Advice For Authors
ER for Fiction Writers
by Jerry Gross
The following list of pitfalls to avoid when writing fiction is compiled from my many years of being an editor.
Failing To Quickly Hook The Reader's Interest: It is impossible to overestimate the importance of the first few pages of your novel in terms of attracting and holding your reader's interest. Busy, overworked editors and agents (and that means all of them!) often decide whether they want to continue reading on the basis of these early pages. That means creating a dramatic scene thatpreferably introduces your hero or heroine. Put the reader into the character's head as well as describing his or her thoughts or actions, and make the reader wonder what happens next.
Waiting too long to set the premise and conflict of the novel and introduce the protagonist and antagonist: Use description sparingly, establish the setup of the novel swiftly. Too many unnecessary details delay giving the reader someone to identify with and to dislike. Get the reader's emotions and allegiances established swiftly if you want him or her to keep reading.
Not giving your characters believable motivations, actions and relationships: It's always been my belief that a reader will stay with a novel with some holes in the plotting but will not stay with characters that are not well motivated, and whose behavior is not credible. When you realize that a novel basically is a collection of interesting, complex, conflicted people relating to each other by the decisions they make, or do not make, and that these relationships really are the "plot" of the story, you see immediately how important believable, persuasive characters are.
Permitting stilted dialogue to remain in your novel: Every character should speak in his or her own voice, and the dialogue should sound natural and believable. To ensure that your dialogue sounds like real people speaking, read it out loud before committing it to paper. You will be amazed how your ear will pick up tinny dialogue that doesn't ring true.
Don't overdo it when you write dialogue: a few words are often enough to establish the class, ethnicity or region from which the speaker comes.
Most people use contractions when they speak, so use them in dialogue. It makes for realistic, brisk conversation.
Don't go into stylistic contortions to avoid simply saying "he said" or "she said." Most other choices make the dialogue sound stilted.
Don't rely on adverbs to enhance or explain your dialogue. If you write, "Get out of here. You're fired!" you don't need to add, "he said angrily."
Creating a believable hero or heroine: Modern popular fiction, whether genre or mainstream, has as its heroes and heroines people who make life happen; they do not allow life to happen to them. That means that, after an often grueling quest of some sort during which they are often momentarily defeated, they triumph over their adversary, or their obstacles------and accomplish the goal of their quest. In other words, they eventually take charge of their lives and succeed.
Writing unconvincing sex scenes: Writing a believable sex scene is very difficult for writers, not because of prudery or embarrassment, but because too much attention is given to describing the participants' sexual acts and not enough to their thoughts, and feelings.. That authority on sex in all its manifestations, Mae West, said it best when she wrote, "Sex is emotion in motion." That is, When characters make love, it should never be included just to titillate the reader; it should always be there to enhance our understanding of the characters and to advance the story.
Not knowing how to plot the novel to sustain the pace, shape, energy and interest of the story: Don't overload the opening with too much exposition, a crowd of characters and a confusing jumble of events and conflicts. The CIA has a maxim that works well for writers as well as spies: "Information will be given to you only on a need to know basis." That means don't front-load the story so that all the drama and excitement is at the beginning. A well-plotted novel should be as smooth an experience as being with a driver with a steady foot on the gas pedal.
Not knowing how to create characters: Don't introduce a character as though you are reading a resume of his or her life-until-now. Let the reader learn about a character as we learn about a person we meet in real life: a little at a time..
Not evoking the individuality of a character: Don't go for the easy cliche: the drab librarian, the effeminate male dress designer, the caveman diction of a gangster. Every one of us is an individual, and the good writer pays attention to how different people walk, talk, sit, gesture. And how class and financial and educational background influence how we dress, what we read, where we live, what sports we play or watch, who we date and marry, etc.
Not knowing how to write and use flashbacks: Too many writers create extended flashbacks that are narrated and not dramatized. A flashback is just that — a return to the past that should be dramatized and brief so that the reader experiences the scene, and not told about it. If you find that you are using too many flashbacks, consider starting the story earlier than you have. Too many flashbacks also weaken the strength of the narrative by frequently diverting the reader from the main story.
JERRY GROSS is the Editor of the standard work on editing in our country Editors on Editing: What Writers Need To Know About What Editors Do.