I have a very, very, very special guest today. Jane. Yes, the Jane! The very one! Claudia Jane Peyton and I have been friends since the summer between junior high and high
schools. Jane is a writer, an artist, a musician (violin), an actress, a brilliant thinker, a creative cook — the list goes on and on. She’s also a full-time caregiver for her mother and a gold-medal friend. Plus, she shares my mother’s insistence on the importance of using the possessive with a gerund.
The last time we had lunch together, she told me about what sorting through free reads had taught her about the writing process, and I asked her to write it up and send it to me to post. She did, and here it is. Read and learn, children; read and learn.
As soon as I acquired an e-reader, I began searching for cheap reads. Naturally. Using Amazon.com as a source, I began downloading samples from a number of books, figuring this to be a reasonable start. After a bit, just reading the summary and comments would lead to my turning down the sample opportunity. Something was happening, but I still didn’t know what.
I downloaded a whole book (free) by an author I knew a little. The premise sounded good, and the sample convinced me. I read the book and bought the three successive books in the series. (Kay Kenyan, The Entire and the Rose) Now, to shorten up the tale, after a good deal of sorting through this stuff on my e-reader, I had a significant thought, “This must be how editors feel, reading through the slushpile!”
And so the lesson begins. Really, guys, if your first three chapters (or MAYBE four) don’t get your book going in the I’ve-got-to-read-more fashion, your baby is NOT going to sell. Really. Honestly. The editor (or agent) WON’T keep going until the good part. I wouldn’t, and neither would you. If you want to really develop a citical eye, try my experiment. Read through the slushpile of the internet. Be sad if your book reminds you of the ones you don’t want to buy. Then get working and fix it. Dialogue circular, not getting anywhere fast? Cut it. Too much world-building getting in your way? Work it into the story instead. Don’t take to a character fast enough? It won’t get better later; no one will read that far. You only get 3 chapters. Three. Maybe four.
I had to keep notes on my sample reads in order to tell them apart. Do that. Very short comments. Thus you begin the work. Examine the authority of the author’s voice. Amateur? Or real writer? You don’t really believe what they’re saying? Don’t care where they’re going with it? You know what I’m going to say next, right?
Observations on bad writing: Get a good grammar and figure out how to use the possessive pronoun with a gerund. PLEASE. Think hard about how you name your characters. I beseech you. Don’t name your heroine “Star” just because they did it in the “LOST BOYS.” It didn’t work there, either. If you’re using an ethnic name, and you don’t know squat about the correct rules of that language, DON’T do it. I’m talking to all you vampire lovers out there. If you don’t know about Russian patronymics, don’t think you can make it up. I’ll delete your sample so fast it’ll make your aluminum hat liner melt. Waiting to reveal that tasty little secret, that your character is really a vampire/werewolf/goblin/zombie/married? Waiting to indicate exactly what genre you’re writing in? Please don’t. I won’t be there for it.
Now for titles: Do the same exercise. You’re already scrolling through dozens of cheap reads already sorted by your genre. Now observe which titles catch your eye, and which ones are so repetitious or generic that you can only summon a yawn and not a sample download. I’m thinking of writing a vampire novel called “Dirty Rotten Bloodsuckers.” Might get a second glance. Yes?
I think you can see how much fun this is. Try it. You’ll like it. Really.
So there you have it. Thanks, Jane, for your insights and advice. My mother thanks you, too.
And I would TOTALLY read a vampire novel called “Dirty Rotten Bloodsuckers”!
WRITING EXERCISE: What she said.
p.s. A gerund is an -ing verb or verb phrase. We talked about my using her insights on my blog not We talked about me using her insights on my blog.