By guest blogger and award-winning author Linda Goodnight.
What a treat to be invited back to Seekerville! Thanks to Ruthy for asking me. By the way, I’ve been reading Ruthy’s books while cruising up to lovely Canada, and people, this Yankee girl can write! She knows how to grab you from the first line and compel you to turn those pages.
Which brings me to today’s blog topic. I judge a lot of contests and read numerous new authors’ work for review and endorsement. Many times I see the same mistakes repeated over and over again. Wondering if I was the only one, I did an unscientific survey of veteran authors who also judge manuscripts on a regular basis.
In their responses, several issues rose to the top of the list. This blog will focus on five mistakes new (and sometimes veteran) writers make and a few tips for avoiding them.
1. Weak opening sentence and/or first paragraph
Research indicates authors have only a few seconds to convince a reader to buy our books. A few measly seconds! That means the first sentence and even the first paragraph have to be extraordinary. In a very short space of time, we must interest the reader, set up the story question, give insight into the point of view character, and indicate the book’s tone and setting, all while thrusting the story ever forward. Whew! That’s a lot to ask from only a few words.
Here are a few ways--though certainly not the only ways-to write that all important opening:
1. Make it short and punchy.
Ex: He wouldn’t do this. Not again.
2. Raise questions in the reader’s mind.
Brody hated Fridays. He knew what would happen if he went home. So he didn’t.
If I did my job, you’re wondering who Brody is, about what happens on Friday and why he’s anxious about going home. This is from my newest book, The Rain Sparrow, available right now, y’all!
3. Powerful, surprising or shocking. The sharp metallic click meant one thing. Someone had a gun pointed in Colt Stafford’s general direction. (Back in the Saddle by Ruth Logan Herne.) I loved this book!
4. Set the tone or mood.
Secrets are like boils. They fester and throb, but until the hard core of truth is released, there is no relief.
Valery Carter lived every day with that festered, throbbing boil.
(The Innkeeper’s Sister, coming May, 2017.)
(The Innkeeper’s Sister, coming May, 2017.)
2. Starting the story in the wrong place
Leave out long descriptions, introspection and the tendency to “work the reader into the story” with too much set-up. Find the powerful moment of change in your character’s life that drives your plot, that gets your main character moving toward her destiny. This is your inciting incident, your kickstarter. As painful as it may be, go back and delete any pages before that moment or event. Sometimes this means cutting the entire first chapter. Trust me, I know this from painful experience. I had to do it in my first three books for Harlequin! Start with the problem your character must deal with NOW.
3. Info dump
This happens when the author needs the reader to know something so she dumps the information into a single paragraph. This not only makes your reader’s eyes roll back in her head, it’s passive voice or the dreaded “telling”. Resist this urge. Instead, dribble this information in naturally through action, bits of internalization or even a little natural dialogue. Notice I said, a little dialogue. Resist the urge to tell your reader through soap opera dialogue. “Harriet, you’ve been working for pennies since your father ran away with the bearded lady in the circus and your mother died. She had a heart attack last winter while feeding the pigs, leaving you, at barely eighteen, and your ten year old brother homeless.” Don’t laugh. I’ve really read passages like that.
5. Pacing problems
Pacing is the speed at which your story progresses. Every book should have moments of speedy action followed by slower passages to let the reader ponder and catch her breath. Some genre, like suspense, are by nature faster paced while others move a little slower. However, today’s reader expects a fairly snappy pace, regardless of genre. An author should learn to control the momentum of her book by taking advantage of pacing tricks. Here are a few:
· For faster pace, use short sentences, short paragraphs, short chapters.
· Control the movement of time by summarizing transitions and large blocks of time that are not particularly relevant to your action.
· Rapid fire dialogue with few, if any, tags.
· Make readers wait. Drop hints that something important is coming but don’t satisfy their curiosity. They’ll turn pages fast to find out the answer.
· The ticking time bomb is another way of making the story move at a breathless speed. People read faster when they think the dam is about to burst, the bomb about to go off, or when the hero only has a few days to come up with the money before he loses the ranch.
· Sometimes you need to slow the pace. During periods of introspection, description, or love scenes draw out the moment of time with longer sentences and paragraphs. Provide more sensory detail. Live the scene moment by moment.
5. Backstory, too much too soon.
This was the number one problem mentioned on my handy author survey. Editors and agents mention it most often too.
Backstory is the sum total of everything that’s ever happened to your main characters before the book opens. Backstory, which provides motivation for the character’s actions, is important to your book--but not on the first page. Preferably not in the first chapter or at least, not much. Remember, backstory takes the reader BACKWARDS and slows the pace. Your opening pages should move forward.
Setting up your story with hints of the past is necessary to ground the reader and give the character life and a reason for us to like her, but keep this set-up very brief and try to weave it into the action. A well-placed hint will give clues to the character’s inner wound, her reasons for behaving as she does. A hint will also raise the readers’ curiosity and compel them to turn pages. Reveal only a few crumbs, holding back the secrets as long as possible.
So there you have them, five problems that crop up frequently, along with some tips for making those opening pages sing. Special thanks to these brilliant authors for sharing their thoughts: Lyn Cote, Laura Iding, Deb Kastner, Lynette Eason, Erica Vetsch, Suzanne Dietz, Mindy Obenhaus.
Now, it’s your turn. What problem areas crop up in your own work or when you’re judging contests? And what tips do you have for avoiding those or any of the above problem areas?
Ruthy here!! I love it when Linda visits. If I had a list of people I'd be honored to sit and spend an afternoon just listening to, she'd be right up there on the list! She amazes me, and her body of award-winning work is so well-deserved. (she may have paid me in cookies to say that!!!)
Linda has graciously offered one U.S. commenter a copy of either "The Memory House" or "The Rain Sparrow", her two beautiful single title books! I brought a clean cat dish, and I'll happily tuck your name into it when you leave a comment today.
And Linda... thank you for being here, for being you and for being the kind of example I show to other authors and say... "This... this is what you should strive for." :)
Author Linda Goodnight has written more than fifty books and has been published all over the world.
Her books have appeared on the New York Times, USA Today and the Christian Bestsellers lists, and she has won numerous awards for her writing including the prestigious RITA. A former teacher and nurse, she lives in Oklahoma and now spends her day making up stories. Her latest book is titled, The Rain Sparrow, and is available from Amazon and anywhere else books are sold. Connect with Linda on Facebook and her website: www.lindagoodnight.com