Thursday, May 16, 2019

Common Mistakes I See in Fiction Manuscripts (Introduction)

As a follow-up to the wildly successful, oversubscribed Live Action Slush panel at WordBridge 2019, I've been writing a weekly column for the WordBridge Facebook page on the errors I most commonly see across my desk as Senior Editor at It occurs to me to re-run those here as well. Three of the most common mistakes have already been mentioned on posts here, but that was several years ago, so worth repeating.

But I'd like to start by pointing out that all these "errors" are just things I'm asking you to consider in your writing, not hard and fast rules that must be obeyed. These are common errors because they are things that beginning writers (and sometimes veterans) often do without thinking, but if you have in fact thought about why you're doing this or that, and it's important to your vision, then go ahead and do that. It's not my job as an editor to dictate how you write your story. Just as there is no secret formula for great writing or commercial sales (note: those are usually distinct categories) there is no universal formula for things not to do. For every "common error" covered on a live-action slush panel or in this column over the coming year, one can point to awesome counterexamples in critically acclaimed and/or commercial fiction.

Take, for example, "expository lump": an information dump in the middle of the story where the author stops the action to explain how the science works in a science fiction novel, or how magic works in a fantasy novel, or police procedures work in a detective novel, or provides historical backstory in historical novels, or whatever. For most authors, getting the expository lumps out of their manuscript instantly raises it to the next level, because expository lumps usually interrupt the action, defuse the tension, and distract the reader. Do you really want to read a six-page essay on the fake science behind how warp drive works or do you just want to hear Kirk say, "Warp factor 5" and get on with the action?

But having said that, Robert Sawyer—the most commercially successful and award-winning Canadian SF writer ever—has very consciously laced all his books with chunks of exposition. In his case, that's not a bug, that's a feature. Of course, his exposition is better written and integrated than most, and his identification, interpretation and working out the implication of various scientific developments is what draws Sawyer's fans to his books. Declaring the exposition in his books to be 'lumps' and something to be excised would be completely missing the point and commercial suicide.

The difference is, Sawyer knows what he's doing and why he's doing it. If you haven't thought about where you're putting in the exposition and it's just kind of happened as you were writing the first draft, then looking at the checklist of common errors and asking yourself, "did I just do that?" might be a useful part of revision.

Let me start this column, then, by referring you to an excellent article by Xandra J., "The Absurdity of Publishing" ( that refutes just about everything that you're likely to hear at a Live Action Slush panel or in the coming installments of this column. Xandra riles against the sort of advice I'm about to give you with the complaint that "Advice for novice writers treats readers as though they are inept children with the attention spans of goldfish." Yep, that's about right, if authors take the errors checklist too literally.

For example, when I first posted on another blog about not making the mistake of piling on too many images at once, I got a pretty strong backlash from a group of poets. Well, um, no, wasn't addressing those remarks to poets who have carefully crafted a series of images and are on the 16th draft of their poetry chapbook. I was talking to someone looking at the first draft of their action-adventure novel and asking if a two-page description of a sunrise is really how they want to try to hook the reader.

Context and vision are everything, and no universal rule of writing exists. Indeed, great writing may require breaking some of the rules some of the time. For every five authors I have to edit down the bloat, I have one who needs to expand every scene so it's not just in their head but on the page. Any "common errors" discussion is about checking to see if you are making that mistake without really understanding why that could be a problem; but if you know what you are doing and why you're doing it for this scene in the context of this story, then, yeah, go for it!

If there is any advice I think might actually be universal, then it is these three points:

  • Take all advice with salt
  • Think about every word your write
  • Write the book you want to read

No comments:

Post a Comment