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Ten Problems I See When I Do Professional Critiques
"Musings" - February 2007
by Margot Finke
I have written this column for a number of years now, and every month, when the time to plan another gripping and scintillating column on writing for children comes around, I scratch my head. Will this finally be the month I draw a blank? Is there a subject on writing for children that I have not tackled? Then it came to me a bolt of lightening in the dark! Februarys column would be about the main problems I see in the manuscripts that clients send me for a professional critique. I mostly work with those who write picture books or mid grade novels. Yet, several problems I regularly encounter are endemic in both genres. They are as follows:
When fingers hit the keyboard, and their owner has a fresh document begging to be filled, some writers never know when to stop writing. I prune and trim acres of unnecessary words, sentences and paragraphs. I think of these words and sentences as frills on a fussy looking ball gown. Rip off those frills, and you have an elegant and exciting gown, sure to make the audience drool. Your writing needs to be like that gown: elegant, exciting, and sure to make that editor drool.
The writer who understands the value of verbs already has the battle half won. Great verbs, active verbs, and powerful verbs, they all have the same goal: pages and chapters that crackle with excitement, dynamic plot twists, and vibrant dialogue. Strong verbs create strong characters, memorable plots and evocative scenes. If your plot and characters read like a bowl of over-cooked noodles, look at your verbs. Your verb choices probably dont deserve all the blame, but they definitely led the retreat into a big Yawn!.
Lack of Focus:
Focus is a juggling act. Everyone admires the way a juggler keeps all those balls in the air at the same time. He does this so perfectly, because his focus never wavers from whatever he is juggling. A good writer must also juggle. It our case, it involves juggling the plot, the subplot, the main character, and the lesser characters: this is just the beginning. While keeping these vital elements in place, a writer must also juggle word choices, character enrichment, and back-story. Keen focus on all these things is a must. Lose focus on one or more fundamental details, and your story weakens and loses momentum. Like a bad juggler, the crucial elements of your story scatter.
"Stuff" That Only Adds to Your Word Count.
These I find in manuscripts everywhere: irritating tag-ons and add-ons that waste space, yet offer zero in the way of plot enlightenment or character enrichment. Some are adverbs that snuggle up to weak verbs. Some are overused and tired adjectives. Others appear as twenty ho-hum words that need to be exchanged for 8 nifty words that explode with meaning. Here are examples:
- Prune the Fluff: very, some, just, like, that, and words ending in LY.
- Verbs to Strengthen: Any verb preceded by WAS or ending in ING. Plus: ran, sat, looked, talk, ate, fell.
- Adjectives That Need a Boost: pretty, happy, nice, good, big, small.
- Thoughts to Fortify: it seemed, perhaps they will, maybe they can, he felt, they feel, would catch, would do etc.
- Runaway Sentences and Descriptions: Put those long compound sentences under a microscope. Take one of the longer sentences, and see if you can cut it in half. Do this by using more active and powerful verbs, and breaking it up into at least two shorter sentences that have extra punch.
A Thesaurus (either a book or Shift F7 in Word) is your best friend when looking to replace these problem words. For further clues regarding weak "Stuff" to cut from your chapters, visit the Self-editing Tip Sheet on my SECRETS page.
Problems Specific to Genre:
Non-Rhyming Picture Books:
Tight writing is a top priority for this genre. A 2,000 word manuscript must be cut in half at least! That 1, 000 word (or less) rule leaves no room for rambling on. The artists illustrations will cover the details you leave out. I often see dialogue no kid would use. Think KID when you write for them. What makes them giggle, and what hooks their interest? Keep the plot and the sentences simple - and, dont confuse simple with dull and boring. Simple means fun, action, and great characters, all of them rolled up into a Picture book of 1,000 words or less. My husband once told me, " You know, I think our kids will grow into adults before you make that leap!" Kids have short attention spans. Remember whats thats like, and keep the kid in you alive.
Rhyming Picture Books:
Writing a memorable rhyming PB takes everything mentioned above, PLUS the ability to craft rhyme that enhances the natural progression of the story, and a meter that flows, smooth and true. Most writers who send me rhyming stories need help with the meter and their story. To be publishable, they must have three things in perfect harmony: the story, the rhyme, and the
meter. This tricky threesome is one of the hardest tasks for a writer to pull off.
For those who would like to get a head start on mastering rhyme and meter, go to my SECRETS page, and then click on "If Youre Writing Rhyme." This will take you to two definitive articles by Dori Chaconass: "Icing on the Cake " and "To Rhyme or Not to Rhyme." Dori has a keen ear for meter, as her many delightful books prove. If you dont master this with Doris help, then I fear you never will. [Editor's note: Margot is being modest, and not mentioning her own columns on rhyming picture books: Rhyming Picture Books: For Those Who Must (April 2004); and How to Write a Picture Book with Fabulous R & M (December 2005]
Mid Grade and YA Books:
Aha. . . I have come to understand why editors often quit after reading a page or two, or a chapter or two. It is amazing how often the style and content of those first pages indicates how the rest of the book will go. Only serious writers ask for critiques of their mid grade or YA books. Doing this can begin a long and involved relationship between author and critiquer, and due to the time and effort involved, it is expensive. The two areas usually in need of instant attention are a tendency to overwrite, and plot weaknesses. There is usually a smattering of "Fluff" words, and a few verbs that need to be kicked into high gear.
I have found that apart from coming to me for help polishing their work, writers also have a need for encouragement and support: to share their thoughts, and their passion for the written word. My critiquing career is full of friendships, surprises, and the pleasure that comes from helping others succeed.
HAPPY WRITING MATES!
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