Description

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There are two main description issues that I’ve been seeing in manuscripts. As I said in my post on Mimetic Writing, the writer uses description to curate the story and direct the reader’s attention. Description is a tricky thing to pull off in writing, and it’s also a very subtle thing.

Done wrong, it either draws not enough attention or too much. Done right, it becomes a critical part of the prose. While description is rarely the star, it does make up the stage upon which the action plays out. Here are the three things that usually go wrong:

Underdescription

A lack of description is a small but potentially fatal flaw. The reader may not notice a lack of description — it’s usually difficult to acutely notice something that isn’t there — but their experience of your story will not be the same.

When I read things that have little description, I get this fuzzy feeling while reading. That’s instead of the mental clarity I expect when reading something that really gives me something concrete to imagine. Things without description are hazy. Things with enough description really make the writer’s words gel in my head. Without description, the reader tends to skim through your prose, unanchored. Readers go too fast and don’t really revel in the details of your writing.

My rule of thumb is that we need a description of every character that will help us see them (and also provide characterizing detail, like that they only paint the nails on their left hand…which tells me they’re a bit offbeat, or whatever), and we need some carefully chosen descriptions of each setting. (There’s a big catch to both of these, see below.)

Overdescription

Where prose without description tends to go too fast, prose with too much description tends to go slowly. Gone are the days when lavish pages of description can keep a reader’s attention. The important thing to remember about excess description is that it will slow down your pacing, so you need to choose when to include description carefully.

Know that when you stop to describe something in detail, you are giving your readers a great mental picture, but action usually stops. And realize that you don’t need to describe every single thing about a scene, or every action taken in that scene, or everything about a character (if you describe character traits, you’ll usually fall into the trap of telling, so do physical descriptions of characters and then let their characteristics come across via showing, in scene).

Misdirection

In real life, “misdirection” refers to knowingly diverting someone’s attention in order to sneak something by them, usually a magic trick or your hand into their pocket to steal their wallet. In writing life, I’m going to revamp the term a little bit. When I say “misdirection,” I mean that the writer is unknowingly shifting the reader’s attention to the wrong thing in a scene. How do you do this unwanted thing? It’s usually a description problem.

Imagine a dinner scene. There’s a lovely turkey on the table. The family gathers around to smell its velvety aroma, rich with thyme and rosemary. The butter under the skin has put a crackly golden glaze on the breast. The knife slices right through the tender meat. There are large chunks of fleur de sel sprinkled on top. The parents are talking, meanwhile. You take your first bite and the savory juices, the crunchy skin, the tang of the salt almost overwhelm your taste buds! Oh yeah, the parents just said they’re getting divorced.

Say what?

In this paragraph, the writer (me) got obsessed with describing the turkey on the table (probably because I haven’t had breakfast yet) and totally skipped over the real point of the scene: the parents have gotten the family together to make a huge announcement. Whenever I read a scene the spends way too much time describing an insignificant detail when something else much more important is going on, I usually think, “You’re talking about that right now?”

Like, you just heard that the ogres are storming the castle and you have time to detail the inlaid crystal on the hilt of your sword for us? Really? Ya think you might want to either shorten that description or put it elsewhere, a time when there aren’t bloodthirsty monsters on your tail?

Lavish description at an inappropriate time is probably a signal that you need to kill some babies. (Translation: cut some of your favorite passages, not actually go down to the nursery and go on a spree.)

Therefore…

Your goal when describing either scenes, actions, or characters is balance. Plus you need to figure out when to describe. Just because you need to describe each character and scene doesn’t mean you have to describe it in detail the first time we encounter it.

This is one of the biggest problems I see in novel openings because, well, everything we encounter in a book’s first 10 pages is new to the reader…every place and character needs describing. But if we did describe everything in detail in the first 10 pages, there’d be no room for plot or scenework right at the beginning of your novel, where it matters the most to hook your reader (or an agent).

You don’t have to do all of your descriptions at once. Just like you layer in the plot, you should layer in descriptions to keep adding to our understanding of a character and their scenery. Give us a physical trait in one scene, a new element of the environment in another scene, etc. Resist the urge to infodump with your descriptions, and really pick the right time and place. And watch out for ogres…it is Monday, after all.

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This is a point that I tackled in slightly different terms in my Making Your Writing Exciting at the Sentence Level post from late 2009. It’s something I’ve been seeing a lot more recently, and so I wanted to delve into it again. Writing should strive to be mimetic of the action it’s describing. As with the example of a character being chased in the older post, the short burst sentences portray the feeling of being chased, even as the words describe a chase scene. In the language falling in love example, the long, flowing sentences portray the languor and lush feelings of infatuation, even as they describe it.

When you’re writing, not only should you strive to match your writing and syntax to what you’re describing, but you should also put yourself in the situation in a physical, emotional, and, above all, logical way. Doing all of this will not only work to make your readers feel like they’re part of the situation on a conscious level, but on a subconscious one as well. As always, you should strive to make writing work and blend, not stand out or pull the reader out of the story.

I’ve been reading a lot of scenes that just don’t make syntax sense or logic sense. For example, I find an action sequence unrealistic if your character stops to describe the scene, the characters, the mood, or any of the action in too much sensory detail. Why? Well, imagine fighting some baddies Matrix-style. As bullets zoom by you, are you really stopping to reflect on a character’s sleek black trench? Or describe the marble hall that’s currently getting blasted to hell? No. Action and danger spike adrenaline and tunnel your vision and senses. Or they make one persistent detail stand out. How many times have you heard grief-ridden or traumatized people/characters say, “And for some reason, I remember looking out the window and seeing this random kid crossing the street, and that’s all I remember from that time at the hospital when Dad passed.” You’re only paying attention to the things you need to survive, or sometimes your conscious mind isn’t working at all. So not only does superfluous description during an action sequence seem unnecessary and slow the pacing, I also just don’t buy it.

The inverse is true, too. If your character is paying really careful attention to someone or something, vague description just isn’t going to cut it. If she’s looking into his eyes (is there a bigger cliche?), she most likely wouldn’t find them just “beautiful” or simply “captivating,” but she’d go into detail. This is an easy consideration, and perfectly logical, but it’s just one more small thing for writers to keep in their heads when they’re writing and people do forget

Whenever we describe something, we draw the reader’s attention to it. This doesn’t just apply to how we describe something, it counts for what we describe, too. We are the story’s curator, using all the tools in our storytelling arsenal to guide the reader through the tale. Mimetic writing — imitating the action of what’s being described — is a subtle way to do just that. Description is another related skill. Lately, I’ve been noticing a lot of description missteps. Next week, I think I’ll talk about overdescribing and underdescribing, the twin traps that some writers can fall into as they’re building their stories.

I’ve just come off a very invigorating weekend at the NYC Teen Author Festival — hanging out with friends and colleagues, listening to panels, soaking in the collective brilliance of this industry — and will also come up with a post to somehow distill the experience, though I’m having a hard time articulating exactly what about last week’s events impressed and inspired me so much. A thank you to all the authors, writers, librarians, booksellers involved…and to the achingly marvelous David Levithan for his tireless work and incredible insights, especially on Saturday’s LGBT panel!

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Say what? Bear with me here a moment. I want to talk about something I’ve been noticing a lot: third person-style narration in the first person. It’s easier to illustrate than to explain. It goes, for example, like this:

My gaze shifted to the corner of the room. A shadow seemed to move. It hadn’t been there a moment ago. My heartbeat quickened and my pupils contracted with fear. I leaned back against the wall, the muscles in my torso tightening, my mouth drying out, my legs ready to spring into action. With my breath coming in short, shallow gasps, I prepared myself to attack.

Now, this is a subtle one to pick up on, I think. Can you figure out, from this sample, what I might mean? I’m referring to a style of narration that is more commonplace (and appropriate) in the third person. When you’re writing in the first person, you are immediately inside your character’s head, heart, and body. When you’re in third person, even if you’re in very close third, you’re on the outside of the body, seeing it from a bit of a bird-eye view.

Descriptions like the one I’ve written above are in first person (within the body) but seem oddly outside of it. This most often happens with physical descriptions/actions. I fear I’m not making a whole lot of sense, so I will try another approach. Imagine you’re telling an anecdote to your friends. You’ve got them wrapped around your finger as you’re describing a scene, say, the last time you were thrown a surprise party. Do you say, about yourself, “My gaze shifted to the corner and my mouth dropped open to discover Uncle Eddie wearing a party hat”?

That doesn’t sound very natural to me. If I were telling a story to a group of friends at a party, I would say something like “I looked and saw” or, if I’m feeling really fancy, “I glanced over.” When I’m in first person, it feels oddly distancing to say, about myself, “my gaze shifted.” I also wouldn’t say “my mouth dropped open.” I’m not watching myself on a video tape and narrating what’s happening. “To my shock” or “shockingly” would be more first person-appropriate.

To further illustrate, let’s put the above passage in the third person:

His gaze shifted to the corner of the room. A shadow seemed to move. It hadn’t been there a moment ago. Jake’s heartbeat quickened and his pupils contracted with fear [I have problems with writers relying too heavily on physical symptoms and gestures to convey emotion, but that's another post for another day...]. He leaned back against the wall, the muscles in his torso tightening, his mouth drying out, his legs ready to spring into action. With his breath coming in short, shallow gasps, Jake prepared himself to attack.

Now, it’s not a perfect paragraph, and it still has a lot of cheap physical symptoms cluttering everything, but it sounds much more natural in third to my ear because we’re observing the character from the outside. Sure, we can’t see his muscles tighten or his heartbeat quicken from a true bird-eye view, but the tone of this piece is that of an outside observer. That same tone doesn’t work when the observer is in first person, talking about their own body.

This is one of those more subtle notes that I give, but I’ve found myself giving it a lot lately. Sure, it’s probably less fancy to adhere to true first person tone when describing physical events (the boring “I glanced” vs. the sexy “my gaze shifted”) but I think it’s more authentic. On a related note, I’ve also been giving a lot of writers pointers about overwriting, making things more complex than they should be, and showing off. This is one example of prose where I think we should all strive for a bit more simplicity.

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A great, big “thank you!” goes out to my readers who were able to attend the webinar yesterday afternoon. (Some have been asking technical questions about it. Since Writer’s Digest operates the webinar, they’d be your most helpful resource. Contact them using the information in your registration packet, please.) I got a lot of great questions during the webinar, that I’ll be addressing in the future, and I also got a lot of great questions from Wednesday’s post. If you asked me a question there and there’s enough of an answer to post about, do keep an eye out for the answer on the blog soon!

This question comes from reader Valeria via email, and it deals with setting, which I don’t usually spend a lot of time talking about:

Most books I have read so far describe a specific setting. Like a certain city or state. I know setting and the way it is developed is very important for a story but can there be such thing as a nameless setting? I am asking because I live abroad but I don’t want to set my story in my country. The problem is, I’m not familiar with other cities. I have been describing my story’s setting as a dark and gray city, but not a specific city. In fact, I would like to keep a mystery of where exactly this gloomy city is located. I’d like for my readers to think this can happen in any city, but is this really a good idea? Should I research my setting a bit more and name it?

I love it when readers answer their own question. But I did want to talk a bit more about this particular one. Setting is important. So important, in fact, that some readers and writers and editors and agents say that setting should become like another character in the story, as well-defined as any of the people that populate it.

While I think that some writers focus entirely too much on the particulars of their setting and too little on their people (for example, high fantasy writers or hard sci-fi writers who spend countless pages describing the world or spaceship they’ve created, complete with maps and another language, and too little time on the characters), I think that specificity and attention to the setting is essential in a story.

If you don’t want to give the setting a real name, invent one. Turn up the fantasy element of the setting. You’ll give your created world instant flavor, and its people a place to identify with. As human beings, we can’t help wanting to identify with a place and calling it home…we need somewhere to belong. Kids and teens are always talking about where they live, their favorite places, or the places they want to escape. Listen to the first questions that a little kid will ask you when they’re getting to know you: What’s your name? How old are you? What’s your favorite color? Where do you live? Then they will proudly identify themselves, ie: “I live on Cherry Street!” That’s why a name is important, too. It gives people something easy and immediate to identify with. When I meet people in New York, the little kid rule is still true. One of the first questions they ask is what neighborhood I live in, by name.

Place is very important to the human mind. And fleshing out your setting is just part of the novel writing craft. If you’re not comfortable really writing a brand new setting for your story, at least give it a name and characteristics and details. Paragraph descriptions of setting on every page are clunky and dull and won’t engage the reader as much as action will, but you still need to give your story a sense of place with as many specific details as possible. In Valeria’s example, just “dark and gray” for a city isn’t going to be enough. Readers need more details to bring what’s in their mind’s eye to life as they’re reading. If that includes creating a fantasy version of your own city and calling it something else or doing careful research on other cities, then that’s what it will take.

I’m familiar with the urge to make a place universal enough that the reader will think it’s their own town or city. This notion is why a lot of medieval literature and plays featured a character called Everyman. This Everyman character was supposed to stand in for the reader and symbolize the universal significance of the action and how it applied to a generic character who, literally, could be anyone and everyone.

However, that’s a very cheap way of making a reader relate to your story. You might as well call your city Your Town and have that do all the work for you. I’m here to say that the opposite of the Everyman idea is true. Instead of finding really vague and generic things relatable, readers relate to the specific. Which of the following two will make you think that the character is like you?

She ate a sandwich.

She bit into her turkey sandwich, only to have a slice of red onion escape and fall on the floor. Five second rule, she thought, glancing around to see if anyone was looking. Using a fake cough as an excuse to bend over, she peeled the onion off the cafeteria linoleum and popped it in her mouth.

By giving us specific details in the second example, I’ve created a character who is relatable, and I’ve also taught the reader something about her as a person. Not only do we feel like, yeah, we’ve been there, we’ve dropped that food and picked it up off the floor before, but that she’s like us, and she’s a little embarrassed about grabbing that onion, but she does it anyway.

The same will be true about your city. If you give us specific details — “Hey!” the reader thinks. “There are soda cans in the rain gutter in MY city, too!” — they will actually be more relatable than generalities.

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I’m not a real estate agent, but I do know there are things that real estate agents do to sell a house: they play up the important features. Their other favorite thing to talk about, if it’s good, is the neighborhood and the location of the property. After all, isn’t it all about location, location, location? Well, these considerations are applicable to novel craft, because once you know the important information features and the prime locations for material in your story, you can play around and really present your reader with important information, in a way that seems important, and in places that will make it seem even more important. Let me explain…

The way you present information impacts the way a reader interprets its importance. For example, if a character goes on and on about the Thanksgiving turkey, describing its crisp brown skin, succulent aroma, the bedding of rosemary twigs upon which it rests, the legs tied together with twine, etc., and completely glosses over the conversation that reveals that the character’s parents are getting a divorce, what do you think will be memorable in that scene? The more descriptive (and scene) space you give something, the more characters think and talk about it, the more important it will become in the reader’s mind.

This can work against you — if you’re not aware of this and spend lots of time describing stuff that will not be important as the novel progresses — or for you — if you are aware of this and use this to craft where your reader’s attention goes. In other words, prime real estate in your novel is anything that takes up a lot of space (it’s good and noteworthy to have acreage, you know?). Readers will automatically equate space and words spent talking/thinking about something with its overall value to the book.

The other consideration is location. The prime real estate in any novel is: the first page of the novel, the first paragraph of a new chapter, and the last paragraph of a chapter. These spaces are special and should not be treated like any others in your manuscript. After all, a real estate agent who has a property with panoramic city views, a Central Park West address, or a location with a private beach, goes above and beyond when listing this special location. The ad is glossier, there is a whole album of pictures, the font is more refined, etc. You should lavish care on your entire manuscript, of course, but pay special attention, after you’ve polished everything, to the prime real estate listed above.

Whatever you put on the first page of your manuscript will seem really important to the rest of it. If you start with something that never appears again (and this is where prologues can get hairy) or if you give the reader all description and no character, that is a missed opportunity. The opening paragraphs of subsequent chapters are your chance to ground the reader in what has just happened or what will happen for the rest of the chapter (a post on “grounding the reader” later). The end of a chapter has one job and one job only, just like that house with the panoramic city view: sell. You need to give your reader a new detail, a cliffhanger, or just enough tension so that they immediately flip to the next page instead of using the chapter break as a natural resting point and putting the book down.

Most novels that have strong narrative really use the prime real estate as a special opportunity. It’s there to keep the reader informed, to highlight important information or characters, to keep the reader hooked, and to otherwise anchor the structure of the novel. Make sure you’re paying special attention to the prime real estate you’re working with, just like a real estate agent would.

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There are a lot of glances being shot on the pages of most novels. Sarcastic ones, annoyed ones, angry ones…characters always seem to have meaningful looks and glances for each other.

This is often a tic for writers. What do I mean by “tic”? Something you do in your writing that you’re not aware of. Something you usually do a lot. Some writers have favorite words, other writers have pet descriptions, and yet others have go-to actions and gestures for their characters.

Why do I think so many writers rely on “She shot him a glance” or “He gave her a look” in their writing? Because it’s a cinematic construct that we’re used to in movies and on TV. When a real life person or a movie character shoots a glance, we can read their body language, see the expression on their face, and interpret meaning from their eyes.

Right away, we can get the flavor of the look or glance and what it is meant to communicate to the target character and to us, the viewer. Loaded looks are pretty much the staple of soap operas and sitcoms. A lot goes without being said in words in these visual mediums.

But that’s just the problem. In prose, we don’t have the added benefits of seeing the character’s facial expressions or reading their looks as they give another character a meaningful glance. And if we can’t see the look…it loses a lot of its meaning. The glance becomes vague instead of specific, as it can be on the screen. And vagueness is the death of good prose.

What’s the solution? Try to wean yourself off of glances. Sure, you can use a well-placed glance or look if you have enough context to make it count. And you can always qualify the glance, ie: “She shot him a murderous glance” or “He fired daggers at her with his eyes,” but these are so overused that they’ve verged into cliche territory. It may be easier to just face it — a loaded look in prose will never carry the same weight as it does in visual mediums — and more on to finding a fresher way for characters to communicate, something that reads better on the page.

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Sometimes it’s better to tell instead of show. Yes, yes, I know. Everyone has heard of, “Show, don’t tell.”

I think I’ll get into this subject more in future posts, but let’s just say that a lot of convoluted, cliche stuff happens when a writer desperately tries to avoid telling (like hammering hearts and foot-tapping gestures, instead of just saying, “She was nervous,” or “He hated when she was late,” or whatever). For now, though, I want to give you a fantastic introduction to why (and when) telling can work.

I never pretended to know everything about writing, but I’ve never posted in-depth thoughts from a reader, either. Today’s the day. A few months ago, a reader sent in a very thought-provoking, well-written essay on just this very issue. Here are some of Melissa Koosmann’s thoughts on Good Telling, as she sees it after reading some HARRY POTTER and the thoughts of Scholastic editor Cheryl Klein. This is brilliant stuff. I could’ve talked about it, but she just did it much better.

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I’ve been looking for, and finding, Good Telling in books for some time, but I couldn’t find a pattern in it until a week or two ago, when I stumbled on a transcript of Cheryl Klein’s speech “A Few Things Writers Can Learn from Harry Potter.” In this speech, Klein discusses J.K. Rowling’s use of showing and telling–including the Good Telling I’m so curious about.

Good Telling, according to Klein, often appears in topic sentences–like the ones we all learned how to write in fifth grade. Klein makes a great example of a topic sentence from a descriptive paragraph and claims that there’s a pattern of that sort of sentence throughout the book. I’ve been going through a copy of HARRY POTTER AND THE PHILOSOPHER’S STONE, and she’s right.

There’s a Good Telling sentence at the beginning of most descriptive paragraphs. Consider this one in chapter two, when Harry is thrilled he gets to go to the zoo: “Harry had the best morning he’d had in a long time.” Kind of bland, eh? But it’s followed by a neat couple of sentences that show Harry keeping out of Dudley’s punching range and eating a dessert Dudley doesn’t want. This does a double job of showing: it makes Harry’s life seem pretty dismal, and it makes him seem like a nice kid. Without the Good Telling topic sentence, those neat details wouldn’t pack as much punch. As Klein puts it, “Sometimes readers need the plain straightforward direction of telling to elucidate the point of all that showing.”

So far so good–but that’s description, and I’m most interested in how Good Telling works in action and dialogue. So I stepped back and looked at the telling that happens in those areas, and I found that Klein’s topic sentence observation applies there, too. It’s just that the Good Telling sentence directs the reader through a whole beat of text–a bunch of paragraphs rather than a single one. When a Good Telling sentence shows up, it usually marks a change: either a physical jump in time or space, or a subtle shift in mood or focus. Check out these Good Telling sentences from Harry’s trip to the zoo, still in chapter 2 of PHILOSOPHER’S STONE:

1. “But today, nothing was going to go wrong.” Something immediately goes wrong. Harry makes the mistake of saying he dreamed about a flying motorcycle, and Uncle Vernon gets mad.
2. “But he [Harry] wished he hadn’t said anything.” The narrative shifts to internal thoughts as Harry reflects that his aunt and uncle hate him talking about things acting in ways they shouldn’t. This segment is part showing and part telling, but it ends with a Good Telling sentence, too. More on that later.
3. “Harry felt, afterward, that he should have known it was all too good to last.” Gulp! There’s a small place shift to the reptile house as well as a big mood shift because the reader is prepared for something truly terrible to happen. Not long later, Harry makes the glass on the snake cage vanish.

After I started to see this pattern, I could detect it more often in places where a lot of dialogue and action were happening, where the Good Telling sentences weren’t so eye-catching. And guess what? There’s a web of Good Telling working its way through the whole novel, supporting the narrative shifts that carry the reader from one emotional beat to the next. Rowling dispenses with these sentences at times when crisp, clear action and dialogue can carry the story forward on their own, but it’s rare for her to go more than a couple of pages without an instance of Good Telling.

I like the way Klein calls these types of sentences “topic sentences,” but it’s normally only in the descriptive paragraphs that they actually state a topic. Otherwise they act as invitations to the reader. It’s as if J.K. Rowling is saying, “Hey, over here! Harry’s stepping into a new room now, so why don’t you come on in with him?” or “Hi again! I just wanted to let you know Harry’s disappointment is about to shift to full-fledged anger” or “Watch out! New character stepping in!” Obviously the actual writing is far more subtle than that, but the Good Telling is instrumental in carrying readers along with the flow of change in the story.

Good Telling doesn’t always show up at the beginning of a beat. Rowling varies it on occasion, usually by beginning with a few flashy lines of dialogue–followed by a straightforward Good Telling sentence. Good Telling also leads out of an emotional beat of the text almost as often as it leads in. After showing a whole string of actions, along with punchy details that illuminate how Harry feels about them, she often makes use of a pause in pacing to state that Harry does indeed feel the way we think he’s feeling. Klein calls this “a confirmation for the reader, directing the emotional takeaway from whatever happened.”

Once you’re looking for it, this lead-in, lead-out pattern of Good Telling pops up in many books. And thinking about it makes writing easier. It doesn’t make for a very pretty writing rule, though: Show and Good Tell, don’t Bad Tell.

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Can you find any examples of Good Telling? Talk about them in the comments. I’ve been wanting to mine my theatre/actor training and how it relates to writing for a while, and Melissa’s discussion of beats, above, is just one more reason for me to put on my thinking cap. I’m so happy that Melissa took the time to share her thoughts with me, and now I can share them with you.

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I got an excellent question from a reader a few weeks ago. This is actually something I wanted to post about myself, because it’s a frustrating disconnect about the whole getting-published process. There’s also stuff here about critique groups. Let’s hear her question and my answer:

I have been satisfied with the vast majority of my MS (YA Paranormal Mystery Romance) for many weeks and my “critique group” (mostly avid readers not writers) feels the same. My struggle is this: Who am I writing for?

My critique group, all readers who spend actual money to buy actual books, all have (gasp!) individual tastes! Their feelings about my MS are very much tied to their personalities, educational level, interests, etc. My friend who adores TWILIGHT loves the funny voice and the beginning and insists that TWILIGHT started out slow and so did HARRY POTTER. My English professor friend with a Master’s could take or leave the funny teen voice but prefers the vivid descriptive prose. My young adult niece finds the voice a tad grating and the beginning a bit slow but adores the entire rest of the book. My brainy teenage niece, in contrast, likes the funny voice of the first chapter and says the rest isn’t her genre but her friends like that sort of thing.

I feel torn. At the end of the day, not all writers have Masters Degrees in English. How do I resolve that when my readers like what I am pretty sure agents would reject?

Here’s the thing. Before your book can get into the hands of casual or even very experienced readers like the friends in your critique group, it has to get through the gates of PROFESSIONAL readers. First, agents, then, editors, the editors’ bosses, their bosses’ bosses, the sales team. Once all those readers who read professionally and with an eye toward the marketplace love your book, only then will you get a publishing contract. Then your publisher will pitch and win over the professional readers who work at bookstores and who will stock your books on shelves for those hobby readers to finally get them.

Ideally, you should be writing for the end user: teens (or adults who read YA, of course). However, to get to those teens in the first place, you’re going to have to volley over lots and lots and lots of people who AREN’T casual readers at all. And those are the people you’re going to have to impress years before your book comes out. So, even if your end user, the reader or teen, doesn’t have a Master’s degree in English, the people who decide whether or not that teen or reader is ever going to see your book often will.

I urge you, seriously, to get a critique group of other writers. Writers who are not friends and especially not family. (What are they going to say? That it sucks, to your face?) Not only is yours not a critique group (If they don’t write, what are YOU critiquing? We learn as much about our own writing when we critique the work of others as when our work gets critiqued.) but you might be doing yourself a disservice by getting feedback from people who aren’t intimate with the writing craft. If you can swing it, get feedback from people who are contracted to be published or already published. You learn and grow by putting yourself in a challenging situation. An audience of readers-but-not-writers sounds like you are being easy on yourself, sorry to say.

That’s why I’m skeptical of sites like Authonomy (Yes, the site is run by HarperCollins but the majority of people who gather and comment there are laypeople and not editors or publishing professionals). So what happens there? Writers post manuscripts. Hobby readers go on there and rave about these manuscripts. Then the writers who produced those manuscripts query me and give me “blurbs” from people who loved them on Authonomy. When I see that, I ask the writer, in my head, “So what? Someone who doesn’t know what they’re talking about is talking. Great.”

Let me put it another way. I know nothing about cars. That’s why I’m in trouble if I ever go car shopping again. If you show me a car and it’s shiny enough, and has a sunroof, I’ll think it’s good. Only someone who knows what happens under the hood will be able to tell me whether it’s actually a lemon or not. A person who doesn’t know all of the complexities of writing a novel can usually be won over without much effort. It’s easy to impress the easily-impressed. Don’t stunt your own growth.

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The Third Place winner in this terrific contest is Helen Robertson, whose YA novel opening for ALABAMA JONES AND THE UNSPOILED QUEEN has great interiority, characterization, and, also, tension and mystery elements. Check it out — with notes — below.

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At least I didn’t have to wear a dress to my dad’s funeral.

I’m a sucker for opening lines and this is a great one. It tells me a lot about the character, her sense of humor, and, of course, the setting and the story.

He always told me to be grateful for the small things—especially when the big things looked bad. So I focused on the fact that I was wearing shorts, a tank top, my favorite necklace, and flip-flops. I tried to enjoy the feel of the boat beneath my feet, and reminded myself that I could add Alabama to my “been there” list. I’d just started the list this trip, because it was the first time I’d gone anywhere except to other islands in the Caribbean.

Here we get more of the setting and more of what’s important to this character. We also get a visceral detail with the movement of the boat and physical description of what she’s wearing.

Now I’d been to Georgia (the Atlanta airport, anyway), and Alabama. I was curious about Alabama because that’s my name, too. We’d never visited before because when we lived on Saba, everyone came to us. Still. I could think of better ways than my Dad’s funeral to be introduced to the place I was named after.

My interest is piqued with the “everyone came to us” comment… it makes me wonder about what her family does. We’ve got strong voice so far.

Not to mention that this was his second funeral. Dad had wanted to be cremated and scattered in two places: the waters above the Saba Bank, and Mobile Bay. So the first time was on Saba, and here we were, fulfilling part two of that wish. To me it meant just one thing: saying goodbye to my dad. Again.

And if we thought we were dealing with an ordinary family — and an ordinary funeral — this tosses those ideas on their ears.

Like on Saba, it was an informal service. People were in shorts and tee shirts, and they filled my granddad’s dive boat as we putt-putted out into the bay. My mom, her face stiff and tight, clutched the urn with the last of my dad’s ashes. I stood with my grandparents, holding my little sister’s hand. Asia (Dad liked to name us after places he loved) was ten. We never held hands anymore, but made an exception in this case.

Great interiority here, and the rest of the family starts to fill in. The sister, the mom, grandpa, whose boat they’re using… We also get more of Alabama’s humor. She’s using some slight wit here in the voice but it establishes tension because she’s been talking about pretty much everything EXCEPT her dad, and the hand-holding moment tells me that “this case” has hurt her maybe more than she lets on.

Even though I was sad, it was good to be on a boat again. The farther out into the bay we went, the closer I felt to my dad. We’d spent a lot of time on boats, usually going scuba diving. Being on the water felt right. I was also glad to be surrounded by people like my dad. Divers, sailors, and surfers, all sun-bleached hair, brown skin, and faded clothes. Water people. My dad’s people, and my people too.

A lovely tribute to her dad here, that characterizes her… and him.

Only one person didn’t match. It wasn’t just that he was dressed up—a few people were, after all. But the clothes he was wearing were long—long sleeves, long pants, and a fancy dark jacket. Instead of flip flops, he actually had shoes on, black ones that shone in the sun. Tall and thin, he walked like a stork: stiff and deliberate, lifting his feet high with every step. Plus he was pale. But his red hair was pretty, and he had freckles. I have freckles too, so people with freckles are all right by me.

There was some joking going around on Twitter last week about how every character in a book has quirky red hair and hates their freckles. This has a redhead with freckles, but it is far from the usual fare. Also, this is a character who actually likes freckles. I also like the description of this character and his “otherness.” I also love that she distinctly notices that he’s NOT wearing flip flops. As a California girl, I have to say that I don’t trust a person who misses an opportunity to don a nice pair of ‘flops…

I didn’t realize he was a clue. Back then, I didn’t even know there was a mystery.

The mystery hook pretty much guarantees that I’ll want to keep reading!

***

I hope these winners continue to be helpful and interesting to you. This most recent winner is a great example of a literary YA novel (the quality of the writing, the bent toward interiority, the focus on family and realistic issues rather than paranormal or fantasy, the contemporary time frame) with an enticing (from the looks of it so far) mystery hook that looks like it might have a good balance of character-driven and plot-driven elements that’s so important in today’s market. I have three more to post — Second and First Place winners and the Grand Prize winner! — over the next week or so. Stay tuned!

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The old cliche is that, when two people have nothing better to talk about or they’re too awkward to talk about something real, they talk about the weather. Why do so many manuscripts, then, start with… descriptions of the weather?

I should hope that, if you’ve decided to write an entire manuscript, you’ve got better things to talk about than the weather and you’re not feeling too awkward to say them.

Think about it. (Yes, I am reading contest submissions right now. Yes, every other entry for the last 50 or so has mentioned some kind of weather in the first paragraph. No, I am not automatically dismissing these entries, though the author is putting themselves at a bit of a disadvantage. No, this isn’t unusual compared to the slush I usually get. No, you probably shouldn’t start a manuscript like this.)

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