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Writing: Mistakes Are Future Tips

Monday, November 8th, 2010 | Posted by Managing Editor Howard Andrew Jones

1793-notebook1Several weeks ago I waxed on about how useful I find my Paperblanks writing notebook. I fill one up about once a year, and recently found myself copying over some of the information I always jot down in the first few pages. One of the most important things I keep there is a list of reminders intended to help me be a better writer. On the whole, although I call these writing tips, most of them are mistakes I’ve made. I try to glance over them every few days.

Every writer’s going to have his or her own favorite mistakes; I’m listing the ones I’m most aware of in my own writing in the hope you’ll find some of them instructional. Maybe this list can even help you avoid them.

  • Don’t be too quick to reveal the villain’s plan

In my rough drafts the villains usually are way too obvious. Sometimes it’s good if the readers know exactly what the plan is because that creates tension, but I have a habit of just laying it all out as I’m figuring out the bad guy’s motives and as a result, crush suspense.

  • Don’t excuse plot flaws through dialogue

I used to notice plot flaws in my work and then try to explain them away by what the characters were saying. Sometimes you can clarify why something’s not a flaw, or why characters can’t take a certain action, but don’t handwave major plot problems with a few feeble bits of dialogue.

  • Know what every character wants in the scene before you start writing

I used to make a habit of coming up with a plot and then moving the characters around like cardboard cutouts at the plot’s convenience. I’d like to think I’ve mostly outgrown this issue, but it was such a painful learning process that I¬† still keep this one in my notebook.

  • Keep a clear through line

I have to constantly keep this one in mind, and I know I’ve mentioned it here before. In the adventure fiction I write, I think it’s important to be able to sum up the goal of the hero and his motivations pretty succinctly. If I find, in the middle of the book, say, that I can’t do that, it probably means that I’ve lost control of the narrative.

  • Character interaction should move the plot

This is another way to combat my old weakness of letting the plot move the characters. Plot should rise from the clash of character motivations, or they might as well be chess pieces.

  • Character is action

Absolutely — something my friend John Hocking once said. Succinct and true. All the action and high-flying antics are absolutely pointless if we don’t care about the characters. But it’s more than that. Revealing character is action, just like it says.

  • Background details can be revealed gradually

Something I should have learned from E.E. Knight, who mentioned it in several ways to me over the course of several years. But even though I agreed and had figured out to avoid infodumps, I still had to learn not to front load background details, no matter how cool they were.

  • Know the difference between procrastination and incubation

Sometimes I have trouble starting because I’m being lazy, but sometimes I have trouble starting because the plot or characters haven’t germinated long enough. When I described this to my friend Evon, she summarized the situation succinctly with this phrase.

  • Trust starting reluctance – there may be something wrong with the scene

Closely related to the point immediately above — it may just be another way to say it, but I have both points written down in the trusty notebook. Sometimes it really isn’t time to start, even if it’s your budgeted writing time.

  • Start at a set time

If I treat writing like a real job, with a set writing time, I get more done.

  • 1000 good words are better than 5000 lousy ones

Something to remember on slow days when I’m working hard, but it’s moving slow. I have to tell myself this often.

  • If you need to start inventing scenes for a POV character, maybe you don’t need him/her

This may just be a problem for me. I have a tendency to put too many characters into my rough drafts, and this is one of my clues for realizing I’ve got too many characters involved. If I keep wondering what this character¬† is going to say or do, or keep having to invent moments for him or her rather than having them come naturally, it’s a red flag that this may be a character for the cutting room floor.

  • Start with a gripping or intriguing moment

Well, yeah. You’d think this would be obvious for me, but I have to remember it.

  • Get involved with the characters before the huge plot arcs

Definitely. Why do we care that Indy’s after the Ark of the Covenant if we don’t already think Indy’s pretty interesting?

  • Play to your strengths (dialogue, character interaction, small cast)

These are my strengths. A writer should be aware of weaknesses so that they can be overcome, but he or she should play to strengths as well. Dialogue comes easily to me, and I work better with a small cast, despite my tendency to add too many characters. So why not use those strengths to my advantage?

  • When you’re stuck moving plot, introduce a character w/info, or send in the ninjas

I have long believed in this tip, but the phrasing comes from advice found in the excellent game mastering section (thoroughly useful for writers, not just role-players) from Spirit of the Century, by Robert Donoghue, Fred Hicks, and Leonard Balsera.

  • Read nothing unrelated to your project over breakfast or lunch

It’s so much easier to not write than to actually write, so why make it more challenging by reading something really compelling by somebody else? Save it for non-writing time.That way it won’t interfere with your writing time if you can’t put it down!

  • Trouble revising? Read sections or chapters out of order.

I just discovered this one while revising my novel for Paizo. I’d read the manuscript so many times that I couldn’t find a way to read it fresh. By accident I realized that if I jumped around from chapter to chapter instead of reading the manuscript in order that I could focus again on the individual words and get back to sprucing things up. I’m not sure how well it can work on shorter works, but I might try reading scenes out of order.

Those are the mistakes I’m currently keeping in my writing notebook. I’m sure to realzie there are others I’m making, or I’ll discover completley new ones. It’s a constant learning process.

What are your favorite writing mistakes?

2 Comments »

  1. Excellent tips, all! Great stuff, Howard. I especially love the “Character Is Action.” I’ve never heard it put quite so succinctly. Write on!

    Comment by John R. Fultz - November 8, 2010 8:19 pm

  2. […] Mistakes are Future Tips – Howard Andrew Jones, over at Black Gate, has a interesting post on what he does with the […]

    Pingback by Writing on Wednesday « Imagination Run Amok - November 10, 2010 9:02 am


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