Amph How NOT to Write a Novel: 200 Classic Mistakes: The Cheerleader

Discussion in 'Archive: The Amphitheatre' started by Nevermind, Jul 3, 2011.

  1. Nevermind Jedi Grand Master

    Member Since:
    Oct 14, 2001
    star 6
    In the "Twilight" Chapter-by-Chapter thread, Katana_Geldar recommended this book, saying it gave examples of various mistakes aspiring authors made, and saying it was funny as indeed it is. Since there appears to be numerous people here who want to be writers, I thought it might be interesting to go through it.

    NOTE: "Twilight" and "A Game of Thrones" are proof positive that following these rules are not a recipe for success; in fact, it might be a recipe for failure. Both in movies and books these days, if you want broad-based success, you often have to pander to and flatter your audience to succeed. But you need to be reasonably subtle about it.

    PLOT: Not Just a Bunch of Stuff that Happens.

    Beginnings and Set-Ups

    1. The Lost Sock...wherein the plot is too slight.

    The example, which is too dull to transcribe, concerns whether someone has used the right small part in a factory.

    The authors say that the drama should be enough to carry the plot through 300 plus pages, and also should be important enough to change someone's life forever. And that it should be something of *broad* interest. They warn you not to use gripes (the romantic difficulties of short men and creepy landlords are the two examples they give) as plots, though they can be used as plot backgrounds.
  2. Katana_Geldar Force Ghost

    Member Since:
    Mar 3, 2003
    star 8
    What about the various manifestations of hydralics? :D

    Glad to see you are taking this up, Zaz.
  3. Mastadge Manager Emeritus

    Member Since:
    Jun 4, 1999
    star 7
    I don't know. I could imagine a funny novel in which the plot is a person looking for her lost sock. :p
  4. Champion of the Force Force Ghost

    Member Since:
    Dec 27, 1999
    star 4
    A lost sock could be an effective MacGuffin in a good story. Probably involves zombies.
  5. Nevermind Jedi Grand Master

    Member Since:
    Oct 14, 2001
    star 6
    Everything these days involves zombies (for the fanboys) or vampires (for the fangurls).

    2. The Waiting Room

    Example from the book: "Reggie boarded the train at Montauk and found a seat near the dining. car. As he sat there, smelling the appalling cheeseburgers from the adjoining carriage, he started thinking about how he had decided to become a doctor. Even as a boy, he had been interested in grotesque diseases. But did that mean he had a vocation? The train jolted, keeping him from falling asleep....Montauk rushed backward in the windows...

    [10 pages later]

    Reggie recollects the bad advice of his uncle...

    [10 pages later]

    "...and to make a long story short, that's how I met your Aunt Katharine. And that's how you got here," Uncle Frank concluded...."

    The book: "Here the writer churns out endless scenes establishing background information with no main story in sight. On page 50, the reader still has no idea why it's important to know about Reggie's true parentage, his medical career, or the geography on Montauk. By page 100, the reader suspects that it isn't important, were a reader to make it to page 100.

    The writer has created an entire frame scene where nothing happens." They recommend that this type of Bad Exposition be radically reduced, or to use some of it in a scene in which something *does* happen.

  6. Mastadge Manager Emeritus

    Member Since:
    Jun 4, 1999
    star 7
    I could be misremembering, but that kind of life-story infodump was one thing that really turned my off of Steven King's work way back when
  7. Nevermind Jedi Grand Master

    Member Since:
    Oct 14, 2001
    star 6
    You have a point, I seem to recall this as something of a problem in King, though it is not the reason I stopped reading him.
  8. Katana_Geldar Force Ghost

    Member Since:
    Mar 3, 2003
    star 8
    This is a big example of "show don't tell". If we have an scene when he decides to be a doctor, show it, not tell it.

    Sometimes you can get away with telling something in dialogue, as at least something is happening. Unless it's a big "As You Know".
  9. JohnWesleyDowney Jedi Grand Master

    Member Since:
    Jan 27, 2004
    star 5

    Funny coincidence, I was re-reading Stephen King's WRITING: A MEMOIR OF THE CRAFT just a few days ago and there's
    a section where he discusses this exact issue. The example he gave was a passage of his book, "Bag of Bones."

    At one point in an early draft, King had two pages of material on the protagonist spending a year doing community
    service work. King let his wife read it, and her reaction was "why would I care about his year doing community
    service? WHY?" King relented and reduced it to two paragraphs. As he points out, several million people have
    read Bag of Bones, and he got about 4,000 letters responding to various aspects of it. But he did not get ONE letter
    where a reader complained there wasn't enough detail and backstory on the character's community service background.
    Case closed.

    So why did you stop reading King, Zaz? Inquiring minds want to know. :)
  10. Nevermind Jedi Grand Master

    Member Since:
    Oct 14, 2001
    star 6
    I enjoyed his first five or six books. But I'm not a horror fan.
  11. Nevermind Jedi Grand Master

    Member Since:
    Oct 14, 2001
    star 6
    3. The Long Runway: "In which a character's childhood is recounted to no purpose."

    The book says that there is only one letter between "yarn" (as in 'a good yarn') and yawn.
    You don't need to say everything. Oh, no kidding.


  12. Katana_Geldar Force Ghost

    Member Since:
    Mar 3, 2003
    star 8
    Homer and Dickens are like that, but they can get away with is. ;)
  13. Nevermind Jedi Grand Master

    Member Since:
    Oct 14, 2001
    star 6
    It helps to be acutely talented, I suppose.
  14. Katana_Geldar Force Ghost

    Member Since:
    Mar 3, 2003
    star 8
    I guess so, but these guys are dead and old. And they can get away with it.

    In a piece of unpublished fiction, you can't. You scream at them to "Get to the point!"
  15. Nevermind Jedi Grand Master

    Member Since:
    Oct 14, 2001
    star 6
    4. The Vacation Slide Show

    Where the author substitutes location for story.

    "...The first week he had spent among the lush vegetation of Bangalot, where the exotic tendrils of the carnivorous plants were only made more romantic by his chance ncounter with Heather..." And on and on.

    The book comments: "If Chip does nothing on a tropical island but describe the wonders of being on a tropical island, it is just a Waiting Room with foliage--foliage which, furthermore, the reader has already seen on the Discovery Channel, in HD."
  16. Katana_Geldar Force Ghost

    Member Since:
    Mar 3, 2003
    star 8
  17. Nevermind Jedi Grand Master

    Member Since:
    Oct 14, 2001
    star 6
    It *does* interest me. Ye fascinating website.

    I know I have to get back to "Twilight", but GRRM is bad enough; the two of them are killing me. God save me from genre fiction. :p
  18. Qui-Gon_Reborn Manager Emeritus

    Member Since:
    Dec 11, 2008
    star 6
    [face_laugh]

    I thought you'd given up on Twilight. And I didn't blame you. :p Can't wait to see how this thread progresses. I should probably get my hands on a copy of that book.
  19. Nevermind Jedi Grand Master

    Member Since:
    Oct 14, 2001
    star 6
    GRRM has the advantage of having short chapters where (in general) not much happens. "Twilight" has very long chapters in which nothing at all happens, except minute descriptions of Bella's feelings. :p Oh, yeah, and Edward's beauty. :p:p
  20. Nevermind Jedi Grand Master

    Member Since:
    Oct 14, 2001
    star 6
    4. Words Fail Me

    Where the Author Stops Short of Communication

    "Now that he had finally reached Paris, Chip understood why they called it the City of Light. It was the lights! There was something so special about Paris that was indescribable. It was so different than being back home in Terre Haute. There was something he couldn't put his finger on, a certain...je ne sois quoi! He finally understood what they meant by that!" Etc. etc.

    A subcategory of the Vacation Slide Show, the authors compare this trope to showing vacation slides with yourself dead center in each shot, blocking the view of the attraction.
  21. Gonk Jedi Grand Master

    Member Since:
    Jul 8, 1998
    star 6
    Funny coincidence, I was re-reading Stephen King's WRITING: A MEMOIR OF THE CRAFT just a few days ago and there's
    a section where he discusses this exact issue. The example he gave was a passage of his book, "Bag of Bones."


    On Writing is a seminal book, IMO. It makes a few good notes.

    Here are some pointers that NM will likely cover; they're ones I've tried to incorporate into my writing.


    1. Avoid adverbs -- 'ly' words. Only use them if your meaning will be all mucked up without them. A common thing is for someone to write "He ran swiftly" -- that's a double negative: not only are you using an 'ly' word that is probably not necessary, but you're saying the same thing twice: since when do people NOT run swiftly. If they don't, then THAT would, maybe, require an adverb.

    2. Embody your POV. If you're conducting things from a POV perspective, become an actor. Try to adopt the personality of the person involved. How would they describe things? How would they talk, how would they think? What would they notice and what would they NOT notice, and how can you write something in a way where the POV character, for instance, glosses over without thinking but the reader looks at the page and says "wait, WHAT did he/she just think?" If the way you write one POV perspective is the same as another POV perspective, that's not a good thing, generally.

    3. This is related to NM's last point: avoid half-measures. Concentrate on hard detail. Get away from saying people did half- this and partial- that. Avoid cliches when not engaged in direct dialogue (cliches in dialogue are generally ok, since that's just how a lot of us talk, and usually NOT using cliches can sound off unless your character is an introspective sort of person). To say you're appreciating a certain "Je ne sai qoi"... isn't that literally in translation saying you're appreciating a certain "I don't know what"? I mean, what's that supposed to say? You should only do this if your character is a shallow sort of person, and beware: shallow people become boring POV characters unless you're going to start laying out how bad that is.

    4. Show, don't tell. This one has been covered a lot, but yes: always abide by this. Don't tell us someone is frightened, describe things the person is doing that is consistent with being frightened. Let the reader connect as many dots for themselves as possible. Trust in them to be intelligent enough to get what is going on.

    5. Less is more. Generally, if there's something very important introduced, feel free to go hog-wild in your descriptions -- up to a point, anyway. I mean if a nuclear bomb went off, spending half a page or a whole page on describing the blast alone is perfectly fine. But usually: let's just keep the action moving, people. Don't over-describe and over-word things that don't need it. If you've got a neat idea for a description in your head, by all means use it. If you've got an idea on how to describe an otherwise uninteresting thing that underlines your story themes, by all means go ahead. But try to keep it brief: some writers end up padding their stories needlessly, and the interests of your reader will suffer. In other words, get to the point.

    6. In associated with "Show, don't tell": don't preach. It's fine to have a character exhibit traits of something you want to extoll or criticize, but you start entering more sublime territory by offering only hints of commentary on what's going on. Good writers themselves often struggle with this: I struggle with this. You can see the writers of the Batman movies struggle with this. Because often this is the point where you've got such an AWESOME PHRASE you want to use to reflect the human condition... but it's so hard to fit it into the story because people don't talk like that, or it just sticks out badly.
  22. Thrawn1786 Force Ghost

    Member Since:
    Feb 8, 2004
    star 5
    Thanks for posting all of this! =D= I had never heard of this book before; I'll definitely be on the look-out for it. These tips are great not only for a laugh, but good advice (like Gonk's post) for aspiring writers. I'm working on my MA in Creative Writing and I take any suggestions for improvement that I can get. :)
  23. Nevermind Jedi Grand Master

    Member Since:
    Oct 14, 2001
    star 6
    I remember "On Writing", and I'm sure I had a copy of it somewhere; it was indeed full of sensible advice, as Gonk's post attests. I'll have to look for it.

    I read somewhere that the other books that should be in the aspiring writer's library are a good copy of "Fowler's English Usage" and "The Elements of Style" by William Strunk, Jr. Any other suggestions? We can add "On Writing" to that list, and the TV Tropes website, which is an eye-opener on such dodges as lampshade hanging and the like.

    Re: Gonk's post. Rowling, for example, definitely has a problem with ye olde adverbs, but like King himself, I'm a fan anyway. She does have style.

    Re: The POV. This is endemic in Haut Fantasy and it's very seldom used well. In "A Game of Thrones", the book I very rashly decided to do a chapter-by-chapter on, there are currently 8 rotating POVs. That is too many, and it causes the plot to expand rather than progress. I'm sure that was the point originally--one of the True Believers said the the plot was growing organically. Though that's a bit gnomic, I believe I know what he means, but the author has it under insufficient control, even in the first book, and I'm told it gets much worse later. The POVs include three small children, their parents, another man, and two adolescents. They all sound alike after a bit. He might have been better to try the first person rather than the third, but I think POVs need to be reigned back to work. In other words, one person tells the first part of the story, another one the second part, etc. The rotation cause what seems to be endless repetitions of information, the books being at least twice as long as they could be.



  24. Katana_Geldar Force Ghost

    Member Since:
    Mar 3, 2003
    star 8
    Paolini is often guilty of this, the story grinds to a halt as he describes stuff. Same goes for Stephanie Meyer.

    You just need to wait for The After Dinner Sermon (In which the author wields a mallet)

    I need to dig out my copy, it's packed away.
  25. Nevermind Jedi Grand Master

    Member Since:
    Oct 14, 2001
    star 6
    I did try Paolini, and concluded that his parents had done him a tremendous disservice in getting him published because the series is juvenilia--the sort of thing that is turned down by 159 publishers and then you sit down and write something else that's a lot better. Then they publish the juvenilia after you die when your heirs want to make some money.