This past week, I came across an excellent article from Anne Allen (whose blog I have linked to before) that points out ten things that will flag you as a beginner because they represent poor or weak writing techniques. I’ll let you read it before I continue.
The second point that Anne makes deals with head hopping. I’ve dealt with point of view problems on several occasions in the past here, so I’ll simply give you the links to read those posts in case you missed them.
Unintentional POV slips represent a common newbie mistake that I see time and again. Sometimes they’re subtle, unintentional slips as in the following example written in David’s POV:
David could not believe his luck. Sharon Phillips had left town three years ago to take a software engineering job halfway around the world, just when he’d thought there might be something between them. Yet here she was, attending the same software symposium as he.
“Sharon Phillips, I didn’t expect to see you here.” His smile lit up his face.
“Why would the keynote speaker not show up? Besides, we’re opening a new branch office here, and I’ve been put in charge.”
When her gaze drifted to his nametag, he knew what she would say next.
“Since my company just closed the merger with yours, we’ll be working together.”
His own gaze drifted to her left hand: no wedding ring.
She smiled to herself. He’d noticed.
Not a bad little scene, but did you catch the POV slip in the second line? As I said, they can be subtle. We’re in David’s POV, yet the “his smile lit up his face” could not possibly come from his POV unless he was looking in a mirror. I see this sort of slip all the time among new writers with the POV character’s eyes sparkling and the like.
Less subtle is the POV shift in the last line, which is clearly Sharon’s perspective and thoughts. POV shifts are easy to catch in your writing if you simply anchor yourself in the POV character’s head. The shift should be apparent. It’s the little slips like the ones in line two that can go unnoticed unless you train yourself to watch for them.
As for the rest of Anne Allen’s points, pay close attention them because I’ve seen all of these as well. Be sure you click the links in Anne’s article to read more about other traps writers often fall into.
Well, that wraps up my list of the biggest mistakes I see writers making. For the remainder of this post I’m going to talk about smaller problems and mistakes I’ve either encountered or have seen mentioned by others.
(1) Inappropriate capitalization of dialog tags: dialog tags are NEVER capitalized except when they begin a sentence or the first word is a proper noun. This is perhaps the most common punctuation error I see from novice writers, sometimes more often than I see misused comma errors.
“Everything will be set up by the time we get to Joe’s house.” He said.
“Where are we going?” She asked.
“I can’t believe she actually said that!” He said. “It’s not true and she’s knows it.”
“Everything will be set up by the time we get to Joe’s house,” he said.
He said, “Everything will be set up by the time we get to Joe’s house.”
“Where are we going?” she asked.
“I can’t believe she actually said that!” he said. “It’s not true and she’s knows it.”
Dialog tags are always separated from the dialog with a comma unless the tag follows a question or exclamation. In that case, we substitute ? or ! for the comma, but we still treat them as if there were a comma because the dialog tag is part of the sentence, not separate from it. Hence, the period come after the tag when the tag follows the dialog line.
Also note that you would not normally place ? or ! after the dialog tag since it’s the spoken line, not the entire sentence, that will be a question or exclamation, as the last example sentence shows.
(2) Overwriting and info dumps
Overwriting is one of the aspects of wordiness that Anne Allen mentioned in her article—taking 100 to say what could be said in 10. Closely related are information dumps where authors feel they must share every detail of the world, setting, and characters as well as including every interesting fact and bit of information uncovered in their research.
We, as humans, often like to share interesting things that we learn with others. As writers, we have our writing as a venue to increase our audience, but we must be careful how we do it. Don’t overshare and don’t lapse into didactic writing. Ive guilty of it as well. When I was writing Vampires, Inc., which is set in Detroit, a place I had never visited, I researched the city to help ground me and make the story more realistic. I wanted to share my discoveries. The novel was set in 2003, and the main character, Eli Howard, a vampire, has lived there since the early 1900s. He was walking home after teaching his night class and prevented stopped the rape of a female student. Afterwards, he pondered the city’s decline.
Crime had been in Detroit for decades, but never this bad. He remembered when young women could walk these streets without fear. Reaching Woodward, he turned north.
The prostitutes and the homeless now occupied these once wealthy neighborhoods. Detroit had been his home for over eighty years. It used to be a proud and safe city where white people weren’t afraid to go into Downtown. The situation had improved slightly in the past couple of years, but fear still ruled the nighttime streets.
A hustling drug dealer shoved a packet of cheap heroin in his face. “I’ll make you a deal, special price tonight.”
Eli stared at him. A simple telepathic command made the dealer drop the packet and run in fear. If only it were that easy to get rid of all the drug dealers in Detroit. He picked up the heroin and put it into his pocket. He’d dispose of later so some kid wouldn’t get his hands on it.
He’d watched his city struggling for too long. He had the means to help. But he couldn’t do it alone. He picked a random cross street and walked east.
Detroit was rich in Black history. After he became comfortable with his vampire side, he’d come here to explore his racial heritage. Thanks in part to Henry Ford’s ad in 1913 offering equal pay to all workers, regardless of race, Detroit’s African American population had an interesting history. In 1920, when Eli came here, the population was a 990,000 with 4% Blacks. By 1950, the total population had risen to 1.8 million with 16% Blacks. Today, the population had dropped to 950,000. Blacks made up over 80%. Vampire or not, he was proud of the dual aspects of his life. He became a teacher to help others understand man’s conflict and struggles. Would the day ever come when he’d be teaching about vampires?
That’s not only a lot of telling, but it’s overwritten because it sounds as if the writer (me in this case) is attempting to share his wonderful discoveries with the reader. Is there a way to impart that information to the reader so that it becomes part of the character and the background of Eli’s concern without coming off as a lecture to the reader?
Eli has a young protégé, Adrian, and wants to enlist him in his goal of trying to clean up the city. In the rewrite, I had Eli and Adrian in Eli’s house first discussing one of Adrian’s transgressions. Here’s the scene that takes place right after that discussion.
Eli rose. “Let’s go for a walk. I want to show you something.”
Okay, what the hell was going on? What happened to the lecture for his bad behavior? He deserved a lecture for his bad behavior. He’d psyched himself up for it–except Eli wasn’t delivering. He appreciated talking with Eli, even if they didn’t have a lot in common, being from different generations and all. Sometimes he even learned useful shit.
They strolled around the neighborhood. Eli pointed out houses Adrian had seen before but ignored. “You’re walking through history, Adrian. This is Boston-Edison. If you’d lived here in the early 1900s, you might have seen Henry Ford himself or other notable men of the auto industry, like Stanley Kresge.”
“Kresge started a chain of dime stores that became Kmart Corp.”
“I always wondered what the K stood for.”
They passed a boarded-up house. “Long before you were born, this was a busy, middle-class neighborhood. My people–the Blacks–felt they deserved to live in such places and they fought for that right. Within a few decades, the Whites had vacated and the neighborhoods went into decay and ruin amid recessions and riots.
“Detroit’s population has an unusual history. In 1920 it was 990,000 with four percent Blacks. By 1950 it had doubled, but with sixteen percent Blacks. Today, the total population has fallen to less than in 1920–”
“And African-Americans make up over eighty percent,” Adrian said. “See, I don’t wallow in ignorance.”
Eli nodded. “Do you know why the Black population changed as rapidly as it did?”
“I suspect you’re going to tell me.”
“In 1913 Henry Ford placed an ad offering equal pay to all workers, regardless of race, and that attracted us here.”
“You didn’t need a job, did you?”
“I came here for different reasons,” Eli said.
“I’m guessing you have a point to this history lesson?”
Eli faced him. “I want to do something about the problems plaguing Detroit.”
That’s better, I hope. Sure, I could have simply deleted the historical information, but by retaining it, I used it to bring out the characters’ personalities. Sometimes, there’s a fine line when it comes to delivering background information. The important thing is that it must feel like a natural outgrowth of the narrative. Be careful of imparting information in dialog and make sure it doesn’t come off as the “as you know” dialog that Anne Allen mentioned, where two characters are explaining to one another purely to impart information to the reader.
As you read through your story during revision, watch out for didactic asides and explanations. Make sure the information is delivered in a natural, believable manner.
Well, I thought I would be able to end this series in three parts, but I guess not. We’ll pick up from here next time with the opposite problem of overwriting: underwriting.