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Sunday, January 28, 2007

The Three Biggest Mistakes

Greetings, keepmeinsuspense folks!

My name is Jeff Gerke, a.k.a. Jefferson Scott. Thank you for the opportunity to be a part of the fun you guys are having here.

To briefly introduce myself, let me say that I have written and published six Christian thrillers (under the pen name Jefferson Scott) and two co-written nonfiction books. I have served on the editorial staff of three Christian publishing companies: Multnomah, Strang/Realms, and NavPress. I have worked equally in nonfiction and fiction, but am concentrating almost solely on fiction now. Currently I work as a freelance book doctor, editor, consultant, and writer (see my site).

In my years as an acquisitions editor, and now as a book doctor, there are some problems I have tended to see over and over in fiction manuscripts from unpublished authors. I thought it might benefit you to see what they are.

The first and most common problem I saw, and therefore the most common reason I rejected manuscripts, was that the author had not spent enough time developing the craft of fiction. Clumsy openings, boatloads of "telling," head-jumping POVs, poorly executed dialogue, etc.

If you want to be chosen for the New York City ballet, do you just decide to try out one day and go to auditions with your sneakers, gym shorts, and moderate dance floor skilz? If you did, you'd very quickly get asked not to come back. It would be laughably obvious to the people there that you hadn't taken the time to learn your art.

Same with fiction. It's great that you've written a book-length manuscript, but if you haven't taken the time to learn your craft, that fact will be painfully obvious to the agents and acquisitions editors who see it. They'll say, "Um, thanks but no thanks." And rightfully so.

There is a book you can get that, if mastered, will transform you from clumsy wannabe to publishable author in a very short time. I've written a short article about it on my site. Check out Tip #10.

The second most common problem I see is that I simply can't tell the characters apart. They all sound and seem the same. They do unrealistic things. They violate their own stated behaviors. Worst is when I've read a whole book and I couldn't tell you who the protagonist is or (simply from how the person talked and behaved) what he was like or even what gender he (or she) was.

I believe that most novelists fall naturally into one of two camps: character-first writers and plot-first writers. The former group has wonderful characters occuring to them all the time. These authors don't always know what to have their interesting characters do, but they have interesting characters all the same. The latter group gets plot ideas all day long, but their characters are usually flat, two-dimensional, stereotypical, and impossible to differentiate.

If you're in this latter group, you must concentrate on figuring out how to create better characters. So long as the woman is just in the story to be there when the truck blows up (to give the hero something to grieve), you're not there yet.

Because I'm naturally a plot-first guy, I've created a character creation system to help me develop rich, believable, and differentiated characters. I'm finding it's helping other people, too. Check it out.

The third problem I see a lot of is an almost total lack of descriptions. Characters and, primarily, settings are simply not described or are given the barest of verbiage: "They went outside."

If the author doesn't describe the place, the reader gets no mental image. Suddenly you'll have your character go to bed, but the author will be like, "Wait, I thought it was high noon."

Filmmakers get a lot of advantages the novelist doesn't. Simply by pointing the camera at a character and setting, the moviegoer gets all kinds of information about who this person is, what he's like, where he his, what time of day it is, what the weather is like, who else is there, etc. Novelists don't get that. They can say, "Joe came home and sat down" and the poor reader gets a total blank on what Joe or his "sitting down" looks like, much less the other information.

I've written a four-part series on how to write good descriptions. Check out Tips #5-8.

All right, suspense fans. That's enough for now.


Jeff Gerke


Blogger Ron Estrada said...

Thanks, Jeff. I'm definately a "plot" guy. They keep me up at night. However, I know I have to work on my character development, and I think I've come a long way. A good crit group can easily spot character problems.

Going to check out your links now.

12:30 PM  
Blogger Dineen A. Miller said...

Hey Jeff,
So great to see you here, able to share your knowledge and wisdom. Your site is so packed with stuff. Looking forward to hearing more. Blessings!

1:30 PM  
Blogger Candice Speare said...

Awesome advice! I have that book, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, on my shelf. I'm going to pull it out again and reread it. I think I might be the character-first writer. Anyway, you've given me a lot to think about. Thank you.

1:46 PM  
Blogger C.J. Darlington said...

Thanks for these great tips, Jeff!

12:26 PM  

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