Nine Common Fiction Writing Mistakes, Part II

by Susan Breen

For more than a decade, I’ve taught fiction writing classes in New York City. A surprising variety of people have walked through my classroom doors, ranging from Broadway actors to retired English teachers to a few people unclassifiable.  But oddly enough, although the students vary widely, as does the writing, the problems people run into stay remarkably the same. Nine writing mistakes crop up again and again. (Here you will find mistakes 6-9. Part I has mistakes 1-5)

6. Rushing

We all want to be done. We all want to see our book in stores, our story in the magazine, our screenplay made into a movie. Oh, and we’d like the money too. Ten thousand dollars would be nice. Right now.

One of the very first things I did as a writer, when I had written no more than about three paragraphs of my first story, was look through a reference book for places that might publish it. My list had more words in it than my story.  And I’m embarrassed to say that the minute I finished the first draft, I sent the story out. To twenty places. Each of them rejected me with a form letter. I actually called up Redbook to ask why there was a problem and I believe I got someone in the circulation department.
Unfortunately, some things can’t be rushed. You have to take time with your story; writing a first draft isn’t enough. You need to go through a couple of drafts. You need to deepen the character, intensify plot, tighten the dialogue and flesh out description. You need to think about theme. You need to proof read. You need to take enough time to do it right.

Many, many writers think that if they get a good enough idea on the page and send it out, some insightful editor or agent will read it, recognize its inner value, take the writer under her wing and fix it for her. This worked for Thomas Wolfe, but I don’t think you can count on it as a career path. Although there are lovely agents and editors out there, they are not really looking for extra work. They want you to finish the job yourself.

However, there are things you can do to give your ego a boost before you’re ready to send that story out. Try joining a writing community. A positive critique can make you feel great. You can also try writing some shorter work, which may be easier to get out quickly. Seeing your name in print on a flash fiction piece may give you the boost you need to finish that novel. Read literary journals and consider volunteering. Some of the smaller ones need people to help read submissions. Signing up can be a fun way to become part of the literary world.

7. Using incorrect format.

This is going to sound like a small and easily correctible thing, which it is, but you have to format your pages properly. Indent paragraphs. Don’t put an extra space between your paragraphs. Don’t justify your right margins, meaning the right side of your manuscript shouldn’t line up evenly. Use 12-point font. Double space your lines. (True, this article is not following these rules, but formatting works differently online than it does on manuscripts.)

There aren’t a lot of formatting rules, but they’re important. When I pick up a manuscript that doesn’t follow the rules, I automatically think, if she doesn’t know the rules to formatting, does she know the rules to writing? Is that fair? No. But if I’m thinking that I suspect editors are too. 

8. Playing it safe.

Sometimes someone will hand in a story that’s a little flat. There’s nothing wrong with it, but there’s nothing exciting either. It begins, it goes on, there’s an inciting incident and dialogue. Often the writer is a very diligent person who’s taken lots of notes during my lectures and tried very hard. In fact, she’s trying so hard not to do anything wrong that she’s not taking any risks. She’s afraid. She’s trying to protect herself, but you can’t write fiction without putting your heart out there.

This is what we do. We search our hearts and put our innermost thoughts on the page. This is why our friends and family look away from us during Thanksgiving dinner. You were thinking what during grandma’s funeral? You had sex where? You first fell in love with whom?But this is the strange thing. The more honest you are on the page, the more people will relate to your story. Even if your writing’s not perfect, even if you’ve made some or all of the mistakes I’ve written about, if you write something true, you’ve done something beautiful.

One of my favorite students was someone who had very strange views about masculinity. I won’t go into details, except to say he wrote stories that made me blush. People tended not to sit next to him. Then, one day he submitted a story about something that happened when he was a boy. (It was fiction, but you knew it wasn’t.) I can’t say it was the best-written story I’ve ever read, but it was raw, honest, true. I worried when I read it about how the class would respond, but I needn’t have worried. They were a generous group. It took a lot of courage for him to write what he did, but I suspect he would say it was worth it. Go forth and hurl yourself onto the page.

9. Leaving out the joy.

Writing is not always fun. There are times when it’s downright taxing. Various authors have compared the process to cutting veins and bleeding onto the page. Certainly everyone has had the feeling of being discouraged, of thinking that the words are flabby, the sentiments trite, the whole thing a complete waste of time. Many writers get so stuck in this morass that they can’t get out, and so they write word after every begrudging word without any joy at all.

Often this happens when a writer gets stuck on one particular story. I have often seen it happen that a writer will carry around a story for a decade. He will work on nothing else. He is going to finish it if it kills him. He submits the same story over and over and over again to be critiqued. Although I suggest politely that he move on and write something else, he can’t. He has to tell this story. But now he hates it, and quite honestly, I hate it. I have nothing more to say about it. I’ve critiqued the character, the plot, the dialogue.

I suspect this is even more likely to happen to novelists than to short story writers because we’re more likely to put big chunks of time into a novel. Certainly it’s harder to walk away from something you’ve spent four years working on. That was how long I worked on my novel, Courting Disaster.  It was the story of a woman who gets engaged 17 times, and then falls in love, with a man named Chuck Jones. My novel was a finalist for a number of prestigious literary awards, got a lot of agent and editorial attention, but after four years of writing, rewriting, submitting, no one wanted it. I was depressed, to put it mildly. I was also discouraged at the prospect of having to write a whole new book.

But I did. I wrote a book about a woman who teaches a fiction class and I began to feel something I hadn’t felt in a while: excitement. At one point, as I was trying to figure out who the students were in the writing class, I realized that my old friend Chuck Jones, from Courting Disaster, would be perfect. I had been obsessed by this character, and I was delighted to move him over to my new novel. The Fiction Classwas, in fact, published by Plume, a division of Penguin. Often when I’m at book clubs, people will come up to me and tell me how much they like Chuck Jones, and I always feel like that’s a tribute to the beleaguered part of me that struggled so hard to get a foothold in this business.

Don’t be afraid to start something new, if that’s what you need to do to keep going. Start a new story. Take what you’ve learned and apply it somewhere else. But don’t give up the joy that brought you into this insane profession in the first place.

This article first appeared in The Writer magazine.