3/9/07

Improving Your Writing

I have a question. LDS Publisher, I would like to see you post a blog about what, in your opinion, LDS authors can do to increase their quality of writing. I'm whacking my head against the wall to drag the very best of myself onto the page, and yet I still seem to be falling short. What does a publisher look for that they're not finding?

1. What can LDS authors do to increase their quality of writing? This is a hard question to answer because everyone is at a different skill level and what I'd suggest to a beginning writer is different than what I'd suggest to a more experienced writer, but I'll try to cover some very general areas.

First, increase your basic writing skills. This means grammar, spelling, and the other technical parts of writing. Many people believe their skills in this area are higher than they really are. They get feedback from family and friends who have similar skill levels and so they do not catch the mistakes. I've had writers go into shock when I point out the grammatical errors in their manuscript. (I've had published authors go into shock when I point out the errors in their published books.) Take some brush-up classes, review some basic grammar texts or find someone with editing experience who is willing to go through your stuff and help you learn. If you use Word, it will underline your grammar errors in green. Word is not always correct, but if you don't know why that green line is there, you need to find out why.

To increase the quality of crafting your story, there is nothing like practice. Write every day. There are so many books out there with writing prompts and other exercises to help you improve. Read some of them and do the exercises. Get in a good writers group, either face-to-face or online, where you can get feedback on your work. Then listen to that feedback.

Read a lot of books, particularly ones that are selling well or those by your favorite authors, but don't just read for fun. As you read, ask yourself why this book works. What are they doing? What is the structure behind the writing? What techniques do they do well? Where did the story slow down for you and why? How could they have done it differently? If you don't know why a particular books works or doesn't work, take a class or read some books on analyzing literature. Study plot building, characterization, dialogue, scene development, descriptive language, foreshadowing, etc.

Learn about genres. Try writing in several of them and decide what you like best. Then learn the rules for that genre. What elements must be included in a good mystery? What in a good romance? They're different.

Learn the basics of manuscript formatting and the usual guidelines for submitting. Again, there are lots of books and magazines on this topic. Read, read, read. Take notes. Learn.

2. What does a publisher look for that they're not finding? Another hard question. It's much easier to tell you what I'm getting that I don't want. I want stories that speak to deep, universal themes--things we can all relate to--but told with a bit of a twist, so it's not just another book about whatever.

As an LDS publisher, I want stories, characters and topics that speak to our unique culture. I want historical fiction, modern fiction, women's stories, mystery, romance. I personally want to see YA and stories for boys, ages 12-18, but the PTBs here at my company aren't very enthusiastic about them because they don't sell as well as adult fiction.

Okay, I just noticed how very long-winded I'm being today, but I don't have time to go back and be more succinct. Have to get back to work. Sorry.

9 comments:

Oales said...

You said: "It's much easier to tell you what I'm getting that I don't want."

Out of curiousity, what are you getting?

Jeff Savage said...

Great advice LDSP. I couldn't agree more about the importance of a good critique group. In the six years I have been with mine, four of us have published novels and the rest have publsihed articles.

All of our writing has improved dramtically. The key is to get a good group of writers at or above your skill level who are willing to give honest feedback.

Then you as the writer have to sift through the crtiques and figure out what is truely helpful and what is one person's taste vs. anothers taste.

Nothing teaches writing like good feedback. I would also recommend the LDS Storymakers writers conference www.ldsstorymakers.com coming up this month.

LDS Publisher said...

I see way too many manuscripts with basic technical mistakes in them: Misspellings, noun/verb (dis)agreement, problems with tense, wrong use of vocabulary, punctuation...If I'm finding several to a page, it's not ready.

I see flat characters with no traits that make you care what happens to them. I see characters that change too fast--they go from evil to stake president without a believable conversion. I see dialogue that sounds the same for every character. (I should be able to tell who's talking without the "said.") I see plot holes so big they could trap an elephant. And I see unbelievably sappy, everyone gets baptized in the end and lives happily ever after.

As to content, I see way to many personal and/or family history stories that aren't applicable to a wider population. Regional stories, conversion stories, addiction stories, trauma and recovery stories, overcoming huge challenges stories--which may be cherished by people who know the author, but don't have a wide enough appeal to sell well.

I see too many romances that are just another love story. Nothing about the characters and their challenges stand out to make them memorable.

I see too many speculative fiction pieces (fantasy, futuristic) that mix fantasy with gospel doctrine. You cannot have the Holy Ghost teach you how to cast a spell. Fantasy is big right now and I'm not saying that there isn't an LDS market for it (however slim), but it has to be handled very carefully if you mix in LDS theology.

I see too many that don't have anything to do with LDS culture. Yes, books like that are published by some LDS houses, but since I market directly to an LDS readership, I want the book to be specific to their lifestyle. If it's not, what's the point? Send it national.

FHL said...

I love that!

You cannot have the Holy Ghost teach you how to cast a spell.

You'd think there was some sort of prohibition against sorcery...

Darvell Hunt said...

I see too many speculative fiction pieces (fantasy, futuristic) that mix fantasy with gospel doctrine.

I find this comment curious.

It seems to me that The DaVinci Code, if it were LDS, would fit into this category, even though I believe this book has been immensely popular among LDS readers. I enjoyed it, anyway.

I realized early in my reading of this novel that it was a work of fiction, a fact that I think was missed by many who criticized it. It's a good story, with "alternative doctrine" thrown in here and there. Sure, it may not be LDS doctrine, but that's just a classification issue, isn't it? It definitely contains Christian doctrine--and, of course, non-doctrine as well.

The difference may be that Dan Brown comes across as anti-Catholic, so many Catholics have a problem with the story. (This is even more apparent in his novel Angels and Demons.) For this reason an LDS reader may not feel his or her believes are being directly targeted, whereas in an "LDS DaVinci Code" novel, that may not be the case.

So, are LDS readers hypocritical? I mean, do they feel comfortable reading a national novel with false doctrine, but not a local LDS publisher's book that contains speculative fiction, a.k.a. extra-doctrinal fiction?

A very curious topic, indeed. A topic that seems to suggest to me that there cannot be an "LDS Dan Brown."

I personally find that supposition discouraging.

Darvell

Darvell Hunt said...

For this reason an LDS reader may not feel his or her believes are being directly targeted, whereas in an "LDS DaVinci Code" novel, that may not be the case.

Arrgh, I can't edit this post! Please pretend I typed BELIEFS instead of BELIEVES in the above post. Thank you.

Darvell

LDS Publisher said...

Yes, I enjoyed DaVinci Code and Angels and Demons (the better of the two).

And yes, I'm a hypocrite. It doesn't bother me when people write about other religions in this way, but I don't want them writing about mine! Sorry.

Perhaps the difference between this example and the one I used is that in these books, the behaviors and beliefs were contrary to the mainstream Catholic doctrine and not portrayed as the norm. If there was a magic wielding bishop in a book, and his dabbling in magic led to his demise, I could tolerate that as a reader, if not as a publisher (to risky financially). But if the premise was set up that there was not conflict between magic and priesthood, or that they were the same, then I would have a major problem--even with it labeled as fiction.

Example, Orson Scott Card's Lost Boys deals with ghosts within an LDS family. That didn't bother me. (But the story itself gave me the heebie-jeebies.) But if the LDS people were conjuring ghosts, that would bother me.

Fine line, I know. It's one of those "I can't define it, but I know it when I see it" things.

Other publishers may feel otherwise.

Darvell Hunt said...

Fair enough. I appreciate your comments.

I, too, preferred Angels and Demons. I read it when a new pope was being selected, so I found it particularly interesting at the time. Of Dan Brown's work, I think I enjoyed Deception Point the most. Digital Fortress was pretty good, too.

Perhaps the way to go with an "LDS Dan Brown" is to write such a novel to target a mainstream audience and a mainstream publisher, but not in the way that Dan Brown did with the Catholic Church (I mean, anti-Mormon).

If this were done, the novel couldn't be "too LDS" if you expected a national publisher to pick it up. Even so, I'm not sure a mainstream publisher would be interested in it.

Great discussion, though. Thanks!
Darvell

Annette Lyon said...

As far as learning grammar, punctuation, and dialogue issues, I'll do a bit of horn tooting here. In the upcoming LDStorymaker conference that Jeff mentioned, I'm teaching 2 classes--one on dialogue addressing the very things you mentioned and the other on grammar and punctuation. In my critique group I'm pretty much known as the punctuation and grammar nazi. I love this stuff--and I can tell you (and I hope easily explain so anyone can understand) why Word underlines your stuff in green and even how to use lie/lay correctly. :)