Words from an Expert

In April, I blogged about the evaluation Jeff Gerke performed on the
first 50 pages of my novel. For review, I covered the top three no-
no’s in my manuscript: too much telling, unbelievable plot points,
and an unsympathetic protagonist. At the end of that post, I promised
to include more of Master Gerke’s advice in a later post. This would
be it.

#4. I had too many redundancies: overuse of distinctive words,
descriptions of clothing, and the protagonist’s immediate goals
seemed to jump off too many pages. Mr. Gerke said this is a simple
fix: ask a friend to read it and cross them all out. This one caught
my funny bone. I didn’t realize I had pet words that I used over and
over again, but they stuck out horribly when I knew what to look for.

On a side note, another editor pointed out something interesting when
he read my prologue aloud to a room full of aspiring authors: I used
a word that he’d never heard before (that word being “detritus”) and
he cautioned that using unfamiliar words will make a reader wary of
continuing. I have a hard time with this piece of advice. I like to use the word that fits best. I really meant “detritus” when I wrote
it, and finding a simpler word grates on me. So, do I use an eighth
grade vocabulary to make my manuscript appeal to the masses, or do I use the word I want to use and force the reader to pick up a
dictionary if he doesn’t know the word? I haven’t found an answer to
this question yet. Enlighten me, if you have an idea.

#5. I didn’t use my protagonist’s name often enough (it’s written in
first person), and Mr. Gerke couldn’t remember the protagonist’s
name. Again, this was an easy fix: have other characters use Alex’s
name in dialogue.

#6. My story has italics in the text, and Mr. Gerke found it
confusing. Granted, I didn’t get to explain to him that all the text
in italics was either internal monologue or prayer. But I won’t get
to explain that to the reader, either. Mr. Gerke’s advice was to
eliminate the italics altogether. If the reader can’t figure out
which bits are interior monologue, then I need to re-write those
portions. Likewise, prayers should be obvious. (Note: I had too much
interior monologue, and eliminating most of it helped the story a ton.)

#7. This next comment, I’ll admit, shook me up a bunch. Mr. Gerke
said my protagonist’s actions “don’t feel like your typical male
warrior. They feel more like a woman’s version of a male warrior.” In
all fairness, I am a female writing a male protagonist in first
person. It’s tough. But I’ve got an excellent research source: a
husband. I freely admit, I’ve asked him questions like this: “If you
were 18 years old and had to leave your aged parents, possibly
forever, how would you react?” My husband was extremely gracious to
answer all my questions (I asked a TON, so I could avoid the whole
female-writing-as-a-male problem), and I didn’t hesitate to use his
answers in my text.

Here’s the problem: some men react differently than other men to the
exact same circumstance. In my story, Alex cried for a moment or two
when he gave his elderly mother that final hug good-bye. I’ve seen
grown men cry before, and hug their mommas, and say “I love you.”
It happens. Does it make them less manly? Probably not. On the other
hand, my protagonist isn’t a liberated twenty-first century male.
He’s living in a medieval society. Was it manly for warriors to cry
back then, when men didn’t display a “weakness” like tears? Maybe.
Maybe not.

I genuinely respect Mr. Gerke’s advice, but I think this is a problem
I cannot fix. Some readers will think that Alex’s tears, at that
moment, were genuine and realistic and touching. Others will think it
too feminine for a Hulk-sized warrior and wonder why a female author
tried to write “male” in first person prose. I simply can’t please
all the readers all the time. (In my own defense, I did not have Alex
cry when he was wounded in battle. That should count for something.)

#8. I had too much back-story, which ties in to the problem of too
much telling. Mr. Gerke’s advice was to cut way back on these
“history lessons.” The reader doesn’t care. Back-story takes the
reader out of the story, which is exactly where the reader WANTS to
be, and if I tick the reader off too many times, he’ll toss the book
aside and reach for the tv remote. Back-story is important to me,
because I’ve got to know character motivations and political
histories, etc, but the reader isn’t interested in most of this. I
should only include those bits that are necessary for understanding
the plot, and leave the rest in my research notebook.

That’s most of the wisdom I sucked out of the evaluation. It hurt
when I first read it (he tore my baby apart!) but after that initial
reaction, I realized the validity of every comment. And now that I’ve
implemented those fixes, my manuscript is much stronger. I owe a big
thank-you to Jeff Gerke from WhereTheMapEnds for his time and wise
words. Or maybe he’d appreciate my home-made cinnamon bread. I’m
pretty sure he enjoyed the cash I sent.


One thought on “Words from an Expert

  1. Thanks for your comments! Nicole, I always look at every comment to see if I want to implement it or not. Most of Mr. Gerke’s comments were dead on, and I needed to make those changes. Other comments I’ve received from other readers, while well intentioned, didn’t seem all that important to me. I’ve also fallen into that trap of asking for too many comments from too many readers. That old adage about "too many cooks" comes to mind… -Sonja

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