I am occasionally in a place where I read work by new writers. Sometimes this is at cons or conferences. Sometimes it’s in the sample of work that’s free online or a fragment from a self-published work. Sometimes I just roll over in my bed and there it is, a manuscript by a new writer, haunting me like a vengeful incubus.
I would very much like to yell at you.
Now, listen, before I begin the part where I scream myself hoarse about the things you’re doing wrong, I want you to understand that we’ve all been there. We’ve all done it poorly. Doing it poorly is the first step to, well, not doing it poorly. I have written my fair share of HOT PUKE, and it’s just one of those things you have to purge from your system.
(Though here we also enter into another caveat: HOT PUKE is not actually a delicacy. You do that shit over in the corner, barfing it up in the potted plant so nobody sees until morning. You don’t yak up today’s lunch in the middle of the living room and then do jazz-hands over it: “Ta-da! The Aristocrats!” What I’m trying to say is, your rookie efforts are not automatically worth putting out into the world, especially if those efforts cost readers money to access them. The mere existence of a story is not justification for its publication. Don’t make people give you cash for your inferior efforts. Get it right before you ask money to reward you for getting it wrong.)
Here, then, are some things I have noticed in drafts by new or untested writers, and these are I think standard errors — and they’re ones also that tested authors sometimes stumble into, so peruse this list, see if you have stropped up against any of these sins like a randy tomcat, and then fix your business. Get it? Got it? Good?
Let the yelling commence.
Telegraphing Every Goddamn Thing
It is compelling, I know, to figure out every single thing that is happening all the time always in your story. Characters smile and laugh. Okay. They fidget. Fine. They drink a cup of tea with their pinky out. Sure, why not? But if you’re writing out every hiccup, burp, fart, wince, flinch, sip, and gobble, you got problems. A character turns on a lamp? Super, you don’t need to describe how they turn it on. I don’t need to see John Q. Dicknoggin unzipping his fly before he pisses, and frankly, I may not need to see that he pisses unless it’s telling us something about his character. See, the problem is, when you telegraph all these movements — when you describe in detail every minute micro-expression and irritable bowel movement, you fill up the page with a laundry list of Incredibly Uninteresting Nonsense. Which leads me to —
Not Everything Is Interesting
At a rough guess, I’d say 90% of All Things Ever are uninteresting. Dull as drawing with white crayons on white paper. Things are boring. Life is boring. Details are mostly boring.
Storytelling, though, is the opposite of that. We tell stories because they are interesting. We offer narrative because narrative is a bone-breaker: it snaps the femur of the status quo. It is in fact the sharp, gunshot-loud fracture-break of the expected story is what perks our attention. Guy goes to work, works, comes home, has dinner, goes to bed? Not interesting. Guy goes to work, has the same troubles with his boss, endures the standard problems of the day (“where are my goddamn staples?”), goes home, eats an unsatisfying dinner, goes to bed and sleeps restlessly until the next day of the same thing? Still not interesting. Guy goes to work and gets fired? Okay, maybe, depending on if he does something unexpected with it. Guy goes to work and gets fired out of a cannon into a warehouse full of ninjas? I’M LISTENING.
Description is the same way. You don’t need to tell me what everything looks like because I already know, and most things aren’t that interesting. Leaves on a tree are leaves on a tree. For the impact of story, how many points each leaf has or how they move in the wind is not compelling. This isn’t a video game where you get points for painting every aspect of the environment with total authenticity. Skip it. Tell us the stuff that is unexpected. The things that shatter our notions: if one leaf has blood on it? Then we need to know that. We want to know that.
Cut the boring stuff.
Write the interesting stuff.
Trim, tighten, slice, dice. Pare it all down. Render. Render!
Which leads me to…
Going On Tooooooo Loooooooooong
Whatever it is you’re writing, it’s too long. Cut it by a third or more. Do it now. I don’t care if you think you should do it, just do it. Try it. You can go back to it if you don’t like it. Consider it an intellectual challenge — can you utterly obliterate 33% of your story? Can you do it mercilessly and yet still tell the story you want to tell? I bet you jolly well fucking can.
Get To The Fucking Story, Already
The story begins on page one.
Repeat: the story begins on page one.
It doesn’t begin on page ten. It doesn’t start in chapter five.
It starts on page one.
Get to the point. Get to the story. Intro characters and their problem and the stakes to those problems as immediately as you are able. You think you’re doing some clever shit by denying this? You think you need to invest us in your luscious prose and the rich loamy soil of the worldbuilding and the deep nature of these characters — ha ha ha, no. We’re here for a reason. We’re here for a story. If by the end of the first page there isn’t the sign of a story starting up? Then we’re pulling the ripcord and ejecting. We’ll parachute out of your airless atmosphere and land on the ground where things are actually happening.
Dialogue Works A Certain Way
Writing has rules.
Storytelling has fewer rules, and certainly more flexible ones.
But actual writing has legit rules.
It’s not math, not exactly — but things do add up a certain way and we are beholden to either apply the rules to our work or break the rules to create a specific effect.
You don’t just break the rules because it’s fun, or worse, because you don’t know them. That latter is where a lot of new writers fall. They simply don’t know that things work a certain way, and when you write in contravention to These Certain Ways, we can all smell it. It’s stinky. Your prose gains the vinegar stink of flopsweat as you gallumph about on the stage of the page, not knowing how to actually do this thing you promised us that you can do.
Dialogue, for instance, is one of those things that has rules. And for some reason, it’s one of the most common things I see get utterly fucked. The basic gist of dialogue is:
“Comment,” Dave said.
Right? Quotes, with a comment in the middle, the whole thing broken out with a comma tucked inside the quotes, and then a very simple dialogue tag.
“Comment.” Dave said.
That’s wrong. You need the comma.
“Comment”, Dave said.
That is also wrong. That comma wants to be warm and safe inside the quotes. Where bad writing will never hurt it ever again.
You can, of course, get fancier.
“I’m starting this sentence,” Dave said, “and now I’m going to finish it.”
“I want to start a new sentence,” Dave said. “Sentences are really cool.”
Note the difference between those two methods. The period versus the comma. The two complete sentences versus the dialogue tag interrupting a continuing sentence.
You cannot mix and match this.
“I want to say some more stuff,” Dave said. “so please let me say stuff.”
No! No. No. Stop that right now.
Sometimes you don’t even need the dialogue tag if you feel like orchestrating action in the appropriate arrangement around the quotes:
Dave adjusted his crotch. “My crotch is itchy ever since I let it become infected with ants.”
We don’t need to know that Dave said that because it’s pretty fucking clear Dave said it.
Certainly you can use other dialogue tag verbs other than said, but usually, you shouldn’t. Dave exclaimed, protested, shouted, screamed, shrieked, ejaculated, harrumphed, blathered, babbled, gabbled. Use those sparingly. And make sure they’re actual dialogue verbs. Don’t say:
“I don’t know which testicle is my favorite,” Dave shrugged.
Shrugging isn’t the proper verb there. You feel like because it’s a communicative verb it counts.
Spoiler alert: it doesn’t. You can’t shrug a word. Communicative gestures are not the same thing as proper dialogue verbs. No matter how hard you want them to be.
Once you get going with two characters, you can eschew dialogue tags entirely.
“I punched a fucking cat,” Dave said.
Eduardo winced. “You shouldn’t punch cats. That’s not nice.”
“I will fucking punch a cat when I fucking want to punch a cat. I’ll even fuck a cat.”
“Oh, Dave. You’re so funny!”
Also, watch your adverbs.
Adverbs get a bad rap in fiction, which is silly because adverbs are everywhere. In fact, the word ‘everywhere’ in that sentence? It’s an adverb! Holy shit!
Adverbs, though, become a problem when staple-gunned to all your dialogue tags. “I am made of bees,” Shirene said indubitably. “I like cake,” Roger exclaimed excitedly. “Porn is amazing,” Darrell ejaculated orgasmically. When you say those aloud, they sound terrible. Childish. They also do a very good job at telling and a very bad job at showing. If Roger in his love for cake tells us about how much he likes cake while grabbing us and shaking his violently, we can get a pretty good sense he’s pretty jacked up about some motherfucking cake. Even better, he doesn’t need to tell us. He just needs to stick a shiv between our ribs and steal our cake and then eat it greedily over our bleeding, mewling body. After that, we will possess little doubt how greatly he approves of the cake-eating experience.
Let Them Talk And Then Shut Them Up
You need to let your characters talk.
Dialogue is grease that slicks the wheels of your story.
And eventually it gets tiresome. You love the characters and you think they should be allowed to go on and on all day long because you think they’re just aces. They’re not. Shut them up. Keep the dialogue trim and vital. Concise and powerful. Let them have their say in the way they need to say it — in the way that best exemplifies who those characters are and what they want — and then close their mouths. Move onto the next thing. Let’s hear from someone else or something else.
I Don’t Know Who Your Characters Are Or What They Want
Each character needs to be a shining beam — each distinct from the next. Bright and demonstrative of its own color. Not archetypes, not stereotypes, but complex and easily distinguished people. And I want a reason to care about them. Right out of the gate, I want this. I need to know what they want, why they want it, and what they’re willing to do to get it. I need, in very short terms, their quest. Whether desired or a burden, I gotta know why they’re here on the page in front of me. That’s not true only of the protagonist, but of all the characters.
Who are they?
If you can’t tell me quickly, they become noise instead of operating as signal.
Too Many Characters Bumping Into Each Other
It’s very hard to manage a lot of characters.
I do it in some books and the way that I do it is by introducing them piecemeal — not in one big dump like I’m emptying a bag of apples onto the counter (where they promptly all roll away from me), but one or two at a time. Let them have a little oxygen. Let them have their time in the light so we can see the above task performed: they can use that stage time to tell us who they are, what they want, why they want it, what they’ll do to get it, and so on and so forth.
But jumping in with too many characters is a soup with all the ingredients.
It’s just a mushy, flavor-bombed mess.
It’s a thing I see in the work of new writers.
And it rarely works well unless you’ve developed the skill of working your characters the way a conductor commands all the musicians and instruments in a symphony.
Every Character Sounds The Same
Builds off what I was saying earlier about every character being her own shining beacon, separate from one another. And I think it’s pretty clear: if each character sounds like a replicant of the next, you’ve got a problem. It’s not just about vocal patterns. It’s about what they’re saying in addition to how they’re saying it. It’s about their ideas and vision and desires. Look at it this way: it’s not just your prose that makes you your author. It’s not just your style. It’s what you write. It’s the themes you express. Characters operate the same way. They have different viewpoints and needs. They have their own ways of expressing those viewpoints and needs, too. Get on that. Otherwise, they’re all just clones with different names and faces.
Trying To Show Off
Stop doing stunt moves. You can do that later. Right now, assume that you have a single goal: clarity. Clarity is key. It is king. If I do not know what is going on, then I’m out. If I am in any way confused about what’s happening on the page? I’ll fuck right off and watch TV or check Twitter or fondle myself. Do yourself a favor and aim to just tell the story. Get out of the way. Be clear. Be forthright. Be confident and assertive and show us what’s happening without compromise and without burying it under a lot of mud.
You don’t get points for being deliberately ambiguous.
* * *
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