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Forty-five more flaws that expose your lack of storytelling experience, part 2

This is part 2 in a series of 45 common writing mistakes which mark a writer as a rookie. If you missed it, here’s part 1. Part 1 covered the first 9 mistakes. Without further ado, here are mistakes 10 through 18:

10. Simple mechanics. I don’t know why I didn’t think of this as the very first item for part 1. Maybe because it ought to go without saying. But, from what I see in a lot of manuscripts, it does not in fact go without saying. So I’ll say it. Make sure your manuscript is free from errors in the simple mechanics of spelling, grammar, paragraph formatting, dialogue formatting, and so forth. Especially dialogue formatting. Maybe I’ve just had a run of atypical manuscripts lately, but I’ve been really struck by how often writers get this wrong.

Seriously, people. You all learned this in grammar school (or should have), and there is certainly no shortage of reference works for you to turn to if you can’t remember how to do it. Check out Strunk & White’s Elements of Style if you need a refresher. And don’t give me, “but, Cormac McCarthy does it” as a defense. A) you’re not him, B) he shouldn’t either. Nor should Charlie Huston, or any of a small cadre of writers who have written otherwise very fine books but whose publishers, for reasons that are utterly mysterious to me, let them get away with that shit. Why, guys? Why? What possible value is there in making it harder for readers to track your dialogue? In Charlie Huston’s case, it’s especially tragic because the dialogue itself if excellent. A shame, then, that I sometimes couldn’t decipher who was saying what in this brilliant, darkly funny novel.

11. Dialogue tagging. Don’t confuse this one with dialogue attribution. Attribution is simply when you let us know who’s saying a line of dialogue by adding a little “Jane said” or “Kumar asked” before or after the dialogue. Dialogue tagging comes in two forms. One is when you adorn the attribution with an adverb or adverbial phrase which attempts to tell us the manner in which a character delivered a line of dialogue. For example:

“How can that be?” Jane asked disbelievingly.

The second is when you use an particularly decorative verb to indicate speech, the verb being chosen to achieve the same result as if you’d used an adverb. For example:

“Oh, surely he would never do that,” Kumar joked.

This is one case where good practice does go against the “strong verbs” rule I gave in part 1. The reason, in “Show, don’t tell” parlance, is that dialogue tagging is a form of telling, when you should actually be showing. Basically, if you’re doing a good job of showing in your writing, then the words of the dialogue plus the context in which they appear is enough to let the reader figure out how the line was delivered. In this second example, it should be obvious from context that Kumar is joking, even if you only attribute the line with “Kumar said.” See Stephen King’s On Writing for the hard-liner stance on this issue, explained in great detail.

12. Exclamation marks in narrative. William Maxwell once said something close to this: “I believe that every writer should be limited to one, or perhaps two, exclamation marks per career.” (Note: if you have a citation for the actual quote, please post it in the comments and I’ll update this.) Now, I’m not quite as hard-core as Maxwell about it, but I do take his point. When used VERY, VERY SPARINGLY, I believe there are legitimate cases where an exclamation mark can be useful in dialogue. But in narrative, Maxwell is absolutely right. Exclamation marks are supposed to be a sign of excitement. Where the rookie writer goes wrong is in thinking that exclamation marks cause excitement. They don’t. You cannot slap an exclamation mark on a dull sentence and have it magically transform into an exciting sentence. Doesn’t work. Worse, readers see through that in a heartbeat. It’s like you’re begging us to be excited to read something that you yourself know isn’t actually exciting. Don’t beg. Revise until it is exciting.

13. Omni-viewpoint syndrome. Writers necessarily need to know everything about what’s happening in their stories. We need to know what every character is doing, all the time, why they’re doing it, what they want, why they want what they want, et cetera. To get the story right, we must go deeply inside the heads of all the characters in the book. Where the rookie writer errs is in thinking that readers must go there too. We don’t. We need the viewpoints of your protagonists, sure, and maybe your antagonists, too. But that’s it.

We certainly don’t need the viewpoint of the mailman who is delivering a piece of very bad news to your protagonist and wishes he could quit his job and pursue his love of Jazz improv, but keeps delivering the mail because he needs the health insurance coverage for his invalid son’s condition. We don’t need the viewpoint of the night-desk clerk at the hotel where your on-the-run protagonists are crashing for the night, who is working just one of his three jobs so he can put his kid-sister through college. We only care about the principal players. Let the rest go.

14. Backstory flashbacks. Ok, so you’ve cut the seventeen extraneous viewpoints out of your novel, and you’re down to just the remaining central characters. Great. But how,then, do you let the reader know what makes these characters tick? Too often, I see rookie manuscripts where the one-size-fits-all answer to this question is “use flashbacks that reveal the character’s backstory.” This is related to the previous item in another way as well. Maybe it is genuinely important for us to know about the time the protagonist peed his pants in the middle of the seventh-grade cafeteria. Ok, fine. But do we have to see that in a fully-rendered flashback scene? Or is it only important that we be made aware that the event happened, what triggered it, and how it made the character feel?

The problem with the flashback is two-fold. One, it brings the forward momentum of the story to a halt. By definition, a flashback interrupts the normal flow of time in your story. It’s like saying to the reader “ok, now pause right here for a few minutes while we explore something that happened to this guy twenty years ago.” Pause being the operative word there. Flashbacks have this nasty tendency to kill a story’s pacing. Two, and reprising a theme you may have noticed from part 1 of this series, by showing a fully rendered scene you are leaving less to the reader’s imagination. Instead, why not present the information in the story’s present? Perhaps during a conversation with another character. Perhaps through a carefully worded bit of narrative. But think really hard before you interrupt the main flow of your story for a backstory flashback. Whatever’s in that flashback had better be really good to justify it.

15. Flashback within a flashback. Don’t. Just... don’t, ok? All that shows the reader is that you couldn’t, or didn’t bother, to figure out a sensible order in which to convey things to us.

16. Backstory infodumps. Close on the heels of the backstory flashback is the backstory infodump. It’s the same thing, except that instead of interrupting the forward flow of the story with an actual scene, you interrupt it with a dry, expository, and often lengthy block of narrative which explains what happened in the past. Which is why I wrote “a carefully worded bit of narrative” before. When it comes to backstory, most of it isn’t actually necessary at all. That’s one thing. But even for the parts that are, we rarely need it all at once. Don’t make us try to assimilate a character’s whole life story in a half page of narrative. Dole out the juicy bits, one at a time, at moments where they are most relevant to the story and thus have the most impact.

17. Self-plagiarism. A dead-giveaway rookie mistake is when a writer unconsciously re-uses the same words, phrases, narrative techniques, and plot devices. At best, it makes for repetitive, dull writing. At worst, it can create an incredibly distracting, annoying effect for the reader. When we start to notice the repetition, every subsequent instance ends up jumping out at us even more. All it does is focus our attention on the writing (and not in a good way), rather than on the story. Recently, I wrote a whole article on this mistake for the #amwriting blog, here.

18. Cliché writing. Ah, the hackneyed use of careworn phrases, and true standard for rookie writers. There is one sense in which the use of clichés is a good sign. In every art form I can think of, writing included, we learn first by imitating. Only then do we step out and innovate. Musicians learn by playing music composed by other (more experienced) musicians. Nobody picks up a guitar, learns to play it solely by ear without exposure to any other music, and then starts turning out chart-topping hits. Painters spend time in art school explicitly emulating the Old Masters, learning how to do still lifes, et cetera. Only after that do musicians and painters branch out to develop their own style.

It’s the same with writers. So while it’s perfectly natural for a rookie writer to rely on a cliché—such as describing a dim-witted character as “not the sharpest tack in the box"—we’re still going to call you on it because it’s a sign that you still have work to do. You haven’t graduated yet to the level of developing your own style. But keep going. To (ahem) borrow a cliché, the surest way to fail is to quit.

Got a favorite rookie mistake of your own? Share it in the comments.

< Back to part 1 | On to part 3 >

July 25, 2011 19:40 UTC

Tags: writing, writing mistakes, rookie, Cormac McCarthy, Charlie Huston, Elements of Style

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Forty-five more flaws that expose your lack of storytelling experience, part 1

So the other day, someone tweeted this post from containing five writing mistakes that, as they put it (and hat-tip to them for the title of this post), “expose your lack of storytelling experience.”

I retweeted the link, adding that the real number was probably more like 50 than 5. Twitter people being who they are, now I’m on the hook for the other 45. The problem is, if I put 45 flaws in one blog post, it’s going to be 10,000 words long by the time I’m done and nobody’s going to read that. Clever, those Storyfix folks, limiting themselves to five. Sneaky bastards. So I’m going to split it up into five posts of nine each. Here’s the first batch:

1. Adverb and adjective abuse. Also known as “purple prose,” this is when a writer leaves no verb or noun unadorned with a colorful, oh-so-helpful modifier. Not. Rookie writers think they are providing readers with concrete details that help them visualize the scene, but what’s really happening is that you’re cramming reader’s perfectly capable imaginations with useless details that don’t contribute to the story. If the color of the couch doesn’t matter to anything (and come on, how often does it matter?) leave it out. Find a balance between providing a very few, carefully selected descriptive modifiers, but for everything else, leave it plain. Readers will fill in their own details.

2. Unhelping verbs. You remember back in grammar school, they taught you about so-called “helping verbs,” ones that “help” you create some of English’s more baroque verb tenses? Stuff like “will have been eating” and so forth? Sure, a prefix like “will have been” does in a certain pedantic sense help to give nuance to whatever the core verb is (eat), but I’ll tell you this for free: it doesn’t help your story. Rarely is it the case that a novel requires the fine gradations of verb tenses that English provides. Avoid these. All they do is clutter up the narrative with words that don’t carry their weight. Find ways to re-write down to the “big three” verb tenses of past, present, and future. Let readers focus on more interesting verbs, like “eat” than comparatively boring verbs like “will.”

3. Weak verbs. Another rookie verb mistake is to reach for the most generic verb that covers the action they have in mind, rather than the most specific. This is an area where writers of English, having access to the largest vocabulary of any language on the planet, have an edge. English has stolen so much vocabulary from other languages that we often have dozens (if not hundreds) of verbs that relate to the action we’re trying to convey. These verbs form family trees, as it were, with the overarching, non-specific members at the root and the more specific members at the branches. Take verbs of motion: run, walk, fly, fall, sprint, saunter, skedaddle, drive, and many more. These all fall under the parent-verb “go.” The rookie mistake is to reach for the parent verb first, rather than reaching for one of the more highly-evolved and useful child verbs. Then, finding that parent verb is weak and lacks narrative joy, the rookie writer doctors it up with some adverb abuse in an attempt to fix the problem. Wrong strategy. Find a more specific verb to begin with. Don’t just tell us someone “went” somewhere (past tense of “go"). Yawn. Pick a verb that, in a single word, conveys the overall sense of “going” plus the manner in which the going takes place. Give us “sprinted” instead, which is like “go” + “run” + “really fast” all in one word!

4. Pronoun ambiguity. We’ve all experienced this, both in reading and in our own writing. This is when a sentence becomes muddled up in a confusion of pronouns, such that it is hard to tell which character a particular “she” or “his” or whatever actually refers to. The rookie writer doesn’t even notice this problem, because in their own mind, the writer knows perfectly well what she means and expects everyone else to as well. Sorry, we’re not mind readers. Use a name here and there, re-structure the sentence to avoid using so many pronouns. Split up the sentence into multiple, simpler sentences. There are many ways to tackle this problem, but don’t make us guess who’s who in the story.

5. Over-description of clothing. Storyfix picked on over-description of food as one of their five. To that, I would add clothing. Or really, over-description of anything, but the particular category of over-described thing I see most often is clothing. Historical novelists are notorious for this. Yes, if you’re staging a movie set in a historical period, you must pay disproportionate attention to the details of everyone’s costumes. In a novel, not so much. Just like with purple prose, readers have perfectly good imaginations and will fill in all these details for you, if only you will let them. You only need to give them the bare minimum to get them started. You need not describe the cut, color, and material of every item of clothing on every character’s body.

6. Continuity errors. This is simply when a story fails to be consistent with itself, in terms of something that is unlikely to have changed by itself when we weren’t looking. If a character is short-haired in the morning, it is unlikely that she would somehow become long-haired by the evening of that same day. Not unless she put on a wig or got hair extensions, which if that’s what happened, we as readers likely have the right to know about. So if you didn’t tell us, oops. But if you did this, more likely you’re just a rookie writer who wasn’t paying enough attention to your own story. Well, this is what readers will think, anyway. And yes, I know it’s hard to see this stuff in our own writing, because we get so close to the material. Which is exactly why beta readers are so helpful, and why you should specifically ask (beg) them to flag any such continuity errors for you.

7. Misspelling character names. As a sub-category of continuity errors, you’d be shocked how often I catch authors changing the spelling of a character’s name mid-story. And not just minor characters or bit players, either. Protagonists! For the love of Buddha, at least know your main character’s name! Enough said.

8. Bathroom mirror descriptions. Writers of first-person material face the question “how do I convey the viewpoint character’s physical description to the reader?” Rookie writers put the character in front of a bathroom mirror, and spend half a page letting the character indulge in checking themselves out. Y. A. W. N. Also, massive cliché alert! That bit about over-describing, back in number 5? That applies to characters too. Seriously, we rarely need the details of physical description. The broad outlines, yes. It’s helpful to know if your character is skinny as a rail or built like a refrigerator, because that helps us know what the character will and won’t be physically capable of doing. But the rest? Window dressing. Let us imagine it for ourselves. Here’s all you really need to convey: general age, overall ethnicity (which you can do with a well-chosen name, many times), gender, and physical build. Those are the essentials. Leave out anything else that doesn’t affect the story. Let readers fill in the non-essential details with their own imaginations. And note, rookies, you do not even have to give all these essentials at the same time. You can dole them out, one at a time over the first couple of chapters of the book. In the early chapters, readers are still open to re-defining their mental image with new information. It’s like ice cream. Let us have one lick at a time, rather than trying to make us swallow the whole cone in one gulp.

9. Wakeup introductions. Also high on the rookie alert! cliché list are opening scenes that involve a character waking up and going about his/her morning routine. That description alone should tip you off to the problem: routine. Routine is boring. Unless somebody’s going to break into your protagonist’s house while she’s naked, taking her morning tinkle before stepping into the shower, don’t open with waking up. It’s boring.

Ok. That’s it for now. Leave your own pet-peeve rookie mistakes in the comments, and I’ll see you next time with the next nine!

On to part 2 >

July 21, 2011 20:25 UTC

Tags: writing, writing mistakes, rookie

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