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The Top Ten Mistakes New Fiction Authors Make

by Sally Zigmond

Are you wondering why your short stories keep coming back with polite rejection letters? It could be that one of these ten "fatal errors" is standing between you and publication!

Lack of Editing. The best writers re-write and re-write. New writers tend to think that editing merely means a brief read through for typos and spelling errors. That's the very last thing to do. The first draft of a short story is like a lump of wood. Removing unnecessary waffle, sharpening up images and choosing the exact word will reveal the beauty of the grain.

Dull Writing. Too many new writers don't give their imagination full rein. They seem afraid look beyond and beneath the surface. Their characters are dull and lead dull lives. Above all, fiction must intrigue and entertain. Avoid stereotyped characters and situations. Why can't a rich business man be kind and compassionate? Why are unemployed men always lazy and sit around in their vests swigging out of cans? Why can't one or two learn Latin or take up line-dancing?

Too Much Irrelevant Detail. In short fiction especially, include information only if it furthers the plot, aids characterization and provides a sense of place and time. Too much background information makes a story all tell and no show. Don't go into detail about characters if they have no significant part to play in the fiction. Never give bit part players a name. If all a postman has to do is deliver the all-important letter, don't say he's Stan, the postman whose wife nags him and has a bad back after falling off his bike in 1976. His function is just to be a postman. Don't lead up to an event. Jump in straight away. Drip-feed vital information subtly. Don't drop in heavy indigestible chunks of history or description. Make it a central part of the current action.

No Attention to Language. Too many writers are so busy "telling a story" that they fail to choose their words carefully enough. All writers should try to increase their vocabulary; not by using fancy words just for the sake of it -- writing should always be clear -- but by using intriguing language in new ways. Wind doesn't only blow. It can rip, roar, strangle, whip. Be imaginative. It's not only what you say but the way you say it.

Absence of Imagery and Reliance on Cliches. Too much fiction is flat because it lacks vibrant images. Cliches are similes and metaphors that have been so overworked they cease to mean anything and sound limp and stale, like as cold as ice, as black as coal. Don't say, "she sighed with relief"; think of another way someone might show relief. Match your imagery to the story and character. If your main character is always rushing about, use imagery relating to speed. Send him to the greyhound track to act out his scenes or place him by a railway line where express trains thunder past. If your character is depressed then send her into tunnels, underpasses, cellars and basements. Reinforce the prevailing mood, but avoid the obvious. Don't draw the reader's attention to what you're doing. Just do it.

No Sense of Place. People are not only the result of their genes, but are shaped by their environment. Show the readers where your characters live and work. If it's the sprawling suburbs, then show us. What does a suburban avenue, sound and smell like? How does the light shine on it? Show us its life -- a man delivering charity bags from door to door, wheelie bins standing by gates. If someone lives in a filthy hovel behind the gasworks, let's see, hear and touch it. Too many writers let their characters float around in a vacuum. Don't forget to engage all the senses. Most writers describe how things look, but how does fear taste? How does anger smell? What does beauty sound like? Be adventurous.

No Shape or Structure. All fiction, but especially the short story, works best when it concentrates on one person in one situation that takes place in a reasonably short space of time. A short story expresses a moment of change and charts the journey through this change and shows what happens at the far end. Begin the story as close as possible to the moment of change. Don't waffle on once the change and its aftermath has happened. Don't allow yourself to be sidetracked. Learn how to pace a story, when to give and when to withhold information, when and how to create tension, speed things up, slow things down. This is done by carefully choosing words, not only for the sound they make but the length of syllables etc. Writing is a craft as much as an art. If a writer needs to introduce flashback, it should be carefully sign-posted in and out, to avoid confusion. Shifts in viewpoint should also be carefully introduced.

Poor Dialogue Skills. Dialogue in fiction isn't real but it must sound real. Keep it sharp. Don't allow your characters to make long confessional speeches or engage in too much cozy chit-chat. Use it to provide essential information and above all to show character.

Lack of Technical Knowledge. All writers should learn or brush up their grammar by learning why things are so. The most common mistakes, such as confusion of "it's" and "its," "your" and "you're" mark you as a beginner. Learn the reasons behind the rules and you can't possibly get it wrong. Only when you know the rules inside out can you be brave enough to break them. The best way to learn how to do it is to read as much published fiction as you can. If you read plenty by a variety of authors you cannot possibly "pick up" their style. It will, on the contrary, help develop your own.

My Top Tip. When you think your story is the best you can make it, put it aside and leave it for as long as possible -- minimum one week. Then read it out aloud. Your errors will leap up at you like snarling dogs! Now rewrite it.

Copyright © 2002 Sally Zigmond
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.


Sally Zigmond has had nonfiction and fiction published in several magazines, as well as anthologies, and has won several major short story competitions. She is a joint assistant editor of QWF magazine, and editor of The Historical Novels Review. She writes articles and reviews for the Society and also reviews for the Virginia Woolf Society. Zigmond is a member of The Society of Authors, and lives in North Yorkshire, England.

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