Old writing habits to break NOW

ab-writing-stuffSo you want to be a romance writer. Hooray! Romance is awesome. And thus YOU are awesome because you want to write it.

Hypothetically, let’s say you’re an avid reader of a few classic authors. You think to yourself, “I can do that, too.” And you CAN! Yes, you can.

So you sit down and write your manuscript about the orphan girl who discovers she’s actually the daughter of a king and she’s just met the prince she’s destined for and she hates him (only at first, of course). You revise it and have a friend read it. They love it! Now you’re ready to submit.

BUT, if you haven’t kept up with the state of romance writing style in the last, oh, five years or so, you may be in for some shocks when it comes time to have your work edited. The “rules” of how to write romance are constantly changing. What is acceptable stylistically now isn’t what was acceptable a decade ago.

So if you grew up on books like Little Women, you’ve likely absorbed many bad writing habits editors are going to have to break you of. I’m not just talking about books written in the 19th century. That new release by your favorite author, the one who has been writing for twenty years? Yup. Bad habits abound in her newest book, too. Your favorite author can get away with using an adverb after every single dialogue tag because she’s got seniority. You? No, my friend.

Double standards suck. But hey, we beggars can’t be choosers.

Big, bad habits

Here are the bad habits some veteran authors use that romance editors broke me of in no particular order:

  • Character name repetition
  • Using actions as dialogue tags
  • Said bookisms
  • Head hopping

Okay, I lied. They’re in order of how easy I think it’ll be for me to explain each one.

 

Character name repetition

a.k.a. Using a character’s name in nearly every line of dialogue

The below is a block of text I made up for this post so that I’m not specifically calling out an author.

Example:

“You don’t understand, Richard.”

“I do understand, Lauren.”

“Richard, you think you do, but you don’t.”

“You think I don’t, Lauren, but I know exactly what’s going on.”

Mind you, I’ve not seen a published author repeat the names on every line, but I have seen every third line. Once a reader sees a pattern, each time the names reappear after that will become an annoyance that pulls them out of the story. And as authors we want to minimize anything that might make a reader set down our book.

Think of everyday conversations. We don’t often use each other’s names when talking to one another. Characters in your stories won’t either.

Using actions as dialogue tags

First, what is a “dialogue tag”?

In this line: “Hi,” I said.
The dialogue tag =  “I said.”

Now with that out of the way, let’s continue with the bad habits.

Wrong:

“You don’t understand, Richard,” Lauren glared.

This is a problem because Lauren can’t glare the words “You don’t understand.” She can glare. And she can speak the words. But she can’t glare words.

Right:

“You don’t understand, Richard.” Lauren glared.

This turns the erroneous dialogue tag into an “action beat.” This format also clues the reader in on the fact that Lauren spoke the line before her action (of glaring) without us needing to type “Lauren said.”  Just in case we were wondering who said what.

Make sense?

 

Said bookisms

Example:

“You don’t understand, Richard,” Lauren exclaimed.

There’s some talk that “Lauren said.” is so familiar that readers barely notice the dialogue tag is there UNLESS the author uses something other than “said.”

“Exclaimed” would be considered a “said bookism.” The dialogue tag in the example, though technically correct, would stand out for a reader because it’s not “Lauren said.”

You’ve probably come across books where the characters are postulating, declaring, drawling etc. Those are all “said bookisms.” Some publishing houses won’t let you use anything but “said” as a result.

You may be wondering what you’re supposed to do if you can’t use “exclaimed” and you want to make it clear to the reader that Lauren is a bit ticked with Richard. In this case the easiest way is to end the dialogue with an exclamation point. The better way would be to “show, don’t tell.” What might Lauren be doing physically to give the reader a hint of her mood? Perhaps she’s huffing and jabbing a finger at him.Turn on your writer brain! What else could she do?

Head hopping

This is a habit that’s difficult to explain because so many books include it as a matter of course. Head hopping is usually a product of a poorly written third-person point of view (POV).

While head hopping is acceptable in some fiction genres, and was acceptable for romance at one time, many publishing houses specify no head hopping in their style guides and submission guidelines.

So what is head hopping?

Head hopping is when the narrator jumps from relaying the thoughts in one character’s head to those in a separate character’s head with no indication prior to the shift. This often leads to confusion over who was thinking what.

Wrong:

Lauren studied him, looking for signs of emotion. “You don’t understand, Richard.”

A muscle bounced in Richard’s jaw. He would argue. But he’d be lying.

He held still. “I do understand, Lauren.”

There was so much Lauren didn’t know. He wouldn’t tell until he was ready. He never did.

Okay, so in those lines of narrative, which character is thinking what?

Can you tell?

I can’t, and I wrote it (admittedly I wrote the lines deliberately vague so it would be harder to guess).

Best practice would require a paragraph or scene break prior to switching the narrator’s POV character. In addition to the paragraph or scene break, the new POV character ought to be clear.

Better:

Lauren studied him, looking for signs of emotion. “You don’t understand, Richard.”

A muscle bounced in Richard’s jaw. He would argue. But he’d be lying.

 

Richard held still. “I do understand, Lauren.”

There was so much Lauren didn’t know. He wouldn’t tell until he was ready. He never did.

Any better?

Hopefully you can tell that Lauren is the original POV character and we see what she sees and are treated to her thoughts. Then there’s a paragraph break to denote we’re changing the POV character from Lauren to Richard. What follows are his thoughts.

 

Current romance is generally written in the third-person limited POV (he/she) or the first-person POV(I/my). Third-person limited means the narrator can’t see, hear, or know any details the current POV character couldn’t see, hear, or know. This is similar to how the first-person POV works. Third-person omniscient (where the narrator knows what is going on in everyone’s heads and can see/hear everything without the limitation of a single character’s POV) is largely a thing of the past.

That’s not to say you can’t craft a beautiful manuscript that uses all of the old ways of writing and get it picked up by an agent or publisher. In writing, as with everything, if your voice and ideas are fresh enough, publishers and agents will look past passé modes of writing.

I don’t know about you, but I’m going to write in the style readers expect simply because that’s what I expect as a reader.

Got a question or comment? Drop it below!

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