Log in

Previous Entry | Next Entry

Writing blunders

I believe in paying it forward, so sometimes I take a look at amateur manuscripts. I imagine I'll keep doing it until some ballsack Balzac sues me for having a character named Tom when they also had a character named Tom.

It's amazing how many of the same mistakes you see over and over again. Different authors, same flaws.

Anyway, here's a list of errors I (and some editors I know) see over, and over, and over again, ad desperandum. Plus a few that maybe just bug me. Feel free to add your own in comments...

  1. Head-hopping: I'm a fundamentalist bible-thumper when it comes to picking a point of view for a scene or a chapter and sticking to it. So many people send me stuff that seems to be in one character's point-of-view, then another character will have a brief thought about the first character, then we go right back to the first.

    [Sidebar: Dragon Strike will mark the first time since the Lara Croft media novel that I've written from more than one POV in a novel (I don't count my little VE scene setters or the opening paragraphs of Thunderbolt)]

    That, or it's written in a nebulous 3rd person omniscient that flirts with locking down into a POV but never quite gets there. Boy is that frustrating. Let me feel, hear, smell, and taste what your characters are experiencing, please! Sensory detail is one of the best ways to draw a reader into the world.

  2. Logorrhea: Having something between two and a dozen words pull the weight of one. I can't tell you how often I read stuff like "Thinking back on her past, she remembered her childhood of twenty years ago, when as a six-year-old..."

  3. The Joker: Smiling, and its evil cousin, the grin. I've read entire chapters where characters do nothing but smile and grin at each other, as though they're living in the Treehouse of Horror Simpson's vignette where Bart has mental powers like the kid in the Twilight Zone episode "It's a Good Life" and everyone has to keep on a happy face.

  4. Marcia! Marcia! Marcia! - characters who always have their emotions dialed up to "11." They laugh "uproariously" at stuff that's worth a mild snigger, fight to keep from screaming when they're third in line at the ATM, agonize over whether to have the vinegarette or ranch. Can we save the "I'll never be hungry again!" fist-shaking for something more important that a checkout line, please?

  5. Non-comedy of manners: Commonplaces substituted for dialog. Polite interchanges, greetings, exchanges of compliments, goodbyes (unless it's the villain saying goodbye to James Bond as he's strapped under the laser) -- usually these can be discarded. Now sometimes you can get some characterization out of it, as with Leeland Gaunt's charm and elaborate pleasantries to his customers in King's Needful Things, but if you've already got King's chops you're probably only reading this blog to snicker at me.

    Then there's #5's corollary, meaningless action. Mystery Science Theater is fond of making fun of directors who always show their actors pulling into a driveway, parking their car, getting out of the car, going to the door...same thing appears in flabby writing. Unless there's something interesting going on in the character's head, or there's a zombie apocalypse raging on in the street and the character is too hung-over to notice (stole that from Shaun of the Dead), or we know there's a crazed killer waiting inside the now lightbulb-free house, don't weigh me down with this.

  6. Waking-up scenes: Please limit them to one per novel. And books that begin with someone waking up, well, I no longer just put them down--I hurl them and try for distance.

  7. Go to sleep, sheeple! Long, rambling political digressions are almost guaranteed to anesthetize your audience unless they agree with you jot and tittle. College students and guys who've put their twenty or thirty in in the service seem to love writing these. Your thoughts on Big Oil or the pinkos running the network news are spoiling your tight little thriller, bud. Save it for Daily Kos and talk radio. By the time your novel is published, we might be arguing over President Chelsea.

  8. Pain don't hurt: Flat descriptions about someone's emotional state bring tears from editors, not readers. Now, don't look to me for fixes on this, I'm not the best with emotion, but I do know you can't just say "His accusation made her feel bad." Describe the feeling bad through images or actions. Did her face heat up with shame, or did it cause ice to form in her gut, or did she flee to the bathroom and sob into her scarf?

  9. Weasel words: Adverbs and quantifiers need to to be kept on a three-inch leash. I was always doing this; if I couldn't think of anything else I called an object "large." Freudian much? Watch for "almost" especially. I hate reading about what almost happened. It's better to write positively -- i.e. talk about what did happen. "He almost screamed" doesn't tell me what he did do. Did he choke back a scream, bite it off, or did the scream come out as manic laughter?

  10. Beaming in: I get confused when characters, gear, and important features suddenly appear mid-scene. It's one thing for Sam Spade to reach into his bottom desk drawer and pull out a cached bottle of whiskey, you're showing where the object came from. It's quite another for you to suddenly mention that there was a German bayonet war trophy in plain view atop the filing cabinet in the middle of a fist fight.

  11. So that's why you wrote this: I've read stories where the most precise language and evocative imagery is saved for the all-important pudenda-shaving scene as the heroine gets ready to go to the library. I'm not knocking your kink, I'm just wondering why so much word-weight is put into a personal hygiene choice in a story about tracking down Shoggoths.

  12. Don't open the airlock! Another thing that bugs me is a scene that seems to take place in a vacuum. No sense of time, place, no indication that anyone has a history or is concerned with anything other than what's on the protagonist's mind that very second. Please, establish a time and place, even if it's just "midnight at the oasis," before or as you start the action! And remember, everyone in the story has problems of their own.

  13. Mary Sues: I rarely come across these, but I thought I should add them to the list just in case. I think word has gotten out. We probably have fanfiction sites and editorial blogs to thank for that. But if you don't know what a "Mary Sue" is, you can educate yourself here.

    I'm not against wish-fulfillment in writing, a lot of story magic is fueled by "wouldn't it be cool if..." You just don't want to make it easy for your characters.

  14. Strange days. Stranger names: I get sf/fantasy stories about orc-tribes where there's Bolk, Gurg, and Fred. Which would be funny, I suppose, if it wasn't a straight-faced quest fantasy. A name from our time can carry lots of associations with it, so don't go calling your dark elf capital city San Diego or putting your ranger hero in lederhosen.

    Also, chances are they don't celebrate Christmas on Planet Mongo.

  15. In taberna quando sumus: - it's often because we're too hidebound to think of anywhere else for the action to take place but a bar or inn. Tavern scenes aren't one of my bugbears, but my friend Howard who edits Black Gate says that he sees entirely too many from amateur fantasists. Liven things up by having people meet and talk business at sporting events, religious rites or festivals, public baths, market days, weddings, theatricals, readings of edicts, auctions. . .

  16. Plot on rails: Too often amateur writing sets up what the protagonist has to accomplish at the beginning of the story and sticks to that right to the end. That may work for some shorts, but in a novel you want events to move the goalposts. It allows the character to discover what she or the world really needs, rather than what was thought at the beginning. Remember, Frodo didn't set out from Bag End thinking he'd have to go to Mount Doom, he was just trying to get the ring out of the Shire and meet Gandalf. A story is not a baseball game, objectives and rewards can change with the character and situation. Go watch Run Lola Run if you don't believe me.

  17. It's not an essay: There's no need to elaborate on what an action or a scene means. This is a story, not English homework, and if you're doing something experimental and meta, send it to someone smarter than me. Having the author's analysis intrude like the Voice of God takes all the fun out of me figuring things out for myself.

  18. More is Less: Quality, not quantity. A single arresting image can be more horrifying than a page full of splatter. This also goes for heroics, landscaping, and descriptions of boobs.

  19. Catalog Copy: Don't weigh me down with laundry lists of clothing and so much description I feel like a police sketch artist. Use language that allows me to summon an image from my own experiences. For more on this, consult King's On Writing, book two chapter 6.

  20. The Bare Minimum: Double space in twelve point font. Learn how to use paragraphs on your word processor, don't just tab over until you start a new paragraph (you hear me, Rhona?). Put your name and contact info on the friggin' thing. And stop obsessing over copyright. If you were good enough that people wanted to steal your prose, you'd have sold it by now.



( 136 comments — Leave a comment )
Page 1 of 3
<<[1] [2] [3] >>
Sep. 29th, 2007 03:30 pm (UTC)
LOL....I hear you!

I've said it before and I'll say it again. You make learning fun. I REALLY dig that!

Weasle words....tee hee.

Thanks for this!
Sep. 29th, 2007 03:31 pm (UTC)
ooops I mean weasel.

(no subject) - eeknight - Sep. 29th, 2007 03:34 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - rhonawestbrook - Sep. 30th, 2007 04:30 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - eeknight - Sep. 30th, 2007 05:03 pm (UTC) - Expand
Sep. 29th, 2007 03:57 pm (UTC)
Thanks for the lessons in editing. :) I must confess to being guilty of a couple of these, but luckily not as many as I feared. At least now I have a checklist and can fix up some of my more obvious flaws. ::picks up red pen::
Sep. 29th, 2007 04:47 pm (UTC)
You're welcome!
Sep. 29th, 2007 06:15 pm (UTC)
It was a dark and stormy knight when suddenly without any warning or even a hint of foreshadowing a shot rang out, almost hitting...oh, you get the idea....

Thanks for the list. You should write a book. You know, another one. About writing.
Sep. 30th, 2007 05:06 pm (UTC)
Cute icon!
Sep. 29th, 2007 06:50 pm (UTC)
Just when I thought I had enough corks, another monkey comes flying out.

Thanks for the list -- it is, indeed, very helpful. Often times, I can read what I have written and know that something is wrong. I can't quite put my finger on it, but it "sounds" incorrect. Information, such as this list, is exactly what I need to switch my mind-meter to “aha!” The first step in fixing a problem is to know when something is broke. The next step is to identify the problem. This helps.

Sep. 30th, 2007 05:09 pm (UTC)
Re: <sigh>
You're better off forging ahead with a ms until you're done and then worry about fixes. Finish first, then edit!
Re: <sigh> - pteryxx - Oct. 3rd, 2007 11:40 pm (UTC) - Expand
Sep. 30th, 2007 02:03 am (UTC)
In my teaching days, one of my peeves in student writing was being told that someone "grinned from ear to ear." No, unless you really ARE writing about the Joker.
Sep. 30th, 2007 05:08 pm (UTC)
English teachers hammered cliches out of me too. Unfortunately, they creep back in like cockroaches whenever the lights go out.
Sep. 30th, 2007 06:41 am (UTC)
I almost spit Diet Dr. Pepper all over the screen when I read #6. Until a couple of weeks ago, that's exactly how my story opened up. :-D I wonder what kind of distance you would've gotten with my manuscript.

And I have to strongly disagree with you on #18. There can never be enough description when it comes to boobs.

Another great lesson - thank you!
Sep. 30th, 2007 05:07 pm (UTC)
(no subject) - (Anonymous) - Oct. 3rd, 2007 09:21 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - eeknight - Oct. 3rd, 2007 11:23 am (UTC) - Expand
Just for the sake of argument... - bandobras - Oct. 3rd, 2007 04:01 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: Just for the sake of argument... - eeknight - Oct. 3rd, 2007 04:29 pm (UTC) - Expand
Sep. 30th, 2007 03:45 pm (UTC)
Thank you! That list is quite a resource to a developing writer.
Sep. 30th, 2007 05:07 pm (UTC)
We're all developing writers!
(no subject) - michaeldthomas - Sep. 30th, 2007 05:34 pm (UTC) - Expand
Sep. 30th, 2007 05:02 pm (UTC)
Well, crap. There goes half my novel. :) But at least on some points it confirms my squimishness with some bits I've written. Now I better know why they felt wrong. I probably didn't see them elsewhere. So thank you!

Found you through Rhona. Haven't read anything you've written though, sorry. I dont usually read vampire stuff, though I'll definitely have to look harder now. :) Check things out.
Sep. 30th, 2007 05:07 pm (UTC)
Just one guy's opinion!
(no subject) - mela_lyn - Sep. 30th, 2007 05:18 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - fossilrecords - Oct. 1st, 2007 03:57 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - mela_lyn - Oct. 1st, 2007 12:08 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - pteryxx - Oct. 3rd, 2007 11:37 pm (UTC) - Expand
Sep. 30th, 2007 06:53 pm (UTC)
Great post! Very useful advice. :-)
Sep. 30th, 2007 07:26 pm (UTC)
Glad you liked it!
Oct. 1st, 2007 09:10 pm (UTC)
When I write I try to put as many of these kinds of things in as possible. I figure if you are going to go down you might as well go down in flames. My sole intention is to ravage the English teacher's mind.

Not really... but something like that sure would be memorable wouldn't it?

Nice list though. Did King really write a Book 2 to "On Writing"? If so I must head to the bookstore. The original is worth its weight in enriched uranium.
Oct. 1st, 2007 09:19 pm (UTC)
I was referring to his division of the book into Book 1 (CV) and Book 2 (On Writing) -- each has it's own set of chapters.
(no subject) - fastlearner - Oct. 2nd, 2007 04:16 pm (UTC) - Expand
Oct. 1st, 2007 09:19 pm (UTC)
I just popped over from Rhona's blog and I wanted to thank you for writing this. I found myself smiling as I read this and I even laughed out loud once.

Thanks :) I enjoyed it :)
Oct. 1st, 2007 09:20 pm (UTC)
Glad you enjoyed! Kewl Icon!
(no subject) - rhondaparrish - Oct. 1st, 2007 09:24 pm (UTC) - Expand
Oct. 1st, 2007 11:16 pm (UTC)
That is a great list. I am going to post it over my desk. I think my favorite is #18.
Posting stuff like this really does help beginning writers like me.


Also, your Stitch icon is a hoot.

Oct. 2nd, 2007 12:29 am (UTC)
Thanks! Hope it helps.
Oct. 2nd, 2007 12:06 am (UTC)
Hey man, this is a great list for editing! I think that even the best writers have some of this stuff in the first draft, but this is an excellent checklist to a tighter second draft. Good job.
Oct. 2nd, 2007 12:29 am (UTC)
Glad you found the post useful...
Oct. 2nd, 2007 03:15 am (UTC)
Thanks for posting this.

I'll have to wipe a few smiles off some characters' faces.
Oct. 2nd, 2007 10:58 am (UTC)
Or come up with cleverer way to show that they're happy.
Oct. 2nd, 2007 11:11 am (UTC)
Boing Boing
Cory Doctorow has re-posted this list over at the wonderful website boing boing:

Oct. 2nd, 2007 11:15 am (UTC)
Regarding the Christmas thing, I think that's the biggest plunder I ever read, when they celebrated Christmas in one Dragonlance story...
Oct. 2nd, 2007 11:47 am (UTC)
The problem with lists like this
... is that they tend to have a freezing effect on those of us who aren't exactly running at the mouth with flabby prose, and who suspect that they might have an original story or two bubbling around inside. I don't recall wanting to hurl "Nine Princes in Amber" against the wall because it began with the protagonist waking up.
Oct. 2nd, 2007 12:41 pm (UTC)
Re: The problem with lists like this
Then screw your courage to the sticking point and have enough faith in yourself to ignore the words of someone who writes about extraterrestrial vampires. Ties always go to baserunners and authors.
Oct. 2nd, 2007 11:50 am (UTC)
This this was a good read, but I gotta chime in with a few little bits of my opinion on this, if you don't mind. :) First and foremost though, I will state my distaste for overused writing cliches, and I agree with a lot of what you stated simply because they are cliches. However, I think there's a difference between cliches and something necessary to a story despite that it's been overused; I mean, too many stories use "plots" and have an overabundance of "character development," but it certainly doesn't make it a bad story.

HEAD-HOPPING: I've learned that consistency matters, including a consistent inconsistency. I don't think there's anything wrong with "head-hopping" so long as you stick with it just as well as anything else. Rashoman is one example I can pull off the top of my head of where we're seeing lots of different people's views.

THE JOKER: I'd change it to encompass ANY single expression that is used almost exclusively with little other variety. Case in point, there is a webcomic called "CTRL-ALT-DEL" where every single character looks like they're stoned all the time (droopy eyes, half opened mouth). BORING.

NON-COMEDY OF MANNERS: Nothing should be overused, including the aforementioned greetings/goodbyes. However, I wouldn't NOT use them just because they are what they are. Sometimes I like throwing in the odd "what's up, Doc?" interchange just so a character doesn't just pop up out of nowhere (especially given your "Beaming In" pointer).

Likewise, I like seeing the "parking the car" scenes, as I feel they help pace things out a bit. Who was it that said "Time is nature's way of keeping everything from happening at once."? An over abundance of said scenes would be redundant, but those scenes are what makes, say, a Die Hard movie 2 hours long versus 26 minutes of pure explosions.

WAKING-UP SCENES: You're not gonna tell me Groundhog's Day was a worse movie because Bill Murray kept waking up every five minutes, are you? :)

GO TO SLEEP, SHEEPLE!: I agree, I hate being hit over the head by blunt/blatant political beliefs. "He's a Republican and therefore is evil" is boring and one-dimensional.

BEAMING IN: I think some exceptions can be made if you're in a very obvious location. If a fight breaks out in a meat locker, I don't think it's a stretch to say that one of them clubbed other's head with a leg of lamb, even if it isn't explicitly introduced beforehand.

DON'T OPEN THE AIRLOCK!: That is unless the writer deliberately chooses to make it vague so that the story is a bit more universal. I suspect that some stories can be told and understood without really having to state a time and a date; the lesson "don't spit in a man's face unless his beard is on fire" matters little if the story was about Abraham Lincoln or Brian Posehn.

IT'S NOT AN ESSAY: I'd also like to throw "narration" in with it too, particularly with comics and movies. When you're writing for a visual story, discussing in words what can be shown in pictures is, in my opinion, bad writing.

Other than this, good list. :)
Oct. 2nd, 2007 12:50 pm (UTC)
Rashoman is one example I can pull off the top of my head of where we're seeing lots of different people's views.

When I'm in a workshop or judging a contest, I'm afraid the material I see reads a little more Coleman Francis or Ed Wood than Akira Kurosawa. Masters can get away such things because they're masters.

But thanks for replying in such detail. Good points!

And for the record, one of my favorite movies is Tora! Tora! Tora! which has something like twenty different main characters, from admirals to diplomats to squadron leaders on both sides, yet remains completely intelligible. But not many have the skills to do something like that.
(no subject) - (Anonymous) - Oct. 2nd, 2007 02:05 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - stelfton15 - Oct. 2nd, 2007 08:10 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - eeknight - Oct. 2nd, 2007 08:20 pm (UTC) - Expand
Oct. 2nd, 2007 12:52 pm (UTC)
As a long-time sufferer of Logorrhea, I like to thank you for bringing attention to this awful disease. :)

P.S. I'd add coffee shops to number 15.
Oct. 2nd, 2007 01:11 pm (UTC)
Thank You!
I'm a very big fan of the sci-fi / fantasy genre and have been since I can remember, and I have to say thank you for putting this post out there. I hope every writer reads it, not just the budding amateurs. I was thinking about various authors I liked and disliked and whether they are guilty of any of the above sins. First one that came to my mind was Frank Herbert and Dune (yes, I am a lame fanboy). He used third-person omniscient that flirted with first person POV, but I think he did it right. Everytime the POV shifted, you really got a sense of what the character was experiencing, what was in their head (through judicious use of italics). That and he didn't drown you with boring, unnecessary details. Another good example is comparing Tolkien with Robert Jordan (RIP, I did love his stories, and I own them all, I just get tired of the fluff sometimes). Tolkien always got straight to the point, straight to the action. Jordan could write a hell of a scene, his problem was the filler used in between the good scenes.

I think that comparison could be justification for a #21: The Juggling Act. Where the author finds his/her self lost in the plethora of characters and places they have created. Too many characters, too many places, not enough movement. And thus, you end up with a 15 book series that could have been finished in 3. Of course, I'm not sure when the guilt lies with the editor/publishers and when it lies with the author. It's a business, and sometimes money becomes more important than a good story.

But I digress... Great post!
Oct. 2nd, 2007 01:24 pm (UTC)
Re: Thank You!
Tolkien handled POV very well. In The Hobbit he did bounce between 3rd omni and Bilbo, but then that novel's voice is sized more for children and I think that works in that situation.
Oct. 2nd, 2007 01:16 pm (UTC)
this was interesting, thank you, i agree with most of your points.

this is a little bit of a coincidence, i was thinking about the exact same thing the other day. i'm falling out with the technique of having a protagonsist, a hero, a main character. i'm actually intending to write something in first person that deals with different characters from chapter to chapter, not one of them is going to be any more important than the other, obviously james joyce was the master of a technique that was a little more subtle, but that won't stop me.

the technique that i'm trying to rid myself of mostly is "stock characters", its probably one of the main failings i find in books, each character is always set up to have a certain attitude, he's funny, she's weird, he's quiet, you know. each character should have a relationship with the other characters and develop charateristics they have depending on who they are relating to, and characteristics that the character is not aware of that other people perceive, and charataristics that they have in isolation. this seems plainly obvious to me, though i'm probably over thinking it.

the author's "resposibility" is to have an idea of a character that is not set but ambiguos and able to evolve, so the reader eventually has a relationship with the character that is not dictated to him/her.
Oct. 2nd, 2007 01:28 pm (UTC)
Re: head-hopping
A stock character isn't a problem provided his or her actions aren't also cliches. I don't get tired of reading about John Wayne or Janeane Garofalo style characters, as long as they're not doing and saying what John Wayne or Janeane Garofalo already did in one of their movies.
Re: head-hopping - hownottowrite - Oct. 2nd, 2007 01:39 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: head-hopping - eeknight - Oct. 2nd, 2007 01:51 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: head-hopping - hownottowrite - Oct. 3rd, 2007 12:11 am (UTC) - Expand
Oct. 2nd, 2007 01:52 pm (UTC)
when to use head hopping
I have always been an opponent of head-hopping. But it can work adequately if you hop heads in a separate chapter. (i.e., Chapter 2 is from Sue's point of view, Chapter 3 is from Mary's). It can create a nice contrapuntal effect if done well. Overall, I view head-hopping as a cinematic technique, which arises from multiple points of view in film (even though there is no internal narrative voice in film).

As an erotica writer, I notice other traps. In erotica, there are other traps to fall into. Stories that give somebody's age or hair color or body shape in the first paragraph or two are given are almost uniformly bad.

Hapax Legomenon, 99 erotic notions

Oct. 3rd, 2007 01:03 am (UTC)
Re: when to use head hopping
Erotica definitely poses its unique challenges, and has its own unique bloopers. Like, the word "turgid" is apparently a no-no.

I'd be very interested in hearing what traps you've discovered there.
Oct. 2nd, 2007 01:56 pm (UTC)
21. Being unable to spell those pesky foreign words. "Vinaigrette" might be an example.
Oct. 2nd, 2007 02:04 pm (UTC)
Yes, very true, anonymous.
Oct. 2nd, 2007 02:04 pm (UTC)
meaningless action is meaningless for a reason
the part about meaningless action/noncomedy of manners is a good rule (and it's hard sometimes to edit out later).

The problem with this rule comes when you need to hide something or a detail is later shown to be significant. People throw in that kind of fluff to establish some kind of normalcy (or baseline) in order to subvert it later.

Is it necessary to create some kind of baseline behavior/action from which the narrator can diverge?

A related problem is not knowing when to stop a dialogue. Sometimes, I begin a scene of dialogue too early or don't cut it early enough. Underlying this is an inability to make smooth transitions, and that's why physical gestures or external actions become the transition points.

As a general rule, when rewriting, I look at a chunk of dialogue, remove a single line from both ends (start and finish), and say, could I get away with removing that? Finally, there will come a point where removing another line will start to hurt.

hapax legomenon
99 erotic notions
Oct. 2nd, 2007 03:10 pm (UTC)
Great Post
Forwarded to my screenwriting group. Thanks!
Oct. 2nd, 2007 03:51 pm (UTC)
Re: Great Post
Awesome. Thank you!
Page 1 of 3
<<[1] [2] [3] >>
( 136 comments — Leave a comment )