Wednesday, March 2, 2016

What Agents and Editors Don't like to See In Stories

An agent stood in front of a class at a conference and said, if the manuscript has three paragraphs in a row starting with the same subject (I, character's name, other pronoun) then I don't want it.

That simple.

Such an easy formula to remember. The same is true within a paragraph. Three sentences in a row should not start with the same subject word.

Sometimes we don't notice we're doing this. We're engaged in the story, letting our character's speak, typing, filling the page and voila story. Except....not so much.

I've come to think of this as grocery store list writing. Here is an extreme example of what I mean:

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John took the grocery list and put it in his pocket. 
He climbed into his car and turned on the engine. 
He drove to the store and parked.
He walked inside the store and to the produce section where he bought apples, oranges, and bananas. 
He browsed the meat department and put a pound of chicken in his cart.
He hurried to the self-checkout. 
John drove home and made dinner.

Since we should speak in positives first, I can say this story is in chronological order. That--is about it. Yeah, this isn't even organized in paragraphs. It looks pretty bad, eh? What are some of the components that qualify this as a story in desperate need of editing?

1. While white space is essential in writing, there needs to be a sense of "meat on the bones" for a page. Substance. Too many short paragraphs on a page gives a sense of stuttering, strobing, or snacking. Readers NEED senses on the page. Help them see, hear, smell, taste, feel the scene. Also, letting the balance scale tip toward one sense equally creates a problem.

2. Variety is the spice of writing. Focusing on John's every movement during his shopping trip is boring.

3. Use setting to aid the break-up of a character's steps through the grocery store.

Your turn. What else can we do or not do to help make John's story interesting?

Hold on--wait--did I hear a reader say this doesn't happen in their writing? Uh huh. Take out your recent unpublished manuscript. Flip through the pages or do a search for your main character. Be sure to include "he" if a male, "she" if female. How many sentences or paragraphs begin with the same pronoun or subject name in a row?

Editors and Agents spy these in a nano second.

Back to John. Believe it or not an entire short story could be built around John's trip to the store. How?

Setting and senses. The perfect ingredients.

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Let's say that John lived in tornado alley and the shopping trip took place on Friday, June 13th.

On the other side of town, Tom Penniless received a notice. His boss hated to let him go, but loss in company revenues forced him to decrease staff. Tom's daughter had heart problems. A balloon payment on his house came in the mail. At the end of his rope, Tom decided to rob the newly built grocery store.

Tom arrived at the store as John chose the perfect bunch of bananas. John hears the noise at the front of the store and creeps toward the meat section in the back aisle. Threats to shoot shoppers lead him to hide behind the counter.

The tornado siren blares from the tower located in the parking lot. 

John dropped the chicken package on the floor, his hands trembled. Last year the entire town had turned into toothpicks after a tornado barreled through.

Petrified from the siren, Tom orders everyone to the back of the store. He shoots to make the shoppers and workers move faster.

Are ideas swirling in your mind? Can you take this a step farther and get John to the cash register and home? See how adding in setting, a layered secondary plot or two (here we have Tom's problem and the city's history with tornados).

When you find yourself repeating or listing, MIX IT UP. Draw in senses, setting, and pieces from the layered plots.

Caveat- Hype is not necessarily the answer. A catastrophe is not needed in every chapter. Instead, lavish the reader with senses. 

I can't wait to read your comment(s)!

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Rock climbing, white-water rafting, and hiking top Mary's list of great ways to enjoy a day. Such adventures can be found in her stories as well.

Mary writes young adult mystery/suspense, is honing marketing and writing skills, and loves to pen missionary and tell Bible event stories on her ministry blog, God Loves Kids. She has finaled in several writing contests.

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