Fiction Writing Tips 31–40
Welcome to the fourth page of Fiction Writing Tips. Here you will find tips 31 through 40.
To return to the tips index, click here.
Tip #31: BeatsA beat is a segment of narration that tells the reader what's happening in a scene, gives her a good fix on the setting, and helps you manage the perceived passage of time in your story.
The term beat comes from play scripts and screenplays, and perhaps from music before that. In scripts, when the playwright wrote "a beat" it meant that he wanted the actor to pause a moment before speaking the next line.
It usually went along with a significant revelation in the script or some other moment when the character should either hesitate before speaking or take a moment to absorb the impact of something that has just happened.
A beat meant a pause, a moment of silence, in the middle of a dialogue scene.
So it is with beats in fiction.
There are times in your scenes when you need a character to pause a moment before going on to the next thing. Maybe Sueanne has just announced to her boyfriend that she's pregnant. She's dropped the bomb on him and you want to show him reeling from the impact.
First I'll show the moment without a beat:
"Bobby Lee, I need you to come here a minute."
"Not now, Sueanne, the boys're waitin'."
"No, sweet thing, I need you to come here right now. I got something I need to tell you."
"What is it?"
"Are you serious?"
"Yes, I'm serious."
"What are you going to do about it?"
"What do you mean what am I going to do? I'm going to have your baby."
"No, you ain't."
"You can't mean..."
I know, you're riveted by my powers of dialogue. However, did you sense how rushed the scene feels? When she drops the p-bomb on him it seems like he's got his reply already on his lips as if he was expecting her to say this.
Dialogue scenes without beats are like old Frank Capra movies in which the hero and heroine have a rapid-fire banter that comes so quickly it seems they're not listening to one another, that they had their next lines prepared and ready before the other person even spoke. It worked for dear Frank, but it won't work for your story.
Now, you as the author may have imagined Bobby having this tremendous pause when he hears the news. You may've seen him widen his eyes, do a double take, clutch his heart, and sit down. But none of that is there for the reader to see. As far as the reader sees, he moves without pause or even slowing down to his next line of dialogue.
As they say in theatre (note the snobby French spelling), "If it ain't on the page, it ain't on the stage.
Here is the scene again with a few rudimentary beats:
Sueanne tapped the cushion beside her. "Bobby Lee, I need you to come here a minute."
"Not now, Sueanne," Bobby said, settling his cap just right in the mirror, "the boys're waitin'."
"No, sweet thing, I need you to come here right now." She swallowed carefully. "I got something I need to tell you."
"What is it?"
Here it was, her moment. She made her voice as sweet as she could. "I'm pregnant."
The change that came across Bobby's face was so dramatic it would've been funny on any other day. His sneer disappeared and his face went slack. His eyes widened and his mouth dropped open. "Are you serious?"
"Yes, I'm serious."
He blinked at her twice. Then he seemed to recover his senses. He stood up straight and the sneer returned. Once again she was no more than a thing to him. "What are you going to do about it?"
"What do you mean what am I going to do? I'm going to have your baby."
"No, you ain't."
She knew it. Momma had been right. "You can't mean..."
See the difference? Okay, maybe I overcompensated and put a few too many beats in there, but wanted you to be able to feel the difference.
Let's look at the three main things these beats added to our scene: character actions, tie-downs to the setting, and management of perceived time.
Beats Tell Us Characters' Actions
In the first version, all we had were the characters' spoken words. They might've been interesting, but it's an incomplete picture. It's no picture at all, actually. What, are we doing radio now? No.
I added those beats to describe what was happening in the scene. From beats we learned that Sueanne was sitting and Bobby was standing. We learned what Bobby's face did when he heard the news. We got more of a picture of what was happening in the scene.
Did we stop the scene and give a three-paragraph description of the setting? No. We didn't stop the scene at all. The beats flowed right along with the action of the scene. (In fact, as we'll see below, they actually created the flow of the scene.)
When you don't include descriptions of what the characters are doing, your reader loses track of what's going on and can find it difficult to understand the nuances of meaning your characters are displaying.
It's like the difference between an e-mail and a phone call, and between a phone call and an in-person conversation. The more ability you have to read the other person's tone of voice, body language, and expression, the more likely you are to correctly understand what he's saying. That's what beats do for you in fiction.
Beats Tie the Reader into the Setting
In the first version of our scene we had no clue where these two characters were. Were they in a car? Were they inside or outside? Were they alone or in a crowd? Was it day or night? What was the weather like? Where were the characters in relation to one another?
Now, the second version didn't answer all of those questions, but it did give you a better feel for where they were, right? They were in a house, apparently alone (at least in this room), and Sueanne was sitting while Bobby was standing by the mirror.
You can picture that, can't you? At least you have a better picture of the "stage" now than you did with the original version.
Without beats that refer to the environment, a conversation becomes nothing but talking heads. It might as well be radio—but at least in radio they use sound effects to clue you in.
Dialogues are like helium balloons. They have a tendency to become detached from the world and float away into the heavens, coming finally to reside in some foggy nebula. And that's no fun to read (unless you're writing about foggy nebulae, that is).
Like a hot air balloon, conversations need tie-downs to the setting or they will float away. Every fifth line of dialogue or so you'd better be giving us a note about how the characters are relating to the environment (standing, eating, changing the radio station, etc.) or your reader will lose track of what's going on.
Again, you may be envisioning all these interactions with the setting beautifully in your head. But unless you write them into the manuscript, the reader will not see them.
Beats Manage the Pacing of Your Scene
This use of beats is the closest to the original, theatrical meaning of the word. But it goes beyond pauses.
In videotape editing the editor sits in front of a console that has one or more knobs that give him extremely fine control over the playback of the video being edited. Regular speed, slow speed, fast-forward, fast-rewind, slow rewind, etc., are all at his command. He needs this kind of control to be able to do his detailed work.
Beats—their presence or absence, and their length, long or short—are the playback knobs of your story.
If you want a moment in your story to go by quickly, you can do that with beats. If you want there to be a massive pause followed by a shocking change, you can do that with beats. Whatever speed you want this particular moment in this particular scene to go, you manage that with beats.
Here's the rule: the longer the beat, the longer the pause. More text in a beat = more time elapsed in silence.
Back in our scene, we had some shorter beats earlier on. Like Sueanne patting the cushion or taking her deep breath before dropping her news. These would've been hardly perceptible pauses in real life. But when Bobby hears the news, the paragraph beat is much longer. This implies a longer pause. A much longer pause. It gives him time to process and react and try to find his words.
Without it, it would've seemed like the first version, like he either didn't really hear her or he already knew about it. Either way, it would've seemed like he hadn't taken any time to absorb and process. Which is not what you want here.
Do you see what the beats did? They managed the pacing of the scene. I was like a film editor inserting or removing pauses in order to make the scene flow at exactly the rhythm I wanted. That's what beats do for you in fiction.
One more note. Did you see what the effect was when I put a beat here:
"No, sweet thing, I need you to come here right now." She swallowed carefully. "I got something I need to tell you."
The effect of "She swallowed carefully" was to insert a slight pause, a tiny hesitation between the lines of dialogue. It also showed that she was nervous about saying it. Even on a small scale like this, beats help you manage the pacing and rhythm of your moments.
Beats in Action Scenes
As I mentioned above, the longer your beat the slower the moment. A long paragraph slows the eye down and causes it to linger. It takes the reader longer to physically get through the paragraph. This implies a longer pause in story time. The shorter the paragraph, the more brisk that moment feels to the reader.
You should use this awareness to your advantage when writing action scenes. As you get closer and closer to the climactic moment, use shorter and shorter paragraphs. Long paragraphs = lazy summer afternoons. Short paragraphs = urgency and quickness.
When things get fast and furious in your scene, start breaking things down into shorter and shorter paragraphs. On a subconscious level it will feel to your reader that things are beginning to hurtle downhill. She won't understand why but suddenly things are going crazy fast. She'll be whipping the pages aside and feeling breathless. At the end of the scene she'll feel, well, beat.
This is because the shorter paragraphs made the pages go by faster. The eye moved more quickly through small, easily digestible paragraphs and fairly consumed page after page.
The power of beats.
Conversely, if you want something to feel leisurely and relaxed (like when you're setting the reader up to be surprised when the alien drool monster bursts through the wall and eats the hero's best friend), give lots of longer paragraphs and longer sentences. (But not longer than 8 lines of course. See Tip #9.)
Take hold of beats. They are among the most useful and powerful tools you have at your disposal. Use them as a master craftsman and your reader will arise and call you blessed.
Tip #32: Create Interesting CharactersSounds obvious, right? What would fiction be without interesting people carrying out the actions of the story? So of course you'll create interesting, memorable, fully realized characters.
Easier said than done, my friend.
Now, perhaps you're one of the 50% of novelists out there who comes up with fascinating characters with the greatest of ease. If that's you, wonderful! You may skip on to another tip. Like maybe one about plot so you can find something interesting for these fascinating characters to actually do. 0:-)
But if you're in the other 50%, if you're one of those novelists (like me) who can come up with extremely cool plot ideas all day long but, if you were to admit it, create characters who are pretty uninteresting, then you need to keep reading.
If that's you, you're what I call a plot-first novelist. Characters are secondary to you. You don't even really care about most of them—like the girl who needs to be by the truck when it blows up so the hero will get angry and go back in, guns a-blazin', and do more interesting plot things.
Aha! Gotcha, didn't I?
Plot-first novelists, if they are not working hard to do otherwise, always come up with flat, two-dimensional, stereotypical, cardboard cutout characters.
I see this all the time in the fiction I work with. Shallow, undifferentiated characters are the third in the top three things that will always sink someone's fiction. (Telling instead of showing and POV errors being the other two.)
In a plot-first novelist's book, the characters almost always sound the same, act the same, and seem the same. Oh, they have different attitudes or goals, but it's more like the same person just being mad or jealous or conniving or whatever. Like Clone Troopers with different colored helmets. And not only do they all tend to sound the same, they all tend to sound like the author. Oopth.
They also tend to do things their character wouldn't do. Why? Because the author isn't as interested in who these people are as in what he wants to have happen. So he or she causes these people to violate their own (poorly realized) personalities in order to be there when the truck blows up.
For all my affection for Michael Crichton, his The Lost World offers the "best" example of what I'm talking about. He's got a scientist/naturalist character who goes on and on in the book about preserving the pristine environment of the dinosaurs. But we're not supposed to like him.
At a certain point in the story this champion of not messing with nature's fragile balance tears off a candy wrapper and throws it on the forest floor. Why? Would this character ever do this in a million years? No! But the author wanted the veloceraptors to connect the smell of the candy wrapper with the naturalist and then eat him for lunch.
That's called "character serving plot," and it's a travesty. It will surely sink your chances of getting published. Or it should, at least.
I know it's hard for the plot-first novelist to believe, but creating fully fleshed-out characters is at least as important as writing the big action scene with the exploding mutant lemmings. Honest. You're going to do the work to write that scene, right? Then do the work to create solid characters, too.
What's a Guy To Do?Okay, so I've convinced you of the importance of creating realistic, three-dimensional characters for your fiction, yes?
But now maybe you don't know what to do.
Never fear! Of course I have some suggestions for you. First, you should check out some books on creating good characters for fiction. I have a number of them on my shelf. In fact, I probably have more books on how to create characters than I do on any other subtopic in the field of writing fiction. Just go to the bookstore and flip through a few until you find one that seems to make sense for you.
You can also do what I do. Literally.
I know that if I'm not careful I, too, will write really lame characters. It's what comes naturally to me. But I don't want to do that. So I have, over the years of reading (and sometimes rejecting) books on how to create good characters, and through much trial and error, honed a system that forces me (er, helps me) to create fully considered, interesting, and different-from-one-another characters. It's a ton of work and you have to do it for each major character, but it's always, always worth it.
When I realized how well the system worked, it occurred to me that it might help other plot-first novelists come up with good characters, too. So now I offer it for sale.
It's called Character Creation for the Plot-First Novelist, and you can read all about it here.
If you're convinced that you need interesting characters in your fiction, that you probably need some help getting them, and that you don't mind putting in sweat equity to get them, Character Creation for the Plot-First Novelist may be for you.
Whatever you decide to do, just be sure you do something to make your characters different in essence and not just in attitude.
Combine those amazing plot ideas with full-fledged story people and you're going to have a product that agents and acquisitions editors will be hard-pressed to say no to.
Tip #33: Avoid Mistakes in Your Presentation
At certain Christian Writers Conferences I teach a class called something like, "Three Mistakes that Sink Fiction." In that workshop I actually give 21 mistakes to avoid, but I concentrate on three related to craft: telling instead of showing (see Tip #29), POV errors (Tip #30), and shallow characters (Tip #32).
The other mistakes are divided between these categories: things that will sink your proposal before the editor even reads your synopsis or chapters, things that will sink your proposal when the editor reads your synopsis, and things that will sink your proposal when the editor reads your chapters (craft issues).
I thought it would be useful to cover each of these in this column. For this tip I'm going to briefly cover the things that will sink your proposal's chances before an editor or agent even reads your synopsis or sample chapters.
(If you'd like to purchase a CD audio recording of my lecture in that workshop, contact the Colorado Christian Writers Conference.)
Things that Will Sink Your Proposal Before the Editor Reads Your Synopsis or Sample Chapters
I worked for many years as an acquisitions editor. That's the person at a publishing company who reads through the stack of proposals from agents and authors and decides what to recommend for publication and what to reject.
Over that time I've found some common errors authors make that will get their proposals rejected within thirty seconds. That's right: all your hard work but if you do these things an editor won't spend even a minute on it. So please take heed. Some of these may sound obvious, but I've seen them time and again.
First, be sure you don't submit fiction to a publisher who doesn't publish fiction or who doesn't publish the kind of fiction your novel is. If you want to send your murder mystery proposal to a publisher who specializes in gift books for grads, you're going to get an automatic rejection. Likewise, if a house specializes in prairie romances don't send them the proposal for your goth vampire horror novel.
Second, speaking of vampires and other no-touchy topics in Christian publishing, don't submit proposals about taboo topics. This includes vampires, werewolves, pornography, and homosexuality. Short and strange list, eh? The list of completely verboten topics is shrinking, thankfully, and (mark my words) I predict that within the next three years we will have the first vampire novel published by a major Christian publishing house. But for now and for the most part, forbidden topics will get you a quick rejection.
Third, don't submit fiction in genres that don't sell well in the Christian marketplace or that this publisher is not doing now. You can get insight into this topic by reading Tips 16-18, but here's the gist: avoid anything that is not a romance, chick-lit, female-oriented historical/biblical, women's/contemporary fiction, or female-oriented thriller. As soon as you write "men's fiction" or "speculative fiction" or "literary fiction," you're dead. Quick dead.
Now, there are some exceptions to these rules and hopefully the list of acceptable genres is enlarging, but this is true most of the time at most CBA publishers for most authors.
Fourth, don't say you're writing for an audience that Christian publishers don't usually reach. If you want to write to non-Christians, that's wonderful, but CBA publishers don't do a good job of reaching them. (Christian books in Wal-Mart, etc., do not truly cross over; they're just selling to Christians who want a cheaper price.) If your book is designed to reach men or people of color or hip youth, fuhgedaboudit. See Tip #16.
Fifth, be sure you do not submit a proposal that has a sloppy and unprofessional presentation. Notebook paper with frayed spiral tear-outs? Come on. Pages printed with a dying printer cartridge? Why not just write "Please reject me" across the first page? Sloppiness won't necessarily get your proposal rejected automatically, but it does amount to one or two strikes against you. Why handicap yourself? For tips on professional proposals read this and for instructions about formatting read Tip #2.
Sixth, avoid egregious spelling and grammatical errors in your proposal. How do you expect editors to believe you can tell a great story when you can't even write a correct sentence? If this is a weakness for you, start learning and improving. In the interim, at least have someone else proof-read your proposal and sample chapters before sending them out. Editors are not wrong to expect writers to know basic English.
Seventh, don't approach publishers until you've completed your rough draft. If editors and agents could reasonably think of you as a first-time novelist (i.e., you haven't published any full-length novels in the Christian marketplace through regular (not vanity press) publishers), approaching them without a completed manuscript will get you an instant rejection.
I explain the reason in full here, but the short version is that until you finish the ms. a publisher does not not know whether you can or will finish it and finish it well. No one would buy a house from a first-time builder based only on a nice sidewalk and a brief summary of what the rest of the house will look like.
Eighth, don't try to sell something that is too short or too long. Short stories and novellas—anything less than 50,000 words, actually— are going to get you a quick rejection. Likewise, your epic fantasy that will span seven books and be 700,000 words long will get you the old pointing and laughing treatment. Novels in CBA are currently running in the 60,000 to 110,000-word range, with the sweet spot being around 80,000 words.
Your epic fantasy is doubly dead. Not only does fantasy not sell well in CBA, one that is basically a single tale told over several books (like Lord of the Rings ), and especially one in which volume 1 does not stand on its own as a complete story, is sure to get a fast rejection.
Ninth (and last), avoid agenda-driven fiction. What's that, you ask? Agenda-driven fiction is what you write when what you really want to do is tell someone off and/or warn people about the sinful dangers of something. Agenda-driven fiction is all about getting a teaching point across. Usually a bony-finger-wagging point.
Editors can spot this right away, usually because authors who write agenda-driven fiction tend to advertise it on page one of the proposal. "I wrote Smoking Joe Is Dead to warn youngsters about the dangers of smoking tobacco" or "They're Coming To Harvest Your Organs! is a cautionary tale designed to warn people about the dangers of genetic engineering." Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, agenda-driven fiction is sub-par fiction written more to be a blunt instrument than a work of art. Instant rejection.
Does this mean you can't have a message or theme in your fiction? Of course not! You should have something you're trying to say. It's usually found in the hero's inner journey (see Tip #3). Just let your message be the caboose, not the locamotive. Write a story to explore something about the human condition or the Christian life, not to package a sermon in a delicious chocolate coating.
There you go, my friend: nine mistakes you can now safely avoid. Sidestep these and you can know that an editor or agent will at least proceed to your synopsis and, maybe, your sample chapters.
Tip #34: Avoid Mistakes with Your Synopsis
In Tip #33 I began a series detailing what errors you can and must avoid if you want agents and acquisitions editors to take your novel proposal seriously.
In that tip, I wrote about the errors that can kill your proposal's chances before the editor even gets to your synopsis, much less your sample chapters. This time we'll look at what pitfalls to avoid in the synopsis itself.
Believe it or not, acquisitions editors and agents can tell a lot about you as a writer from what they detect in your synopsis. How you've written it, what you've included, and what you've omitted affect how you and your proposal are perceived.
A great synopsis can set you up for success, while a poor synopsis can all but sink you—before the editor has even glanced at your chapters. So please take heed.
Note that some editors like to skip over the synopsis and go straight to the sample chapters. That doesn't diminish the importance of a good synopsis one iota—because if he or she likes your sample chapters he or she will always come back to the synopsis.
Synopsis Pitfall #1: It's Bad, Incomplete, or Too Long
Because I've already written a thorough article on how to write a good synopsis, for these main points I'm simply going to refer you there.
Please, please read it. I teach a full seminar on the content of that article and people walk away encouraged and equipped. Make that true about you, too.
Now I'll cover a few remaining issues.
Synopsis Pitfall #2: Missing Inner Journey
Editors are on the lookout for the shape of your story. That is expressed in its three-act structure and, most important, a description of your hero's inner journey (see Tip #3).
Your protagonist's character arc (crisis, turning point, etc.) ought to be very visible in the synopsis. Indeed, if that's missing, editors will wonder what your story is even about!
Synopsis Pitfall #3: Wrong Ending
This is closely related to pitfall #2 because it's another structure issue.
Sometimes the writer will go on and on about the importance of Captain Z getting off the planet in time, but then the ending is about little Jimmy having his dog put to sleep. The ending doesn't seem to belong with what went before.
I see this a lot, actually, and it always implies a problem with structure. The author has probably just flown by the seat of his pants as he wrote and he ended up someplace besides where he intended.
The synopsis is an X-ray showing quite clearly how the novel itself has become a pointless, meandering mess.
That's a red flag for acquisitions editors and agents, you can rest assured.
Some people are just awful synopsis writers. It's a fact of life. Now, this is a skill that can be taught, so if you couldn't summarize your story to save your life, don't despair!
Try the methods listed in the article about synopsis writing, be sure to include how the story ends, keep it to one page, and include good structure, and you'll be okay. You want the editor or agent to taste your great sample chapters, right? So get your synopsis right.
Tip #35: Avoid Mistakes in Your Sample Chapters, Part 1
In Tip #33 I began a series detailing what errors you can and must avoid if you want agents and acquisitions editors to take your novel proposal seriously. Tip #34 continued the series, and this tip and the next will conclude it.
Now you've avoided all the landmines that could've blown your chances with an acquisitions editor or agent, and he or she is reading your sample chapters. (For information on what elements go into a good proposal, read this.)
It's your sample chapters—your fiction itself—that, in the end, is really going to make your proposal sell or get rejected. Almost all the tips in this column are designed to help you with your fiction craftsmanship.
This tip and the next are focused on what editors and agents look at in the proposal and, since you'll send your opening chapters, they're heavy on how a novel should begin. Some of the pitfalls to avoid are things I've already covered, and I'll just refer you to the proper place to read about them, but some are new to the column.
Sample Chapters Pitfall #1: Weak First Line
I give a lot of attention to first lines. They are, to me, a very quick indicator of an author's skill level.
I can't tell you how many novels I've read that begin with someone pulling up in a car (usually in front of a house) or with a weather report. Yawn. Often they begin with telling: Jim had always been a shy boy...
Or else the first line will be trying to do too much at once: "Jim's long beard dripped with gravy from the state dinner with the Russian ambassador as he punched in the code to defuse the bomb planted there by the female Ukranian terrorist who was so beautiful it broke Jim's already trampled heart."
Let your first line be three things: simple, engaging, and appropriate to set the tone for the rest of the book. You get only one first line. It has the most impact of any sentence in your entire book. Don't fritter it away.
My best first lines:
Once he decided to kill himself, the rest was easy. (From Virtually Eliminated.)
Today I'm going to kill a man in cold blood. (From Operation: Firebrand.)
Do they pass the simple, engaging, and appropriate test? Yes. (It doesn't hurt to make your first line be about life and death, btw.)
Sample Chapters Pitfall #2: Lack of an Engaging Hook (a.k.a. Not Starting with Action)
This is similar to the previous pitfall but extends beyond the first line. You've got to hook me with your first line, true, but you've got to set the hook and then reel me in with the scene that follows.
When I say "start with action," I don't mean you have to blow something up. It doesn't have to be an action sequence, per se. It just needs to be something interesting to the reader. Engaging.
It should involve someone doing something. Making a decision or executing a plan or having a realization or committing a crime. The opening scene is a great time to establish your villain and the stakes of your story, and to get the ticking time-bomb going (see Tip #20).
Sample Chapters Pitfall #3: Telling Instead of Showing
Show vs. Tell is a basic element of good craftsmanship. Getting it wrong is a good way to get your proposal rejected lickedy split. Read Tip #29.
Sample Chapters Pitfall #4: POV Errors
Mastery of point of view (POV) is another foundational element of good fiction writing that, if absent, will get you rejected in a hurry. Read Tip #30.
Sample Chapters Pitfall #5: Shallow Characters
Shallow, unrealistic, undifferentiated characters will get your novel rejected post haste.
Read Tip #32 (on this page) and go here to see one means of getting the character help you may need.
Sample Chapters Pitfall #6: Lack of Good Beats
Beats are one of those places where you reveal your level of mastery in fiction, whether you know it or not. This is something subtle but powerful. Often the author's facility with beats is that ineffible something that causes editors to conclude that he or she is actually a craftsman worth acquiring.
Read Tip #31 on this page to learn about beats.
Next time I'll conclude this series, and then you'll be all set to see your proposal sail right through committees and straight to contract! (Well, we can hope.)
Tip #36: Avoid Mistakes in Your Sample Chapters, Part 2
In Tip #33 I began a series detailing what errors you can and must avoid if you want agents and acquisitions editors to take your novel proposal seriously. Tip #34 continued the series, and this tip and the previous one conclude it.
I've pulled all these together in kind of a greatest hits roundup of things to avoid. Read and heed these 4 tips and your proposal will be ahead of those from 99% of the unpublished Christian novelists out there.
Sample Chapters Pitfall #7: Low Stakes
This is something I could've mentioned in Tip #34 because it's often visible in the synopsis. But you need to treat it in the sample chapters, too.
You need to establish very early in your book what the OR-ELSE consequences will be if the hero doesn't succeed in his or her goal. If the stakes are absent, or simply lame, the reader won't care.
Absent stakes are when the author expects us to just read all about this interesting person who apparently doesn't want anything and is no danger of something unpleasant happening if s/he doesn't accomplish it. Low stakes are when the hero wants something but it's so mundane and boring that the reader just doesn't care.
Now, that's not to say that you always have to have your protagonist trying to save the universe. Stakes can feel high to the reader even if what the hero wants is something that might otherwise feel small to the reader but has become important to her because it's so vitally important to the protagonist.
Sample Chapters Pitfall #8: Low Suspense
Low suspense is pretty close to #7 but bears discussion on its own. If you establish a substantial OR-ELSE (or SO-WHAT) component in your story you're going to almost always solve this one automatically.
This is the presence or absense of the ticking time-bomb, which I discuss at length in Tip #20.
Sample Chapters Pitfall #9: Low Conflict
This one is also related to the previous two. Who or what stands opposed to what the protagonist wants?
Your hero, as the old adage goes, is only as strong as your antagonist. A wimply antagonist (or easily achievable goal) means that the protagonist didn't have to be very heroic to overcome him.
What's your hero up against? Make sure it's a serious opponent or obstacle or you won't have stakes, suspense, or conflict. Or, for that matter, an interested reader.
You find your conflict by figuring out what stands in the way of what your hero wants. And you find out what your hero wants by reading Tip #4.
Sample Chapters Pitfall #10: Going into a Flashback Too Early
As I have noted throughout this site, I pretty much despise flashbacks. I know they can be marvelous tools in the hands of a master storyteller, but there has been probably only one unpublished manuscript I've ever seen that used flashbacks well. All the others that used flashbacks (and we're talking hundreds of others) did so in a way in which the flashbacks were nothing but telling (and in Tip #29 you see how I feel about telling.)
If you must use a flashback, don't do it in the first 50 pages of your book. Please. The reader hasn't gotten grounded yet in this story and this timeframe before then, so she can't bear being yanked into another timeframe with, possibly, a whole new set of characters. It's too early.
And please don't have some horrible thing happen and then reveal that it was only a dream (or a flashback). Talk about your fiction cliches.
Why do you feel you must use a flashback? To explain something to the reader? If that's your reason, just say no. Explaining is telling, and...well, read Tip #29.
Whatever needs to come out about your story or main character can and should come out organically through the action of the tale you're telling right now. Consult the dumb puppet trick (Tip #21) for good ideas on how to do this without resorting to a flashback.
Sample Chapters Pitfall #11: Jumping to a New Viewpoint Character Too Early
In the same way that a reader can't bear jumping to a new timeline before she's grounded in your story, so she can't bear seeing through someone else's eyes too early in the story.
You need to stick with one viewpoint character and one storyline for at least the first 40-50 pages to give your reader time to get grounded and "affixed" into your primary story and main protogonist.
This is when you get her invested into the story. This is where you hook her to stick around for the whole book. Cut away too early and she'll spit out the hook and go on her way.
Authors often think that throwing in lots of variety early on, including a variety of viewpoints and storylines, will engage the reader. Unfortunately, doing so has the reverse effect. The reader doesn't know what's going on, whose story this is, or whom to pull for. It's disorienting.
Now, you can do a prologue from a viewpoint other than your protagonist's point of view. The reader can handle this because she understands that this prologue is something she'll need to know about later and she trusts you to fill her in about it later. It can work to build suspense and establish your ticking time-bomb, and it doesn't disorient the reader.
But once you get going in the main story with the main viewpoint character, don't break away for a good long time.
Sample Chapters Pitfall #12: Not Providing Adequate Descriptions
I'm of the school of thought that says you should describe your characters and, even more importantly, your settings, and that you should describe them well and early.
If I as an acquisitions editor got 2 or 3 pages into someone's sample chapters and I still had no idea where the action was taking place, how many people were there, what anyone looked like, whether it was day or night, or any of the rest of what you're supposed to cover in basic description, I would probably put the proposal away and start working on my rejection letter.
Description not included is a reader not thrust into your scene. And a reader not thrust in your scene is a disengaged reader, one who puts down your book and looks for something that will engage her.
I've covered descriptions in great detail in Tips 5-8.
Every Roundup Must End
Sounds like a Western, doesn't it? I just mean that this roundup of pitfalls to avoid is now at its end. [wipes tear]
I set out to give you 21 errors to avoid and ended up giving you 24. And all for the same low price!
May they grant you the springly legs of an antelope that you may hurdle over every obstacle and land in the middle of a big, fat publishing deal.
Tip #37: The Politically Correct "They"
I regularly see this error in the unpublished fiction manuscripts I see. In an effort to be gender-inclusive (or perhaps simply because the author doesn't know better) he or she will mix singular and plural subjects.
For example: "The reader will close their eyes and stop reading."
What's wrong with that sentence? Well, "the reader" is singular but "their" is plural. Does the reader have multiple pesonalities, then? In the middle of the sentence did he or she suddenly split into two or more individuals so that by the end of the sentence they all had to be referred to in the plural?
Maybe it's not a desire to be PC (gender neutral) that causes authors to mix singular with plural when referring to a singular subject. Maybe it's a desire to avoid the klunky "he or she" bit. Certainly this kind of construction is acceptable in verbal speech, so it makes sense that it would find its way into writing.
You need to either make the singular part plural or the plural part singular. Whichever you do, both parts must agree.
So our sentence could be corrected to this: "Readers will close their eyes and stop reading." See how "Readers" and "their" are now both plural? That works.
Or our sentence could be revised to read: "The reader will close his or her eyes and stop reading." This way changes both to singular, which also works because the parts now agree. It has the awkward "his or her" thing in it, though, so you might want to go plural with both.
The next time you realize you're writing yourself into a corner with this kind of sentence, remember to rephrase. Restructure the sentence so that the references to the subject are either all singular or all plural.
Or an editor may just make up their mind to reject your book. 0:-)
Tip #38: Should You Write What You Want or What the Market Wants?
I get this question a lot. Aspiring authors hear through the grapevine that Christian fiction publishers are sick of a certain genre (which usually happens to be the genre they're writing in) or are eager to buy mss. in some other genre (in which they'd never considered writing), and the angst begins.
[imagine the sound of Wallace's knuckle-waving whine from the famous Wallace and Gromit movies]
Should I ditch what I'm doing and write to what publishers are wanting right now? Should I go ahead and keep writing this novel that everyone now says no publisher will buy? What if I start writing in this new genre and by the time I get a novel finished they've changed what they want again?
My counsel is this: write what you want. Write what you have a passion to write, because no market savvy or thought of hitting the acquirer right when s/he wants a certain thing is going to propel you through the lonely marathon that is writing a novel. The only thing that can do that is a story you're passionate about writing, the story that must come out of you because it's burning a hole in your heart.
Now, lest I sound like a Pollyanna, let me hasten to say that if you do soldier on and write the novel of your heart, it doesn't mean you'll be able to sell it to a publisher. You may find yourself content but unpublished. (Which, as it turns out, is not that bad a thing.)
There really are market realities, you see. See Tips 16-18 for a dumptruck load of those realities as they pertain to publishing Christian fiction. Writing something that is contrary to those realities is a good way to remain unpublished.
But at least you'll have finished the book of your heart.
And it is true that the market changes. It drives me crazy when I hear that the editors at a publishing company are looking only for novels in genre X, and aspiring authors go nuts trying to jump through that hoop.
If you're thinking like this, I would urge you to consider that this desperation may not be of God. To me, changing yourself to try to fit the shifting demands of a fickle marketplace isn't right. Better to find out how God wants you to be and let the vagaries of "demand" cascade around you like chips falling where they may.
Now, if you happen to have a completed ms. in the genre that's supposedly hot, you're golden. Just have your agent send it to the acquisitions editor in question. It doesn't mean you'll be published, but you may find that your proposal arrives at the right place at the right time. Then you will be very glad you went ahead and persevered in writing that novel, even though back then no one was buying fiction in that genre.
But if you don't have a novel in that hot genre, don't drop what you're doing and start trying to write one. Unless it's one of the genres that the core CBA readership will always love (again, see Tips 16-18), you may find that the landscape has changed by the time you arrive with a finished ms. Then you'll be more disheartened than ever.
So, yes, write the story of your heart. Write what you love, what you have a passion to write. If your story is off the edge of the map [grin] you may find it more difficult to get a publisher interested. But your passion will come through onto the page and it's possible that the market will come around to you.
It's also possible that new publishing venues will open up, such as what I contemplate for Marcher Lord Press.
Trust that the story that has captured you is a story God would love to have you write, and then you'll be back to the very first tip of all: writing for an accepting audience of One (see Tip #1).
Tip #39: Avoid Fiction Clichés
You know those phrases you see in fiction all the time: "he spun on his heel and left," "the door was ajar," "the pungeunt odor," "a solitary tear rolled down her cheek," and "he was visibly shaken"?
There are many more; trust me.
If you've seen it enough that you recognize it, it's a fiction cliché. Strive to eliminate all clichés from your writing.
My theory as to why authors use these tired phrases is twofold. First, I think they may actually use them in real life. It takes discipline to detect and eliminate such things from your personal vocabulary. If you, like most of us, are still on the journey to that destination, the clichés you use in normal conversation will find their way into your fiction.
The other part of it, I think, is that aspiring writers want to sound like established writers. They're finally writing a novel, for crying out loud, and they're going to use all those phrases the other authors use, the phrases they've always wanted to write in a book.
The problem with clichés in fiction is that they're stale and unoriginal. They sound amateurish. Instead of coming up with a fresh way of expressing something, they revert to the tired way of saying it.
They call it a bone-chilling screech or a blood-curdling scream, when they could've said the scream was so piercing so as to shatter bulletproof glass.
She speaks in hushed tones and his heart skips a beat and his blood runs cold, when all the time they could've been doing things that were interesting to read and sounded like the author had come up with the expression on the spot.
When you see a cliché in your fiction, cut it out. Find a new way to say it.
Look in the Mirror
One of my "favorite" [grrr] fiction clichés is the mirror trick. Oh, you know it. We get a full description of the protagonist because she happens to stop in front of a mirror to brush her auburn hair and bat her violet eyes.
I applaud the writer who is attempting to describe the character without violating point of view (see Tip #30). To her credit she is staying within the viewpoint character's perspective and yet still letting the reader know what she looks like.
The problem is it's a cliché. One of the oldest and worst.
So how do you get around that problem? How do you describe the main character without resorting the mirror trick or violating POV? Ah, now you're asking the right question.
There are a variety of solutions to this problem, but I'll give you two.
One is to have someone else describe the main character. "Oh, look at her, with her black roots and too much eyeliner. What is she, Goth now? I swear the girl thinks she's Buffy the vampire slayer. She'd just better keep those long legs far away from Jimmy Dalheart or she's going to see that I've got fangs, too."
Now, wasn't that more entertaining than just spoon-feeding the description through a too-convenient glance in the mirror?
When you describe Character A through Character B's eyes, you do two things: you get a pretty accurate description of the protagonist (with nary a mirror nor POV violation) and you learn some interesting things about the character doing the describing.
The second solution is to actually have the protagonist use a mirror but to have her have an attitude about herself. Mainly using contrast or criticism.
She looked at her face in the mirror. Stupid unibrow. She ought to have her whole face waxed. Bags under the eyes. Gray strands polluting her hair like thread dropped in chocolate pudding. At least the scar over her lip was fading. Now if she could just do something about the general homeliness of that puffy face, there might be some hope.
Here you're doing double duty again. You're describing your main character (though in an utterly unflattering way) and you're characterizing this woman and letting us know what she thinks about herself. If her assessment is incorrect, you'll need to show this by having other people comment on how nice she looks, having her face appear on the covers of magazines, etc.
Don't stoop to the mirror trick. It's a fiction cliché.
[Honorable Mention: Best Use of the Mirror Trick. On a friend's recommendation I've been reading the secular SF novel Altered Carbon by Richard K. Morgan. It's not a Christian novel in any respect, so be warned. But it has the best use of the mirror trick I've ever seen in a novel.
[The story is that humans can get their consciousness put into new bodies, for a price. Our hero wakes up in a new body and has no clue what he looks like. So he walks to the mirror. The author is perfectly justified in giving us a full description of the character by having him look in the mirror.
[So, if you can give your character a good reason to really look himself over in the mirror, then you get a pass and you're allowed to use the mirror trick. But for 99.5% of the novels people will write this year, those authors should find another way to describe their characters.]
It's Only A Dream
The other cliché I see in a lot of fiction is when something terrible (or sometimes wonderful) happens and then the character sits bolt upright in bed [did you spot the cliché?] and realizes it was only a dream.
I know it's fun to write something more dramatic than usual. You get to be creative and go a little wacky with dream sequences disguised as reality.
But it's been done. It's so five minutes ago. What new thing can you do instead? How can you achieve the same effect without going down the road everyone else has gone down?
It's gotten to the point now that when I read something interesting or dramatic, especially at the beginning of a book or chapter, I pretty much know it's a dream. I'm like, "Yeah, okay, when is she going to wake up and be surprised it was only a dream? And am I supposed to be surprised, too?"
Something becomes a cliché when it's been done to death. The is-it-real-or-only-a-dream thing is one of those. Don't do it.
If you want to have a dream sequence, go ahead. Just maybe have the character realize that it is a dream even as it's happening. Or show the character fading into a daydream and then fading out.
You don't lose anything by letting readers know it's not really happening. They're going to figure that out anyway. And then your book will feel derivative and uninspired right from the beginning. Not a good way to start.
Whether your cliché is large or small, kill it. Go on a search and destroy mission through your manuscript. Find a fresh way to say it. Use a word picture that furthers your description of the setting. Find a way to express it that further reveals character and theme. Say it as if it's never been said before.
Then people will start copying you. And that'll be a real shot in the arm. 0:-)
Tip #40: Use Circularity
Early on in my writing career I discovered something that lends an ineffible sense of completeness and poetic unity to my writing.
I was reading a book on brainstorming and netting out an idea using those charts where you start with a central thought in the idea and then you "web" out spin-off ideas from there. I don't remember what the book was called, but I remember the term I learned: circularity.
The author was saying that you should create a short story or essay from the web you come up with on the page and (and here's the key) that you should begin with your central idea and, in the conclusion, refer back to it.
So if your first thought was guitar and in your webbing you come to realize your idea is really about the influence of Simon and Garfunkel on modern pop music, when you write your essay you should begin by talking about a guitar and then move on to what the idea is mainly about. But as the story wraps up you should come back to your image of the guitar.
I have found this to be a remarkable tool in fiction. Used correctly, it gives your writing a wholistic and lyrical feeling and implies that you knew at the beginning precisely where all this was going to go. Circularity makes your writing feel intentional and nicely wrapped up at the end.
You can use circularity in an entire book (wrapping up the end by referring to the beginning), in a single scene, or even with characters and themes.
How about some examples?
I began my fourth novel, Operation: Firebrand, with this line: "Today I'm going to kill a man in cold blood."
Engaging, huh? You want to know who this person is. You think he's a serial killer or something. So you keep reading.
In the scene you learn that this character is a Navy SEAL deployed with his platoon in Indonesia, and that he is the team's sniper. Now you start understanding why he could be about to kill a man in cold blood. Ah, you think, he's a trained assassin. Interesting.
But then you begin to read that he's uncomfortable with this situation, that he's undergone a change in his life and he's no longer convinced that he should be doing this job.
I end the scene the same way I began it, with a repeat of the first line. Only when he says it this time you realize it's not the mantra of a killer but a cry for help: "Oh, Lord Jesus, today I am going to kill a man in cold blood."
Suddenly, with that last line, the scene is tied together like a ribbon around a present. You realize that the author knew what he was doing when he began this journey and that you might not always know what he's going to do but that you can trust him to drive the bus well.
I don't know what it is about referring to the beginning at the end that makes something feel complete and like a solid unit, but I'm telling you, it does.
Try it in your own writing. Write a little short story or article and be conscious about constructing your beginning in a distinctive way and make sure your ending refers back to it. Maybe write the story two ways, once with no attempt at circularity and once with it. Let someone else read both and tell you which one is better.
I think circularity works best in smaller units, like a prologue or essay, as the beginning is still in the reader's mind after only a few pages. But if your beginning is distinctive enough that the reader will remember it even at the end, then by all means refer back to it.
In the same novel, Operation: Firebrand, I end the book with a reference back to the beginning. Something like: "This wasn't where he thought he'd be, way back on that day when he went out to kill a man in cold blood. It was much better."
Whether the segment you're writing now is large or small, think about how you could add a nice dose of circularity. See if you can find a way at the end to refer back to the beginning.Your story unit will feel whole and finished and your readers will acknowledge your all-around skilz.
Want More Tips?
Be sure to return to the tips index to get all the tips so far.