As a developmental editor and literary consulant, I work with a lot of aspiring writers. And aspiring writers are often a mess, let me tell you. I know that some of the no-no’s they commit simply stem from not knowing any better, but some things they do make me want to throw their stories into the burning pits of Hell. These mistakes generally have little to do with grammar or plot. I do have peeves related to those too, but I can work with you if those are your only issues.
If you are an aspiring writer, try to avoid these mistakes:
This is the worst writing sin that you can ever commit. If you are a writer, then you are also a reader. I can tell if you don’t read. It’s very obvious.
Recently a piece came across my desk, and I just knew its writer didn’t read. I felt sure that he had never read anything other than the signs on the road. His whole novel was written in all caps, bold, and italics. Not to mention that almost every single word was misspelled – but that’s a grammar issue, and I’ll deal.
I asked this writer why on earth he thought that this formatting was okay. He didn’t have an answer. So I pushed further.
“Who are your writing inspirations?” I asked.
“I don’t have any,” he replied. “I don’t really read. I just had this idea in my head.”
Let me say it again: if you write, you must read. If you aren’t a reader, then you can’t be a writer. This is the #1 rule of writing: Read first, then write.
Not taking criticism
I try to be polite and not directly tell people their work sucks. I really do. I’m kind of a give-it-to-you-like-it-is girl, but I understand that being a first-time writer is hard, so I am nice. I don’t come right out and say it sucks, even though it probably does. But that’s why you’ve sought me out, right? You want to get better.
It’s hard for me to be nice, trust me. So when I tell you that your story needs some work, please be nice back to me and don’t flip out.
Flipping out usually comes in one of two ways:
You’ve never had anyone other than your mother look at your work before, but you feel you have written the next Twilight because she said your work was great.
Narcissism. Writers don’t have time for it. This industry is cutthroat. You hear of a story now and then about someone like Stephenie Meyer who just sends one copy of her book to one big-name agency and voila, it’s a bestseller. Oh, wait, that’s the only story I know like that. It doesn’t happen. Your mother is not a good critic, which is why you have come to me. I don’t love you or care about your feelings.
Willful Ignorance of writing basics
Not knowing the difference between an outline/background/summary and an actual story
Okay, this one is a little bit of a grammar issue, but it’s tied so closely with the other bad habits that I must mention it. This is the problem that I often see with narcissistic writers, suicidal writers, writers who don’t read, and writers who don’t write. In fact, I see it in almost all of them. (Non-readers being the worst, though.)
I get lots of manuscripts across my desk that the writers claim are finished, but all I see in front of me is a summary/outline/background for a story. It takes me hours to just force myself to sit down and read what is going on. They read like this: “MC did this, and then she thought this, and then she did this, and then this happened.”
There are several problems that go into this. First off, 97% of the time, books are written in past tense. Unless you are a literary genius, don’t use present. It makes the book sound like a summary. Problem two: not using dialogue. How can you have an entire novel without one line of dialogue? These books have no scenes, no dramatic presence, very little drama, and I don’t care a flip about anyone and anything happening in the book. There is nothing other than description going on. Books aren’t descriptions of what is going on; books are lively, make you cry and laugh, throw the book across the room because you hate a character so much, pieces of art.
Willful Ignorance of publishing
Will you write/edit/polish my query for an agent even though I haven’t written more than the first ten pages of the story? (Because that’s all agents require, right?)
So far your query letter looks good, which means that you have Googled how to write a query letter. And I know, without a shadow of a doubt, that those pages you Googled gave you a certain piece of advice. The #1 rule for new authors about querying agents: have your manuscript finished. So I assume you must think that you are the exception. But, honey, you aren’t. Stephen King wasn’t the exception either. For fiction, you must, must, must (can I say it again?), must have your manuscript finished and polished to the best of your ability before sending it to an agent. I’m not going to help you query an agent if you haven’t finished your book. It really is a waste of my time.
Now, if you are an Important Person, someone with a following, platform, etc., and you want to write a non-fiction book, that’s a different deal.
Being a writer without writing
I’m a writer…but I’ve never finished a writing project before.
This one usually goes along with asking me to write a query for an unfinished book. Having an agent doesn’t make you a writer. Writing a book makes you a writer. Or a short story. Or an article. Go finish something. Once that is finished, go finish something longer.
And the unfortunate part of this: I get job applications for ghostwriters who haven’t completed a full-length book. My ghostwriting company (www.theghostwriting agency.com) only works on full length works. It says that upfront on the website. I don’t do blogs or content. My ghostwriters are expected, if necessary, to complete a full length rough draft in 1-2 weeks. If you haven’t been able to complete a full-length work in your 10-year writing career, what makes you believe you can do one in 10 weeks?
My family has been immigrants and nomads for centuries, preferring to be identified by a set of beliefs, principles, and morals rather than by any country. The furthest we can trace this pattern back is to a man named Peter De Tringham, who lived in Northern France in the 16th century. Peter, a Huguenot, which is a French Protestant, fled to the Netherlands with his family after their village was burn down by Catholics. They decided to drop the De and became Trigham. In the late 19th century My great, great, great grandfather Tringham decided to seek a better life in America, following his brother to West Michigan.
Upon Entry at Ellis Island, my ancestor could not find his brother, who was to vouch for him and thus allow entry to the United States. That’s how immigration worked for Europeans at that time period: You showed up on ship, presented yourself at the port of entry, and had someone vouch for you. It looked like Mr. Tringham wouldn’t be able to enter, but somehow he did. I’m not sure how.
Did his brother eventually show up? Did his brother send a letter? Did he just disappear into a crowd and sneak in? Or perhaps, he was vouched for by another immigrant? Often immigrants of various nationalities would stand waiting on the docks to vouch for other immigrants from their homelands.
Eventually, Mr. Tringham made it in to the US and a transcription error turned him from Tringham to Stringham, my maiden name. He eventually had a son named Harry, who married a woman named Bertha, and became a homeless, alcoholic bum. His son, Harry Newton, grew up to be a kind-hearted workaholic, who died at an early age from a heart attack, leaving behind his wife, Wilhelmina, who had her own personal immigration story, to raise my sweet, poetic 14-year-old grandfather, my feisty, stubborn 16-year-old great aunt Phyllis, and 19-year-old Navy recruit Bob, who sadly went the way of his grandfather.
Unlike her husband, Wilhelmina herself was a Dutch immigrant. Her father – my great, great grandfather – Cornelius De Jong, fled famine and serfdom in the Dutch province of Groningen. He worked and saved and eventually sent for his family to follow. My great, great grandmother packed up her starving, unemployed family onto a boat, and set sail for a life that included proper nutrition for her several children, including the youngest, my 4-year-old great grandmother called Mina.
Due to lack of proper nutrition, the unsanitary conditions on the boat, and lack of vaccinations, little Mina got sick. Very sick. And as was custom, the ship’s crew planned to throw the sick little girl overboard. Luckily for me, this is not where Wilhelmina’s story ended.
I have a nearly 4-year-old niece named Inola. She’s a sweet, spunky little princess with 3 older siblings who dote on her and fulfil her every wish. I imagine my sister, Maria, in my great, great grandmother’s wooden shoes, and how she would have turned into Wonder Woman, shouted SHIELD to her other children, and catapulted herself into the air, incinerating all those in front of her who would dare wrest her sweet child from her arms. You do not come between a mother and her children.
I don’t know what she did or said to keep her child, but it was an anomaly. Thousands of sick children were thrown overboard. Sometimes entire families would succumb to illness on the way. Little Mina made a full recovery, but her mother was not so lucky. Cornelius remarried a lovely woman, who saw all her step-children as her own and raised Wilhelmina to be a righteous, intelligent, and loyal woman.
What would cause my family to brave the rough journey across the ocean, knowing that many times most of the family would die on the way over? To leave everything they’d ever known? Parents. Siblings. Friends. To face down the great, gaping maw that swallowed so many other immigrants into its watery depths?
They were serfs, living at the discretion of the landowner, and when famine hit, the landowner’s generosity dried up like the land they owned.
While visiting Joop, I had a chance to visit Groningen, the province that sentenced my great grandmother’s family to starvation. Joop’s Opa, Bart, explained to me about these rich farmers, or Herenboeren – gentlemen farmers if you translate literally, but I feel there’s hardly anything gentlemanly in taking advantage of the poor – who just over a 100 year ago still had a feudal system intact, and how they ruled over the people that worked the land. The workers could leave, but where would they go? Another Herrenboeren? They could eat the food and use natural resources, as long as there was enough for the lavish lifestyle of these farmers.
I saw little Mina in those artificially raised hill towns called Terpendorp, playing with her one little doll, perhaps because she was the baby and the little princess of the family she was afforded the luxury of a toy. Maybe it was her older sister’s once upon a time. She was beyond lucky. Lucky her mother held onto her so tight, lucky she wasn’t taken from her mother, lucky she didn’t die, lucky she had a toy, lucky she got a good step-mother.
If it wasn’t for my great, great grandmother refusing to surrender her child, I wouldn’t be here today. If it wasn’t for Mr. Tringham presenting himself at a port of entry and grace being shown when all the papers weren’t in order, I wouldn’t be here.
I’m proud to be an American, but like Peter and Cornelius, by loyalties lie not with any country, king, or even president, but with a set of beliefs, principles, and morals higher than any man-made law. Here or there, America or the Netherlands, Europe or the Americas, Earth or Mars….it makes no difference.
If there’s one thing Americans are known for collectively, it’s our need for independence. We don’t like to be told what to do or having to conform to a set cultural standard. That’s made us both unique and full of variety, but also caused a lot of strife between us. And social media has turned that into a regular circus show.
I’m not sure we can even point to a true American food. Hamburgers? German. Tacos? Mexican. Meat and Potatoes? Pick your European country. Pizza? Italian. Black Eyed Peas and Collards? African Diaspora. Immigrants come with their food cultures and Americans bastardize it with chemicals and industrial processing. Sometimes we come up with awesome weird combinations: Hey, what happens if we mix Native American cornbread with German sausages and then deep fry it? Corndogs!
I guess if anything is American, it’s the deep fryer.
For those of you that know my family, we take the American credo of independence and variety to a whole different level. Most families in the US are somewhat homogeneous. It’s up to the family to decide what they want to be, but that’s what they are. They’re a dance family or a church family, etc.
My family? Not so much.
My mom says our family’s motto is “Conformity is highly overrated.” She raised us to think for ourselves, questioned us if we did things similarly to her just because, and played devil’s advocate so well the devil is looking for employment elsewhere. For example, in the last presidential election, no more than 2 or 3 people voted for the same person. That means Trump, HRC, Johnson, Stein, write-in, and non-voters all sit at the same table together every week.
For those of us who spend most of our time in America, it’s easy to forget that what makes us unique, our variety, is a cultural decision that is not carried over pretty much anywhere else in the world. It’s especially hard for me as a contrarian raised by a contrarian.
Going to the Netherlands was an eye opener for me.
There certainly existed a set cultural standard for what it meant to be Dutch, from down to what you wore to what and when you ate.
So, if you’re going to ask me what I least like about the Netherlands, I think their (your) somewhat Stepford wives’ conformity was it.
This was best summed up by Joop’s mother, after days of trying to explain a certain cultural difference to her, which she was completely unable to grasp.* Her eventual response: “I don’t understand this whole cultural differences thing. There aren’t different cultures. There’s only one human culture!”
Joop of course groaned and said, “See, see! This is what I have to put up with! I want to move to America! I can do what I want there.”
With every cultural difference you come across, there are benefits and drawbacks. America's independence, if not tempered leads to isolation and possible implosion, while the Netherlands conformity can lead to stagnation. Take your pick. Or learn how to moderate your worse tendencies.
Like I said upfront, our desire for independence causes a lot of strife internally and getting laws passed that benefit everyone or are excepted by everyone is a pain. But if I want to, I can dye my hair rainbow, love a gay redneck, and wear nothing but plaid shirts and striped pants, and belong to an agnostic Muslim congregation, and I can find other people like me. I can eat paleo, or keto, or vegan. I can eat tacos every Tuesday, or even every day, or not at all.
Joop’s going vegetarian was not well accepted. Dutch eat meat and potatoes. They are very good quality and tasty meat and potatoes, but they are still meat and potatoes.
I basically brought a black uniform with me to the Netherlands. I still couldn’t completely wear Dutch clothes because I need color! But it was far more subdued that my average wardrobe. Walking into Joop’s school where everyone could where what they wanted, was like walking into an American school with school uniforms!
The positive side to this conformity is that the Dutch have much more of a sense of shared identity and therefore more social security. Joop said to me, if America really wanted to take care of healthcare, they would have to band together and decide that caring for everyone was the best.
My response: We do want to take care of anyone! It’s just we can’t decide the best way to do it!
Of course, for the Dutch, taking care of your people looks one way and one way only. Not so much in America. There are a million ways to take care of your people. I joke not.
Look at how we deal with healthcare: Religious healthshare groups, churches, workplace health insurance, family support, non-profit organizations in the millions, federal government insurance, state government insurance, free clinics, free dental buses, civic organizations…
I could continue.
It really can be a pain to track down all the programs for your needs, and sometimes as soon as you find it, it disappears. The red tape and bureaucracy needed to navigate this properly is financially infeasible. So people complain, and network, and join support groups, and give money to friends…until the correct help is found. Hopefully, before it’s too late.
It’s a mess and I have no ideas on how to fix it, or if it can even be fixed, or if we really even want it fixed.
All I know is Americans don’t like people telling them what to do and the Dutch don’t need to be told what to do because they already do it.
Anyway, that’s what I had the hardest time adjusting to there: Nobody told me what to do, but I was still expected to know and do it. Luckily, I had Joop. However, I still felt like I should have a sign on my back that said, "Sorry! Idiot American."
*If you're wondering what cultural difference I could never satisfactorily explain to Joop's mother: it was how no group of 25 American 4th graders would travel on foot a couple miles across the streets of Amsterdam with nothing but 1 teacher in the front and 1 parent in the back, in order to tend to their highly organized and identical garden plots. Now I given every American mother a heart attack and brought every American teach to tears...
Well, I’m back from my book tour and trip in the Netherlands and I’ve finally had time to process my thoughts about it. I’m not exactly a quick processor with most things. I have to let them sink into my subconscious and let it do the job for me. Then one morning I randomly wake up and have an epiphany. So bear with me through my long epiphany post.
It was amazing, and quite odd, seeing Joop in his home culture. I always knew Joop was European and Dutch, not an American, but between his expertise in language, which made him sounds like he was from some vaguely northern Midwest location, and his adaptability, it was easy to forget.
But, hearing him speaking Dutch 24/7, watching him hanging out with his Dutch friends, and the ease with which he, after indulging in several beers for the King’s birthday celebration, threw me on the back of his bicycle and sped through the narrow Dutch streets…well, they were never things I had seen him do before. I can hardly ride a bike while sober.
I also had to shift my role with him a little. I was no longer his mother, because his mother was there, and she, like him is Dutch. Joop had some intense anxiety about his two worlds colliding, i.e, his two mothers living under the same roof. At first, I couldn't understand the anxiety because we his mother and I have completely different styles of parenting, and most things...as time passed, I understood a little more. (Hint: we swapped stories and now both have a better picture of...things...)
So before I left, I resolved to myself that I was going to be Joop’s adult friend visiting. And honestly, switching that role was easier than I thought. Partially because the Dutch mom is way more momish than me. For instance, I was not allowed to my own laundry. I resisted at first, but then Joop called me ungrateful, and I realized he was right. If someone really wants to follow me around and make sure I'm comfortable, and I'm complaining about it, that is pretty rude.
Secondly, Joop is no longer a child, and a natural part of raising children is parents shifting from the overt parent role to more of a mentor, and then even to being friends. I suppose it was a natural part of our relational evolution. Finally, I didn’t become a parental figure for Joop until he was nearly grown. I never had to change a diaper, potty train, tuck him into bed, or make sure he brushed his teeth.
What I saw between Joop and his biological parents was more of the typical struggle to figure out the balance that happens during young adulthood, which, I think was occasionally intensified by Joop and his father being opposite personalities. Joop has an uncanny ability to jump into anything and everything and learn as he goes, charm the world, and come out on top. He’s not much a planner, and when he does plan, things tend to go awry and stress him out. His father, on the other hand, plans all the details and bends the world to his plan. Lack of detailed plans and foresight makes him a little crazy. Joop sees his father’s plans as somewhat controlling and his father sees Joop’s charming spontaneity as irresponsibility. (In the extreme, both can be true, which can be said about any personality trait, but generally both behaved quite mildly.)
My own mother says parenting young adults, which I classify as those between 18 and 25ish, is the hardest age of parenting. It’s comforting to know, that in any culture, maintaining a positive parent/child relationship during the college years is difficult.
I enjoyed getting to know his parents through my own experience rather than through his personal prejudices. I quite understand his father Chrisiaan’s need for concrete plans and the annoyance he felt at Joop totally ruining said plans at the last moment. And his mother, Hanneke, wanted me to set the record straight on a few things about her. I’m not quite sure what those would really be. The one things that really surprised me about her, given how organized and in charge Joop portrayed her – and let’s be honest, Hanneke, you are the woman in charge! – was that Joop completely got his personality – in addition to his good looks and poufy hair – from her.
She rambled and bounced and giggled and yelled and laughed and cried and worried and stressed and blew everything out of proportion just like Joop. Her energy and zest for life rubbed off on everyone around her, just like Joop. And when she entered a sour mood, like Joop, it was just best to leave the room and let her stew, and then the next morning, or maybe ten minutes later, she’d apologize and tell you a funny story. Or maybe even dance.
I was living under the same roof with two Joops. Granted, one was much more organized and clean…and a morning person. It was enjoyable, if not a tad overwhelming once in a while.
Some of my favorite times were sitting out on their back porch chatting with them about Joop or cultural differences, amongst many other things. They had unusually good weather while I was there and we’d often sit on the patio talking until it got dark at nearly 10 at night. And then the parents would head off to bed and Joop’s friends would start appearing. (I didn't sleep much.)
We’d switch some topics, but everyone, no matter where I went wanted to talk about the cultural differences and what I thought about Dutch culture. With the younger crowd, things tended to get more philosophical. We talked about spirituality and God, but also psychedelics, metaphysics, and morality. And, of course, if they could come to the United States – all of his friends at once – and stay with me for a couple weeks. I’m trying to imagine a dozen giant-sized Dutch young men sprawling out on sleeping bags in my living room…
Young and old alike would ask me what my favorite thing about the Netherlands was, and being a slow processor, I didn’t know what to say. So I’d respond by saying Joop was my favorite thing.
And while Joop is still my favorite thing, and will probably always be favorite thing about the Netherlands, I now have an answer.
These talks, the open and inquisitive dialogue, and the relaxed ramblings that were exchanged over long hours – and many cups of espresso like coffee – were my favorite thing about the Dutch. They pulled no punches in telling their opinions, and I never once had to guess what a Dutch person thought, whether they were a soccer mom I talked to for 5 minutes about abortion or Joop’s Frisian grandfather that loved to talk religion. Sometimes it was frustrating trying to correct certain misconceptions about Americans, but I always found it fulfilling and engaging.
Here’s a list of a few other things:
So, for all you Dutch that kept asking me what my favorite things about the Netherlands were, there you go. And, I’m sorry it takes me a moment to gather my opinions. Once I have them gathered, I’m rather Dutch about it. I’ll tell you flat out.
The other question I was asked by everyone was what was my least favorite thing, but that’s a post for another day.
I live in Athens, Georgia, with my son, my husband, and an ever-revolving list of exchange students, who are a never-ending source of entertainment and writing material.