Tuesday, September 4, 2007

A Writer's Hit List

"You simply keep putting down one damn word after the other, as you hear them, as they come to you." -- Anne Lamott (Bird By Bird)

HALLIE: It is that simple, when you start a manuscript. But it's got to be a lot more than that when you send it out. When I was at Killer Nashville, a great mystery conference a couple of weeks ago, I sat on a panel with agent Donna Bagdasarian and acquiring editor Maryglenn McCombs. Kelly/PJ Parrish moderated a fascinating discussion of why an agent/editor/reviewer stops reading.

It was lovely to vent some spleen.

Here's the list:

  • Profligate use of adverbs
  • Bad grammar, syntax, you know the drill
  • Failing to follow manuscript submission guidelines
  • A predictible plot
  • Wooden dialogue
  • Too many characters
  • Too many subplots
  • No main character or main plot--no backbone to the novel
  • An ending that just happens, as opposed to the protagonist making it happen
  • Too many killers
  • Violence or sex that's overly explicit and gratuitous
  • Sliding point of view
  • Zigzagging timelines
  • Purple prose
  • Too much backstory too soon

HANK: Now on page 205 of a first draft that I sometimes love and sometimes want to throw RIGHT INTO THE TRASH. Putting down one word after the other. And perfect timing, Hallie, to give me such a perfect list of Ephron Don'ts.

May I add another to your list? One I am battling right now? Coincidence.

This is true: I had been thinking about this friend, a woman I ran into in line at a restaurant a few weeks ago. A person I rarely see. Her son was going off to college, she had told me then. Yesterday, I wondered, sort of randomly, how he was doing. Then I went to a grocery store, not even our usual grocery store, and there she was. Now, that really happened. But if it had been a scene in a book, you'd say--oh, please. She just HAPPENED to see her in the grocery store?

When coincidences, authors' coveniences, happen in books, it just drives me crazy. But on the other hand, coincidences happen. So what makes a chance occurence believable and clever? And what makes one a gimmick that would have Hallie and Donna and Maryglenn throwing the book across the room?

RO: One thing that turns me off - jeez, I hope I'm not guilty of doing it - is too much dialogue. Too much "he said, she said" is like following a ping pong match. It's challenging to find the right balance. Sometimes I really enjoy writing snappy dialogue, but too much of it feels like a screenplay and not a book.

JAN: Sometimes I think that for me, being so damn auditory, it's all in the voice. If I like the attitude of the narrator and rhythm of the sentences and the last lines of the chapter, I'm likely to forgive the author anything. If I find the narrator dull, self-important or a bit too preachy, I turn off, even if the images and the prose are flawless.

But I guess the only thing I absolutely can't tolerate is bad dialogue. Especially exposition in dialogue. Cliche or stiff dialogue is tough sledding, but long-winded stiff or cliche dialogue is the worst. When I teach a class in writing dialogue, I tell students that if they don't have an ear for dialogue (which not everyone does) just to keep it short. That covers a lot of sins.

HALLIE: I agree...or, as E. B. White said, "I know when something is right because bells begin ringing and lights flash."


  1. I'm in a novel writing workshop, so I'm learning quite a bit about the art of providing a good critique. I'm calling it an art because I think there is a very fine line between noting genuine problems in a piece of writing and dealing with a style, subject matter or technique that is technically fine, but that one just doesn't personally care for. On the plus side, it helps me to be able to filter out comments and decide if a note is based on a legitimate need for improvement or the reader's personal taste. I suspect some matters of taste also pertain to marketability in certain genres. A mystery or thriller would not support the drawn out narrative summary and descriptions that I love in other types of books. I suppose agents and editors too are fallible and will tend to gravitate toward work that is in line with personal taste -- I'm guessing. I do know that the more confident I become in my understanding of craft, the easier it is to be objective about work that really isn't to my taste.

  2. As I've said, Hallie, you were the best writing teacher I've ever had.


  3. Hi Lisa,
    I agree with you that there is an acquired skill of critiquing work that you just don't love. (also in critiquing work that you love too much -- I'm a sucker for anything historical, get transported, and don't see problems) But I don't think agents and editors attempt to be neutral. I think they openly rely on personal taste. Agents and editors reject a lot of marketable manuscripts because they don't have the passion that they need to sell it. (agents sell to editors and editors usually have to sell to others at the publishing house) I understood this a little better when my writers group was seeking new members. Having had some bad experiences, we decided to ask new members for submissions. When we realized just how much time we'd be spending with the writing, we decided we wanted to really, really, like it.

  4. Jan, that's a really great idea (reviewing submissions for potential critique group members). By the end of the 8 week workshop I'm currently attending, I hope some of us will want to form an ongoing group. Fortunately, by the end of the workshop, we'll all know exactly what everyone else's writing style and tastes are like.