Monday, June 18, 2018

So, your query works. I read your pages. Then I said no. Some reasons why.

1. Over writing. "Massive red orb" when what you mean is "sun."
Unless it's science fiction, and suns can be small blue triangles as well as massive red orbs, you should save the description for things that matter. That the sun is shining does not require the sun be described as a massive red orb.

2a. The female characters are described by what they look like; the men by what they do.
I'm over this.
Completely, totally, over this.

2b. The characters are described in ways that make them caricatures. I see this a LOT with starting-out writers. Our hero isn't just smart, he's a rocket scientist. She's not just a waitress, she won the Nobel Peace Prize last year. Characters are more interesing when they're flawed.

2c. Stock characters. Alcoholic, burned out cops; brilliant but socially inept hackers; mindless thugs; mobsters; DMV employees who always manage to cough up info when the hero needs it.

Give any of these characters some fresh twist and I'm all in. This is why you read 1000 books in your category, so you know what's been done before and what hasn't.

3a. Nothing happens.
Something needs to change for the story to start. If I have to wait too long, I lose interest. It doesn't have to be someone being set on fire; it can be subtle. It just needs to be there.

3b. Not enough happens by page 50
The plot should be fully underway by this point. If the only thing that's happened is the characters have been moved around, we'll still need a sense of what's at stake. Think of it this way. Your characters are driving cross country from NYC to LA. Whether they're going too fast or too slow is something you know ONLY if you also know they have to be in LA by six pm tomorrow or the world will end. It's not just what they're doing, it's what's at stake.


E.M. Goldsmith said...

I do love these posts. I know I already have a rejection likely in store due to genre, but maybe I can avoid some of these pitfalls with my queen.

It is super tough considering how much chafe your work has to surpass considering these agent creatures read sooo much.

Timothy Lowe said...

One of my students once referred to Earth as "The planet on which we abide." Overwriting can be insidious. I have a hard time with it, and it can be really off-putting to readers.

Edit ruthlessly. Writing simple, clean prose is one of the hardest things to do.

Great reminders of what's important in pages!

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

And I thought I knew a lot about a little and a little about a lot until a post like this makes me realize I know next to nothing about something I thought I knew a little about and an eye-opener regarding that which I am an expert at, thinking I know more than I do.

Have a nice day boy and girls, play nice, share, and drink lots of water.

Sharyn Ekbergh said...

My favorite English teacher once told me, "Sharyn, beware puddles of purple prose."
Never forgotten, my dear Mrs. Turkington!

One Of Us Has To Go said...

I'm so glad to see reason 1! Sooooo glad!
Because I'm always worried I under-write! (Partly difficult challenge since I'm writing in my second language, but I'm getting better the more English books I read.)

Everyone seems so keen on very flowery language...
Before I left Canada, I was at a workshop in Calgary with a very successful Canadian novelist. I was one of only two people reading out their opening pages, and she loved it. But most of the other writers found them a little too bare.

Thanks for reasons 2 to 3, too, Janet. Will carefully consider them of course.

Julie Weathers said...

And now I had to go back and re-read my first fifty to make sure something interesting happens.

Shelby Foote writes about the sun in Shiloh I think. I don't remember the exact quote, but it struck me at the time. A line of soldiers miles long is slogging along through the miserable rain and mud on their way to battle. The rain stops and a blazing sun appears. Steam rises from their sodden backs and they cry out up and down the line, "The sun! The sun!"

He does it much more poetically than I have, but it's one of those scenes where you are absolutely transported to the place with the characters.

“Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” Anton Chekhov

That is one of my favorite writing maxims.

I do have some "overwriting" in Rain Crow. Someone on the forum pointed out in an excerpt that a letter written from the MC's love to her could be leaner and possibly more effective. Yes, it could, but that isn't how they wrote back then.

Donnaeve said...


My current WIP?

Somebody IS on fire.

Crawling onto the critter wheel for a few spins.

At any rate, I agree with Tim Lowe about having a propensity for overwriting. Guilty, but on the flip side, I can spot it too. I always re-read what I've written the day before, and the overwritten spots tend to hit me wrong. I've been known to mutter, "Ick. That sounds cheesy." Little Dog hears this and of course his ears perk up at the "cheesy," word.

Great advice/reminders all around.

Donnaeve said...

Hm. My linkification didn't work. Trying again. Cause, ya know. Little Dog!

*If this doesn't work, oh well. (just picture a Yorkie - 4 lbs of cuteness)

John Davis Frain said...


I think, get poetry into your manuscript. So, when I look up in the sky (the cloudless, azure sky BTW) I see a massive red orb.

Hello, editing. So glad you showed up. Let's go fight the battle! Behold, the declarative sentence!

Emma said...

Mobsters period? As in no mobsters ever?

Steve Stubbs said...

This is on topic for a couple of days ago, and late, but I did not have the information when it was timely. Ms. Reid posted here recently about the suicide of Kate Spade, which I am sure shocked everyone. I just watched an outstanding documentary by Mariel Hemingway about the suicide of her sister Margaux and six other relatives. It runs in her family. The most eminent Hemingway to commit suicide was Ernest. He was considered one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century.

The title is RUNNING FROM CRAZY. I borrowed it from Netflix. Highly recommended. Mariel Hemingway is immensely talented, and one of the producers was Oprah Winfrey. That may have something to do with it being as good as it is.

Mariel Hemingway is also an activist for victims of mental illness. Check this one out. It's good.

Theresa said...

I just finished up a week-long workshop with novelist Ann Garvin about how to plot with urgency. It covered everything Janet brought up today, especially the issues of want and stakes. A most enlightening class.

Chris Desson said...

This post is one of the millions of reasons why I read Janet's blog. :)

Beth Carpenter said...

It seems to me that if I'm in the character's head, the possibility of overwriting kind of takes care of itself. If the character is lost in the desert and he sees the "massive red orb" rising in the east to torture him for another day, it fits. If he's sipping a beer with lime and watching a pretty sunset, he probably wouldn't be thinking in those terms.

Brenda said...

Thanks Janet. It helps so much to have some direction and, as obvious as the flaws must be to professionals, we writers can be so caught up in our words that we lose sight of the overall.

Craig F said...

Sounds kind of like a rehash of the Turkey City Lexicon. One can be either "calling a rabbit a smeerp" or "Roget's Disease."

2) "The burly detective syndrome"

and so on

My own writing as a rather spare thing, I do not tend to get too heavy on description.

I do have bad habits with plots. Usually the plot at the end is modified from that at the start, you know, shit happens.

AJ Blythe said...

Overwriting now added to edit checklist. Love these posts!

Julie Weathers said...


I agree. It depends on the situation. There are some books that have beautiful description and would be much less without them. Sometimes I linger over particularly lovely passages like a person caressing a kitten. Other times I'm careening downhill like an unhitched beer wagon and don't want to stop for anything.

Karen McCoy Books said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Colin Smith said...

Added to the Treasure Chest Gems page. Thanks, Janet! :)

Karen McCoy said...

Ah, pacing in an opening. An author I know had this to say: "Adjusting the opening of a novel is like trying to fit a five-sided carpet in a four-sided room."

Jennifer R. Donohue said...

2a. The female characters are described by what they look like; the men by what they do.
I'm over this.

I am ALSO very over this, and took it into account when I wrote my (first) cyberpunk heist novella. The introductions are skill-based, not appearance based, though the narrator feels that appearances are everything.

Per 3b, though, I also have a bad habit of starting a thing in the wrong place. Ah well. We'll see how Tor dot com receives said novella ^^

Beth Carpenter said...


"...unhitched beer wagon." I love that!

Stacy said...

I don’t know why anyone would say the sun is a massive red orb when everyone knows it’s a massive burnt umber orb.