- Jul 14, 2015
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And now for some more specific advice:
Beware the passive voice (and passive verbs in general).
Over-use of the passive voice is a problem that crops up again and again in stories by inexperienced writers. The effect is subtle, but sentence by sentence and paragraph by paragraph it adds up. But what is the passive voice? For our purposes as fiction writers, a simplified explanation is that it's every time you choose to make what could be the subject of a sentence into the object -- the person or thing that ought to be the actor becomes the one acted upon instead. To put it even more simply, if you find that you are frequently describing what a character has done to them, rather than what they do, you are probably over-using the passive voice, or at least treading awfully close. The verb "to be" has a way of popping up in these sentences, and if you see too much of it on a page or in a passage you should be on the alert, because over-use of that verb can be a problem in itself.
The above paragraph is bristling with passive verbs and passive sounding sentences. People use these a lot in explaining something or giving instructions. Why? Because they are bland, they are inoffensive. No one feels like you are barking orders at them. But that very blandness counts against you in fiction writing. It fails to produce the same sort of vivid effect as more active verbs. It often causes sentences to be more wordy and convoluted. (Don’t use the passive voice is obviously shorter and clearer than the passive voice is something that should never be used.)
Now obviously there are instances when you will want to use the verb “to be” in one of its many variations. Sometimes you most certainly do want to describe what something is, or what someone experiences or is subjected to rather than what they do -- and turning all your passive verbs into active ones would not only create an artificial effect, it can also tie your sentences (and your mind!) into knots. Again, the problem lies in using such sentences too much. I’ve critiqued manuscripts where the verb "to be" turned up fifteen or sixteen times on a single page, and where, in most of these instances, a more active verb or a simpler sentence structure would work more effectively. Readers will not notice this sort of thing consciously unless they’ve been taught to look for it, but they will feel the effect, and become less engaged with your writing without being able to tell you why. Yet simply by going through and fixing this one problem you can increase their interest. The difference may not be evident in a single paragraph or a single page, but as I said in the beginning, it does add up.
(But don’t obsess over this too much in the early stages of a project, because that can lead to stilted writing. Just consider this a tip you can use to polish your writing before you send it out.)
You can’t fix plot holes by patching them, but by weaving loose threads back in.
Or to put it another way: A plot hole occurs when there is something you haven’t thought out sufficiently, usually something much earlier in the story. Patching on new characters or situations to fix it rarely works, as the hole in the fabric of the story remains under the patch, and discerning readers will detect it despite your best efforts at disguise. It’s better to take a hard look at your story, pinpoint the exact place where things went wrong, fix the problem at its source rather than at the point where you first became aware of it, and rewrite everything that comes between. This may seem like a lot of work, but in the long run it may actually be less work because it fixes the problem for good. Otherwise, the loose threads may continue to unravel, requiring more and more patches. Whenever possible, look for a solution within the story. Very often it’s already there, you just haven’t seen it yet.
Which is closely related to:
When you can’t go forward, go back.
Momentum is a wonderful thing; while you have it keep on writing. But for most of us there comes a time when the writing stalls. It’s impossible to go forward, or at least any forward progress comes at a painful crawl, when before it was a glorious sprint. You feel there is something seriously wrong with the scene or the chapter you are working on at the moment, but you can’t figure out what that something is. Or you think you figure it out, but a page or two later you’re stalled again.
Rather than continuing to crawl -- or worse still, sit there staring at a blank computer screen until you’re beginning to weigh the comparative advantages of seasoning your food with rat poisoning or finely ground glass -- try taking another look at what you have written already. You may have to go back to the previous scene or chapter, or you may have to go back much further, perhaps even all the way to the beginning. Sometimes the block is there because your subconscious mind had detected a major plot hole that needs fixing. Or maybe its simply that a number of small errors have accumulated until their combined weight finally became enough to slow you down. Or maybe it’s that you have bypassed some marvelous opportunity, some character or situation with wonderful potential (far more interesting than what you’ve actually been writing about), and your subconscious mind has recognized this while the rest of you was concentrating on other things.
Of course, sometimes the problem is something completely unrelated to your story: some area of real-life stress, a bad relationship, a job you hate, a health problem you’ve neglected too long. In which case, go out and fix that instead. But if there is nothing like that -- or nothing so bad that it should affect your writing -- try looking backwards at what you have already written, and see if that helps.
This is not the same thing as editing. Editing is minute and specific, while revision applies to more sweeping changes. You will need to learn how to tell which of the two is appropriate in any given instance -- something which, unfortunately,you can only learn by trial and error. When you are first starting out, you will almost certainly need to do both of these things often. Later on, you will need less, but that doesn’t mean that your writing wouldn’t benefit from more.
And outlines are a wonderful thing when it comes to generating ideas, but don’t be ruled by them, because sometimes your first ideas aren’t your best. Be flexible, and make changes as needed. Sometimes, once you steel yourself to make changes, you will see that you have already, in fact, prepared the way for them: what you are putting in fits far better with the rest of the story than what you are taking out.
Take some time off from the actual writing to let the story germinate.
Many people will say put the book away for a few months between drafts, and work on something else. I have never done this (my mind doesn’t seem to work that way) so I can’t say whether this is beneficial or not, but I’m going to recommend something different. Spend those months when you are not actually writing the book thinking about it. Spend time living with the characters and their situation and see what new aspects you can discover when you’re not distracted by the task of putting the words on paper. (Do, of course, take notes, so that you don’t lose any of these great inspirations.) This, by the way, is the time when you might discover some of those loose ends that you can pick up to repair the plot holes -- solutions that were staring you in the face all along, but you couldn’t see them because you were trying too hard to invent a solution. Explore alternate scenarios; you may come up with something that is better than what you originally planned. Listen in on conversations between your characters -- things they say to each other between the actual scenes of the book -- because in these quieter moments they may find the time to tell you important things about themselves. Fantasize about all those things you would like your characters to do but which have no real place in the story. (That way you get them out of your system, and they don’t end up on the page, where they don’t belong.)
No plot should depend too much on misunderstandings between the characters, or on smart people doing stupid things, or on people keeping secrets or withholding information they would be certain to blurt out immediately in real life.
Unless you are intentionally writing soap-opera. In certain kinds of writing there is an unwritten contract that this sort of thing will constantly happen, and that it will be forgiven for the sake of a racier story. Without that tacit contract, you will insult the reader’s intelligence by using these devices too much.
Stories that exist only for the sake of twists at the end are seldom very good.
Somewhere along the line, probably in school, many people get the idea that such stories are inherently clever. There are, of course, classic stories of this sort, but the classics always have far more going for them than the last few lines; the twist is simply a little something extra at the end. Too many aspiring writers latch on to the ending as the great thing and forget about the rest. It’s like the first grader who hears his first knock-knock joke and instantly concludes that anything beginning with the words “knock, knock” is automatically side-splittingly funny -- except that this particular delusion lasts into adulthood. A well-written story will stand on its own with or without the twist, but even the most clever ending will not make up for a lame plot or generally poor writing.
Besides leading to contrived plotting and causing the writer to concentrate too much on the ending -- and not enough on the beginning and middle parts of a story-- there are two other pitfalls with the twist-ending story. The first one is that the set-up will telegraph the ending -- because once the reader senses that a twist is coming it’s usually easy to guess what it will be. The second is that the writer will be tempted to lie to the reader. Readers like to be surprised, but only if they feel the surprise has been “earned”, and they are far more likely to think that it has been earned if the writer has achieved this by way of misdirection rather than outright deceit. (The author, after all, has complete power, choosing what to show and what to conceal, what to shine a light on and what to simply hint at as it lurks in the shadows. In general, readers are not happy when they believe that power has been abused.)
And closely related to the above:
Surprise is often over-rated.
You can achieve as much suspense by creating a sense of anticipation as you can by being artfully mysterious. Ideally, you should be able to maintain suspense by a mixture of both.
Avoid cheap melodramatics.
By this I mean arguments, tantrums, and other emotional explosions that do nothing to advance the plot or to reveal anything useful about the characters, but are merely there to spice up the story when nothing else particularly exciting is happening. These tactics get old fast, and can cause readers to lose sympathy for otherwise appealing characters. They can also dilute moments of genuine drama -- if your characters are hyperventilating and striking poses on practically every page, how can you expect readers to be impressed by the same behaviors when the real action begins? Save them for the big moments, when they’ll have more impact.
Believe in yourself.
I said I wasn’t going to tell you to “stick with it” or “keep on going,” didn’t I? Well, I’m not telling you that now. But if you feel that you must stick with and you must keep on going:
Believe in yourself enough that you make the time to write. It can be hard, when you haven’t sold anything yet, to justify any time that you take away from other things in order to give it to your writing. (Actually, it can be hard even when you’re writing something under contract. You feel guilty if you ignore those dirty dishes and unmade beds -- and equally guilty if you spend the day on housework instead of writing.) Don’t waste time trying to justify it, because you’ve already answered that question -- and the answer was that you need to write -- now go and do it.
Believe in yourself enough that you take time to read. Hooray! What was once recreation now becomes something you must do. Ignore those people who make snide remarks about always having your nose in a book. You can justifiably regard reading as fuel for your writing aspirations. You have to put words in to keep your literary engine going. The yardwork can wait. (Well, okay, plants can be notoriously impatient and will probably die if you don’t water them. You may have to do that much. But the weeds aren’t going anywhere, and if members of your household get cranky when the grass gets shaggy, show them where you keep the lawn-mower.)
Believe in yourself enough that you take the time to revise, to research -- to do whatever it takes to make your writing the best it can possibly be. There will probably never be enough good books ; there can never be too many of them. Those who add to their number are public benefactors.
This is me all the way! I've had this sci-fi story in my head for over a decade. It has grown to epic proportions and will take me an eternity to write it if I don't make the time to do it. So far, I've been on track for over a year.#3
There is only one good reason to become a fiction writer, and that is if you have stories and characters inside of you clamoring to get out.
I gave up when I write my fantasy novels about 15 years ago due to a bad agent. But eventually my step-dad talked me into self-publishing. They are published now, but I'm an amateur writer, at best, and am currently working on writing my sci-fi while also honing my writing skills.#4
Most writers give up far too soon.
Finding honest reviewers is the best thing I have ever done. I didn't have honest reviewers when I published my fantasy novels. Now that I've found some for my sci-fi, I've realized what my other novels were missing.If you have just started writing and you are getting a great many compliments, you need to find a more honest (or a more experienced) group of readers.
I don't think I have this problem, but this brought to light another issue I have that was brought up by my honest reviewers. I have a problem with telling rather than showing. And I've recently learned more about deep POV. Now, I'm reading more on how to do deep POV and will be going back on what I've written so far to try to apply it. Fingers crossed.#8
Beware the passive voice (and passive verbs in general).