There are certain mistakes that beginning writers consistently make. In an effort to help the aspiring wordsmith, and elevate the quality of writing in the universe at large, these helpful tips are offered.
Know what you write: Many people write slices of life and vignettes. These works may be well done and capable of sustaining interest, but they aren’t stories. Claiming they are may disappoint readers looking for the real deal. So what’s the difference? I’m glad you asked. Conflict and resolution provide a litmus test. Ask yourself, “what problem have I created for my main character and did it get resolved, one way or another. A story is all about the conflict, whether it’s Johnny against the school bully, Johnny against the snowstorm, or Johnny against his inner demons. Conflict is man versus man, man versus nature, and man versus self. The best stories actually use more than just one of these at a time.
And for you poets out there, there are three types of “poem”. You should know which one you write so you can categories it and post it on-line appropriately, or sell it to the right market. Poems rhymes. Prose doesn’t. Free Verse poetry is their bastard child. It’s poetry that doesn’t rhyme. You can do any of these three you like, but you should know the difference (and PLEASE use a spellchecker before posting. Nothing screams amateur like misspelled words).
Write what you know: The best stories flow from our experience feeding our imagination. The settings I write with authority and authenticity are those I’ve been to, those around me. This makes setting a story in my hometown preferable to writing about life in Siberia. The research is much easier that way. If I’ve never ridden a horse, know nothing of life in the eighteen hundreds, and don’t have a way of breathing life into a wilderness setting, then I should avoid trying to write a western. If I want to write police drama, I need to research police procedures. If I can’t techno-babble and don’t understand basics physics, I should stay away from science fiction. If I don’t know which end of a sword to point, I should avoid fantasy.
Other worlds and realities are easier for the beginning write to use than the “real” world because no one else has been there to contradict the setting. But I have to be consistent in logic: If I have a world with more than one sun, I need to have characters that cast multiple shadows. If I have a world with no moon, I can’t have incoming and outgoing tides. If I melt a polar ice cap, I can’t flood the world because the melted water would simply take up the same space that the ice used to occupy, a point that completely escaped the scriptwriters of the Blade Runner and Water World movies. And if I do a time travel story, I need to remember that the earth moves around the sun and the sun itself is in constant motion within the galaxy. If I move through time, I will appear in outer space and die instantly because the Earth will be somewhere else.
I shouldn’t write a sword and sorcery story and have the hero win with magic that let’s him do whatever is necessary. I need to apply order even to the unnatural. I can’t kill vampires with silver bullets--that’s for werewolves. In fantasy, realism can be brought in if magic has a cost, and only works under specific conditions. By limiting the magic, you create tension. It becomes possible your hero may not save himself. This possibility of failure adds suspense. Suspense is good.
The KISS method (keep it simple, stupid): Another common problem with the novice writer is over killing with purple prose. Here’s an example:
A pale specter in the frigid night, thought mired in a miasma of suffering, Johnny staggered like a dancing bear in the icy cold face of night. The enraged storm howled in blind fury, battering him with fists of wind, lashing him with cold needles of rain. “Suzy!” he screamed hoarsely, clutching the blood-smeared knife handle protruding from his agonized, outraged guts. “Call me an ambulance so I can get to the hospital. I’ve had a small accident.”
Here’s a trimmed version: Notice, it’s smoother and faster to read, and doesn’t slow the reader down, distracting from where the story is going.
A pale specter, Johnny staggered through the cold rain. The storm howled. Fists of wind punished him. “Suzy!” he screamed, clutching the blood knife handle protruding from his gut. “Call…nine-one-one. Hurry…”
Remember, less is more.
Too much polish: Too much formality and accuracy with grammar and sentence structure creates stiffness in exposition and dialog. You should write the way you think. Have people speak as they customarily do. Use contractions. Don’t be afraid of sentence fragments. Keeping all the rules creates mediocre writing. The great masters are those who know rules are springboards into unknown territory. You don’t break a rule just to do so, however. You should know the rule, and know what effect you are creating by breaking it. Such an action should never be an accident.
Example time again:
Suzy found him there, sprawled in the mud, lit by flashes of lightning. “Oh my god! What have you done to yourself, Johnny? Her hand touched the bloody handle. Her first impulse was to pull it out, but she stopped herself. Suzy knew if she were to do that, he might bleed to death before help arrived. Speaking of which, she drew her cell phone from a pocket. She needed to tell them where Johnny was.
Try it this way instead:
She found him sprawled in the mud, lit by lightning flashes. “Omigawd! What have you done, Johnny? Her hand touched the bloody handle. Her first impulse was to pull it out, but she stopped herself. If I pull it out, he’ll bleed to death before help arrives. Damn! What am I supposed to do? Call for help stupid, she told herself. Her hand stabbed into a pocket, seeking her phone.
Notice, internal thought is present tense while exposition is past tense. In this example, the narrator is less visible. I’ve entered more fully into the POV, the point of view of my character. Internal thought creates intimacy but shouldn’t be overused.
Start off running: Assume that you have a book in the bookstore. A potential buyer sees an intriguing title. He or she plucks it off the shelf. Usual behavior at this point is to look at the cover art and read the back jacket to see if the book is interesting. Assuming your reader’s interest is sustained, they will now sample the writing style. Most readers will skim one or two opening paragraphs and decide at that point if they want the book. Here’s where most authors succeed or fail. If there is a lot of scene setting and boring exposition to wade through and no “hook” to grab the reader, they’ll put the book back and try another.
Here’s a false start:
The night was dark away from the streetlight islands. The storm didn’t help much. Cold and wet and wild, it ripped leaves from the branches, splattering the windshield, creating a stained-glass effect destroyed by the wipers. The EMT was glad for a hot cup of coffee. It warmed his hand as he sipped it. While the vehicle plunged toward its destination, his mind retreated into revelry. There was a Lakers game tonight. He had money on it. If he won, there was a boat he wanted to buy, an investment in pleasure. Fishing was his life. His wife would argue about the waste of money. Raised in a large family by penny-pinching parents, she tended to squirrel away every spare dollar against a rainy day. Well, he told himself, it’s raining ain’t it? Maybe if I buy her some flowers. A dozen red roses…
Character development, mood, and scene-setting need to take a back seat to hooking the reader with conflict. The focus is too wide. See how this next example hits like a bullet.
The siren screamed. Ambulance lights flashed urgently. Hell of a night for dying. The EMT sipped hot coffee as he drove. He hoped they’d make it in time. “How’s he doing, Fred?”
“Pulse is thready. Grim Reaper’s breathing down this guys neck.”
See the difference? The other material can still be used, but later in the story, after the reader’s firmly on-board.
Emotional satisfaction: To me, this is the most important element. If I’m not satisfied, I may avoid this writer in the future. At the end of the story, a reader needs to feel that the “bad” guy got what was coming to him. Or, if the story doesn’t have a happy ending, do I care? Will I mourn for the main character? Did the writer succeed in making me like them in the first place? Did bonding occur? Could I see something of my self in the character? I’ll enjoy reading about a self-destructive flawed character if there is some small element that’s at least likeable, if not admirable.
There’s much more stuff to go into, but this is a good start. Just remember, writing is extraordinarily subjective. Be your self, not Steven King or some other famous writer. You can do what you want to. Get as experimental as you want. If what you write is written well, you’ll find an audience, with a little luck and a lot of hard work. Everything is purchased with an investment of time and energy. Write something with your heart in it. If you enjoy reading it, chances are others will like it too.