By Megan Close Zavala, Literary Agent
This is the last in a series of columns about mistakes that even the greatest writers make. If you’d like to check out that the earlier posts, please click here:
What Good Writers Do Badly, Part I
What Good Writers Do Badly, Part II
What Good Writers Do Badly, Part III
What Good Writers Do Badly, Part IV
#13: They Give Too Much Detail – Or Not Enough
One of the greatest aspects of writing a book is creating the world in which your characters live and/or that your readers can lose themselves in. While this might sound like this would only apply to fiction books, that is not the case. Memoirs a history books need to present compelling characters in well-depicted environments. Self-help books, even business books, all involve storytelling.
Even the best writers, however, oftentimes go overboard with their level of detail. For instance, many authors love making lists. They list every item on a character’s bedside table, every product on a grocery store shelf, every sight/sound/smell/taste/feeling that could be experienced. While the depth of detail may be impressive, things often backfire, and the desired effect isn’t reached. Stick to what is necessary; get rid of anything extraneous.
This same concept applies when it comes to characters (or stories) that you choose to include in your book. For instance, in a financial planning book, each chapter will feature a particular aspect of the financial planning process that the reader will need to learn to achieve success. Within each chapter, there will be a handful of stories illustrating how some individuals successfully followed this advice. Again, you only want to choose the individual stories that bring something unique to the table – don’t tell 30 different stories about the same type of person. In fiction, it is tempting to stuff as many characters as you can into your novel. Because you want your characters to feel as fully-realized as possible, you need to make sure that they receive the necessary amount of “time.” If there are too many characters vying for attention, the depictions will likely suffer.
#14: They Have an Unhealthy Relationship with Criticism
Writers are generally sensitive, creative souls. If they weren’t, how could they write with such great insight and passion about their chosen topic(s)?
Criticism can hurt. Giving your proposal or manuscript to someone to read and to provide feedback on can be nothing short of terrifying. There are few times in a writer’s life where they feel more vulnerable than receiving someone’s blunt assessment on their work – their work that they have been spent weeks, months and years working on and dreaming about.
When it comes to choosing who to read your work, here is what I oftentimes tell writers to do: start with one person who loves you and one person who can remain completely impartial. Theoretically, the loved one will be proud of you and will shower you with compliments, which can soften the blow from your other reader. (Eventually, you may become completely impervious to the sting of criticism!)
When you are choosing someone else to read your proposal/manuscript/paragraph, make sure that they can actually review your work without prejudice. Your spouse or best friend may say they’ll be honest, but they know how hard you’ve been working and generally can’t be trusted to give you the brutal rundown of improvements that should be made. Maybe you can reach out to an acquaintance or colleague. Make sure that this person is knowledgeable in the area that you are writing about or for (i.e. has seen a book proposal before, works in finance and understands the lingo you are using, or has tried diet books in the past and is looking for a new one to give that final push).
Once you receive the feedback, always try to look at it as educational. If it hurts your feelings (it’s okay to admit that it does!), take a moment, sulk and lick your wounds, and then look at the advice and LEARN.
You do not have to take every suggestion that is offered to you. If you feel in your guts that a change shouldn’t be made, don’t make it. Just be aware that an agent or editor may have that same thought while reading your project as well. If multiple people tell you that your main thesis doesn’t make sense, then it probably doesn’t.
If a literary agent (ahem) suggests that you would be more successful with a stronger platform, take her word for it. If you get a stronger platform and things somehow don’t work out, at least you’ll know that you did all you could do for your book in that regard. Because the person who gives you their advice on your project is hopefully someone you respect, you’ll already know that they are not just full of hot air and that they are trying to help you in some way.
#15: They Give Up
Rejection can be tough. When the umpteenth pass comes through, it can be tempting to throw your hands in the air and give up. Don’t! I’m sure you’ve heard the stories about famous authors who were turned down time and time again before achieving success. J.K. Rowling was told not to quit her day job, John le Carré was told he had no future, even Robert M. Pirsig’s bestselling Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance was rejected 121 (!) times before it was published. When you are feeling down, remind yourself that YOU HAVE WRITTEN A BOOK. There are lots of people out there who dream of being a writer, but a small percentage of those folks actually write! If you need to set your project aside for a while, if you need to take time to feel sorry for yourself, do so. But under no circumstances give up. There are readers (and agents and editors) out there waiting to have their lives changed by your book. Don’t keep them waiting too long!