Tag Archives: #writing

Has Writing ruined reading for other authors?

Think back to when you were a child.  An innocence, where magic investagationand fantasy filled your world.  The tooth fairy somehow always knew when you lost a tooth, and you stared in amazement (though not disbelief) how such a tiny car could fit twenty clowns in it at the circus.

Then you grow up, and you discover why.  You were taken backstage and saw how the magic was done.  And like that *snaps fingers* the magic is gone.  You can’t ignore it.  The next time you went to the circus you looked for the trap door.  Even if the magician guesses your card correctly, you wonder how he did it.  ‘What’s the trick’, you ask yourself.  Not, ‘Wow, that’s incredible’.  You want to know the trick…  Because there is no such thing as magic.

You discovered the Great and Powerful OZ was just a charlatan behind a curtain using smoke and mirrors to play God.

Okay, I’m getting a little melodramatic, I realize that.  But it makes my point.  Critiquing is habit forming.

Since I’ve joined this underground society of writers I have done a lot of critiquing.  There are days I prefer it to writing.  But it is not without its drawbacks.

Even though my daughter is in high school, I recently started to read to her again before going to bed.  Sure the titles and topics of what we now read have drastically changed.  Little fuzzy woodland critters dancing gleefully in meadows have been traded for teenagers stranded in a town entranced by some dystopian virus outbreak, but still quality time is quality time…right?

I like to think my daughter enjoyed the times I’ve read to her when she was a little girl, but I’m not so sure this is the case now.

“I looked down the street.  All the houses had the same exterior brickwork, same mailbox, same landscaping…”  I pause after reading that last sentence.

“What?  Why did you stop?” my daughter asks.

“Exterior brickwork?  The author would have been better off saying ‘façade’.  It flows better.  ‘Exterior brickwork’ drew me out of the story a bit.  Don’t you agree?”

A sigh and eye roll later she replies, “Not as much as you analyzing every sentence.”

Critiquing is a wonderful tool.  I believe it helps me improve my writing as I become aware of other people’s issues in theirs.  But I recently noticed that I can no longer just read a book for the sake of reading.  I critique as I go.

I’m not saying I’m a master wordsmith, merely that critiquing helps sharpen your skills since you train yourself to look for pitfalls even experienced writers can fall victims to.  Like ending sentences with prepositions.

But like the grown up now looking for the trap door the tiny car parks on top of, there is a part of me that misses the freedom of reading without looking at word choices and inconsistencies.  Wires, pullies, smoke machines, and mirrors have replaced magic.

I still can enjoy reading, but it has become easier to get pulled out of it now that I read it from a more technical viewpoint.  I would never have noticed that a word appeared three times within a four paragraph stretch.  Head jumping never bothered me, and I would gloss over any semi-colons barely aware they were there.

Maybe it isn’t such as bad thing.  After all, those semi-colons have no place in modern society…

Honest Rejection

resume I recently saw an advertisement for a college.  It showed a man in a cap and gown smiling.  Obviously, he graduated and is ready to strike out and find his place in the world.  To find his fortune.  To blaze new trails…etc…

The caption read “In searching for the perfect résumé, you overlooked the perfect candidate”, though I may be paraphrasing.  But, I found it rather profound.

I remember years ago, I was working at a small startup software company.  I had zero managerial training, and was right out of college myself.  I was working in the shipping and receiving department…actually, I was the shipping and receiving department.

One day one of the owners came to me with a stack of papers asking if I was busy.   Sadly, being a startup company we were doing mostly receiving with very little shipping, so I had to honestly tell them ‘no’.

The owner handed me the stake of papers, which were résumés, and told me to sort through them.  I was to make one pile.  Résumés that contained certain buzz words, and the rest toss in the circular file.

Wow.  Just wow.  I couldn’t believe what job hunting came down to.  If you had three words on your résumé, you pass.  I think the ad nailed it.  It doesn’t matter what’s inside, it’s all about the packaging.

Finding an agent or publisher isn’t much different.  I saw a recent video where an agent spent about ten minutes going through his slush pile telling viewers why he was rejecting their query.  He mentioned several times he wasn’t sure if this would be well received, but hoped that it would be taken for what its intention was – an insight on how capricious the process can be.  He admittedly says he can’t give ‘the attention and consideration that probably every submission deserves’ because of the sheer amount he receives.  To be honest, I found it enlightening and sincere though I could see how another wanna be author could take offense to it.  The agent went through a small sample rejecting them solely based on certain details of their letters (not sample writing).

Two were rejected based on the titles, one was due to him being underwhelmed by the plot, and another because the writer plugged themselves in a bad way.  In one case the writer misspelled the agent’s last name, but he said that’s fine, although on a bad day, it could lead to rejection without a further glance.

He said these were not arbitrary decisions, but rather a system he put in place in order to get through the massive amounts of queries he receives on a daily basis.

I believe we have to acknowledge that fact.  Decades ago people would type out a query or résumé, stuff it in an envelope and drop it in the mailbox.  Somewhere between two weeks to a couple of months later you’d receive an answer with an explanation of the decision.  But those days are as ancient as leaving the restaurant’s phone number with the babysitter and walking to school in a blizzard, uphill, both ways.

Today applying for a job or querying can be done en mass with mail merge and online forms.  Decades ago agents may have only received maybe hundreds of queries a week rather than a day.  Job positions solicited a handful of candidates rather than hundreds.  Sure maybe there are more agents and jobs available, but that simply means more to apply to for those of us looking for that elusive ‘yes’.

So I do understand why that agent posted that video, and I do sincerely appreciate it.  He even admitted that he knows his system isn’t foolproof and he undoubtedly let some good stories slip through his fingers.  But that’s just something he has to live with, right?   Unfortunately, that’s something the writer of that would have been successful manuscript will have to live with as well.

Hey, I understand the reason for the process, but I don’t have to like it.

How to write a good book – It Was a Dark and Stormy Night

As a writer I feel my wife, critique partners and beta stormreaders are the life’s blood for my manuscripts.  I’ve never been strong in spelling and grammar, so developing a passion for writing may have been a very cruel joke on me.  I rely heavily on them, more than one should, to catch my many typos, misplaced commas, tense switches, and many other issues that plague my writings.  In this manner I realize how lucky I am to have married a teacher who has a reading endorsement.  But as much as I lean on all of them to make sure my ideas are communicated properly within the guidelines of the English language, there is so much more that a writer needs to be aware of beside worrying about the difference between affect and effect, and the three different meanings of to, too, and two.

I recently decided to try out for another contest.  In it participants must supply their query letter as well as the first two-hundred fifty words.  This seems to be coming more common in writing contests – including the first two-hundred fifty words.

It comes out to about three quarters of a standard page in an 11 or 12 point standard font, double spaced.  When I decided to enter I knew I needed to revise it if I were to stand any chance.  Why?  Well, because within these two-hundred fifty words the writer needs to communicate several things to the reader.

As any writer knows, the first line of the story is also known as a ‘hook’.  The attention grabber that will make the reader want to continue.   It makes sense, you want to make sure the readers are interested right from the start, right?

The following words need to do much more.  They need to be interesting as well, of course.  And if you were to ask other people what the first page of a book should do you’ll get a list as long as the number of people asked.  It should set the scene, set the mood, demonstrate your writing style, create a visual of the main character, endear the character to the reader, establish the personality of the character, determine the motivation of the main character, and you get the idea.

None of the above is unreasonable.  It would make sense for the first few opening paragraphs to do any one.  In fact, you can do any number of those suggestions in that list.  You can set the mood, introduce the main character and demonstrate your style.  But many also warn that you should not have any exposition.  The action should start right out of the gate.  Make sure the reader knows they are in for a ride.

While this is great advice I can’t help but wonder if readers are really that demanding.  Would a reader really toss a book away if they didn’t find out the main character’s eye color within the first page?  Is it a deal-breaker if we don’t fall in love with the character in the first four paragraphs?  Is all hope lost for the book if we don’t know by the middle of the second page that the boss is filing for divorce and the administrative assistance has been harboring a crush for her?

Can’t setting the scene take a few pages?  Can’t showing a character living a fairly normal life before all Hell breaks loose be acceptable, even if the disaster doesn’t happen until the fourth chapter?

Some of the books I read years (decades) ago didn’t start off at warp speed (and I’ve read sci-fi, so it literally could have).  But I didn’t toss it in the garbage.  Have the attention spans of readers nowadays degrade so much that if everything is not available to them right at the start they lose interest?

Has the influence of living in an age of email, drone delivery, ATMs, and immediate gratification spoiled the readers and denied authors the chance to slowly building up tension, plot, and character creation?

In Moby Dick the whale doesn’t even show up until about a third of the way through the book.  Gone With The Wind starts off with an exposition about her Scarlett’s physical features and family lineage.  Many of the classics and famous stories of even the mid 1900’s would probably never find representation by a modern agent, let alone a publisher.  Not because the author was a bad wordsmith, but because they don’t cater to the interests of the modern agent or publisher.

As writers, if we want our stories to be read we must capture the reader’s attention before they lose interest, whether that’s in one sentence or a generous full chapter.  Perhaps such high expectations force current writers to dig deeper into themselves in an attempt to bring out the most in their writing.  Even if the level of expectation may be unreasonable, it still may impel our creativity to flourish.

This may truly be the best of time and the worst of times, an age of wisdom and foolishness…