Read The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes Online

Authors: Jack M. Bickham

Tags: #Language Arts & Disciplines, #Creative Writing, #Reference, #Fiction - Technique, #Technique, #Fiction, #Writing Skills, #Literary Criticism, #Composition & Creative Writing, #Authorship, #General

The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes


(And How To Avoid Them)

by Jack M. Bickham

The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes (and How to Avoid Them)

Copyright © 1992 by Jack M. Bickham. Printed and bound in the United States of America. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means including information storage and retrieval systems without permission in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer, who may quote brief passages in a review. Published by Writer's Digest Books, an imprint of F+W Publications, Inc., 4700 East Galbraith Road, Cincinnati, Ohio 45236. (800) 289-0963. First Paperback Printing 1997.

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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Bickham. Jack M.

The 38 most common fiction writing mistakes and how to avoid them / Jack M. Bickham.

p. cm.

Includes index.

ISBN-13: 978-0-89879-821-0 (pbk.)

ISBN-10: 0-89879-821-3 (pbk.)

1. Fiction—Technique. 2. Authorship I. Title. II. Title: The thirty-eight most common fiction writing mistakes and how to avoid them.

PN3355.B47 1992

808.3—dc20 91-32293


Edited by Bill Brohaugh

Designed by Sandy Kent


The preliminary section
of a book is often labeled a "foreword." But in a book involving fiction technique, the word ought to be "Forward."

Why?... To emphasize two vital points:
All good fiction moves forward; all good fiction writers look ahead

In more than twenty years of teaching courses in professional writing at the University of Oklahoma, I think I've encountered almost every difficulty an aspiring writer might face. (Once, I had a young male student who was both deaf and blind. He required a companion in the classroom to tap her fingers against his hand during my lectures to spell out my words.) But by far the most common—and crippling—problem for students over the years was the tendency to write static copy that didn't have forward movement. And the second most common problem was the habit of looking backwards—at past mistakes and disappointments, or at worries about the part of the story already written—rather than
, where all the potential... all the challenge... all the excitement and triumph... have to be.

So, despite the fact that I've chosen to write this book from what seems a negative stance, telling you what you shouldn't do, please don't fall into the trap of thinking negatively, or backwards, about your writing. My hope is that by seeing a common error stated boldly in the section heading, you will look harder at your own copy to see if you might be committing the same mistake. But my message is positive—
. In every section you'll find a common mistake described, but you'll also find how to avoid that error, or build in a strength as a replacement for a previous weakness.

Nothing can erode your powers more than a negative attitude.

Nothing can cripple your fiction more than looking at it backwards, as a static artifact or "done deal" rather than a living, forward-moving, dynamic series of inventions.

So you'll be reading a lot of "don't" statements in the following pages. But that's partly just to get your attention. Remember, behind every negative is a positive.

Just as behind every rejection there's a triumphant sale—if you'll just persevere.

So let's move on, now...

—J. M. B.

Table of Contents

Don't Make Excuses
when you can avoid procrastination and delays with these ideas to get your project started.

Don't Consider Yourself Too Smart
when you can bring your writing down to earth—where your readers are.

Don't Show Off When You Write
when you can give your writing power by putting complex ideas into simple language.

Don't Expect Miracles
when you can achieve your writing goals through hard work, patience and perseverance.

Don't Warm Up Your Engines
when you can write a captivating story from the very start.

Don't Describe Sunsets
when you can keep your story moving by avoiding flowery description.

Don't Use Real People in Your Story
when you can create vivid, compelling characters through exaggeration.

Don't Write About Wimps
when you can build strong, active characters by employing "story goals."

Don't Duck Trouble
when you can fill your writing with true conflict.

Don't Have Things Happen for No Reason
when you can use background and motivation to instill logic and credibility in your fiction.

Don't Forget Stimulus and Response
when you can strengthen your writing through cause and effect.

Don't Forget Whose Story It Is
when you can avoid confusion by using the viewpoint character's thoughts and perceptions to dominate the story.

Don't Fail to Make the Viewpoint Clear
when you can keep your readers riveted on a single character and his or her problem.

Don't Lecture Your Reader
when you can convey story information through more innovative and creative means.

Don't Let Characters Lecture, Either
when you can keep your dialogue from stumbling over clumsy research and background information.

Don't Let Them Be Windbags
when you can keep characters' dialogue sleek and direct by creating a conversational goal.

Don't Mangle Characters' Speech
when you can write realistic dialogue without using dialect, slang, colloquialisms and foul language.

Don't Forget Sense Impressions
when you can create understanding for characters by fully using thoughts, feelings and the senses.

Don't Be Afraid to Say "Said"
when you can keep your dialogue strong by avoiding these examples of distracting synonyms.

Don't Assume You Know; Look It Up
because one tiny error can rob you of your readers' credibility.

Don't Ever Stop Observing and Making Notes
when you can hone your description skills by constantly practicing on the world around you.

Don't Ignore Scene Structure
when you can use these seven steps to create an exciting scene that will build tension.

Don't Drop Alligators Through the Transom
when you can create interesting complications directly related to the story.

Don't Forget to Let Your Characters Think
when you can employ the power of "emotion-thought-decision" to fulfill story goals.

Don't Wander Around in a Fog
when you can define your story's direction, and stick to it.

Don't Worry About Being Obvious
when you can be confident your writing is clear and powerful enough to keep readers out of the dark.

Don't Criticize Yourself to Death
when you should just let your creative juices flow.

Don't Worry What Mother Will Think
when you can write freely, without outside burdens.

Don't Hide From Your Feelings
when you can fill your writing with the passion and emotion that readers crave.

Don't Take It to the Club Meeting
when you can avoid the sting of unnecessary, incorrect and irrelevant advice.

Don't Ignore Professional Advice
when you can benefit from the experience of a published writer.

Don't Chase the Market
when you can write solid, publishable fiction without getting hung up on "sure thing" trends.

Don't Pose and Posture
when you can remove plot-stopping pretentions and cynicism from your writing.

Don't Waste Your Plot Ideas
when you can use these idea-sparkers to make them work for you over and over again.

Don't Stop Too Soon
when you can hold a truly finished project in your hands after completing this twelve-step revision plan.

Don't Prejudice Your Editor
when you can use these eight tips for putting together a manuscript package.

Don't Give Up
when you can remain optimistic and persistent in your career as a fiction writer.

Don't Just Sit There
when you could start writing, and keep writing—successfully.

1. Don't Make Excuses

Writers are a favorite
subject for cartoonists, from Charles Schulz
of Peanuts
fame to those who contribute to
The New Yorker
. (You can't blame them for picking on writers; we
sort of weird.) Over the years I've haphazardly collected such cartoons, and some of my favorites are taped to the door of my office.

One of these shows a nonwriter telling a weary novelist at an autograph party, "Gosh! I know I could write a novel too, but I've just never found the time!"

Another, in two panels, is titled, "Writer's Block." The first panel shows the writer standing idle in his writing room; that panel is captioned "Temporary." In the second panel, the erstwhile writer is standing in the doorway of his fish store; that panel is captioned "Permanent."

A third cartoon shows a writer at his typewriter, telling his wife, "I just can't start until inspiration strikes." Subsequent panels show him in the same position—nothing done—and getting older... and older... and older.

I don't know how funny these cartoons
are, but I like them because they illustrate the primary habit that separates the writers from the pretenders. The world is brimming over with people good enough to make a living as writers. Thank goodness—for those of us who are working, and don't need any more competition—most such talented people spend their creative energies making excuses, and never quite get around to the job at hand.

If you are serious about the craft of fiction, you must never make excuses for yourself You simply cannot allow yourself to:

• Say you're too tired.

• Postpone work until "later."

• Fail to work because you're too busy right now.

• Wait for inspiration.

• Plan to get right at it "tomorrow."

• Give up because (editors) (agents) (readers) (critics) are unfair. (Fill in as many as you want.)

• Tell yourself you're too old (or too young) to start.

• Blame others in your family for your lack of free time.

• Say your job is too demanding to allow you any other activity.

• Tell yourself that your story idea isn't good enough.

Or any of a host of other excuses you may dream up for yourself.

No. Let's get this straight right away: Writers write; everyone else makes excuses.

Nothing short of a genuine tragedy in your life should be allowed to intrude into your regular work as a writer of fiction. Do you really think successful writers have unlimited time, face no other demands on them, are always peppy and eager to face the keyboard? Of course not! Writing can be tremendous fun, and wonderfully rewarding. But writing is hard work.

Let me repeat.

Writing is hard work.

Nobody really enjoys hard work day after day, week after week. Everybody wants sometimes to get away and play, or just be lazy. When a project such as a novel is going badly, the writer never wants to face her day's stint at the keyboard. At such times, excuses come easily. But the professional simply does not let herself off so easily. All the excuses, all the complaints, all the alternatives to work, must be fought through; the real writer
will work
. And regularly.

Consider: If you write only one page a day, by the end of one year you will have a 365-page novel. Take the next year to rewrite it at the same pace, and you will have a finished novel to show to an agent or editor, which is about the same output that many best-selling novelists have.

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