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October 27, 2014

Twelve Common Mistakes Found in Fiction Manuscripts

Mistake Number Six: No Significant Conflict

 

This is the sixth blog discussing some common mistakes found in fiction manuscripts from early readers and chapter books to adult novels of all kinds of subgenres. Several weeks ago, we started this list and will continue until we’ve done all of what I believe are the most important common mistakes. Today we’ll look at “No Significant Conflict.”

Too much description and narration

Switching viewpoints in the same scene

A negative tone throughout the story

Infallible or underdeveloped characters

Stilted or unnatural dialogue

No significant conflict

Weak transitions between paragraphs

Impossible resolutions

Redundancy

Passive verbs instead of active verbs

Lack of sensory detail

Lack of emotion or action

There’s nothing more boring than a “slow” book. What do I mean by that? A slow book is one in which the plot never quite develops with significant conflict either within the primary character’s inner being or between the major characters. So, when should conflict arise?

If possible, on the first page or, at least, in the first chapter, preferably somewhere on the first few pages.

As an editor for a small press the last year or so, I’ve read quite a few manuscripts that have been submitted for consideration. I need to read only one to two pages to decide if I want to keep on. Why? There has to be a significant “hook” right up front to draw the reader into the character’s life and “issues.”

Today’s readers in our fast-paced society want a quick read. Oh, the book might be three hundred or more pages long, but the action starts on the first part and is non-stop until the very end. Gone are the days that an author needs to take five chapters to “explain” what’s going on. Have you ever heard this statement from a speaker at a writers’ conference, “Show, don’t tell”?

Fifty or a hundred years ago, much of our classic literature was written this way. Life moved at a slower pace, there were no computers, and going back farther there were no radios or TVs. What did folks do? They played table games or they read. So picking up a book that took the first sixty pages to describe the characters, their attitudes, and the world around them was really a ticket to an exciting adventure. But today, many classics from yesteryear are a difficult read because of the lack of continual dialogue and action.

So, how can we develop a story with significant conflict in the plot? Believe it or not, a skilled writer can take ANY idea and develop a page-turner.

Instead of my attempting to “tell” you how to do this, I’ll “show” you by comparing a few examples. We’ll look at boring ho-hum beginnings and then their significant conflict hooks to start the manuscript on the path to success:

Example One (Article):

Ho-hum : A while ago, I interviewed Clyde Peeling, the owner and curator of Reptiland in Allenwood, PA, on route 15 near Williamsport. Reptiland is loaded with all kinds of wild animals, including alligators, snakes, and other ugly creatures.

Significant conflict immediately:   How would you like a frozen mouse for lunch?  If you would, then join dozens of snakes, alligators, and other reptiles at Reptiland, a zoological park at Allenwood in central Pennsylvania.

(From “Lizard Man”- Boys’ Quest; Aug/Sept.02)

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Example Two (Short Story):

Ho-hum: My eight-year-old son had been sick for some time. We finally found out he had cancer and wouldn’t live much longer.   One thing he wanted to do was see snow, but we were having a warm autumn in central PA.

Significant conflict immediately:   “Dad, I-I want to see the first snow,” he said, forcing the words out with jagged, tired breath. “D-do you think I’ll see it, the way I am and all?”

“Colton, son, you’ll see it. I promise. We’ll see it together,” I assured him.

(From “First Snow” – Inside PA Mag. Dec. 08)

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Example Three: (Juvenile Fiction):

Ho-hum: Skye Nicholson found herself in juvenile court for the umpteenth time in her thirteen short years.  She sat in the chair and just stared at the judge. She was as mad as a hornet and in no mood to appease anybody.

Significant conflict immediately:   “Young lady—and I use that term loosely—I’m tired of your despicable behavior. I’m sending you to the Chesterfield Detention Center!”

Skye Nicholson looked cold as an ice cube as she slumped in the wooden chair and stared back at Judge Mitchell. Most thirteen-year-olds would have been scared to death as a hearing with an angry judge yelling at the top of his lungs. But Skye was no “ordinary” thirteen-year-old.”

(From A HORSE TO LOVE, Book 1 in the Keystone Stables Series – Zonderkidz; 2009)

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Example Four (Romance Fiction):

Ho-hum: As Louellen Friesen dusted the chandelier in the dining room, she lost her footing and slipped off the chair she was standing on and went sailing toward the table where Dr. McAndrew sat drinking his coffee.

Significant conflict immediately:  “Watch out!” Dr. McAndrew yelled, and in an instant, Louellen Friesen found her slender frame in the man’s embrace, his strong arms breaking the fall that would have landed her face first in his afternoon coffee.

(From Love Song for Louellen, vol. 3 in THE LOVES OF SNYDER COUNTY AMISH/MENNONITE FICTION ROMANCE SERIES, Helping Hands Press; 2012)

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So, there you have four examples of developing conflict right on the first page, in fact, in the first few sentences. If you start your action immediately like these samples and keep it going by slowly building to your climax and ending with a dashing resolution at the end of your story, you’ll have yourself a page-turning manuscript and possibly a best seller. It’s important to remember that your use of exciting dialogue and excellent descriptive words in narration can make or break your story.

And above all, remember to show not tell!

Next time, we’ll take a look at Mistake Number Seven: Weak Transitions Between Paragraphs.

October 16, 2014

Twelve Common Mistakes Found in Fiction Manuscripts

Mistake Number Five: Stilted or Unnatural Dialogue

 

“Wally, let’s go outside and play football,” said Beaver in the boys’ bedroom.

“No, Beav,” Wally said. “I have to do homework.”

“But it is Saturday,” Beaver said. “You don’t have to do homework on Saturdays.”

“That is incorrect, Beav,” Wally said. “I have a big report I must do, and our father said I have to get that done before I do anything else today.”

“Well, Wally, I guess if you cannot go out, I will have to go out and play by myself,” Beaver said.

***************************************************

Are you groaning at this fictitious dialogue between Beaver and Wally? You should be because it’s absolutely awful. If you want to know how NOT to write good dialogue, use this as your prime example.

This is the fifth blog discussing some common mistakes found in fiction manuscripts from early readers and chapter books to adult novels of all kinds of subgenres. Several weeks ago, we started this list and will continue until we’ve done all of what I believe are the most important “common” mistakes. Today we’ll look at “Stilted or Unnatural Dialogue.”

Too much description and narration

Switching viewpoints in the same scene

A negative tone throughout the story

Infallible or underdeveloped characters

Stilted or unnatural dialogue

No significant conflict

Weak transitions between paragraphs

Impossible resolutions

Redundancy

Passive verbs instead of active verbs

Lack of sensory detail

Lack of emotion or action

STILTED OR UNNATURAL DIALOGUE

Let’s analyze the sample of dialogue that started this blog.

First, let’s look at the tags (Wally said/ Beav said) and the beats (none) and see how we can improve the passage. Obviously, there are only two characters in this scene: Beaver and Wally. In such a scene, it’s not necessary to keep repeating “Wally said” and “Beaver said.” (Unfortunately, the early TV shows in the 40s and 50s often had poor script writing like this.) Also, the characters keep saying each other’s names when addressing one another. How boring is that? Once the characters are introduced with their initial dialogue and a tag, the dialogue will flow much smoother by deleting most of the tags and name calling. So what about adding some beats? In fact, what are beats?

Beats are sentences added to a line of dialogue that adds action and detail without using the word said, asked, or any other overused tag. Let’s compare two examples:

 

“Where are you going?” Ben’s mother asked him.

“Where are you going?” Ben’s mother anchored her fists on her hips, and she scowled.

 

Now, in sample one, all we know is Ben’s mother wants to know where Ben is going. There’s no sense of any emotion at all. It’s what we’d call “stilted” writing. Most newbie writers would tend to add a sentence after the tag to “tell” how Ben’s mom feels instead of “showing” it.

In sample two, the tag is not there; instead, we have a beat that describes exactly how Ben’s mom feels about him leaving. This sentence clearly “shows” action; it doesn’t “tell” it. This sentence moves the action along beautifully.

Next, let’s look at unnatural dialogue. What’s unnatural dialogue?

It is extremely important for a fiction writer to KNOW his characters, their backgrounds, social temperament, and language colloquialisms. Experienced writers will spend time developing character description files for the main characters in his/her work and get to know those characters almost as if they are real people. Those writers will also study language patterns, listen to folks who resemble their characters, and take lots of notes. They’ll also develop a unique dialogue for each of the main characters so the reader will be able to tell who’s speaking even without a tag or a beat. Each character should have his own style, vernacular, and possibly slang words (if any at all.) There’s nothing that speaks to a beginners’ work that reading dialogue that just doesn’t match the character’s age, sex, ethnicity, social status, or background or reading dialogue of several main characters who all sound exactly the same. Thus, reading an Amish fiction book in which the main character would say, “Hi, dude!” is as ridiculous as reading a book about inner city violence in which one of the street gang members says, “Thank God you are safe.”

In this passage with Beaver and Wally, we have several examples of unnatural dialogue. Let’s look at them:

 

“But it is Saturday,” Beaver said.

“That is incorrect, Beav,” Wally said. “I have a big report I must do, and our father said I have to get that done before I do anything else today.”

“Well, Wally, I guess if you cannot go out, I will have to go out and play by myself,” Beaver said.

 

In the first sentence, Beaver said, “But it is Saturday.” In the last sentence, Beaver says, “Well, Wally, I guess if you cannot go out, I will have to go out….” Here are three prime examples of unnatural dialogue that most newbie writers abuse over and over. In natural dialogue, contractions are used, which helps the dialogue to flow much better. We speak contractions in our everyday speech, so why not write them?

In the second sentence, we have two violations. Wally said, “That is incorrect.” Now what kid is going to talk to his brother by saying, “That is incorrect.” As a teenager, Wally would probably say, “As usual, you’re wrong” or maybe another smart remark.

The other violation in this second sentence is when Wally calls his dad “our father.” Sheesh, he’s not praying! What would a teenager call his father? Dad? Pop? Hopefully not “The Old Man,” unless the writer is portraying a rebellious child.

All right, we’ve shown what not to do with dialogue. Let’s rewrite this passage and see how we can improve it and make it flow much better and keep the reader’s interest:

 

“Wally, let’s go outside and play football,” Beaver said in the boys’ bedroom.

“No,” Wally said. “I have to do homework.”

“But it’s Saturday. You don’t have to do homework on Saturdays.”

“Wrong, little brother.” Wally flopped on his bed with his notebook and pen. “I have a big report to do, and Dad said I have to get that done before I do anything else today.”

“Well, I guess if you can’t go out, I’ll have to play by myself.” Beaver grabbed his football and hurried out the door.

 

There you have the finished product, revised with most of the tags deleted and two beats and contractions added. Now we have natural dialogue that flows and is quite believable.

So what do you think? Which dialogue about Wally and Beaver would you rather read?

Next time, we’ll discuss No Significant Conflict. Happy writing!

Sept. 29, 2014

Twelve Common Mistakes Found in Fiction Manuscripts

Mistake Number Four: Infallible or Underdeveloped Characters

This is the fourth blog discussing some common mistakes found in fiction manuscripts from early readers and chapter books to adult novels of all kinds of subgenres. Several weeks ago, we started this list and will continue until we’ve done all of what I believe are the most important “common” mistakes. Today we’ll look at “Infallible or Underdeveloped Characters.”

Too much description and narration

Switching viewpoints in the same scene

A negative tone throughout the story

Infallible or underdeveloped characters

Stilted or unnatural dialogue

No significant conflict

Weak transitions between paragraphs

Impossible resolutions

Redundancy

Passive verbs instead of active verbs

Lack of sensory detail

Lack of emotion or action

We’ll define infallible characters this time then move on to a more in-depth study of underdeveloped characters in the next blog. So let’s look at our first character type.

It’s quite the temptation to create a character who is infallible, reasoning that every reader will love your hero and, thus, love the book. However, it’s also quite impossible to write an exciting story arc with a breath-taking climax and resolution if you don’t build in any tension or conflict that your main character sees through his/her eyes and even might have been caused by one of your hero’s flaws or his/her flawed reaction to the crisis. We’re all aware that the definition of “infallible” is incapable of making a mistake. So, if we create infallible characters, we are creating impossible characters…unless we’re writing about God.

A clever author will work hard to plug in something irritating, a little quirk or a bad reputation from his past or whatever, just to make the person human. Your readers will enjoy your story much more. Why? Because they’ll identify with that character’s weakness in some way, possibly even feel sorry for him, and root for him to get the upper hand at the end of the book.

Let’s look at a few super heroes (in books or movies) and see if we can identify at least one weakness in their characters. Remember the weaknesses are evident; yet, the authors cleverly imbed them into the characters’ personalities so the readers still have a sense of pity or good will for the heroes, hoping that “all will be well” at the end of the book or movie.

What most evident weakness or flaw do you recognize in these characters? Or can you name more than one flaw but you still liked them or rooted for them all the way through the book or movie?

Captain Ahab in MOBY DICK

King Arthur in CAMELOT

Judah Ben-Hur in BEN-HUR

Scarlett O’Hara in GONE WITH THE WIND

George Bailey in IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE

Indiana Jones in RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK

Kevin in HOME ALONE

Professor Higgins in MY FAIR LADY

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Okay, let’s see if any of your flaws match my choices:

Captain Ahab – has a big-time bitterness problem (against an animal, no less!) that turns into a hatred onto death (unfortunately, his own death)

King Arthur – violates his own code of righteousness with indecision and concealing his wife and his best friend’s infidelity

Ben-Hur – another man with a root of bitterness that drives him to kill…that is, until God impacts his life

Scarlett O’Hara – yes, dear Scarlett, the conniver who schemes her way through every facet of her life

George Bailey – has a stroke of cowardice that almost costs him his life and almost destroys his family and business

Indiana Jones – an impatient thrill seeker who endangers the lives of friends around him

Kevin – disobedient and impertinent that causes unparalleled angst for his family and does untold damage to his home (Yes, I agree; it is a funny movie. We’re just “analyzing” here.)

Professor Higgins – arrogant as all get out and is blind to the emotional needs of others

So, how’d we do on our flaw matches? Remember, I only named one or two flaws for these characters. Some of them, like Captain Ahab and Scarlett O’Hara, probably have a list of flaws longer than their redeeming qualities; yet, we have read or watched on the edge of our seats, hoping the heroes or heroines would win in the end.

It would be worth our while to study the authors’ techniques that created these fascinating characters and take special note of how they so cleverly incorporated flaws and shortcomings as well as the characters’ “good side” that made all of them unforgettable. Of such, best-selling classics are made.

Next time, we’ll take a look at stilted or unnatural dialogue. Happy writing!

Sept. 22, 2014

Twelve Common Mistakes Found in Fiction Manuscripts

Mistake Number Three: Writing a Negative Tone throughout the Story

This is the third blog discussing these common mistakes found in fiction manuscripts from early readers and chapter books to adult novels of all kinds of subgenres:

Too much description and narration

Switching viewpoints in the same scene

A negative tone throughout the story

Infallible or underdeveloped characters

Stilted or unnatural dialogue

No significant conflict

Weak transitions between paragraphs

Impossible resolutions

Redundancy

Passive verbs instead of active verbs

Lack of sensory detail

Lack of emotion or action

Of the twelve common mistakes we are reviewing on this list, the negative tone or mood is probably the one that needs the least explanation. It’s quite the simple matter.

Developing your own tone or mood in your manuscript really involves your careful choice of words, mostly adjectives. If your goal is to create an antagonist as a main character, then you’ll have to take care to use numerous negative adjectives in your description of that character. You will also have to develop some positive quality in that main character that will make your reader like or, at least, tolerate him/her, or your reader won’t finish your book.

Think of some excellent books you’ve read or movies you’ve seen where the main character is hateful, murderous, or just downright nasty. How about Scarlet O’Hara in GONE WITH THE WIND? KING KONG? GODZILLA? THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME? As much as we disliked these main characters when we met them, there was something, if only one quality, that made them endearing so that deep down in the recesses of our hearts, we were hoping they’d win in the end. Now, analyze why we as readers or movie viewers felt like that.

The reason we had not written these characters off in the first scene and either threw the book away or walked out on the movie is because of the clever writing by the authors or playwrights. We don’t have the time or the space to take excerpts from these writings and study them. But if you do your own research in any books you read, you’ll soon find either clever writing that wins you over or flat writing that fails to develop a character’s full “character.” If you fail to insert, even in the least bit, something positive about your main protagonist or antagonist, you’re also going to fail to arouse the desired emotion you are seeking, possibly compassion for the Scarlet O’Hara in your book. If you want your reader to hate your main character, then trash your main character, but be careful. Many fans of fiction are not fond of hateful characters with no redeeming qualities.

Now, if your hero is fighting against a hateful, murderous antagonist, and your hero must win, then you need not present any positive qualities for that antagonist. In plots like this, make your antagonist as hateful as you can. That only adds to the positive qualities your hero will portray in his quest to defeat his hated foe.

Concerning plots and story endings, again, choosing the proper words will set the tone or mood for your world.

In recent years, we’ve seen an increase in “dark” characters and plots in both books and movies. I don’t care for that genre, so I can’t comment on any such as THE HUNGER GAMES or all the vampire books and movies like TWILIGHT. But, if you’re a fan of such, again, analyze how the main characters are portrayed. Do you develop a fondness for them even though they are evil or do you hate them to the death and cheer when they meet their end?

It all depends on the choice of words the authors have used to describe them.

So, do some analyzing of best sellers then spend some time on your own works. Decide what kind of mood or tone you want and dig out your thesaurus.

P.S. For a list of positive and negative mood and tone words, check out this website. It might just give you some fuel for the fire you’re setting under your next hateful antagonist.

http://ourenglishclass.net/class-notes/writing/the-writing-process/craft/tone-and-mood/

pen and quill

 

September 15, 2014

Twelve Common Mistakes Found in Fiction Manuscripts

Mistake Number Two: Switching Viewpoints in the Same Scene

 

In this series of blogs, we’re going to make our way through all twelve of these common mistakes us writers of fiction must tackle to perfect our writing and get our manuscript publishing ready. In my last blog we discussed Mistake Number One in writing fiction, Too Much Description and Narration. So let’s have a look at Switching Viewpoints in the Same Scene.

Point of view is a technique all fiction writers must master to write effectively. The point of view choices when writing any genre and the difficulty involved in writing the P.O.V. correctly are directly correlated to the “person” in which the author decides to write:

First person – fiction and nonfiction (including “how-to” books and devotionals)

Example: In reading the book of Job, I found that God is ready to console me through my troubles.

Second person – nonfiction (including helps books, “how-to” books, and devotionals)

Example: When baking a cake, you must remember to turn the oven on and allow it to pre-heat before you put the cake batter in to bake.

Third person – most fiction is written in this P.O.V.

Example: Cyrus entered his dog Hunter in a dog show in the Obstacle Course event. Cyrus has won all kinds of blue ribbons with that amazing Scottie. “I love working with this dog,” he told a newspaper reporter in a recent interview. He’s really special.” And he’s special to me even if he hadn’t won any ribbons.

Omniscient – fiction in which the author presents the P.O.V. as though the reader is watching everything happening, but no characters’ P.O.V. is ever presented.

Example: Betty, Jean, Mary, and Sally decided to take a trip to Florida. Betty decided to drive, Jean collected coupons for restaurants, Mary reserved hotel rooms, and Sally chipped in a few hundred bucks for gas. (No thoughts of any character ever appear in the story.)

Because much fiction is written in the third person, we’re going to concentrate on that P.O.V. and how to avoid “messing up” by writing two different P.O.V.’s in the same scene. Let’s look at a few samples of writing P.O.V. incorrectly:

Example One:

Fred came home late from work on Thursday, hoping beyond hope that Chloe would have supper still warm for him. But I wouldn’t blame her if it’s all put away. I forgot to call her, he remembered as he went in the front door. “Hi, honey! I’m home!” he said.

Chloe came trudging into the living room, her hair disheveled, her clothes covered with dirt and grass stains. “What a day I had! The washer broke, Sammy fell and got a bloody lip, and I just slipped and fell out back when I tried to chase the neighbor’s dog out of the yard.” And Fred, you better not say a word about no supper on the table!

Can you analyze this little excerpt and see two points of view? There’s nothing more confusing to a reader than to try to get inside two or three different characters’ heads in the same scene. So how do we fix this point of view problem in this excerpt? Easy! Just delete one of the characters’ thoughts and concentrate on getting into the head of only one character per scene.

Here’s the same scene in the correct P.O.V.:

Fred came home late from work on Thursday, hoping beyond hope that Chloe would have supper still warm for him. But I wouldn’t blame her if it’s all put away. I forgot to call her, he remembered as he went in the front door. “Hi, honey! I’m home!” he said.

Chloe came trudging into the living room, her hair disheveled, her clothes covered with dirt and grass stains. “What a day I had! The washer broke, Sammy fell and got a bloody lip, and I just slipped and fell out back when I tried to chase the neighbor’s dog out of the yard.”

Oh, brother! Fred thought. I better not say a word about any supper, or I’ll be in the neighbors’ dog house!

Let’s look at another example:

Example Two:

Bruce always thought Tammy, the sophomore gal who sat next to him in chemistry class, was the most beautiful girl he had ever met. His heart raced like a horse to the finish line whenever he smelled her sweet perfume and looked into her baby blues. Yes, Bruce was lovesick.

But Tammy, on the other hand, found Bruce to be just another ordinary guy and no one she’d ever want to date. Oh, sure, he was cute, but she never really thought of him as “her type.”

Now, in this example, we’ve not “gotten into the head” of either character to see his or her direct thoughts; however, the way the passage is written portrays to us Bruce’s thoughts and Tammy’s thoughts without direct quotes. Again, we have two P.O.V.s in the same scene, which only cause confusion to the reader.

Now let’s look at how we fixed this P.O.V. problem here:

Bruce always thought Tammy, the sophomore gal who sat next to him in chemistry class, was the most beautiful girl he had ever met. His heart raced like a horse to the finish line whenever he smelled her sweet perfume and looked into her baby blues. Yes, Bruce was lovesick.

But Bruce felt, just from her vibes, that Tammy probably thought of him as just another ordinary guy and no one she’d ever want to date. Did she think he was cute? Bruce could only hope, but he had the feeling that she believed he wasn’t “her type.”

Okay, writer friends, there you have it. The pesky P.O.V. problem and how to fix it in a very, very short lesson. Hopefully, you’ve already mastered the P.O.V. technique. If not, I hope this blog has been of some help to you.

Next time, we’ll look at Common Fiction Mistake Number Three: A Negative Tone Throughout the Story.

Sept. 1, 2014:

From an Editor’s Viewpoint

Twelve Common Mistakes Found in Fiction Manuscripts

If you’re serious about having your fiction published, there are several important points to remember as you create your masterpiece. An editor can usually read the first page or two of a work and know whether the author is an experienced writer or a newbie. Believe it or not, many of the problems I’ve listed below will actually surface on the first few pages of a poorly written story.

Although the tell-tale signs are many (probably two or three dozen), I decided to concentrate on what I feel are the twelve most important problems that appear frequently in fiction manuscripts. Even experienced and published authors, including me, must be careful not to get sloppy and fall into a “newbie mode” of writing.

So, let’s take a look at some of these tell-tale signs that flash like a neon sign BEGINNER on the pages of an author’s manuscript. I’ve listed the twelve points in this post, and we’ll look at the first one in detail. In the next few posts, we’ll discuss the others and sometimes give examples.

Twelve Common Mistakes Found in Fiction Manuscripts

Too much description and narration

Switching viewpoints in the same scene

A negative tone throughout the story

Infallible or underdeveloped characters

Stilted or unnatural dialogue

No significant conflict

Weak transitions between paragraphs

Impossible resolutions

Redundancy

Passive verbs instead of active verbs

Lack of sensory detail

Lack of emotion or action

Too Much Description and Narration

Classics from days gone by were notorious for pages and pages of description and narration. Perhaps you’re a fan of those old books that detailed everything, including how many feathers were on Aunt Millie’s new hat. However, today’s readers, including me, don’t have the patience to wade through all the gold and glitter of background, scenery, characteristics of the main characters, and colors and shades of the setting sun. Today’s readers want a quick read, one that they often can knock off in an afternoon or evening.

I remember several years ago I went to the local library and got Jules Verne’s MYSTERIOUS ISLAND, a book that was made into a movie, probably 30-some years ago, with lots of action, including monster lizards running around eating people. Well, I sat down to enjoy this exciting book, and about 80 pages into it, I threw up my hands and gave up. Why? The book went on and on to describe the island, the cave the fellows lived in, the garden they planted, blah, blah, blah. In fact, those first 80 pages seemed completely isolated from the main plot of the story IF the movie had followed the main plot line when the book was transposed into a movie script. I also tried reading book one of LORD OF THE RINGS with the same result. The first hundred pages or so described all the different worlds and characters, and I got bored out of my tree. I gave up. I’d rather watch the movies.

When I contracted with Zonderkidz to write the KEYSTONE STABLES SERIES, I had kind of a culture shock when my editor returned my first few chapters with this message attached, “I want dialogue on every page.”

I swallowed hard, took a good look at my manuscript, and decided I had a major revision on my hands. It’s important to note the books in my series are for tweens, so the action MUST be fast-moving, which includes frequent dialogue. However, in studying today’s published books for adults, I find practically the same principle. Dialogue constitutes probably at least 60% of most pages, sometimes a higher percentage.

Remember, readers today want a quick read. The definition for a “classic” or “best-seller” has changed drastically over the last several decades. So work on including more dialogue and deleting a lot of the “fluff.”

The editor just might be totally impressed and send you a contract!

pen and quill

August 25, 2014

What is a Chapter Outline?

If you’re like me when you first started writing, you probably thought a chapter outline, which some editors request with the proposal, was Roman numerals I, II, III each with the subpoints of A.,B., and C. And if you’re like me, once you were in the writing /publishing world for any length of time, you discovered that a chapter outline is nothing like the outline you wrote for English class in high school.

To put it simply, a chapter outline is a brief summary, maybe one to three short paragraphs per chapter, explaining in third person your story’s main characters and plot. If you know how to write a good newspaper article, then you’ll do a good job writing your chapter outline.

The Components:

A good chapter outline should include:

1. The names of your main characters

2. The setting and time frame

3. A summary of each chapter (as far as you’ve written if you haven’t completed the book yet)

4. If possible, (and the editor might request this), the outline for the final chapter

A good chapter outline should not include:

1. Dialogue

2. Detailed descriptions of your main characters

3. Your opinions

4. Questions for the editor

To give you an idea of what a chapter outline should be, here’s a sample of one of mine. I’ve included only the first three chapters of twelve in the book:

SNOW

By Marsha Hubler

Chapter Outline

Chapter One

Dallis Parker is a thirteen-year-old tomboy who loves horses more than anything else in the world. However, she fell off a pony when she was six, breaking her leg in three places. Since then she walks with a brace and a limp. Because of her bad leg, Dallis has a poor self-image, is withdrawn, and does not make friends easily. Dallis’s parents will not allow her to be around horses, let alone own one. Yet, she has never given up her dream to have a horse again someday.  Much of her time is spent dreaming about a white stallion named Snow who leads a herd of mustangs in the Pocono Mountains in Pennsylvania.

Living in farm country, Dallis raises chickens and shows them at 4-H Club. Her only friend, Sheila Elliot, is an African American girl who lives with adoptive parents on the farm next to the Parker farm. Sheila is also a member of 4-H and raises lambs. Matthew Spencer is an eighth grade boy whom Dallis has had a crush on for years. A member of 4-H, he shows his champion quarter horse, Scrabble. Unfortunately, two other members of 4-H, Jane Dowling and Courtney Fulmer, who also show horses, dislike Dallis and belittle her constantly.

Sheila invites Dallis to go to a youth group meeting one Friday evening in the fall. Dallis is reluctant to go because she’ll be forced to mingle with kids she doesn’t know. But when she finds out Matthew will be there, she sets out to gain permission to go.

Chapter Two

At the youth group meeting, Dallis focuses on one person, Matthew Spencer. She ignores the events of the evening, studying him and resenting Jane and Courtney who latch unto him all night long. Near the close of the meeting, Dallis finally tunes in to Mr. Markham, the youth group leader, when he announces that the group will be going on a four-day survival camping trip to the Pocono Mountains in December. One of the reasons for the trip is to look for Snow, a “phantom” white stallion, supposedly the leader of a small band of wild Mustangs that roam the Shamokin State Park. When Dallis hears about the horse and learns that Matthew is going on the trip, she makes up her mind that she is going too.

Chapter Three

 

Dallis is overwhelmed with the beauty and excitement of Camp Icy Maples with all its activities to enjoy in new-fallen snow. There are eleven youth groups with over a hundred teens at the camp. However, she’s more interested in a certain young man who, as usual, is constantly smothered by Jane and Courtney. Dallis faces new ugly feelings about the two girls, feelings of jealousy, which she doesn’t like at all.

The first night of activities, while her youth group goes sledding, Dallis sits alone at a pavilion watching kids build snowmen and ice skate on a large pond. Even though others have invited her to join their activities, she chooses to wallow in self-pity and watch the fun from afar.But as she hobbles toward the gymnatorium for hot chocolate, Matthew joins her. As they walk together, they share their excitement about the next two days when the group goes to survival camp, looking for the white stallion.

*****

So there you have a sample of a chapter outline. For those of you who fly by the seat of your pants and you’re never sure what’s coming next, a chapter outline will be a very difficult task to accomplish. But if an editor from a prospective publisher wants one, then…well…

…start writing.

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