Nov 18 2008

Three urgent pieces of novel-writing advice

  • 52% of the readers that took our interactive writing quiz admitted that they describe what a character looks like by having him stare at his reflection in a mirror.  Please don’t!  It screams “amateur.”
  • 45% of readers admitted to using food-centric scenes (like dinners, Elven banquets, etc).  That’s not necessarily a problem, but please make sure that your eating scenes are more dramatic than “pass the biscuits.”  If the food is the most interesting element of the scene, the scene is almost certainly boring.  No one started reading your book to learn what foods your elves like to eat.
  • 55% of readers admitted to overusing obscenities.  As a rule of thumb, please don’t use more than one obscenity in a sentence.   Please also try to limit the number of obscenities on each page.   If you use too many obscenities, the piece will probably suffer (even if you’re writing about Marines).  See this for an example.

3 responses so far

3 Responses to “Three urgent pieces of novel-writing advice”

  1. The ReTARDISed Whovianon 24 Mar 2011 at 8:35 pm

    I recently had a thought – are food centric scenes okay if the food is just in the background?

    For example:

    “Recently, I attended a barbecue at my friend’s house. Kath was my oldest friend – we had known each other since we began school, and become friends at age ten. We brought out the best and the worst in each other, we were like amphetamines in a symbiotic relationship, each speeding the other one up, but we could also cause destruction to each other for that same reason, though that had died down a little over the past few years. The reason for the barbecue was that Kath was to leave in the next week for New South Wales, where she would start doing medical training for her military career.

    When I arrived, I met up with Ellen, Kath’s mother. I hadn’t seen her since I was eleven, and we both noticed the differences time had brought to each of us. We had a short conversation about how time flies, and then she directed me to the other side of the patio, and told me that Kath was there with some of her friends from army cadets.

    Kath was sat in a green plastic chair, with her back to the wall. I wondered for a moment if she was doing that because of her cadet training, but then I noticed her other friends all had their backs to the open. The barbecue was set up further down the patio – sausages and steaks were already on the grill.

    “Hey there Kath,” I said, hugging her from behind.

    “Hannah!” she cried. Kath got up out of the chair and wrapped her arms around me for a second hug. She introduced me to her friends as we all ate little snacks we had grabbed from a nearby table. I got along particularly well with Toni, who shared the same views on the supernatural as I did.

    “My old house was haunted,” she said, as she bit into a piece of Jaffa cake. “Kath and I can tell you the story, if you want.”

    The above example isn’t from any story I’m working on, so it’s not up to my usual standards. It actually happened. XD I DO have a friend who recently left for the army, and that scene is just a recollection of the first few minutes of her early 18th/going away barbecue. I changed all the names, including mine. XD

    So, if something like that appeared in a story, would it be okay or not? The focus isn’t really the food – though the setting is at a barbecue, the centre of it was Kath, because she was leaving and wouldn’t be back until Christmas. (She left earlier this week and I really miss her D: )

  2. ekimmakon 25 Mar 2011 at 12:16 am

    When I read that mirrors just scream amatuer, I wanted to write a subversion. Such as, a character looks to where they expect a mirror, mentally describe someone else, then ask what happened to their mirror.

  3. B. Macon 25 Mar 2011 at 1:07 am

    I thought Jimmy’s use of a mirror was pretty interesting. The character feels indebted to his parents because they spent so much on his reconstructive surgery, and seeing his repaired face makes him feel he’s not living up to that. In this case, the character seeing himself contributes something significant to the plot… It’s not just a ham-handed way for a first-person narrator to describe his/her appearance.

    Similarly, the Mirror of Erised (“desire” backwards, groan) in Harry Potter is significant because it develops Harry’s motivations and, more importantly, allows him to retrieve the Philosopher’s Stone.

    Another scenario I think a mirror could be useful would be if a character’s makeup/physical preparation is highly important to the plot. For example, we could develop a model or a politician by showing how differently they handle the ritual of getting ready for a beauty pageant or a political debate. Even if the physical preparation isn’t highly important to the plot, I think you could use it in the background to set the mood. For example, I think it could be funny if the politician were practicing serious policy points with his advisors as his makeup people were working on him.

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