Before I go too far, let me put up a disclaimer about my credentials. I am not a published fiction writer. I have had several non-fiction stories published in fairly obscure journals, but no one has ever paid me to write fiction. I hope that changes some day, but for now I do it for fun.
That being said, I do it for fun and I do it a LOT. As one of my favorite professors once said, quantity must come before quality. I see an incredible improvement in my writing over the past ten years, which is about as long as I’ve been writing any kind of fiction. My characters are more interesting, my plots less shallow, and my form much less gross.
Writing in a club, I also get to see other writers go through this transition. Sometimes, I even get to help. I really enjoy doing that. Over the years, I’ve noticed several very common problems that new writers have, and here I am to tell you all about them, in hopes that if you are also a new writer, you might be able to benefit a little.
Following are my Top Five Pitfalls of New Fiction Writers, in order of most irritating and, coincidentally, easiest to correct.
1. Not Proofreading. Proofreading is so important. This is perhaps a bigger problem in fanfiction writing than in regular fiction writing, because if you plan to submit something to a publisher, you wouldn’t dare hand it over without proofreading. When “only” fellow club members will read a piece, I suppose sometimes writers feel that it isn’t as important, but it is! Whether we mean to or not, readers judge an author on how technically correct her writing is. I mean the basics here: spelling, simple grammar, punctuation. If you proofread, you will catch all the silly mistakes and even some of the less silly ones. You will sound more intelligent and more invested. I’ll never be able to stress this enough. Practice by proofreading everything, even your emails to ma. You’ll never be sorry.
2. Making Yourself the Main Character. I’ve talked about this before. Each of us is the most interesting person we know. This is because we know ourselves better than anyone else. The problem you run into if you try to fictionalize yourself is that you are less willing to take risks with the character. This can be harmful to a character whether you’re writing interactively or alone. Your character will react to situations the same way you would react, and if you never push beyond yourself, your character will probably never appeal to anyone other than yourself. The biggest problem here is that it is almost impossible to see for yourself that your personality is stunting your character. She looks just fine to you, because of course, she is you. I think the only way to really get around this is to try writing a character (as a protagonist) who is very different from you. I mean it – think of the one person in the universe you most despise and write a story where that person retains all of her qualities but becomes the hero of the story. If you don’t find that infinitely more satisfying than writing about yourself, I’ll eat my socks.
3. Excessive Description. For the most part, this is just what it sounds like. I think many times, writers new to fiction underestimate what their reader is capable of, imagination-wise. Describing things is one of the delights of writing. Well-done descriptions can really awaken the reader’s interest, pull him in and capture his heart. Descriptions that are bulky or unnecessary serve only to annoy your reader, causing him to either question your description or lose interest entirely. There are a couple specific ways that over-descriptiveness causes trouble in writing. I’ll specifically mention my two favorites: Adjective Abuse and Metaphoric Mayhem.
Adjective Abuse: When we write, we have very specific images in our minds, and we want to convey them to our readers. Long strings of adjectives may cover all the sensual bases, but they also get in the way of letting the image form naturally in your reader’s mind. Could your “grove of maple trees whose rustling leaves had all turned red, orange, and yellow, glowing as if on fire with passion for the fall” just be a “grove of brilliantly colored maple trees”? Could your “large, grey, wrinkly, old elephant” just be a “large old elephant”? Are the images conjured really very different? The need for complex or multitudinous adjectives may depend on how important your subject is. If the subject is unimportant, drop those extra adjectives like hot potatoes. Or just potatoes. If your subject merits extra descriptive attention, ask yourself “why?” When you know the answer to that, focus on describing it in a way that will give the reader the information she needs to know without beating her over the head with images she could have conjured up for herself. Maybe that grove of maples is where your bad guy is hiding? Try “the grove of maples was aflame with color, making it difficult for his eyes to focus on what might be lurking inside.” Let your reader paint the trees with their specific colors, replete with shadows and gently blowing breeze. If describing is one of the joys of writing, filling in the descriptive holes is one of the joys of reading.
Metaphoric Mayhem: This is the one that causes me to groan aloud as I read. Metaphors and similes are beautiful things. Sometimes they can do a job that straight description simply cannot. “When he told her the news, she wavered a bit from the shock of it, looking pale and sad.” Or, “When he told her the news, she shivered where she stood like a candle flame about to go out.” Both accomplish the same thing, but the second implies so much more. The danger of metaphors is twofold, however: they can easily become too silly and can easily be used in the wrong place at the wrong time. We’ve all see those email forwards that list the best of high school metaphoric disasters: “McMurphy fell 12 stories, hitting the pavement like a Hefty bag filled with vegetable soup;” “The hailstones leaped from the pavement, just like maggots when you fry them in hot grease.” You get the picture, but it’s so ridiculous, you stare at it and completely forget what was supposed to be going on. Even a good metaphor, when used in the wrong place, can do damage to the story’s flow. “Across the ballroom, the princess spotted Lady Mavis, dressed in a gown that was brown like horse poop.” Again, you get the picture, but it completely contradicts the setting and mood.
4. Over-Wordiness. This is like point 3, but applies to every single word in what you wrote. I read some very good advice somewhere (I think perhaps it was from Stephen King’s On Writing) that said, essentially: write your story, then cut a third of it out. What’s left is what you meant to write in the first place. Here are a few very specific ways of using too many words:
Excess Inner-Monologuing: This is something I see a lot around my Nerd Club, and is one of the reasons we don’t focus too hard on the “try to avoid short posts” rule. In order to make their contributions seem important, many of our writers are inclined to add too much information about their characters’ thoughts. If describing your character’s thoughts serves no purpose in the plot, drop it. “She took the piece of pie and was reminded of childhood at her grandmother’s house. There was always a fresh pie on the windowsill every Sunday morning. Usually it was rhubarb, but sometimes it was apple. She loved apple the best.” Unless Grandma’s Pies will come back in Chapter 16 as the murder weapon, we probably didn’t need to know all that, and now we’ve lost our train of thought about what was going on in the present. This is the greatest danger: distracting your reader from the actual storyline. If the train of thought is important to the story, give it proper attention by not placing it at a point that distracts from the flow of events. “She went back to her room and sat down at her desk, heart pounding fast with the realization she’d just made. Grandma’s pies! They had been fresh on the windowsill every Saturday morning. Not just some Saturdays, but every Saturday. That was the key!”
Constant Catch-Phrasing: This is a habit we learn from speaking and sometimes forget to filter out of our writing. Many of us like to preface our statements with words like “well,” or “so,” or similar words. They add nothing except to give the narrator a hesitant voice. Such phrases can appear at the ends of sentences in the form of rhetorical questions (“isn’t it?” “right?” “don’cha know?”) or in the middle of sentences as any number of useless words. That might mean that the writer is particularly fond of a certain way of phrasing something, and although it’s okay the first time he uses it, it becomes irritating if used repeatedly. The same can be said of large or uncommon words; sprinkling them throughout a story can add flavor, but overdoing it is like over-salting your dinner. The words “just” and “actually” are my two biggest pet peeves. When proofreading your work, if you come across either of those words, ask yourself “does the meaning change if I leave it out?” You might be surprised how often you answer “no.”
5. Did I mention Long-Windedness? Okay, it’s the same as Over-Wordiness, but it’s a big one and bears repeating. In 3 and 4, I mentioned specific ways people include too many words in their stories, but after deleting excess descriptions, inner monologues, and useless adjectives, sometimes there are still too many words. This leaves your story feeling slow or bulky. The best way to catch yourself falling into these traps is to ask someone else to read your work. It can be difficult to get honesty out of a reader, but if you tell the reader what you are looking for, then it will be easier for him to tell you what he finds because he knows you aren’t expecting a report of perfection. First drafts are always too wordy. If you want to try something fun, take a story you’ve written and try to cut out half of it without damaging the plot. I don’t mean for you to save the full flavor, but see if it is possible to cut out half the words and still keep the plot – bare bones though it may be – in tact. You might be amazed.
So she says 1800 words later. But I am referring to fiction, and I think I might have at least one or two worthwhile points. Good luck!