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More bad writing advice

This article was originally on a blog post platform and may be missing photos, graphics or links. See About archive blog posts.

Writing a book is hard. It’s not easy to bring shape and life to hundreds of pages by simply setting one word in front of the next -- no wonder people turn to all sorts of resources for help. There are online writing groups and in-person writing groups and MFA programs and writers’ conferences and even books about how to write a book.

Of all of these, books have got to be the least helpful. Because books can’t read works-in-progress. Whatever the faults the other resources have (and they have plenty), at least they involve real readers looking at your specific work and responding to it. A book, on the other hand, will shout out rules. Following these rules may be very bad for you.

Which brings me to ‘Manuscript Makeover,’ which I found languishing in the L.A. Times book room. The bullet points on the back cover include this:

Rewrite characterization for dimensionality, universal need, and theme

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I don’t even know what that means. But I think, in its own convoluted way, it means to say ‘write good characters.’ Shouldn’t the text of a book about writing be easy to read? Well, that was only the beginning.

Picture your chat with Oprah ... after the jump.

Some of the book’s pointers:

  • Say affirmations -- positive statements such as ‘I will write, revise, and publish.’
  • Model the length and tone of your story to fit the genre or subgenre you decide on. Revise.
  • Create a traumatic event in the hero’s past that leaves its mark and that fits with your story, character, and genre.
  • Decide what universal need (the ‘hole in the soul’) your hero is deprived of, due to the traumatic past.
  • Use similes for sight, sounds, smells, tastes, touch/temperature, touch/sensation, ideas, actions, and emotions.
  • Introduce as many minor characters that play a role in the story as soon as possible.
  • Revise to create a mercurial or unreliable character or ‘loose cannon.’
  • Foreshadowing #1: Show characters talking about upcoming event, or in some way anticipate the big scene (a dream, an implication of the scene).
  • Show the POV character reflecting and reviewing accomplishments and past events relative to his or her need and the plot or story goal.
  • Revise for impact: use one-word sentences.
  • Avoid answering the question within the sentence, scene or chapter without also raising another question.
  • Consider creating a final, post-climax, brief scene where your protagonist is tested for character change. Reveal what the character has learned and resolved. Reveal the theme.
  • Visualize success -- your chat with Oprah, endorsing fat royalty checks, or winning a contest.

This might help someone, but I doubt I’d want to read the book they produced. Not all the advice in the book is awful -- in more than one place, author Elizabeth Lyon recommends asking someone to read your manuscript and getting their feedback. But the fact is that following the instructions laid out in a book -- by the author of ‘The Sell Your Novel Tool Kit’ -- will probably lead to an awkward, cookie-cutter result. Beware.

-- Carolyn Kellogg


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