Thursday, July 9, 2009

Everybody Makes Mistakes

Don't get discouraged about making mistakes in your writing. Learn from them, and learn from the mistakes of others, including published authors.

Nobody sits down at the computer and cranks out a perfect first-draft manuscript.


And sometimes mistakes even appear in published books after careful editing and revising. I'm not just talking about typos, either. I'm talking about glitches in characterization, plot, voice, etc., that are like speed bumps in the reading. Sometimes the bumps are almost imperceptible and sometimes they cause readers to catch air in their seats. I read a book this week that got me thinking about the latter.

The book is an oldie: "Spindrift," by Phyllis A. Whitney. First, let me say that I have loved her books ever since I was a teenager and she is one of those authors I hold up on a pedestal. So I was very surprised by the mistakes in this book. But pondering what didn't work for me as a reader has helped me learn as a writer. I recognized in practice some principles I already knew in theory.

1. Stay current by reading new releases. Nostalgia led me to pick up "Spindrift," which was copyrighted in 1975, so obviously some of the stuff I noticed wouldn't have been considered "mistakes" 35 years ago when she was writing this book. Still, it's been a helpful exercise for me to identify these things.

2. Don't start with an information dump. The first five pages (hmmm...that sounds familiar) were solid flashback/recollection.

3. Have a strong protagonist. The main character, Christy, was weak and not very bright. Knowing there was a killer in the house, she would immediately blab about anything she discovered, what she intended to do, and so on. Also, she allowed her interfering mother-in-law to control not only her own life, but her small son's as well.

4. Have a strong premise. One of the big "threats" was supposed to be that the mother-in-law could send Christy back to the hospital where she'd been sedated for months because she had a come-apart after finding her father shot. Even back then, I don't think someone would have that kind of power over doctors. The idea wasn't believable. What doctor is going to keep a healthy young woman hospitalized and heavily sedated because she insists that her father's death was not a suicide?

5. Write a satisfying ending. Ooh-boy. The bad guy blurts a confession to Christy, and then expects her to love him even though he murdered her father and even if she loses her son. So then she does an abrupt about-face and decides she's still in love with the husband she couldn't stand throughout the whole book and ends by saying she doesn't think her "foolish eyes would ever be blinded again."

There were other problems that I won't mention. The point is, writers can learn a lot about both what to do and what not to do by reading. And it's fun...the book was entertaining in spite of the speed bumps, because Phyllis Whitney was a master of suspense and goosebumps.