Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Common Errors In Fiction Writing

In my last post I discussed material about psychic distance in writing fiction, quoting from John Gardner's The Art Of Fiction. In this book, Gardner also writes about the errors he most commonly encountered in the many years he taught creative writing. I thought it would be interesting to mention a few and add some brief comments.

The most crucial error is interruption of the "vivid and continuous fictional dream." Most writing teachers call this author intrusion, and liken it to a playwright running onto the stage to give comments or directions. Fiction written in the omniscient point of view (a POV that has unfortunately become less common nowadays) puts the reader in the front row. First-person or close third-person POV puts the reader onstage with the characters. Continuity interruption freezes the action and pulls the reader away from it toward the back of the theatre.

Gardner speaks of "clumsy writing" as an egregious mistake, citing inappropriate or excessive use of the passive voice, needless explanation (often cautioned against by editors and writing teachers by the use of the acronym RUE--resist the urge to explain), lack of sentence variety (which can be avoided by reading your work aloud and listening for monotonous rhythm and patterns), and careless shifts in psychic distance.

He especially cautions against the frequent use of sentences beginning with infinite verbs. Now, I don't want to get into the definitions of finite vs. infinite verbs (the former being linked to a time or circumstance, the latter not so linked, or "infinite,") nor discuss participles, gerunds, and such. Much as someone plays piano by ear, I learned years ago from my sainted English teacher, Mrs. Billie Casey, to write by ear, not by definitions of parts of speech. In simple terms, Gardner warns us to avoid sentences that begin like these: "Looking up slowly from her sewing, Henrietta...." or "Quickly turning from the bulkhead, Captain Figg...." I'm embarrassed to look at the first draft of my initial foray into novel-writing and find a double handful of these horrible examples up front. Fortunately, my writing has improved.

There's more in Gardner's book, and I reserve the right to post about it again. Meanwhile, I hope that this list of things to avoid will help you in your writing journey.

Looking at the clock on the wall, it tells me that my time to blog has expired. Now correct that sentence, write a bad example of your own, and I'll see you back when class convenes in a few days.

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PS: My friend, Rachelle Gardner, has absolutely lost her mind and is running a two-layered contest for 1) the best first line and 2) the best first page of a novel, using the first line she's picked. Check out the rules at her site.

2 comments:

Renae said...

Great post! I'll have to read that book. Thanks for sharing the tips!

Blessings, dear brother.

--A fellow Texan

Renae

Renae said...

Great post! I'll have to read that book. Thanks for sharing the tips!

Blessings, dear brother.

--A fellow Texan

Renae