Saturday, April 7, 2012

Week 15 - Common Mistakes

8 Apr - 14 Apr: To Err is Human... just try to improve, okay?

"Mistakes are the portal of discovery."  James Joyce

This week was supposed to be the start of Toolbox topics, starting with dialogue, but I've decided to inject a quick list of Common Mistakes as suggested by the experts, just because I can (and because I like to think about these points often).

So here they are (so far):

John Gardner - The Art of Fiction:
  • Being snapped out of the dream, that is, the reader is distracted by clumsy writing such as incorrect syntax.  The reader should not have to reread a sentence to find out what it says;
  • Inappropriate or excessive use of the passive voice;
  • Mixed diction levels.  A piece should be consistent in its use of colloquial, formal or poetic language; regular shifts in diction are distracting for the reader;
  • Excessive explanation. A writer need not explain how his or her characters are feeling, this is what dialogue and action are for;
  • Lack of sentence and paragraph variety;
  • Overloading a sentence, and not having a single focus;
  • Awkward insertions of detail;
  • Abstract language and insufficient detail, eg. two snakes were fighting, is more effective as, two snakes whipped and lashed;
  • Distracting imitations of speech, eg. er, um, stammers.
  • Inappropriate introductory phrases, eg. Carrying the duck in his left hand, Henry.....
  • Getting events in an action out of order;
  • Jarring or excessive rhythm; too much rhythm is unrealistic, too little becomes difficult to read;
  • Accidental rhyme;
  • Inappropriate shifts in psychic distance, eg a short story or novel is generally intimate; a 'tale' is more distant;
  • Sentimentality, ie. emotion conjured through melodrama;
  • Frigidity, ie. staying aloof from the main characters.  

Various Contributors, Writer's Digest - 2012 Novel and Short Story Writer's Market:
  • Cliched language;
  • Shock openers, blatant cleverness and open endings.  A writer should not rely on crafty devices and tricks, but should invest effort in developing good plots and characters.

Lisa Rojany-Buccieri and Peter Economy - Writing Children's Books for Dummies:
  • Indefinite prose, eg. she wasn't sure that school made sense, packs more punch as, school was a total waste of time;
  • Speeches or monologues;
  • Excessive adjectives and adverbs;
  • Phonetic spellings of dialogue; eg ya mon;
  • Over-describing location or setting;
  • Flashbacks that interrupt the flow of the story.

Roy Peter Clark - 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer
  • Too many -ings, ie. words sometimes start to sound the same, eg. the retreat offers camping, boating, fishing and hiking.

Most of these points I will explore further in the following weeks, as I look at dialogue, sentence structure, vocabulary, and a bunch of other stuff.  (Blogs, especially this one, are exempt from these mistakes, by the way).  Strunk and White's views on common mistakes in The Elements of Style, also warrant a separate mention in a future post.

Exercise 29. Check out the stories posted for the weekly prompts on the Writer's Digest Website.  Look for some of the points raised above, and think about whether or not the writer could have presented his or her ideas more effectively.  Provide a truthful and constructive comment if you think it might help the person improve.  (Remember, these Common Mistakes are not rules, they are just ideas).

Exercise 30. Recover a story you wrote some time ago and read through it with the aim of identifying some of the points above.  Now, see if edits or a rewrite improve the flow.

I promise to start on the Toolbox during Week 16, commencing with my definite weak-spot, dialogue.

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