Friday, February 27, 2009

Writing Mistakes

Tonight is the last class in this session at Writers & Books. I have been critiquing manuscripts and now the rewrites are starting to come in, which got me thinking about the most common mistakes I see in these stories. Here, in no particular order, are the five areas that most frequently need rewriting:

TOO LONG A SET-UP. The story takes half its word count to set up the situation and provide background. Much better to get to the action more quickly and then fill in background as needed. Many stories start way too early in the narrative sequence.

TOO MUCH DISTANCE. The actions of the point-of-view character are provided, but not his thoughts and feelings and reactions. A character's inner self is what creates reader interest and, if appropriate, identification. I'm always writing in margins: Move POV closer.

WHITE ROOM SYNDROME. The action takes place on a blank canvas - I can't see anything (let alone smell or feel or hear the setting). Give me at least a few sensual details. Sometimes stories even have White Planet Syndrome: This is supposed to be an alien planet, but it might as well be an anonymous suburban backyard.

INSUFFICIENT MOTIVATION. A character does something because the plot requires it, not because she has plausible, compelling reasons to do it.

A WEAK ENDING. Often, when the class all says, "I didn't understand what happened at the end," the author replies, "I wanted to leave it ambiguous so the reader could decide for himself what happened." This almost never works. I'm a big fan of ambiguity, but it should concern the meaning of what happened, not the action itself. After spending 10,000 words with this character, I want to know if he dies, lives, finds the weapon, leaves Mars, or whatever. This is especially true if the piece reads like a conventionally plotted story; plots promise resolutions. A piece that reads like a literary story is written differently, and usually is shorter.

It's been my privilege at Writers & Books to work with some very talented aspiring writers, some of whom have gone on to publish. I like teaching. But I want to be in on the POV character's thoughts, the sensual feel of the setting, and the action at the climax.

Or else you owe me a rewrite.


John Nicholas said...

Can someone please send this list to the writers of "Heroes"? Run a highlighter over the insufficient motivation section first.

Ruhan Zhao said...


This piece looks very helpful. May I translate it and post in some Chinese SF BBS? There are many aspiring writers on that BBS.


Nancy Kress said...

Ruhan-- of course!

Ruhan Zhao said...


Thanks! I have posted it here: