BASIC TRAINING

I’ve been reading a large number of self-published books lately, acting as a judge for a contest. I’m happy to report that many of them have been quite good, most are at least mediocre, and very few are truly awful. The fact is, the same can be said of the output of any major publishing house. We live in a bell curve, one way or another.

But there are a few things I keep seeing in these passionate, even exuberant labors of love, and so this week let’s get down to brass tacks and tackle some really basic writing mistakes that tend to plague all of us at one point or another, but that we should all be on the lookout for in everything we write.

In no particular order, I give you:

REDUNDANCY

Galen wondered why there were no lights coming from the castle windows. “I wonder why there are no lights coming from the castle windows,” he said.

This may seem like an extreme example, obviously written just for laughs. It’s not—believe me. I see this all the time.

For the record, leave in the line of dialog, and cut the exposition. It’s always better that we get information from characters than from an unseen narrator. The only exception, of course, is the dreaded soap opera conversation that begins with any variation on: “As we both know . . .”

Soap opera conversation? Your assignment: Watch one episode of any daytime soap opera with an ear toward dialog. Soap operas, with little if any budget for stunts, special effects, and action set-pieces, tend to be stories told in short scenes between two or three characters—generally some sort of verbal confrontation. But because the writers and producers are sensitive to the fact that most of their viewers can’t necessarily tune in every day and may have missed a number of previous episodes, and the writers can’t move the story along too fast for risk of losing viewers along the way, most if not all of these verbal confrontations begin with a recap of what’s led up to the real purpose of the scene: one new bit of information that incrementally moves the story forward.

Trust me, now that this cat is out of the bag you’ll never be able to sit through an episode of All My Children again without cringing. So yeah, don’t do that—and we all, I hope, know not to engage in the ever-unpopular “Before I kill you, Mr. Bond . . .” villain motivation soliloquy, but in all other instances, better to hear it from a character than you. Your readers like your characters better than they like you.

There. I said it.

OVER DETAILING

This bit is related to the one that follows, and I’ve been seeing a lot of this:

The police car turned left on Wabash Avenue and zoomed past a Pizza Hut, a Starbucks, Goofy Gus’s Toy Emporium, and a Gap Kids store before screeching to a halt in front of the drug gang’s hideout at 214 Wabash Avenue.

This can be a tough line to walk, between setting the scene in a vivid and lively way and burying your reader with nonsense. The question you always have to ask yourself is: WHY?

Why does it matter what stores the police car passes? Because we know that the hero is having a coffee in the Starbucks next door to that toy store, and this is how we realize he’s down the street from the drug gang’s hideout? Okay. But otherwise, is this just scenery? If your story is set in any contemporary American city, we can stipulate that they’ll pass a Starbucks between any point A and any point B. If it doesn’t matter to the story, but is there only to “add color,” delete it. All it’s doing is adding words and confusion, and making it harder for your readers to pick up on the story details you want them to see, that move your story forward.

MICROMANAGING THE EXPERIENCE

I’m guilty of this one myself, and try my best to excise it in my own revisions:

“I’m leaving,” Bronwyn said, a tear streaming down her left cheek, “and I’m not coming back.”

Galen took a deep breath in, held it, looked to the left, then the right, blinked, nodded, wiped his nose with the back of his hand, sadness welling up inside him like a spring flood, and said, “I’d rather you stayed.”

Maybe it’s because I see what I’m writing in my head like a movie. It helps to do that, but at the same time, every little gesture and twitch—does that help? Is that too much? The answer is: Most of the time, yes, it is too much. A blink here, the slight curl of a lip there, and so on can really bring your story alive—cluing the reader in to what a character is actually thinking, or might actually be thinking, that he or she isn’t saying outright. Use this tool often, but use it wisely. As with the street scene above, only a little bit more than a little bit of a good thing is too much of a good thing.

FURTHER/FARTHER

This is a simple one that almost everyone gets wrong. Please stop getting this wrong.

Further is generally synonymous with “additional,” and farther describes an increase in distance:

Last night, we walked farther into the woods than we’ve ever been.

We can’t decide if we should file a lawsuit until we get further information from the private detective.

That’s just true. Just do it this way every time and the entire human race will be the better for it.

DIALOG ATTRIBUTION

I’ve actually seen some books that are written like scripts, with just a character’s name, a colon, and a line of dialog. Don’t do that in prose fiction, ever. It’s not only okay to use “he said” and “she replied,” but essential. Don’t let your reader lose track of who’s saying what and to whom. I’ve read books where I’ve actually had to go back and count paragraphs to figure out who’s saying which line of dialog when I get off track and a character says something that doesn’t make sense for him to say—then I realize it was the other character speaking.

It is okay to mix that up, too, and to use attribution to tell us a little bit about the mood of the character speaking. Here are some perfectly acceptable verbs (not a complete list):

said

asked

replied

inquired

cried

shouted

whispered

Now, do this without an adverb: slowly, haltingly, explosively, tersely, sadly.

“I hate you,” she whispered. Is always better than: “I hate you,” she said quietly.

Context is king. If someone shouts, “Look out!” you don’t need to tell us he said that “warningly.” We get it.

And mix up the noun, too.

These are all swell if we know that Galen is a male elf who is also a warrior, and the son of the general:

He said

The warrior said

Galen said

The general’s son said

The elf said

This adds a little variety so your dialog doesn’t sound like a list:

Galen said, Bronwyn said, Galen said, Bronwyn said . . . like reading a tennis match.

I hope this helps.

 

—Philip Athans

 

About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and the recently-released How to Start Your Own Religion and Devils of the Endless Deep. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, (https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/) is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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7 Responses to BASIC TRAINING

  1. Eric Swett says:

    As one of the many self-published authors out there (not one of the ones you’ve read I’m afraid), I appreciate the advice you’ve given here. I do a lot of book reviews for self-published authors and tun into a lot of these problems myself. It has helped me avoid most of them myself (at least I hope so) and running into them can be mindjarringly irritating. It sucks the life right out of any momentum the story may have built up.

    Thank you again for taking the time to share your experience and expertise with the rest of us.

  2. jakeescholl says:

    I find some of these problems in a lot of books too. Traditionally published books can be bad too. I think it’s good to find the best editor you can afford when you self-publish.

  3. It did help. Thankyou.

  4. This is wonderful advice and perfect examples. I can’t wait to share it with my writing group.

  5. Nate says:

    Reblogged this on The World Building School on WordPress.com and commented:
    A great article on common mistakes made by self published authors. If you are self publish or plan on self publishing then head over to The Fantasy Author’s Handbook and have a read. In fact if you consider yourself a writer then it’s worth a read full stop.

  6. Reblogged this on Espiritu en Fuego/A Fiery Spirit and commented:
    Great tips for writers.

  7. Mark Sehestedt says:

    I have to disagree a wee bit with: “It is okay to mix that up, too, and to use attribution to tell us a little bit about the mood of the character speaking.”

    That’s okay when used sparingly, but I see WAY too many authors overdoing that. 99% of the time, “said” is dialogue’s best friend. Once you start doing too much “inquired,” “requested,” “stated,” then that’s the author talking. In dialogue, the author should never talk. Let your characters do the talking.

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