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Rough Draft of Top Ten Rookie Mistakes

I'm on the "Top Ten Rookie Mistakes" panel at MileHiCon.  Here's my quickie list of top ten mistakes.  I'm open to suggestions for ones I'm missing or questions about the ones that I've included.  Each is easily worthy of a separate, long discussion.

Top Ten Rookie Mistakes

1)      Failure to use action verbs.

2)      Failure to be specific.

3)      Point of view character is passive or pluckless

Failure to invest “caring” into the point of view character.

5)      Relying on exposition instead of narration (particularly at key points that would be much more interesting dramatized).

6)      Failure to be unique (or at least familiar in an interesting way).

7)      Failure to surprise the reader globally (how the story unfolds) and/or locally (at the sentence level or word choice level).

8)      Failure to unify the story (the beginning doesn’t set up the end, or there are incidents and details that are not tightly integrated into the story).

9)      Having nothing to say or saying nothing (the story has a “so what?” feel).

10)  Language that is not concise.  The story needs pruning.

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( 22 comments — Leave a comment )
tchernabyelo
Oct. 23rd, 2007 02:55 pm (UTC)
I'm particularly interested by no. 10. Concision may be the watchword du jour, particularly for short fiction, but it wasn't always thus (read anything from the 19th century, classic or otherwise), and I'd contend there aer still instances where a propensity for the baroque may yet be appreciated by a class of readers. Ultimately, you have to decide what purpose any given word serves, otherwise you could write a synopsis rather than a story. I've had pieces published where the "story" could be written in one sentence. Exactly where and how we should be concise, and where we should illuminate, is a very fine distinction.

jimvanpelt
Oct. 23rd, 2007 03:02 pm (UTC)
Good points. I didn't mean the languid pace of Edgar Allan Poe or H.P. Lovecraft, whose sentences can take a long time to get where they are going, but I'd be loathe to cut a word. No one reads a story to find out what happened, exactly, because what happened could be synopsized into a single sentence. They read to go on the journey.

What I had in mind are sentences that are packed with redundancy or empty adjectives and adverbs. The kind of sentences that would benefit from Ken Rands 10% Solution.
tchernabyelo
Oct. 23rd, 2007 03:27 pm (UTC)
Certainly it's better to find the right verb or noun, than pair adverb and weak verb or adjective and week noun (or, particularly, weak adjective with weak noun that always hang around together). Just wanted clarification, and probably affirmation, because I AM a wordy writer by nature, but I'm trying to create atmosphere and layers and nuance and all of that writerly crap, and I find the only way (yet) I can do this is by, um, using a lot of words.

tchernabyelo
Oct. 23rd, 2007 03:28 pm (UTC)
And, oh yeah, in my first draft of the first comment, I actually quoted Poe as an example. But then i thought I was being overly wordy, so I edited the reference out! :)
redwill
Oct. 23rd, 2007 03:11 pm (UTC)
I agree; hitting only the high points, the significant points, means that the support structure is weakened and therefore also the depth and significance of the key ideas or events. The world of the particular story is made shallow by excess of concision, so the immersion in the story and the impact of it are reduced.

I still like late-nineteenth and early twentieth century writing, and that even includes newspaper articles. They often have a greater sense of caring about the subject matter and greater interest because of their depth. For me, this is not compensated by the faux intensity of much compressed, stripped down narrative.
redwill
Oct. 23rd, 2007 03:19 pm (UTC)
Bear in mind while reading any of my comments that I am not a professional writer, barely even an amateur writer, and even that is almost entirely poetry, as I've written only 3 short stories in my entire life. Obviously I'm also not a teacher of writing. But I have read a lot of novels. A lot of novels. Yup.
barbarienne
Oct. 23rd, 2007 05:02 pm (UTC)
I phrase #10 as "E's First Dictum: Every word must earn its place on the page."

There are many forms of currency. If a word is contributing significantly to mood or tone, then it can stay. If it adds to the reader's immersion in the story, it can stay. But if the reader would lose nothing by deletion of a word or phrase, then out it goes!

(E's Corollary to the First Dictum is: "Double check that you're not fooling yourself. No really, just check again, okay?")
eeknight
Oct. 23rd, 2007 02:58 pm (UTC)
Oooh, good list. Linking.
wldhrsjen3
Oct. 23rd, 2007 03:59 pm (UTC)
Great list - I shall print and pin above my computer just to keep myself on task! Thanks! Although I do have say that #6 and #7 don't seem like mistakes strictly confined to rookies. I can think of a couple established and prolific mainstream writers who might also be guilty. :)
redwill
Oct. 23rd, 2007 04:14 pm (UTC)
True, one does see that a lot, but I wonder how much it is still possible to surprise with originality. More extreme attempts at originality in things like word order may not even serve a story well, might be too distracting.
wldhrsjen3
Oct. 23rd, 2007 04:28 pm (UTC)
Good point. It can be hard to relate to a story that tries *too* hard to be original, but I really despise reading stories that feel as if the author has just changed the names and setting.
jimvanpelt
Oct. 23rd, 2007 04:27 pm (UTC)
"Surprise" is such a relative term. It drives me nuts that kids like ERAGON, which strikes me as every fantasy cliche rolled into one story, and not too well at that, but for a reader who doesn't have much of a background, it's filled with surprise.

I suppose that it is a good thing that A) not everybody is deeply read, and B) there are always young readers joining the reading circle. Otherwise, what Kurt Vonnegut said once when he came to talk at U.C. Davis would be true: "I don't know why any of you want to become writers. Everything worth saying has already been said, and nobody's reading it anyway."
redwill
Oct. 23rd, 2007 04:36 pm (UTC)
Thank goodness for B). The new readers will eventually learn that it was done earlier and better, though I suspect that their first experience of the genre will always hold a special place in their minds, even if it isn't the best of its kind.
tchernabyelo
Oct. 23rd, 2007 04:37 pm (UTC)
He was such a happy bunny, that Vonnegut.

I have the same frustration about Eragon and other generic fantasies, but it must be said that when I was seventeen I probably couldn't get enough of that stuff (there was a lot less of it around back then), and it's only because I've been reading fantasy for thrumpty years that I know and am jaded by the retreads (hell, I'm jaded on dirigibles at the moment - can't open a book without dirigibles right now, it seems...).
wldhrsjen3
Oct. 23rd, 2007 04:42 pm (UTC)
::nods:: I still remember the wonder and sense of possibility I experienced the first time I read certain fantasy authors. I tried to re-read those same books - books I adored as a tweenager - and found that the gilt had tarnished. They just don't seem as flawless and shining now that I've read more and experienced more, but fortunately my daughter can read them now and enjoy them as I once did.
jimvanpelt
Oct. 23rd, 2007 06:21 pm (UTC)
I used to love Edgar Rice Burroughs, the Doc Savage novels and E.E. Doc Smith. I find them kind of a slog now, and not the joy they used to bring me.

Ray Bradbury, C.S. Lewis and Robert Heinlein still work, though.
squirrel_monkey
Oct. 23rd, 2007 06:08 pm (UTC)
Corollary to 6 and 7: Failure to read. Too many people want to write while having read little -- this is when you get rehash of TV and movie plots.
jimvanpelt
Oct. 23rd, 2007 06:19 pm (UTC)
Exactly. Nice addition.
rhonawestbrook
Oct. 23rd, 2007 08:27 pm (UTC)
I came over here from E.E.Knight's journal and am VERY glad I did.

These are wonderful and very much appreciated.

Hope you don't mind if I friend you.
jimvanpelt
Oct. 23rd, 2007 08:31 pm (UTC)
I don't mind at all. Welcome!
(Anonymous)
Oct. 24th, 2007 10:35 am (UTC)
#9 would be why I keep falling into the trap of never finishing projects (a.k.a. #2 on the Top Ten Rookie Mistakes: the behaviour edition).
joeicarus.blogspot.com
Jan. 16th, 2009 03:38 am (UTC)
Going long
Hey again! I didn't know where to put this question, but this seemed as good a spot as any. Hopefully LJ notifies you when you have new posts on old entries.

One problem I have with writing short stories is that my stories tend to be too long. I tend to hit 10,000 words much more often than 5,000 words. Is this a common novice problem? Is this something you've ever had to deal with?

(I wouldn't care, except so few markets want stories of longer than 5,000 words--especially from newcomers.)

I'm trying to figure out what kind of adjustment I need to make to my creative process. When you write short stories, do you budget a certain word count for a certain type of scene? Is there a number of scenes you shoot for to make it be the right length, or do you simply let the story dictate this? How about character backstory? Is my problem that I'm giving the characters excessively complicated backgrounds? Am I structuring my stories too complexly? (Obviously you can't tell much from across cyberspace, but I'm wondering if you've seen common rookie mistakes along these lines.)
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