I’ve had the good fortune recently to be doing some submission reviews for The Harrow, an online horror fiction journal. My task is to review and critique manuscripts submitted for publication. I’m also a member of Critters.org, a website where SF/F and Horror writers can have their works reviewed and critiqued by their peers. I must say, it’s a great experience on many levels to read the work of struggling writers out there, not to mention having my own stuff critiqued on Critters. I’m good, but I’m not Ray Bradbury or Harlan Ellison. Give me another 35 years. Maybe someday I’ll be able to tell beautiful, eloquent lies for a living.
The best part is remembering what it was like to be there, where they are, longing to be a writer, struggling, slaving, agonizing, yearning for publication. “Just give me the time of day and a frickin’ published credit for God’s sake! I don’t suck! … Do I?” I can remember what it was like, but at the same time, I know that I’ve passed that stage, and that feels good. Granted, I still feel a fair share of angst when tossing out a fresh short story to be read, but I have honed my craft such that I don’t have to worry about a lot of mechanic and structural problems. The problem is, most of what I’m reading does, in fact, suck, in one way or another. There are legions of breathtakingly awful writers out there.
This is not to be mean, but it needs to be said. If you’re going to be a writer, you need to learn how to be a writer, and to do that you need to learn what separates crappy writing from the stuff that really sings. To paraphrase Ray Bradbury, write a thousand words a day for the next 20 years, and you’ll reach the point where your writing ability can get out of the way of your subconscious and let the stories come out. You won’t have to worry about the mechanical mistakes that you might make.
So without further ado, a few tips on How To NOT Suck as a Fiction Writer.
- Get a copy of Strunk & White’s Elements of Style. This little book, all by itself, taught me a lot about weeding out my own mistakes, double-checking grammar and mis-used words, and in general making me better at what I do. The biggest problem I see with many of the manuscripts I read is the lack of basic knowledge about how to structure a sentence. Good writers routinely break the rules, but they do it on purpose, from a position of strength, not because they don’t know any better. Learn where to put commas. Sentence fragments are ok, when used properly. Run-on sentences are NOT OK, unless they are done for a specific and recognizable purpose.
- SHOW, DON’T TELL! You’re thinking, yadda yadda yadda. That is the first maxim any fiction writing class ever tried to bang into your head. But yet, in a startlingly high percentage of manuscripts I see, I routinely see sentences like, “He was angry.” It doesn’t get much more boring than that. Maybe you don’t realize that SHOW pertains to emotions as well. Don’t summarize a characters emotions. Chart the physical sensations that show the reader what the character is feeling. The reader will know by your description of hair standing on end, teeth clenching, fists quivering, and a beet-red face that the character is angry. This provides the reader a door to enter the character’s reality, and makes us identify with what is happening in the story.
- The Twilight Zone was groundbreaking in 1950. Today, not so much. I see a lot of horror fiction with characters drawn up as mere caricatures by which the ‘horrible idea’ of a given horror story is imposed upon them. The writer has an idea, then tosses off a cardboard character to enact that idea upon. Is that actually moral? To create an empty, bland, boring vessel just to do nasty things to it? Do nasty things to real, living breathing characters, I say! Create a wonderful, living breathing character, someone you could love, or love to hate — and then jam them screaming and writhing into a meat grinder! That is good horror fiction!
- Item 3 ties in with the idea of cliches as well. If you’re going retell Ye Olde Vampire Story, or Ye Olde Werewolf Story, or Ye Olde Three Wishes Story and the dangers thereof, you had better find a fresh, new, and intriguing way of telling it.
- Microsoft Spellchecker sucks. It only checks that you have words spelled correctly. It does NOT check that you have used the proper word. Ex. ‘heel’ vs. ‘heal.’ Nor is it any good at checking grammar. It will catch a few legitimate grammatical errors, but in general, I find that the MS Word grammar check is little more than useless. Learn to proofread your own work.
- Recommended reading on becoming a better Fiction Writer.
- Zen in the Art of Writing, by Ray Bradbury. Brief, powerful, and beautifully written.
- From Where You Dream, by Robert Olen Butler. He’s kind of pompous and arrogant towards any sort of non-mainstream or genre fiction, but he has some good points to make on how to dredge truly good stories out of your most creative brain.
I subscribe to Bradbury’s assertion that writers have to write a whole boatload of bad stories before they arrive at something that is truly wonderful. The good news for many of the writers I’ve read in the last few weeks is they have put one more of those bad stories behind them, and they’re one step closer now to where they need to be.