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Up Submission Creek without a Paddle

*initially posted on 1/9/2010 at Words from the Woods*

We all have strengths and weaknesses, and it's a good thing to know what they are. Especially for a writer. If we fail to properly asses our abilities (or disabilities), we may find ourselves

Up Submission Creek without a PADDLE.

PLOT: Even the most rudimentary writing needs a plot. The story must go somewhere, or there is no purpose. Not for our MC, not for our story and certainly not for our readers. The Encyclopaedia Brittanica states that plot is " ...the structure of interrelated actions..."

James Scott Bell writes about his LOCK system in regards to a satisfying plot. Lead Character. Objective. Confrontation and Knock Out. These same components have been summarized in many different ways, but in essence they all mean the same thing. A reader wants to be transported from Real Life into a story that has conflict, a climax and a resolution.

AUDIENCE: Writer, know thy audience. After hanging out on writing forums for over a year and engaging face to face with other writers and their work, I have learned we often fail to understand who we are writing for. I have seen YA's written with picture book themes and manuscripts for adventure-seeking men obviously penned by women.

Each age group and genre has vastly different expectations. As a rule, men do not want to read touchy feely dialogue and teens no longer care about talking bunnies in search of their mommies. Not sure what you're writing? Check out Anne R. Allen's Blog . Once you know your audience, read a couple dozen books to get familiar with the style and language they seem to like.

DEVELOPMENT as in Character: Flat Stanley is an awesome book. Yet most writers should strive hard to make their characters anything but flat. To keep our readers invested, we need characters they care about. behler blog tells how.

DIALOGUE: Kill me now if your characters hold actual conversations. Readers DO NOT want "Hello." "How are you today?" "Good." "Great." "So...it's cold outside. Did you get the driveway shoveled?"

Repeat after me. "Ninety percent of what we say in life is really boring."

The key to great dialogue is imparting character, not information. It moves the story forward. Don't make your characters talk the same. Likewise, don't let them all have quirky speech patterns. Keep in mind things like age, sex and genre when writing. For a giggle, read Nathan Bransford here..

LANGUAGE: This goes hand in hand with dialogue and audience. Write for your readers, not at them. Don't condescend and don't use big words you yourself had to look up. Both of these will kill a reader's love for you faster than dumping your spouse for the waitress on your tenth anniversary.

Sentence length and structure, as well as paragraph development, belong in this category. Don't confuse your audience with poorly constructed writing and Harvard words. Rather, gently stretch their skills. Teach, don't preach.

EXPOSITION: AKA, back story. If you have never heard of an information dump, now is the time to learn that agents, editors and the reading public despise this technique. Why? Read for yourself.

So how does one provide necessary information? Artfully, I suppose. We should be able to show you it is cold, the wind is blowing and a storm is moving in without telling you. An example:

She shivered and zipped her jacket against the wind. Her tears froze on her cheeks as she screamed at the snow-filled sky.

Nothing kills my joy more than the villian explaining his evil plot to the tied up victim. Come on writers. You've had an entire novel to show a villian's motives through action, character development and dialogue. He had forty-seven chapters to visit his mom's grave, sift through his old diary, threaten his shrink for saying the wrong thing and generally act unstable in certain situations. If you haven't managed to convey the message by chapter forty-eight, your book shouldn't be in anybody's hands.

If you've made it this far up Submission Creek with only one paddle, I'll throw you another one to make your trip a little easier.

Sense, as in the common kind. Writing is intuitive. Read voraciously and write often. Practice telling a good story. Now is not the time to wax poetic. It's a time to be clear, thoughtful and succinct. If you don't want to read it, no one else will.

In fact, flowery prose can easily and significantly detract from our beautiful, melodic writing, essentially muddling the succinctness and clarity and providing the eager reader with yet another heart-breaking reason to painfully set aside our otherwise astounding novels upon their solid oak side table with matching, calfskin leather chairs.

See what I mean?

So there you have it. Two paddles to help you navigate the publishing waters. Plot, Audience, Development, Dialogue, Language, Exposition and Sense. The key to making it work, however, is knowing how to use them.


Cat, "Teach, don't preach," means, "Show don't tell," right?

"Submission Creek with only one paddle." That's a relly good metaphor. "Sense, as in the common kind..." I hadn't realized that you were such a good writer, Cat, because I haven't seen your work.

The paragraph before "See what I mean?" is great. I hope everyone gets it. You use flowery language to say "don't use flowery language." That's funny, and very "show-don't-tell." It's like, "You don't want to make no grammatical errors, or your work ain't gonna get no agent."

Nice, Cat.