My test of whether I want to read a book is opening to page one and start reading. In part 1 of Blunders that Stop Me Reading, I wrote about the overuse of “as.” (Go here if you missed it.)
Here are some other blunders that will probably make me sent the book aside.
Blunder #2 – passive voice
To me warning signs of passive verbs are verbs preceded by "are," "were," "was" and verbs ending in "ing." "Began to," "started to" are also passive. I just want the character to do the action.
If your novel or story is written in past tense, it would be “John walked down the street to the hospital.” Not “was walking.” If one continued in the vein of “was walking,” then wouldn’t it be correct to say, “was opening,” etc. e.g. “He was opening the candy bag and was eating the toffees one by one.” Wow, the “was”es and gerunds are going to get old really fast. In present tense it also simply be “walks” or “opens,” etc.
What about began or started? Sure, sometimes a character starts to say something or do something, but most of the time he or she simply does the action. One “Sally began to cross the room” or one “Manuel started to eat his dinner” won’t stop me, but multiple ones will.
“There is/are” or “there was/were” can be passive too. E.g. There were many people in the concert hall.” That’s a fact but what were these people doing? Clapping, cheering? Sucking in a breath of shock? What they are doing will give the reader a more active picture.
Here’s a hilarious quote on passive versus active: “[The active voice is the] vigorous voice, unashamed to say whodunit. Passive voice is preferred by the weak, the cowardly, ashamed to name the fink who told them what they are evasively telling you.”
— John Bremner
Blunder #3 – distancing the reader
Distancing the reader is sometimes called filtering. Or in other words the action is shown through someone else’s eyes. Yes, your main character is experiencing what is happening, but don’t slow it down by pointing that out to us. “Tacy saw the man pull out a gun” is much less powerful than “The man pulled out a gun.” Show the person doing the action instead of someone hearing or seeing the person do the action. Warning signs are I/she/he “heard” or “saw.”
Again, one or two probably won’t bother me.
Blunder #4 – no sense of setting
I had a writing friend explain that no setting was like putting characters in front of a white board. I’d add that they are in a soundproof windowless room, wearing white, and not eating or smelling a thing. The reader doesn’t have any details to picture where and when the characters are.
Use sensory details to show the setting. Right now I’m sitting in my living room in a recliner with a crocheted blanket over my legs, a plaid shawl around my shoulders, and still my hands are cold. The washer is spinning out a load. My laptop hums. Down the hall in the office my husband clears his throat. Gives you a bit of a picture of where I am as I type. We want to do the same thing for our readers. Author Bruce Hale says, “I tend to slip my descriptions of setting into the beginnings of scenes, to help the reader picture where the action is taking place.”
Blunder #5 – too much description
Conversely, if the description bogs down the scene, I find myself skimming to get to the action.
Description worked in with action works the best. And not everything in a room or setting is described. I like this quote: “Best descriptions tend to be impressionistic, seizing on a few select details...letting the readers...do the rest.” – Peter Selgin
So telling me that a person is in their bedroom, I’ll think generic bedroom and won’t need you to tell me there’s a bed, a dresser, a bedside table, a trash can, etc. Instead show what’s different, what stands out in this bedroom . . . like the Haitian machete hung above the California king bed, which my then three-year-old grandson cut his finger on. Or the cribs stuffed into the open floor space—one beside the closet and the other between the two dressers—leaving just enough room to walk around the double bed.
This list of writing blunders is probably not complete. These are just ones that really bug me, especially in the opening pages of a novel. Once I get hooked on a character and his story, I’m probably more forgiving.
I’m a slow novel writer. I envy those who can get a novel written in a month or even six months. I think part of it is that I often work on more than one project at a time. I also do editing and am a writing instructor. And I volunteer for a writing organization. Plus, there’s marketing the finished works, and social media… But I think another part of it is that I let my subconscious solve some of the scene problems while I do other things. This quote by Haley Chewins encourages me, “Here's one thing I've learnt about writing books. Don't assume that because you're moving slowly you're not making progress.”
I also edit as I go. It’s part of the process that works for me. Diana Wynne Jones said, "Everyone is different and that means that everyone is going to need to write a story in a different way. You have to discover how you need to do it. There is no easy way. You can only discover how to by doing it."
One of the things that motivates me to have chapters done is my critique group. I really hate going without a piece of semi-polished writing. It’s rare for me to dash off a page, a scene, a chapter and not set it aside to look at it again before I get feedback. Even with blog posts, I usually read them over again and again before posting. While this is good, it also means I’m slow.
I can get hung up on researching just the right thing, too. When I find the fact or detail or specific word, then I can move on. I like this quote: “Spending an hour looking for the right word might seem tedious, but it's what mathematicians, inventors and creators do so that at the end, the finished product looks like it came effortlessly.” – Stephen Mooser
The holidays (Thanksgiving through New Years) usually make me even slower. This past season I spent a lot of time recovering from various illnesses—the worst was vertigo. Being sick slows my brain power. I have to accept that and move on when I feel better. Just as I accept I’ll be taking time out for friends and family during the holidays.
Look at what John Steinbeck had to say, “When I face the desolate impossibility of writing 500 pages, a sick sense of failure falls on me, and I know I can never do it. Then gradually, I write one page and then another. One day's works is all I can permit myself to contemplate.” Starting the new year, I’m not focused on what I will accomplish for the year. Whether I will win the race with hare-like speed. Instead I plan to plod along one page at a time and like the tortoise, be successful.
Why did you decide to become a writer?
I didn’t day dream about being a writer or ask for notebooks and pens for Christmas growing up. I was a convert.
Grief over the loss of my parents as well as entering a new stage of life compelled me to write. Declaring my thoughts in a way that I could see them helped me to identify and deal with the fireworks in my mind. Parallel to using words to sort through troubling questions, I began writing morsels of understanding that God pointed out to me from the Bible.
When others who were hiking similar paths read my essays, they identified with my thoughts and urged me to share my insights. At the same time, I felt God pressing me to give away the nuggets that He had entrusted with me to build up others. I am excited and humbled to be useful in my writing.
Do you have authors who inspired you to write? If so, whom?
I love Elizabeth Goudge’s descriptive style of writing. We both delight in God’s creation, it its beauty, diversity, and reflection of God and His joy.
Oswald Chambers’ timeless devotional, My Utmost for His Highest, and Mike Mason’s, The Mystery of Marriage, are the kinds of writing that urge readers to underline phrases or bracket paragraphs. Their writing, I aspire to attain.
What genre(s) do you write and what made you choose it(them)?
I write creative nonfiction in the form of Christian essays, blogs and journal articles. I write these, because my mind roves in nonfiction and fascination with the physical and spiritual worlds.
What kinds of classes, workshops, organizations, groups helped you learn the craft of writing?
I earned my MLIS (Master in Library and Information Science), which afforded me a job as a reference librarian. Through this career, I read across several genres and learned to appreciate different styles of writing and to distinguish great writing.
I took an EdToGo online Beginning Writing course, which helped me with writing basics. I also attended a writers’ conference with breakout sessions and critiques.
Do you belong to a critique group? If so, how often do you meet?
I consider it a great honor and blessing to belong to WriteOn! Pensacola, an invitation only writers’ group. The group of published authors chooses to remain small so that each member can read a piece and receive feedback.
We meet monthly but have recently added a weekly writers’ quiet retreat for anyone to attend. The “retreat” is a room in a local church where we gather to write with the motivation of others working silently beside us and where we cannot get up from writing to switch the loads of laundry or sweep the floor.
Tell us about your first break into publication experience.
My first article published surprised the socks off me. In graduate school, before I thought of myself as a writer, I took a government documents class in which we wrote a research paper using primary government documents. My professor encouraged me to enter my paper in a national contest to be published in Documents to the People. My article won the front cover. I jumped up and down when I found out, despite that I was in the library working at the time. “A Hidden Story,” Documents to the People. Winter Issue 2012, Vol 40, No.4. https://journals.ala.org/dttp/issue/viewIssue/593/349
What’s one tip you’d share with other writers?
What keeps me writing is knowing why I write. God gifted me with insights and words, and no matter the size of my readership circle, I work at it with all my heart, because I work for something greater than myself. God will use it to move people in the directions he chooses. When discouraged, I remember I Peter 4:10 which says, ”As each one has received a special gift, employ it in serving one another as good stewards of the manifold grace of God.”
Please share your most recent book title …
My book is an Easter devotional, Running to the Empty Tomb: Finding the Joy in Easter, (with an accompanying Bible Study coming out in the new year) and can be found on Amazon.
The first 3 lines are, “The birds sing every morning in our neighborhood. Most of the time, my brain filters this reoccurring sound so that I don’t register the birdsong as I fetch the paper. Only when I pause and listen am I aware of the music surrounding me.”
Buy link: https://www.amazon.com/Running -Empty-Tomb-Finding-Easter
Ten year old Suzanne fidgeted on the pew, yawning and commiserating with her growling stomach, when a thought pierced her, “God loved the world enough to send His Son, but I don’t love Him back.” As the congregation bowed in prayer, Suzanne prayed, “God help me love you.” God invaded her life and swallowed her whole.
She began writing by penning intimate prayers then expanded to essays aimed at making spiritual sense of difficult things.
She infuses readers with warmth from God’s tender love and wonder at God’s creative genius. He seems to give Suzanne spiritual glassed which reveal insights and His fingerprints all around us.
Though a former science teacher and reference librarian, Suzanne now devotes her time to writing in answer to God’s strong pull.
Why did you decide to become a writer? I have always loved stories and some of my earliest memories are of my parents reading to me. I grew up in a house filled with books, always reading, and soon I wanted to create my own stories. My first “published” story was a children’s book I wrote in sixth grade for a class project, which I also had to illustrate. We were required to read our books to the younger students. The kids loved my book and after that I was hooked. I have been writing ever since.
Do you have authors who inspired you to write? If so, whom? I loved Madeleine L’Engle’s books as a child and she was a big inspiration to me. Still is. Of course I read every horse book that was published, especially Margaret Henry’s books and The Black Stallion series. I wanted to write books like that when I was young. In the world of non-fiction, as an adult I admire Patsy Clairmont and her humor-filled inspirational books. I read so many different genres that it’s hard for me to list all of the authors who inspire me!
What genre(s) do you write and what made you choose it(them)? My first two books were inspirational Christian non-fiction. The first one is about a difficult period in my life and how my faith got me through. I had a story and felt that God was leading me to share it. It was hard to write because I had to remember some difficult times I had gone through, but I have heard from so many people about how it has touched their lives that I know God is using it. I have a book out about writing, called Six Steps to Successful Publication. I wrote that because I teach a lot of writing workshops and wanted to give people something to refer back to. I also write inspirational fiction/romance and chick lit. My latest book, which came out on Nov. 14th, is called Mrs. Chartwell and the Cat Burglar. It’s a romantic mystery and I hope readers have as much fun reading it as I had writing it!
What kinds of classes, workshops, organizations, groups helped you learn the craft of writing? I can’t stress enough how important it is to find a group of writers to hang out with. I have learned so much over the years from my local writer’s group. We meet once a month and share ideas, and admittedly sometimes we just visit, but I always come away inspired. I also have a critique group that I am in, where I share my work. Formally, I have a dual degree in Creative Writing and English Language and Literature from the University of Michigan. I also worked as a journalist for The Ann Arbor News for many years. As a journalist, you are edited daily, have some pretty intense deadlines, and have no time for writer’s block. I think this practice helped to hone my skills and taught me to focus in a busy newsroom. Now I can write anywhere!
Do you belong to a critique group? If so, how often do you meet? Yes I do, as I mentioned above. It’s wonderful! There are only three of us, and we meet once a month. Before we meet we send out our latest work for critique and are ready to discuss each other’s projects when we get together. It’s a blast and I get to hear what others think of my work in progress. I take notes and use them when I go back to rewrite/edit. We all write different genres, but we are avid readers in all genres so that helps with our critiquing.
Tell us about your first break into publication experience. That was a God moment! I went to a women’s business dinner with a friend, just for fun, not as a writer. There, I met a publisher who just happened to publish Christian non-fiction, and I had a manuscript sitting in my drawer waiting for me to have the time to send it out. I had a new baby at the time so was pretty busy with him. She asked to see it and after reading it, accepted it. It was really fun to work with her publishing company and the book sold pretty well. It’s called Why Is There a Lemon in My Fruit Salad? How to Stay Sweet When Life Turns Sour.
What’s one tip you’d share with other writers? It can be a practical how to tip or an inspirational/encouragement tip. Write! It sounds simple, but you’d be surprised how many people talk about writing, attend writing workshops, read about writing and never write! I call it the BIS rule: Butt in Seat. You must make writing a priority or it will never get done. Write every day if you can. Even if you only write one page a day, in a year you will have 360 pages and that is a book! Set a goal – 10 minutes a day, 300 words a day, whatever – and stick to it. The only way you get better at something is to practice and writing is no exception. Each book will be better. Each day you will grow more confident. Write!
Please share your most recent book title and the opening line. (Please include a buy link.)
Mrs. Chartwell and the Cat Burglar: a Romantic Mystery
Mrs. Abigail Chartwell filed away the last document in her stack and prepared to go home for the evening, but the gentleman at the counter kept talking.
Pamela Gossiaux is a humorist, inspirational speaker, and the author of the books Good Enough, Why Is There a Lemon in My Fruit Salad? How to Stay Sweet When Life Turns Sour, and A Kid at Heart: Becoming a Child of Our Heavenly Father, as well as the highly anticipated inspirational romance, Mrs. Chartwell and the Cat Burglar.
Pamela has been writing and working with writers for several decades. She has a dual BA degree from the University of Michigan in Creative Writing and English Language and Literature, and over 20 years of journalism writing experience. She teaches writing workshops and has been the editor for published books in a wide variety of genres, both fiction and non-fiction, including best sellers. She has self-published a book on writing called Six Steps to Successful Publication.
An avid horse enthusiast, she enjoys being outdoors and working in her garden. She also loves chocolate, and prefers to curl up with a good book in her downtime. Pamela lives in Michigan with her husband, two sons, and three cats. Visit her website at PamelaGossiaux.com.
In a writers’ group on Facebook, I recently read the words “I lost the flow.” She didn’t know where to go next. How to get the scene in her mind down on paper. Writer’s block is something that happens to most of us. So what’s the solution?
Years ago while visiting friends who had a large parrot, my husband was told, “Step away from the bird!” He had his back to the cage and the parrot, whose previous owners had mistreated it, was leaning forward to bite. He moved quickly and no husband or bird was harmed in this story. Writer’s block bites, too, and the advice to “step away” can be very helpful.
How do we know when to step away? Here’s what works for me.
If I’m not clear on what should happen next, stepping away for a time lets ideas marinate in my subconscious. While I go about other tasks, my mind can work on the puzzle of the scene. It can mull over the character and discover what would be her most natural next step. Doing other things can give me a fresh look at the problem.
I might even work on a different writing project. Or do further research. I might play with blurbs or look up comp titles. I’ll read blogs and articles about writing. I’m a sucker for good writing quotes and collect them, and will search for them. I’ve tried writing something totally new, such as a poem. Having fun with words makes me desire to keep writing. Jeff Goins says, “You do not overcome writer’s block by refusing to write until you feel ‘inspired.’”
If I’m overly frustrated with how my writing is going, stepping away for a time means I won’t toss the whole project unnecessarily. Perhaps I’m simply too tired. Or hungry. Or too stressed by what else is going on in my life. Stepping away is a necessity in these cases. Or maybe, I’ve just been sitting in the same place too long and getting up and moving will help. Sometimes I need to fill up my creative reservoir by going out and doing something new and fun. Other times I get filled up with inspiration by attending a workshop or other writer event. Taking a portion of my writing to my critique group is helpful for me, too.
One of the keys about stepping away is that it is only for a time. Just as my friends didn’t give up on rehabilitating their parrot, don’t give up on your writing. Yes, some projects may just not work and they’ll be set aside. But finishing projects, reaching the end, is a goal worth striving to, and really the only way to do that is to do the actual writing.
My pen-name is Carol Roberts, and writing is the outcome of a long journey. When I left school I was interested in psychology, and I would have studied that, had I not decided to travel first. As was, I left my birth place of Vienna at the age of 18 and never returned to live there.
I travelled through South America and Asia, indulging my interest in culture and tradition, whenI met my husband-to-be in India. He was a photographer from New Zealand who was working for an agency, and his idea of travelling was a lot more intrepid than mine. We ended up in places that were so distant and remote, that I can still remember the feeling of eternal timelessness that took ahold of me in such locations. I was completely fascinated; what were those people’s stories, what did they preserve in terms of their mythology? I took a lot of notes about places and people, and by the time I settled in New Zealand, I had a firm plan of compiling a non-fiction book about stories and myths from all around the world.
What kinds of classes helped you learn the craft of writing? And tell us about your first break into print experience.
I took classes in Basic writing and Composition, Article writing and Creative writing, and started to experiment with freelance articles about our travels. Some of my work was picked up by a couple of magazines, but since my husband had allowed me to use some of his excellent photography, it’s shared credit. Writing articles satisfied my interest in non-fiction, the book about mythology was never written, and I was ready to move on to fiction.
What genre(s) do you write and what made you choose it(them)?
I dabbled with poetry, then with short stories, and when I finally decided to write my first full length novel, I was drawn to write a mystery. I chose Atlantis as a setting, because it perfectly fitted the type of speculative story I wanted to tell. Myth is often based on a real event that is important enough to have survived the ages, yet it transcends the event itself as symbolic and meaningful. Translated into genre, it’s fantasy/mystery.
What’s one tip you’d share with other writers?
Being a new author, I am still getting my head around the concept of self-promotion. It’s one thing to compile non-fiction articles, but it’s an entirely different thing to share and stimulate interest in one’s own creativity. So my tip (to myself as well) is that if you have written that first story, don’t be shy to connect with it.
Please share your most recent book title and the opening lines.
ATLANTIS by Carol Roberts
“And that is all I can tell you.”
The big, leather-bound book closed with an air of finality, as if to never again disturb the dust particles that resettled on the ancient, worn cover.
You can find the book on Amazon at https://www.amazon.com/gp/aw/d/B0777J2MC8/.
Carol Roberts is a freelance writer with particular interest in cultural myth. Originally from Vienna, she has spent all of her adult life in the Far North of New Zealand. Her passion for stories that tell of origins took her to several different countries, where she researched oral traditions of the oldest creation myths. Atlantis is her first full length novel, and her second novel Tower of Babel is also complete.
Twitter link: https://twitter.com/authorRobertsC
SM Ford writes inspirational fiction for adults, although teens may find the stories of interest, too. She also loves assisting other writers on their journeys.