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Hey, new writer, this is the biggest thing you're doing wrong

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by BWFoster78, Mar 31, 2014.

  1. BWFoster78

    BWFoster78 Myth Weaver

    Writing fiction isn't really about choosing the right words. Truthfully, it's not about how well you can combine words into sentences that are coherent and flow well and express a thought and are grammatically correct. It's not even about putting those sentences together to form paragraphs.

    The number one goal for fiction writing is to entertain the reader.

    (If that's not the goal of your writing, please disregard this post.)

    I'm seeing a lot of new writers really trying hard to put those words together in the right way to express their thoughts and to convey information. That's great and admirable. It really is. If you're going to write, at some point you have to figure out how to convey information clearly.

    It also completely misses the boat.

    First, you need to make sure that you're conveying information in an entertaining manner. Those two thousand words of backstory you just wrote may flow off the page like buttah, but it's likely boring as a rice cake. If, as a new writer, you can't identify why the reader is going to be entertained by a scene, the likelihood is that the reader isn't going to be entertained.

    Find an author whose style you like and read them analytically. Figure out exactly how that author captured your attention and try to emulate those techniques.

    It seems to me that the trick of writing fiction well is crafting your scenes appropriately. Each scene has to:

    1: Be entertaining
    2: Convey plot and character information in a way that's integral to the story

    For the first of those, I've found that the easiest thing to do is to include lots of tension.

    1: give the character a scene goal
    2: create opposition to that scene goal
    3: define consequences for the scene goal not being met

    By clearly communicating each of those elements to the reader, you'll create tension. If you have enough tension, the scene will be entertaining.

    The trick then becomes how to incorporate the backstory and description and plot/character information in a way that is a part of the story instead of the author telling the reader something and that doesn't bog down the pace too severely.
    Last edited: Mar 31, 2014
  2. Svrtnsse

    Svrtnsse Staff Article Team

    This is a pretty good summary of the things we discussed in another thread the other day. I've mulled a bit over it, so it's not actually new to me now, but it still sums it up nicely.
  3. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

    I agree as well. It is important to note that readers vary in terms of what entertains them. You can look at any book discussion to see that. I don't know that number three has to go for every scene, though it isn't a bad idea to approach it that way. I think moat books I read attempt to do that, though there are always exceptions where authors approach things differently. I recently read Catilin Kiernan's latest, and she takes quite a different approach from this at times (or maybe even different from steps two and three). The book is entertaining, though.
  4. Motley

    Motley Minstrel

    I think you need both. I do agree that story comes first, but I do believe that the language you use with all its rhythm and flow adds to that in an important way.

    And I completely agree that every scene needs some sort of goal and tension.
    deilaitha likes this.
  5. BWFoster78

    BWFoster78 Myth Weaver

    For me, tension is the easiest way to go. It's easy to understand and to implement.

    That being said, there are lots of ways to draw the reader's interest.

    The important thing, imo, is that the writer have a strategy for doing so. I've read a lot of works by new writers lately where the author has forgotten this crucial consideration.
  6. BWFoster78

    BWFoster78 Myth Weaver

    That's a discussion we've had many, many, many times on this forum. To save time, the general consensus seems to be that you need a certain compentence regarding the actual wording so as not to completely turn off a reader but that, if you really want to gain an audience, the story is more important.

    Again, to be clear, the point wasn't that every scene needs a goal and tension. Though the goal/tension setup works for me and is easy, it may not be what you're trying to accomplish.

    The point was that each author needs to have a strategy for creating reader interest. If a writer hasn't developed that strategy, the writer likely isn't going to create works that consistently entertain.
  7. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

    Yes, I think this is right. Technical expertise in writing falls well behind the ability to craft an engaging story, as can be seen by looking at any number of books that have been tremendously successful with readers but are written with a mediocre level of technical proficiency.
    BWFoster78 likes this.
  8. Gurkhal

    Gurkhal Auror

    My biggest mistake was attempting to early to chew off to much. I thought that I would start with writing a novellette, and gods I was wrong!
  9. Penpilot

    Penpilot Staff Article Team

    I agree. This is basic scene/sequel structure. What you just described is a scene. But scenes have a companion "scene" call the sequel, sometimes referred to as the reaction scene. A sequel is as follows.

    1: Emotional reaction to what happened at the end of the scene. (achieve goal, denied goal, achieved goal but something else happens that gets you in deeper, denied goal and something else happens that gets you in deeper.) Achieving the goal without consequences never happens until end of the story.

    2: Defining logical options available to the character.

    3: Defining consequences of taking each of those actions.

    4: Choosing a course of action, setting up the next goal for the following scene.

    Steps 2 and 3 can be skipped depending on the situation. For example if somebody pulls a gun on your main character, there's no reason to spell out the logical choices and consequences. It's understood. The sequel can be simply, "Crap, run!"

    Sequels are what give scenes meaning. Without them a story becomes a Michael Bay movie, motivations become clouded, characters become shallow, and emotions don't get developed. Sequels are an opportunity to slow the action down and have the main character take stock of their situation, see how far they've come, and to interact with other characters in a way that isn't always about struggling against the bad guys.
    GroundedTraveler likes this.
  10. Wow, tons of good stuff here; I need to get my notebook out:)

    I'm sort of with Gurkhal here. Now I'm not trying to say I'm an experienced writer, but my first project, started back in the sunny days of September 2012, fresh off my reread of Asoiaf, was WAY too big.

    The only way I can sum it up was a cross between Asoiaf, and the Malazan works.

    It was a shambolic piece of works, wonky characters, massively changing plot lines, the whole thing chaotic.

    I packed that up in February this year, and focus on my other project I'd been mulling over. Much better. (as of 60,000 words in)

    What I'm trying to say here, is that I think new writers aim too high. They try to do to much, and they try and cram their characters into pre-determined roles, rather than letting the characters act as they usually would, letting them develop by themselves.

    This has happened with my current project, and lets say that I've become emotionally attached to him; he's my baby, which is SERIOUSLY odd, as he's *couple of minutes pauses as I work out the age difference on my fingers* six years older than me.

    I also think that, as has been said before on this posts, new writers try to cram so much stuff in, its like getting hit by a trolloc with a cudgel ( I use that metaphor because I started doing it badly after I picked up Eye of The World, by Mr Jordan in late 2012).

    Now, I sort of just let my fingers do what they want to do, and the prose is much sharper, much crisper. ( it also helps that I'm writing in First person; I can sort of info dump and get away with it, by having the characters inner commentary on it).

    Anyways, that's my opinion.... :)
  11. Caged Maiden

    Caged Maiden Staff Article Team

    It is so easy for a new writer to think backstory and history are necessary. While I'm totally now of a firm mind that it isn't I completely understand where people are coming from. This is only something you learn through doing it wrong and having peopel point it out. Honestly, it's expected. Too often, I find myself reading for an inexperienced writer and giving advanced advice. It almost becomes a question of whether to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth... almost. I always tell the truth. Unfortunately, each writer must discover their own truth. For some, it will be that they read my work and see something they like and decide maybe I know something about writing and my advice is at least plausible. For others, they will take my comment to cut their prologue, kindly ask me to stick it where the sun don't shine, and pursue their vision. Either way is fine by me honestly, but my experience has taught me a few things and I would ask that every writer learn in the way best for them.

    Sometimes, that means rejections from a stack of agents. For some, it means a writing workshop or an intense crit and a phone call or two. I think each of us has a road to travel and when we meet people along the way, we can learn a little about the journey from them. We can tell them about what we've seen. We can hear about their mistakes and the consequences. We can also strap our blinders a little tighter and forge ahead though people are screaming, "No, don't go that way... it's a dead end!" But our paths continue.

    The thing I've learned most from is trading crits. By far, it's helped me to hone my own skills and be able to see my own mistakes. Also, I value the opinions of everyone. Because let's be real... while part of me writes to please myself, if I ever want to get past the gatekeeper agents, I need to learn how to please others, too. While I might feel comfortable slogging through erroneous words and pointless scenes because they amuse me... my crit partners have been very forthcoming in their assessments and conveying whether they too were entertained. Most weren't. I learned.

    I think this community has a wonderful ability to put us all on level footing and allow new people to learn from those who are more experienced. Through that process, though, I always try to remember where I was when I signed up here. Two years has done a lot of good for my writing, taking me from a person who hobby wrote to entertain myself, to a person who really believes in their ability and could strive for attaining a professional level of work.

    For all the new writers here who are really interested in learning on the fast track, the advice here is good and the people are willing to help. Seek out those people from whom you think you can learn the most and talk with them. Pms are a non-public way to ask for help and I've found that most people are willing to respond.

    Also, there are loads of good articles on this site that continue to be helpful. I've sent out dozens of word doc copies of my Query-writing article and my Target Editing article to folks I've met over the years.

    Every step of this process is breaking new ground for the inexperienced writer, but if you're feeling overwhelmed, this community is here to help. Kindness and good will are the fuels we use to share our experiences and the more of it that's out there, the more we all benefit.
    solas likes this.
  12. Chessie

    Chessie Guest

    Absolutely. And tension doesn't have to be a battle, or something wicked happening. Tension can be something as simple as: "he wanted to smoke a cigarette more than anything, but he promised himself that yesterday had been the last day he would smoke" or something like that. That's the tension I like best, the inner writhing of the character on any given subject.

    By the way, great thread. :)
  13. Caged Maiden

    Caged Maiden Staff Article Team

    I love tension. I didn't realize I loved it until Phil pointed out how my best scenes were the ones in which people had different motivations. He always preferred my "character interaction scenes" to my "fight scenes" and for good reason. One, my fight scenes were either choreographed messes or were "too easy" the win coming without a real threat. My character interactions, however, followed my real life. Sometimes conversations in my novels were actually transcribed arguments I've had or witnessed. I just drew on what I knew. And it showed because the writing and pacing were better, interesting, and most of all authentic.

    i think as we grow as writers, our tool boxes swell to hold the new tools. While the old ones (creativity, passion, a story to tel) are always there, we suddenly have an assortment of newer tools that make those old ones that much more effective. things like understanding POV, how to construct a scene, how to concisely describe a setting utilizing the POV filter.

    We all have a passion for this wonderful art form, but it's through practice we get better. When I mentioned advising to cut a prologue, I didn't mean to imply I would "cut it because it's bad writing". What i meant was "cut it because it's unnecessary information to feed to a reader who is hungry to sink their teeth into a strong character and scene and would rather have that bag of spices (the history, back story, etc.) spread out over each course of the meal rather than all on the appetizer.

    I had a seventeen page prologue to book 7. Yep. You all have heard this story before. I gave the book to critters and they ripped into it. Not one enjoyed the original prologue. Most tole me to cut it. So after careful consideration, I did. I added a scene in the beginning from a one-off POV that is never seen again in the book, and used three other MCs from the novel to show the history of the events leading up to chapter one's opening. THEN... I labelled chapter 1 chapter 2, and I made the PROLOGUE chapter 1. It wasn't easy. I struggled to strengthen each scene but knew the information had to go in because otherwise, it would never be seen (from the POV character of the book, who never learns of the things that happen in chapter 1). But, what i have now is so much better than the original (which I thought was awesome initially).

    Now, however, makign that change would be a piece of cake. I'd have seen it on my own and would have known right away that it spelled disaster for the opening of a novel. While I've never gone back and completed the book, I now have the skills I didn't possess back then, to make the opening strong.

    Sometimes we have to break the "writing rules". We MUST have a prologue. We MUST show a history or past event that sparks the novel. Or we simply HAVE to "tell" something or use passive writing. It's okay. By simply understanding what these things are and what they mean to a reader, we can use them appropriately for the right effect. When handled correctly, plot elements like love triangles, chosen ones, prophesy fulfilled, etc. become convincing stories, whereas when weakly written, they make us roll our eyes and throw up in our moths a little.

    Learning how to write is as much about learning what to write (scene and story-wise0 as it is about learning correct grammar, punctuation and dialogue tags.

    I have every confidence any open-minded beginning writer can excel. Mostly, it just takes practice and a certain level of conscientiousness--the desire to make your work as good as it can be. You'll be better tomorrow than you are today, and next year, you will probably look back at this first draft and laugh a little. Or cringe. I did both. Still do.

    As I gear up for nano camp, I'm opening a novel I haven't looked at in three years. Okay, I've peeked. It's terrible. Weak sentence structure abounds. Tells are everywhere. i can't move for the number of poorly-written dialogues, with their missing tags or inappropriate ones. that's the nature of the game. But I know how I'm sloppy. That's why I took two years to learn everything I could about self-editing.Now, turning that godawful rough draft into a workable manuscript takes weeks instead of months.

    Editing is the hardest thing I've had to learn. Within that single concept are all the things that comprise "writing lessons". Things like establishing an antagonist, creating motivations, deepening characters' POV, using active verbs, concisely describing settings or events through POV filter, scene analysis, plot pacing, and the list goes on...

    WHile there are a set of newbie mistakes almost every beginner-writer manuscript seems to contain, each of us has strengths and weaknesses natural to us alone. The faster you discover your strengths and weaknesses, the quicker you will improve and the easier your journey will be. Taking time away from your novel to learn how to overcome weaknesses will be a boon in the long run. However, that's a hard pill to swallow. Which was why I took so long to improve upon my earlier style. i thought I could learn one skill and simply replace all the weak bits with stronger bits. One at a time, I learned a lesson and applied it to my work. Unfortunately, I didn't have a wide-angle lens on the whole process and it was a bunch of precariously balanced elements that tumbled many times.

    Good thing there's hope for all of us in tenacity. Because I stuck with it and didn't give up, my LONG road finally became one I didn't mind traveling. I found a way to abandon my old habits that held me back and got on with it. Each of us needs to find a way to do that if we wish to break into a professional market. We need to understand the "rules' and how the game is played. That way, when we break them, we can do so effectively.
  14. Feo Takahari

    Feo Takahari Auror

    Maybe we're writing in different circles, but I'm not really familiar with the boring, clear stories that are being talked about in this thread. My experience of beginning writers is of folks who know how they want to entertain readers, but give such unclear descriptions of what's going on that I can't follow the action. This means I can't give constructive criticism on anything other than "try to be clearer."

    (I'm also baffled by the conflation of works that are clear with works that flow like buttah. Works that flow like buttah tend to be unclear, and conversely, works like textbooks that are written for maximum clarity tend to have horrible flow.)
    deilaitha likes this.
  15. The Dark One

    The Dark One Auror

    I agree with everything the OP said, but one thing I thought I'd add...

    Tension in the reader's mind does not have to mean tension among characters and opposition in every scene. A plot can be viewed on one level as a very simple line, but it can be divided up into any number of smaller lines (and offshoots) and those smaller lines are all about questions being raised and answered, then further questions being raised. Very importantly, from the perspective of your macro-plot line, the question raised / tension rising in a particular scene does not have to be engendered in that scene. Attentive readers know what the issues are and build up plot baggage like bees collecting pollen. Things that happened in scenes 3, 7, 12 and 27 might culminate in scene 34, but the reader sees all these plot threads come together in scene 34 and thinks: Unreal! This is gonna be great!

    I really concentrate on providing the reader with numerous payoffs as a reward for their attention.
  16. The Dark One

    The Dark One Auror

    To give a concrete example, there's quite a lot of sex in my books (always tasteful, and always different to every other sex scene in the history of literature) but I never let the characters do it until the reader has developed an emotional attachment to them and desperately wants them to do it. This may take numerous scenes to develop.
  17. deilaitha

    deilaitha Sage

    I agree that all fiction writing is for the purpose of entertainment. But the number one goal of fiction writing? I don't know that it is just for entertainment. I don't read for sheer entertainment. When I want to be entertained, I watch TV. When I read, I want to be entertained
    become immersed in a literary world where entertainment and beautiful language and writing live in harmony.

    An entertaining book isn't necessarily a good one, and good books are not always entertaining. Literature and fiction need not be separate entities.
    Last edited: Apr 7, 2014
  18. BWFoster78

    BWFoster78 Myth Weaver

    I've found that, when you're trying to have an discussion on an internet forum, it helps to be crystal clear about what you want to discuss. The goal of my writing is first and foremost to entertain the reader. The disclaimer was there to frame the discussion. If you don't want to write primarily to entertain, that's your call. Just means that this is not the thread you're looking for.
  19. Mythopoet

    Mythopoet Auror

    In his letters, J.R.R. Tolkien stated that his goal in writing The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings was to entertain readers. Of course since then millions of readers have been entertained and enlightened and enchanted and educated and immersed through those books. The Silmarillion was the book that, I believe, Tolkien was writing more for himself than anyone else. Not coincidentally, it seems to me, he didn't finish it before he died and it only went on to entertain (and enlighten and educate, etc.) readers (though, it should be said, not nearly as many as his other books) due to the diligence of his son.

    I think the point I am making is that it seems far more likely to me that you will succeed in entertaining, educating, enlightening, enchanting and all the rest if you make entertaining the reader your priority.
  20. BWFoster78

    BWFoster78 Myth Weaver

    I tend to agree with this statement.

    More important, though, I think that you should have a single primary goal. Kinda like "a jack of all trades and a master of none," if you try to do everything, it seems unlikely that you will do anything really well.

    I tend to think that entertaining the reader is a fantastic primary goal for any writer of fiction, but it can't be said that you can't succeed if you make another goal preeminent.

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