Thursday, November 29, 2012

Differences between published and unpublished mss.


Lately I've been coaching people writing fiction, and have noticed some big differences between published and unpublished manuscripts.  The first 4 can all be corrected if the writer wants to take the trouble to correct them; the next 3 three I think depend upon having some talent......

The list helped me fix my OWN writing and I sent it along to one of the people I coach, too. He also found it helpful -- maybe some of you will.

If you disagree with some or can think of others I haven't mentioned, PLEASE comment.

1. Published writers use dialog to move the story along or develop character. Unpublished writers use it to take up space or give the reader information that could be more economically given in some other way.

UPWs almost always let their dialog go on way too long. Conversations in books (unlike conversations in real life!) should end as soon as their dramatic purpose has been achieved.

2. PWs give readers just the right amount of back story/information about the characters and situation -- not too much, not too little. UPWs tend to either give WAY too much -- telling us all much more about the characters' pasts or the present situation than we need to know -- or so little that we are completely confused.

3. Simiarly, UPWs often spend more time describing a scene/setting it up than letting it play out. PWs concentrate their energies and our attention on what happens -- and in every scene, something does.

4. UPWs introduce characters, facts, situations and then abandon them without developing them or bringing them to a conclusion. PWs make sure that if there is a gun lying on the table, it goes off, or fails to go off, or gets confused for the murder weapon or plays some other role in the story. Otherwise, why mention it? Similarly, if they describe a character in Chapter 4, that character has a role in what happens. He doesn't just get introduced in a paragraph of backstory, stroll in to ask about the weather, and then disappear.

5. It is amazing HOW MUCH HAPPENS in a well-constructed novel. Many amateurish attempts simply contain too little -- they're too slight to be interesting.

6. PWs write about people who come to life in the readers' minds -- their characters seem real, we care what happens to them. UPWs' characters are hard to tell apart or remember, or they're unconvincing -- they seem made-up/flat/fake and we don't care what happens to them (and often,  not much does -- see #5). Conveying what a person is like with a few well-chosen details IS an art, but being interested in other people and noticing things about them is a really good start!

I remember an amateur writer -- a doctor -- who was incredibly good at this, even though he had no writing experience. For example, he described a character as dressed in a cowboy hat and boots, and adding the comment that on anyone else, it would have looked silly or affected; but on him, it looked natural and stylish. Later in the scene, when this character replied to something another character had said, the narrator commented that he couldn't tell what he was thinking:
"His was a poker face."
When, later, this same character saved the day with a really brilliant move, it all fit, we believed it -- because the author had chosen the right details to describe him/let us know what he was like.

7. Some writers (both published and unpublished, IMHO) simply have nothing to say -- and these people shouldn't be writing at all, or should wait until they've thought of something.

8. PWs
"Use the right word, not its second cousin." -- Mark Twain

Some UPWs just plain can't write: they misuse words, make grammatical mistakes, are incredibly wordy, use way too many adjectives, always embellish the word "said" or avoid it in favor of words they consider more interesting -- which is like avoiding the word "the".....

This (#8) can be corrected by a little work on the part of the writer: using a dictionary (not a Thesaurus, a dictionary), mastering the concepts in a book like The Elements of Style by Strunk and White, simply paying attention!

Of course, #8 can also be fixed by a good editor, but it's been my experience that those who commit #8 also do so many of the others that I don't think any editor is likely to bother. So the ms. will never get that far.


Lastly, I hope this doesn't sound snobbish: I did begin by admitting that MY writing, especially in the earlier drafts, contains some of these things ...and maybe that brings me to one more:

9. PWs usually rewrite -- many, many times. UPWs seem to think one draft is enough, and when it isn't, they give up.

One of the hardest things about writing is that YOU JUST DON'T KNOW -- maybe those who give up are saving themselves a lot of wasted time and energy (if writing something that never sells is a waste of both). Or maybe they're missing the chance to find out, or get something great out into the world.

There are no guarantees, and until you've done your very, very best work I don't think anyone can tell you.


andyfrazier said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
andyfrazier said...

With ref to #2
Conversations in books (unlike conversations in real life!) should end as soon as their dramatic purpose has been achieved.
I think Terry Pratchett gets away with this rule. Some of his dialogues go on for half a page but really embellish the character. In fact he can introduce an entire character with dialogue alone and it works very well. But then he is an exceptional writer who breaks all the rules!
You also don’t mention internal dialogue, which can sometimes build a character better than narration?
But then, I am self published….

Anna Alter said...

Libby- You should teach a writing workshop! As I sit down to write today, this was very useful to read. Especially #7. Sometimes I wonder if I fully understand what it is I have to say as a writer... those are difficult writing days. And sometimes writing itself helps me discover it. The urgency to continue tells me that it is there, though, and that is reassuring.

I particularly agree with #9, though perhaps I would say this about non-serious writers, rather than unpublished, since the unpublished may one day be. I can't say how many emails from non-serious, aspiring writers asking for advice I've answered with suggestions that never went anywhere. As if the perfect story will magically appear with any work! It seems like such a waste of everyone's time.

Augusta Scattergood said...

Love the Mark Twain quote. That will be my writing inspiration today. Thanks for that. AND for giving me a laugh and something to think about: "these people shouldn't be writing at all, or should wait until they've thought of something." Great post!

Theresa Milstein said...

One of the best posts about the differences between polished and unpolished manuscripts. I look at my first ones and cringe because I made all the mistakes you've mentioned above. Since then, I've read a lot, written thousands of pages, and polished my grammar. I keep improving. Hope the next one is THE one.

Naomi Canale said...

I completely agree with your last line and I think you really need to love what you do to keep going too. Very thoughtful post, thank you for sharing!

Elizabeth O. Dulemba said...

GREAT post! Thanks for sharing - I needed the read! :) e

Libby Koponen said...

Thanks, everyone, for your thoughts and I'm glad I made at least one of you laugh, and that you found the comments helpful.