3 Biggest Relationship Writing Mistakes

LJIZlzHgQ7WPSh5KVTCB_TypewriterMost fiction has a romance of some sort. Historical, literary, suspense–most plots, even if they’re not a romance novel, have a romantic subplot at the minimum. And actually, most of this advice can be used for all sort of relationships between characters (mother/daughter, best friends, lovers).

The interaction between your characters is what brings a book to life. No novel is written without dialogue, secrets, plot and emotions that cross between the characters in your novels. So how does this all come to life and become real for the reader?

3 BIGGEST RELATIONSHIP WRITING MISTAKES:

1. Coincidence. It’s not that easy.

There is nothing more transparent than characters who come together serendipitously. It’s easy for a writer to have characters bump into each other on the street. What’s hard is to plot interaction naturally for each character’s own motivations and goals separate from their relationship to each other. Comb your writing for things that seem too easy; chances are, the reader can see right through it.

2. Can they just get in a room together?

The opposite of coincidence is a similar problem. If your relationship issue could be solved by two people simply being in the same room and talking it out–it’s not plotted deeply enough. The characters have to be up against something external and bigger than themselves. If they themselves are the limitation to their happiness or coupling then the reader will get frustrated very easily.

3. Technology. The curse of modern relationship writing. 

I know writers, this one isn’t easy. But, setting your novel in the 90s isn’t the answer either! (The reason for writing a historical novel has to be more than just avoiding the cell phone or internet.) Even having a characters’ cell phone drained of battery is hard because of the modern conveniences of car charges and backup chargers. No reader will believe this unless it’s a character quirk and even then we’re all frustrated by our own friends who don’t travel with a fully charged phone! Plus, there is wifi everywhere we go, so of course in a modern novel there will be the same amenities for your character. Therefore, you can’t make your plot too simple or else we’re back at Problem 2 (i.e. why can’t they just talk?). If you have to keep them away with a forgotten cell phone or dead battery then the see above (i.e. external conflict!).

Q: Which one of these is the hardest for you?

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6 Tips To Hook A Reader on Page One

I’ve read thousands of “page ones.” Very often I don’t read page two.

Sometimes all I read is that first page and I make judgements based on what I see there. As an agent and a reader my practice is that if I’m not connecting with the material I move on–and quickly.

I wish I had time to give writers (and their books) more of a chance but I can tell a lot by one page: sense of dialogue, setting, pace, character, voice, and writing talent–yes, usually all from one page. Five at the most.

So how are you supposed to get us past one page?

6 Tips To Hook A Reader on Page One

1. Learn how to balance what readers need to know vs. what you, as the writer, want to tell us. I can sense a writer who is trying to show off very quickly. It really only takes one paragraph to see that. A command of language is knowing how to write for your audience, not showing off how you can set a scene with a vocabulary that your reader can’t connect with. Showing off isn’t going to win readers over. It’s going to make the decision to walk away very easy. All the reader needs to know is who has a secret (see more at point 3). This tip is all about going back and editing your first page over and over again. Polished, but not so shiny that we think we’re reading a magazine ad.

2. Learn what “start with action” really means. We’re not asking every writer to start their book with a car crash. In fact, most shouldn’t! What we’re asking is to make sure that your book starts in a place where plot is happening, not merely an introduction to the scene or characters. The longer you take to drop some hints the more confused we are and that encourages people to put down the book. Action means movement of some kind: start of a conflict, effects of a previous conflict, or dialogue about new/existing conflict.

3. Let us know who has secrets; keep the reader curious. Every character must have a secret. It is linked to their stakes and why they must achieve their goal. Don’t underestimate the power of a secret. It could be something as small as what they were embarrassed by last week or something as big as a major mistake at work. And read this PubCrawlBlog post to learn more. Remember that characters need to feel like they had a life before we entered their world via the book, and that they’ll have an interesting life afterwards too.

4. Be wary of information dumps. The number one killer of a page one: more didactic text and backstory then we could possibly need. Instead of information dumping on us (remember we’re joining you at this exact moment–so what do we need to know to enjoy this moment as it stands?) try things like dialogue instead. Dialogue is a great way to get plot moving while introducing us to your world. If you’re tempted to give us more backstory or facts than we need (I don’t need to know where your character is from, their hair colour, or their sibling order) remember that there is a reason you started your book in this place and it should relate to the fact that their life changes in this instant. No facts are needed if you start in the right place.

5. Introduce characters on a need-to-know basis. There’s nothing more confusing than reading more than 3 or 4 names on page 1. Not only is it hard to keep straight the names themselves, I’m also thoroughly confused about which name matches which voice especially in dialogue. Be careful to only mention characters we need to know at that time. That will prevent the reader from putting down your book before we’ve even begun because they feel they can’t keep up.

6. Never assume a reader is going to finish your first page, first chapter, or whole book. Free time is a luxury these days. When a reader picks up a book that’s a huge statement about how they spend their free time. Dedicating 8-10 hours to your writing should never be assumed. So if you keep that in mind as you write and edit you’ll be in great shape to keep the pace moving and stakes high.

Why Your Query Letter Should Focus On Plot Not Theme

This is my number one gripe with queries: pitches that focus on theme and not plot.

It seems writers like to cover everything in a query letter, including how to make us feel.

Here’s why focusing on theme when you pitch is a bad idea:

1. You’re wasting valuable space that should be spent on facts not proposed emotions. Ultimately, the writer doesn’t truly know how the reader will feel after reading their work. So when someone tells me how I’m going to feel, firstly I don’t believe them, and secondly writers that do this waste valuable space that should be spent on facts like plot, not possible emotional threads that may or may not be there. 

2. Theme can be vague and makes you sound unsure of what you’re book is about. “The bond between a mother and daughter” is a concept not a story. It’s a theme, not a plot. It’s vague, not specific. I could go on about the benefits of using specific, directive language in a query, but I think you get the idea.

3. Themes aren’t what sells projects to editors or sales staff, so it doesn’t sell it to us either. What sells books is a high concept, or unique story that is well-told, well-paced, with lively characters we care about. At no point does the theme actually participate in the selling of the book. Don’t get me wrong, themes aren’t bad, but they have no place in the query letter.

Take a look at your submission: are you highlighting theme when you should be selling the hook or plot?

Top 8 Books About Writing

self-editing-for-fiction-writers1Need some extra writing advice? Love highlighting and taking notes? These are some of the resources I recommend the most. Enjoy!

Self Editing For Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King

This is one of THE most important things writers can teach themselves. Put this one at the top of your list if you are revising right now.

On Writing by Stephen King

Everyone knows (or should know!) this one. It’s the best guide out there, unsurprisingly, from one of the best in the biz. You’ve probably already taken some of this book in; there are quotes are everywhere on Twitter and Tumblr.

Writing The Breakout Novel by Donald Maass (& workbook)

This book is so good for learning how to take your work from ‘good’ to ‘great.’ Who doesn’t want that? Written from the perspective of a literary agent, too. Continue reading Top 8 Books About Writing