Generic Adjectives are Bad for your Style

What’s wrong with this fragment, found in a novel:

‘Their conversation was stilted’?

That’s right: it tells, it doesn’t show. Instead of creating a scene with the right atmosphere to show us that the awkwardness, boredom and self-consciousness of the characters involved in this conversation, the author chooses to summarise it all with a generic adjective: stilted.

For fiction, this is as good a report-writing. Imagine you were a witness of this conversation and you had to write a report about it. You would write a summary of it and you would use generic adjectives. They looked uncomfortable to be there, their conversation was stilted. You wouldn’t desciebe the scene, you’ll be unlikely to repeat their dialogue lines, the look in their eyes, the subtle gestures and facial expressions. But in fiction, it is exactly this kind of minimalism that creates atmospheric and immersive scenes to enrich our reading experience, not the report-writing.

To illustrate my point, I’ll use this beauitful fragment from Edgar A. Poe: “The forehead was high, and very pale, and singularly placid; and the once golden hair fell partially over it, and overshadowed the hollow temples with ringlets now black as the raven’s wing, and jarring discordantly, in their fantastic character, with the reigning melancholy of the countenance. The eyes were lifeless, and lustreless, and I shrunk involuntarily from their glassy stare to the contemplation of the thin and shrunken lips.” Here, Poe could have easily summarised it all with ‘Berenice looked ill’, but of course, he didn’t. He offered us instead a piece of real description and allowed us the opportunity to interact with his writing and understand the meaning of it, that she indeed looked ill.

Other generic adjectives to look out for and pluck out of your fiction writing, are ‘bad’, ‘sad’, ‘happy’, ‘gloomy’, ‘angry’, ‘delighted’, ‘elated’, ‘amused’ and so on. The best way to go about it is to schedule one editing session with generic adjectives in mind and go through the whole manuscript isolating them one by one and deciding whether a proper scene or description would be suitable instead.

For more on showing, not telling and how to avoid summarising in fiction, check out Self-Editing Fiction That Sells.

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Free Book Offer

If you always wanted to find out how your book fares and would also like to learn how to edit and improve it yourself, then July is your month.

You can submit your manuscript for assessment in July and, if you’re a new client, you will receive 10% off and a signed copy of Self-editing Fiction that Sells.

Find out more.

 

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What Does it Mean to ‘Tighten your Story’?

tighten_your_storyFeedback from literary agents is a precious thing and new writers would do well to take it seriously and follow it. Sometimes, the feedback is crystal clear: ‘the stakes are not high enough,’ ‘a third-person narrator might work better’, ‘I would lose the prologue, it doesn’t seem to add anything to the story.’ When you get this type of feedback, as a new writer, you know exactly what you need to do (or at least you know exactly what to experiment with and see how you like the result).

But you can also receive a much vaguer type of advice, such as: ‘your voice is not strong enough’, ‘the narrative lacks drive’, ‘your characters fail to convince’, ‘your scenes are not immersive enough’, ‘your story needs tightening.’ Yes, in other words, ‘you haven’t quite pulled this one off’, but what exactly can you do to pull it off?

What does all this mean? It sounds like ambiguous, generic advice hundreds of thousands of writers may receive every day from agents around the world. Where do you start to revise your manuscript in order to add more drive to your narrative?

Clients often come to us with a briefing note from their agent, ‘the story needs some tightening’. Personally, I love receiving a manuscript with a briefing from an agent because there is a lot more scope for me to work with the author and improve those specific areas the agent has isolated.

Loose stories are a common encounter in new fiction writing. The good news is that tightening your story is easy to do once you know how. So when I receive such a briefing, I usually look at two things:

1)   is there enough action in the story?

2)   if there is enough action in the story, is it structured so it follows a logical and necessary path?

It’s easy to deal with number one: just add more action to your story. If you have long fragments where nothing happens – such as a sagging middle – adding more action will increase anticipation and suspense, and so it will improve the reading experience.

Number two is a little trickier because the overall effect can still fail if the action is random, i.e. it doesn’t follow a logical and necessary path.

To give your action structure, you can use two very effective techniques:

1)   the action-consequence technique, in which every single bit of action in your story is either a cause of a future action or a consequence of a previous action, thus making sure that everything serves a purpose and moves the story forward in a logical and necessary way. For more on this technique, you can watch this video.

2)   the foreshadowing technique, in which strategically place details of seemingly no importance earlier in the story so they can gain a major importance later on. Example: Jim’s plans of getting to the crucial meeting on time can’t be ruined by the fact that his car fails to start in the morning. The detail of a broken down car is random and unconvincing in the context of its importance. To improve its plausibility, you can show Jim’s car failing to start at least once before this needs to happen in order to move the story forward. As always, I’m using over-simplified examples for the purposes of illustrating the principle. In literary criticism, this technique is called Chekhov’s Rifle, after Chekhov’s saying that, in drama, if a rifle is casually hanging on a background wall in a scene, it needs to be fired sooner rather than later.

By using these two techniques, you are likely to achieve a much tighter structure and delivery of your story. If an agent tells you your story needs tightening, make sure you employ these two techniques and, once you’re done, get back to them and let them know how you achieved it. 

Find out more about plot and story in my guide, Self-Editing Fiction That Sells

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How to Avoid saggy Middles

saggy_middlesMiddles can be drawn out affairs. The never seem to deliver quite the excitement of beginnings or the satisfaction of endings. Characters don’t appear to achieve anything and the story struggles to get anywhere.

This is particularly the case with novels written without a clear plot in mind. You know how to start it all, you know the ending, even the climax is crystal clear, but what happens in the middle is a bit blurry. A long car drive, a long walk in the park, a never-ending conversation over dinner. It seems to go on a bit and at some point you breathe in relief that the climax is approaching and the ending will shortly follow.

There are some proven and tested ways to deal with saggy middles.

1. Call in backstory. One of the great ways to push your middle up a notch is by using the backstory. This is why a compelling backstory is so important in a thriller. You can rely on it to create a variation when your main story sags a little. So make sure you plan out a parallel plot for your backstory and the beginning, middle, climax and ending are not overlapping, but rather arranged in an alternating pattern, similar to a lattice. A twist in the protagonist’s personal life is a good example. Her mum was taken to hospital (Chekhov’s Rifle opportunity flags up here, make sure you mention her mum’s health problems earlier in the story, before they are needed) or she meets someone she falls for completely (make sure this would work with your audience).

2. Escalate the conflict even more. Increase the stakes by adding even more obstacles in the protagonist’s way. James Patterson is the master of all second-paragraph twists. If something unexpected happens and ups the stakes of the whole quest, this is great conflict escalation. On a smaller scale, think of mini-conflicts you could escalate: does your protagonist have any phobias? Make sure he or she overcomes the mother of all encounters with the biggest subject of their phobia. No reader is going to put your book down when, while opening a bag of rice, your protagonist, a well-known to readers arachnophobe, finds a scorpion inside. A living scorpion. No reader is going to put your book down when your protagonist, a long-time sufferer of asthma, drops her inhaler through the drain grid inside a smoky and dusty mine. In the same way, you can reveal a secret with devastating consequences for the protagonist, which he obviously overcomes in ways unexpected by the reader.

3. Keep alternating. What quite a few writers submitting manuscripts for assessment to our consultancy do is use a vast part of the middle of their book for ‘character development’. This sounds like a good excuse, except that characterisation should be done organically and throughout the book, not in a block at the start of your book or in the middle. Character development here often means bogging your protagonist down with endless inner monologue and moral dilemmas over completely everyday things (like recycling vs. dumping). While a good old inner conflict can’t do any harm, while revising, pay particular attention to whether action alternates with description and reflection just like in the rest of your book. If it doesn’t, make sure you see to it. Reflection scenes are scenes in which nothing happens. They are there to develop character, add depth to narrative and maybe create further suspense and conflict. Use reflection to delay suspense, but never to end it.

Example of bad usage of reflection

Hannah stopped breathing when she realised the revolver was pointing at her forehead.

This could be a good cliffhanger, but completely wasted if you start the next paragraph or chapter with:

Thinking about it now, while watching the clock on the Mayor’s Dome, from her seventeenth floor window, that was a close encounter. That revolver could have easily had six rounds instead of five.

Contrary to popular belief, saggy middles are only easy to spot in another author’s book, but not in our own. Just like bad writing in general. I once heard an editor saying, ‘If the author gets bored while rereading, imagine what a paying reader will be like.’ But this is the trap: the author never gets bored. The author knows the focus and the perspective and where the story will head and he or she also knows that there is a good reason why that fragment is in a particular place. In informal conversations about manuscripts, I’ve never seen a greater speed of reaction than a writer defending his or her own choices. It almost defies the laws of physics.

Find out more about how to improve pace, plot and narrative drive in my guide, Self-Editing Fiction That Sells.

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Plot vs. Story

Confusing plot and story is surprisingly common, so I think a very brief mention of the difference could be useful.

Contrary to common belief, plot is not what happens in the story. That is the story. Plot is the structure in which the story is arranged. 

The plot is the way in which the author decides to scatter crucial bits of information for the readers to put together. If you decide to write your story as, for instance, a series of flashbacks and flash-forwards, the way you structure it – beginning, middle and ending – is the plot. 

On the other hand, the events taking place in chronological order make up the story.

Let’s use this timeless theme as an example: Jim and Hannah have known each other since they were kids, as teenagers they fall in love, Hannah’s father opposes marriage, Hannah and Jim run away and live happily ever after. This is the story. 

The plot could be this: the opening scene shows Hannah and Jim planning to run away (middle of the story). The following scene is a flashback to Hannah’s and Jim’s childhood when they first met (beginning of the story) and so on.

In conclusion, the story is what the readers reconstruct by summarising the events in their chronological order and the plot is the order in which the story is presented to the readers. 

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‘Being ignored is something you get used to,’ says new writer signed up by United Agents

ImageLorena Goldsmith: Rowena, first of all, congratulations on being signed up by United Agents! Let’s start at the beginning. What made you think you could write a book and why did you give it a go?

Rowena Kitchen: I woke up on my 50th birthday and thought, if these are going to be my fabulous fifties, I had better get on with it! Put on my silver Hunter wellies and went for a walk with my golden retriever, Lola. By the time I got back, I had about 500 words in my head which I immediately typed up. I was off.  Most of what I write is done on dog walks actually. This led to my novel, ‘Dress Code: Red’, which is how I linked up with you.

Lorena: Great! I sometimes wonder, what would writers do without dog walks? OK, here I should probably say that ‘Dress Code: Red’ is a novel about five high-school graduates starting a high-end party planning business. But of course, not everything goes to plan…

Rowena: That’s right.

Lorena: So tell us a bit about yourself. Why this subject?

Rowena: I teach beauty therapy to 13-18 year old girls and nearly every class someone would say something that was funny or tragic that I stored up thinking that one day I would put it all down in a book, which I now have! The burning desire to be a party planner was the ambition of so many, that I made it the core of the story, mix in a murder, sprinkle in some diamonds, give it all a good stir and you have a tale that is just waiting to be told.

Lorena: Did you have any writing experience before this?

Rowena: I already wrote a health and beauty column for a magazine based in Dartmouth, which was where my other book, ‘Mirror Mirror’, comes from. Each month I would also create a recipe of a home-made beauty treatment under the heading Beauty in the Kitchen.

Lorena: *goes slightly wide-eyed*

Rowena: That’s right. The layout artist at the magazine illustrates these recipes. I put them together in a book format and submitted to about 25 publishers and agencies with only one good response. So feeling despondent, I put it to one side. About a year later, I decided to give it another whirl but the artist from the magazine decided not to continue, which led to me discovering illustrator Lynette Yencho from Minnesota. We hit it off immediately.

Lorena: She’s amazing.

Rowena: She really is. Rewriting the book to be fairy-tale inspired and having Lynette’s wonderful illustrations was the key to the door at last. We put together a seven-page submission of text and illustration and using the Writer’s Blah sent it off to 15 literary agents. Within a week we had a response from The Agency Group in New York, who quickly got on the phone to discuss a way forward and how to create a proposal to submit to publishers. This was very exciting but after an initial flurry of communication, there was a long silence and me being keen to enjoy my fabulous fifties while I was still at the beginning of them, I submitted to two more literary agencies and literally within an hour had been contacted by Mildred Yuan at United Agents in London.

Lorena: This is very unusual!

Rowena: I met Mildred the following week and became a client. Mildred is extremely driven and smart and I am very lucky to be on her team. Lots of agencies state in their submissions page that they only get back to you if they are interested so being ignored is something you get used to. It turns out the agent in New York had suffered some personal losses and had merely taken her eye off the ball, was still interested and contacted me again nearly three months later, but having met and clicked with Mildred I was already set.

Lorena: What should new writers expect when they submit their work to a literary agency or publisher?

Rowena: Typical responses from both publishers and literary agents vary from total silence to ‘this is not for my list’, ‘we are not interested’, ‘we are not accepting any submissions at this time’, ‘it’s great but we only publish historical novels’ etc etc. Hmm, that is a lesson well learnt at the beginning of the submission process. Do your homework and read about each and every agent at the agency, see who is on their list of clients and what their books are about and only submit to those who will be interested. I targeted only the agencies that were going to be on the same page as me and it obviously paid off.

Lorena: How about your second book?

Rowena: As for ‘Dress Code: Red’, I submitted it to a handful of agencies and one of them replied suggesting I would benefit from having Lorena at Daniel Goldsmith Associates, read and critique and help me with issues the book had at that stage. After reading your report, I did exactly what you suggested – some of it being glaring obvious now pointed out. I also read your book, Self-editing Fiction that Sells, and Cathy Yardley’s Will Write for Shoes and used them as my bible to end up with a readable story using the correct… point of view!

Lorena (laughs): Oh, the jargon! How do you decide what to write and what to keep/delete?

Rowena: Everybody will have a different writing process. I had no idea what was going to happen at the end of ‘Dress Code: Red’ and was quite surprised when it showed up! Try not to be too attached to any character or any scene – while you may enjoy it consider carefully whether anyone else will! To start with I had no intention of any love interest being present as there are so, so many books where the only goal is to overcome the misunderstanding between the girl and the guy and then stumble towards a happy ending – after total misery of course! But when Sloane got to the police station I thought ‘why not?’ and made the Detective handsome and witty and although they end up in love, it’s in a way that does not make the book unsuitable for the younger reader. When I reached 40,000 words I thought I was done but slowly the rest emerged especially after you had pointed out where there was a lack of a scene or lack of emotion and I had to fill the gap – in actual fact it was great fun and Dorrie (Sloane’s sister) is only there thanks to you!

Lorena: I loved that new chapter with Dorrie in. Many readers will relate to the glamourous older sister the little sister is in total awe of. Great. So what next?

Rowena: I am very excited for the next stage in the process of getting a book onto the shelves – we are submitting to publishers in the New Year and sending out samples of the recipes from the book as a lure – I’ll let you know if it works!

Lorena: You absolutely must do! Many, many thanks for sharing your experience with our readers.

Rowena: It was a pleasure.

Read Rowena Kitchen’s column at www.bythedart.co.uk 

See Lynette Yencho’s work at www.lynettestudio.com

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How to Strengthen a weak Story

Weak stories aImagere a common encounter in beginning fiction, even when the quest is strong and the stakes are high.

Example of weak story: The protagonist endangers his life to save his best friend’s life, who’s been kidnapped by a gang of organised crime.

By any standards, this quest would make a strong story. The stakes are high enough.

What can make this story weak?

  1. Low or no obstacles
  2. A weak protagonist
  3. An unconvincing villain

No or low obstacles

The way the protagonist solves the quest is dream-like. Everything is his path turns out to be far from a nightmare. The ocean is crystal clear, not too cold and rather fresh and pleasant when he parachutes himself in the middle of the Atlantic on a December night and only a quiet little splash breaks its tranquillity. Afterwards, the skip in which the protagonist hides is the only one to go through customs without being checked as a dog/a bird/a blonde with big breasts distracts the customs officer while the skip goes through.

Memo: when there is a plan in the quest, nothing can possibly go according to it. Anything that can go wrong will go wrong for the protagonist and the circumstances are never favourable, they are always obstacles.

A weak protagonist

What makes a protagonist appear weak is his/her inability to rise to our expectations. A common instance is an anti-hero who happens to have a belt in every single type of martial arts when he’s assaulted, a degree in psychology when he’s kidnapped and a course in baking when he has the sexy character over for dinner.

A weak protagonist is also a protagonist who makes use of favourable circumstances instead of overcoming obstacles. The circumstances mentioned above about the parachuting in the ocean and the skip don’t do the protagonist justice.

Memo: a protagonist gains respect by overcoming adversity and the stronger the adversity, the stronger our awe will be.

An unconvincing villain

In the same way, a plot is weakened by a villain that doesn’t match the strength of the protagonist. The villain is the ultimate obstacle in the protagonist’s quest, so having him or her pose mild or insignificant obstacles in the protagonist’s journey will damage the villain, the protagonist and the story.

Memo: a stronger villain will make the protagonist seem stronger and will also strengthen your story.

For more on improving plot and story, see ‘How can a plot go wrong?’ in my guide, Self-Editing Fiction That Sells.

Image credit: Con Air © Touchestone Pictures (1997).

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