On Monday, May 16th, 2011, I was part of a panel discussion on writing. I decided to address the topic of “writing problems I have known.” This is a topic that any writer will wax eloquent about. After all, part of the writing process is confronting and overcoming problems. At the risk of trotting out a well-used cliché, the Chinese word for “problem” is said to also be the word for “opportunity.” Every problem is a potential opportunity to improve your writing. Here are my “Top Six”: the most serious writing problems I have encountered. This article is not about solutions; it is about identifying the problems. I will leave it to you to solve these problems in your own way.
Show, Don’t Tell. Professional writers remind new writers that they should describe their characters through their actions. In the film Back to the Future, we get to see main character Marty McFly’s messy bedroom, rather than being told that he is a messy guy.
Research. Stephen King once called a doctor to ask him if a grown man could swallow a cat. He made this phone call in the name of research. If we do not thoroughly research our writing, an observant reader is going to catch our mistakes. Too many mistakes take the reader out of the fictional world you worked so hard to create.
Description. How much description should we write? In Victorian times, very few middle-class readers were able to travel to other countries. This is why there is so much place description in Victorian novels. Nowadays, your reader may already know what Paris, France or London, England looks like. Still, it is important that we describe the people and places that populate our writing. But how much description is too much?
Character versus Plot. Stories and novels can generally be divided into two types: character-driven and plot-driven. It is a good idea to strike a balance between your characters and your plot. Readers may come away from your book with memories of a unique character or a clever plot, but you should include healthy doses of both.
Avoiding Clichés. A few years ago, I was watching the Academy Awards broadcast with a friend from China. After the show, I asked her what she thought of it.
“Americans really like to use the word ‘amazing,’” she said.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
She pointed out that almost every Oscar recipient used the adjective “amazing” in their acceptance speeches. I rewound my DVR to watch the show again, and she was right. Winning actors, directors, and producers all used the word “amazing.” “This is an amazing award.” “This is an amazing night.” “This is an amazing experience.” The word “amazing” has become an overused form of written and verbal communication. In other words, it has become a cliché. Try to purge your own writing of clichés, and you will improve your work.
Dialogue and Dialogue Tags. About twenty years ago, science fiction author Harlan Ellison held a writing contest as part of his radio show, Mike Hodel’s Hour 25. Nobody won. In fact, only one story was deemed publishable by Ellison and the other contest judges. Ellison invited the author to be a guest on Hour 25. Ellison and three other professional writers critiqued the young man’s story on the air.
I remember Ellison’s most humorous criticism. The story involves asteroid miners. An excerpt goes like this: “’Move that drill over here!’ the foreman barked.” Ellison correctly pointed out that it is impossible for a man to bark that sentence. “Why not just use ‘the foreman said?’” Ellison suggested. Be careful not to let your characters bark, purr, cough, wheeze, or choke their dialogue. You want to draw attention to the dialogue, not the dialogue tags. “He said” and “she said” will do nicely.
Writing problems will always be with us, but with every writing problem comes a new opportunity to improve our work. A group such as GLAWS gives us the opportunity to share our writing problems with others. More importantly, the group gives us an opportunity to share solutions.