Back to Basics

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by Suzanne D. Williams

I wrote a post last month where I lamented my inability to read without editing the material. Rather than be complaisant and continue on as I am, though, I decided to, at least, put forth the effort to overcome my problem. Alas . . . do authors still say “alas?” . . . instead, I found myself extremely frustrated by the amount of errors.

Does no one study writing? I thought we’d learned to not do certain things. But it seems writers need to go over the basics – again.

In thinking on that, it came to me that writing is the one profession without qualifications. You can take classes on how to write, of course, but in general, most people, independent authors, especially, just sit down and start writing. I know I did. And I made a lot of huge mistakes. I wish now I’d had to pass some sort of test. I guess that’s what publishers used to do, in part. They’d screen manuscripts for people who’d gotten past all these amateur writing foibles.

  1. First person vs. Third

First person:  “Justin and I stared at each other from across the room.”

Third person:  “Justin and Laura stared at each other from across the room.”

Believe it or not, the first book I chose on my reading quest had, within two pages, switched from third to first. The author switched back afterward, but I was left wondering if she meant that sentence to be part of the characters inner thoughts or not.

I used to do that, insert what Justin or Laura was thinking in first person. I’ve stopped since then. It’s distracting and better done in third and rephrased. Rule of thumb, don’t switch from “he” and “she” or “him” and “her” to “me” and “I” outside of dialogue.

  1. Telling

This is a huge one that most authors, especially writers young in experience, still don’t understand how to avoid. Look for books on “deep point of view” as excellent learning tools on eliminating instances of telling. But as an example, most uses of “was” are telling.

“She was not used to being noticed by those around her.”

Why not put this into action? Show her nervous, picking at her dress, biting her fingernails, looking at the floor. All of those will convey it better and eliminate “was.”  As an aside, you will not eliminate “was” from a story entirely, but by making the effort, you will improve your writing. When seen en masse in a book, it becomes clear to me the author isn’t aware of the problem, and too much makes the story hard to read and, frankly, boring.

  1. Infodump

This is when, particularly at the beginning of a book, the author informs you of past action all at once. If what happened to the character in the past is pertinent to the first scene (and chances are it isn’t), then you either need a Prologue (which some say it’s best to avoid) or you need to rethink the plot of your first scene. Maybe start the book earlier or find several places to leak the information in where it doesn’t feel like I’ve been body-slammed.

  1. Adjectives

I’d never thought this would be a problem, but in my second choice of reading material, the author described EVERYTHING.

“She lifted her oversized plate and pressed it against her buttery-yellow t-shirt, the hem hanging over her worn black leggings and old brown sneakers, which she’d borrowed from her overweight best friend, whose large feet looked much better in them on the black-and-white marble tile floor.”

Just stop it. I get you want me to see what you saw, but it becomes tedious to read. By the third page, I was out of breath. Limit adjectives to what’s most important and, as with info dumps, leak the rest of the information in. Or, here’s a thought – let the reader picture it themselves. The color of the girl’s t-shirt only matters if the boy she’s approaching hates yellow. Otherwise, cut it.

  1. Independent Body Parts

Also, from Book 2, the characters’ body parts did an amazing amount of action without the character being involved, and being honest, it had me laughing hysterically.

“His head turned to scan the room.”

Uhm, just his head? Or maybe, “He turned to scan the room.”

Eyes, fingers, feet, toes . . . any body part . . . does not “do” anything independent of the character, so completely avoid any action of that nature. If you refer the character’s hands as elegant, that’s fine. “He had strong shoulders” works well in a story, but not, “His shoulders lifted the box.”

No. No. No.

  1. Staying in point-of-view

And while we’re on body parts, you cannot describe the character in the character’s point of view. If Alice is doing the action, then Alice would not see her own hair color, eye color, skin tones, etcetera. I mean, have you ever entered a party and thought, “My golden blonde locks look great?”

Alice sees what’s in front of her, that Joe’s shirt is too tight, that he has a black-eye from a fistfight. Wait to describe Alice when Joe is looking at her. A friend of mine never described her male main character at all until several chapters in, yet I commented that I knew exactly what he looked like. How? By his actions, his dialogue, and the bits the other character said about him.

. . . And so, I move on and select Book 3. We’ll see if this one will entertain me, and my writer’s brain will shut off. Most likely, not entirely. I’m not sure that is possible, but I’d love to find a book that hooks me and doesn’t have so many bad writing habits on the first few pages. I love to think that writers are working to turn out the best product, to learn and grow and stretch themselves. To deserve the 5-star review they crave to badly. 

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About The Author:

Suzanne D. WilliamsBest-selling author, Suzanne D. Williams, is a native Floridian, wife, mother, and photographer. She is the author of both nonfiction and fiction books. She writes devotionals and instructional articles for various blogs. She also does graphic design for self-publishing authors. She is co-founder of THE EDGE.

To learn more about what she’s doing and check out her extensive catalog of stories, visit www.feelgoodromance.com or link with her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/suzannedwilliamsauthor or on Twitter at twitter.com/SDWAuthor.

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4 Comments

  1. Couldn’t agree with you more. It frustrates me to see this kind of writing and I’ve seen authors who are on their 4th and 5th book still make the same mistakes. Sometimes I wonder if they really aren’t aware of these “basics” as you put it or are they just blase about it because they are in such a hurry to come up with book No.9. I spend more time editing my book than actually writing it. Thanks for bringing this home. This article is clear, concise and has some great examples.

    Reply
  2. Staci Stallings,thank you for this post. Its very inspiring.

    Reply
  3. Thankyou for this post. Its very inspiring.

    Reply
  4. Thanks so much for the post.Much thanks again. Really Cool.

    Reply

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