I do get so tired of “absolute” rules. Don’t do this, never do that, Stephen King said blah blah blah and therefore it’s sacrosanct. Chuck Wendig nails it with this rant—okay, gentle disquisition—on the “sacred cows” of writing advice.
Category Archives: What Not To Do in Writing Novels
From Ruth Harris at Anne R. Allen’s blog via Chris the Story Reading Ape! My pet peeves fall into the category Ruth discusses as “plot contrivances.” Pet peeve #1: The cell phone somebody forgot to charge, so that the hero can’t call for help. #2: Police who are so abysmally stupid or unprofessional that the hero gets thrown in prison for a crime she didn’t commit, with no hearing or Miranda rights or lawyers; #3: This is more or less related to Ruth’s No. 1, Lapses in Logic—the rescue or physical action that couldn’t possibly happen unless sixty million stars were aligned and even then would need divine intervention. Example: a book I read in which the villain supposedly killed the victim by throwing a rock and hitting him in the head while the victim was riding a horse a hundred feet away. Next time I want to commit a murder, will have to try that one!
Right now I’m working on a variation of the “girl walks into the warehouse to confront the killer alone” pot hole identified in the comments. My girl does something pretty stupid. The payoff is spectacular, though. Waiting to see if my group readers will buy that as her excuse.
What “plot holes” are your pet peeves?
by Ruth Harris on Anne R Allen site:
We all come face to face with them, those pesky glitches, oopsies, OMGs and WTFs that ruin a story, turn a reader off, guarantee a slew of one-star reviews—and kill sales.
Beta readers will often point them out. Editors are professional fixers, always on the lookout for booboos. You will realize them yourself when you wake up at 3AM sudden realizing that the MC’s beloved pet who started out as a friendly, tail-wagging Golden Retriever, has somehow become a snarling, saber-toothed attack dog.
These unforced errors range from plot holes, small and economy-size, to lapses in logic. They also include poorly conceived characters, blah settings, pointless dialogue, and momentum-killing info dumps. Even a few will make your book—and you—look like a loser on amateur night.
You need to find them—and fix them—before readers do.
I’ve often found great advice on Anne’s site. This post about what readers are likely to find when they click on that “Look Inside” invitation on Amazon echoes one I recently did about the first page of your book and why it matters, except that Anne goes into more detail and offers excellent examples of how you can make your “Look Inside” sample sing.
I especially want to endorse Guidelines Nos. 2 and 3.
No. 2 tells us to “start with conflict, not crisis,” advice I’ve encountered before, and which has ranked up there as the most useful advice I’ve ever received. As Anne points out, who cares if bullets are flying and bombs are going off if we don’t know the characters and couldn’t care less about them. “What the reader wants is emotional conflict,” Anne writes. And you get that by putting characters together in a demanding situation and finding out what they do about it—basically Anne’s Guideline No. 5.
No. 3 tells us that any opening scene that consists of some character musing away about some off-stage event is a huge turn-off unless you have an incredible voice and a mesmerizing character. While we’d all like to think we can produce such prodigies of characterization and style at will, the evidence suggests otherwise. You don’t have to create a character worthy of the ages in a Nobel-prize-winning style if you place your readers at the heart of a conflict, right there, in the middle of it all.
An additional turn-off I’d personally cite for “Look Inside” samples is more subjective: I respond to voice. Yes, I’ve got to have conflict; things have to happen for me in those first pages. But even if I’m thrown into the middle of conflict, a pedestrian voice stuffed with clichés and unimaginative or, for that matter, forced description can kill my buying urge. Lure me with a voice that breathes with the magic of language used in new and illuminating ways. If you can’t, make your conflict mesmerizing and original. Ideally, do both.
So check out Anne’s list of ways to keep your first pages from killing your sale. What makes you put a book back on the Amazon shelf?
Do you outline your novels? Why or why not?
Since my title is “Against Outlines,” you may suspect I’m going to argue against them.
Maybe, though, I’m not vehemently against outlines for writing novels.
The outlines you need!
In my brief career as a romance novelist, outlines were essential.
After all, these books were short, about 55,000 words, and I had to produce them in a matter of months. Writing one had to be like running a mini-marathon.
You were given a route and a clear finish line, and you had to run the same route as everybody else. You could throw in a leap or a flourish here and there—in fact, you were encouraged to, as long as you didn’t stumble off course or onto the sidewalk. No characters allowed to stop and drift into quirky shops or down unmarked alleys. Eyes on the prize!
Lest romance writers rightly take offense, let me be clear. Setting off on and finishing this course is no snap.
Planning at this level takes enormous discipline. Directing each scene so that each actor arrives at the mark for the scene to follow requires a well-honed sense of character motive and of how dialogue and action can deliver on that motive. And those flourishes: as I learned, to carve out a lane for yourself in the genre with all those thousands of others huffing along beside you, to be you without veering off course: that takes a brand of genius. Believe me, I was there. I know.
Outlines make such a demanding fictional endeavor doable. Each scene can be carefully slotted into the overall course. Too many talky scenes in a row? The outline will flog you back on pace. Three-quarters there? Do you have enough action to fill those last pages? The outline knows.
And of course, there’s that one thing we all need that outlines amply provide: a story arc. Something’s going to change before the end of the story. You can’t write your final outline entry without knowing what that something is.
But. . .
“No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.”
That’s what a dear late colleague of mine used to say. That “surprise for the writer” is what an outline trades away.
Writing without an outline is more like setting out on a road trip than a marathon.
You do have a destination. You can see it, a glow on the horizon. But you’re not a hundred percent sure yet what’s giving off that glow.
So off you go. Maybe you have a map, but it offers you many forks, and you can’t even tell which one is shortest, let alone which one you’ll most enjoy. Along each fork you spot little side trips, where you park for a bit and wander to see what’s there. You find your characters in those quirky shops, down those murky alleys, picking up memories, fears, loves, trying them out like costumes to see what new selves they reveal.
You didn’t know your character loves French movies even though he doesn’t understand any French, or that she loves cats even though they make her sneeze. Or that she fell out of a tree and nearly died when she was ten, did you? Oh! That explains her anger at the father who didn’t catch her; now you discover her struggles with trust.
Without an outline, you don’t tell characters what to do. You follow them and discover what they do.
It’s not like you tag along blindly. If they get too wild, you may abandon them, leave them to their own stories . . . though you may come back one day just to see where they ended up.
Without an outline, there’s a sense in which the story writes itself.
Dangerous? Oh, my lord, yes. It takes much longer. It tempts complication, which can be a storyteller’s bane.
But it can save you grief as well. My one great, sad lesson from my Failed Novel was that once you set your thinly known characters loose in the world, talking to each other and finding unexpected doors to open, they create themselves—excuse the cliché: they take on a life of their own. And once that starts to happen, you must listen. The marathon route says turn right here; they say, “No, we don’t like that direction.”
Boss characters you’ve found, not made, and they’ll punish you.
So maybe we need a middle ground. A road trip into delight and surprise for the writer-on-deadline who must get to that glow this week, not next year?
What strategies do you use to keep your novel on track without giving up the chance for surprise?
This post by Allison Maruska is HILARIOUS! And too spot on. Note to self: watch out for Bad Writer when she shows up on your computer. Don’t know how she gets there, but she’s pretty good at sneaking in!
I have an alter-ego on Twitter. Her name is Bad Writer.
She doesn’t have a million followers or viral tweets or anything like that. She exists merely to be the public face of my sarcastic side. And since I talk to writers a lot on Twitter, she focuses on writing.
Since her creation in July, she has tweeted 643 times, according to that screenshot. That’s a lot of bad advice being doled out. Some of those are quoted Retweets from Nat Russo’s #HorribleWritingTips, Sam Sykes’ joke tweets, Tweeps who reply, and other parody accounts, but most are her own content based on things that
I read she reads. Sometimes, the content overlaps a little. I thought we could use those instances for learning. And since Bad Writer says the opposite of what a writer should do, the lessons will be actual constructive things with her non-examples.
Lesson 1: Stop abusing…
View original post 446 more words
I’m back from knee surgery and scanning my blogs. Not surprisingly, here’s a keeper. Chuck is a lively writer, so there may be some bad words. Well worth it. Here he tells us what I had to learn the hard way; that character, not plot, creates story. My favorite line from this piece–“Plot is the thing that characters poop.”
I learned this in My Failed Novel (here’s one of several posts on How Not to Write a Failed Novel, all of which I’m sure will help you become the Next Big Thing). I forced my characters to do something they most certainly did not want to do. The single good thing about that moment was that I had clearly created characters with lives of their own. I shoved them into action, and they rebelled, and a whole lot of important reviewers saw them rebelling. And said so in the highest venues. The End.
Chuck says “give your characters something to do.” I’d add that, if they have come to life, often what they do will not be what just anyone would do. It will often be a choice specific to them, to who they have become as you watched them and listened to them. Not all your readers will admire their choices. But those choices—motivated, yes, by who they are and the context, but at the same time personal, heartfelt, unique—will trigger the next cascade of actions that we think of as plot. So don’t settle for what the latest TV hero would have done. Set loose a character with the voice to tell you what SHE is going to do. Then get out of her way. Plot will be what ensues.
As a member of a long-running face-to-face group and now an active online group, I can attest to the truth of what Cynthia Hilston says below: that good groups exist. I spent far too many years writing in isolation; never again. Maybe I don’t like every response; maybe sometimes I’m disheartened. But I’d rather be disheartened now when I can figure out what to do about the problem than when I get that “we’re not the right agency for this project” form letter with NO feedback as to why.
I’ve posted about my group several times (for example, see “In Praise of My Writing Group“), and I did a series on the founding of our group, the Green River Writers, and its leader, Mary (Ernie) O’Dell, here in Louisville.
And I just posted the 2017 Contest brochure for this year’s Green River Writers contest! A terrific contest with low entries fees and lots of cash prizes! Check it out!
by Cynthia Hilston
There it was for probably the hundredth time on the sign outside my local library: writers group, meeting 8/18 2-4:00 PM. Okay, maybe not the hundredth time, but how many times did I drive past the library, which is about two point five miles from my house, and see that group advertised and not do a darn thing? The sign was one of those LED types that showed all the happenings at the library, from book discussion groups to story times for children. And my library had a writers group.
Of course, every time I saw that sign, I wondered, What do they do at those meetings? Do they just sit there and write? Do writing exercises? Or do they read each other’s work while there and comment on it?
View original post 1,527 more words