While culling old files, every once in a while I discover caches of writing stuff. Most of it I toss after a laugh or two (especially my own attempts at “wisdom”) but sometimes I find things I think might kick off discussions.
Such as this con report on “the three worst mistakes made by new writers” as offered at a LosCon panel in the mid-nineties. It began with the audience writing on an index card what they considered to be beginning writers’ three biggest mistakes, and passing them forward before the panel started.
I think these lists interesting mostly because they reveal writerly process at least as much as they do beginner errors. Some of the best discussion arose out of what some considered no error at all, and others considered advice for revision, not for first draft errors, and what the difference was.
For pants writers (those who sit down and let the tale spin out through their fingers before going back to see what they have) one set of rules might be helpful and another useless; for plotters and planners, a completely different set.
The first panelist’s set:
- Sending first draft stories or novels out.
- Characters who all sound and think alike.
- White room openings.
According to Panelist One, there was a lot of very bad advice being passed around that in order to look professional, a writer had to keep flooding the magazines and agents with submissions. “Gives you a bad name—editors see your name and don’t even read the first page, after a slew of half-baked first drafts.”
Second panelist: “I agree. Don’t send it fast. Nobody cares when you send it, if you don’t have a contract. Send it when it’s right.”
Back to Panelist One (on being asked): “’White room opening’ is a story that begins with a guy sitting in a room thinking his history at the reader, who doesn’t give a flying finger, because nothing’s happened yet.”
Second panelist’s three rules:
- Rewriting chapter one and never getting past it.
- Not knowing where to start.
- Telling, not showing.
The “show not tell” turned up a lot in these lists, and gets plenty of airtime wherever writers congregate, so there isn’t much use in typing up the notes I took. Though there are a bunch, particularly on when to show and not tell. (Short answer: it depends!).
But number two was explained this way: “When you feel you have to keep going back in flashbacks and datadumps to explain, you might be starting the story too late.”
To that, someone else said, “Start right before everything changes.”
Panelist’s Three’s list suggests to me that that writer works by a completely different process:
- Ending every chapter on a transition.
- Letting the narrative voice tell readers what to think.
- Long, clumsy sentences.
To number one, half the panelists disagreed. Note: “transitions are natural chapter breaks.” The writer defended it: “this pattern reads artificial.”
To point three, the writer said: “Beginning genre writers too fond of semi-colons. When too many turn up in every paragraph on every page, read aloud the sentences have a klunketta-klunketta rhythm, like a broken washing machine. For the extra turgid effect: sentences with both a semi-colon and an em-dash. Learn the elegance of the simple declarative sentence!”
- Predictability (unexamined tropes)
- Red shirt characters, especially girls.
- Repetition and redundancy bolstering weak verbs.
I underlined number two—this was before the “fridge women” term came around: characters who exist to die (usually wives or daughters), in order to motivate the protag (usually a man) to get busy protagging.
Number three, I noted down that the writer went on about unneeded prepositional phrases and adverbs larded into sentences: “He put down the knife onto the table in the dining room.” Why not shorten that to “He laid (or tossed, or jabbed) the knife on the dinner table.”
The writer also went on about “very” as an adjective, short answer: “Don’t.”
That launched a discussion of purple prose, what is and isn’t purple. Most agreed that purple = cluttered, overuse of adverbs, sentiment instead of real emotion (note from this panelist: “which is usually pretty much everything before the phrase his/her very soul”).
- Maid-and-butler dialogue.
- Sentence fragments.
- Opening with generic pronouns.
Maid and butler dialogue is another name for characters telling each other what they already know, usually as a substitute for data dumps.
That writer noted that strings of sentence fragments sound jerky when read out loud, and can be confusing. And on point three, said they lose interest fast in a book that starts out with some lone character, usually “He,” drifting around without a name. “It’s not intriguing, it’s coy. I hate coy.”
- Writing without an outline. [Pantsers beware!]
- Cliché characters, situations, and prose.
- Unsupported endings.
I noted that ‘unsupported endings’ was defined as cheat endings, endings out of left field, ‘and then they were all hit by a bus’ endings, but someone else said that worse than that were endings that the narrative voice had to explain to the reader.
Then the moderator quickly read the audience lists.
I noted down concepts that showed up in more than one list: show don’t tell; repetitive prose; datadumps up front before anything happens (expressed in different ways, such as ‘starting in the wrong place’ and ‘beginning with prologue data’ or ‘starting with long flashbacks’).
The discussion strayed into self-editing, the only note from which I’ll list here: try to be aware of your own quirks—words or phrases that may not necessarily be clichés, but show up a lot, such as one ms that featured a lot of “creamy smiles.” Or words that stand out or have become buzzwords, like “redolent” and “nuanced,” and nouns turned into generic-sounding adjectives, like “touch,” as in “He was a touch angry,” and “She was a touch awed.” That last one resurrected “purple prose” again, then the panel ended.