June 24, 2010

The Signs of an Amateur

Dovetailing onto yesterday’s post, I was thinking about the flip side. What marks a piece of fiction as something written by a writer new to the craft? When I was starting out, I often wondered: Is there anything here that marks me as an amateur?

Well, there are lots of things that people do when they start writing. Call it the natural progression of becoming a writer. Think of it this way. When you learn a foreign language, you’ll import the forms and habits of your native tongue into that other language. It’s only natural. You have to practice that language a LONG TIME to get all the nuances and structures down pat.

It’s the same with writing. When someone first starts out, they will often overdo things or underdo things. There is a natural progression, learning the ropes, and there are things that first-time writers almost always do.

Far from being discouraging, this should actually be comforting. This means the first-time writer is on their way. They’ve made the first couple steps along the road and soon they’ll be taking bigger steps and making more progress. To use a cliché, you generally have to crawl before you walk. You should be very proud of the fact that you’ve sat down and written and rewritten and sent it out. You are now ahead of 80 percent of people who say they want to write. (I don’t know the percentage, but I’m guessing.)

Here’s what Alicia at the blog Editorrents says marks a manuscript as that of an amateur.

1) Improper dialogue formatting
2) A whole lot of introductory participial phrases
3) Lots of semicolons
4) Clumsy quote-tagging (the default for tagging your dialogue should be "he/she said" or an action ~ He adjusted the rearview mirror. "I think we're being followed." ~ not He intoned, she simpered, he ejaculated)
5) More than a couple homophone mistakes (then/than, here/hear, etc.)
6) Starting the passage with whatever the latest trend is ~ an unattributed line of dialogue, a "cute meet" (two future lovers meeting in a cute way) and ~ this is important, because a good writer might do this and I'd like it ~ but doing it badly
7) Starting with odd stuff ~ in other words, including acknowledgments, dedications, a history lesson, or acknowledgements with a submission to an agent or publisher
8 ) Too many names in the first couple paragraphs. Who is the POV character? That's the name we need
9) POV shifts on the first page

I would add the following to Alicia’s list.

10) Creative formatting (manuscripts should generally be 1-inch or 1.5-inch margins, Times New Roman or equivalent font, 12 point, double spaced ~ draw attention with the quality of the prose, not the look of it)
11) Lots of (or any) exclamation points (we should be able to tell from the actual words in the dialog if something is emphasized)
12) Overplaying emotion ~ having your characters cry a lot or get very angry (in general, if you want to display strong emotion, you have to show the build up to that emotion, or “earn it”)
13) Italics on thoughts or on long passages (almost every new writer does this, but a reader takes for granted that written thoughts are from the point of view character, and you use transitions or something to show a change of point of view, so you don’t need to do this ~ although italics can also be used very effectively, as I saw in a recent scifi novel where it was used for dialog that was telepathic)
14) Overuse of (or any) ellipses
15) Sloppy verb tense
16) Opening with waking up, a dream sequence, looking in the mirror, talking in a café, unnatural dialog to try to get across back story, or a prologue ~ or any other opening that’s been done 10 million times before
17) Clichés at the sentence level, the scene level, or the plot level
18) Sending something to an agent or publisher that does not take that genre or kind of book
19) Labeling your fiction “literary” in a query letter
20) Calling your manuscript a “fiction novel” in a query letter (redundant)
21) Lots of misspelled words.

I don’t want to say any of these things to discourage anyone, but I really wish someone had said them to me.

What I’m Reading Today: Rereading my first novel manuscript.

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