The Writing Feedback I Give Over and Over Again

Whether at critique group or as a contest judge, I find myself tempted to make macros of the following tidbits I’ve learned over the years. A lot of it is familiar from other writers, and agents, editors, writing gurus and your aunt Petunia. Some of it goes back to Aristotle. You could say that’s because we’re all brainwashed by the orthodoxy of traditional publishing or we can’t think outside the box or writing has become cookie cutter.

 

You could say that. But I’m still going to keep holding the line because this is what works for me to stay interested in a story.

Viewpoint
1. Whose head are we in? Whose viewpoint is this?
I find viewpoint problems are almost always story problems in disguise and the reason these questions are so important is because they’re really these questions:
Whose story is this?
What is your story?
You would think someone paying money to submit an entry to a writing contest would have this worked out. But if pages have gone by and a reader still can’t tell? You’ve got a big problem. Practicing the elevator pitch is a good exercise. Boil your story down to two lines. You must name your main characters and the basic set-up. If you don’t, your head will explode. Go.

(Note: I’ve received a lot of flak over the years from literary fiction snobs and anti-pop culture snobs, er … sorry–aficionados because they say this makes for shallow novels. But name me one good book, of any genre, where these questions are not answered, even if all the other rules of easily readable fiction are broken. I’m not saying the protagonist and the storyline have to be simple or dumbed down or common–the book can be about Deep Philosophical Issues. I’m saying what the book is about and who it’s about have to be clear.  And don’t bring up Proust’s In Search of Lost Time unless you’ve read all seven or nine volumes, word for word. Go do that; I’ll be waiting here, eating madeleines.)


2. Avoid the omniscient view unless you really know what you’re doing. I have so much to rant about on this subject that I’m going to make it a separate post. In the meantime, trust me. What you’re almost certainly going to end up writing, and what you should end up writing, is a Multiple Third Person Close viewpoint. So just do that instead.

Scenecraft
If there’s one aspect of story that needs to be built well, it’s scenecraft. 3. What’s at stake in this scene? Try titling your scene. Is the title, “Wherein we meet the main characters and learn where they live?”
Yeah, you don’t have this scene. Scenes need a beginning, a middle and an end, just like novels and days and story songs.

4. In media res; start the scene as late into the action as possible. If the spine of this scene is about a fight over a will, don’t start with the lawyer’s secretary booking the room for the reading of the will. Start with the lawyer announcing the entire estate is to go to the San Diego Zoo and then have the reactions be the meat.

Dialogue
Do your teen boy and your elderly grandma talk the same? Why would they do that?
Do your characters speak in information dumps? Why would they do that?
Do your people spit everything out at the drop of a hat, even the teen boys? Why etc etc.
Here’s a thought from Rob Thomas, the talented creator of Veronica Mars:
5. “Dialogue as alibi.” Make your characters say as little as possible about what’s really going on, just like people do when they’re in relationships, or fights, or they’re flirting.

Plot
6. What’s the inciting incident or plot catalyst? What happens that makes the rest of the book possible, or at all interesting?

7. Starting your story. A lot of people begin their story in the wrong place and it’s often too far back in time. If your book is about a girl who starts her period and finds out she’s secretly a dragon, don’t start with what her parents were wearing on their first date.


Of course, there are numerous examples of published, successful books that violate these guidelines all the time. But I would posit the writing itself is strong enough to overcome these weaknesses. Is your writing strong enough? Are you sure? Do you feel lucky, punk?

Because most people aren’t that lucky and their writing and their potential readership would benefit from some basic, straightforward guidelines.

How about you–anything that gripes your cookies?
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Next up on Devlin’s blog: The Omniscient Viewpoint and Why It’s Probably All Wrong For Your Story

 

This entry was posted in Dialogue, Fiction, Plot, Scenecraft, Viewpoint, Writing Craft and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

22 Responses to The Writing Feedback I Give Over and Over Again

  1. Mark Stevens says:

    I think this is an excellent breakdown, Chris. I just was asked to read someone’s memoir and in the first two pages he covered about four dozen “moments” in his life. My head was spinning trying to keep up. I was breathless. I wrote him back and complained, albeit gently. Any one of the moments could have been the basis for the whole memoir. He said the book slowed down later and became about….learning to write. Sheesh! He lost me from the get-go but his response to me was so defensive I doubt he’ll make any changes. Yes, what is THIS STORY about? Be clear.

    • Chris Devlin says:

      That’s a tough situation, Mark, I’ve encountered it myself. I’m the last person to say one shouldn’t write for oneself–I’ve certainly done that. But it’s a different contract if you’re asking others to read your work. At least make it comprehensible.

      Good to see you, thanks.

  2. Who was it that said “Good writers follow the rules, great writers break the rules”?
    More to the point, great writing is knowing when and why to break the rules.

    I know John Barrymore said “Good actors borrow, great actors steal.” ;)

    I’m also not entirely “anti-omniscient.” The first version of my novel was omniscient.
    As great as J’s first-person point of view has turned out to be, the critique group is always asking me questions about details that were clearly (and easily) explained in the omniscient version. I’m still tempted by the idea of having two versions of my novel, the main version in first-person and a “supplementary” omniscient version.
    Certain scenes I consider important, detailing minor characters’ adventures, have vanished from the first person version, simply because the major characters aren’t present, and you can’t clutter up a book with over a dozen characters’ first-person points of view.

    • Chris Devlin says:

      Daven,
      I’m sure someone has tried to write a book in over a dozen characters’ first-person points of view. I’m glad I haven’t had to try to read it…

      Tune in Thursday when I warn people away from using the Omni-View because it’s so frequently misused and misunderstood.

      • Well, there are authors who write books with over a dozen characters’ in third person-close points of view (namely George R.R. Martin) and I think that’s close enough. Martin is a master of handling multiple POVs all with very unique voices. Daven, if you haven’t read him, I’d suggest you do.

        • Chris Devlin says:

          Eldridge,
          I haven’t read Martin but I’ve heard he handles multiple storylines and characters with aplomb. It can be done, and is done successfully more often in fantasy novels than other genres, I think. Must be the nature of the beast.

          I still find, for myself, that I’m more apt to get involved in a book if I can latch onto a single character or two, and a throughline, from the start. Ironic, since I started off writing St. Vitus Academy with multiple/multiple. But during this rewrite, I’ve really cut away much of what’s not the elephant, so to speak, and it’s become a book I’m much more likely to enjoy myself. I think that’s also better for YA, even YA paranormal/fantasy.

          Anyway, the way you write your fantasy novel, I don’t think you have to worry. You’re such a good writer with the ability to pull readers in with your narrative enchantments.

          Good to see you!

          • I agree. I tend to prefer a character or two to latch onto as well, which is why as much as I love Martin, he’s not my favorite (although I haven’t read the entire series, so we’ll see).

            It’s just that there are some characters I’m not as fond of, and those I really do like, I want more of. However, his books do appeal to a wider range of people, since everybody has their favorite character.

            Dealing with two characters is hard enough, especially keeping the word count from spiraling out of control. By book three I’ll have three first-person characters, and by book five, I may have as many as six or seven. I just hope I can keep it under 400K words.

            Perhaps trimming away smaller or more minor characters/plot lines has allowed you to focus more on the major ones, and doing so has brought you closer to them. Made you love them more. ;-)

            And thanks for the kind words, Devlin. I do hope to be able to enchant millions some day. :-)

  3. Peg Brantley says:

    Great list of Watch Out Fors, Chris.

    I like what Elizabeth George says in WRITE AWAY: “There are no rules; there are only informed choices. But you can’t *make* and informed choice if your remain uninformed.”

    • Chris Devlin says:

      Love it, Peg. And hey–small world. I just found my copy of Write Away as I was searching my shelves looking for examples of viewpoints. Great book–enlightening and entertaining.

  4. Karen Lin says:

    What gripes my cookie? Some characters. Characters that are cliche, act inconsistently, act conveniently, are 2-d, are serving the author’s purpose instead of their own purpose, saying things they wouldn’t say or on-the-nose things, and worst of all —- characters that are boring!

    • Chris Devlin says:

      Yeah, Karen, for me, being boring is actually the greatest sin. You can confuse me, gross me out, tell a story I’ve heard before, even offend me and I’ll go along for a while as long as you do NOT bore me.

      I’m an adrenaline junkie reader.

      Thanks for your thoughts.

  5. Martha Husain says:

    Nice summary of common problems. Hope your rewrite is going well.

    • Chris Devlin says:

      Martha, thanks! As usual, I could have gone on and on, but I’m trying to keep my posts below the thousand-word mark. ;-)

      I’m near the end of the second act of the St. Vitus rewrite and I’m pretty excited about it. I think I cured a lot of the ills. We’ll see.

      Thanks again and good luck with your story.

  6. Terry Wright says:

    Hey Chris, great points here. As a long-time contest judge, 5th year Colorado Gold Writing Contest Chair, and editor for my own epublishing gig, I’ve seen the good, the bad, and the ugly. :) And Karen is right on about characters. They need to have flaws but not be flawed. I look for the three Ps of scene starts (book, story, chapter, break) PLACE, PERSON, PROBLEM as quickly as possible. I want to be grounded in a scene (PLACE), firmly in a character’s POV (PERSON) and some hint of what’s going on that can’t be good (PROBLEM). This last P is actually the HOOK, or should be. I’m looking forward to your post on Omni-View.

    • Chris Devlin says:

      Terry,
      Place, Person, Problem is a great, succinct way of winnowing down the concepts of basic storytelling. Very clear.

      Thanks for your feedback. I’ll try to write a fresh post on Omni-view.

  7. This is so spot on. As a writer and an editor I see these problems all the time and it’s hard to point them out to new authors without raising hackles, but we all have to learn. I still catch myself making some of these mistakes – but that’s what re-writes are for.

    Thanks for a great post.

    • Chris Devlin says:

      Hi Bree!

      Yeah, I notice I start to temper my feedback because some of the maxims make writers defensive, like show don’t tell. I still believe in that advice, but I try to say it other ways because it makes people stabby.

      Depict, rather than announce.
      Portray, don’t explain.

      I also try not to repeat writing guidelines unless I really agree with them. For instance, you won’t hear me say, “Write what you know.” I don’t even know what that means, especially for fantasy writers. “Write what you love,” sure.

      Good to see you.

  8. This is a great list of helpful and useful guidelines, which I’ve heard you talk about many times in group. A few of them I should try out, like the “Scenecraft” but these sorts of methods have always been difficult for me to do.

    I tend to just sit down and write, sometimes with no idea where I’m (or the story is) going. A lot of my best stuff is often in the midst of aimless writing, as if divine inspiration. But maybe you can use a few of my chapters sometimes as a guinea pig, and show me how they could be improved with your method. ;-)

    • Chris Devlin says:

      I could bring my giant posterboard of anality and slice and dice your story with OCD. ;-)

      Of course, I would be happy to do anything that would help. But your novels and your world are so much about your vision. The only thing I could recommend is, if you intend to market them, work on that idea of a throughline, of a single goal for each of your main characters, so you can answer those important questions in pitch sessions or query letters. It might help with marketability. Marketability can be a different animal than craft, but it’s not always.

      Another thing that gives some interesting insights into the publishing process is to become a contest judge. It can really broaden your perspective of what agents and editors see.

      As always, thanks for your thoughts.

      • That might be fun. Of course, I’d really just love to have you read book one, whenever I get it done, and give me your insights.

        Before I started over (and split book one into three books), I had my pitch for the first book to a sentence for each character, one for Hendor, one for Valcor, and a single overarching goal for them both. I’m still finding this new story, so it’s a bit more nebulous. Haven’t even figured out how to end the two stories. I mean, I do have endings written, but I’m not sure they’re the right ones, and I won’t at least until I have a finished working draft.

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