13 “Tells” of a Novice Writer

In the poker-playing world, professional card sharks have a term for a novice player who inadvertently gives away the cards he’s holding through some sort of gesture or tick of which he is unaware. The pros call it a “tell.”

pokerIn the publishing world, professional editors and agents look for the “tells” of a novice writer whenever they scan a manuscript. With practice, we can almost always pick out the amateur from the pro from reading just a page or two. Here’s a list of 13 Common “Tells” of an Amateur Writer that may give you an inside advantage at the publishing table.

  1. Too many clichés. If you find yourself using a common cliché–try changing it up for humor or effect. Instead of saying, “He marches to a different drum,” you might say, “She rhumbas to a different drum-ba.” You want to avoid cliches but they can also be springboards to creative alternatives.
  1. Too much telling, not enough showing. Use scene-setting, dialogue, metaphors and gestures to show your reader an emotion. Instead of, “She felt deep sorrow,” try instead, “She sat down, sighed heavily, staring out the window at nothing at all.  A slow trickle of tears turned to a river as her dam of resolve gave way to reality.”
  1. Too much preaching/didactic tone. Go through any non-fiction manuscript and take out words like “must” and “should” and any other words that feel like a finger-wagging nursery teacher who is scolding the reader.
  1. Sentences don’t vary in length and style.
  1. Manuscript is is too text dense.  Just looking at the page exhausts the eye because there are too many sentences crammed into one long paragraph, followed by another just as long.
  1. Page looks boring. There are not enough “reader treats” to keep today’s reader alert.   Especially in our current hyper-speed world, you want to make liberal use of shorter paragraphs and anything that breaks up and adds interest to the page.  Pull quotes, dialogue, lists, bullet points and stand-alone sentences here and there are some ways to keep the reader engaged.
  1. Dialogue is stiff and unnatural. The writer has not learned the art of professionally written dialogue. One sign of a pro is that they know to use a gesture to indicate the next speaker rather than over-using “he said” or “she said.” For example, rather than writing, “Joy said, ‘I love that crazy squirrel,’” a pro might write, “Joy laughed as she leaned toward the screen door. ‘I love that crazy squirrel.’”
  1. Main character is too unlikable or too perfect. Readers want to root for the protagonist so be careful not to make him appear either beyond redemption or too saintly. Make them flawed, human, and lovable.
  1. Too “Christianeze.” Christians are often blind to the phrases they’ve grown up using in church. Try sharing old religious phrases in fresh ways.  Instead of, “I’ve been redeemed,”  you might say, “I knew that God had taken the mess of my life and given me, in exchange, His love.”
  1. No transitions or weak transitions. This may be the #1 “tell” of a novice. You know what you are saying and where you are going, but your reader needs a very clear bridge from your former thought to the next or they will be confused and frustrated.
  1. Old-fashioned style. We see this in some classically trained, older writers who have not stayed current on how to grab the attention of today’s internet-savvy, fast-paced reader. Read popular blogs and note the style of writing that is reaching today’s generation of readers.
  1. Doesn’t use the art of “hooking the reader.” You don’t have long to grab the reader’s attention, so you want your first two sentences to be irresistibly compelling.
  1. Doesn’t end well. Pay attention to writers who end chapters or articles especially well. There is an art to tying up a chapter or a book. In fiction and non-fiction books alike, write a sentence at the end of the chapter that propels the reader forward, making it hard for them to put your book down. I often refer to the first paragraph when summarizing an article. (See example below where I will refer back to the “poker analogy” that started this post.)

By avoiding these common novice “tells” you will soon come across as a seasoned pro, and your chances in the game of publishing will improve considerably.

What other “tells” have you noticed that indicate an inexperienced writer?

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WordServe News: July 3013

Exciting things have been happening at WordServe Literary!

On the final post of each month you’ll find a list of Water Cooler contributors’ books releasing in the upcoming month along with a recap of WordServe client news from the current month.

New Releases

IfShoeFitsSandra Bricker, If the Shoe Fits (Moody Publishers)

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WoundedWomenDena Dyer and Tina Samples, Wounded Women of the Bible (Kregel)

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WeLaughBecky Johnson and Rachel Randolph, We Laugh, We Cry, We Cook (Zondervan)

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AManMakingRick Johnson, A Man in the Making (Revell)

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PrayingGod'sWordKathi Lipp, Praying God’s Word for Your Life (Revell)

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InPlainViewOlivia Newport, In Plain View (Barbour Publishers)

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LanguageRachel Phifer, The Language of Sparrows (David C. Cook)

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New Contracts

Rick Lawrence signed with Kregel Publishers for a book called Skin in the Game, an inspirational and biblical guide to pursuing the Kingdom.

Caesar Kalinowski signed with Zondervan Publishers for Big is Small, Fast is Slow…and Multiplication Wins the Day, a book for pastors and leaders on rethinking and implementing a church planting approach bent on slow growth and high investment in people.

What We’re Celebrating!!

Becky Johnson and Rachel Randolph got a very nice review in Publisher’s Weekly for the new book, We Laugh, We Cry, We Cook.

“Johnson, author of a number of books, on subjects ranging from family humor to brain science, and Randolph, her grown daughter, team up in this quirky memoir with recipes. Johnson, diagnosed with Inattentive ADD, is scatterbrained, sloppy, and disorganized, while Randolph likes her ducks in a row. “Organization was my form of teenage rebellion,” writes Randolph, while her mom admits that during those years, the smoke alarm often served as the dinner bell. Johnson is a self-proclaimed bacon and butter lover; Randolph is vegan. The authors toss anecdotes back and forth throughout the folksy chapters, sharing stories of a loving family in which “hospitality is a way of life.” Between slices of life, the mom-daughter duo offers an eclectic array of recipes (main entrees, sides, appetizers, soups, desserts, etc.) ranging from spicy puttanesca sauce to cashew queso and roasted corn bean salsa (Randolph lives in Texas, while Johnson resides in Colorado). Recognizing that many contemporary families, like theirs, include members with varying dietary preferences and needs, the authors provide instructions on how to alter recipes to please and appease vegetarians, vegans, and the gluten-free. Amusing, endearing, and spiced with a close mother-daughter bond, the authors interweave their humor and cooking advice with sincere gratitude for the blessings of breaking bread with family and friends.” –Publisher’s Weekly

What can we help you celebrate?

Get a Piece of the Food Craze Pie—It’s Not Just for Foodies

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Food is everywhere. Take a quick scroll down your Facebook feed. Open up Instagram. Take a peak at your Pinterest boards. Everyone is sharing recipes and pictures of their dinner.

My mom and I have a food blog, where we post recipes and food-related stories. That’s what we wrote about in our mother/daughter food memoir, so it was obvious for us to blog about food. But did you know you don’t have to write about food in your books to get in on the food buzz? Everyone eats, so regardless of what you write about, you have that connection to readers. Hey, we both eat. What do you know? Maybe we have something else in common. That’s why first dates and client meetings and mixers are almost always food-centered. It’s guaranteed common ground. Even if you hate the food, you have something to talk about, right?

If you enjoy cooking, a great way to add new interesting shareable content to your blog is to post an occasional recipe. It’s also nice to get all your favorite recipes in one spot online so you can pull them up at the grocery store or on vacation, or easily share them with your family and friends. Next time someone asks you for your pasta salad recipe, the one you bring to every church picnic, you can let them know it’s on your blog. You can even hand them your business card with your blog site on it. If you’re shy-by-nature like I am, it’s an easy, subtle way to share about your books. The card gives them a place to go for the recipe, but also tells them you are an author and speaker. It might just be the events coordinator at your church clamoring for your recipe, and now she has your speaker card and a personal connection to you. See how that works?

Original recipes and pictures make great unique content. But don’t worry if your famous pasta salad isn’t your own recipe….unless of course, you’ve been claiming it as your own all these years. If you made a recipe that is not your own, but you really want to share it on your blog, you have a few options:

  • Write a post about the recipe, including your own pictures and descriptions of the cooking process, then provide a link to the actual recipe. Food bloggers love this and will often share your post on their networks and you don’t need their permission.
  • If you really want to post a full recipe on your site or if it’s from a cookbook, you can ask the author for permission. Keep in mind you’ll still need to take your own pictures unless the author specifically gives you permission to use her’s.
  • Make a modified version of the recipe. The Food Blogger Alliance industry standards say this:
    • If you’re modifying someone else’s recipe, it should be called “adapted from“.
    • If you change a recipe substantially, you may be able to call it your own. But if it’s somewhat similar to a publisher recipe, you should say it’s “inspired by“, which means that you used someone else’s recipe for inspiration, but changed it substantially.
    • If you change three ingredients, you can in most instances call the recipe yours.

As bloggers, it’s all about connecting and building a network of like-minded virtual friends. Copyrights on recipes are difficult to claim, but I like to err on the side of attribution. If I took inspiration from a blogger, I at least acknowledge that they had the original idea and I include a link to their version, even if it became something quite different. When adapting a recipe, be sure to write the directions in your own words. They are technically the only part of a recipe that may be covered by copyright laws.

I rarely post a recipe that I merely modified. It just feels wrong to take someone else’s creative content. In that case, I might link to the blogger’s original recipe and say, “I made So-and-So’s recipe for Oatmeal Raisin Cookies and boy, were they delicious. I used almond milk for the dairy milk and used cinnamon instead of nutmeg.” I’m still giving my readers value, a yummy adaptable recipe, and networking with another blogger at the same time. Win. Win.

Food is meant to be shared. Just keep these guidelines in mind. Then cook, share, repeat.

Market to the Front of Your Own Parade

It’s my first post here at the WordServe Water Cooler, and I’ve been racking my brain trying to find something unique and helpful to share with a group of experienced and prolific writers like yourselves. For the last several years, I’ve hidden behind authors, quietly helping them with publicity, blog tours, and social media. After taking a year “off” to birth and raise a baby and to start my writing career, I find myself having to actually implement all of the marketing advice I’ve offered to others. I now have to build my own writing platform. Even with my experience, it’s scary and overwhelming.

So many other people are more competent than I am when it comes to writing, marketing, social media, cooking, healthy living, parenting…and the list goes on. When I start to think of all the ways I’m under-qualified to write and market a book about food, family, and faith, I’m tempted to become crippled with fear.

This morning, I was reading a book to my 10-month old son and these words jumped out of the page at me.

Climb any mountain…climb up to the sky!

Make a big splash! Go out on a limb!

Hold your head high and don’t be afraid to march to the front of your own parade.

I love the picture of the little boy proudly making a splash and leading his parade in Nancy Tillman’s sweet book, “Wherever You Are, My Love Will Find You.”

March to the front of your own parade.

I don’t have to march to the front of your parade or The Pioneer Woman’s parade, or Seth Godin’s parade. My book, my career, my parade.

And better yet, I can hold my head high and be proud of what I do have to offer, the areas I do excel in, and the gifts God wants me to share. I don’t have to measure up to anyone else. I’m uniquely me!

Instead of thinking of it as building our platform, we could just pretend we’re marketing to the front of our own parade. Doesn’t that sound more fun and less intimidating?

Imagine a parade about you and your books, where the collection of floats tells a story. Each float celebrating a part of who you are, what you believe in, what your expertise is, what your passions are, what your books are about, what you are like.

If each of your blog posts, tweets, Facebook statuses, and online bios is a float, does your current collection of floats look like the parade you imagined for yourself? Do you think people are inviting their friends to come watch your parade? Are they jumping in and marching along with you? Is fear of failing, judgement, or not measuring up keeping you from proudly stomping around and letting yourself be seen and heard?

Hold yourself high, and don’t be afraid to march to the front of your own parade. – Nancy Tillman, Wherever You Are, My Love Will Find You

The Awesome Power of Humor in Writing

“Lord, please don’t let me die in a CVS bathroom,” a young friend of mine, Kelli, posted on her Facebook status during the Texas Tornadoes of Tuesday, the day when semi-trucks flew like box kites.

I thought, What a great way to handle a crisis: with a prayer on your lips, your sense of humor intact.  Not only that, but I knew that keeping a sense of humor in spite of the stress and danger, would be calming both to Kelli and the frightened folks with her — because it is hard to think of something funny and be terrified at the same time.

Just moments before Kelly’s post, I had been talking to my daughter Rachel, who lives in small town Forney, Texas, and with whom I’m writing a humor food blog and book by the same name (We Laugh, We Cry, We Cook). Tornadoes are so commonplace in Texas that when Rachel answered the phone with, “Hi, Mom. I’m in the bathtub with the baby and a mattress pulled over our heads,”   I almost asked, “Again?”

This would be our third cell phone conversation this year with my daughter scrunched in the tub with her baby, her phone, her lap top, a mattress overhead. This is simply “Life in Texas” during tornado season; but  in my fifty-three years of doing the Bathtub Tornado Preparedness routine, I’ve never seen one funnel cloud.  Hard to take those TV tornado warnings seriously when they seem to happen every little whip-stitch in the Springtime.

But then Rach said, “Mom, the weatherman just shouted that a tornado has hit a Forney school.” Rachel lives only a half-mile from a Forney high school and elementary school.

All the blood drained from my face.

“Honey, stay on the phone with me…” I said, and then heard nothing from her end of the cell phone but snap, crackle, pop, followed by  … silence.  I called back, but cell phone service had ceased in her area.

I grabbed the remote, flipped on the TV only to see the words “Forney,Texas” flashing, with scenes of the menacing tornado playing across the screen.

Sick with fear, it was ten, long, excruciating minutes before Rachel called back to report she was fine, not even a drop of rain. She sounded calm, but then she’d not yet seen what had just miraculously missed her home.

I cried, my husband Greg (who is not only CEO of WordServe, but a stellar comforter) hugged me. My legs now Jell-o, I sat down, glanced at my computer and my eyes landed on Kelly’s brave/funny status post (from somewhere near Greenville, Texas) and somehow… I managed a laugh.  And with that first laugh, calm began to flow through my veins, and my traumatized brain began the process of soothing itself.

I fell in love with President Reagan the day he calmed an entire country with the words, “Who’s minding the store?” soon after he and several others had been shot.  If Reagan could still joke, and we could still laugh, everything would be okay. America breathed a collective sigh of relief, thanks to the President’s cool head and sharp wit.

I’ve written three books with brain specialists, and I’m proud that I could gather enough middle-aged brain cells to write something serious and science-based.   But what flows from my soul and my pen most naturally is humor.  I used to feel that writing humor was somehow less important, not terribly “literary.”  I know many serious writers who still believe that writing humor takes less intelligence, less skill, and not much depth of thought.  To those writers, I say, “Try it. Then, let’s talk.”  I once heard an interview in which Barbara Mandrell’s little sister (“the blond ditzy one”) said, with a wise wink, “It takes a lot of smarts to play dumb.”  It also takes a tremendous amount of skill to be self-deprecatingly funny on paper, without being corny, or forced, or silly.

Over my writing career, I’ve received hundreds of letters or emails that read something like,  “Someone gave me a copy of your book while I sat with my dying mother in the hospital, and we both laughed until we cried. Thank you for giving us that happy memory together.”  Or, “I lost my husband last year and could not read anything serious or heavy.  But your stories, and the laughter… oh, how healing it was to laugh again!”  And on and on.

My time with the brain doctors taught me that laughter is a gift to every cell in our body. If you can write stories that bring a grin or a chuckle, you share a priceless gift with your readers. You give them a short mental vacation from their worries and those common looping, overly-serious thoughts.  Laughter helps re-set the brain from negativity to lightheartedness in a short amount of time.

Whether you write books of humor, or just sprinkle some well-placed wit into your prose, there is no genre that cannot be improved, or heart that cannot be lifted, or worried brow that cannot be soothed by a touch of the clown, now and then, from your pen.

“Laughter through tears is my favorite emotion.”  Steel Magnolias

Question:  As a reader or a writer, can you recall a time when humor helped you through a dark time, a frightening experience or even a season of grief?  What authors do you admire who consistently help you laugh and perhaps gain some fresh perspective?