Monday, January 23, 2012

Why your Novel bites, and Not in a Good way

Okay, if you know me, you know that I don’t pull punches. I don’t like it when people tell me I look nice when I know it looks as though I just crawled out of a sewer pipe. I hate it when people say that my writing is “Just great!” with that falsetto high pitch we all know means they are trying not to offend. It doesn’t help us improve ourselves when people placate us about how we look, or how we write.

So how do you figure out if your novel sucks and how can you fix it? Here are a few pointers I’ve picked up the hard, expensive way. Now pay attention, I’m only going to say this once!

-You have 90% narration, 5% flashbacks and 5% dialogue. Okay, let’s be honest, it takes a freaking MASTER to keep the attention of a reader with this kind of breakdown. MASTER, not NEWBIE. And if you’re reading this, even if you’ve got several books out, you’re a NEWBIE, just like me.

Up your dialogue people! Every time you step into narration and flashbacks, you SLOW your reader down. Way down. Might even put the book down. So try, really, really hard to “up” your dialogue. Turn that narration into a CONVERSATION.

-Your Characters all get along and float through life. Okay, conflict is #1 in a story. Who the hell cares if their lives are perfect? Mine isn’t, I sure don’t want to read about someone who has a better life than me. Readers want a story to show them just how BAD life can get and how the hero deals with it. Look at every chapter, if there isn’t some sort of conflict, put something new in. Maybe the evil stepmother we all thought was dead comes back to life as a zombie. Or maybe the husband who ran off with the sister was really poisoned and now needs to be rescued! The possibilities are endless regardless of the genre, so make your characters SUFFER!

- You are getting complaints in your reviews of TYPOS! Please, please, please get at least one editor to go over your book! If you can’t afford an editor, there are ALWAYS options. Beg another author, do a swap with them and give them an “edit” on their book while they do the same for yours. But dang, there is a reason you can’t get reviews, or that the reviews you do get are 3 stars at best (not including family and friends in this of course because we all make them give us 5 stars ;p).

Typos, dropping plot threads (e.g. A character shows up in chapter 1 but then never again and yet they seemed important, that is a dropped thread), and general issues with your “baby” (that I won’t go into here for sake of space) can be VASTLY improved by having someone in the industry do a pass. Not just your mom or your best friend. Someone who will tell you the truth, even if it makes you CRY!

-Last and final way to improve your book. Learn your strengths and play to them. I write FAST PACED, high octane books that always center on the power of relationships between loved ones. That is MY strength. I can’t write police procedurals, I’ve tried. I can’t write children’s books, the kids get nightmares. Figure out what your STRONG points are. Maybe you have a knack for building tension in scenes to the point of making people grip their books/Kindles in a white knuckle grasp. Build on that. Write emotional scenes so strong you bring tears to people’s eyes? Go for it! Full force on your strengths will make your book stand out from the crowd.

Don’t try to be something you aren’t.

In conclusion, in this shifting world of self publishing going head to head with the traditional publishers, we HAVE to stand out from the rest. Not because we are the best of the worst, but because we are the best of the best.

*Side note* Your chance at $150 in Amazon Gift cards ends Jaunuary 31st( I've extended the deadline)- for more details check out this post here.


Jonathan D Allen said...

Great post, Shannon. I agree with all of these - except I'd like to warn newbie authors to be careful with taking bad typos/grammar reviews TOO seriously. Twice now I've gotten reviews that mentioned grammar issues and typos. Each time I found myself frustrated, as I'd had the book both beta read and professionally edited. Luckily, both reviewers were kind enough to provide their issues, not by my request, just out of the kindness of their heart, and I appreciate that.

Upon reading their notes, 90% of their notes pointed to an underlying misunderstanding of grammar on their part. I don't want to single anyone out, but I think the typo/grammar issue is becoming something that people focus on simply because a book is indie, finding any unconventional turn of phrase to be grammatically incorrect.

So editors are very important, but definitely don't beat yourself up TOO much about these issues. I think with the age of the indie author we're also going to see indie reviewers who have similar issues with grammar.

Jonathan D Allen said...

And yes, well aware I had some grammar issues on that post ;)

Larry Kollar said...

I have managed to take the "more dialogue" issue to heart, enough to the point where I'll often look at a paragraph and ask myself "can I get a character to say this stuff instead of doing it myself?" ;-)

Conflict is one thing one beta reader (my mom, of all people) said I needed more of in my book! There's a reason for that, although it isn't explained until the sequel. The real conflict is against the changes that have happened in the world around them though, and there is a rather messy gun battle…

Shannon said...

Jonathan- I still get people emailing me and telling me that I have typos. And for the last book, I had two paid editors AND an editor who read the book and just gave me a list of typos for free go over it. STILL I have people saying TYPOS. So, my whole point is, just do the best you can, you aren't going to catch them all, but keep open to the process. My gut feeling is that if you catch all the big typos (Their, they're, there, it, it's, where, were, though, thought) those are where you will kill off even your average readers, never mind those with an eye for editing.

FARfetched- Dialogue has been a struggle for me in the past but after taking a course on why books struggle and how to fix them up, I realized that most problems with pacing can be improved with adding in dialogue.

And conflict is in the mind of the writer. It doens't have to be external, it can be an internal struggle, but there MUST be conflict. Thanks for weighing in you two!

Jessica Lowdon said...

@Jonathan. I liked your comment on reviewers who point out incorrect grammar that isn’t actually incorrect. As a reviewer, I would hate for that to happen!

But as an editor, I have to caution you to consider these nitpicky reviewers anyway. If there’s a certain turn of phrase that’s drawing their negative attention, you may want to tinker with it, even if it’s grammatically correct. I’ve seen a lot of correct, yet awkward, phrases, and sometimes it’s better for sales if you just re-cast the sentence instead of taking a stand on principle. After all, there’s nothing worse than being drawn out of a story to contemplate the meaning of a phrase. Readability is sell-ability.

Roaring girl said...

I too would be nervous pointing out any grammatical errors in a writer's work-only because I would be fearful of being wrong! But I do think your writing is fast paced-and I liked that about Dark Waters.

Marie Loughin said...

Typos are a problem for trad and indie alike. But grammar issues are a different monkey. There is a difference between "grammar error" and "stylistic choice." The turn of phrase that you change because one or two readers complained might contribute to what makes the author's voice unique to most others.

jc andrijeski said...

Your comment about giving kids nightmares totally cracked me up,

Great post, regarding the common mistakes newbies make. In terms of typos, like Jonathan said, you will get some weirdos, so it's always good to be careful taking every single, solitary comment wholesale...but patterns should be investigated, yes, and I always want to check things like that out, even if it's just a one-off.

However, in my mind the real issue is this: if you're jerking them out of the story, you're doing something wrong. Meaning, if the typos and/or grammar and flow errors are too many, then they will prevent immersion, and thus you're shooting yourself in the foot as a writer. Similarly, if a reader is bored in a story, they are going to nitpick, looking for some reason why they don't think it's "good." Often they'll say "poorly written" or "poorly edited" when what they mean is, "I didn't like it" or "I was bored."

Some of this will be taste, sure. You can't please everyone all the time, no one can. I know people who hate Harry Potter and Stephen King.

But sometimes, comments like these are a sign that you aren't keeping the reader's attention where it should be...and you're "breaking the dream" for them in some way. You're breaking the writer/ reader agreement, too, of transporting them OUT of their critical mind.

Really, the last thing you want as a writer is for your reader's critical brain to be functioning at all while they're reading your story. You want them to be so lost in your world they blow by the tiny mistakes without even noticing them. You want them to be too interested in what your characters are doing to even bother with the mental exertion of noticing.

It's like breaking the fourth wall in don't want to do that (stylistic flourishes aside). You want them to be right in the story, with you...not being reminded they are being told a story by some faceless person behind the scenes.

I'm extremely OCD about edits, so sometimes I'll notice them anyway while I read...but if the story is sufficiently engaging, that is NOT what comes to mind when it comes time to write a review. Nor do I want to expend even a minimal amount of my brain thinking about those edits while I'm reading a story I'm enjoying. I want to be in the dream the author is weaving for me...not in my editor head.

So to me, that's the real goal. Don't break the dream, and the reader won't care. And keep in mind that if you're getting a lot of complaints about edits, it's *possible* that you have problems that paying a few more copyeditors to pull out typos won't solve.

If that's the case, I would just learn from it and go on to write the next book, and the one after that, and the one after that...repeat until insane, lol.

Rachelle Ayala said...

Hi Shannon, I agree with all your points. I get super bored, super fast, with reams of internal monologue, narration and musing. However I've gotten critiques telling me to SLOW DOWN and put in more internal thoughts and character motivation. I thought I was supposed to show, not tell.

Which brings me to your last point. Write to your strength. I definitely can't be everything to every critter or reviewer, so I'm just going to go with it, making sure I hire a professional editor, and proofread the heck out of my manuscript before submitting.

thanks for your post!

Mark Beyer said...

Nice post, but newbies beware ... too much dialogue will leave readers wondering if they should be watching a movie. Learn good, effective narration skills so that you can interpose dialogue that is powerful, memorable, and says something.

Jeff Clough said...

When I write an indie book review, I do my best to cut it no more or less slack than a title from a mainstream publisher. Given I've caught multiple errors in three mainstream books just in the last two weeks, I can forgive the occasional "the the" or "quickl" that slips by.

I think we should always strive for perfection in our writing, understand we're never going to find it and accept that some people will take up pitchforks and torches for even a single misplaced comma.

Matthew Rowe said...

I've always been a dialogue heavy writer. My problem is keeping the pace too fast for too long. I've had to learn to slow things down. I'm still nto great at it but definitely better now.

This is good advice anyway. A newbies no. 1 fault is they think their way will work!

Shannon said...

I just have to say that I LOVE all the back and forth of opinions on this post. In other words, keep up the good dialogue. ;p

Mark Koopmans said...

Aloha Shannon,

Found this post via the Daily (w)rite site and just wanted to say: Excellent, but, hey, why don't you say how you *really* feel :)

You have a new follower and I look forward to reading more of your posts.