Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Al Guthrie's Top Reasons for Not Finishing a Book

And I thought this might be interesting to share since Al Guthrie's an agent and we all want to know why they put our ms. aside. He graciously agreed to let me post it with the stipulation that he answered the question more as a reader than an agent. I know it helped me to see these issues spelled out and I have my red pencil firmly in my hand.

in no particular order:

- Summary narrative
- Lack of a problem/inciting incident
- Easy solution to the above
- Adverbs
- Exposition
- Starting at the beginning of the story
- POV issues
- Cliches
- Characters who speak in sentences
- Dreams
- Unnecessary interpretation
- Adjectives (particularly in pairs)
- Voicelessness
- Backstory
- Verbosity
- Writing that sounds like writing
- Scenes where the POV character doesn't have a goal
- Scenes where there's no obstacle to the POV character's goal
- Lack of sensory detail
- Repetition

11 comments:

John McFetridge said...

An excellent list.

I just wonder about backstory. It's a problem for me if a book is too front-loaded with backstory, but it's just as big a problem if I start to feel the author has no idea how these characters got to this point in their lives.

I like it when the backstory comes out during the story - and usually in a variety of ways; what the characters say, what other characters say about them, etc..

pattinase (abbott) said...

Me, too. If the motivation comes from an earlier incident, how can you avoid backstory? I guess you have to do it through conversation as John notes rather than a completely separate piece of writing. Harder though. I like going to another place or time and letting it play out.

Josephine Damian said...

A lot of writers don't get that backstory or flashbacks need conflict.

And in the short story contest I just judges I saw a lot "bickering as conflict" - mistake.

Excellent list - thanks for posting.

Al Guthrie said...

Frontloading might describe what I mean, John. Really, I'm just referring to backstory that's inappropriate in one way or another. For instance, I need to see characters in action before I care about what makes them act the way they do. So I'll put a book down if I get handed the backstory before I'm engaged enough with the characters to give a hoot. Or I'll put the book down if the backstory's a chapter long when it could have been handled in a paragraph. Or indeed as Josephine says, when there's no apparent conflict. All scenes need conflict, and they don't get a free pass just because they're backstory.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I guess the idea is that backstory should never halt the forward motion of a story. Or be there just to fill in dots that don't need to be filled in. If you can tell it in a few sentences, don't write a chapter.

Lisa said...

This list provides a great balance to that list of things I try to make sure I do in each scene and chapter.

Does "summary narrative" refer to an excess of narrative summary, as opposed to in-scene writing, or is this something else?

Great list.

Sophie said...

great list. i never broke it down that way, but i think i have a lot of overlap. What's surprising to me lately is how quickly I can tell...maybe four pages, though I'll generally wait for a second chapter because of the tendency, especially in thriller, for authors to do dramatic shifts in voice at the outset.

pattinase (abbott) said...

See Elizabeth Zelvin's blog today for her analysis of girl book and boy books which touch on some of this.
(Poe's Deadly Daughters).

Debbi said...

How much of a problem are POV issues if the author's writing in third person omniscient?

Al Guthrie said...

Lisa, the problem with summary narrative is that it's far less convincing than a dramatised scene. So if you can turn that piece of narrative into a scene (however short), I'd suggest doing so. If you think it isn't worthy of a scene, though, then it's probably not that important, so maybe you can cut it entirely.

Debbi: Sorry to say that for me, third person omniscient is likely to be a major POV issue all by itself.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I've never figured out how to do POV omniscient without sounding like God. Anyone have a good example of a well done one? Maybe I'll pose that question. Thanks.