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When a good stopping place is a bad starting place

The Ten Things Which Most Often Go Wrong With Beginners' Fiction

Happy New Year! My post from this time last year collected Ten New Years Ideas For Everyone Who Writes, Or Wants To Write, and I though that an equivalent for the actual nuts and bolts of writing might be useful.

Of course, every writer has their own specific strengths and weaknesses, and on a bad day the strengths feel awfully feeble, and the weaknesses depressingly strong. Indeed, it can be instructive, even encouraging, to make a list of what you think you're relatively good at and what you think you're relatively bad at, especially if you refuse to think "bad at" but, instead, "not yet good enough at".

But writers who are just beginning, or writers who are not the most naturally talented, do tend to make many of the same mistakes as each other. That's why books and straightfoward "Writing Fiction" courses so work well for these early-stage writers: much of what is said will be useful to much of the group. And in that spirit, these are the ten things which I most often find that such early-stage writers need to work on:

1) Telling where you should be Showing. Or, as I prefer to call it, Informing where you should be Evoking. The most common sub-set of Bad Telling is what I think of as Office-Speak.

2) Under-writing so that everything is a bare minimum of dialogue and necessary information about physical actions and events, like a play- or film-script, so that characters float in undifferentiated space and their thoughts and feelings are never evoked. But we have no actors, directors, designers, choreographers, camera operators; we only have our words on the page. A variant has the occasional lump of description like a stage direction at the beginning of the scene, and after that the characters operate in a blank space.

3) Over-writingincluding over-explaining. A variant is what I call showing too much, which may in itself read very well, so it can be hard to spot.

4) Good writing but no narrative drive. Good writing, by definition, convinces the reader: in the short term we're easily drawn in and believe in this vivid world. But soon the reader gets restive because the story-ship isn't actually going anywhere.

5) Each scene works out just how we expected it to from the start. There's no small-scale, will-it-won't-it, narrative tension in the short-term, to keep us turning the pages.

6) Lots of filtering. Learning to spot when you're doing this - reminding the reader of the lens, as well as showing the view through it - is possibly the single, simplest thing that most early-stage writers could do to make their writing sparkle (or howl or snarl or sing, obviously).

7) Getting from scene to scene is awkward, lurching over jump-cuts so the story keeps stalling like a badly-driven car; making the move between one scene and the next too long and laborious; or failing to take the reader along at all.

8) Psychic (i.e. narrative) distance isn't being used well. The storytelling never engages closely enough with any character's consciousness and experience - gets inside their head and heart - so the reader doesn't engage with the story either. And many writers could make more use of the far-out psychic distances to give us context and tension.

9) Point-of-view problems, usually

  1. not letting point-of-view control what gets told and shown (which is easily cured if you get a handle on psychic distance, and how it works with voice).
  2. "head-hopping" instead of moving point of view in a way which works for the reader (even though they probably don't know they're being worked on!).

10) It's not clear who will enjoy this. This isn't about editors this year not buying X or insisting on Y, but whether you're giving all the readers you hope to have a full set of the pleasures they think they're buying: both literary and commercial pleasures say, or both romance and speculative fiction.  

Don't forget that there's more on all these topics, and many others, in the main Itch of Writing Tool-kit. But, of course, there's only so far you can go, with a blogpost or a how-to book, because the more advanced you get, the more the basics are working fine: the thing walks like a novel and quacks like a novel, and what's not working or getting it rejected are specific to you, and to this project. That's when individual editorial feedback or mentoring, or an advanced course with scope for working on your own project such as an MA or our course on Self-Editing Your Novel, may all come into their own.

You might also understand all those posts, and still not find it easy to spot where things are awry: The Fiction-Editor's Pharmacopoeia should help you to work backwards, to decode your own and others' feedback, and turn it into practical, tackle-able matters of craft and technique.

And if you still fancy some inspiration, conversation and the chance to make some new writerly friendships - along with wine, tea and cake - don't forget that the next Words Away Salon at the Tea House Theatre, in Vauxhall, is on January 23rd. We're thrilled to have Stella Duffy joining us to talk all things Short Fiction, as well as an exciting line-up of guests throughout the spring and early summer, including Francis Spufford, just announced as winner of the First Novel Costa Book Award.