Sunday, July 27, 2008

PNWC: James Thayer on the Top Novel-Writing Mistakes

The second workshop I attended at PNWC was, in my opinion, focused on beginning writers. As someone who's been at this awhile, receiving quite a bit of positive feedback along the way, I think of myself as the literary equivalent of Triple-A. I've got the skills, and I'm just waiting for that Call to transform my life by inviting me to the Show. So it's tempting to feel like I can't get anything out of a beginner workshop. But as in sports, you never get so good you don't need to drill the fundamentals every once in awhile, and I have to admit I'm still prone to some of these mistakes.

1. Beginning a scene too early and ending it too late. When editing, look at each scene to see what you can peel away from the front and back. If your scene opens with someone driving, walking, getting out of bed, etc., you're probably starting too early. Don't document preparation.

I'm prone to this error in the rough draft stage, when I pretty much write down whatever comes to mind. But I correct it on editing. Usually. I think.

2. Backstory and flashbacks. Should be avoided. Your characters' pasts are more interesting to you than they are to your readers. We always want to share how the character became who he is, but the reader doesn't care. When backstory is absolutely necessary, keep it in brief segments, never more than a page at a time. Ration it out.

This one I am very guilty of. I envy 19th century authors who could get by with including a biography every time they introduced a character.

3. POV that jumps around. Each scene belongs to the character with the most at stake. Too many POV shifts tend to disengage the reader from the story. Use observation and speculation to show what non-POV characters are thinking.

I'm clear on this one. I wrote my first manuscript in first person, so I learned early to stick in one head no matter how nice it would be to see what the other characters are thinking. Now I enjoy the freedom of third limited to give multiple perspectives, but I have no trouble sticking with one person at a time.

4. Too much interior monologue (aka Thinking). A scene should not be something that happens in a character's head. Thoughts are not as interesting as dialogue and actions. Think cinematically--could this scene be staged?

Guilty, guilty, guilty. I overthink, and I write overthinkers. But I fix on edit, reluctantly and with much grumbling.

5. Failure to describe characters physically. Your reader needs to see the character inside her mind, so give her the tools to do so. The more important the character is, the more detail you should use. And don't forget posture and mannerisms.

This actually contradicts most previous advice I've heard on this topic. And it's a challenge in Invasion because my two main characters are heterosexual men. If one of them lingers too long on the other's blue eyes and lean, wiry strength, well, they suddenly don't seem quite so hetero anymore. That said, one of my critique groups has been heard to grumble that they still don't have any idea what these people look like.

6. Use scenes, not summaries. I don't have much in my notes on this one. Show, don't tell, basically.

Thayer then segued into a discussion on how to write dialogue, which he recommends we do as much as possible. Readers are drawn to it, and their eyes like the broken-up text.

1. Avoid small talk. Everyday social lubricant is not interesting in fiction. Make the reader feel he has arrived after the small talk is over and is leaving before it starts up again.

2. Argument is the best dialogue. Accusations are more interesting than flattery. Bickering is more interesting than billing and cooing.

3. Modifying the word "said." Here Thayer gave the standard advice on avoiding adverbs. I always snarl a bit when this Rule of Writing comes up, because I think that anti-adverb brigade has gone too far. Should you have them after every line of dialogue? Heck, no. Are they occasionally useful? Absolutely. But you tell beginner writers that adverbs are bad, writers who haven't yet learned that the Rules of Writing are like the Pirate Code--more like guidelines--and they become fanatical on the topic. And I've run into one too many critiquer or contest judge who red-pens everything that ends in "ly." Drives me crazy, so it does.

Don't get me wrong. Adverbs can be overused. When I'm editing, I look at every one I've written and cut out probably two out of three. But they're a legitimate specialty item in the writer's toolkit. Use them when they work. Adverb proudly.

4. In dialogue, a character should seldom answer a question directly. I.e. you often don't need "yes" or "no."

5. Avoid As-You-Know dialogue. Characters should never tell each other what they both already know for the benefit of the audience. To this advice, I can only say "amen." Nothing drives me crazier than stilted, unnatural backstory exposition through dialogue. Automatic wallbanger, for me.

6. Avoid "John and Marcia" dialogue. I won't bore you with why it's John and Marcia, but the error here is having characters continually say each other's name. It feels stilted and unnatural.

Thayer then closed with two bonus tips:

1. If your character cries, the reader won't have to. If you give your character a reason to cry and she doesn't, then the reader will cry. It's as if letting the character break down takes away the tension.

2. Eliminate exclamation points. They make your novel read like a teenager's diary.

1 comment:

Arkansas Cyndi said...

Fantastic advice. Thanks for sharing