BEGINNINGS, MIDDLES, AND ENDS
POINT OF VIEW
SHOWING AND TELLING
The Writer's Writing Guide: Common TrapsPrevious chapter Next chapter Table of contents
Many apprentice writers fall into certain traps that needlessly slow down their development and add months or even years to their apprenticeship. This chapter covers thirty-five such traps, and my hope is that, by reviewing these pages, you'll move through your apprenticeship more swiftly. As a result, this is a long chapter. I summarize it all on the final page, so if you want you can hang a single sheet beside your desk so you can have a handy reminder.
1. Believing there is a "Right" or "Correct" kind of writing.
When I was in graduate school, many of us students labored under the misguided notion that we all had to write clones of Raymond Carver short stories to be considered good: stripped-down prose which describes the lives of unhappy, working class people who drink too much. It took me years after my M.F.A. to realize how silly this was, given not only the diversity of tastes in this world, but also what each of us as writers likes to read. Now I feel that, as long as it's well-written, a short story about quietly feuding golf partners is as valid as a Regency romance which is as valid as an existential novel about World War II which is as valid as a knight's tales of time travel. There are certain technical skills which all writers ought to learn because otherwise they run the risk of looking like an amateur and/or just being ineffective, and that is largely what this book aims to teach, but there is no Correct style, or Right subject. This is why an apprentice writer whose friends and family liked a story — maybe even whose teachers liked a story — might find the same story rejected by editors, or red-penciled by a different teacher. That editor, who serves a specific kind of reader, might have different tastes, and that teacher might have higher standards. Even you yourself might decide, after acquiring more skills and reading new authors, that a piece once praised by your peers no longer seems as strong as it once did. Forget "Right" and "Correct." What matters is learning the skills — skills applicable to all kinds of writing — and pushing yourself harder than you'd imagined you could, to a vision that is uniquely yours.
The bias I take in this book is that, regardless of style and subject, it is preferable if a piece of writing engages, interests, and respects its reader, and does so in a way that is well-crafted. A student once referred to this as being "reader-friendly," since a self-indulgent, dull, or hostile-to-the-reader piece, or one that is carelessly written, is not very likely to be read beyond those who, due to friendship or kinship, feel they have no choice. If you just want to write for yourself, or to get something off your chest, you don't need this book, or a class at all; with yourself as the only reader, you don't need to develop your communication skills. If, though, you want to write so that people read you — people who don't already know you — then you need to recognize that writing is a form of communication, and that it's useful to try to ensure that the recipient can, and wishes to, follow you. Think about what makes you pick up a story or novel when you're just browsing in a library or bookstore. Anything that bars your entrance, loses your interest, assumes you're stupid, or in other ways hasn't done its job will probably not stay in your hands, much less last any length of time on your nightstand.
So if there is no "correct" way to write, how can you proceed? I recommend that you do two things. One is to work on developing your skills so that you are more able to accomplish any task you set for yourself, and, as a result, become more able to see tasks that you hadn't ever thought of before. You do this through a combination of reading books like this, taking classes, reading deeply, and writing constantly — that is, learning, and putting into practice, lessons from those who have walked this same path, and who can give you tips to overcome the same hurdles that every writer faces. This can be difficult for some apprentice writers, particularly if you're not convinced that writing can be taught, or that they have anything to learn. But learning to write is like learning to play an instrument, and, as you know, the skills necessary to that undertaking must be acquired, which usually happens through classes, years of listening closely, and practice. The same is true of writing, even though there aren't mouthpieces or frets. When you write you are playing the instrument of your mind, and, given how expansive that can be, you'll need many skills indeed.
The other thing you can do is to take an inventory of the elements you love when you read, especially when the book wasn't assigned by a teacher or written by a friend. Think of work by many authors, since you've probably loved several and don't want to end up imitating a single one anyway. In fact, think of all the reading you have loved through your whole life, since you have always been you, albeit with evolving taste. You might even want to make a list of all the elements you've loved in these books, even if some of them can't possibly co-exist with others. This way, you'll be able to start figuring out what your standards are, so that, as your skills become stronger, you'll have some artistic goals to work toward. You might not ever want to put all those elements into a single piece, but at least you'll have a rough idea of what you want your work to be.
2. Thinking that your first draft has to be perfect.
We want to get it right the first time out, and if we don't, we either think that we are idiots, or that the person telling us we need to work more is an idiot. We entertain such thoughts when we believe that real writers are those who blow out a word-for-word perfect draft, without need of revision — indeed, that revision applies to other people, lesser people, dopes. And that, if we need revision, we must be dopes, too. Inevitably, this kind of belief leads to one of three results: writer's block, self-loathing (possibly resulting in writer's block), and anger or even hatred directed at people who dare suggest that our writing needs more work. All are unpleasant and unnecessary — especially when we finally come to realize that work is only work, and nothing more. And that first drafts are only the first stage. The way I think of it is that, more often than not, first drafts are the shadow of the final creation. Second and third drafts are the drawings you scratch out on top of the shadows, seeing the contours and the angles and the dimensionality of it all. And later drafts bring out the color and animation. We think first drafts must be perfect when we forget that writing is a process, and a fairly predictable process at that. Whenever I hear students say that they should be smart enough not to need revision — which is, after all, a natural part of the writing experience — I'm reminded of a quote which I think comes from William Saroyan, and which he intended to be used on his tombstone. (This is a paraphrase): "I have always known that man is mortal, but somehow I've thought that in my case an exception would be made."
3. Forgetting not to bore the reader.
This is one of the main reasons why revision is necessary: writers need to be careful not to lose the interest of the reader. This seems obvious, but sometimes writers focus on what their friends or parents think rather than on whether an audience — strangers who care only about the book itself — will be absorbed. Writers in the 21st century can never forget that we compete with distractions that previous generations of writers never dreamed of: television, film, the Internet, etc. Indeed, many would-be readers are turning to these other media because they have told themselves that most books are boring. Don't let them, or any other reader, think this of you.
This means that your writing needs to grab them at the opening line, and keep them there. It means that your narrative (whether plot-oriented or not) needs to keep humming along rather than indulging in repetitions, digressions, or predictability, all of which cause the reader's eyes to glaze over. (See Beginnings, Middles, and Ends) In addition, distinct characters help keep the reader alert and involved as well.
Your job, as a writer, is to keep the reader up all night. No matter what mood they're in, no matter how fatigued, your job is to write work that is so gripping, so absorbing, that when they glance at your first sentence just before dropping off to sleep at night, they'll forget time and their own needs, and will be so unable to put you down that they won't even peer up at the clock until dawn, or they've reached the last line of your book.
4. Telling much more than showing.
The apprentice writer tells us a character is nervous by saying, "He was nervous." The advanced writer shows it. Example: "As he raised the fork to his lips, his hands trembled, a rattling beat that matched his careening pulse. Without a word he set the fork down and dropped his fingers to his lap, praying that he had managed to keep his mother-in-law from seeing."
Create a picture in the reader's mind by showing instead of telling. Another example: "Andrea was alone in the waiting room." Dullsville. Try: "In the waiting room, Andrea checked her makeup in her lipstick mirror, reached beneath her dress to straighten her slip, and, with a quick glance to affirm that the secretary had not returned, tugged up her sagging pantyhose."
This Show, Don't Tell rule can be applied from the level of the sentence, as I did it here, to the level of the scene. You can say, for instance, that "Robert got ready to leave his wife Effie." Or you can give us a whole scene:
Robert stands in his lycra running suit in the master bedroom, meticulously folding his ironed tank tops into the open suitcase on the bed, sipping his V-8 while Christmas music drifts in from the family party in the living room. At the bottom of the drawer he uncovers Effie's old postcards to him, sent when she was a nurse in the Korean War, along with a lock of her hair from those days, when it was still naturally red and his own hair hadn't yet embarked on its mass migration from his scalp to the shower drain. Korea . . . she'd been in Korea when he'd been in training for the Olympic trials, drinking breakfasts of raw eggs and imagining his hurdles could take him all the way from Poughkeepsie to the gold. He sits on the bed and reads through the postcards again. There they are — the limericks she wrote about their long-distance engagement, the beatnik poetry she wrote about he-still-doesn't-understand-what. He runs his hands along his thighs; despite his three daily miles, his quadriceps are less tight now, his muscles almost as slack as the ribbons that once tied these cards. He knows he should finish packing — there are still his fungus samples to box up, his lab coats and his one published article — but the postcards still retain her perfume, the one she wore back then; he hasn't smelled it in years. He could never remember the name, but it reminded him of lilac, of the hidden spot beneath the school bleachers where she pulled him during one of his track meets, saying, "I misplaced my puppy! Euripides, you remember him? I think he darted under here! Can you help me locate him?" But instead of a chubby cocker spaniel hiding beneath the seats, Robert found shadows and used hot dog boxes and Effie pulling him into a crouch, her hands reaching for his hair, her cheeks touching his; he found the candy-sweet secret of her lips. His team lost the relays that day; Effie was giggling, thumbing lipstick off his face when the coach's whistle blew. Robert closes his eyes and inhales. Even with the bayberry candles in the next room, and the turkey in the oven, he can still smell that lilac perfume, still remember that wiry young girl with her devil-may-care laugh and Vassar-level vocabulary. "Robert," he hears, and Robert opens his eyes. He is sitting on the bed, next to an open suitcase, and in the doorway stands Effie, holding a kiwi daiquiri. She is dressed as he had left her at the party, in a costume she made herself: a cross between Mrs. Santa and a Playboy bunny. Pushup bra and varicose veins and red velvet, an elf earring dangling from one ear, the rhinestone word "Sizzle" hanging from the other. And on top of it all, a multi-colored tinsel wig. She squints across the room. "Intoxication?" she asks, fumbling beside her for her glasses, "or simple social evasion?" "Neither," he whispers. His words come out raw as a November wind. Effie's hand closes over her glasses. She shakes them open, fits them on her face, and blinks hard, no doubt at the sight of the suitcase. "Robert," she says, her voice quivering, "what are you doing?" He closes his eyes, trying to root out his resolve. She used to make him laugh. She used to make him feel . . . transformed. He opens his eyes. His wife of thirty-eight years is standing before him. All the sorrow they've ever shared flickers in her face. All the excitement they've ever shared trembles across her lips. She reaches for him, strokes his cheek. He jumps at her touch. "I don't know," he says.
(For more on this, see Showing and Telling.)
5. Avoiding specific detail.
I could have just described Robert as a husband and Effie as a wife and left it at that — plain, indistinct, a pair of anybodys. I could have omitted the details of setting, clothing, occupation, age, and just made them generic suburban middle-aged partners. I could have avoided the sensory details of sight, sound, smell, touch, taste and just figured the reader wouldn't care. But I put all that in to make these characters and this scene specific, and therefore more gripping and real. This applies to everything — from characters' appearances to their personalities to settings to the nature of the conflict itself. With original, specific detail, you can pull off anything — write about any topic, any emotion, any situation. You can handle the whole range from straight reality to the most fantastic story ever. Original, specific detail is what makes the reader care.
This is most noticeable when it comes to character. Many is the apprentice writer story with stock characters: the virile, cigarette-smoking drifter-motorcyclist in denim and dark glasses; the lecherous professor in corduroy blazer with patches on the elbows; the faded Broadway actress in floor-length sequined gowns and alcoholic stupor. These are old, old characters. I'm not saying you can't write about lecherous professors or faded Broadway actresses. But whoever you write about should be unique, since otherwise the story appears like to be the literary equivalent of a rerun, and the writer appears to be creatively lazy. Find details that elevate the character from the generic. Maybe the faded Broadway actress can have a job — be the owner of a day care center, perhaps, or the projectionist in a planetarium. Maybe instead of wearing long sequined gowns she wears frilly dresses from the Junior Miss department, or a tight black pants suit. Maybe instead of abusing alcohol she drinks Dr. Pepper, or writes bad poetry, or argues with her daughter on long walks in the rain. The goal is to make every character real. And don't think that doesn't apply to magical realism or science fiction. Batman, for instance, would be a bore if he were merely a superhero. What makes him interesting is the gothic Wayne Manor in which he lives, his philanthropic activities, his brooding personality, his inability to connect with anyone besides Alfred.
You get to this kind of detail by doing what I call writing into the text, or digging deeper. Pause at each word and try to visualize it with greater specificity. Whenever you find yourself "seeing" the generic character, setting, or situation, clear away those clichés and look with more depth. For instance, when you first write "husband," give him a name. Look at his appearance. Have him engage in some activity. Okay. So you get him packing his suitcase. Then ask yourself: what is going on around him? What kind of room is he in? What might his senses be experiencing? Along the way, you'll find yourself forced to confront all your easy outs (many of which will be some kind of stereotype), and decide — consciously — whether you want to include them.
If you fear that this approach will make your story too long, bear this in mind: it is far better to buy clothes that are too big and then take them in so they fit than it is to buy clothes that are too small. Write fat, then revise thin. Don't diet on your first draft. Save that for later drafts. Calorie-counting too early on will steal all your fun, and besides, then your final draft will not be nearly as rich or strong.
(For more on this, see the chapters on Showing and Telling, and Character.)
6. Explaining excessively and overwriting.
This looks like a contradiction: I just said to write fat, and now I'm warning you not to include excess. But it's not a contradiction, since surplus is fine in the first draft but, as you shape a piece over time, it ceases to be welcome.
How can you know what's good fat and what's bad? Think of bad fat as being information that we don't really need. Let's say we have a boy sitting down to breakfast. "Timmy stared straight ahead, eyes fixed on the hole Daddy had punched in the wall the night before. He could still hear the crunch as Daddy's fist had made contact with the wall, still hear Mommy crying as Daddy had run outside, revved up the Datsun, and screeched down the road. Now, behind him, Mommy finished scrambling eggs. Timmy held his breath, waiting for her to speak. Mommy had learned how to scramble eggs years ago, from her sister Martha — her oldest sister, though not her favorite. Her favorite sister was Charlene, who lived in Chicago and raised mink for rich ladies' coats. Charlene didn't cook at all. She barely ever seemed to eat, she was so skinny."
And on and on. We began with something you wanted to know, then took a left turn away from our focus and dumped on a pile of distracting, unnecessary information.
Apprentice writers sometimes do this in big ways and small. For instance, let's say a character puts on a hat. If we can gain insight into his character from the kind of hat he wears, then it's worth mentioning. "As he stepped off the tourist bus at the White House, Omar donned a Philadelphia Phillies cap, making him feel like a real American." But if the information about the hat gives us no insight and is just there for detail, it will be distracting. "As he stepped off the tourist bus at the White House, Omar set a yellow hat on his head." We don't need to know the hat is yellow. We don't even need to know he put on a hat at all, unless we're going to use that information later, or it is written in such an entrancing, original manner that we don't mind its inclusion.
Here's one more. "I walked around back where the bounce of the sun off the front fields gilded an outburst of roses growing along the rear fence." See all those extra words? "bounce of the sun" and "front fields" and "outburst of roses growing along the rear fence." There's so much, you can't see any of it. A clearer rewrite: "I walked around back, where sunlight gilded the roses that grew along the fence."
How do you fix this problem? First, finish your first draft. Then, go through the draft and look at everything — every development, every sentence, every word. Decide if it gives the reader worthwhile information or if it's just excess. Then bite the bullet, and begin to cut. Stories fit much better after you've done some tailoring.
(For more on this, see the chapter on Revision.)
7. Lacking clarity.
One of the major impediments to forward progress, lack of clarity is often quite prevalent in the work of apprentice writers. In fact, lack of clarity is possibly the way that teachers recognize a novice from someone who has been at it awhile. Lack of clarity comes in many areas, but one of the main ones is in terms of language, when the writer chooses abstract words over concrete, visual, physical words. Example: "There are ten workers on the road, young, dirty, each hiding a different disappointment with life. They see through the profundity of the universe with the innocence and lucidity of youth." They see through the profundity of the universe — what does that mean? How can we see them seeing through this profundity? What does profundity look like? When readers hit sentences like these, they drift over the words, not making sense of them, not absorbing them. It becomes a station break in our story, a time for the reader to remember she has to go to the bathroom. And the risk is, of course, that she will go, and will never come back. Here's another example: "They exalted in a celebration of freedom." What does exaltation look like? What celebration? Here's the rewrite: "They leapt toward the sky, laughing and squealing, as July 4th fireworks exploded overhead." To break this habit, go through your drafts and examine every word, asking yourself if it can be more concrete. Try to create a picture or conjure up a sensation with every detail. Keep it on the physical plane.
Sometimes we think we're being clear when we're not. We'll think this because we're using words and concepts that everyone knows, and we don't realize that, even though words like "beautiful," and "nice," and "intense" are popular, that doesn't mean we all agree on their meaning. Your beautiful might be a tall slender African girl with a long neck and large cardamom-colored eyes, while my beautiful might be a petite freckle-faced Irish woman with auburn curls and a quick smile. This applies to all those common but essentially meaningless words — "gorgeous," "cool," "weird," etc. Here's another example. "Mr. Bilgewater lived in a wonderful old place." What does that mean? A Victorian mansion with gingerbread trim? A spacious penthouse in a high class apartment building? A kitschy efficiency above a foreign film movie theater? The language is too abstract for us to be able to tell.
Lack of clarity can strike in other ways as well. It afflicts us in terms of character when the writer tells us one thing about the character and then shows the character doing the opposite — or when the writer doesn't do anything with the character at all, except have him hang around the scene like a potted plant.
Lack of clarity comes from images that don't work. Such as: "My stepfather says I think too much, but he is dense with the overhanging roots of my mother in his mind, choking the sense he was born with." Huh?
It can come from metaphors that don't make sense.
It can come in terms of the narrative, when the writer doesn't really have a sense of what is happening, and so fuddles the situation with overwriting, or includes many actions that don't make sense, or focuses on one action that fades away without accomplishing much.
So given all these problems, why do we fall into the trap of lack of clarity? Not because the writer can't write, but because the writer is not thinking clearly. Murky writing means murky thought — not lack of talent. This makes lack of clarity very hard for the apprentice writer to see, because it is quite difficult to recognize that you are thinking in a fog if you are, in fact, thinking in a fog. For this same reason, lack of clarity is the bane of any teacher's existence, because it is very hard to convince a writer that she is suffering from lack of clarity. She's sure it all there on the page, and if the reader doesn't see it, well then, the reader's a complete buffoon.
Get around lack of clarity by, first, assuming it is there, and then by getting concrete. Focus on showing, showing, showing — always taking the more physical route over the more abstract one. Second, step away from the story for awhile — a week, a month — and then return to it, reading aloud. You'll probably find that, regardless of the amount of time you put in, the story doesn't really say what you thought it did, and that you can write the same sentence, character, or narrative development more sharply.
Even experienced writers suffer now and then from lack of clarity. Don't let your ego get in the way of this issue. Push yourself — no matter how experienced you are. Make every word count, and never let the reader's mind drift.
8. Forgetting that a story moves through time.
Stories are about change — even if they are changes that don't work out. Things need to happen, both over the course of the story, and within each scene. You should never end where you start, because then it's not a story, it's a situation, and situations tend to feel stagnant. As some graffiti I once saw in college said, "Eschew the status quo."
Apprentice writers are sometimes afraid of letting things change, and so when they are in a scene, they have the scene say the same thing over and over. For instance, let's say a man is leaving his wife. In the scene in which he tells her this, an apprentice writer might have him say, "I'm leaving you, Jane," and then have her cry, and then have him say, "Jane, I have to go," and have her cry, and then have him say, "I am walking out that door now, Jane," and have her cry — and that's it. The same thing will happen throughout a scene — or in one scene after another — over and over, without any development or change. We do this when we fear our reader won't get it if we just say something once or twice. So we get a character with acne who picks at his zits — every time we see him. Or we get a story where a boy is abused by his mother, abused by his brother, abused by his teacher, and in the end hasn't realized anything, much less acted on it.
I call this lateral movement, as opposed to movement that builds. Stories certainly can move laterally, but they are likely to lack tension and therefore probably will not hold our attention. We want to feel that our journey is going to be more like a train ride than a treadmill, that the destination will differ from the point of origin, or, if it doesn't, that at least the scenery will have been varied along the way.
But how do you escape from the lateral tape loop? Use the specific details we discussed above -and character — and let them take over the scene. Let's return to the scene above of the husband leaving his wife. Instead of him saying over and over that he's leaving her and have her react with the stock reaction of tears, how about having him say it the first time and then have her respond in some surprising way — something in keeping with her character (which you'll know better from having worked your details). Maybe instead of weeping she whips out a serrated knife from a drawer and stabs the stuffed lion she's been sewing for their grandson's birthday. Or maybe she pulls out a bottle of sparkling cider and says, "A toast to mutual liberation then, shall we?" In turn, you can have the husband respond in some surprising way — again, in keeping with his character. If you do this, the scene will move and grow, and you will escape the curse of lateral movement.
(For more on this, see the chapter on Scene.)
9. Allowing for poor transitions.
Transition is how you get the reader from this sentence to the next, from this scene to the next. Transitions can be as simple as the words, "Then," or "Later," or "Ten years after that..." They can be space breaks. They can be a million things — but you need them. This is because, as I just mentioned, stories are about change. That means they need to move through time and sometimes space, and if the writer doesn't have ways to transport the reader from five o'clock to midnight, or from the conference room at the office to the bedroom in the hotel, the reader will be terribly lost. You can't, for instance, have a character showering for some party and then, without including some transition, have her in her car driving to the party in the next sentence — because we'll think she's still naked. You need to add some kind of transition, such as "The shower water massaged her shoulders, finally relaxing her after so many days of tension. That was all it took. After she dressed, the old energy returned; she hopped in her convertible and peeled over to Randy's gala, singing along to the radio." Or "The shower water massaged her shoulders, finally relaxing her after so many days of tension. Later, in the car on the way to Randy's gala, she thought about how she had to stop saying yes to her boss all the time."
Transitions are vital. They are the way you string sentences into scenes and scenes into story. They are the link between your beginning, your middle, and your end.
(For more on this, see the chapter on Transitions.)
10. Lacking sufficient compression.
This is a variation on the problem of transition. Let's say you realize you need transitions to link scenes together, but also believe in Show, Don't Tell. As a result, you end up with all your transitions as full-blown scenes. In the above example of the woman showering and then driving to the party, a writer suffering from lack of compression would write out every detail. "She shut off the water and toweled herself down. The mirror was cloudy so she flipped through a magazine until the glass cleared so she could apply make-up. Brushing on her mascara, she contemplated what to wear." And so on. At this rate, it will take a whole page to get her from the shower to her car.
Get around lack of compression by looking closely at your text and asking yourself why each sentence, paragraph, and section is there. If the only reason it's there is to give you a transition, then cut it and in its place use some clever transition instead. The rule of thumb is that every scene should do at least double duty — not only move the story along (i.e., serve as a transition), but also deepen our understanding of character or theme, and/or move the narrative forward. So in the above, we could keep the part about what our heroine does between the shower and the car — but only if it gives us new insight into her, the story overall, and/or complicates the plot.
This sounds easier said than done, but is actually not that difficult. The reason it seems overwhelming to some apprentice writers is that they aren't letting themselves see that transition can take a myriad of forms. They think they've hit on the one and only way of getting their character from the shower to the party, and freeze mentally at the thought of finding a more efficient way to get her there. In fact, I've found that the greatest resistance to revising usually concerns these kinds of scenes — scenes that exist only for transitional purposes, and accomplish nothing else. The writer realizes that such scenes are merely filler, but somehow can't think of another way to move the character through time and space.
Here's where compression comes in. Take that scene and see if you can accordion it down to a dependent clause ("After she got home...," "Not until Mary pulled in did he turn off the computer"), or a succinct sentence ("In that way, the night passed quickly." "But upstairs in his mother's room, a whole different scene was unfolding."), or even a single word ("Then," "Later," "Finally"). Your creativity is as necessary in revision as it is in the first draft, and one of the places where it can shine most is in your ability to compress. Don't fear compression. It will remove the sluggishness in your work, thereby improving your pacing. It will also allow you to treat time more elastically, and that will make you more powerful as a writer.
(For more on this, see the chapters on Compression and Scene.)
11. Opening in a way that is boring.
The two most common boring openings are a character waking up in bed, and a character traveling to the location where the rest of the story takes place. The solution to this is to remember that you have no room for a slow start, whether you are writing a short story or a novel. Try to open with something that moves us right into the story. That can be a scene — "While sprinting across the alley to get to his therapist's office on time, James tripped over a drain pipe that was actually, he realized as he cartwheeled across the asphalt, the blanketed remains of an emaciated body." Or use dialogue: "'More lather, Miss?' Tanika asked, straining to thread sweetness into her voice as she shampooed yet another swampland of over-permed rich lady hair." Or have a first person narrator speak directly to us, perhaps giving an overview of the situation. This is how I began one story: "And now, he wants us to share our dreams. Not just talk about them in the morning over coffee, like we usually do. He means we should dream them together, at the same time. Try doing it this very afternoon." However you open, don't bore us. A character waking up is inherently dull. How much more interesting if you start with the character doing something. And if you must begin in the morning, skip the bed. Instead, try having him getting dressed in a way that shows if he's vain, or calling his dog guide to his bedside in a way that shows that he's irascible.
(For more on this, see the chapter on Beginnings, Middles, and Ends.)
12. Allowing exposition to be awkward or clunky.
Exposition is all that background material we need to know to get the story going. In Romeo and Juliet, we need to know these are young people from two families at war with each other. In Fiddler On The Roof, we need to know that our narrator lives in a small, Jewish village in Russia with his wife and five unmarried daughters, and that tradition is the basis of his life. An apprentice writer will sometimes not know how to deliver this information, and so might begin the piece with several unnecessary pages of scenes or even straight information that move us into the piece very slowly. (This almost always accounts for boring openings.) An experienced writer knows that there are many ways to deliver this background information, and that the more deftly she does so, the more quickly she can get on with the business of telling the story.
Get around this problem by studying the way experienced writers deliver their background material. Focus on contemporary writers who've published in the last fifteen years. (Books in the past made allowances for entire first chapters devoted to exposition — maybe two servants dusting the drawing room while talking about their crabby master and the orphaned nephew who will soon be coming to live there. This doesn't cut it anymore.) You can present your exposition directly. Such as: "Her name is Rosemary, and she is toll-collector on the night shift on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. She liked this job when she began last year, but that was before her husband walked out and her son got a case of meningitis that left him hearing impaired. Now she's twenty-three, single, and trying to learn sign language. She practices between trucks. She has mastered, 'Do you want more milk?' and 'Time for bed.' Her new boyfriend tells her she should learn to sign, 'You short-changed me, you bastard,' but she tells him that's too much trouble; Rosemary knows a universal gesture that always suits her just fine."
You can also develop a skill with indirect exposition. This means that you thread the information into the description. Let's say you want to communicate that you're in the city without saying so. You put in city-like details, such as sidewalks that smell like urinals, or ambulance sirens harmonizing with the Chinese, Spanish, English, and Italian that rise up from the streets. Let's say you want to communicate that your narrator is a giant. Maybe she can be in a crowded movie lobby and be able to see over everyone's head, can even reach up and twirl the biggest crystal on the theater's wedding cake chandelier. Indirect exposition is a great tool, and one which most experienced writers use extensively.
Whatever you do, direct or indirect, just make sure it runs smoothly and quickly.
(For more on this, see the chapter on Exposition.)
13. Taking too long at the opening to orient the reader.
Apprentice writers sometimes start a story thinking they have all the time in the world. So they amble on into the first page, making observations, offering philosophical thoughts, ruminating — anything but give us the exposition and let us know who we're with, where we are, and where we're going.
Here's the beginning of one story that takes too long to orient us:
Fireplaces are gorgeous. The flames lick the air and the burnt logs tickle the nose. Sitting in the living room on the deep leather sofa with its green and yellow afghan on my legs, I drifted off into thought. I had been stoking the fire, nudging the kindling, flipping through magazines — anything to keep myself occupied. Then I would sit back and look around the room. It was afternoon outside, the blank dull afternoons of late fall. None of the kitchen appliances were humming, no radio was playing, but it didn't matter. It was the kind of day where the sky has been gray and stays that way, but every once in awhile brightens with a single ray of sunlight that comes out before backing away behind clouds.
Here we have a whole opening paragraph that isn't giving us any real useful information. We don't get character details (age? gender? emotional state? agenda? etc.), nor narrative, nor even theme. As it turns out in this particular story, the fireplace, the living room, the weather, the kitchen appliances, the radio, and the afghan are not relevant. So why begin there? It wastes the opportunity — and runs the very real risk of losing the reader. If you can't orient the reader quickly, he is likely to flip to another story that does. This is not to say that readers don't like to think — it's just that they don't want to be left in a fog for long, groping for clarity, waiting to see where they are and who they are with and why they are there. Readers are certainly willing to assemble your details together for them to know who, what, and where; but it's your job to give them the details to assemble, and to give them right at the start.
Use your beginnings to get going. Take every opportunity to inform us as to who we're with — make every word count. We shouldn't have to wait until the second page — or even, in most cases, the second paragraph — to have a basic sense of who we're dealing with and where we are. Expedite your exposition.
To learn how to do this, look at the openings of strong, published short stories. Almost all will orient you right up front. See how the writers did this. Then learn to incorporate their tricks. Remember — as the writer, you are the hostess to the story. That means that you lead readers through the chaos of this new world, giving them enough guidance (and, indeed, respect) so that they can see the order in this world, and understand where they are.
(For more on this, see the chapter on Beginnings, Middles, and Ends.)
14. Rushing to get to the end of the story — leading to missing sections and/or vague middles.
The writer is so impatient to finish the story, she omits important elements. Most commonly, this leads to the missing section, usually the middle. For instance, our writer might have a carefully written opening scene in which Goldilocks comes upon the bears' house. We'll get detail on her as she enters the house, detail on the house as she discovers the bowls of porridge on the table. She'll sit down at the table, scoop up a spoonful of porridge — and suddenly we'll get rapid summary, all telling and no showing. We won't return to scene until the bears discover Goldilocks in bed — effectively the end of the story. The writer has zipped through the body of the story, skipping much opportunity for scene and character development.
This tends to happen when writers think they know their openings and think they know their endings, and have no ideas on how to bridge the space between the two. The solution to this is to relax, be patient, and consider the possibility that you don't know the ending so that you must write your way through the middle, discovering twists in the plot and turns of character, until an ending presents itself to you. Let's say we begin with Goldilocks entering the bears' house, but decide to let ourselves be open, to write along and see what happens. We write along, and as we do Goldilocks emerges as an illegal immigrant, and the three bears' emerge as three drunken military cadets on vacation. Obviously these details will lead to a new ending. Don't rush. Write through everything. You can always cut back later.
(For more on this, see the chapter on Beginnings, Middles, and Ends.)
15. Ending with something that has little to do with the rest of the story.
Again, this happens when we have pre-conceived ideas and aren't paying attention to the specific needs of the story — or when we just have absolutely no idea about how to end the story because we haven't been fully engaged in the middle. A friend of mine refers to the unrelated ending as, "And then, they got hit by a truck." Occasionally apprentice writers defend this ending by informing their less enlightened reader-friends that such an ending, particularly when it involves violence for which the story has not prepared us, is about the randomness of the universe. But if that's truly your goal, then work that concept through the entire piece, on both a narrative and thematic level, so that the ending, random though it might appear on the surface, actually can be seen to fit. Otherwise, that's a lame excuse for not really doing your work. Besides, the randomness-of-the-universe idea is so over-used by apprentice writers who can't figure out their endings that it's become a cliché — not for cosmic capriciousness, but for apprentice writers who can't figure out their endings.
A variation on this problem is the "And then I woke up" ending, which is also a cliché, and for just the same reason.
Get around the unrelated ending problem by following the developments in the rest of the story, and then doing justice to them. That may mean you get a different ending than your original idea. That's fine. Save your original idea and use it elsewhere.
(For more on this, see chapter on Beginnings, Middles, and Ends.)
16. Writing a solo act.
Afraid to develop either relationships or something happening in the present, or overly attached to the exposition that precedes the real-time events of the story, the writer keeps most of or even the entire story in the head of the protagonist. The character is in bed, contemplating how his uncle lost the family fortune. The character is grocery shopping, contemplating his lost marriage. The character is drifting from scene to scene, observing and not interacting. If there is external action, it is usually minimal, and is used almost exclusively to trigger more thinking, usually about the past.
You can get away with this if these thoughts are extremely lively and interesting in and of themselves, and impeccably well-written, like in Nick Baker's The Mezzanine, a novel which takes place over a single lunch break. The entire book is in the head of Howie, a mundane (and obsessive) office worker. But Baker was a very skillful writer by the time he took on this solo act, and he offset the inherent dullness of his approach by a) using a lot of humor and, more importantly, b) having Howie dwell not on his own past, but on the detailed workings of small objects like staplers, and on the complexities of social rules, such as bathroom etiquette in a corporate environment. Thus, the book is more a series of amusing essays than a long, droning solo act.
Rick Moody is also quite skilled at writing solo acts that have movement and excitement. His novel The Ice Storm, for instance, begins with a married man who is in his neighbor's house, waiting to have sex with the married woman of the house. She has just left to get her birth control, and, as he waits, and waits, he uses a solo act to think, in a most lively voice, of how he got to be in this affair. The voice keeps us alert — and then, when the woman doesn't return, the character leaves the room and hunts through the house for her, thus giving him a chance to dwell not on himself as much as on the people living there, and on his very funny opinions about them and their world.
Often, however, apprentice writers engaging in the solo act focus inward only, having their characters dwelling on a failed romance, a deceased parent, or some kind of other loss, almost always in the past. Nothing happens over the course of the story, either outside the character or inside. The reader wonders why the story doesn't just take place in the past, when the important events are happening. Or whether there's any reason why it's happening now. The reader also risks being bored.
Eliminate this problem by making sure that the story is about change, and, furthermore, that the change can, and generally should, come from some unpredictable external action which triggers some unexpected internal development, which in turn plays out with some reaction. An excellent story that accomplishes this is "The Falls," by George Saunders (from his collection Pastoralia). His hero, Morse, is walking home through a park near the school where he works, deeply engrossed in self-flagellation for being a loser in life, and fearful of everything. The piece seems about to tip into being a solo act when Morse notices that there are two girls on a canoe out on the river — and then, little by little, he interrupts his negative reverie enough to observe that the girls are speeding oarless toward the falls, that there's no adult in sight except for himself, and that he either has to rise to the occasion and help them — a true risk, since we know he can't swim — or choose to be even more of a loser for the rest of his life. The solo act has now transformed into an intense drama, in which an external action is triggering some unexpected internal development — which is revealed through Morse's action in the final line of the story.
Remember that stories unfold in the physical world, not just in the head of the character. Give us something external, so that the internal becomes more interesting, and so that the character can actually do something in the world to show who he is.
If, regardless of all this, you still feel you must have a solo act for a scene, try to limit yourself to no more than one solo act scene per piece — and make sure the voice you use for the solo act is compelling and very well-crafted. However, you might well find that, with some creative rethinking, you can turn that solo act into something considerably more involved and interactive.
17. Keeping a story in habitual action.
Habitual action is when we read a scene that is not a single, specific moment in time, but a generalized moment, one which happens routinely. "In the summers, we would drive to Martha's Vineyard, reading poetry to each other in the car. The ferry to the island was always surrounded by gulls, and we would stand in the back, watching the wake splash behind us, inhaling the salt water, asking each other if we should stay in the rented cottage our first night, or walk to the pizzeria on the corner."
Habitual action announces itself by way of several key words. "We always..." "Every summer we..." "Often we..." We used to..." But the best clue is the repeated use of the auxiliary verb "would." "Every Saturday, I would climb down the trellis outside Lucy's window to sneak out of the dormitory."
There is nothing wrong with habitual action per se. When used properly, it can introduce us to a scene by presenting the normal, routine state of affairs — and then by using a transition to bring us to this one specific time, which must be an exception. "Every Saturday, I would climb down the trellis outside Lucy's window to sneak out of the dormitory. I did this without fail for two years. Then came that fateful Saturday. Upon releasing the trellis and turning around, I found myself standing eye to eye with Mother Ernestine. 'What do you think you're doing?' she scowled at me. Quickly, I shut my eyes and put my arms out straight in front of me, palms down, and then, with one big snore, proceeded to stumble forward like a sleepwalker."
In that example, habitual action guided us to a specific moment. This is the value of habitual action.
Apprentice writers, however, sometimes place their entire story in habitual action, never shifting to that specific moment when things get worse — or get better. This is because they forget that stories need to be about a turn of events, or a shift in one's fortune, or the growth of a new understanding, or the erosion of old expectations. To return to a point we've already made several times, stories need to be about a change. And we can't have change when we are continuing to do what we have already been doing — unless something alters the routine.
Ask yourself a variation on the Seder question: How is this day different from all other days? In other words, why these people, why this time, why this story? Make sure you lead up to a moment (or series of moments) which is different from all other moments. Otherwise it's not a story; it is only a situation.
(For more on this, see the chapter on Showing and Telling.)
18. Withholding essential information until exactly the moment when it becomes narratively necessary.
A character is walking down the street. From the shadows of a building comes a mugger, who goes to jump her. Our character, however, is well-prepared with a pair of boxing gloves, which she just so happens to have in her knapsack. She punches the mugger out, and goes on with the story.
The experienced writer who is dealing with this scene makes sure that earlier on in the story, perhaps when the character is leaving the house, she remembers to slip her boxing gloves in her knapsack. (Preferably she ought to do so for reasons that appear sound to the reader at the moment, even if they'll really be used for the mugger. Maybe she's just returning them to her grandfather, since they are his from childhood and she'd borrowed them to show a friend.) The experienced writer will set up the essential information in advance. The apprentice writer, however, might simply insert the information at the moment. "Jane feels the mugger's breath on her face. 'Give me your money,' he rasps. Slowly, Jane reaches into her knapsack. Her hand closes over her wallet, but then she remembers the boxing gloves. She always keeps a pair of boxing gloves in her knapsack, the same way her fellow classmates carry cellular phones and band-aids. She slips her hands into the gloves and boom! Out like a light."
The Cinderella story works only because we know — in advance — that she must be home by midnight, and that her stepsisters are selfish boobs. The midnight curfew leads her to lose her glass slipper, and the selfish boob sisters make it more difficult for the prince to get to our heroine. But if we didn't know about the curfew in advance, the suspense of Cinderella's quick departure from the ball would not make any sense.
Readers want to feel the story is well-constructed. Planning your details in advance is one of the best ways you can achieve this goal — or, at least, making it look as if you planned. You can always plant those early details during revision. No one will ever know you didn't dream them up in your first draft.
19. Withholding information already known by the narrator.
Sometimes, apprentice writers think that if they hold off on revealing basic information already known by the narrator and delivering it at the end of the story — in fact, use the revealing as the story's climax — they will add a sense of suspense, compelling us to read forward simply so we can figure out what's going on.
However, this seldom works. Let's say the narrator knows she is on her way to put her mother in a nursing home. The apprentice writer might have us in the narrator's head throughout the story — yet does not have the narrator reveal, until the last page of the story, the purpose behind all her actions. So she'll be taking the subway somewhere, but we don't know why. She'll be closing a deal with a real estate agent, but we won't know why. She'll be stocking up on bladder control diapers, but we won't know why. The simple fact of what the narrator is doing is supposed to form the climax of the piece. But it's not climactic, since the narrator know it all along.
Readers will notice this, and the result is likely not to be suspense, but irritation. This is because the reader will understand that the story could have been built with the information already in place — and with more happening than our merely groping to figure out what's going on.
The withholding of exposition is not suspenseful. The revealing of information already known to the narrator is not a climax. Suspense comes from our wondering whether or not something is going to happen, not from our not knowing what is happening. Climaxes come from a change in the external situation or in the character's head, not from the revelation of what the character knew all along (which is, of course, not a change).
I can think of two ways you can get such withholding to be credible. One is to have the withheld information concern something of such extreme significance that the character simply can't face it, and have the character, instead of merely thinking throughout the story, engaged in something externally which distracts us — and the character — from the real concern.
The other approach is to reveal the withheld information not at the end of the story in an attempt to form your climax, but in the middle or even near the beginning, thus using the now-revealed information to deepen our understanding of the situation. Then, you can have real suspense, because we will then wonder if the woman is, in fact, going to go through with putting her mother in the nursing home, or if she's going to have a change of heart. I know a wonderful story which begins with the narrator meeting up with a crew of interesting friends who are going to help him move out of his apartment. The first half of the story is all caught up in the details of the moving — with occasional references made to the fact that the apartment has been renovated to accommodate a wheelchair, and that the man's girlfriend is waiting out the move in the bedroom. Halfway through the story, the narrator reveals that which he has allowed himself to deny: that he is leaving his girlfriend because she has multiple sclerosis. The rest of the story deals with the emotional implications of this move.
Here, the withholding works because the distractions (packing up the moving van with interesting friends) are absorbing in and of themselves, and involve other characters, so we aren't just sitting in the guy's head, and we aren't just doodling around with wait-them-out time-wasters like having the character sitting in a subway car thinking, or driving to an unnamed place thinking, or buying diapers, thinking. Also, the withholding works because we receive few hints of the denial before we reach the revelation, and because we find out the revelation halfway through the story, instead of at the end.
Remember that we need to know what the narrator knows, and if she can't face it, then we have to be so caught up in other concerns — so caught up in the external world rather than the internal — that we don't notice the withholding.
20. Avoiding emotion.
Sometimes, apprentice writers try to tell very emotional stories — a mother mourning the death of her child, a man contemplating suicide — but don't make us feel. So we watch the mother mourning without feeling genuinely moved ourselves, or we observe the man contemplating suicide, but feel no tension, no anguish. We're supposed to be on the verge of tears, and instead we feel like an almost impartial witness.
Why does this happen? After all, aren't traumatic events in and of themselves enough of a reason for the reader to feel?
Unfortunately, no. Trauma that is written in a detached, vague, unspecific, or otherwise unskilled way is not going to make us feel much at all. In fact, we are more likely to be moved by a small, non-traumatic action that is well written than we are by all the poorly written floods and funerals and serial murders in the world. One of the most moving stories I know is Anita Desai's "Games At Twilight," which is about a little boy who hides in a shed a bit too long during a game of hide and seek, and when he emerges realizes that no one missed him. This is not as dramatic as a tidal wave, but Desai wrote with such skill that the climax — where the boy not only realizes that he was not missed, but that he is, indeed, wholly insignificant in the universe — is gripping and profound. Even it's only a small action.
How did she move the reader with that, yet some apprentice writers can't move readers with tales of abortions and beatings?
There's no easy solution to this, but there are a few things which will help. The first is to have full, rich characters. We're more likely to empathize with a character we know intimately than one we know as an acquaintance. (Think about how little most news accounts of a crime affect you when it's just "Person A was shot by Suspect B." But if you know Person A yourself, or if the story goes into detail about Person A's life, then the account becomes a story, and you're much more likely to be emotionally involved.) The second is to care about your characters yourself. You must feel for them, and, because you do, be willing to go deeper into their minds than proper decorum (in real life) might allow. And the third is to find out where the characters intersect with your life. I don't mean that the characters must be exactly like you. I mean you need to discover what about these characters matters — deeply — in your own life. Anita Desai probably put herself in that little boy's head, and then realized that what mattered to him, and what mattered to her, was feeling important, and feeling there was a reason for living.
Use the process of writing. Write into the text, write deeply, write with specificity, write for change — write until you discover, through the writing itself, where the feelings of your characters overlap with your feelings. Not their situations. Not their personalities. But their feelings.
In short, don't worry about "Write what you know." Instead, "Write what matters to you."
21. Avoiding clarity on a first person narrator's gender.
When a story is told in third person, the genders of all the characters are clear. In a first person story, though, the gender of the narrator is not clear until the writer takes the necessary steps by giving the character a name, using "Mr." or "Ms.," including such revealing words as "widow," "groom," "mermaid," "patient with prostate cancer," etc.
Sometimes apprentice writers deliberately omit any reference to a character's gender. (Often these stories then have a lot to do with romances that don't work out.) The hope behind this approach seems to be (and, having fallen into this trap myself, I think I can speculate) that the story can be taken two completely different ways — that the reader gets two stories for the price of one.
The problem is that such a fundamental omission prevents the reader from fully entering the story. With every word, the reader thinks, Is the cute man sitting in the cafe not interested in the narrator because he just doesn't go for chubby girls who dabble in astrology? Or is he not interested because he's straight and the chubby, astrologically-minded narrator is a man? Or maybe the cute guy is gay as well, and just doesn't like the narrator? Which means that you put a lot of extra questions in the reader's head, which will lead to her being so preoccupied with answering them (and so unable to) that she'll have a lot of trouble just being inside your story. Although the idea may be to open up the story, the result for the reader is often to close down the story. This can be averted, but it takes enormous skill, earned only after many years of apprenticeship.
I have seen this so many times in the work of apprentice writers, and seen it succeed so rarely, that I once asked another writing teacher if he ever saw it. "Oh yes," he said, rolling his eyes. "All the time." When I asked what he told students who did this, he said, "I tell them it's like sitting down in a movie theater, all eager to watch the show. And then finding, once the film has started to roll, that someone keeps turning the light switches on and off in the theater, breaking you out of one reality, then the other, over and over, until you feel so unable to settle in that you simply get up and leave."
There are hundreds of other ways to examine gender issues. Try to search for other approaches besides gender evasiveness, which tends to create far more problems than it solves.
22. Segregating the functions of a story.
Exposition, character description, dialogue — there are many elements that a good story needs. Overwhelmed by the number of balls that they need to keep in the air, apprentice writers sometimes create stories in which only one element is addressed at a time. So this page will be devoted to exposition, the next page to character description, the next to dialogue — instead of all elements being blended together.
There is no need to separate your storytelling elements. In fact, there is a need to avoid that, because otherwise your seams will show. It's as if your family, hearing that you've made ice cream for dessert, lunges for the freezer, only to find the sugar cane, the cream, the vanilla, and the fruit all sitting in separate containers.
The way to avoid this is to remember that all parts of a story should do double-duty. Nothing should exist just for exposition, or dialogue. Everything should work toward what it's trying to do — as well as character, narrative, and/or theme. This may mean combining some sentences or scenes, or cutting others. You'll get the hang of this, once you start concentrating on it. And don't worry if you don't right away; that's what revision is for.
23. Overlooking either the macro or the micro.
Stories need to work on both the macroscopic level — the larger elements that affect the overall story — and the microscopic. Up until now, we've focused on the macro, looking at such things as character; change; compression; and beginnings middles and ends. These are all quite important, and need to work throughout a piece.
When you have worked a lot of that out, though, you need to turn your attention to the microscopic level. That means the more minute concerns, such as the semantics and syntax. The rest of this chapter reviews most of the mistakes apprentice writers make with the more microscopic elements.
24. Relying on adverbs.
Adverbs, those -ly words that modify verbs ("cunningly," "hurriedly," "super-cala-fragalistic-expealidoshously") are severely frowned upon by editors. I had a teacher who called them the monosodium glutamate of writing. The idea is that adverbs are a shortcut that gives no information or atmosphere. For instance, it is not nearly as informative to say, "She got up quickly from her chair," as it is to say, "She bolted from her chair." Or instead of, "He tried desperately to call his boss," to say something like, "At the phone booth, he stuffed his stolen fifties into the hands of everyone waiting before him until he was next in line, then pounded on the glass at the two teenage girls hoarding the receiver, and finally snatched the arm of a passing security guard, screaming, 'My wife's going to have a baby! I have to call home!' hoping that no one would remember the well-publicized mug shot and recognize the scar on his face."
When ridding yourself of adverbs, please try to avoid the most commonly used adverb, "suddenly" (and its synonyms, such as "immediately" and "instantly"). It is an easy out, and so overused that it seldom has the impact that writers would like. The concept can be communicated in more effective ways, such as drawing out the moment until, perhaps, a flash of sound or light sets into motion the post-"suddenly" action.
25. Ignoring the importance of verbs.
One of the main ways I got rid of the adverbs above was to use great verbs instead. Bolted from her chair, stuffed his stolen fifties, pounded on the glass. Take a tip from the Army posters to make every verb all that it can be. One of the main ways to do this is to force yourself to avoid any form of the verb "to be" unless it's an auxiliary verb. So you don't say, "The sky is blue." Instead, make more of the sentence — such as, "We sprawled across the lawn beneath a sky as blue as morning glories." For the same reason, try to avoid forms of "to have," and sentences that begin with "There is," or "There are." For instance, how much better, instead of "There were twenty people at the wedding," to say, "With a mere twenty guests scattered among the pews, our wedding vows echoed throughout the cathedral."
26. Using inappropriate verbs when attributing dialogue.
Years ago, you could have a line of dialogue, then say, "she exclaimed," "they blubbered," or "he ejaculated." It is now far preferable to stick with "said," "asked," and "replied." Again, this is because it forces you to show that she exclaimed or they blubbered without telling us that. (For more on this, see the chapter on Dialogue.)
27. Tipping your hand at the beginning of sections.
John broke off the elopement. Mary threw open her window and saw him standing in the backyard without a bouquet or a suit, wearing only his usual carpenter overalls and a slouch. "Here," she whispered over the muffled laughter of her father and his friends playing pinochle downstairs, "catch." Out the window she hurled a carpet bag of new dresses. John kept his hands at his sides; the bag thudded to the lawn. "Are you okay?" she asked, leaning out the window. "No," he said. "I just can't do this with you."
Big surprise in the end of that paragraph, right? Of course not; we started the paragraph already saying how it would end, which removed all the thrill that comes from watching a narrative unfold.
Apprentice writers sometimes tell all their endings bluntly up front. This usually happens because they wrote the conclusion to figure out the paragraph — and then they forgot to delete the line after they'd filled in the steps leading up to it. Don't forget to go back through a story, and trim away everything that tips your hand.
28. Having poor grammar.
Do you know exactly when to use — or not use — commas? Could you give the correct definition of a run-on? A dangling modifier? Indefinite pronoun? No matter who you are, take a day to read a college grammar book. Read it thoroughly. Most editors feel that if you don't pay enough attention to your work to get the grammar and punctuation right, you aren't paying enough attention to get anything right. One day spent with a grammar book will open you up to new ways to use language. No matter who you are you'll be glad afterwards. (For more on this, see Appendix.) And yes, this means you.
29. Unintentionally rhyming words
"He sat down at the bar and strapped on his guitar." A careful writer goes through her story with such care that she weeds out things like this.
30. Repeating words accidentally
"She walked back across the alley and let herself in the back door." "I biked up the lane to pick up the newspaper." "The recording studio was one of those rundown, squalid places, down a narrow street."
31. Lacking variety in sentence structure
Unless it's intentional for purposes of rhythm, don't begin successive sentences the same way. That could be, "He walked into the house. He sat down in the kitchen. He turned to his mother. He saw her worried face. He wondered if she was as bored to death as his author was making his readers." Or it could be, "Trotting on the horse, Mark heard Leo cry. Tugging on the reins, Mark tried to slow down."
It looks obvious, but many apprentice writers do this all the time. They are especially guilty of this when it comes to beginning sentences with "ing" words, the way I did in that second example. This is because they want to vary their sentence structures, but have no clue about the zillion possibilities for doing so — all they can think about is "I did this, then I did that," or "Doing this, I did that." They seem to think there are only two approaches: subject-verb, or verb(ing)-subject. Of course, endless other approaches exist, if only the apprentice writer will page through a grammar book and get some fresh ideas. (For more on this, see #28, and, again, this means you.)
32. Using rhetorical questions to prompt exposition.
He scuttled down the dark street, carrying the body in a sack slung over his shoulder. Who was it in there anyway? Oh yes, he remembered, it was Mr. Sanders, his bowling instructor. And why had he killed Mr. Sanders? Right, it all came back to him now. Because the jerk was making passes at his girl. He deserved it. How had he done old Sanders in? Well, he hadn't really, he thought with a smile as he hoisted the sack higher. Sanders had keeled over from a heart attack, but he had to get the body home, in case anyone possibly suspected him.
The problem with this approach to exposition is that it is obvious: the question is asked so the author or narrator can answer it, which means that whole sentences are wasted setting the reader up for the replies. Usually when apprentice writers resort to this, it is when they are in a solo act for a period of time, and can't figure out other ways to get basic information across. But rhetorical questions, especially when used in clusters (as they often are), are simply not credible. No one thinks, "How did I come to be sitting here reading this page about writing? Oh, yes, now I remember. It's because I want to be a writer."
33. Using cliché.
This goes from the level of the phrase — "breathtakingly beautiful," "free as a bird," "fired off a memo," "bright, sunny day" — to the level of character — the judgmental Southern Christian lady; the sweet, innocent, blonde child; the cigarette-smoking, stiletto-heeled femme fatale — to the level of plot — the conceited executive leaving his long-suffering wife for the bleached blonde bimbo.
Clichés are dull. They are the result of creative laziness. They don't penetrate our thoughts, much less our hearts, because we have seen them so many times that we simply gloss over them. They are a way to ensure that your reader skims instead of submerges, that she's not challenged and neither are you.
34. Spelling commonly mispronounced words as they sound, rather than as they are written.
Gonna, kinda, sorta. Some apprentice writers will have their characters speak with perfectly reasonable words, and then drop in one of these words: "I'll be meeting Jim at the train at seven. I'm sure he'd like it if you came along, joined us for a drink or something. He's kinda sad over his divorce." The writer will think that the misspelling adds verisimilitude — that it's the way speech really sounds. But in fact, when we speak, most of our words are somewhat mangled. For instance, how many of us really say, "meeting," or "something"? We mostly say "meetin," and "somethin." But you don't want to misspell every word the way we really speak it, especially if your character isn't speaking in a way that is unusual. Nor need you misspell the obvious words — which are gonna, kinda, sorta, and their ilk. This is a beginning writer red flag. It's unnecessary, and is distracting.
35. Misspelling common words.
The big errors: "it's" versus "its"; "your" versus "you're"; "who's" and "whose"; "alright" instead of the correct "all right"; "alot" instead of "a lot"; "altogether" instead of the correct "all together."
There is a variation on this, which is confusing homonyms with each other. It's easy to do this, because "past" and "passed" sound alike, as do "allowed" and "aloud." But they are very different words (as are "two" and "to" and "too," and "they're" and "their" and "there"). Every time you use the wrong one, you throw the reader more out of your story. You also risk the possibility that, seeing how sloppy you are, the reader will lose faith in your other storytelling skills before you've had the chance to prove them.
Get your basic words down right. Clear up your possessive confusion (a common and sloppy apprentice writer error), and clarify the difference between same-sounding words. Nothing turns a teacher — or editor — off more than an incompetent handling of the nuts and bolts. It looks as if the writer doesn't take enough pride in her work, which is, in fact, the truth.
Common Traps — Short Version
1. Believing there is a "right" or "correct" way to write
2. Thinking that your first draft has to be perfect
3. Forgetting not to bore the reader
4. Telling much more than showing
5. Avoiding specific detail
6. Explaining excessively and overwriting
7. Lacking clarity
8. Forgetting that a story moves through time
9. Allowing for poor transitions
10. Lacking sufficient compression
11. Opening in a way that is boring
12. Allowing exposition to be awkward or clunky
13. Taking too long at the opening to orient the reader
14. Rushing to get to the end — leading to vague middles
15. Ending with something that has little to do with the rest of the story
16. Writing a solo act
17. Keeping a story in habitual action
18. Withholding essential information until exactly necessary
19. Withholding information already known by the narrator
20. Avoiding emotion
21. Avoiding clarity on a first person narrator's gender
22. Segregating the functions of a story
23. Overlooking either the macro or the micro
24. Relying on adverbs
25. Ignoring the importance of verbs
26. Using inappropriate verbs when attributing dialogue
27. Tipping your hand at the beginning of sections
28. Having poor grammar
29. Unintentionally rhyming words
30. Repeating words accidentally
31. Lacking variety in sentence structure
32. Using rhetorical questions to prompt exposition
33. Using cliché
34. Spelling commonly mispronounced words as they sound
35. Misspelling common wordsPrevious chapter Next chapter Table of contents
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