Tuesday, May 12, 2009
Things That Make Me Say Uh-oh
By Deborah Sharp
If only I had $20 for every time someone told me, ''I have a great idea for a book!''
Some of Midnight Ink's more experienced authors are well-accustomed to that refrain. But our once-small stable has quite a few newbies -- recently signed, about to have their first book published, or still learning the writerly ropes, like me. In the whopping seven months I've logged as a published novelist since Mama Does Time debuted, I can say: I've heard it a lot.
Being seen as an expert by aspiring writers takes some getting used to. It's flattering, of course, and I'm usually pleased to offer advice. But it can also be frustrating. Here are some things that make me go uh-oh when an aspiring writer speaks.
Me: ''So, have you written anything yet?''
Aspiring Author: "Nope, it's all in my head.''
Me: ''You should join a writers' group. It's a good opportunity to get feedback on your work.''
AA: ''Oh, I don't want anyone else to know about what I'm writing. They might steal my idea.''
Me: "What's your main character like?''
AA: "Well, there's not just one main character. I want the story to unfold through five different main characters.''
Me: ''You've got the makings of a nice story, but nothing happens in Chapter 1.''
AA: "Yeah, but ....''
Me: ''I'd be glad to look at your first 10 pages.''
AA: ''You really need to see the whole book to understand the first chapter. It's 600 pages.''
I may make a little laminated card to hand out, Top Five Tips for beginning writers:
1. Get something -- anything -- down on paper. For 15 years, a sports reporter pal has been describing to me what could be a wonderful memoir about small-town life and healing childhood grief through baseball. Trouble is, it's still in his head. He fears it won't be any good. Well, first drafts seldom are. That's what re-writing is for.
2. People in a writers' group are extremely unlikely to steal your idea. Plagiarism is rare. That's why it makes big headlines if it happens.
3. Choose one character to be your readers' eyes and ears; they're called ''main'' characters for a reason. Some seasoned authors seamlessly meld multiple points of view. I can't; you probably can't either. Not yet. Would you put a toddler taking his first steps onto a circus high wire?
4. Banish Yeah, but ... from your lexicon. As in "Yeah, but the story really gets interesting in Chapter 5.'' Sorry, but it needs to be interesting in Chapter 1. Some things that are interesting: Action. Conflict. Trouble. Some that aren't: Long descriptions of characters' traits or backstory without them saying or doing anything.
5. Make your first chapter work hard. It sets the book's tone. It introduces your main character. It has action to propel the plot and make your reader go on to Chapter 2. (PS: 600 pages is about twice as long as your first book should be).
How about you? What are your Uh-oh danger signs? Or, what tip helped you as an aspiring author? (For me, it was ''Put the body in Chapter 1.'')