Monday, February 22, 2010

Writing Is Not A Fill-In-The Blank Template

I spent a lot of time this weekend, reading through submissions and I came across an interesting trend. No, this is not necessarily something that hit me out of the blue. I know I have been aware of this for some time. I simpy think, being hit with it all at one time was sort of a dead giveaway.

Writing, in any format, is not a fill in the blank worksheet. There are a lot of approaches to writing and if you wish to be successful with your craft, you have to do more than simply insert pieces into a puzzle. Let me explain it in a couple of different ways.


Ahh, the infamous letter. Do a Google Blog search on this and I think you find that every agent out there has written something on these little bad boys. In many of those cases, the agents take the time to create a step-by-step plan for writing "the successful query." Now, while these points are truly accurate, writers simply inserting their own story items in the formula the other person created is still missing the point. These writers have no idea why they are doing the things they do in the letter. What are they missing? Simply put, they are missing their own unique voice. They are lacking that energy we are looking for in a writer. As agents, we don't want robots but people who can think for themselves.


We were told to have a hero that is sexy so what does that mean? I tell you, if I read about another man with "liquid blue eyes and a body that fits firmly into a pair of jeans" one more time I will scream. While I know the industry doesn't want ugly men in the stories, the images and the descriptions you use cannot be stereotypical. Figure out what really makes your hero hot. it could be the way he moves. It could be the confidence. It could be his voice. Build off of those traits but don't just pull out a worksheet of "Hot Phrases To Describe Your Man" and insert those in your story. It simply doesn't work.

As for the female characters, let's focus on the same thing. Don't just give them the sterotypical roles in the story. Find something unique. Now please understand, I am not simply talking about putting them in some bizzare job, but don't make them act and behave stereotypically. The goal is to find a believable person that women can relate to. We want characters that a woman can read about and see her own face in the picture.

I am sure I can go on and on with this one but I think you might be getting the idea here. About a month or so ago, I spent time talking about why we do things in the writing. Now, I spent most of the time dealing with specific techniques and grammar, but I think the skills learned there apply to this as well. Do you know why you are doing the things you do with your writing? Do you have any idea the impact you make on the reader when you do something in your story or query. Everything you do has an impact on the reader. Your job is to make that work.

In literary criticism, we speak of the concept called Reader Response Theory. In this case, the story only has meaning when the reader applies their knowledge and thoughts to the story. I am personally not a big supporter to this, but there are elements of this theory that work. Think laws of physics - To every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Now apply that to a story.

If you start a query letter to me with "Sparks fly when..." what reaction will I have? Do you know? If not, you might want to learn.

Best of luck out there this week with writing.



  1. What a wonderful blog post. It reminded me that if I read the line, "I want to protect you." one more time in a romance as the hero pulls out the condom, I'll probably throw the book across the room. I like men with scars... shows they fought for something. I like heroines who aren't perfect either. Honestly, if they're both perfect, where's the opportunity for character growth.

    I can feel for you having to sort through hundreds and thousands of queries. Hope something brilliant will pop out of the mundane soon!

  2. With your interest in the coming ebook avalanche, you might be interested in the dynamite article by Jason Epstein, industry insider, in the NYTRB, "Publishing: The Revolutionary Future."
    He thinks this will raise the puny advances for writers. Seems to me all these books will have the same effect of expecting people to pay for the standard issue web blog, but i hope hhe is correct.Why would pay fror anything when so much free material is alwready out there?
    "I don't care about money at this point, I just want people to read my stuff."
    Methinks me hears the faint cry of already doomed...

  3. I'm one of those people who always operates outside of the template--and I've taken flack for it. I'm amazed at how fast everyone starts protesting if you don't follow the "rules" exactly. It seems like everyone's so afraid of being rejected that they won't take chances. But isn't taking a chance a step towards standing out from the pack.

    My book is omni. I've had writers sternly tell me I need to write it in third. Why? The only reasons they give me is that I'll get rejected. So my choices are to write a good book in a viewpoint that works and get rejected or to write a bad book in a viewpoint that doesn't work and get rejected. Ahem. I'll take the first option hands down.

    And I didn't use a bio paragraph in my letter--I did a few sentences on what inspired me. It fit the query letter and the book and helps tie the whole thing together. Yet, people are telling me, "Take it out and do a bio instead." Again, no other reason than it isn't the normal format for a query.

    Writing novels is definitely not about rules and templates. That just makes for boring, bookie cutter writing.