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Thursday, October 09, 2008

Mistakes writers make with their GH entries

by Norah Wilson

Trying to squeeze too much in. More is not always better. We’ve all been there. You want to get to that hook that falls at page 68 in your manuscript, and you try to pare the sentences/paragraphs/chapters down until you can finally fit it into 52 pages, leaving 3 pages for the synopsis. And you end up with an entry with a cramped font, squeezed into the minimum margins, with zero white space. But before you do that, ask yourself if you really need to. Be sure about it. Are you certain you’re not sacrificing too much in terms of rhythm, flow, voice and aesthetics to get there? Often there’s another hook you can end on while preserving your voice a little better.

Failing to establish voice. Make sure your voice shows in your entry. I know, I know, tough advice to follow. After all, what is voice? Is it tone? Mood? Style? Word choices? Theme choices? I think it’s all of the above and more. It’s every choice you make as a writer. Which details you include, and which you omit. It’s in the space between what your characters say and what you are saying. It permeates every single thing about your writing. Ergo everyone’s voice is necessarily unique. Yet I continue to see entries that are technically solid, but the voice seems canned or constricted or flat. Maybe that’s a consequence of writers being too careful, or trying to emulate something they think is expected. Or maybe it comes from editing and polishing the life out of the story, or trying to incorporate critique from too many sources until your voice is diluted and the result too homogenous. Maybe it’s from falling back on clichéd phrasing or situations. Whatever the source of the malaise, you must find a cure. I would urge you to take more chances with your writing, let your uniqueness show. Get into your characters heads and write from their “voice”. And that means narrative as well as dialogue; whenever you’re in their POV, it should sound like that individual. When I think about the strongest entries I’ve read, the writer seems to trust her voice and refrain from overwriting. They trust me to see the irony, to ache for the wounded hero, to yearn for whatever it is the heroine needs.

Failing to deploy hooks. Everyone knows you need to open with a hook that makes us want to read on. And we all know you want to close with a killer hook that leaves the judge excited. But sometimes writers miss opportunities in between. Make certain that you end every scene with a mini-hook and every chapter with a bigger hook. I even know writers who think about this on a micro level, making sure one paragraph “hooks” us strongly to the next paragraph, and that one to the next, and so on. It’s all about drawing the reader on and into your story. It’s also about escalation. By the end of your entry, the reader should have a good idea who your characters are, what the story question is, and what’s at stake. If you do this effectively, you will leave the judge thinking, “Man, I’d love to read the rest of that book!” and reaching for the synopsis to find out how it ends.

Bonus Tip: Remember – the entry does not need to precisely echo the corresponding first 50 (or so) pages in your manuscript. This might be the most valuable GH tip anyone ever gave me (thank you, Deborah Hale). This could be especially useful if you decide you DO have to cut and hack to get to that killer hook. Instead of constricting your voice by making everyone’s dialogue terse, or paring down to talking heads, or sacrificing setting, think about cutting whole scenes. It may be that a scene is critical to the book as a whole, but possibly not so critical to the chapters that form your entry. Or maybe there’s a secondary character who is important in the whole scheme of things but not so much in the entry. Perhaps their introduction can be omitted or seriously abridged. Obviously, don’t hack out plot lines or details or characters that would render your entry illogical or materially different from the story as revealed by the synopsis. And this is definitely NOT a license to graft on an exciting hook that doesn’t belong there!

Norah Wilson is a 3-time Golden Heart finalist and a perennial GH and RITA judge.


At 8:40 AM, Blogger Mo H said...

It's funny you should mention hooks today. I'm revising a YA and noticing that some of my hooks aren't strong enough because I moved some things around including chapter endings. So once I get everything else done, that's what I'm doing next--checking paragraph, scene, and chapter hooks and improving them!

At 8:47 AM, Blogger Gillian Layne said...

Great advice, Norah.

And amen on the write space. Never underestimate the power of the white space. As a reader, that's what my eyes 'demand' after a while.

At 8:49 AM, Blogger Gillian Layne said...

Ha, 'write' space. Sheesh, I crack myself up. Time for another Diet Coke, I think. :)

At 10:36 AM, Blogger M. said...

all made sense except for the bonus tip. I wonder if you could expand a little, or else maybe give an example for this easily confused writer???

At 11:08 AM, Blogger Theresa Ragan said...

I love all of this advice, Norah.

I like to keep the writing flowing as I go, turn off the internal critique monster and go, go, go. For me, that helps bring out the "voice" because nothing's stopping you/me. And then, once that first draft is done, I concentrate on making sure those hooks are there at the end of the chapters.

M, I think what Norah was saying in her bonus tip was that you want to end your GH ENTRY with a hook, but you don't want to ADD a hook that doesn't belong or TAKE OUT necessary info to make the GH entry 55 pages as allowed in the Golden Heart. For example, if I can end my GH entry on page 40 with a good hook (which adds up to 48 pages with an 8 page synopsis) then that's what I'll do. I won't tack on another 7 pages of my manuscript just to get to the 55 pages allowed.

Gosh, let me know if I confused you even more. :)

At 12:29 PM, Blogger Norah Wilson said...

Mo H: I've don that before, too! Moved the chapter break or rearranged things, then had to go back to sharpen up the hook. It's a good idea to do a sweep through your ms. with that mindset, checking that the hooks are there and as good as they can be.

Gillian: "write space". Ha! You crack me up too.

M.: What I meant is this: Say you have a 98,000 word story has a pacing to it that's right for its lenght. And the killer hook you're dying to get into your GH entry is at p. 68. If you feel you must condense to get there, instead of getting all the extra space from trimming those other things that compromise voice, maybe you can snip selectively. For instance, if your heroine has a roommate that we're introduced to in a sprawling, colorful way that fits that 98,000 word story, perhaps you can shrink that scene/partial scene to the bare bones. Reader still gets, "Okay, kooky roommate noted" (or whatever) and moves on. As long as the pacing of the shorter GH entry version is good, this is okay. It's fair. You'd still submit the whole manuscript with the more sprawling scene where your first act ending hook comes at p. 68. But you can't have someone take some dramatic action at the end of Act I for the sake of an excitement. It has to belong in the story and feel organic to it. Make any more sense?

Teresa: Good job interpreting/extapolating on my less than clear message. :-)

At 4:59 PM, Blogger Elyssa Papa said...

So can you end your manuscript at page 53 and have a two-paged synopsis? I thought for some reason the manuscipt had to end at page 50.

At 5:26 PM, Blogger Norah Wilson said...

I don't think the ms. has to end at 50 pp. I think the rule is the whole entry can be 55 pages, with the synopsis being no morethan 15 pages. My shortest synopsis for a GH submission was 3 double spaced pages, so I could use the other 52 for manuscript. Of course, I wasn't bold enough to use TNR 12, or it would have fit comfortably with a 5 page synopsis. The font paranoia seems to have subsided, but I still favor Courier New 12 to guard against possible resentment on the part of the judge. (I never penalize entries that use small proportional fonts, but I confess I do sigh when I start one. Of course, if it's high quality, I quickly forget about font size. Whole 'nother story if it's boring and/or badly written, though.)

At 10:12 PM, Blogger Elyssa Papa said...

So you would recommend to someone submitting to GH to use Courier New 12 over Times New Roman 12?

At 10:58 PM, Blogger Diane Gaston said...

m, to add to mo's and Norah's explanation on how to get to that great hook, one thing I've cut is backstory. For the book the backstory is important but for a GH entry it might not be.

Elyssa, don't agonize about the font. If you're happy with TNR instead of Courier New, use it.

At 5:00 AM, Blogger Norah Wilson said...

Elyssa, I really wouldn't sweat the font too much. I finalled in 01, 02 and 03, when the paranoia was more rampant. No reasonable font choice or size will bring down the wrath of judges. Courier 12 is not terribly attractive, but has a traditional place in publishing and still represents the standard for some folks. TNR, a proportional serif font, makes printed matter look very attractive. I wouldn't go with a sans serif font like Arial; that's more suitable for on line reading. I've seen some nice entries in TNR 13 (I think; heck, it could have been TNR 12.5). It's a nice compromise. I've also seen TNR 14, which somehow looks way too big to be asthetically pleasing.

I know, way too much thought about font type/size. Basically, it should be the least of your worries. If your entry rocks, I would still love it if it's in Franklin Gothic.

At 5:01 AM, Blogger Norah Wilson said...

Diane said: " thing I've cut is backstory. For the book the backstory is important but for a GH entry it might not be."

Excellent example, Diane. Thank you!

At 10:02 AM, Blogger Karen said...

I wanted to comment briefly on the flip-side of ending your entry early (on a hook, of course).

If you go the distance using all 55 pages alotted to you and stop mid-paragraph, or heaven forbid, mid-sentence, you end on a weak note. And you NEVER want to end your entry on a weak note.

At GH time, a strong hook is your best friend!

At 10:00 PM, Blogger M. said...

Thanks, Noodlers and Norah. Wisdom to ponder. *g*

At 10:18 AM, Blogger Anna said...

I hope it's not too late to post a GH question. (I've had an extremely busy week at the day job and am just now catching up on my blogs & email.)

My question: does the first fifty pages of the partial entry have to match the MS entry? If you cut scene from the partial and it shows up in the MS within the first fifty pages because the story doesn't move forward properly without it -- is that cause for disqualification?

At 9:06 PM, Blogger Theresa Ragan said...

Anna, I think you should email RWA with that question just to make absolutely sure...but I think it will be fine if there is more in the full mss than there is in the partial...or even if it is a little different. I have changes hooks, etc., in my partial and left the full mss as is...and I never had a problem.

Lots of luck with the GH!!!!

At 6:32 PM, Blogger Anna said...

Thank you, Theresa. Good call -- I will find out from RWA for sure before I start fiddling with cutting the partial. :)


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