This past weekend I served as part of the faculty for EPA SCBWI in Lancaster, Pa. I learned a lot about my own writing by reading and critiquing that of total strangers, Immediately, I was placed in an editor or agent’s seat, seeing the most polished manuscripts the writers had to offer. And while I sat in that seat I also recognized some of the basic flaws in writing. Each hopeful writer sent in five pages and a synopsis.
It was so easy to see how editors and agents can reject a manuscript in five minutes.
Of the eight novels I previewed, one was excellent, IMO, and ready for publication that very day. Speaking with the author, my assumption was confirmed, as it currently is in the hands of an editor with a major house in NYC.
One was close to being ready. I suggested the writer rearrange her first chapter to start with action rather than detailed exposition, which was lovely, but way too detailed.
One had a good storyline, but the setting wasn’t clear. I thought it took place in ancient times, turns out it was a futuristic dystopian novel.
We have to get the back story in somewhere and when you start out writing your story, whether you outline or not, some how the back story wants to be front and center. Don’t let that happen. How can writers fix these elements of their writing?
I’ve compiled a suggestion list. Hopefully, it may help you compose your first five pages.
First of all, you must understand what exposition is. When introducing a character, setting or event in a novel, you are compelled to write background to give the reader a proper frame of reference. This background information is called exposition or back story.
- This information should advance the rest of the story.
- Reveal your characters’ histories through dialogue or action.
- Dialogue should always have a point
1. a conversation about old keys among boys sitting in a boat tells us nothing about those keys. The fact is they were key to the plotline (no pun intended). They belonged to a haunted house, but the writer took a whole chapter of wasted words to get to that plot point.
2. Make your characters’ conversations advance the story.
3. Not only can dialogue organically provide background information, it is a wonderful technique to break up the pace.
4. Read your dialogue aloud. Does it sound realistic? Think of how you talk to your best friend or your sibling. You don’t say your sister’s name every time you talk to her. Neither should your characters. Find a better way to introduce the new character coming into the scene.
5. Make sure it is clear to the reader who is speaking. Without appropriate tags or obvious clues, the reader will get lost in your words, and that’s just what they become, WORDS.
- Ask yourself if lengthy back story is truly necessary for the plot.
- Reveal background information gradually, at different points in the manuscript.
So that’s what I learned this weekend, as I wore the hat of a professional critiquer.
Now, novels were not the only things in my pile of fifteen manuscripts. I also read poem collections and picture books, both rhyming and prose. I’ll give you my suggestions on those later this week.
I hope my insights have helped you with your writing. I know, as I delved into my NaNoWriMo novel this past week, it helped me with mine.