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Archive for December, 2014

December 29, 2014

Twelve Common Mistakes Found in Fiction Manuscripts

Mistake Number Twelve: The Lack of Emotion or Action

This is the twelfth blog discussing some common mistakes found in fiction manuscripts from early readers and chapter books to adult novels of various subgenres. We’re finally coming to the end of this list and will do one more, a Baker’s Dozen Special, of what I believe are the most important common mistakes in fiction writing. Today we’ll look at “The Lack of Emotion or Action,” which is a bedfellow of last time’s topic, “The Lack of Sensory Detail.”

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

Baker’s Dozen: (Telling instead of showing)

The Lack of Emotion or Action

As with a manuscript that lacks sensory detail, a piece of fiction that lacks emotion or action is considered “flat writing.” The best place you can find perfect examples of this type of writing is probably lying on your sofa or on the floor at your computer station: the local newspaper. Besides the absence of any dialogue, newspaper article writing is as “flat” as a piece of wet cardboard run over by a semi.

You’d be surprised how many fiction manuscripts I’ve reviewed over the last year that read like last evening’s newspaper edition. One of the key elements in writing excellent fiction is incorporating lots of emotion or action in your story. A clever writer will give some “life” to those main characters by adding their feelings or having them move around a little. Although in real life, everyone’s universe does start at the breakfast table every morning, every scene shouldn’t open there. (What’s easier than writing a scene with everyone sitting at a table?)

So… let’s analyze a few fiction examples. Take note of what senses are used in each example, either too sparingly or with skill to make the passage come alive.

Example One:

Flat Writing-

Tommy was afraid he wasn’t going to get the Monopoly game he wanted for Christmas. On Christmas morning, he slowly walked into the living room and sat in front of the rectangular box all wrapped in shiny red paper. He thought it looked like it could be that game he wanted so badly, so he picked it up and slowly opened it, almost afraid to do so.

Incorporating Emotion or Action

All Tommy wanted for Christmas was a Monopoly game. On Christmas morning, he bounded down the stairs and tore into the living room. He trembled as he examined all the gifts, focusing on one box in shiny red paper that just HAD to be the Monopoly game.

“Mom, is that what I think it is?” His heart raced so fast, he thought it would crash through his chest.

“Well, what are you waiting for?” Mom said. “Open it and see.”

Example Two:

Flat Writing-

As Mr. Chambers led the horse out of the barn, Skye studied the horse from head to tail. The horse’s coat was shiny, and his muscles rippled. His mane and tail blew in the breeze. Skye was really scared, but she also thought the horse was really pretty. Even though she was nervous, she decided she wanted to try to get to know the horse a lot better.

Incorporating Emotion or Action-

Out of the shadows came Mr. Chambers leading the sorrel gelding. Skye studied the horse from head to tail as the two approached. The morning sun bounced off his reddish-brown coat, making him look like he had been polished with expensive oil. Champ’s muscles rippled as he pranced, and his mane and tail whisked in the breeze. Scared as Skye was, she was overwhelmed by the beauty of this magnificent horse. Now, suddenly, her wobbly legs had some competition—a melting heart and half a will to at least try to get to know this gorgeous beast.

(From A HORSE TO LOVE, by Marsha Hubler, Zonderkidz 2009, p. 38)

Example Three:

Flat Writing-

Rodney watched Sharon, the love of his life from his past. Then he looked at the child she carried, supposedly his child. Once again he looked at Sharon, whom he hadn’t heard from in two years. She sat waiting for his response. Finally, he asked her, “If this is so, why haven’t you contacted me before?”

Incorporating Emotion or Action-

Rodney’s mind emptied of every rational thought as he studied Sharon, the love of his life from his past. Then he focused on the child—his child—supposedly. He forced his attention and shifted back on the gal he left behind and hadn’t heard from in two years….who sat waiting for his response. This has to be a mistake. Finally, his scrambled emotions let him speak. “If this is so, why have you never contacted me before?”

(From RHONDA FINDS TRUE LOVE, volume 5 in THE SNYDER COUNTY QUILTING BEE SERIES by Marsha Hubler, Helping Hands Press, 2014, p.9)

So, there you have three simple examples of how to get rid of all the flatbread in your writing and add a little pizzazz. Remember as you revise, it’s not what you write, it’s how you write it that either puts your readers to sleep or makes them want to turn the page to see what happens next.

Next time we’ll take a look at the last of what I believe are the most detrimental mistakes in fiction writing, Baker’s Dozen Mistake Number Thirteen: Telling Instead of Showing.

Happy writing!

 

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December 15, 2014

Twelve Common Mistakes Found in Fiction Manuscripts

Mistake Number Eleven: The Lack of Sensory Detail

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This is the eleventh blog discussing some common mistakes found in fiction manuscripts from early readers and chapter books to adult novels of various 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 “The Lack of Sensory Detail,” a fiction mistake common with most beginners and takes some experience and skill to develop.

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

Baker’s Dozen: (Telling instead of showing)

The Lack of Sensory Detail

Perhaps you’ve heard this statement about some of your writing or about someone else’s poor example flashed across the Power Point screen at a writers’ conference: “This writing is FLAT!” If that’s the case, then that writing is lacking sensory detail. Excellent is the writing that places the reader right in the middle of the action, feeling as if he/she is actually that main character and experiencing a wealth of sensory perks.

If you analyze weak fiction writing, you’ll discover the authors have majored on only one of our human senses: sight, even when the other senses could easily be incorporated. Also, the “sight” sense might be presented so weakly with hardly any description, we then have very lazy writing. However, as writers mature and learn from experience, they’ll start to incorporate as many of the other senses as possible: hearing, smell, taste, and touch. With the addition of just a few more sentences or two, the writer can make his/her fiction jump off the page!

As usual, let’s analyze a few examples to prove my point. Take note of what senses are used in each example, either too sparingly or with skill to make the passage come alive.

Example One:

Flat Writing-

“I’ve had it, Bill!” Joan threw on her raincoat and rushed out of the house in anger, forgetting her umbrella. She ran to the car parked in the driveway, and when she tried to open the door, she remembered she left her keys in the kitchen. With the rain and sleet pelting down, she felt soaked to the bone from head to toe. When she ran back toward the house, she slipped and fell on the wet pavement.

“That’s what I get for leaving in a huff!” she grumbled to herself. She picked herself up and trudged back into the house, determined to apologize.

Incorporating Sensory Detail

“I’ve had it, Bill!” Joan threw on her Sag Harbor black raincoat and rushed out of the house in anger, forgetting her umbrella. A mix of rain and sleet pelted down, instantly coating her long, blonde hair—her entire body—with a frigid chill. Still reeling from her fight with Bill, she took in several jagged breaths, the fresh, cold scent of an early spring shower filling her lungs. She paused a moment, gazing at her car in the driveway…debating whether she should get her umbrella or not.

“Oh, why bother?” she said. “I’m already soaked from head to toe.”

She ran to the car, and when she tried to open the door, she remembered she left her keys lying on the counter in the kitchen. As she ran toward the house, her high heels slipped on the icy pavement, and down she went with a hard smack on her backside.

“That’s what I get for leaving in a huff!” she grumbled. She gently picked herself up and edged her way back into the house, determined to eat humble pie.

Example Two:

Flat Writing-

Scrubbing a cooking pot at her sink, Louellen stared out her window. Snow was falling in her back yard. Her gaze shifted a short distance beyond the barn to her son John and his wife Katrina’s home. “I pray the ham will be tender as Alvira Kauffman promised. It sure smells good.”

Incorporating Sensory Detail-

“Katrina, just look at that snow! I pray everyone can make it to our Christmas dinner.” Scrubbing a cooking pot at her sink, Louellen stared out her window.  Snow was falling in buckets against the backdrop of her spacious back yard with two towering naked maple trees, the big red barn, and acres of dormant fields all shrouded in white. Her gaze shifted a short distance beyond the barn and paddock to where her son John and his wife Katrina’s home and barn were barely visible in the curtain of falling snow. She took a deep breath, the mouth-watering aroma of a baking ham infiltrating her senses. “And I pray the ham will be as tender as Alvira Kauffman promised. It sure smells good.”

Example Three:

Flat Writing-

The riders lined up their horses and looked at the waterfalls a bunch of yards away. Above their heads was water over some rocks. It tumbled on more rocks that were even with the riders. The water made big white splashes and then was smooth. The waterfall droplets and sunlight made a rainbow, and off to one side a little stream flowed down the mountain. A breeze made the waterfall mist fly everywhere, hitting the riders in the face. Skye was amazed.

Incorporating Sensory Detail-

 Lining up their horses, the riders sat gawking at nature’s water show half a football field away. Far above their heads, the falls flooded over a table of rocks arrayed on both sides by the greenest trees Skye had ever seen.

The water thundered as it crashed down over more layers of rocks, tumbling, tumbling, until it splashed onto large boulders level with the riders. There, billows of white foam faded into ripples that quickly smoothed into a serene pool as clear as glass.

A rainbow arched in a stream of sunlight. Off to one side the pool overflowed, forming the gushing stream that had found its way down the mountain to form Lackawanna Lake. Fed by the falls, a steady breeze and fine mist saturated the cool air around the riders, welcoming them to the secret and special place.

So, what do you think you can add to your manuscript to make it jump off the page and come alive for your readers? Think through the five senses, and don’t just rely on sight all the time.

Next time we’ll take a look at Mistake Number Twelve: Lack of Emotion or Action

Happy writing!

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December 8, 2014

Twelve Common Mistakes Found in Fiction Manuscripts

Mistake Number Ten: Passive Verbs Instead of Active Verbs

 

This is the tenth blog discussing some common mistakes found in fiction manuscripts from early readers and chapter books to adult novels of various 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 “Passive Verbs Instead of Active Verbs,” a fiction mistake so common, even the most skilled and seasoned writers can fall into the passive voice or “being verb” trap.

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

Baker’s Dozen: (Telling instead of showing)

Am, are, is, was, were, be, been, will be, shall be…the most common list of passive verbs that are so easy to use, and abuse,  and make your manuscript move in slow motion. Passive verbs in the passive voice can sneak into any manuscript, which according to my laptop’s dictionary “indicate that the apparent subject of a verb is the person or thing undergoing, not performing, the action of the verb.”  In other words, the subject of the sentence is not doing the action. He/she, therefore, is, well, passive!  But a writer who is honing his craft will want to focus on action, action, action, and have that subject perform the action, not receive it.

Now let’s look at passive verbs in some sample sentences and then change them into active verbs, helping the sentence to come alive:

Example One

Passive Voice: On Christmas Day, Sally was given a diamond ring by her fiancé Jeff.

Active Voice: On Christmas Day, Sally received a diamond ring from her fiancé Jeff. OR

(Change the subject) On Christmas Day, Jeff gave his fiancé, Sally, a diamond ring.

Example Two –

Passive: Twice a day, Frisky the poodle is walked by his owner Sam.

Active:  Twice a day, Sam walks his poodle Frisky.  OR

Twice a day, Frisky the poodle walks with his owner Sam.

Example Three –

Passive: Marcy thought she was given too much work to do by her mother.

Active:  Marcy thought her mother gave her too much work. OR

Marcy thought she worked too hard for her mother.

See how easy you can change a slow-moving sentence (and manuscript) into a story that “flows?”

Now, let’s discuss the flagrant misuse of passive verbs when they’re NOT in the passive voice. I would say this misuse is extremely prevalent in all manuscripts when writers are not careful, including experienced ones as well as beginners.

Passive verbs when not in passive voice are “legal” and are labeled as the progressive form/indicative mood (in past, present, and future tenses and in past perfect, present perfect, and future perfect tenses.)  We need not bore you with any other details and conjugation of any verbs, which might not help you a lick. (But if you’re interested, take a peek at this website: http://www.verbix.com/webverbix/English/learn.html ) The problem with these verbs is they slow down the action and can put your readers to sleep. There shouldn’t be more than one or two of these passive verbs per page in a well-written piece.

Let’s look at some samples of passive verb overkill and how the sentences can be changed to add more action and give the manuscript some oomph. Please take note that in the following sentences, the subjects are all doing the action in every sentence, but also notice which sentences have that oomph!

Example One –

Passive Verb: Fred will be taking his final exams next week.

Active Verb:  Fred will take his final exams next week.

Example Two

Passive Verb: The sun was shining brightly.

Active Verb:  The sun shone (or shined) brightly.

Example Three

Passive Verb:  The third grade students were looking forward to Christmas vacation.

Active Verb:   The third grade students looked forward to Christmas vacation.

Example Four

Passive Verb:  George will be going on a trip to France in February.

Active Verb:   George will go on a trip to France in February.

Then last but not least, let’s look at a few sentences that use “being verbs” and are just considered lazy or bad writing (and such an easy habit to form):

Example One

Being Verb:  Sam was the tallest boy in the class and won the jumping contest.

Better:          Sam, the tallest boy in the class, won the jumping contest.

Example Two

Being Verb:  I am not excited at all about going to the dentist.

Better:           I dread going to the dentist.

Example Three

Passive Verb:  Phil will be glad when this work day ends.

Better:             Phil can’t wait for this work day to end.

Example Four

Passive Verb:  Skiing down steep slopes is only for the young at heart and the foolish.

Better:  Only the young at heart and the foolish should ski down steep slopes.

Now, do yourself a favor and open the manuscript you’re working on. Do a word search and see how many times the nasty little passive (being) verbs pop up. Rephrase your sentences and try to limit these verbs to one or two a page. I think you’ll be amazed at how tight your writing will become and how much more appealing your story will be to your readers.

Next time we’ll take a look at Mistake Number Eleven: Lack of Sensory Detail

Happy writing!

 

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December 1, 2014

Twelve Common Mistakes Found in Fiction Manuscripts

Mistake Number Nine: Redundancy

 

This is the ninth blog discussing some common mistakes found in fiction manuscripts from early readers and chapter books to adult novels of various 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 “Redundancy,” one of the easiest fiction writing traps into which we authors can fall.

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

Baker’s Dozen: (Telling instead of showing)

Let’s define redundancy. Encarta’s Dictionary in my WORD processing program tells us it’s “the use of a word or words whose meaning is already conveyed elsewhere in a passage, without a rhetorical purpose.” In other words, it means using the same words or thoughts repeatedly when not necessary. (I just gave you an example of redundancy.)

This fiction flaw is one of the easiest for an author, including myself, to abuse and not even realize it. Therefore, it behooves us to constantly edit our work, to look for redundant words or phrases, and to rewrite those sore spots in the manuscript.

As per my style, the best way to tell you about Fiction Mistake Number Nine is to show you what not to write and how to fix the problem. (Remember “Show not Tell”?) So let’s review six examples of lousy writing with redundancy to the hilt and how to rewrite each properly:

Example One:  At twelve p.m. noon, Jerry left on his trip.

Fixed : At noon, Jerry left on his trip. (Yes, twelve p.m. and noon are the same time.)

Believe it or not, one of these redundant phrases slipped through in one of my published books!

Example Two:   Rob is a person who is honest and makes it a practice never to lie.

Fixed:   Rob is an honest person. /OR/ Rob makes it a practice never to lie. (If Rob’s honest, he’s not a liar.)

Example Three:  Marcy rode her horse in a circle around the show ring.

Fixed:   Marcy rode her horse in a circle in the show ring. (“Circle” and “around” indicate the same action.)

Example Four:  Sadly, Third World countries often have many uneducated citizens, who’ve never attended school.

Fixed:  Sadly, Third World countries often have many uneducated citizens. /OR/ Sadly, Third World countries often have many citizens who’ve never attended school. (If they’re uneducated, they haven’t been to school.)

Example Five:  Jerry insisted that he saw the accident with his own eyes!

Fixed:  Jerry insisted that he saw the accident! (Could he have seen it with his ears?)

Example Six:  Billy’s mother watched as her little toddler counted a total of ten pennies.

Fixed:  Billy’s mother watched her toddler count ten pennies. (Let’s get rid of “as” first. Then ask yourself the question, “How many toddlers do you know who are big?” Delete “little.” And last, we don’t need “total of”.)

Now, we could go on and on, and on and on, and make a list a mile long of common redundant, reused words and errors, but by now, you’ve probably gotten the point. (Did you see any redundancy in my last sentence?) Yes, it’s quite easy to fill your manuscript with redundant words and phrases without blinking an eye. But once you get a handle on how tricky redundancy is, you’ll be able to rewrite your work and find that publisher who wants it much faster.

Next time, we’ll look at my Pet Peeve of all the errors—Mistake Number Ten: Passive Verbs instead of Active Verbs.

Happy writing!

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