Jul 09 2008

Five More Mistakes of First-Time Authors (#21-25)

This short article will help beginning novelists avoid another five common mistakes that will usually cause publishers to throw out a manuscript.

You can read the first three articles in this series here, here and here.

21. Please avoid vague and meaningless adjectives and adverbs (good, fine, well, alright, etc.) These words are usually wasted space because they do not convey as much information as a more specific word. For example, instead of saying “Jane is a good writer,” you might say that she is hilarious, informative, exhilarating, frightening, cogent, creative, steady or precise. These words are far more powerful than “good” because they help the reader understand why Jane is good.

If you find these general words slipping into your writing, take a minute to think of a more specific substitute. If you can’t think of anything better, the line is probably dead space that should be removed.   For example, when someone says “I’m doing well” in conversation, that’s usually a nicety that doesn’t really mean anything. If the character were actually trying to describe the state of his life, it would be far more effective to mention examples like the promotion he just got or that he just bowled his first perfect game.

22. Cut back on adverbs. Adverbs are usually weak writing because they tend to tell (rather than show) the reader what’s going on. For example, “Jane hit Yoshi hard” is not too evocative. Fortunately, you can usually replace an adverb with a stronger verb. Instead of telling us that Jane hit Yoshi hard, show us that detail by giving us a hard-hitting verb. “Jane slammed Yoshi.” Thwack! Similarly, instead of telling us that “John walked confidently up to the cop,” give us a verb that will help us visualize the action. “John swaggered” or “John sauntered toward the cop.” Replacing adverbs also tends to save space.

(PS: Nonfiction writers, please disregard this).         

23. Please avoid cliche combinations of characteristics for races/species. Fantasy and science-fiction authors commonly create races that are similar to ones we’ve already seen before. For example, most varieties of elves are fair-delicate-sophisticated and I can’t count all the violent-stupid-warlike races I’ve seen. You can mix up your story by creating uncommon combinations of characteristics. For example, maybe your warlike race is actually the most scholarly and philosophical in the galaxy. Your readers will want to know why someone violent would be philosophical, of course, which gives you a great opportunity to develop the characters and draw readers into your universe. Also, a smart-and-warlike race will assuredly interest readers more than another race of orcs/Zergs/Krogans.

Here are some popular combinations of racial characteristics:

  • Elves (fair, delicate, sophisticated, nature-loving, usually peaceful)
  • Dwarves (stout, industrialized, ill-tempered, grumpy, hide-bound)
  • Orcs (violent, stupid, war-like)
  • Pixies/fairies (small, flitty, tricky)
  • Hobbits/gnomes (short, friendly, heavily domesticated, pacifistic)

24. Brand names narrow your audience’s appeal and date your story. For example, if I mention that John is a Target customer, most of my readers won’t understand that I’m trying to show he’s upper middle-class.  Readers from outside the Midwestern United States might not even know what Target sells, let alone who shops there. You can probably tailor your characterization more narrowly by trying to show the character in more absolute terms. If someone has owned his shoes for so long that the soles are worn through, he’s almost certainly poor. If he replaces his wardrobe every season “to be current,” he’s probably fantastically wealthy. Those details get us in the character’s mindset more than telling us where he buys those clothes.

25. Please avoid cliche visualization. When authors try to describe what a character looks like, they almost always focus on the eyes, hair and sometimes the scars of a character. (Scars are terribly cliche, particularly facial scars). Try to think outside the box when you’re visualizing the character. Does your character have any other prominent facial features? What do his clothes suggest about him and his lifestyle? How does he walk? How does he sit? When he interacts with people, does he have any unusual body language? What’s his quality of skin like? What’s the shape of his back like? (Mine’s badly curved from academic work). If he’s not human, does he have any distinctly nonhuman limbs? What purpose do those serve for his species? What do those look like?

This article was the fifth part of a series. If you’d like to read about how to avoid other common writing mistakes, you’ll find the links just below.

11 responses so far

11 Responses to “Five More Mistakes of First-Time Authors (#21-25)”

  1. t3knomanseron 22 Jul 2008 at 7:23 am

    Re: 24

    Here’s an interesting question: what about a story about subcultures? I’m working on a story about a fantasy-themed nerd-metal band that plays Cons. In such an environment, certain brands and references are pretty much impossible to avoid.

    While I don’t intend to have characters debating D20 vs. THAC0, I did bring it up in passing mention, mostly to illustrate that the characters care about obscure details like THAC0 and the omission of Tom Bombadil from the LOTR films. The idea wasn’t to have the reader recognize the terms, but to establish that the characters care about things slightly alien to the average person.

    Is there a better way to do that, perhaps?

  2. B. Macon 23 Jul 2008 at 5:41 am

    That’s definitely an interesting question. First, I assume that most of your readers are going to be fairly familiar with concepts like THAC0 and D20 because your audience will probably be comprised mainly of D&D convention fans. However, assuming that your readers know very much about the field will probably cut out people who are marginally interested in D&D, forcing you to try to sell to a market that’s probably pretty small.

    Having said that, I think you will be most aesthetically and economically successful if you are able to write this story for the benefit of laymen and outsiders. Can you convince someone who’s not familiar with D&D that these characters are likeable and that the culture is endearing rather than “nerdy” or “weird”? The individual concepts may be alien, but I think that the underlying motivations are very similar to the same reason someone would join a fraternity or fantasy football league: entertainment, camaradarie, and casual (nonjudgmental?) companionship.

    That’s a tall order, but I’ve read several excellent books that have immersed readers in foreign cultures. For example, I recommend Making the Corps as an excellent civilian’s guide to the military way of life. Also, Kavalier and Clay immerses modern readers in a time and industry (the 1930 comic books business).

    What do you think?

  3. esnippleeon 29 Jun 2010 at 6:27 pm

    21. i’m fine, YAY!
    22. also fine, YAY!
    23. i think i’m okay… i’ll be careful
    24. umm.. mine dont wear clothes, /really/
    25. i’ll try to avoid this. off to act on it.

  4. BMon 29 Jun 2010 at 9:20 pm

    “24. umm.. mine dont wear clothes, /really/.” In that case, I suspect that brand names would probably not be the most serious clothing-related problem for your story. 😉

    Well, I guess clothes aren’t always required. For example, most Disney animals and Looney Toons don’t have them.

  5. The ReTARDISed Whovianon 15 Jul 2010 at 2:07 am

    “Readers from outside the Midwestern United States might not even know what Target sells, let alone who shops there”

    Clothes, toys, electronics and assorted homewares. 😉 I shop at Target, I get most of the stuff for my iPod from there, like covers and iPod socks.

  6. B. Macon 15 Jul 2010 at 9:40 am

    Heh. A classmate from New York City once asked me what they sold at Target. According to their website, they only have ~5 stores in the New York metropolitan area, so I’m not too surprised that he’d be unfamiliar with it. So… depending on where you live, the reference might totally miss you. (Apparently not if you live in Australia, eh? 😉 )

  7. Irrevenoidon 22 Oct 2010 at 8:20 pm

    re: #23 you have to be careful – violating the audience expectation for no good reason is a good way to annoy your reader. If your elves are unsophisticated, hideous warmongers your reader will go “Why EVEN call them elves, then!?”.

    Likewise playing against type risks its own cliche (“Oh ANOTHER Dark Elf who has shunned his race’s evil ways to become a hero?”).

    Finally, there’s an advantage to using instantly recognisable fantasy races – they’re instantly recognisable. If you want to tell a new story against a recognisable background, sometimes that’s what you want.

    P.S. In Australia, Target is more a lower-middle class clothing chain. So we’d be COMPLETELY thrown off by the reference.

  8. Justinon 27 Nov 2012 at 7:27 am

    My sugestion is make a comic that is catchy and interesting, then you will have millions of poeple wanting to read your comics.

  9. B. McKenzieon 27 Nov 2012 at 8:04 am

    “My sugestion is make a comic that is catchy and interesting, then you will have millions of poeple wanting to read your comics.” I agree that interesting writing definitely helps, but I’ve seen quite a few catchy and interesting comics that just didn’t light up the sales charts (e.g. Tales from the Bully Pulpit, Odd Squad, Transmetropolitan, Gotham Central, and The Hood). Moreover, I don’t think there are any comics on the market today that appeal to millions of (paying) readers. Unless you’re writing for Marvel or DC and/or have some sort of Hollywood tie-in, I think 20,000 or 30,000 sales for an issue would be a momentous achievement. Over the last ten years, I think the best-selling issue sold between 500,000-750,000 issues in North America.

  10. Anonymouson 25 Oct 2013 at 12:26 pm

    “When authors try to describe what a character looks like, they almost always focus on the eyes, hair and sometimes the scars of a character.” What about if you only learn what the character looks like because of a sketch artist asking those questions?

  11. B. McKenzieon 26 Oct 2013 at 5:02 pm

    “What if you only learn about what the character looks like because of a sketch artist asking those questions?” I think it would probably feel 100% natural. Another similar context would be having the police discuss the suspect’s appearance in an APB or a missing persons report. Some examples that would probably *not* feel 100% natural: “I feel so jealous of my sister because she has beautiful X hair and I have only Q hair.” Boohoohoo. Unlike the sketch artist asking for a physical description, being jealous of someone’s appearance is probably boring and not very plot-relevant.

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