Errors of beginning writers

Sherwood Smith has an interesting post up at Book View Café, which is not exactly about the mistakes made by beginning writers. It is about the response to this topic at a LosCon panel twenty or so years ago.

Sherwood says: “I think these lists interesting mostly because they reveal writerly process at least as much as they do beginner errors. Some of the best discussion arose out of what some considered no error at all, and others considered advice for revision, not for first draft errors, and what the difference was.”

Yes, that’s going to happen when you get a bunch of writers together and start talking about common mistakes. The process of writing is going to get conflated with the outcomes of writing.

Panelist’s Three’s list suggests to me that that writer works by a completely different process:
1.Ending every chapter on a transition.
2.Letting the narrative voice tell readers what to think.
3.Long, clumsy sentences.

To number one, half the panelists disagreed. Note: “transitions are natural chapter breaks.” The writer defended it: “this pattern reads artificial.”

Interesting argument! It depends on how you define “transition” and how you handle transitions, I suppose. I end chapters where feel they could reasonably end, but you always definitely have a choice of ending points. When my editor sent me her initial comments on KEEPER OF THE MIST, she suggested keeping chapter lengths to around 10 pages when my natural tendency was toward 20 or more pages per chapter. She said a book would feel faster-paced with shorter chapters. The point is, I went through and broke every chapter more or less in half and really, this was not difficult. So obviously you can choose different spots at which to end a chapter and they can work perfectly well.

I’ve seen some authors who end every chapter on a cliffhanger. That can sure get readers to turn the page and start the next chapter. It might annoy a reader who feels that this “reads artificial,” though.

Does anybody remember DOORWAYS IN THE SAND by Roger Zelazny? He starts every chapter with the protagonist in a cliffhanger of a situation, then he goes back to show how he got into that situation, then he gets him out of it. Then he starts the next chapter with a new, unrelated cliffhanger. Artificial? Sure, and it’s not like the reader isn’t going to notice the pattern. But this is also fascinating and compelling. Of course a less skilled writer probably could not pull that off.

Anyway, the comments to Sherwood’s post are also interesting, especially this one by Judith Tarr:

One thing I’m seeing in literally every not-ready-for-prime-time ms. is what I call “offstaging.” Or writing in negative space. Writing all around the real action. Characters talk about what happened, what is happening now, or what is going to happen. While it all happens elsewhere. Revision is as simple (if never easy) as getting rid of what’s there and writing what’s not there.

Every now and then you see that in a published book, but I didn’t realize it was such a typical issue.

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2 thoughts on “Errors of beginning writers”

  1. I remember DOORWAYS, I used to be very fond of it, and it took me forever to notice the structure. Every reread I would just gulp it down and not think about it. OTOH I can remember noticing (from other writers here & there) a pattern of ending chapters on cliffhangers and being annoyed – guess those weren’t as good. I also remember finally understanding why my teachers wanted sentence variety when I stopped reading an early Sharon Newman book wondering why I heard ‘thump, thump thump’ as I read it. figured out all the sentences were the same simple structure. Light dawned.

    I forwarded the original post to the Teen to consider.
    The Teen has the white space problem – not giving much on where people are, or other physical cues. I prod about that a lot. She’s writing an original as well as fanfics now. (proud)

  2. Elaine, good for The Teen!

    As a sort of depressing counter-example, there are times when I strongly suggest to a student that he or she write essays where every single sentence is subject-verb-object-period, with no dependent clauses. This advice is for students who think they are better writers than they actually are and get themselves wound up in complicated but indecipherable sentences and then wind up taking English Comp II for the second or third time. I grant you, as a writer becomes more able to be coherent — and able to tell whether or not a sentence and paragraph is coherent — they can once again start using more varied sentence structure.

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