Tuesday, May 11, 2010

What it takes to write a good story.

Many an author has asked this very question. Many an author remains unsure as to how to do this question.

Submissions come in and I look at them to see if the manuscript will be a good fit with Whimsical Publications (WP). A few are, but many are not. Here are some of the reasons why the book fails to grab me:

1-too many grammatical errors.
2-too much narrative, not enough description.
3-telling the story rather than showing the story.
4-poor sentence structure.

There are others but these are the worst offenders.

Here are my replies to each of the above. Of course the answers are subjective, but that is the beauty of being human: we all have a choice.

1-too many grammarical errors.

When a writer is in the grove, the muse, whatever you want to call it, grammar is something not to be worried about until after the story is complete. You do not want to edit at the same time you write. Editing is for the second or even third go-round. Before you submit to a publisher or an agent, the manuscript should be "clean".

What I mean by "clean" is the has to be a period where one belongs and a comma where it belongs. The words need to be the correct version. An example: whose vs who's. Or write vs right vs wright. There vs their. Each is correct depending on its use. If the writer is using MS Word for their story, the spell checker may not catch the wrong word due to the fact the word is not misspelled. Having a dictionary close at hand helps.

Make sure to give the manuscript a good once-over to make sure everything is correct. Minor errors are nothing and can be fixed. Too many will drive an editor nuts and cause the publisher to turn your work away.

2-too much narrative, not enough description.
3-telling the story rather than showing the story.

These three can go hand in hand.

Picture yourself sitting in a lecture hall. Picture two people standing up on the stage, sitting on stools, reading to each other. After a while you, the audience, get rather bored and tune out. You start thinking of chores you have to do, errands needing to be done, meals to be cooked, and all kinds of others activities in your busy life.

Jane went to the curtain and looked out. She said, "A car is sitting near the end of the driveway. The man inside is watching the house."

"Why would someone do that?" Rick asked.

"I have no idea."

"Well, neither do I."

"Maybe we should go outside and ask."

"Whatever for. If the man wants something, he'll come to the door and knock."

You get the idea. This is telling and is rather dull. It involves a lot of narrative and not a lot of showing. A good way to understand how to show a scene is to close your eyes and "see" with your minds eye what is going on. If you can't actually see it, you have to describe it so another understands what you are seeing. Example:

With a huff of frustration, Jane walked over to the window and shifted the curtain. The view of the lilac bushes outside the window always calmed her after an argument. She watched as a small flame flashed to life in the car near the end of the driveway. Just as quickly, it was gone.

"Rick, there's a sedan with tinted windows sitting across the street from the driveway. I just saw a man with dark hair light a cigarette. I get the feeling he is watching the house."

Rick turned away from the source of the argument, the TV. "What? Why would someone be doing that?"

"I don't know, but it frightens me." Jane's voice crept up in tempo and she crossed her arms before her, rubbed her upper arms. (Notice I did not make a comment about her facial expression. She can't see her own face unless she is looking in a mirror.)

Rick crossed the room in a couple of strides and peered over her shoulder. "I don't know why someone is out there, but I'm going to go find out."

Jane saw the firm set of his jaw and knew nothing but trouble would come of Rick going outside to confront the observer. She spun around and grabbed his arms, halting his progress to what she knew was certain harm. "No! Wait! I don't want you to go out there!" Her heart raced and her breath picked up speed.
Okay, you get the idea. As you read, you wonder what is going on and why the person sitting in the car is there. It keeps you interested and wanting to read more to find out why Jane is so frightened. You "see" her fear and emotions rather than merely reading them. The description helps builds the story. If the story is boring, the reader goes away. If the story grabs the reader right away, he/she stays for more.

And finally, 4-poor sentence structure.

If the sentence structure is awkward when reading it, it tends to make the reader upset and they quit, likely to never read another of your works again. A way to prevent this is to read your story out loud. If you stumble on a particular section, so will the reader. Smooth that part out and reread it. Once it is fixed, move on to the next until the manuscript is finished. It will be well worth the time.

If the sentence goes on and on and on and on and...well, you get the picture, break it up into a couple of sentences, or more if warranted. I remember being taught that if you have to stop for a breath, toss in a comma. Or start a new sentence.

Okay. Now that I've typed your eyes off, I hope I've helped in some way. Remember, these are my opinions and are what I use when reading a submission. Others may have different ways of methodology.

Thanks for taking the time to read this blog. Happy writing!


  1. Nice looking blog, Janet, and thanks for making us aware of what it is you're looking for in a submission. :)

  2. Thanks to you both. Now you know why your books were selected. :)