A Few Common Writing Problems


Tomorrow, I’ll be heading out to Calgary, Alberta, for ConVersion, a sf/fantasy convention. The organizers have been kind enough to make me their literary guest of honor, and so I’ll be giving talks, perhaps reading from some of my work, and sitting on various panels. (I’ll also get to meet several actors from the Star Trek universe, including Marina Sirtis, John de Lancie, Ethan Phillips, Chase Masterson, and Robert Picardo.) Before the conference begins, I’ll be leading a two-day writers’ workshop. I’ve spent the last week reading manuscripts for the workshop, and that’s what I want to post about today.

As I’ve read, I’ve noticed some recurring issues. I suppose they’re things that all of us struggle with, whether we’re still trying to publish that first piece or completing our ump-teenth novel. And so, here is a brief primer on a few of the more common problems that crop up when we write:

1. Point of View — Wandering point of view is one of those problems that seems to come up all the time. It’s not that writing in omniscient point of view — with a narrative voice that hops from character to character telling you what every person in a given scene is thinking or feeling — is wrong. In fact, there was a time a couple of decades ago when this was the standard. But in today’s market, limited third person POV is the norm, and most editors will view a wandering narrative voice, as opposed to one that stays with a single character in each scene or chapter, as a flaw. This is not to say that your novel can’t have several POV characters, but when you switch from one POV to another you should give your readers a clear visual clue in the form of a chapter or section break. Other point of view issues tend to be more matters of taste. For instance, one of the stories I read used first person POV and present tense. In most cases, I would warn the writer away from these, because in today’s market these are risky choices. But in this case, the choices work very well with the story.

2. Overwriting — Read the opening pages of your favorite book. I don’t care who the author is: Neil Gaiman, Guy Gavriel Kay, Tim Powers, Misty Massey, Faith Hunter, C. E. Murphy. Chances are, what you’ll find is prose that is lean, simple, direct, and, for these reasons, very effective. What I’ve seen in a couple of the manuscripts I’ve read this week, as well as those I have looked at for previous workshops, is overly ornate prose. Sometimes it will be in the form of descriptive passages that rely on language that is so dense as to be rendered unreadable. Sometimes it will be overuse of a thesaurus, leading to passages that are so grandiloquent as to be bedizened, lexiphanic, and, dare I say it, meretricious. There is nothing wrong with eloquence. Descriptions that rely on unusual prose can be incredibly effective. But overwriting for its own sake doesn’t work. Let your narrative and your characters speak for themselves. We’re writing stories here. Yes, at times we want them to be beautiful. But we always want them to be readable.

3. Fidelity to Character — One of the great challenges of storytelling is finding a balance between the needs of our characters and the requirements of our narrative. Whether we are working on a book or a piece of short fiction, we are trying to tell a story. We are following a plot. But, if we have done our jobs as writers, we are also developing characters and writing about their growth. What happens when plot development and character arc come in conflict? Quite often we try to bend our characters’ behavior to fit the demands of our narrative. To be honest, sometimes we have no choice. In our real lives we often have to sublimate our needs and desires to circumstance, so why shouldn’t our characters have to do the same? Well, because fiction and reality are different. When writing a story, we have to avoid making our characters do things that don’t mesh with the personalities and personal histories we have given them. Because our readers, we hope, are going to be drawn to these people; they’re going to identify with them; they’re going to come to expect certain patterns of behavior from them. And if we suddenly send our characters in directions that don’t work with all that we’ve established about them, our readers are going to be ticked off. We have to allow our characters to be true to who and what they are . . .

4. Disciplining our Characters — . . . To a point. The fact is that if we’ve done our jobs correctly, our characters are going to behave very much like real people. They will be assertive to the point of willfulness; they will be self-centered and will try to make the book all about them. And it is our job as authors to keep them in line. They may want to take our books in a direction that has nothing to do with the plot we have slaved over and nurtured. And we may decide that they’re right and we were wrong. Or we may decide that our characters are certifiable and it’s time to rein them in. The point is we have to be the one making that decision. I love it when my characters surprise me, when they take a story thread in a direction I never anticipated. That tells me that they have come alive in a sense, that they have become something more than names and lists of attributes jotted down on a page. But ultimately, they are still creatures of my creation, and I need them to do the things that plot and (planned) character arc call for.

5. Knowing the Beginning and the End — This probably sounds pretty basic. We should all know when the story we’re writing starts, when it’s over, right? Well, sometimes it’s not as obvious as it should be. Sometimes what we think is the beginning of the story is really the middle, and there’s a whole bunch of stuff that should have come before that we haven’t put in yet. Other times, just the opposite happens: we begin a story WAY too early in the timeline, and wind up with a narrative that languishes for the first ten or twenty or fifty pages. And endings can be even harder. I’ve read stories that were brilliant for twenty pages, but should have ended on page 21 instead of page 35. And I’ve also read stories that ended on page 21 but really needed another ten pages to resolve the central conflict. How do we know what’s right? I can usually determine this for myself when I reread and revise, but I’ve been doing this for a really long time. Early in my career, I needed help with these issues from my beta readers and my editor. To a certain degree it’s a matter of trial and error. But if a story isn’t working and you can’t figure out why, you might want to ask yourself if the beginning and ending are where they should be.

6. Maintaining Proper Tone — I like to put moments of levity in my books. I like to have my characters say funny things that I know will amuse my readers. But I also have to guard against my real-life penchant for saying the wrong thing at the wrong time. Our books and stories have a certain tone that we should try to establish early on. Different tones work for different books. But my point is this: Whether our books are funny or serious, irreverent or somber, they should be consistent. Now my books tend to be fairly serious, and still I try to put in those occasional light moments. I’m not contradicting myself. Really. This is another of those trial and error things that beta readers can help us balance. Blending moments of levity with serious narrative elements is fine. Writing a story that can’t decide if it wants to be a serious epic fantasy or a farcical romp is not. It takes time to develop a sense of where that right balance can be found, but it is a crucial skill that all writers should work on.

7. Maintaining Credibility — This is a site devoted to fantasy and other subgenres of speculative fiction. So it might seem odd that I would end with a statement about maintaining a sense of realism. But as we have discussed here before, writing fantasy does not give us license to write things that make no sense. Magic systems need to be consistent; they need to have rules and limitations. Plots should follow logical progressions, even if every step along that rational path isn’t revealed until the end. Surprising readers is fine, so long as we don’t tick them off by changing the rules to make the surprises work.

So, do any of these problems sound familiar? Or are you grappling with other issues?

David B. Coe

23 comments to A Few Common Writing Problems

  • All good points, David. In particular, #7 is so important. Even if you’re writing surrealism where, seemingly, nothing makes sense. The best surrealism I’ve ever read took place in the afterlife and while there was plenty that “seemed” insane and, well, surrealistic — there were clearly established rules for what could and could not be accomplished by the MC. Make your rules and stick to them. If they don’t work and you want to change them, then you’ve got to make the change consistent throughout.

    Have a great trip and a great con! We’ll miss you!

  • All excellent points, David, and not just for aspiring writers. Even those of us who’ve put out a book (or two, or ten) could do with keeping these points firmly in mind. Nothing upsets me more than when an author I respect lets her discipline slide!

    Have a wonderful time in Canada!

  • David, This needs to make it into the MW HOW TO book number two. It also would make a great basis for a small group of un-pub writers and a pubbed facilitator for a hands-on workshop. I may borrow it — giving you credit, of course! Excellent post.

    And, while I’m writing, you said >>Sometimes it will be overuse of a thesaurus, leading to passages that are so grandiloquent as to be bedizened, lexiphanic, and, dare I say it, meretricious.>>
    Surely there are cures for this writer – medical condition, which clearly has its roots in the manic phase of bi-polar disorder. (grins)

    Have fun!

  • Thanks, Stuart. “Make your rules and stick to them.” Yeah, there’s really nothing else to say. Consistency may be the hobgoblin of little minds, but it’s also the foundation of sound genre fiction.

    Misty, one of the things that I enjoy so much about workshopping and reading the manuscripts of workshop participants, is that it reminds me of all the things I have to watch in my own writing. As you say, no matter where we are in our careers, we all have to watch for these things. Thanks for the good wishes. Should be a fun trip, eh?

    Faith, thanks. Feel free to use this any time. When we finally get an MW conference together, we can do a workshop together. And thanks also for the medical diagnosis, although you forgot to add that patients experiencing loquaciousness that lasts more than four hours should seek immediate medical attention….

  • I’m with Faith. Good stuff for a 2nd How to.

  • Volume 2 for sure, David. Great, helpful stuff.

  • Unicorn

    Excellent reminders. It’s so easy to get caught up in a story and forget about the technicalities.
    If I may take the liberty to ask… Well, I have trouble with a novel-length story’s pace. I struggle to find the balance between overloading the reader with action and stuffing the story with useless scenes and dialogue that don’t do anything. Sometimes I write a whole chapter, in which nothing happens, and then in frustration to wipe it all out and start anew, and sometimes there’s barely a breather in between big plot points. Any advice on this?

  • Unicorn, many thanks for the excellent question. Pacing is a tremendous challenge for writers of every level of experience. On many occasions, I have had to jettison or rewrite chapters that lacked action or substance. You’re definitely not alone on this. I hope the “seat-of-the-pants” writers out there will forgive me, but this is something that can be dealt with through a detailed outline. When I find a novel languishing, or when I find myself trying to figure out how to pace a section of a book, I’ll create a fairly detailed chapter-by-chapter outline, making certain to distribute my major plot points throughout the outlined chapters. Now, the pacing of a novel is not a constant. There are times when action slows down and times when it accelerates. But you don’t want the swings to be too extreme, and you certainly don’t want your narrative to stall. And finally, keep in mind that as you near the end of your book, you want the pace to build. But yeah, if you’re having pacing issues, an outline might help. A lot.

  • Unicorn

    Thanks a lot! That helps tremendously. I’m off to work on my outline right now.

  • Hi, you hit this subject right on the nose.

    One of my writer friends is a true panster and gets bored writing a story when she knows the end. Her approach gives me hives. Although we approach the first draft differently, after revision we get to the same place.

    With National Novel Writing Month looming, it think it’s important for new writers to remember, the first draft is not about perfecting the story, it’s about getting it on the page to so you can fix it.

    Every point you make is about revision for pansters. For plotters, one or two are about prepping for the first draft.


  • Glad I could help, U! Best of luck with the book.

    Perry, thank you. I have friends who are pantsers; I’ve always been a plotter, but lately I’m tending the other way. I have found that both approaches offer something to me as an artist — freedom to create on the one hand; direction and structure on the other — and would never suggest that one was more “right” than the other. That said, I know that some who tend one way find the approach of those who don’t deeply mystifying. In the end, though, I agree with you that getting the book written and then going back to revise is almost always sound advice.

  • David said, “When we finally get an MW conference together,” I heard him …well, when you do, do you think that it could be an on-line one, so that those of us who are scattered all over the globe can benefit from the wisdom of workshops too?

  • Credibility is so important! Most of the time, I’ll buy anything an author gives me… I’ll trust whatever he or she says. You book has talking unicorns, but the pink ones can’t talk, and the blue ones only speak French? Why not! But if then they add something later that is different, I’ll be annoyed.

    That said, one thing I really find irritating that I have seen in drafts of stuff I’ve read (and I’ve done it too) is when someone takes a perfectly good character and turns her stupid to acomplish a plot point. I had an example of it in my novel and a beta reader caught it. I killed two chapters, but it is better now. If you say your character is smart, suave, a good fighter, etc. She can’t suddenly, say, forget the safety is on her gun if it ALWAYS is on.

  • Widder, yes I think that an online workshop might be a possibility. And a live, in-person one, too. We’ll have to talk about it amongst ourselves, but I know that I’m not the only MWer who is interested in this.

    Emily, I’m with you. I’ll give writers a lot of leeway, as long as they maintain consistency. As soon as they start breaking rules, though, I’m through. And character stupidity bugs me, too — in movies as well as in books. If I can say on p. 100 “Oh, you really don’t want to trust that person with the slimy handshake and evil grin,” then the character ought to know it too….

  • Sarah

    Thanks David! The POV thing is one of those that has always vaguely bugged me until I learned about it in a workshop (run by Ed at ConCarolinas) and then it REALLY bugged me. I taught Madame Bovary last semester and found myself wishing Flaubert had had a good editor to slash and burn his rapid, mid paragraph POV shifts and his telling when he should have been showing, or worse his habit of telling when he has already shown something.

    Don’t kill me – I know it’s arrogant and ahistorical of me. (Though I will contend that Jane Austen, who also got very little editing, does a good job signaling smooth POV shifts and rarely makes them mid-scene. It makes her work more readable.)

  • I know what you mean, Sarah. But you should keep in mind that things like POV and said-bookisms (“he hissed”, “she rasped”, “he opined”) tend to go in and out of style over the years. When Flaubert wrote, omniscient POV — where the author tells the reader what everyone was thinking and feeling — was in vogue. When I first got started said-bookisms had just gone out of style, but I didn’t know that. And so some of the authors we sent the manuscript to for blurbs took me to task for it. I had no idea it was a problem, though I learned quickly. So give old Gustave a break. He was just a victim of his literary era. 🙂

  • “For instance, one of the stories I read used first person POV and present tense. In most cases, I would warn the writer away from these, because in today’s market these are risky choices. But in this case, the choices work very well with the story.”

    This is my headache. My WIP is first-person, present tense, and since I started writing it, I’ve had to defend my choice over and over. It’s how the character speaks to me and I can’t envision it any other way. I know it’s not necessarily the best choice from a marketing standpoint (except that it’s YA). It’s not me trying to do a stunt. It just feels right.

    I’m wrestling with fidelity to character in the rewrites. In the original, my character wanted to be as aloof as possible, which doesn’t work, given that I am trying to punch up the romance. And because when she speaks she does not use contractions, sometimes she gets a bit ornate. This time around, I’m trying to let her loosen up a bit. And she’s surprising me in good ways.

  • Oh, and of course, have fun while you’re up here!

  • Credibility and consistency. YES! The tricky part is injecting the rules into the tale without resorting to having one character ‘telling’ them to another, or wasting whitespace explaining them in narrative. No one in our world explains that things always fall down (unless you’re in a physics classroom). We just know! As our characters, living in their world, know that blue unicorns speak French, and, hey! Why are you talking to the pink one?

    It’s not just the magic, either. Geography, society, physiology, religions, etc. – they all have rules (even if we created them) and as world builders we have to ensure we, and our worlds, adhere to them.

  • David, thanks for the term “said-bookisms.” I never knew what to call those until now. With some books I’ve read, those really bug me, but Joe Abercrombie uses them quite often and, for whatever reason, it works.

    Have a safe trip!

  • HI all! Greetings from beautiful Calgary!!

    Moira, I think that “It’s how the character speaks to me” qualifies as a good reason. If that’s how you’re hearing the story, then that’s how you have to write it. It does sound though, like you’re doing the right thing in letting her loosen up. If she’s surprising you and developing, it was a sound decision. Best of luck!

    Lyn, you’re right, of course. Conveying the rules (or the history or the setting) without data dumping is the key. And sometimes the way to do that is simply to have the characters go about their lives and do the things they have to do. If the magic demands that the character stand on her head and whistle a tune, and she does that several times resulting in successful conjurings, the reader is going to get it. No data dump needed….

    J.M., my pleasure. It’s a term I had to use when I first started out. Very useful in describing something we all need to avoid in today’s market. Thanks!

  • Ron Friedman

    Hi David, I just wanted to convey my thanks for leading the Calgary workshop.
    We had a wonderful time and we learn a lot. (For myself, items 6 and 7 on your list, to begin with.)

    I hope you enjoyed your stay.

    By the way, how was your trip to the Canadian Rockies?