What Writers Know – Part 1

red pencil, grammar, comma

Martijn Nijenhuls, creative commons license

Nearly irresistible clickbait for writers are articles like Reedsy founder Ricardo Fayet’s recent reprint of “12 Common Writing Mistakes Even Bestselling Authors Make.”

When I see such lists, I figure that not only will they point out my many writing shortcomings in excruciating detail, but the sum total of no-no’s will be a pretty accurate description of my actual writing style. It’s as if I’ve learned nothing.

And that’s not true, not for me, not for any of us. Surely we’ve learned something.

So what are these pitfalls we may stumble into, even the bestselling among us (though if we are best-selling, do readers actually care about these problems)? And can’t we think of them instead as mountains we’ve climbed and conquered? Show, don’t tell? We’re on it. Head-hopping? Never.

Here’s the first half of Fayet’s list recast as what we’re doing right. Very possibly, more often than not.

  1. Tell, don’t show. Every good novel or story has some of both. It’s a balancing act. Showing takes words, and sometimes we just need to move things along. “Get to the point!” I tell myself. We put the compelling parts of a story in scenes and dialog and summarize the quotidian so that readers reach the good stuff faster. That’s a judgment call and we practice making it every day.
  2. Strong opening narrative. In early drafts, I tend to open a story (or book chapter) with a warm-up. Thankfully, I recognize and delete my engine-revving. Drive, baby, drive!
  3. Manage description in action scenes. While we know to slow down the action in a tense situation, we know not to do so by, say, describing what the antagonists had for breakfast (unless it contained a mystery ingredient like ground glass). We know to be judicious. Too much detail “slows the pace, lessens tension, and interrupts the flow of the scene,” Fayet says. Very true.
  4. Believable conflicts. Unless our story is set during the Crusades, we create situations that couldn’t be solved if somebody would just pick up the damn phone. We may even make having or using the phone a huge liability (extra credit for you, Gin Phillips). We make sure characters’ external and internal conflicts are powerful enough for readers to invest time and interest in. Thankfully, thrillers are no longer, by definition, about world domination-sized conflicts, and we take advantage of that broader field of play.
  5. Viewpoint. Despite watching movies where the action shifts from the perspective of first one character to another and back again, we recognize such shifts may not work on the page. And agents and editors frown on them. Why give them an excuse to dismiss my work? We avoid head-hopping and stay safe.
  6. Never Assume! Of course our future readers will only know what is on the page (in our current draft). Here’s where my short attention span turns out to be a plus. Every time I read a draft, it’s pretty much all new to me. We know the perils of changing character names or introducing (or deleting) major plot points, etc. At the head of my draft, I maintain an annotated table of contents so that if I do make a change, I can quickly find the other places that mention this character/setting/issue and make everything consistent, or lay the groundwork for later happenings. A book is an ecosystem, and surely we know even a small change may ripple through the entirety. (Wait, was that cat black or white?)

For another pat on the back regarding things you’re doing right, here is Part 2.

P.S. Read my new short story “Tooth and Nail” in Quoth The Raven, an anthology of new works based on the style and sensibility of Edgar Allan Poe. For how to order it, click here.