Blogger: Mary Keeley
I went to the White Sox home opener last Saturday, which they won after having lost all their earlier away games. As with everything else in life there are wins and losses for writers. But spring is a visual metaphor for reawakening opportunity for you. Opportunity that includes writing contests and the prospect of pitching your projects at conferences. Your self-evaluation of the following problem areas will help you to avoid common writing pitfalls that sabotage your book.
The hook isn’t strong enough and/or your book is too similar to what is already out there.
The hook in a novel needs to introduce the time and place, the protagonist, and the core problem he or she faces. If you haven’t shown a unique quality in her personality and some creative tension in the core conflict she faces on the first page, your book isn’t ready to pitch because you will lose the interest of the agent or editor judging it or listening to your pitch within the first 30 seconds. Likewise, if you haven’t found a new way to approach a topic that has been written about before or you don’t have something new and significant to say on a hot-button topic, your manuscript needs more work before it’s ready to present to the world.
Inadequate character development or revealing too much too soon.
If the agent or editor doesn’t learn something about the protagonist’s main flaw and strength in a way that makes them care about her in the first page or two, they know readers won’t be interested either, no matter how much future marketing and promotion is done. But revealing too many of them at the outset is problematic too. Some authors write their synopsis after the story is written, but one of the best supporting arguments for writing it before beginning your novel is that it will help you pace the exposure of hidden details, keeping readers turning the pages. Revealing too much too soon tells the agent or editor two things: (1) there probably won’t be many surprising twists later on to maintain interest, and (2) there isn’t time to develop the significance of each revelation when they are revealed too soon and still maintain the forward momentum of the story.
Not enough conflict to keep readers’ interest, especially in the middle of the story.
Ideally, a story should be a continual series of crisis peaks involving either the protagonist’s inner conflict or the outer action of the story, followed by a resolution and brief placid or contemplative valley before the next conflict erupts. The most serious crisis should occur at the end, culminating in final resolution of all the conflict. Stories that don’t continually introduce some sort of conflict will become boring. Agents and editors can sense from the 30 pages of a contest entry or proposal’s sample chapters if the writer has created enough opportunity for sustaining new conflicts throughout the story.
Unrefined writing craft and poor grammar and punctuation.
So much has been written about the need for stellar writing and flawless grammar and yet these remain a perennial roadblock. Wrong use of a word, repetitive sentence beginnings, misuse of semicolons are quick giveaways that a writer submitted before the manuscript was ready.
Which of these common writing pitfalls that sabotage your book do you recognize in your WIP? Which ones have your critique partners, a contest judge, or agents pointed out to you in your work? In which areas are you doing well, and what did you do to accomplish that?
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I want more “contemplative valleys” in my real life. I love that phrase, Mary.
Shirlee, I can’t claim credit for the phrase. I heard it somewhere and it stuck with me. Sounds sublime, like a mini-vacation, doesn’t it.
The pitfall with my current WIP is keeping the conflict in the middle. I have a very strong opening (so says my critique group) and I know how it ends, but I am still trying to develop a solid middle.
One area that I do well in is the opening hook. This has ‘happened’ because I’ve paid a lot of attention in the seventeen years I’ve been writing, especially the last ten years in my critique group. Read, study, write, share, edit, share again. My fellow writers have challenged and encouraged me, and my writing, especially the beginnings, are stronger for it.
Melinda, celebrate your success with the opening hook. It’s a testimony and encouragement for writers that “read, study, write, share, edit, share again” pays off. That and a challenging critique group. Iron sharpening iron. A new revelation about the protagonist’s inner struggle or a new twist in the plot may keep the middle from sagging.
Thanks for the ideas on working with the middle, Mary. And iron sharpening iron for sure. I would be nowhere without my critique group.
I think finding the right hook is an area I struggle with.
With my first two books, I was told the story had been done before. I was disappointed, but I began asking questions on how to make a story more unique. I’m hoping I’ve done it with my third book.
Another thing I need to work on is keeping the conflict strong throughout the story.
Great post, Mary. Your checklist is an easy one to work from. Thanks!
Jeanne, I’m glad you find this list user-friendly. That was the goal. So many things go into creating a unique story: setting, protagonist’s personality traits and inner struggles with a problem she needs to solve, plot twists, and your author voice. Revealing something the protagonist had been hiding, either in her inner conflict or in the plot can keep things moving through a story’s middle. I hope this helps.
Great helps, Mary. Thank you!
Kristen Joy Wilks
This is very helpful info, Mary. I know that writing contests have helped me so so much. Sometimes the feedback conflicts, but that in itself is helpful because you are able to learn to filter the advice that is given to decide what is best for that particular manuscript. Also a good skill to have as we get all sorts of advice, some good, some…highly ill-considered. I know that I am learning to let the characters contemplate what has happened to them after a big event has occurred. I tend to rush them through breathless action and then have them just jump to their next goal without the character taking a breather or reacting at all. I’ve gotten better and my stories are better for it, thanks to those contest judges and a few good friends who have been willing to read my stuff.
Kristen, that’s a realistic assessment of the value of writing contests. I often hear writers complain that they received conflicting feedback. I’m glad you are able to filter the advice and make use of what you see is good. And yes, those contemplative moments between conflicts are welcome breaks when readers can relax and take a quick breath before the next conflict arises to move the story forward.
This is a wonderful check list. Like others, writing contests have helped me so much. Being slayed can be a good thing when you take the information and use it. They help propel me forward, in the right direction. I don’t know if a writer ever feels like they have all this accomplished. I’ve heard recently two well known and respected writers say they struggle with that next work … can they pull it off again? That is so encouraging to me. And I think I am a forever grammar student … I love learning grammar … I don’t know that I’ll ever be accomplished, but I’ve come a long way! 🙂 The first business English class I took … I knew I was in love. I had much to learn, but I loved it.
I had a little encouraging news this morning. A local business put out a message that they need a magazine article written, but don’t have time … did anyone know of a local writer. I’ve only lived here three years, don’t know many people here really, and my name was suggested … and the lady I spoke with last year encouraged them to use me (she had no idea I saw she did this). She wrote, “Shelli is wonderful.” So, there were two people giving a vote of confidence my way. It was sweet knowing people were talking behind my back in a good way. Made my heart smile. 🙂 And that’s just how God opens doors … maybe supporters of my future work. 🙂
Shelli, that’s great news. Experiences like this are so affirming. Like God bending down and giving you a kiss on the top of the head. Yay!
Oh, yes, Johnnie. “God bending down and giving you a kiss on the top of the head.” I’ll remember that forever. That’s just beautiful, Johnnie.
Thank you, Hannah. 🙂
“Being slayed can be a good thing…” Shelli, that is an overcoming attitude that will produce positive outcomes. Writing is a lifelong schooling endeavor. Congratulations on your encouraging affirmation of you and your writing. A gift from God.
Thank you, Mary. 🙂
Awww, Shelli. What a great boost of encouragement!
Great article and thanks for sharing it. You’re so right in saying that a books hook (its first page) is extremely important in grabbing a readers attention. For myself, whenever I stroll through a bookstore looking for new titles to read, my decision on which ones to try depends on the beginning sentences. I have to be engaged quickly or I move on to others, and that’s how I work when creating my own stories.
Randy, yes, that’s the reality. There are so many books available from which readers can choose. They’ll keep browsing until they are grabbed by a first page.
The whole instant hook thing is still a problem for me, though I’m working on it. I read a ton of classic literature and, it seems to me, so many great books require time and persistence to get into. In times past, people were willing to devote that time because there were less entertainment forms vying for their attention. Life moved at a slower pace, so people had the margin and desire to “settle in” to books at a slower pace. Now, it feels like if you don’t grab a reader by the cheeks and shake him/her with EXCITING PLOT IMMEDIATELY, you’ve already lost. I’m reading Les Miserables right now with my kids. Let me tell you, that book starts slooooow. Fourteen chapters on the bishop’s backstory. But I can already tell that we’re going to need to understand him to get why he makes the choices he does later.
Hannah, that’s great insight into placing classic literature with times past. Nowadays, your book have to stand out from the multitude of others available in the same genre. This can be accomplished by beginning in the middle of a scene, focusing on the exciting action or the main character’s emotional reaction to the action, whatever is most appropriate to grab the reader into the story.
How true. Walter Scott was even slower.
thank you for that wonderfully helpful post.
I have a problem with the middle. Also i am not able to bring in multiple conflicts.
Jennifer Zarifeh Major
“Which of these common writing pitfalls that sabotage your book do you recognize in your WIP?”
“Which ones have your critique partners, a contest judge, or agents pointed out to you in your work?”
“In which areas are you doing well, and what did you do to accomplish that?” Olympic levels of avoidance, and what do I do to accomplish that? Not a sweet thing.
Annnnnnnnd let’s leave Snarkzilla behind and go all Edna Moda on me and pull myself together.
There’s a rumour going around that I need to condense a *few* chapters (1 or 2, or 13) and then tighten up the rear, but the middle is fine! YAY!
Also, apparently I’m good at parallelism. I don’t think I can spell it, but I am good at it. Maybe I should look it up.
I EXCEL at back story, so yeah, I have some extra, if anyone needs any.
I have been told that I’m not afraid to go into the shadows, “you’re unafraid to take us into the dark places, the gritty issues, so you can show true redemption and healing…the way you dive deep shows a lot of boldness, but tempered with compassion and honesty”.
I consider that a huge compliment.
I just have to do what it takes to improve on the rest.
Jennifer, celebrate the good middle, the good parallelism (which is especially important in a complex story), and your ease with gritty issues, which is accomplished by exhaustive research. Those big accomplishments, and the affirmation, are encouraging fuel for tackling other areas for growth.
Jennifer, you always encourage me. And here’s what I love the very most about this blog site … people like you, who are agented or published, comment here, encouraging people like me. You share what you’ve learned … your share your triumphs and failures … you are real. And that’s what we need to hear. Means the world to me.
Jennifer Zarifeh Major
Thank you, Shelli.
I love you, Jennifer. And what a wonderful, beautiful, and very true quote about your writing…glad you obviously saved that one. 🙂
Seems like your strengths definitely outnumber the stuff you have to work on!
As for me, I’m struggling with the discipline to write right now, partly due to being rather overwhelmed by the research needed and life in general at the moment. But slowly, this story is coming together, in my mind and gradually on paper–er, Word doc–as well, and I’m thankful.
Pitfalls I struggle with? The first three, I think–varying from story to story, but I do typically struggle with that opening hook. I think I’ve yet to not have to completely rewrite a story’s beginning. 🙂 But it always has ended up stronger, so far, anyway!
Thanks for the good reminders, Mary.
Mary, I’m finding that writing craft as well as grammar and punctuation are constantly changing. I can’t rely on my English degree from 20+ years ago. An editor I follow on Twitter says no more semicolons. Can’t say I’m shedding any tears over that, but what about the Oxford comma? Don’t get me started! 🙂
Meghan, it’s true that you can’t rely on your 20-year-old English degree. It used to be that you had to insert a comma before the third word/phrase in a series. That changed sometime in the late 70s/early 80s. Now, as of the 16th Edition of the Chicago Manual of Style, that comma is back in. For the purpose of proposals and manuscript submissions, the CMS is generally accepted as the standard. After your book is contracted, the in-house editor will modify the punctuation according to the publisher’s specific guidelines.
“If you haven’t shown a unique quality in her personality and some creative tension in the core conflict she faces on the first page, your book isn’t ready to pitch…”
This I find this to be unrealistic for me, and perhaps too advanced for my writing skills, to fit onto the first page which is usually two to three paragraphs. I understand starting the scene with conflict, but to make that conflict tie in to the core conflict, and be unique, and show enough character in your protagonist to reel in a reader, seems restrictive and narrows that uniqueness factor. All else I get, just not this one, perhaps over two pages or even the first 3-5 but I have trouble with doing all of this on the first page.
A well-chosen word or phrase can be enough to show the protagonist’s unique personality trait and her core struggle in a well-written sentence. The action scene on the first page doesn’t have to tie into the protagonist’s core struggle directly, but her response to what is happening should give the reader an insight into her personality and inner struggle. Noah Lukeman’s book, The First Five Pages, is a good resource that you might find helpful.
Punctuation has been my weakness. On the bright side of this problem, if a high school student can master this skill, then I know I can too.
That’s the right attitude, Shelia! Although I have to wonder how many high school students master punctuation when their main mode of communication is texting.
Another thing to watch for, and this is something I’m struggling with in my wip, is: I’ve given my protagonist plenty to keep him busy, mentally, physically and emotionally, but I’m doing a poor job showing how these things are affecting him as he moves through his life. I’m throwing bombs his way throughout but I need to reveal the price he’s paying dodging them- especially the ones he can’t dodge.
I think I need to stop trying to “protect” him. I think I need to use some tough love and really let him go through the ringer or my middle is going to be ineffective.
Darby, the important thing is that readers know what he is feeling in response to what is happening to him, while also revealing a little more about his inner struggle, which causes him to respond the way he does.
I’ll be hitting it hard on the next pass.
I always read about all these guidelines of what we need to put into the beginning of the book….to make a hook. But what exactly is that? Stories can’t be told without a history/background. Drama has to be built. How much can you achieve in 30 pages? Is there no patience for a story to grow…with a new society used to pop-up screens? Some of the best books out there right now are a little “slow” at the beginning because the story is building. I have an agent now reviewing my manuscript who commented, “It was a little slow to start, but I am enjoying it….” and then proceeded to ask for the full MS. So, I am not sure what “formula” we writers are trying to follow. It just gets confusing.
Elizabeth, yes, drama has–needs–to continually build throughout the story in order to keep readers’ interest. And like we’ve discussed earlier in our conversation, the action on the first page and the protagonist’s response to it need to grab readers’ interest so they care about her or him and want to keep reading to find out what happens next. Many good books on writing are available. James Scott Bell and Jeff Gerke have written a number of excellent resources. And as I mentioned earlier, Noah Lukeman’s book, The First Five Pages, also provides helps. They should help to remove confusion.
The last sentence is the most encouraging to me because it simply says the writer submitted the manuscript too soon. It implies if the writer had taken more time, an excellent submission would have been the end result. Sometimes, as writers, it feels like our manuscripts will never be good enough. But thankfully, our critique groups, editors, etc. can help us polish our manuscripts so we don’t submit an inferior product before it’s ready. Thank you Mary for good advice. 🙂
Exactly, and Amen, Gayla.
I definitely agree with Melinda about struggling with maintaining conflict in the middle of a story. I’ve begun more drafts and had them founder because I wasn’t able to sustain tension past the story’s beginnings. My biggest writing pitfall is what I think of as the “30, 000 word hump.” If I can make it past that point and keep interest and conflict going, I’ll likely finish the draft and be fairly pleased with it.
Interestingly enough, I’ve never really been a plotter. In the past I’ve always started a first draft and let it take me where it will. For my current WIP I blocked out the entire plot in advance and jotted down about 30 or 40 key scenes that will be happening throughout the story. Doing so is proving to be incredibly helpful with maintaining conflict over the whole course of the work. I may never go back to my previous free and easy ways!
Alexis ander son
my book club and I are having a hard time understanding why so man books that make the top best lists are so darn boring and bad. I won’t name titles but as an aspiring writer I feel frustrated that all the don’t I’ve been told not to do in my work all show up published in someone elses.I can t remember the last book I read and went wow, this is great or even one I hadn’t skipped over paragraphs of dribble to just get to the point the writer was making.
My sentiments exactly! Honestly, it was what finally pushed me to writer with vigor because there were sooooooo few books in our book club that wowed anyone. It was always a struggle to get everyone to read! We get all this advice on getting a hook in early, yet so many books take at least 100 pages to get into. Then there is, “have intrigue throughout the book at 1/3 and 2/3….”….most of the time my intrigue is to just finish the story! Have a strong voice, they shout. The only voice I hear is my own wishing the story would end. And good writing??? Well, when I find an author that has “good” writing I will let you know. So many books are simple in writing…I know, I know, because we live in a world that has 20 second attention span. But i feel that when querying we are being asked to jump through hoops to be the stellar novel when the truth of the matter is that what is being published does not live up to the same standards.Did I vent too much??? Sorry.
So good to hear someone say that Elizabeth!!!!
I believe this is the sentiment of many, though most wouldn’t have the courage to say so. I wonder if the agents of this blog could answer this, why there’s so much junk out there when they are asking for perfection.
very useful. thank you