Learning the Basics “Chapter One” at a Time is a tutorial brought to you by Miriam Johnston
Sure, you can write. You’ve created a logical plot and interesting characters. You’ve even been praised for some of your passages. However, your work lacks the professional polish of a best seller or critically acclaimed novel.
Welcome to LEARNING THE BASICS “CHAPTER ONE” AT A TIME, a self-help tutorial designed for writers who want to take their work to the next level.
Most writers aim to improve their skills by taking classes, attending writers’ conferences, reading books and subscribing to journals. All tend to emphasize the same points – and we’ll cover many of them in this tutorial. What’s unique is that we’ll focus on our own first chapters as a way to identify common mistakes and correct them with a two-fold approach:
• tips and advice gathered from the best instructors, editors, and writers
• DIY exercises to help identify weaknesses and correct problems
We’ll review basic methods for beginning a story – what they are, how they’re done, and what they should accomplish – and evaluate them in relation to our novels. In addition, we will discuss modifiers, telling instead of showing, and dialogue, using our first chapters to illustrate the strongest and the weakest elements of writing. Each tutorial will offer writing exercises to help slim down and tone up your chapters. Once you get your first chapter in shape it can serve as a guidepost for the rest of your novel.
Let’s begin by reviewing some fundamentals every agent wants you to know:
PART 1 – PRESENTATION
Nothing screams amateur more than a manuscript that is sloppy and substandard.
Can’t read that? Neither can an agent.
Submitting work in an unreadable font guarantees a rejection. How many deals collapse for something so petty and preventable?
It’s one thing to economize by using recycled paper or printing two-sided copies for an informal writer’s group or for your own use. However, it’s never acceptable to submit pages to an agent or other professional that don’t follow acceptable standards such as margins, font type and size, spacing, chapter headings, spelling, and grammar. It shows disregard for the work, as well as for whomever you’ve asked to read it, whether it’s a fellow writer, proofreader, or prospective agent. Get in the habit of using professional formatting whenever you write. That attitude should begin on page one and never waver.
FORMATTING AND TEXTUAL ERRORS IN MANUSCRIPTS
1. Using a non-traditional font or font size
2. Cheating margins or line spacing
3. Starting a new chapter on the same page as the previous chapter
4. Submitting streaky photocopies or poorly printed copies of your work
5. Flawed, stained, or mutilated pages
HOW TO FIX THE PROBLEM
1. Pick a classic, easy to read font such as Times New Roman or Courier in 12 point.
2. Double space your copy and allow for one inch margins all around. Never break that rule, even if the last word in the chapter falls on a new page. Try editing out a word or two instead.
3. Always begin a new chapter on a fresh page and halfway down (some blank page gives the illusion of a faster read).
6. Proofread your manuscript at least twice before sending it out. If possible, get fresh eyes to proof it as well.
Before you send out pages or a manuscript to an agent, always verify whether a hard copy or electronic copy is preferred. Then give them what they want.
I’m always shocked by writers who think they can flaunt the rules. Perhaps the most arrogant are those who say they don’t concern themselves with proper spelling, punctuation, and grammar. Writing, like any vocation, has its tools. Can you imagine a doctor, teacher, or auto mechanic boasting about their lack of the most basic of skills?
We all begin with the 26 letters of the alphabet, which are used to form words, then phrases. Then, with the help of grammar and punctuation, we create sentences, paragraphs, pages, scenes, chapters, and novels. Our tools should also include a dictionary, thesaurus or synonym finder, and various books on style and grammar.
Anyone can write, but to write well, you must spell your words correctly, so we can recognize them. You must understand what those words mean, so they’re used in the proper context. You must learn the correct use of punctuation and grammar, so we can understand what you’re writing. Finally, if you choose to break the rules, have a valid purpose for doing so – spell a word phonetically to highlight the speaker’s accent, or incorporate poor grammar into a character’s dialogue to show his lack of education, for example.
The next installment, OPENINGS, will cover that important first paragraph of your novel.
Photo: Gary Phillips, Marilyn Meredith, and Marci Baun at California Crime Writers Conference