It’s time to spruce up the syllabus for the new semester, and that means lots of thinking about the kind of students I’ll be teaching and what they need to learn. I teach an introductory course, so that means truly raw beginners—students who may never have attempted to write creatively before. Over the years, one comes to notice repeating struggles, and, since I’m into counting lately, I thought I’d compile a list of the top mistakes beginning writers make. At first I thought I’d distinguish between prose and poetry, but, as I compiled the list, I soon realized that there’s so much overlap that such a distinction would be misleading. So, what follows applies to all kind of writing, except for the few isolated only for poetry, and those only marginally.
1. Too much dialogue. Perhaps it’s the fact that we watch more movies than read books these days, and movies, as drama, rely on dialogue more than the short story or novel do, or at least seem to do so. In truth, movies that are too “talky” often bore people. My husband hated Before Sunrise, for example, because all Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy did was talk. I still love that movie, and even the sequel, Before Sunset. Great freaking dialogue, but also great characters and a great story, which is the point: the problem isn’t too much dialogue, but, rather, misusing dialogue to tell the story that would be better told through exposition, summary, or action. The beginning writer doesn’t quite know how to manipulate other elements of storytelling, and so relies on dialogue because it’s familiar; we all know how to talk, how to tell a story, and so you wind up with long passages of characters explaining things to one another, or—evil of all evils!—to him or herself. Page after page of dialogue is boring and weird, and makes for skimpy storytelling. Characters should speak only when they have something to say.
2. Not paying attention to pacing. An offshoot of the pages of dialogue problem, pacing is the secret forté of the professional and the bane of the beginner. The beginner starts at the beginning and continues to the end, usually without too much consideration for what deserves attention and what should be skipped over quickly or even entirely. The balancing act between scene (a detailed account of a particular moment) and summary (an express recap of long periods of time) can be one of the hardest writing skills to master, but it’s the secret between boring and exciting reading. Get to the good part, and, when you get there, take it slow.
3, No patience with the story (no development). Also related to pacing is the problem of scanty development. Beginning writers want to tell the story as quickly as possible, and, while there’s a place in this world for flash fiction, even for micro fiction, the question of good development has little to do with word count. You have to learn to give the story the room it needs to be told well, and, too often, the beginning writer tries to shove a novel into a postcard. Writing is a slow, complex process, and, if the only reason why your story is two pages long is because you “just wanted to get it over with,” you’re in the wrong business.
4. Flat characters. Characters are often the first to fall prey to the scanty development bug. This one is good, that one is bad, and we really don’t know why. “She’s a typical ‘hooker with the heart of gold,’” the beginner will say, as if that’s a good thing. Flat characters are clichés (hooker with the heart of gold) or circumstances (the boss), not people. You have to provide motivations for your characters. We need to know why the do the things they do, say the things they say, and think and feel the way they do. Not only does this take time and space, but thought. You can’t just grab a character off the shelf—you must create one.
5. Naïve understanding of life. Part of the problem of the beginning writer is that usually he or she is young. Scientists have actually studied the adolescent and post-adolescent brain and its capacity for complex moral development, and found that young people tend to think in absolutes—good versus evil, for example. A sign of maturity is the ability to see shades of gray. Thus, the beginning writer tends to punish the bad guy at the end of the story while rewarding the good guy, as in fairy tales. No one is either wholly good or wholly bad, of course, but experience must teach you this. Students rankle when I bring this up. Being in college is all about becoming an adult, and it hurts to be reminded in any way how new you are at that, especially when you feel so secretly inadequate in the first place. Some students also argue that they’ve “been through more” in their short lives than “most people have been through at forty” (meaning me, of course!). True. Some people have unfortunate beginnings—poverty, abuse, illness, and death affect people of all ages. The way we process these events, however, changes with time. About one out every three introductory course stories involves someone’s death, for example. As we grow older, however, we come to realize that death is not only natural and common, but, quite frankly, nothing to write about. Most young writers have difficulty understanding how little drama there is to death, illness, even abuse. They may be part of a good story, but not de facto a good story by themselves.
6. No sense of interior conflict. This list is coming out ike a braid; recognizing the role of interior conflict is the next step after realizing that “the death of X” is not de facto a good story. It’s how Y reacts to the death of X that can—maybe—make for a good story. The beginning writer’s world is all about exteriority. Planes crash, bags of money are found, lovers are unfaithful: things happen to the characters, but the characters don’t change in any way, just their exterior circumstances. The good guy may lose his business, be crippled in a car accident, and have his dog stolen by his ex-wife, but, in the end, he’s the same good guy he was at the beginning of the story! Watch any soap opera and observe. Most times, characters weep frantically, scream at one another, and tear things up (notice that these are all also exterior manifestations of interior turmoil) when things happen to them. However, they remain either good or evil despite these circumstances. Learning to write about our interior lives, those inner struggles under apparently normal circumstances that we all experience and that define us more than our exterior circumstances do, is one of the first breakthroughs a beginning writer can have.
7. Senseless plotting. The lack of interior conflict in the beginner’s story often means that there’s a lot going on outside, and some of it just doesn’t make sense. You need to end your story, for example, but, because all you’ve got is a series of circumstances with no connection to fully developed character psyches, your only recourse is some story-ending event. The wedding. The graduation. The death. Even worse, the winning lotto ticket, the alien abduction, or the meteor apocalypse. That’s one kind of senseless plotting, the traditional deus ex machina that ends the story by ending the world or other exterior circumstances. It’s senseless because we all know that weddings, graduations, deaths, jackpots, aliens, and meteors aren’t real endings, just arbitrary ones (well, maybe meteors . . .). A wedding, for example, may or may not be a satisfying ending, depending on the conflict that lead up to it. If the conflict was whether or not the fiancé is the right person, the wedding itself is hardly going to answer this question, since most likely we won’t know for a long time afterwards. Yet, many superficially plotted stories end this way, as if the ceremony could wipe out all previous conflicts (no doubt this is also the reason why there are so many divorces, but I digress).
But that relies on you having identified a conflict to begin with, and the problem with many beginners’ stories is that there is no clear conflict. Characters are just walking around, attending a party, for example, and there’s nothing at stake. There’s no tension moving you from one moment to the next, no quest. You don’t know how to end the story because you don’t know what the story is. We’re peeping in on some people doing some stuff, but there’s no theme, nothing. That’s not a story, that’s an episode of Keeping Up with the Kardashians.
8. Misidentifying the drama / Wasting time on bad material. All of which leads to perhaps the most common beginner’s problem, not recognizing where the story is. You write up to the death of X, the devasting breakup, or the big wedding, giving often meticulous attention to all the little events leading up to The Big Event. The first cough that should have sent X running to the doctor but didn’t, the first spat over dinner that foreshadows (beginners love foreshadowing—they learned it in AP English) The Divorce, the meeting of the lovers as they caught each other’s eyes across a crowded room (the room must always be crowded). To make things worse, the beginning writer begins the story with “The day my [or his/her] life changed forever began with . . . .” Zzzzzzzzzz. Not only is no one surprised by these familiar trajectories, but also there’s very little drama before any big event. This is very, very difficult for the beginning writer to accept, that a Big Event on down the line somewhere does not create automatic anticipation. In truth, the more interesting stories happen after: after the death, the breakup, the wedding. How do the characters adapt to their lives after a change? The Big Event might mark some exterior spot on the characters’ lives, but the real story is where the interior conflict is, and that can be anywhere in relation to an exterior event. The beginner writes over and over about garden weddings and rainy funerals, but there’s just nothing there. The story is elsewhere.
9. Vacuum settings. Related to the problem of excessive dialogue, stories set in a vacuum are extremely common. Beginning writers are impatient with setting, and so you have characters running around generic high schools or clubs or whatever, or, sometimes, nowhere at all. Before you roll your eyes and claim that descriptions of setting are boring, consider how interested you’d be in a radio play. Though there are some fantastic radio plays, the form was overshadowed by television for just one reason: we could see the people in the play. The only way for us to be able to see the people in your writing is if you put them somewhere. If you only describe what they look like without telling us where they are, all we’ve got is paper dolls. Put them in cars that drive down streets in specific cities, or on horses galloping down a beach, or, WTF, in the vacuum of space, as long as they’re in a spacesuit tethered to a spaceship full of buttons and light and the smell of the spacetoilet. Characters interact with their settings, and are a product of them. A girl and a boy on a date in LA will not behave the same as a girl and a boy on a date in NY. One couple will ride around in a car, the other take the subway. And that’s just a minor difference. Beginning writers don’t “see” very well, or smell, taste, and feel, for that matter. They have an overdeveloped sense of hearing—people talki ng, phones ringing, music playing, shots being fired, tires screeching. Imagine you are writing instructions to a filmmaker. What should the set look like? Where should the actors be?
10. No idea how to revise. Beyond making a few grammatical corrections, the impatience of the beginning writer is nowhere more evident than in the revision process. The beginning writer often believes that the best writing is spontaneously produced, if you have any talent, that is. That’s the first stumble right there, equating revision with lack of talent. The beginning writer also has a hard time realizing that writing is work. The word “creative” is no help, either. Creative things are supposed to be fun, aren’t they? So, if you have to “work” at something, you’re not good at it, either, not talented. So, the beginner is stuck in an endless stream of first drafts. Even when he or she begins to accept that revision may—after all—be somewhat normal and acceptable, the beginner has no idea how to go about it, how to a) identify the flaws in the writing, and b) address them successfully. The beginning writer is essentially lazy, and would rather ride the adrenaline rush of the first draft than plod through the swamp of revision.
Ah, the beginning writer, that fragile, enthusiastic puppy! You break my heart. Tune in next week for the second half of this post, where I’ll finish with the general psychology and take a look at that other mysterious creature, the Beginning Poet. Till then, wish me luck in syllabusland.