But that doesn't mean I'm going to completely blow it off. The post I planned will come out next week. In the meantime, something is better than nothing. This may seem like "Yeah, I know all this already" but just read through and double check your writing--or maybe this checklist applies to other areas of your life, like a memo for work, a presentation at a school board meeting...
Think about it.
15 Things Not to Learn the Hard Way…
1 No cutesy pictures, embellished envelopes, gifts, or gimmicks.
These are the signs of an amateur, someone who is desperate and hasn’t done his homework. If you’re a writer, it gives the impression that your work can’t stand on its merits. Unless they’re interested in the artwork, you probably won’t get a response. And packages coming from people the editors don’t know? After 9/11 policies changed and rare is the editor or agent that will accept packages.
. How did you get from Point A to Point B?
Don’t leave gaps in action or movement so that readers are confused. If there is a complicated action or fight sequence, act it out to be sure you’ve covered all the moves. Don’t leave your character sitting on the floor when a sentence previous she was lying on the bed. Be sure your character is using the correct hand, foot, etc. too! When using flashbacks or other ‘time-changing’ devices, make sure they didn’t have a transporter malfunction and ended up somewhere they couldn’t be.
Have you got the time?
Do we know what time of day or year it is? Keep track of characters moving through years, days, and hours. If you have to, make a timeline. Use senses rather than clocks; bells ringing at noon, rush hour, dinner time, falling leaves, half moons, etc. to give readers a sense of time. If you have a big time gap, there has to be an explanation, like Meyer’s empty pages with just the month on them for Bella’s almost comatose state.
I’ve heard that before!
Do a global word search in your ms to make sure you don’t have word ‘favorites;’ like just, simply, oh, really, yeah, well, etc. Use them sparingly, eliminating all but a few, and those should be well spaced. If you find you need a word, check your thesaurus for a substitution. And be careful of clichés!
He said, she said, I said, we said.
You don’t always need a dialogue tag. Identify speaker by actions; I picked my nose. “Look, it’s green!” identifies the speaker; I glared at my sister. “What are you staring at?” Also, substitute other words in place of said; yell, cried, whispered, and the like because they are more descriptive. Yell is different from said. Careful about adverbs though, they are currently out of favor, but sometimes one is necessary; cried softly or cried loudly? Caution- don’t go crazy that every tag has to be different. Sometimes said is just fine.
Did not you see?
Know your (not you’re!) contractions! Know the difference between accept and except, affect and effect, know that irregardless is not word! Relearn how to make a possessive! It’s means it is, its means possessive, but it’s not always that simple! Poor grammar leaves a poor impression and getting published is hard enough. You should have both Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style and either the AP or Chicago Stylebook. Ignore the squiggly lines in your document at your peril (but realize that word processing programs aren't always right!).
See things from my point of view.
Stick to one point of view if you have one main character. With more than one character, First Person narrative can be alternated, but generally (as in kids' books) not in the same chapter. First person means “I,” so the character speaking can’t know what another person is thinking unless they are told, can deduce it from actions, or can make an educated guess. Third person omniscient means “They,” and the narrator can be ‘all seeing’ and know what everyone’s thinking. Mixing the two usually doesn’t work, and just confuses the reader.
To be, or not to have been
See how awkward this version of Hamlet sounds? Don’t mix tenses, especially in the same sentence. Picture books are generally all one tense. There are ways to mix, but make sure you know how to do it, and if it fits with your voice and style. And keep in mind parallel construction- a list or series of words that all must be consistent; I like running, shopping, skydiving and sleeping, not I like running, to shop, doing skydiving and sleeping.
Get thee to a critique group.
Hey, it’s a free critique! And more than one! Many successful writers have writer friends or a critique group that look over their work and point out inconsistencies, errors, lapses in timing, pace, dialogue, etc. If they can make time, so can you. One night a week either out of the house or online. The NJ-SCBWI or other writing organization can help match you up, you can Google for online groups, or start your own. Remember that it’s best if you have members in a similar genre because between all of you, you know what to look for.
Sticks and Stones will break your bones.
Whether it’s people in your critique group or a paid critique from an editor or agent, there’s going to be criticisms that hurt. It’s NOT personal. It’s just one person’s opinion. You are free to ignore it. Don’t make the mistake, like a recent author, to lash out, because you’ll be known more for being unprofessional and petty than you will be for your work. Suck it up. Put it aside for a few days, maybe even a few weeks. Then look at it with fresh eyes. Choose the suggestions that you think are best for your vision of the book, but don’t be afraid to try the more radical ones. If you won’t even consider the advice, don’t waste everyone’s time and energy. Successful authors make revisions-why shouldn’t you?
One more time; let’s review this.
You know you’re going to have to review, revise, and review again. And each time you do, there are mistakes you’ve somehow missed, or even added in. The best praise you can get as an author is from an editor or agent telling you “I love this ms, it’s so polished.” Always send a sterling copy. Even if you have to revise it a hundred times. Read your ms out loud, have friends read it aloud to see if the dialogue is smooth and understandable. If they stumble or seem unsure, you need to revise.
It’s the same old, same old.
Break the patterns; whether it’s dialogue-tag-dialogue, or starting every sentence with a subject, or ending every chapter with a question, when you consistently repeat a pattern, your ms stagnates. It’s so predictable that your readers will lose interest. Review to see that you’ve varied sentence structure; start out with a verb rather than a noun. Or even an adjective or adverb. Stretch your writing skills and style.
The zzzzzzzzzzzzzz factor.
The passive voice can be the kiss of death by boredom for your novel. Helping verbs are rarely needed, so eliminate them when you can. Action is what people want, not a recitation of past events, so ‘have, had, had been’ can be cut. With just a little reworking, an action verb will add zest to the pace. And avoid the info dump; it’s passive. When you can, introduce bits and pieces of information and backstory in an active way through action verbs and dialogue.
How old is that?
Don’t let your passions for music, people, fashions, and even words date your ms. Unless you’re writing in the time period when this favored thing was popular, editors, agents and readers can guess your age. And ‘comebacks’ rarely last long, so if you have a person in your novel who is a famous singer, make up a fictitious persona. Some things, called classics, are timeless, like well known hymns, musical pieces by the greats like Bach, Take Me Out to the Ballgame, etc. Historical people like Cleopatra and Ben Franklin everyone knows, but in five years, which may be how long it takes you to get published, will most people remember Lindsay Lohan? TV programs and movies are even harder to use in YA and MG, so avoid if possible. Slang and technology evolves even faster, so keep that in mind when writing.
Just give it up.
Unless you’re a super hero, writing takes time. It’s not just about writing, either; it’s about reading what’s out there, revising, attending critique groups, critiquing others, going to conferences and classes, submitting your ms, and buying more paper from Staples. There is not enough time to do it all, so choose your priorities. Give up the daily coffee with the neighbor and visit only once a week, learn to live with a little more dust, give the family lessons in microwaving leftovers. If you truly want to be a successful writer, you need time to work and some things are just not worth your time.
Get the pic?