Friday, July 31, 2015

Decreasing the Learning Curve

When it comes to teaching fiction writing, one of the most hotly debated questions is whether the subject can be taught at all. So much of it is inborn – a feel for language, a sense of narrative – and just as much, if not more, is developed through an individual’s reading. The more a person reads, and the more widely he or she reads, the more that person grows as a writer. And of course you have to write – a lot. So what role can a teacher play, beyond giving encouragement, pointing out mechanical errors, and passing along a few tips and tricks? Well, there’s one very important thing that teachers – and for that matter, editors – can do: we can decrease your learning curve. Over the course of our careers, we see so many manuscripts from beginners that we eventually become experts in What Not to Do if you want to get your story published. (Or, if you’re a self-publisher, What Not to Do if you want your stories to compete with all the others out there that readers have to choose from.) So – based on close to thirty years of teaching and writing – here’s my list of the most common mistakes that beginning writers make.
1. Starting Too Early
I can take a student story, flip to the third page (sometimes the fourth), place my finger on the paper two-thirds of the way down, and find what should be the beginning line or situation. I don’t need to read the story to do this, and I’m right nearly every time. I’m not certain why beginners do this time and again, but I have some theories. One problem (which as you’ll see affects other items on my list) is that the vast majority of stories people experience in their lives are presented in visual media – TV shows, films, cartoons, etc. These media can immediately set a scene because they can present a lot of information simultaneously: shape, color, sound, movement. But prose writers can present information only one word at a time. I think beginning writers struggle with how to present the same amount of information visual media do in precisely the same way they do, which is impossible. Beginners spend paragraphs setting the scene, giving weather reports, detailing characters’ appearances and fashion choices, info-dumping exposition, and all the while NOTHING IS HAPPENING. The visual equivalent would be watching a film where one small bit of visual information appears on the screen, followed by another bit, and yet another, and so on, as the full picture slowly pieces itself together. After ten minutes, the picture is fully formed at last, and only then does the story actually start.
2. The Central Conflict Takes Too Long to Appear
This problem is similar to the first, and it can be caused by the same reasons. And sometimes beginners’ stories have an ill-defined conflict or no conflict at all. In novels, the central conflict might not appear until several chapters into the book. In general, the central conflict should appear, even if only in terms of mood or suggestion, in the very first sentence. This morning, I listened to a short story in audio form about the interrogation of a man who authorities believe has knowledge about a devastating new weapon that will be unleashed on the world within days. The man resists all attempts to get information from him, though, including torture, without ever speaking a word. A third of the story passed as a bunch of exposition was presented, and only then did we get to the first interrogation scene. The story would’ve been far better if it began with the interrogation in progress and the author then dropped in exposition in bits and pieces as the story progressed. The central conflict of the story is between the interrogators and the suspect. That conflict should’ve appeared immediately in the story instead of being saved for the last third.
3. Only Sight and Hearing are Used
When it comes to description, beginners primarily use only two of our five senses – sight and hearing. I suspect there are two reasons for this. One is that these are the two senses we rely on the most, since they’re the only senses we have that allow us to gather information from a distance. The other reason is that our media present stories using only visual and auditory information, and as I stated earlier, we’re all strongly influenced by these media, much more so than prose. The important thing to remember about the other senses – smell, taste, and touch – is that because our body has to be in contact with what we’re sensing for them to operate, they’re far more intimate senses that sight and sound. And because of this, they have far more impact on humans. A person may not appreciate seeing a picture of dog poop, but they’ll have a much stronger reaction if someone holds it under their nose. Don’t forget to evoke all the senses in your story. You don’t have to try and cram them into every sentence or even every paragraph; just don’t neglect them, and don’t forget the power they have.
4. The Point of View Isn’t Immersive
Beginners often write stories the same way that they watch movies – as if they’re a passive audience member observing from a distance. They should write with an immersive point of view (whether first person or third), imagining that they’re inside a single character’s head (at least for each scene), thinking, feeling, and experiencing the same things the character is. In this sense, writing fiction is like acting. The writer portrays the character and then tries to recreate on the page what it’s like to be the character. This immersive point of view is one of the great strengths written fiction has over other media. It allows readers to get into someone else’s head and imagine being that person. Maybe we’ll invent technology one day that allows the same experience with films and games, but for right now, only fiction has this capacity. It’s one of the reasons people choose to read fiction instead of watch it, and you should take advantage of that. In my fiction writing classes, I’ll put YouTube up on the display screen and show the class a scene from one of the Bourne movies. We are observers watching Matt Damon fight bad guys. Then I show them the official music video for Biting Elbows’ “Bad Motherfucker”: In this video, we view the action from the point of view of a spy, just as if we are that person. Sure, only sight and sound are evoked in the video, but it gets the point across about how writers need to imagine the scenes they write, not as passive viewers but as active participants living them. I always remind students to consider what thoughts are going through the spy’s head, what emotions is he feeling, what sort of pain does he experience from injuries sustained during the battle, how does his body react to all this exertion, etc.
5. No Emotional Core
Stories need to be about more than “This happened and then this happened.” Unfortunately, beginners – probably because they’re still learning the basics of constructing scenes – almost never have an emotional core to their stories. Successful stories need to move readers emotionally, and they do so by focusing on their characters’ needs, desires, motivations, and reactions during – and preceding – the events of the story. The emotional core of Jaws (both the book and the movie) is Sheriff Brody. He’s sworn to serve and protect the citizens of Amity, but he faces an enemy hidden in the waters offshore, an enemy he can’t simply walk up to and arrest. He’s not a native New Englander. He’s come to town from New York City. He knows nothing about the sea, nothing about boating and fishing. He’s not prepared in any way shape or form to go after a killer shark. To make matters worse, his town depends on summer tourist money for its survival. If he closes the beaches, the town will lose important income, to the point where the town itself might die. How the hell does Brody protect the people of his town when, whatever choice he makes, it may well end up hurting them? The movie may be called Jaws, but the story isn’t about the shark. It’s about the man who has to deal with the shark. He’s the uncertain knight who has to face a very real dragon. So think about your characters, about what they want in your story, about what emotional needs they’re trying to fulfill, and make sure that this fulfillment (or failure to reach fulfillment) is really what your story is about.
6. The Story is a Copy of a Copy of a Copy of Another Story
We spend so much of our lives immersed in entertainment that the experience beginners draw on to create their fiction is all too often second, third, or even fourth-hand experience. Instead of using their own lives and experiences as inspiration for their stories, they write the same kind of mysteries, romances, science fiction, horror, etc. they’ve read – or more likely seen on TV or on film. They’re writing stories about other stories. I tell students that if you’ve ever read or watched a story similar to yours, don’t write it. Strive to write something original or at least find a way to put an original spin on it. In Back to the Future, Marty McFly travels back in time and accidentally prevents his parents meeting, thereby endangering his own existence. That idea was old back in the eighties when the film was made. The writers gave the idea a spin when they focused on teenage Marty developing a relationship with his parents, learning about what they were like at his age, and learning to accept them for their faults, and help them meet – for their own sake as much as his. The writers focused not on the time travel aspect of the story, but on the theme of family and how that connection can transcend time. (And they also added a wonderful emotional core to the story by doing this.) Last week, my wife and I were returning home from attending the Scares That Care convention in Virginia. We got lost at one point, and we pulled off the highway and into a Pizza Hut parking lot to check directions. The restaurant was closed, and a man approached the car. At first I thought he might be an employee checking to see what we were up to, but it turned out he just wanted to ask for money. My wife and I left, and that was the end of it. If I wanted to use this as the basis for a story, I would not make the man a serial killer. Too obvious. I would not make the man a hungry vampire looking for food. Too cliché. I would not make him a threat of any sort. That’s exactly what most readers would expect. Instead, I’d try to come up with something no one would expect. The man is a friend who’s supposed to living in another country, but who suddenly appears here. The man is an old boyfriend of the wife who she hasn’t seen in decades. The man is an older version of the husband who’s somehow appeared in the present. I could go on, but my point is not only to draw on real experience (which I did) but then to keep pushing your ideas until they’re no longer run of the mill but become something interesting, something that only you can write.
7. Expository Lumps
This is one of the most common problems beginners have. I sure did. Expository lumps are large blocks of explanatory text provided by the author or delivered through character dialogue. I learned to avoid these when an editor gave me feedback on a story early in my career, retyping (back in those pre-Word, pre-email days) an entire paragraph of exposition from my story to show me what I was doing wrong. “You’ve got a lot of similar paragraphs in your story,” the editor wrote. I made a fresh printout of the story, grabbed a red pen, blocked out the paragraph the editor highlighted, and then went through the manuscript and blocked out at least a half dozen paragraphs like it. That editor’s comment was one of the most useful pieces of feedback I’ve ever received, and it improved my writing tremendously. I tell students who have problems with expository lumps to write their first drafts without any background information included. Absolutely none. Then I tell them to go back through the draft and add in only the most minimal amount of background information, only what is necessary for readers to understand the story, and only add it in a few sentences at a time, in different places, and in different ways (a bit of dialogue, a piece of description, short authorial narration, etc.). In longer work like a novel, you can get away with chunks of exposition because readers are prepared for a longer reading experience and the chunks seem smaller in proportion to the rest of the book. But even then you should be as restrained as possible with exposition.
8. Saving the Best for Last
Beginning writers often save what they believe is their best idea for the end of the story. This usually means the end is the only interesting part of the tale. Why would anyone read the rest of it? I tell students to start with what they think is their best idea and keep writing, making the story even better as they go. This is also a great way to avoid writing clichéd stories. An example I always give students is Clive Barker’s story “The Body Politic.” One of the clichéd story ideas in horror is the severed hand that has a life of its own and is out for revenge. These stories end with the hand crawling toward someone, ready to choke them. The idea of the severed hand is saved for the end. Barker begins his story with the premise that hands possess lives and desires of their own. All hands. They’re sick of being slaves to us and are waiting for a messiah to come and lead a revolution against what they call “the tyranny of the body.” Barker starts with his best idea and develops it from there. In class, I sometimes have students take the ending of their first story and use it as the beginning for a brand-new story. It’s a great exercise for teaching them the power of starting with a great idea/image and continuing on from that point.
9. Having a Character Die at the End
I can’t tell you how many beginners’ stories I’ve read that end with the main character dying (or worse, narrating the story in first person even though he or she is dead). Beginners think that killing a character at the end of their story will have a strong emotional impact on readers, but it never does. That technique might work in a novel, where readers have had time to get to know a character, but in a short story? Readers have so little time to emotionally attach to a character that his or death is almost meaningless. Besides, death is an easy way out for fictional characters. If you keep them alive, you can make them suffer more!
10. You Really Want to Write a Script
Students often tell me the reason they write short fiction is because they really want to write screenplays, and they figure stories are easier. If you want to write a script, write a script. Otherwise, write a goddamned story. Both forms are hard as hell to master. Neither is easier than the other.
Hopefully, some of the advice I’ve given will decrease your learning curve, at least a little. And if you read all this and thought, “Well, hell, I already know this stuff,” then feel free to pass the information along to someone you think might be able to use it. Better yet, steal the advice and pretend it’s yours the next time you mentor another writer or teach a class. Because the more we all share what we’ve learned about writing, the more we all grow, and the better writers we all become.
The audiobook version of my zombie novel The Way of All Flesh will soon be released from Audio Realms:
My novel Dream Stalkers, the sequel to Night Terrors – about an agent who polices living nightmares with her psychotic clown partner – is still available:
My story “Blood and Bone” appears in the shapeshifter anthology Flesh Like Smoke:

And as always you can find out more about all my novels and short story collections at my website:


  1. I was glad of that last line, Tim, because I'm teaching my first writing workshop a week tomorrow and I'll most definitely be poaching some of the points you've made here! Thanks for an excellent article.