A Cautionary Tale: 3 Writing Rules That Can Derail Your Story

Lisa Cron wrote a fantastic blog post on Writer Unboxed, outlining three oft-preached and just as oft-misapplied ‘rules’ that can derail an otherwise brilliantly executed story.

Last year I had occasion to read a batch of ten page manuscript submissions in a hurry, one right after the other. What I noticed was startling in its consistency.

All of the writers had clearly spent time learning their craft. All of them had something to say. And all of them, by meticulously following what they’d been taught, had rendered their stories mute in the exact same way.

It was heartbreaking, given the talent in the room.

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The Curious Case of the Nameless Character

Recently, I listed opening a book with a nameless character as one of the 5 Reasons I Put Your Book Down. In comments, I was asked to elaborate a little more for the benefit of those who are wondering why it’s such a big deal. I attempted to answer in comments, but (in classic form) my answer grew a bit beyond its context.

Here is why I personally believe the technique of not naming your characters can be risky one–and when I think it can work: Read more

Doctor Who’s Storytelling Fail

Wait! Before you groan that I’m ranting about TV rather than talking about writing… this post is ultimately about storytelling, so stick with me!

TV takes a distant second to books, for me—but I’m a complete Whovian. Or at least, I was. Well, no, I am—it’s complicated. I’m the sort of person who would wear these with a straight face.

… but, I have to say, I’m completely unmoved by the impending death of the eleventh Doctor, played by Matt Smith.

Why? Well, it took me a while to sort it out. I’m not a fan of post-Tennant Who. At first I thought it was because I didn’t care for Smith (though I eventually warmed to him). The problem is a bit more serious than that, because while the actors who play the Doctor will come and go, the show runners generally stick around a bit longer. Read more

What I’ve Learned About Learning to Write

There are a lot of people who don’t believe in studying the ‘craft’ of writing. Writing is art, they say. You need to find your passion and let it flow through you. Don’t worry about structure or voice or character arcs. That only inhibits the freedom of your unique magic.

I like to imagine these people say these things while wearing lots of tie-dye and flowy skirts. And doing yoga.

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5 Reasons I Put Your Book Down

You’ve slaved over your brilliant masterpiece for months–or even years–and finally, by some chance of fate, it ends up in my eager, avid-reader hands. So, what are the chances I’m going to make it to the end?

Without going into the usual discussion about interesting plot, compelling characters, and good worldbuilding… there are a few readerly irritations that seem to pop up again and again for me. Since I hate the phrase “pet peeves” (I might actually call it one, if I didn’t hate the phrase so much), here are some things that drive me (as a reader) up the wall, in no particular order:

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Character Quirks

I recently listened to an older episode of the (brilliant) podcast Writing Excuses on the subject of Character Quirks. About halfway through the podcast, there was a bit of confusion when the contributors realized that they all had different interpretations of what a character quirk actually is.

This bites us a lot when talking about writing–there’s no firm authority defining all the terminology we use.  So–what is a character quirk? How does one use them well? How do you use them badly? Read more

The Trouble With Prologues

Here’s my issue with prologues:

I’m a long-time fantasy reader. That means I have been faced with more prologues than I can even count. Some books even have two prologues! Sometimes these prologues are interesting and legitimate.

Much, much more often the prologue is used as a free info-dump. The writer feels no need to ‘hook’ me into the book—so why read it at all? I was at one time a decided prologue skipper, because more often than not, the information in the prologue wasn’t even necessary for me to understand the story.

In my opinion, for a prologue to justify its existence, it needs to: Read more

Writing by the Rules

There are no hard and fast rules in writing. 

For a lot of folks, their first introduction to writing instruction comes in the form of entry-level writing courses in high school and college. These courses are tailored toward the lowest common denominator: usually, people who have little to no writing experience, and are not necessarily avid readers. They also mostly focus on essaying and critical writing, rather than creative writing.

Many writing skills, especially style and voice, are learned through experience in both reading and writing. These beginning writing courses are not comprehensive enough to go into those subjects in great depth. Instead, they teach many hard and fast rules designed to help new writers avoid common pitfalls. Read more

Describing Characters

There are a few things that really make me groan and roll my eyes when reading a novel. One of them is the “creation story”. I’ve been reading fantasy since my age was in the single digits, and if I read “In the beginning…” one more time, I think I really might just shoot myself. Or, at the very least, put down the book and walk away.

Another thing that really grates on me is the “mirror description”. Many authors, wishing to quickly and thoroughly communicate their character’s appearance, resort to having their character check themselves out in the mirror. The character inventories their appearance with a great deal more attention to detail than people generally do, using a multitude of (often cliche) adjectives.

Most people when looking in the mirror think something akin to: “Damn, time to shave”, or “I need a haircut” or “Where the HELL did that pimple come from?”

Unfortunately, the characters of an embarrassingly large number of novels do this:

Karen stopped in front of the hall mirror before leaving for work. She had a small, oval face with even features and pillowy lips that rarely required lipstick. Glossy, auburn waves cascaded over one shoulder, accentuating her petite, hourglass figure….

… blah, blah, blah.

This is painful. Read more