What I’ve Been Doing Wrong.
While revising my most recent story I have discovered no shortage of short-comings to be addressed. But even once I set about writing entire new sections I found things far from ideal. So I did the one thing that may come hard for some writers; I took a long hard look at my work and asked myself what I’d been doing wrong.
Now, initially that may sound relatively easy. The problem about tackling such a task though is that to some people there are no flaws in their work. For some writers there may be essentially a big blind spot when it comes to critiquing themselves. And, let’s face it; you may be your harshest critic but if you can’t see what is wrong you’ll never see what you can fix.
What follows is going to be a list of things that I have been able to point out about my own work. They are all applicable to other peoples work as well so take what valuable advice there is to be had from them and apply it to your own if it helps. Even if you don’t know how to address them, just knowing what they are can lead you to learning more about how to improve your writing.
- Using I: There are more ways to deliver details or use internal monologue. ‘I’ do not have to place everything into the ‘I’ bucket. Be smarter than that! Look for other ways to say what is being said. Ask yourself; isn’t there a better way to say it?
- Talk Is Cheap: If everything is being spelled out by internal dialogue then the reader is going to feel led about like a child. Show them! If a sword is sharp don’t spend all day explaining it – show it slicing through something that demonstrates that fact. Don’t waste your words waxing philosophical or repetitively rehashing the same plot points over and over either. Say it, show it then get out and move on. Keep the action in motion – because it isn’t called action by being still.
- Long Winded Means Little: If I’m making every sentence push the boundaries of run-ons then I’m just creating clutter. Seriously! People don’t want to read redundantly over-burdened paragraphs. Get to a point as efficiently as possible. Make it faster, make it fun. Does it need all those adjectives? Can it be said in fewer words? If so, then do it!
- Your Protagonist Is The Center Of The Story, But Not The Universe: Even in a first person narrative where the reader is in on a form of literary ride-along the key truth is that you cannot shoulder everything on that. What this amounts to is that you shouldn’t show and tell it all from them alone. Let others speak, show things in the surroundings, and let the reader put the pieces together. To ignore these things is to court death via the ‘everything is ‘I’ issued.’ Never, EVER, allow yourself to stumble into that pitfall.
- Describe What Is Necessary, Don’t Over Detail What Isn’t: Should you establish the environment? By all means lay that layout out for your reader! But for heaven’s sake don’t waste details on common things like the color of a candle’s wax when you haven’t even named a prominent side character. If it is worth knowing then name it, detail it and don’t waste those words. You don’t have to provide every element about each person or piece of the environment.
- Clues Are Key: If you’re trying to weave a work with any measure of mystery then you have to keep those keys in mind. You cannot do them lip service or litter them about using little more than the protagonist’s say so. That is just sloppy and a reader will notice it. Take your time, back up and incorporate those clues. Do not make your protagonist the only source.
- Being Vague Is Bad, Unless It’s Good: The point being that it is okay to be vague or general if it is appropriate. When it becomes a problem is when you resort to relating everything in terms of ‘something’ this and ‘something’ that. If you are talking about something then say what it is. You are not creating any mystery by being vague. It is okay for the protagonist to not know everything, but that is no excuse to be bland about it.
- Tone And Voice: The personality may be there, the main character could be sarcastic, witty or charming but if you don’t use it they can’t shine. You have to leverage that and make it work for them. If they are deep and pensive then give them moments to showcase that. But temper those times with caution lest the story stall into a lengthy series of philosophical prose. Find the hero of the story’s voice, find their strengths and play to them but don’t use them exclusively. A strong swordsman is exciting in a fight but if all they can do is fight then they aren’t much fun outside of one. Consider that and by all means do not devolve into the reprehensible realm of the main character is the master of all things. Not only is it cheap, it’s lazy and will cost you any chance at interest.
- Narrative Nature: Make the choice before you begin and stick with it. If you are going to write in a set form like that of first person narrative then decide on if it is in the moment, looking back or some other variation thereof. Don’t jump around. Pick one and stand firm to it. But consider it well before you start. Think of how you will handle what your narrator will say and relate. You may need times to pause and break up monotony or it may be easier to get lost in the heat of the moment feel. Whatever you’re going for – go for it. Just think it through first.
- Take Off The Training Wheels: You will discover go to phrases, words and metaphors in your story as you write it. Despite the reflex to lean on them you should try to avoid it. It is a crutch that can cripple. A reader will only find it cute to see a witty ‘like a hot knife through butter’ only so many times. Don’t abuse their intelligence by thinking they’ll not notice some of the same tropes and tricks being shuffled or recycled around.
- Review Is Okay But Don’t Hammer Over Things Relentlessly: As the plot progresses it makes sense for the hero to review things and consider what to make of them. This can be done internally but shouldn’t be the primary or the sole means for this. Let them bounce ideas off of others or debate things. But in the end don’t turn it into a logic loop. Once the reader knows what is going on you shouldn’t slam them with wave after wave of blunt reminders. If a victim died from an unknown cause don’t keep brow beating them by pointing it out.
- Clever, Clear, But In Context: Watch your characters comments and try to keep them within context. Ask yourself why it matters and what they are speaking about. If they mention how something isn’t going to be simple then make sure you put it into the right context. Why will it be difficult? What does it matter if it is? Why mention it at all? Don’t just sling out commentary for its own sake.
- Trim Those Tags: Not ever spoken piece of dialogue requires some form of accentuation such as ‘said in astonishment,’ etc. Even if it did, trying to put in emotion or point it out could be better done by showing it. If a character is nervous then let them stutter or drop something to establish that rather then just saying so.
- Start At The Starting Line, Not Before: Just like a race it is cheating to take those initial strides before the race actually is being run. Start things off at the beginning, just before things change or right as the ball gets rolling. You don’t have to begin three months ago or thirteen years prior. Back-story can be filled in later or as you go when it becomes relevant.
- Jab, Don’t Gab: This goes back to the idea of getting in and getting out. If paragraphs are droning on and on to take up large portions you need to break things up. Rapid fire those jabs, land that literary punch and then position to follow up. Keep the reader on their toes and keep the action moving.
- Dumpshock: Sometimes there is valuable information to relay to the reader; research to be passed on and the like. Did you know that a thicker blade is heavier, more likely to tire an arm out faster and less likely to be turned aside/snapped? Does that even have any bearing at all on the scene in the story? If so then by all means highlight it. But if not, then let it go. The reader isn’t in it for a lecture on the mechanics of melee combat. Just because you’re informed, interested or experienced about a topic doesn’t mean it will impress them by flinging facts. Limit the dump truck data and filter it down to essential details only. The reader will appreciate the reduced clutter and confusion.
- Convenient Plot Isn’t Convenient: If the hero is handed the key puzzle piece at the perfect moment to save the day nobody really wins. Some acts of serendipity can be expected, even understandable. However outright convenient plot points simply do not work. If the story hinges on the bad guy stumbling and accidentally shooting themselves in the foot it is time to rethink things. Motive will go a long way – use it to form a foundation but watch out for all things involving coincidence. The characters must be responsible for any resolution otherwise why else are they in the story?
- Cut Those ‘To Be’s’ Off At The Pass: Words like am, are, is, was, were, be, become and became can distance the audience from the action, so avoid them. Here are some examples – Instead of saying will be different try will differ. Instead of saying it is interesting to me use it interests me.
- Tear It To Pieces: Dismantle, dissect, analyze and evaluate. Carpenters and mechanics deconstruct in order to see how to build. Artists and architects scrutinize and study in order to shape. Smash your story to bits, pick up the pieces and improve it. See what makes it work and what doesn’t. There is always more to learn and room to improve.
- Ground Rules Are Your Gravity: Define and establish what can and cannot be done by your characters. Hold those tenets true and keep them as an anchor. If the hero can see through a lie one minute then you can’t allow him to fall for a villain’s manipulative subterfuge by lying the next. Explain why a character can do what they do and allow them limits. Don’t give them catch all talents – even superman can’t see through lead, is crippled by kryptonite and is a hopelessly naïve Samaritan. Create the world first then set the story inside of it. Use the setting/background to develop the characters. Throw in things that fit for a reason. There must be a reason the story takes place and the characters happen (or happen to be) there. Make it an integral part, it should be a character all its own.
Just some things I found while trying to see what all I was doing wrong in my own story. Maybe they will help you in your own work.