Learning the Craft: A Writing Cheat Sheet for Newbies

Having been critiquing for a while now, I’m starting to recognize what I would call phases in a writer’s growth. These phases include making certain kinds of mistakes, similar to how children learning a language make predictable errors. In English, for example, a child often says “brung” as the past tense of bring. Which makes plenty of sense—it just happens to be that bring has an irregular preterite form (brought). But eventually the child figures out the grammar and learns to speak the way the adults and older children nearby do. Really, learning any art is like that: you’re a beginner stumbling your way through, first copying the work of those you admire, and then branching out and discovering your voice, and finally honing that voice so that you can tell/paint/sing in a way that’s wholly yours.

Most of us go through these phases—I guarantee my fellow Sirens and I have made many of the mistakes detailed below!—but it’s important to keep working at your craft so you get past them. Ways to do this include being in a critique group with people who are (currently) better than you, study the books you read to see why they work and don’t, and above all, keep writing.

And here’s a little cheat sheet of problems to look for and avoid in your own work to help you level up that much faster.

  1. Whether you’re writing in first or third person, never varying sentence structure and ending up with blocks of text that look like this: “I went to the market. I bought apples and mangoes. I spent a lot of money, and I carried home lots of bags.” Basically, I, I, I, I, I or she, she, she, she, she. Vary your sentences and find ways to avoid using all those pronouns!
  2. Using too many dialogue tags. If you do your job right, the reader will figure out who is saying what. Plus you can take the opportunity to add some action beats like “Sarita bit her nail. ‘I don’t know’” rather than “‘I don’t know,’ Sarita said” and show us what’s going on. (Don’t overdo this, either, though!)
  3. Using verbs that are actions to mean “say” like: “‘Close the door,” she sighed/laughed/shrugged.”
  4. Using weak instead of strong verbs. Here I’m not talking about grammar but precise language: see the difference between “The child was mad” and “The child screamed how unfair it all was.”
  5. Using cliché details again and again, like the color of a love interest’s eyes. “They were so blue, I lost myself in them.” “I stared into his blue eyes.” “His blue eyes were full of fury.” Once is enough. 😉 Also, eyes really don’t convey all that much specific emotion.
  6. Giving the reader too many details about things that don’t matter to the story, like every piece of furniture in the room.
  7. Conversely, not giving the reader enough details about a setting or what someone looks like. (White room syndrome.)
  8. Overexplaining a character’s actions through internal monologue instead of showing the reasoning through context.
  9. Not delving into the emotional consequences of a character’s actions. For example, let’s say a woman discovers her husband of ten years has been cheating on her but just shrugs it off and goes on with her life, no emotional reaction, or at most a shallow one, displayed. Not only is that unrealistic, but it cheats the reader. What ultimately makes a story work is the raw and difficult emotional struggles characters go through.
  10. Having characters repeatedly gasp, storm across a room, grab people’s hands, burst into tears, shout. Good characterization is usually much subtler. Look at one of your favorite books to see what I’m talking about. The dialogue, the choices the character makes, the way the character reacts to adversity . . . all these things will add up to form a much more believable person.
  11. People’s jaws rarely drop in shock in real life, just like their eyes narrowing in anger. These tics are something we learned from fiction.
  12. Flat characters who have only one or two defining qualities, like being brave or nervous or even the generic brooding love interest. Round your characters out!
  13. This goes for protagonists, too. Don’t tell us what they’re thinking or why/how they supposedly are as people; show it! Showing is much more powerful and allows the reader to connect to the character.
  14. Thinking every detail matters. This goes for internal monologue (what the character is thinking), adjectives, and adverbs. Less is often more; then every detail you give the reader will matter.
  15. Using too many punctuation marks that call attention to themselves. These include semicolons, em dashes, and exclamation points. Like salt in a dish, use them sparingly and trust your writing to do the rest.
  16. Adhering too closely to plots and formulas you’ve read rather than telling your own story. This one especially comes with time and practice.
  17. Not having a unique voice for each character.
  18. Forcing theme and message rather than letting them flow naturally from the story.

I hope these are helpful. Readers, can you think of anything to add?

Shveta Thakrar is a writer of South Asian–flavored fantasy, social justice activist, active dreamer, devourer of books and tea and chocolate, occasional harpist, and part-time nagini. You can learn more at www.shvetathakrar.com.

Frozen – How to Beat the Blank Page!

What do you do when you sit down in front of that blank piece of paper, blank screen, or partially complete manuscript and you have nothing, I mean NOTHING to say? Let’s face it, this is an experience we’ve all had as writers, especially fiction writers. Whether you’re just starting a story or smack in the middle of it, we’ve all frozen up.

shutterstock_63759181And after the freezing comes the fear:

  • Is this story wrong?
  • Will I ever have a good idea again?
  • Do I just suck as a writer?

After years of writing, I’ve found the source of my deep freeze usually stems from two areas:

1. Am I missing something I need to know about my world?

  • This applies both to realistic and fantastic fiction, though your approach to answering that question may differ. For example, in a recent, non-speculative fiction novel, I had to write a scene about a man who was having a heart attack. The story was set in modern day, but characters had neither a working cell phone nor a landline telephone. I had a number of characters on the scene, one who was trained in CPR. My story got stuck rather quickly because I needed some basic information: (a) how long could a person be under CPR before being reasonably revived (b) how long a person could perform CPR without succumbing to exhaustion (c) how far the runner would need to go in order to find someone with a working cell-phone? A bit of research into the terrain and the intricacies of CPR and I was good to go!
  • The same thing can apply more deeply. For example, is your magical system unclear? What do people eat in your world, what are the obligations of a host to a guest, how long does it take to travel from village A to B and etc. Sometimes the answer is just learning more about your world, whatever it is. The danger of this, of course, is spending the next two weeks playing the research game. So how do you escape this trap? For me, I always ask myself, what is the minimum I need to know to write the scene? Get specific. For example, I need to know what the obligation of a host is to a particular guest, but only insofar as it’s relevant to the scene at hand. I can fill in the rest later, should it become relevant. The more important a detail is to your story, the more you need to fill it in, but if it’s a minor thing, don’t spend more than a ten or fifteen minutes looking/making it up.

So how do get yourself unfrozen when faced with a world building problem? Here is my favorite site for developing my world: Patricia Wrede’s Fantasy Worldbuilding Questions. It is VERY detailed, and I don’t start with doing everything here, but I try to touch on the high points as I like to have a fair amount of worldbuilding done before I start writing. I also find that these questions apply just as well to science fiction as to fantasy worlds.

LINK: http://www.sfwa.org/2009/08/fantasy-worldbuilding-questions/

2. Am I missing something I need to know about a character in the scene?

  • Main character: Is there something important that I don’t “know” about my main character that I need to know in order to start this story/write this scene? Do I know enough about this person’s past in order to understand her present? Do I have a good feel for her voice?
  • Supporting Characters: Is there something I need to know about non-main character in the scene? I especially love to ask this of minor characters. What’s the butler’s story? How about that kid in the corner shining shoes? The fool? The family dog? The most important question for me about minor characters is “what do they want?” Either that or, “what is their secret”. Both of these are fun. Even something as simple as the man serving wine wants to get back to the kitchen and see his  boyfriend gives me some idea of how he’s acting in the scene. His boyfriend is the main character’s brother makes things even more fun.

So how do you learn more about your characters? For me, the best method for finding out what I’m missing is to do a character journal. If it’s a main character, I’ve generally done a character journal either before I start the book or at least somewhere in Chapter 1. But for minor characters, I may not know anything about them at all. So my first step is to look at each minor character and ask myself, “What are you doing in this scene? Why are you here?” and most importantly, “What do you want?” or “what is your secret?” Usually my instincts for this are pretty good, and it only takes 1-2 characters for me to find out who the important (seemingly unimportant) person in the scene is. Once I know who this person is, what they want, and what they’re hiding, the scene usually gets unstuck rather quickly and it’s full speed ahead!

My favorite resource for character journaling is in Alice Orr’s book No More Rejections. I’ve used the character journaling techniques in this book for over a decade and they’ve work for me. What I like about her approach is that you answer the question in the first person and there are many questions like, “I think my best feature is ____” which allows you to really get into the psychology of how the character feels about herself as opposed to merely a physical list of traits. I’ve applied this approach to character lists I’ve found for free online, but hers is the best, in my opinion.

LINK: http://www.amazon.com/No-More-Rejections-Secrets-Manuscript/dp/1582972850/

So that’s my approach, first I check my world, and then I check my characters. What do you do to get unstuck? Feel free to post in the comments below.