A Bouquet of Words

Do you ever receive manuscripts that have such “flowery language” that it feels like the author is intruding on the story? Do you ever read manuscripts where the language gets in the way of the story and it feels like the author is trying to impress you with his/her writing instead of simply telling a story? Do you publish them? What’s your preference?

As a publisher, whatever is currently selling best. As a person, there is a time and a need for both–sometimes I want to soak in beautiful language. Sometimes I want a quick escape.

The technical term is “literary novel.” It’s hard to do well.

Dizzying POVs

Do you have a POV preference? Do many authors still use omniscient POV? Is there a proper way to use multiple POVs (or is it PsOV?) so as not to confuse the reader? I’ve read a book that jumped from POV to POV, sometimes in the same paragraph or sentence, and not only did I feel dizzy, I felt schizophrenic!

The story determines the POV. Some stories need to be first person, others need to be third. If you’re not sure which your story needs to be, rewrite a couple of chapters in various POVs. Which one works? When you hit the right one, you’ll know.

Yes, there is a proper way to use multiple POVs but I don’t recommend it unless you know what you’re doing. Someone help me out with examples–the only ones I can think of right off are ones that I’m embarrassed to admit I’ve read.

You cannot change POVs within the same sentence or paragraph. If you’re going to do multiple POVs, you need to give some indication that you’re changing, like a new chapter (my preference) or a *** or even an extra paragraph return.

[POV is Point of View. If you don’t know the difference between various POVs, go to the library and find a writing book that talks about it. Study it until you can tell in the first sentence what a book is written in.)

I was talking to some friends last night and they reminded me of a couple of YA titles that handle changing POV well:
Flipped by Wendelin Van Draanen
My Angelica by Carol Lynch Williams
The View from Saturday by E.L. Konigsburg

Also, you can read some discussions of changing POV here and here. If you know of others, post them in the comments section.

He Said, She Said

I’ve been told that I over-use “said” and should use other words for variation. I’ve read LDS fiction that uses various speech tags. Yet, I’ve read and heard that “said” is the best tag to use because it’s almost invisible to the reader and doesn’t break the flow (the dialogue itself should “show” the mood, etc.). What’s your opinion?

Just because other people do it, doesn’t mean it’s right.

With really good writing, you almost don’t need speech tags because you can tell who’s talking just by the words they use and how they put them together. But we use them anyway because we don’t want the reader to get lost.

You can use “asked.” You can use an occasional “yelled,” “screamed,” or “whispered.” But please, please, please do not use “whimpered,” “simpered,” “laughed,” “teased,” or any of those other types of words. Unless you’re writing a Harlequin Romance. Then I guess you can do it.

If you want to be taken seriously, use “said” as your speech tag 99% of the time and let your dialog or the movements of your characters show their emotions.

Subplots–What’s the Magic Number?

Is there a general rule of thumb for how many subplots should be in a novel? How many are too few? Too many?

You want enough to keep your story interesting, but not so many that the reader can’t remember what’s going on with who. How’s that for a definitive answer?

I’m gonna’ go out on a limb and really commit myself here and say between two and ten. Part of it depends on how complex your main plot is; how complex the subplots; whether the subplots are needed to move the story forward (good), or if their main function is to add pages (bad); if the subplots involved the main characters or side characters; etc. etc.

Here’s my general rule–if I’m bored, it needs more complexity, which can be provided by subplots. If I have to read with a pencil and paper to keep all the characters and plots straight, then you’ve got too many.

Grammar and Writing Resource Books

What writing books would you recommend? I’ve heard that some rules of grammar have changed/are changing–how do we keep up?

Much as I personally hate it, grammar rules change over time (ex: lit vs lighted). Even the experts disagree about what is correct grammar and they will argue over something as “simple” as comma placement, each absolutely certain that they are correct and fully supported by other experts. To someone unfamiliar with the history of language and basic grammar rules, it may seem that there are no rules, or that rules can be broken at will.

This is an incorrect assumption. There are rules, and there are acceptable ways to break the rules. Editors know both. We can tell if you’re breaking a currently in-vogue rule because you’re following a different rule, or if you just don’t know what you’re doing. Unfortunately, there is no one, generally accepted, definitive grammar rule source book.

I prefer more traditional usage over the modern, but I’ve argued with many of my colleagues about what is correct, and we can all defend our own stance. You’re never going to guess what a particular publisher uses/wants, so don’t bother trying. Even if you know what a publisher usually wants, the grammar rules may change slightly depending on the style of book.

The key to grammar is to select a good source book and be consistent. You need to understand enough grammar that you know why you’re following (or breaking) a particular rule.

Here’s a pretty good list of sources. You’re probably safe with the current edition of Chicago Manual of Style (although I don’t agree with all of their rules). I like Eats, Shoots and Leaves by Lynn Trus as a punctuation manual. If you’re writing LDS, use their Style Guide to Publications.

Now, for writing books in general, there are so many good ones I hardly know where to start. I have about 40 on my shelf that I really love, and almost that many that I’d like to get. Some of my favorites are Julia Cameron’s books on writing, Natalie Goldberg and Annie Dillard. I also have a lot of books published by Writer’s Digest that are pretty good. The best way to find good books on writing is to just go spend a day at the bookstore and browse. Or ask a writer you know and respect what their favorites qre.

So how about it readers? What are your favorite writing books?

How to Spot an Amateur

What are some common mistakes that a first time or amateur author makes, that an experienced author does not? This can be both in writing and/or in submission.

Sometimes even experienced writers make these mistakes, but these are the ones that immediately pop into my mind.

Writing Mistakes:

  • Thinking your story is polished and done, when it is not.
  • Writing in a style that’s wrong for the genre.
  • Technical errors–grammar, punctuation, spelling.
  • Thinking the editor will (has time to) fix all the mistakes.
  • Failing to send mss out to qualified readers for critique.
  • Characters, plot, storyline problems.

Submission Mistakes:

  • Sending the mss to a publisher before it’s ready.
  • Sending mss to publishers who don’t publish in that genre.
  • Using the shotgun method of submission (sending out queries/submissions to every single publisher on your list without doing any research to see if your mss would be a good fit for them.)
  • Lack of research into the business side of publishing and the common how-tos for submitting.
  • Doing the research on how to submit, but ignoring the suggestions and doing it your own way because that shows you’re unique and creative. (Not.)
  • Poorly crafted query.
  • Making excuses for less than quality writing in the query; emphasizing that you’re a beginner and lack experience (I do not mean that you can’t state that this is your first novel. That’s fine. I mean going on and on about how you don’t really know what you’re doing and you hope I’ll overlook your ignorance and inexperience…)

Experienced authors, help me out. What am I forgetting?

What Floats My Boat

What types of projects do you get the most excited to produce and

When I am reading through a manuscript and I laugh out loud (because I’m supposed to, not because it’s awful), I know I have a winner.

When I realize I’ve just read several pages and forgot to edit, I know I have a winner.

Other than that, this is a tough question to answer because I can get excited over any genre, fiction as well as non-fiction, that is really well written.

In fiction, I want something that tells a good story. I like something that touches me deeply, that speaks to common issues and core fears that most of us deal with. I like things with a positive ending–notice, I did not say happy. The book can end on a tough note, but there needs to be the promise that all will be well eventually.

In non-fiction, it has to be supportive of gospel principles and teachings. It needs to make me see something old in a new light or help me to understand something new. It needs to be a topic that a significant number of people would be interested in reading (like LDS history, marriage & family, etc.), or that a small group really, really needs or wants (like addictions, abuse, etc.).

And it always helps if the author is really pleasant and easy to work with.

Plot Traps

What are some of the common plot traps that you have noticed in LDS fiction that you wish authors would avoid?

I don’t know that I find any plot traps that are specific to LDS–except for the one where the bad guy/girl needs to turn good so they can marry the good girl/guy, and so the author throws in some lightweight spiritual experience and they are converted in a matter of days. I just don’t buy that–ever. (I know, I know–it happened to Alma and to Paul, but their experience involved angels. I don’t believe it in a romance book.)

The most common plot traps, or holes, in fiction, LDS or otherwise are:

  • an author sends a character off to do something and then we never see or hear from them again
  • the character arrives faster or does something faster than it would take in real life (like fly across the country in an hour)
  • creating a character that is too evil or too good, then having them change too quickly (as in example above)
  • painting their protagonist into a corner that is too hard to get out of, then having someone swoop in and save them for the sole purpose of getting them out of that situation
  • bringing in characters that have nothing to do with the story, but the author needs to add more people or more pages to the book
  • forgetting to tie up loose ends (example: Premonition movie with Sandra Bullock; the whole thing with her daughter’s face and when it gets cut, etc. That was never really explained.)
  • having a character really stress over something, then suddenly it doesn’t bother them anymore, with no explanation
  • having characters do things that it’s been set up they’re incapable of doing, or wouldn’t choose to do, without having some strong initiating factor or explanation
  • in fantasy, setting up the rules for the world your characters are living in, then breaking those rules

What are some of your favorite plot holes? Give specific examples if you want.

Writer’s Notebook

(I’m out of questions. Please send more.)

One of the best ways to improve your writing is to keep a writer’s notebook and to WRITE IN IT EVERY DAY! (Yes, I’m yelling.)

Write anything. Write stream-of-consciousness. Write descriptions of what you’re looking at. Go to the mall and eavesdrop and write down the conversations. Or watch the people as they walk past and describe the scene as they interact non-verbally. Or go to the park and make up stories about the people you see there. (My daughter and I do this all the time. You’d be surprise at the number of master criminals roaming through our city.) Write letters. Write e-mails. Write anything, but do it creatively. And do it every single day. Religiously.

I didn’t always believe this. I thought if I wasn’t writing on a story, it didn’t count. And I thought I could write two or three days a week and that would be just as good. But many moons ago I wrote user manuals for software companies. My boss made all of us technical writers keep a writer’s notebook. We were required to write creatively for 15 minutes a day, on company time. Within just a few weeks, I noticed a marked increase in the speed of my writing AND much less need for rewriting. I was training my brain to think faster, to pull descriptions and words more quickly, to translate what I was feeling with my physical senses more accurately into word images. Never again will I poo-poo the value of daily writing and a writer’s notebook.

Have you tried this? What was your experience? If you haven’t tried it, experiment for a week and then come back here and tell us about your results.

Improving Your Writing

I have a question. LDS Publisher, I would like to see you post a blog about what, in your opinion, LDS authors can do to increase their quality of writing. I’m whacking my head against the wall to drag the very best of myself onto the page, and yet I still seem to be falling short. What does a publisher look for that they’re not finding?

1. What can LDS authors do to increase their quality of writing? This is a hard question to answer because everyone is at a different skill level and what I’d suggest to a beginning writer is different than what I’d suggest to a more experienced writer, but I’ll try to cover some very general areas.

First, increase your basic writing skills. This means grammar, spelling, and the other technical parts of writing. Many people believe their skills in this area are higher than they really are. They get feedback from family and friends who have similar skill levels and so they do not catch the mistakes. I’ve had writers go into shock when I point out the grammatical errors in their manuscript. (I’ve had published authors go into shock when I point out the errors in their published books.) Take some brush-up classes, review some basic grammar texts or find someone with editing experience who is willing to go through your stuff and help you learn. If you use Word, it will underline your grammar errors in green. Word is not always correct, but if you don’t know why that green line is there, you need to find out why.

To increase the quality of crafting your story, there is nothing like practice. Write every day. There are so many books out there with writing prompts and other exercises to help you improve. Read some of them and do the exercises. Get in a good writers group, either face-to-face or online, where you can get feedback on your work. Then listen to that feedback.

Read a lot of books, particularly ones that are selling well or those by your favorite authors, but don’t just read for fun. As you read, ask yourself why this book works. What are they doing? What is the structure behind the writing? What techniques do they do well? Where did the story slow down for you and why? How could they have done it differently? If you don’t know why a particular books works or doesn’t work, take a class or read some books on analyzing literature. Study plot building, characterization, dialogue, scene development, descriptive language, foreshadowing, etc.

Learn about genres. Try writing in several of them and decide what you like best. Then learn the rules for that genre. What elements must be included in a good mystery? What in a good romance? They’re different.

Learn the basics of manuscript formatting and the usual guidelines for submitting. Again, there are lots of books and magazines on this topic. Read, read, read. Take notes. Learn.

2. What does a publisher look for that they’re not finding? Another hard question. It’s much easier to tell you what I’m getting that I don’t want. I want stories that speak to deep, universal themes–things we can all relate to–but told with a bit of a twist, so it’s not just another book about whatever.

As an LDS publisher, I want stories, characters and topics that speak to our unique culture. I want historical fiction, modern fiction, women’s stories, mystery, romance. I personally want to see YA and stories for boys, ages 12-18, but the PTBs here at my company aren’t very enthusiastic about them because they don’t sell as well as adult fiction.

Okay, I just noticed how very long-winded I’m being today, but I don’t have time to go back and be more succinct. Have to get back to work. Sorry.

Writers Groups

I just finished my first manuscript. I have a friend who wants me to join her writers group. She thinks this would be a good way to get some feedback and determine if I’m ready to submit. But I’m not sure if that’s a good idea. I’ve heard horror stories about critique groups. What do you think? Is this a good idea or not?


Dear Groupie,

The good news: A good writers group can be an invaluable resource. It can be a great incentive to write according to schedule. Sharing information, successes, rejections is a great support to the often lonely world of writing. The bad news: Good groups are hard to find.

A good group often has a mix of beginners and published authors. It may also help if the group is specific to your genre. You don’t want to be in a group that is too nice to give you honest feedback, but you also don’t want a group where flaming and destructive criticism are allowed or encouraged. Good feedback should point out what you did right, as well as places that need work. All feedback should be given with respect. You also want to avoid groups with overbearing personalities that dominate the group. Interaction should be a give and take among equals, not bossy know-it-alls condescending to share their advice and experience with the ignorant. (I’m not a bossy know-it-all. Well, not always.)

Go to the group. Read a few pages. Listen to the comments. Think about the feedback. It only takes one or two visits to determine if the group is a good fit for you or not.

And don’t be offended if a group invites you to attend on a trial basis. There are a lot of new writers who start out with a bang, but then become hit-and-miss non-producers. This is a burden to the group. A screening process allows a healthy group to protect the integrity of the resources they offer. If you are rejected because you’re not a good fit for them, you probably wouldn’t have had a good experience with them anyway.