Monday, October 16, 2017

Great concept, terrific query, and no bites. What the hell is wrong?

It's your writing.
I'm sorry, but that's just the honest to godiva truth, and it doesn't mean you're a bad person or even a bad writer. It means your eye or your ear isn't keen enough.

What do I mean by keen eye?

Your keen eye is your revising eye. We all write god-awful first drafts. I do it here with blog posts. You do it there with pages, chapters, entire novels.

It's the revising that spruces things up, but some of you haven't yet learned how to read for bland or redundant.

For example: describing farmland as pastoral.
It's not a crime.
It's not even wrong.

It's just bad writing.
Farm land is by expectation pastoral. You don't have to tell me so (that means you don't have to use the word). Much like you don't have to describe cats as four-legged felines. Now, if a cat has five legs, that's worth noting. Or perhaps just three. In any case you get the point. Don't use adjectives and adverbs to illustrate the obvious. Use them for when you want your reader to notice something.

Only if the farm land ISN'T pastoral would it be interesting. It's the unexpected that intrigues us.

What do I mean by ear?
Clunky sentences.
I can't use any examples because I don't use the work of people who query me here on the blog. But I see some sentences that feel like pretzels.

How to avoid this: say them out loud. Yes, every single one.

And if you can't hear any clunky sentences it's NOT cause you aren't writing them. It's cause your ear isn't tuned correctly.

How to avoid that: well you can't avoid it but you can fix it. And I think one way you fix it is by listening to audio books and reading poetry. Actually HEARING a book you love will allow good rhythm to sink into your brain.

And reading poetry is just plain good for you. If you don't understand a poem, read it again. I don't understand every poem I read -- actually more like I don't understand a third of the poems I read. I just skip over those after the second read.

The ones I do get, I read those more than a couple times. And yes, sometimes I say them out loud, and you bet your bookmark, it does clear out some room on the L-train when I start reciting aloud.

Your eye and ear develop with practice. Practice means pages.

You want to get some practice in? NaNoWrMo is coming. Several of my clients use it to really hit the writing desk. Think about it.

Not for nothing Stephen King famously said "the first million words are practice."


41 comments:

AJ Blythe said...

NaNo is awesome in concept, but bad timing down here... long summer days and end of school year. My diary is already crying from the blackened days of "stuff on".

Note I'm trying to ignore the "it's your writing comment". Fragile day today and don't want to know it might be the writing.

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

Not for nothing Stephen King famously said "the first million words are practice."
999,999
1,000,000
Ah ha, now I am a writer.

Actually, I’ve written a bazillion and only occasionally am I there. And when I am, the fields of my mind are a pastoral as the Bay of Fundy during a Nor’easter.

Colin Smith said...

[Carkoon Spele Chequer]

Farm land is by expectation pastoral. You don't have to tell me so (that means you dont' have to use the word). Much like you don't have to describe cats as four-legged felines. Now, if a cat as five legs, that's worth noting.

[/Carkoon Spelle Czecher]

Kitty said...

My first big writing hurdle was killing the little darlings. I saved them, of course, for possible future use.

E.M. Goldsmith said...

I found some advice from Jeff Somers very good- write the good parts first and don't write the other stuff at all. If it's not fun to write, I can tell you it will be no fun to read. That isn't a quote or anything. - Jeff claims he is lazy writer and so only writes the fun stuff. I may have extrapolated the rest :)

I kept second guessing myself on my latest book because I was afraid of word count getting in my way. I had cut it way down to get it under 100k words. In early revisions, this was a mistake. I left out good stuff so I treated my chapters like flash fiction to allow the full story but to keep the word count down. I am still cutting words.

My practice writing flash fiction has made cutting words an art form. It really helps. You will be surprised at how few words you need to put a picture in a reader's mind. Anyhow, keep writing.

Where the heck did my coffee minion get off to?

Colin Smith said...

As the great Sherlock Holmes once said, "Eliminate all other factors, and the one which remains must be the truth." If it's not the query, and it's not the concept, and it's not the agent (after all, if none are biting, they can't all be idiots), it must be the writing. Harsh truth, but one that must be confronted head-on if a writer's going to grow in the craft... or at least get published and enjoy a readership.

Thanks for the blunt honesty, Janet. :)

Susan said...

I have some dissenting opinions here, but I agree with more than I disagree with so maybe I'll just leave it at that.

However, I will say this: if you don't understand a poem, read it a third time, but also unpack it. Go line by line and try to uncover the meaning behind each word choice. Let it sink in. Then look at it as a whole. If it still doesn't call to you, move on, but some poems at first or even second read we won't understand not because they don't make sense but because they're not speaking to us in that particular moment.

Reading poetry helped me hear the music in all writing. What's cool about that is there are even different songs for different tastes.

Leilani said...

Since Janet reads poems out loud,
I'm writing my comments in verse.
If anyone mentions I'm blathering,
I'll write them something still worse.

Timothy Lowe said...

Yow - great post. Going to internalize it, breathe, and then keep plugging.

Happy Monday everyone!

Lennon Faris said...

Pretty sure I heard this here, but cannot remember if it was Janet or a Reider: if you re-read something you wrote, and it doesn't sound good, that's actually GREAT! because it means that you have Good Taste. You can potential to become a very good writer; your practice just hasn't gotten you there yet.

I love that. It has gotten me through many annoying moments of re-reading something I thought was GREAT the day before.

Lennon Faris said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Adib Khorram said...

I would like to add another thing that has helped me (and this is also credit to Janet, because at the end of the day what isn't?) is taking a book I like and typing the whole thing out. When it's someone else's words telling a story I'm already familiar with, it's a lot easier to focus on and absorb the craft.

I've done that with three different books over the past three years and each time I felt like my writing leveled up.

E.M. Goldsmith said...

Adib must be on to something considering his upcoming debut. I can't wait to read Darius the Great Is Not Okay. I hope I got that right :/

I had not thought of typing out books I love, but I do read them analytically and then listen to them on Audible. It really does help sharpen your own craft.

Colin Smith said...

Susan: Please share your dissenting points. I'd be interested to know where and why you disagree, and I'm sure we can discuss disagreements without being disagreeable. :)

kathy joyce said...

Adib, typing entire books! Wow. I never thought of that. It sounds excruciating!

It's amazing what it takes to write well. I thought I had done a good job of "show, don't tell." But, my current editing round shows that I've been doing both. I wrote a lovely description of how CharacterX displayed his anger, but prefaced it with, "[Her words] made CharacterX angry." Now, I'm stripping out the, "Let me tell you what I'm going to describe," words. Some days I despair that I will take out the unnecessary words and find nothing left.

RosannaM said...

Am feeling like I have a Costco-sized bag o' pretzels. Clunky is never good, not in shoes and certainly not in sentences.

It's off to the library for me for some books of poetry.

Bryan Fagan said...

This is where a writer's group comes in handy. There are plenty on-line and if there are some in your area find a way to get in. But once you're in you need to listen. Criticism is hard but it goes a long ways to making us really good at what we're trying to do.

Cheryl said...

Here's an example of a clunky sentence of mine, the opening from my new WIP.

"Hazel tottered in her too-high heels, just like the girl she was pretending to be would."

The bit before the comma is fine. Evocative verb, good rhythm, alliterative.

The rest is dull. Too many filler words, awkward rhythm, ends on a word that has no impact.

I'll probably rewrite it several times.

Julie Weathers said...

Raising hand. I'm guilty. Pastoral is in Rain Crow. I don't remember the exact line now. "It might have been a Linnell pastoral if not for the bodies marring the once pristine landscape" or something like that. It's probably in there more than once...yup, three times. A pastoral tapestry and pastoral entry.

I disagree that farmland is by definition pastoral. Pastoral is by definition grazing pasture as opposed to farmland. In riding up to the horse farm the MC notes the people working in the fields, but closer to the entry there is no farming. "Papa, ever the artist at heart, had kept the land on either side of the entry pastoral with clumps of trees here and there to shade the horses."

I agree that a manuscript needs to be read aloud before you're done. More than once. I don't know what I'm going to do with RC when the time comes now that Amazon bought out Ivona and screwed that up to high heaven. There are other services, but not as good and listening to someone else read it is my final pass.

Poetry is wonderful for the soul, but I am too old and I think to dense to get some of it. I'm also not going to spend much time trying to understand it. If the poet is so clever that I have to give myself headaches trying to figure out what they are saying, I will return to Burns or Byron where I can simply enjoy beautiful words.

"And yes, sometimes I say them out loud, and you bet your bookmark, it does clear out some room on the L-train when I start reciting aloud."

Sara Pryor, a well known lady of the Civil War era was raised by her aunt and uncle. Her uncle as a form of punishment for child and slave alike was to read Homer or Virgil. She said people seldom misbehaved after a session of listening to the Illiad or Odessey with Uncle, including herself. I guess not everyone appreciates the classics.

Adib

I agree. It's the best way to pick up the subtle nuances of the way a writer crafts sentences, dialogue, etc. I'm thinking about doing it with Lonesome Dove when I get done with RC. I can't now because I'm kind of in the "zone" with speech patterns

Anyway, way over 100 words. Forgive me.

Craig F said...

But, Julie, I thought it was about me. Of course the query I thought so highly of is clunking in its own way.

Started book with a nonce word to infer a longer day on the new world. Sci-fi people got it, others don't. Sometimes you beta readers know too much about the story and can pas by clunky stuff because they know where it leads while a fresh reader will ask WTF?

On the other edge there is the endless edit of those who keep plugging along a nefarious path. Trod the path too often and it will turn to mud and no one will be able to follow your trail.

Maybe Mr. LeRoy will turn the page for me someday soon. Poor guy must of bitten off too much when he let my Queen post his offer.

Craig F said...

Oh, down under pastoral is a legal definition for ranch land. Something like King Ranch would be called King Pastoral down there.

Sherry Howard said...

All of this advice is SO sound. I'm in a poetry critique group that's international, filled with REAL poets, because I had some poetry published by a supportive magazine. (I'm barely an amateur.) Studying poetry helps the ear for writing so much. Almost too much, since the instinct is to keep it slim--an adverb is a sin of mammoth proportions.

I torture my family by paying them to listen to my stories read aloud. I think it makes a difference when you're reading TO somebody. I catch more this purposeful way than if I read aloud to myself or the dogs. The dogs like everything I write.

Steve Stubbs said...

This one caught y eye:

"I say them out loud, and you bet your bookmark, it does clear out some room on the L﷓train when I start reciting aloud."

I left town before Kawasaki Rail Cars brought the NY subway system into the twentieth century (and I know they did because I worked as a software engineer on the R-142A project but never actually rode on any of the new cars) but if it is remotely as LOUD as it used to be in Medieval Times I am surprised you could hear yourself think, let alone recite, "Once upon a subway dreary."

I always thought bad writers were bad people and terrible writers were terrible people. Muchas Garcia for helping me see I was wrong. It is always wonderful to learn something new.

Have a great week.

Julie Weathers said...

Oh, Craig, we shall feel guilty together. Are we closet Catholics? I'm pretty sure I am. I used to raise my hand every time the ref blew his whistle in basketball because I assumed I committed the foul...and usually did.

Joseph Snoe said...

Another post that makes my stomach churn and my knees go weak. It's the things you don't know you don't know that makes writing so hard.

french sojourn said...


Colin great observation, however when you quoted Holmes, and his "Eliminate all other factors..." My mind instantly inserted Occam's Razor, it must be my genre default.

Great post, and comments, par usual.

Cheers Hank

Beth Carpenter said...

Julie, I was thinking the same thing. I grew up on a farm of plowed fields and no grazing, so that's the default picture of farmland in my mind. I suppose Janet's example means if I want most readers to see furrows rather than grass, I should mention it.

Adib Khorram said...

EM: Yup, that's correct. And thank you!

kathy joyce: I actually find it quite fun. Every time I've done it, it's been between drafts, so I have been able to (a) get away from my words for a while, and (b) absorb some good writing to prepare me for revisions. The key is to make sure it's a book you really love.

Julie: I know what you mean about the zone. I can't do it if I'm actively working on something else—things start creeping in.

Mark Ellis said...

I don't fully grasp the epiphanic import of a third of the Alice Munro stories I read. So I think, there isn't one, its just the writing. But then I think no, there'a a diamond hard take-away here, you're just not getting it.

Ashes said...

Can anyone recommend some good modern poetry books? Something published in the last decade? I adore poetry, I wrote poetry before I wrote fiction and some of my flash fiction entries here on the blog have just been poetry with a plot (shhh).

But my library's selection is tiny and I haven't had much luck in my online searches. Help?

Lynne Main said...

Clunky sentences. Ugh. Can relate to this one, I'm afraid. When I edited my now-doing-the-rounds manuscript, I saw those "pretzels" Janet mentioned. What on Earth possessed me to write like that? I'm just glad I caught them before sending out pages.

The only reason I caught the clunkers was because I made several reading passes (at least ten) of the "finished" manuscript before I queried. Even then, I still found goof-ups here and there. Something driving me nuts is when my eye "sees" a word not actually there. Or worse, when I use the same word twice in a sentence--"was" is my bugaboo in that respect. As in: "I don't know what I was thinking was about that." Argh!

Anyone who thinks writing is easy would wither away in less than a nanosecond once they realized how much work goes into creating that magnum opus.

Writing is not for wusses.

John Davis Frain said...

Poetry is like the Saturday crossword for me. So difficult, sometimes I'm better off not picking it up even though I know it'd be good for me. Maybe it's a lot like kale too. No, even the Saturday puzzle is easier to swallow than kale.

I love "bet your bookmark." I like to think lines like that rise to the surface in the editing. If that's your first draft, Janet, you might be moving to the other side of the agent-writer relationship.

Do agents say the same things as lawyers about representing yourself?

BJ Muntain said...

Kathy-of-the-best-last-name: That is so common. I see it so often in works I critique in various places - including in some of my own work. Isn't it wonderful that writers have do-overs (aka revisions)? :)

Lisa Bodenheim said...

Ashes I've enjoyed the poetry of Mary Oliver

Leilani said...

, I'm afraid I don't know the titles of any books, but some of my favorite contemporary poets are: David G. Anthony, R. Nero Hill, A.E. Stallings, Mike Alexander, and Rhina Espalliat. Here are a few online poetry magazines that I like also. 14x14.com, thelyricmagazine.com and thehypertexts.com. This is mostly formal poetry, which I tend to find more accessible and enjoyable than free-verse.

AJ Blythe said...

EM, I buy 2nd copies of books and highlight different elements in different colours and write on them like a text book. I mean, they are really text book for writers. I've found for me this is the best way to analyse, 'cause if I just listen or write I get caught up in the story and forget why I am reading =)

Ginger Mollymarilyn said...

Lynne Maine's "Writing is not for wusses" should be the new blog header. How true those words are. The agony, the frustration, the insanity - ugh! For example, you try to obey the "Show, don't tell" rule, only to find that one famous author (lol, forget who it is now, Colin knows - he had the video link)says that another famous author just basically made it up. Doh! What to do, what to do! Bottom line - simply, just write A DAMN GOOD STORY!

Colin Smith said...

Ginger: According to Lee Child, it was Elmore Leonard who wrote the "rules for writing" to fulfill an obligation to write an article for a paper.

Lynne Main said...

Wow! My comment is the new blog header! Thank you Janet, I'm so honored! Also, thank you Ginger for suggesting it.

And I can guarantee there isn't a wuss among this bunch here at the Reef--we're a tough lot, aren't we?

As long as I have my coffee, I'm tough as nails. Without my java, meh, not so much! ;)

Ginger Mollymarilyn said...

Thanks, Janet.

You're welcome, Lynne.

Thanks for the info, Colin.

Her Grace, Heidi, the Duchess of Kneale said...

Signed up for yet another year of NaNo. Noticed a stats sidebar. Claims I've written over five hundred thousand words in NaNoWriMo alone.

*blink*

According to King's stats, I'm half way there.