward. Yes, it may take a bit longer than pre-plotting but I've tried it and it always stagnates my work for some reason.

As for writing vampire novels, writers have to remember that fads come and go and not to write something that's popular now because by the time the book is written, edited, submitted, contracted, you are looking at a couple of years for sure and who knows what publishers will be seeking at that point.

The best advice I've given to writers is simply write a damn good book, something different, new twist to an old and used theme, and stop worrying about the fads now.

Nerine Dorman said...

I totally agree about writing a damn good book, to put together the kind of story you'd enjoy reading.

As for vamps, I will take on these projects but... and big BUT... I tell these authors that I want to see vamps doing something a little different than just battling werewolves or falling in love.

Anonymous said...

Great post, Nerine!
Hi, Lea! Nice to see you here!
Welcome to Frightening Journeys!

Bethany Cagle

Sandra Sookoo said...

Awesome post :-) Guess it's time to start fighting them off with a stick. LOL

Annarkie said...

Haven't before heard of the "Snowflake" method. I'll have to check it out.
And writers must not forget Strunk and White's Elements of Style. That book is one of THE writing Bibles.
Great post. And I agree. I have learned so much through Google and networking with fellow writers. Not only is it educational, but it is fun and inspiring. There is so much knowledge out there. All one has to do is reach for it.

C. D. Yates/Cynthia Brayden-Thomas said...

Yeh! As I wrote in my blog, correct spelling helps, too. Reading things like, "She had to flea" only makes grumpy editors giggle and go on to the next submission.

Great post!

C.J. Ellisson said...

Great post! Since I'm dealing with submissions to agents and editors alike right now it strikes a chord with me.

Last month I had a smaller print-publishing house approach me for a partial on my query and while the editor liked my voice she had a few suggestions about improving my PRESENT tense piece:

1) to add 'ed' to my verbs and it would still be present tense. Oh - and it would flow better.

*she admitted she did not read much done in first person but believed this would still keep it in the present tense style like she sees in so many popular urban fantasies today.

Imagine my shock.

2) could I please use quotation marks around the italics in the mental telepathy I used between the two main characters?

Um... okay. I asked if this was a new industry standard because all the first person PAST tense UF I read has telepathy done in italics only - no quotes as well. And trust me - a read a boat load in this genre.

She told me it was a matter of preference. I politely thanked her for her time and said that I would consider doing the changes but it would take me several months and to not expect it anytime soon.

I was trying to leave a back door open if I couldn't get any other interest, but frankly I think I was selling myself short. I need an agent who can get my work in front of a qualified editor.

I know a good editor will be able to improve my book and really make it sing. But I've spent so long on crit sites, crit groups, workshops and reading a ton of writers like you're describing in your post that I'm not willing to settle for an editor that doesn't read first person and doesn't really 'get it'.

Maybe I'll change my tune in six months when I'm desperate, but right now, nope, I'll stick to my guns on wanting an editor who's much smarter than me.

Don't worry, I won't ask you to read my piece. My momma raised me better than that ;-)