Ever had one of those “Well, DUH!” moments? When you realize you’ve been ignoring the obvious?
I had such a moment when I read Scott Hamilton’s The Great Eight
a few years ago. While learning to skate, Scott’s hardest challenge was
a basic figure eight. What nine-year-old kid wants to do the same boring
skill over and over? Tracing the same double-circles on the ice,
keeping the blade in the same track, hour after hour, day after day?
He’d break out, zipping back and forth, doing the stunts that he loved,
which seemed to come naturally to him.
Pause. If you don’t know who Scott is or have never seen him skate,
do yourself a favor and watch a few of his routines on YouTube. They
are a joy to watch. Two of my personal favorites are his routines to
“When I’m 64” and “Double Bogey Blues.” And knowing his personal story
makes some of those routines even more incredible.
Okay, end of rabbit trail, back on topic. Scott’s coaches refused to
let him spend time on the acrobatics he loved until he’d mastered those
figure eights. Slowly, he began to realize how important they were. My
“duh!” moment came with this from his book: “As I practiced every day
with repetition and consistency, I was building all the small muscles
that gave me the ability to control my movements. I was mastering the fundamentals.” (Italics mine.) And when he’d mastered the “great eight,” he began to win awards.
As a writer, as an editor, as a reader, I love great stories.
I adore the flashy stuff, the backflips and spins. Most readers do.
Editors, in particular, find them beautiful and acquirable.
The problem is, too many writers want to do a backflip with a great story without learning the basics.
As an editor, I see it every day. Great concept! Flashy ideas!
Rotten execution! And the story gets rejected because the fundamentals
just aren’t there.
Anyone who’s sat with me through a pitch session has probably heard
this: “I like your idea, but I’ll need to see the first three chapters.
It’s all in the execution.”
Here are some of the fundamentals I look for in a manuscript:
Great Opening Page
This can be achieved primarily through action and dialogue. If you
plan to open with an internal reflection or a delivery of setting, it
needs unique word choices and well-crafted syntax that are better
constructed than the Golden Gate Bridge.
Conversations can save or kill a book. One clue is that dialogue needs to sound like we think we talk—not the way we actually do. And every spoken word needs to advance the scene and the plot.
Grammar and Syntax That Sparkle
For some reason, fiction writers often think that because they can
get away with iffy grammar in dialogue, it’s okay in narrative. It’s
not. Get rid of tired adjectives. Vary word choices. Stay in the active
voice. This does not mean I love overwritten purple prose; it means I
look for writers who are skilled in making even the simplest phrase
Working Knowledge of Your Genre
This gets more manuscripts kicked to the curb than almost anything on this list. Every genre
has reader expectations, whether it’s romance, romantic suspense,
fantasy, etc. If you are writing Amish romance, then you need to know
what the expectations of that genre are. You can learn a great deal by
reading your genre and taking notes, as well as talking to writers who
work in your genre.
Likeable, Developing Main Characters Readers Love
Exceptionally few books can get away with a main character readers
don’t enjoy spending time with. Flaws are fine; we usually love our
friends because of their flaws as well as in spite of them. But if your
character is the kind of person you’d avoid on a bus, look to grow
him/her in different ways. And your main character must grow and evolve over the course of the novel.
One of my favorite quotations about characters also demonstrates
great syntax with simple words: “Whether a character in your novel is
full of choler, bile, phlegm, blood or plain old buffalo chips, the
fire of life is in there, too, as long as that character lives” (James
This is why editors want the dreaded synopsis with those sample
chapters. An idea that falls flat at the end of the second act will
make an editor doubt even the snappiest writing.
Yeah, yeah, yeah, some of you are thinking. We know all that.
Do you? Have you polished those fundamentals lately? Because even
the most experienced writer can get lazy with the basics. If you
haven’t sold—or you haven’t sold lately—now might be a good time to
take a second look.
We all improve the basics (especially me) by studying, reading, and
practicing. There are dozens of great writing books available that
teach craft. James Scott Bell has an entire library of them. If your
plotting is weak, pick up a good screenwriting book like Syd Field’s Screenplay. Screenwriting books can help with dialogue; so can great movies.
The helps are out there; all you have to do is look. The bottom line
is if your fundamentals aren’t in place, all the fabulous ideas in the
world aren’t going to support a writing career.
Keep a small can of WD-40 on your desk—away from any open flames—to remind yourself
that if you don’t write daily, you will get rusty.