Writing Blunders

When my Writers Digest pops up in my e-mail, I usually scan it briefly to kid myself I am keeping up with the publishing world. But sometimes an article catches my eye and this was one by Jerry B Jenkins: [A summarised version-the original is here, and it's well worth a read]

1. Morning-routine cliché - How may times have you seen a book begin with a main character being "rudely awakened" from a "sound sleep" by a "clanging" alarm clock? Speaking of clichés, been there, done that. We all have. Don't ever do it again. Compounding that cliché is having the "bleary-eyed" character drag himself from his bed, squinting against the intruding sunlight. And compounding that is telling the reader everything the character sees in the room. Then he'll pass by or stand before a full-length mirror, and we'll get the full rundown of what the poor guy looks like.

2. Answering-the-phone cliché - This happens even in the movies or on stage. Be aware of yourself the next time your phone rings. It's such a common occurrence that we don't even think about it. But one thing you likely do not do is look up, startled. You don't turn and look at the phone. You know where it is; it's been there for years, and you've heard it ring before. You simply rise and go answer it.

3. The clutter of detail - Here is another problematic phone scene, from an unpublished manuscript:
The tinny ring echoed through the dark house. The shiny white receiver waited on the stone countertop. Another outburst. Chester, handsome, dark-haired, and taller than normal, craned his neck to look at the ringing reminder of his loneliness. After the phone's third cry for attention, Chester stood up and strode purposefully toward the kitchen. His long legs were encased in brown corduroys, which swished in the silence as he moved toward the phone. Ring four. He knew the machine would click on if he didn't move quickly. He plucked the receiver delicately from the cradle with his bronzed hand and said in warm, resonant tones, "Hello. Chester here."

Give your readers credit. If you tell them Mary phoned Chester, they can assume he heard the ring, stood, moved to the phone, picked it up and introduced himself.

4. Skip the recitals of ordinary life - We all get dressed, walk out to the car, open the door, slide in, turn the key and back out of the driveway. If your character backs into the garbage truck, that's a story. Just say it:

5. Don't spell it out - One of the clichés of conversation is feeling the need to explain more than once what's going on, as if the reader can't figure it out on his own. Other writers have a character respond to a diatribe from another with "Yep," or "Nope," or a shrug. Perfect. You learn about personalities this way. The character is a man of few words. But too often, the author intrudes, adding, "he said, eschewing small talk."

6. Pass on the preachiness - If your whole reason for writing is to pontificate on the dangers of certain habits or lifestyles, you risk sounding preachy. Many manuscripts are all talk, straw men, plots contrived to prove a point but little that grabs and subtly persuades the reader. If the theme is the danger of alcoholism, tell a story in which an alcoholic suffers because of his bad decisions and give the reader credit. If the story is powerful enough, the theme will come through.

Even as a child, when I heard the story of the boy who cried wolf, I got it. I didn't need someone saying, "So you see, if you lie often enough, no one will take you seriously when you're telling the truth." That's the beauty of morality tales; they make their own points. Put yourself in the skin of your reader. Read your piece to yourself and imagine how you'd feel at the end of it. Does the story make its own point? Has the writer [in this case you] added a sermonette to the end? When in doubt, cut it out.

7. Setting the scene - The reader's mind is infinitely more creative than what a filmmaker can put on the screen, so be visual in your approach. People buy tickets to the movies or subscribe to cable channels hoping to see something they've never seen before. A good novel can provide the same, only—because of the theater of the mind—millions of readers can see your story a million different ways.

However, avoid too much description. I loved it when great potboiler writer John D. MacDonald described a character simply as "knuckly." A purist might have demanded hair length and color; eye size, shape and color; height; weight; build; gait. Not me. "Knuckly" gave me all I needed to picture the man. And if I saw him thinner, taller, older than you did, so much the better. MacDonald offered a suggestion that allowed his readers to populate their own scenes.

8. Coincidences - In real life, I love coincidences. In fiction, more than one in each novel is too many, and even the one has to be handled well. (In comedies coincidences are fun and expected. How many times in "Seinfeld" do the characters run into the same people they tangled with early in the story?)

As I said, an article worth a reading as he makes some great points


India Drummond said…
Some good reminders here... Thanks for sharing. BTW, I too love the "knuckly" description.
Deborah Swift said…
These are great. Just redrafting now and looking for all those "telling the reader too much" moments. It's an awful temptation in historical fiction to describe all the period details of the door instead of just saying "he went out"!
Good post, Anita, now we'll all be frantically re-writing! LOL
Jen Black said…
Don't we go to the cinema for a good story any more? Does it have to be something new? If it does, we're going to run out of stories pretty soon!
Frances Garrood said…
I just love the fact that Chester (example 3) was "taller than normal". Had he grown in the night? Had too much spinach? To use another appalling cliche - the mind boggles.(Does anything else, other than the mind, boggle?)
Ginger Simpson said…
Great post, Anita. Thanks for sharing. I'm guilty of the alarm clock bit. I think I may have used it for the last time. :)

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