Sins of the writer:
As I’ve learned to write and began my life long foray into learning how to write properly, I’ve seen similar advice again and again. There is a reason for this though, because all new writers seem to make many of the same mistakes. Some of these I’ve probably covered in other blog entries, but here are some of top sins all new writers make and some tips to correct them.
#5 – Impatience. This probably isn’t as big of a problem with published writers as it is with fan fiction writers, bloggers and writers wanting to get published. We are our own worst enemies. We get a tiny thrill. We’ve finished writing our masterpiece! We can’t wait to share it with the world!
Instead of letting the work rest a bit so you can properly edit it and find your mistakes, we send it out. We post it or send it to agents, expecting everyone to see our brilliance. Instead, all they see is our mistakes. Misspelled words, poor punctuation, too much or not enough descriptions, or underdeveloped characters/plot.
Here’s the trick to anything you write. For the first few days, you are almost blind to the mistakes. It’s your baby and to you, it is perfect. Give it a few days, sometimes even weeks or months, read or do something else, and look at it again with fresh eyes. You’ll be amazed what you find. Rein in that impatience and wait until you know you can edit with an objective eye. What you send out is bound to be better.
#4 – Using the wrong words. There are many words that people commonly mix up. Spell check won’t pick it up because, guess what, it’s spelled right! This is sometimes a hard one to get around. Having someone else read your work before you post might help to find most of them. Here’s a short list of commonly mixed up words. There are many more to be sure.
- Affect vs. Effect
- Affect means to influence something. E.g. – “The medication Alex is on is affecting her judgment.”
- Effect means the result of. E.g. – “My teacher knows how to use tone of voice to great effect. We all know when she is disappointed with us.”
- Further vs. Farther
- Further means to a greater degree or to advance a point. E.g. – Miss Peach went back to college to further her learning.
- Farther is used to define distance. E.g. – “I ran farther than the rest of the team!”
- Lose vs. Loose
- To lose is to have misplaced an item or to have failed an objective or game. E.g. – “With a final score of 10 to 3, the Merlins lose the game and the state championship.”
- Loose is something that moves when it shouldn’t or to be careless or sloppy. E.g. – Pulling her jeans up by the belt loops, Marilyn complains, “These things are so loose, I’m going to have to buy a belt.”
- Moot vs. Mute
- Moot points to something subject to debate or uncertainty. E.g. – “What does it matter if the Minnesota Vikings’ running back finally returns? The point is moot; they’ve lost too many games to make the playoffs.”
- Mute means to silence or muffle. E.g. – “Can you mute that thing? I’m sick of listening to commercials.”
- Than vs. Then
- Than is not related to time, it is used in comparative statements. E.g. – “I like pink more so than red.”
- Then is used as a time marker or in a sequence of events. E.g. – “I went to the store then the bank before I finally got to go home.”
#3 – Information dumps. Writers love to explain themselves, their characters and what motivates them. As an example, look at the series, “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” by Stieg Larsson. Now, I’ve read all three books and absolutely love the story of Lisbeth Salander. What I didn’t love is when the author would go into sidelines mid-story, explaining Sweden’s political history (some made up) so that things occurring in the present would make sense to the reader. I usually found myself skimming and skipping entire pages, these sections bored me to tears. The funny thing is, skipping those sections took nothing away from the rest of the story for me. It was way too much information and it took me away from the thrill of the story. In the first book, I came close to not finishing a couple of times because of these info dumps.
So when you find yourself explaining something to the reader, ask yourself the following questions: Does it matter? Does the reader absolutely need to know this information for the story to make sense? Is there another way you could pepper the information throughout the story instead of just dumping it on the reader?
When considering giving a lot of information all at once to the reader, remember the following anagram, RUE – Resist the Urge to Explain.
#2 – Jumping points of view (POV). Do you start out with a scene from Sally’s POV only to switch to David’s POV next paragraph? Point of view is probably one of the harder things to master when writing. It is so tempting to head hop and change from view to view.
Pushing open the gate, David hopes he isn’t too late as he nears the pool. Throwing his towel onto the nearest empty chair, he places a smile on his face to greet his friends when the vision in front of him stops him cold. Fury unlike anything he has ever known fills him at the sight of his wife.
Smiling brightly as her husband’s best friend comments on how great she looks, Sally glances down at her bikini. Bright red in color, the skimpy material barely covers her nipples or lower regions. However, it shows off her fabulous midriff and all the hard work she has put into getting back into shape. Something her neglectful husband has failed to notice. Happily, all of his friends have.
She hears greetings being called out and turns to find her husband walking toward her, his gaze stormy. He doesn’t even say a word as he approaches her, grabs her arm and drags her away from the pool.
David ignores the tone of his wife’s voice as she demands he release her. Tightening his grip, he drags her into the house and only releases her to turn back and slam the sliding door shut. Turning to face her, he yells, “What the hell were you thinking wearing that thing?”
Ok, I’m stopping at this point. Sally and David are about to argue about how she appeared in front of their friends. Did you have any issues following the lines above? Did you get confused when I went from David’s POV to Sally’s then back to David’s?
It’s beyond tempting to “hear” what Sally thinks about David’s comment about her new bikini. It’s equally tempting to “hear” what David thinks of Sally’s new bikini or his thoughts about how his friends were gawking at his wife as they argue. However, you don’t want to do that as you can confuse the reader as the argument continues. Here’s the trick to keeping a scene running smooth, you need to pick one POV and stick with it.
If you start a scene from David’s POV as he enters the pool area and finds Sally wearing only two scrapes of fabric that barely cover her, his friends are gawking at her, and he becomes furious, you need to stick with David as he confronts her. Going from his view to her view and back again can be very confusing for the reader to follow.
Obviously, there will come a time when you need to switch POV mid-scene because the story calls for it, but limit these jumps and place spaces or marks between the sections so the switch doesn’t confuse the readers.
#1 – The biggest sin, and number one on this list, is Show, Don’t Tell! Everyone hears this advice, and it seems obvious, but I’m not sure everyone knows exactly what it means. There are a couple of parts to this, split into sections below.
A – Keep in mind, writing is like painting a picture with words instead of paint. You have to create the images for the reader, so they see it in their mind. So for example:
Pushing aside the curtain, Johnny looks out while saying, “The weather sucks today!”
Does that paint any kind of picture for you? The writer simply told us it sucks without any kind of explanation. Weather can suck in many ways, it can rain, it can snow, or it can be too hot, too humid, too cloudy. Sometimes it’s all about a person’s preference. Some people love the sound of the rain. The question that needs answering is, why does it suck? You need to show it to the reader.
How does about this instead?
Pushing aside the curtain, Johnny looks out to see the dark gray clouds threatening rain. Lightning flashes and the lights behind him flicker. A reverberating clap of thunder follows and shakes the house. So much for playing baseball today. Dropping the curtain, he turns back to say, “The weather sucks today!”
Does that help to paint a better picture? Now you know why Johnny thinks the weather sucks. He wanted to play baseball, but can’t in the storm. Yes, it definitely sucks.
B – Another problem in the category of Show, Don’t Tell, is when an author throws out a bit of information in passing. Kind of like he or she is saying, “Oh, by the way…” before carrying on with the story.
Circling a word in the last paragraph, Frank rises from his chair and goes in search of his daughter. He was the spelling bee champion back in his youth and always helps her with her homework. Finding her in the kitchen with her mother, he holds up the paper for her to see and announces, “Very good, outside of ten misspelled words.”
Rolling her eyes, she approaches and takes the paper from his hand, “Thanks Dad.”
Looking up, Frank finds his wife shaking her head at him before turning back to the stove.
Do you notice the “oh, by the way” line above? When you’re told that he was the spelling bee champion? There’s a couple of ways to look at this. As above with the info dump, ask yourself, does it matter? Does the reader really need to know this for the story to work? If the answer is no, just cut it out of the story entirely. If the answer is yes, is there a better way you can get that information across without doing it in an “oh, by the way” fashion?
How about this?
Circling a word in the last paragraph, Frank rises from his chair and goes in search of his daughter. Finding her in the kitchen with her mother, he holds up the paper for her to see and announces, “Very good, outside of ten misspelled words.”
Rolling her eyes, she approaches and takes the paper from his hand, “Thanks Dad, not all of us can be ex-spelling bee champions.”
Looking up, Frank finds his wife shaking her head at him before turning back to the stove, but her words carry back to him, “It’s good that you help her with her homework, Frank. But do you have to be so gleeful when you point out the errors?”
Handing out information as parts of conversation is a great way to get it across to the reader. However, you need to be careful that it sounds like a natural conversation that people would have and not contrived in such a fashion that it doesn’t and quickly becomes obvious that it’s just an information dumping tool.
C – Narrative summary. Another information-dumping tool that fits in the show vs. tell world is where the author summarizes a bunch of information in a paragraph before carrying on with the story.
Approaching the car, Simon places the paper bag and coffee cup on the roof, straightens his belt, and then picks them up before opening the door and sliding in. Setting the cup in the holder, he opens the bag and removes his sandwich. The coffee shop was a good place to check out the suspect without appearing to be interested in him. What a cool customer he is too. The man didn’t even break a sweat when Simon yanked back his coat and flashed his badge and gun while getting his wallet out. He simply poured out the coffee, accepted the sandwich from his co-worker and handed them over the counter as if he didn’t have a worry in the world.
Ok, so as you can see, I summarized the trip into the coffee shop. The question to ask yourself is, would that summary have been better as a scene of its own? Show the reader the entry into the coffee shop, show Simon flashing his badge and gun while getting out his wallet, and finally, show the suspect not even breaking a sweat. Would that have done more for you, as the reader, than the summary above?
While you don’t want to remove all summaries, there are bits of information that really don’t need their own scenes, you want to be careful not to do them when showing the information to the reader is a better choice.
Until next time…