13 “Tells” of a Novice Writer

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In the poker-playing world, professional card sharks have a term for a novice player who inadvertently gives away the cards he’s holding through some sort of gesture or tick of which he is unaware. The pros call it a “tell.”

pokerIn the publishing world, professional editors and agents look for the “tells” of a novice writer whenever they scan a manuscript. With practice, we can almost always pick out the amateur from the pro from reading just a page or two. Here’s a list of 13 Common “Tells” of an Amateur Writer that may give you an inside advantage at the publishing table.

  1. Too many clichés. If you find yourself using a common cliché–try changing it up for humor or effect. Instead of saying, “He marches to a different drum,” you might say, “She rhumbas to a different drum-ba.” You want to avoid cliches but they can also be…

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Happily Ever After?

About a year ago or so I having a phone chat with another writer friend of mine, discussing a story I was working on at the time.

I described the dynamic between the two main characters, a guy and a girl, and I told my friend (who just so happens to write and read stuff on the more Romantic side of the Force) that my plan was to have romantic tension between these two, but that they would ultimately never get together.

There was a sudden silence on the other end of the phone followed by a perturbed “What?”

happy couple hands

This led into a long and rather animated talk about the need for a story to have a “happy ending”.

I’m not really beholden to the idea of a perfect, fairy tale ending. I’m not opposed to happy endings, nor do I enjoy stories that try to be dark and depressing for the sake of being dark and depressing, but I enjoy an occasional tragic twist en route to “happily ever after”.

Most of this comes down to a simple question: Would you rather have a poorly done happy ending or a well done sad ending?

A brief Facebook chat with a fellow writer brought up the fact that a lot of movies today and afraid to go with a sad ending. There’s a fear of leaving the audience with any unresolved feelings as they walk out of the movie theater.

Like the movie makers are afraid to leave their audience with anything but the most sugary, cookie cutter conclusions. Chris Pine quits his big job on Wall Street to be with Natalie Portman and help her run her family’s candle making business. Sandra Bullock finally overcomes her fear of oceanic life and swims out to Gerard Butler’s fishing boat where they share in a sloppy wet kiss right before he proposes. I can’t really remember the last romantic film I saw where the couple didn’t get together in the end. (Granted, it’s not really my genre, but I feel like the point still stands.)

But if you think of some of the most timeless love stories in film history, aren’t there a bunch of them where guy and girl don’t get together in the end? Would we still be talking about Gone With The Wind in Rhett suddenly decided that he did give a damn? What about if Rick said “Here’s looking at you kid.” right before kicking Victor out onto the runway and flying off with Ilsa?

To paraphrase Roger Ebert, we shouldn’t “I don’t like sad endings” or “I can’t stand happily ever afters”, but instead say “I like well done endings”. Certainly there’s a place for both “Roman Holiday” and “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” on the same shelf?

happy couple

And it all balances out. Sometimes we need to sit back and take it them complex emotional end to “An Affair to Remember”. Other days, I’m sure people just need snuggle up with “Sleepless in Seattle”.

But in the end, let’s not forget that it’s a movie. It’s entertainment. Whatever your preference, enjoy it. Always be on the lookout for that next favorite, but while you’re at it, don’t be afraid to try something new. Who knows. The end might just surprise you.