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Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Don't fall in love with your children

I'm what you would call a very tight writer. You won't find a lot of dreamy narrative or long winded introspection in my stories. No one has ever accused me of being verbose.

My penchant for brevity has come in useful too. I have absolutely no qualms about ripping out thousands of words if I think for one minute they're not pulling their weight.

Some of that is due to my training. I've been in advertising a very long time and I've learned to pack a lot of meaning in very few words. When you have less than seven seconds to make your point, you learn to describe things in the most direct way possible.

I've actually known writers who write so beautifully their words are like poetry. I remember one CP whose work I could never read in one sitting because I was mesmerized by the lyricism of his prose. Unfortunately, that killed all pacing, tension and character building.

It was purty, but it stopped that poor novel dead in its tracks.

On the other side of the coin, there is also the writer who loves his words so much he can't bear to part with them. It's personal for him. These words are his children.

While the first author may find an audience that reads for the pure joy of rich languid description, the second kind of writer will wallow in slush piles the rest of his career.

I've lost count of the number of manuscripts I've reviewed, but it's given me a keen eye for knowing what will make it and what won't. I'm rather proud of the fact that I've gotten pretty good at picking out the winners (ie, the ones that got published).

Here are the things I've noticed about work that got published.

• The writing gets to the point. There is no waffle or long painful narrative about the mc's angst or a convoluted plot.

• Every chapter has a goal, motivation and conflict. I have a wonderful CP who will summarize each chapter and point out the goal, motivation and conflict. This has been tremendously helpful to me when I'm being too thick-headed to pick it out myself. If the GMCs are not there, the story's not moving forward.

• It has a very clear voice. This is tricky because I think voice is a highly subjective area. Readers look for a certain voice. I know I do. If you can manifest that voice from page one, a reader feels comfortable in your care. He knows what to expect from that writer.

• The narrative is confident. I don't know about you, but I cannot stand a manuscript that isn't sure of its direction. Again, it takes us back to making the reader feel comfortable (and safe) in your care. If your manuscript meanders for too long it's a sure bet your readers are going to feel insecure of your ability to deliver, giving them a reason to put the novel down.

• And finally…those published stories have phenomenal editors. I've seen the before and after of several published pieces. A good editor is subtle, and edits with the skill of a surgeon. It makes a good story, a great one.

I realize we're all a little protective of our words. But never love those kiddos so much that you can't slice their little throats and dump them in the alley. If they don't move your story forward, kill them off. You can always make more.


Joan Mora said...

Great post, Maria. I know I'm guilty of being an overprotective mom (on paper and in life!)

Thanks for sharing this sound advice.

Anonymous said...

As you know, I'm a tight writer too. I think that's a good thing but sometimes I underdevelop a moment and that's when I really appreciate a CP who'll point it out.

I was just editing a brewer chapter yesterday, holding my head, trying to define exactly what the goal, motivation, and conflict were. It rambled, dang it. I finally realized it was united by a subtext that I hadn't made clear enough (because it was, you know, sub). I tweaded a bit and hope it's now less scattered.

Writing is hard.

Maria Zannini said...

Joan: In life you can be forgiven. LOL!

My CPs have taught me to be less covetous of my writing. Nothing is so brilliant it can't be thrown out if it doesn't serve its purpose.

Maria Zannini said...

Daw: I hear you on underdevelopment. But I think it's easier to add than delete. Don't you?

With Touch of Fire, you guys helped so much in telling me where to add more. That's the beauty of good CPs. There's an intuitive relationship involved.

We don't tell each other: add this. We pose questions that kick starts us to fill in the blanks.

rcloenen-ruiz said...

Good post, Maria.

Sounds like you've got amazing CPs. I miss having a cp.

I had a friend who matches your description of the no.2 writer. It's sad but her reasoning was that nobody understood what she was trying to say. When I tried presenting some helpful crits, she got mad and said I was killing her babies. Last time I heard, she'd stopped writing.

Maria Zannini said... last comment didn't make it through.

Rochita: I have incredible CPs! They're the reason I got published.

But I've had word-huggers too. You can't help someone who doesn't want to listen.

One of my CPs tells a story of the first time she received a crit from a well-known published author. The review was awash in red ink and it took her several days to get over it. But she sucked it up, learned from it, and now she's a published author with her own agent.

That story always inspires me.