I may not be a successful writer, but I’m a successful reader of other people’s writing. Hell, I could point out what’s wrong with other people’s writing all day. Here is a little bit of advice for any writer who doesn’t want to incur my impotent editorial wrath.
It’s okay to let your characters live. Until I was about 26, despite having lived a life relatively free of tragedy, nearly every story I wrote involved horrible death of some variety. Death by cancer. Death by car wreck. Death by murder. Death by childbirth. Death by a different kind of cancer. Death by two kinds of cancer at once. Death of a pregnant woman with cancer in a car wreck. I got into this habit in 8th grade, after I wrote a lengthy, Chicken Soup for the Soul-worthy poem about a drunk driving accident which resulted in – surprise! – the death of a teenage girl. After that poem broke… well, sh*t, readers, I was popular for nearly a week. Girls who had formerly made fun of my socks came up to me in the cafeteria and told me how much they’d cried over my poem. I was addicted to this literary acclaim and wanted more of it. By any means necessary! So I proceeded to replicate the Tragic Death motif in everything I wrote for the rest of high school and well into college. I was a conveyor belt of tears, a factory farmer of predictable emotions. Churning ’em out.
Then, suddenly (perhaps coinciding with the very same point that I stopped listening to Elliott Smith and wearing black t-shirts), it occurred to me that death was too easy. Death makes everyone sad. You could write the worst sentence in the world and end it with a death, and even the harshest literary critic will feel a pang of emotion. True emotion is wreaked slyly. The saddest thing in the world is how my mom still buys things with birds on them to save for my sister, even though my sister hasn’t contacted us in five years and has shown no interest in ever coming back. Is anyone dead in this situation? No. But it’s so tragic! My mom won’t give up on her! I’m crying as I write this!
This is a good kind of emotion — a well-earned kind of emotion.
Shut up about the dogs. The number of stories I’ve written in which a dog barked, a siren wailed, someone laughed somewhere in the distance! Peppering a story with these sorts of lazy atmospherics does not trick the reader into thinking you’re good at setting a scene. There’s not much more to say about this phenomenon, as the definitive article has already been published here. (And by someone named Rosencrans, no less!)
No More Clubs. As a librarian, I see a lot of books. I see a fair percentage of everything that is published in a given year, and if I see one more book or story called the “Something Something Something Club” I will be forced to drop out of all clubs I’m currently in (Wine Club, National Association of Yes Grandma I’m Almost 30 and Remain Unmarried, Mid-2000s Indie Rock Anonymous) just to disassociate myself with this trend. Some real titles:
The End of Your Life Book Club
The Mother Daughter Book Club
The Double Comfort Safari Club
Last Chance Book Club
The Astronauts Wives Club
The Taliban Cricket Club
The Dangerous Animals Club
The Half-Stitched Amish Quilting Club
The Meryl Streep Movie Club
The Unbearable Book Club for Unsinkable Girls
I could go on, literally unto eternity. Every three seconds, a new book with “club” in the title is born. This isn’t even taking into account all the “Sisterhoods of the Such and Such” and “Something Something Potato Peel Societies” that also exist in prolific numbers. PLEASE STOP.
Treat Sex and Gore Like You Treat Them in Real Life. In moderation. On Sunday evenings after laundry, if you’re lucky.
I Don’t Care What Your Dumb Character Looks Like. Does the reader care if the woman who walks into the bar has long blond hair and a thin nose and a big belt and a nice handbag? Does it effect the story if the man has green eyes and a suit and a striped tie? The physical attributes are easily filled in by the reader’s imagination, so unless your story is specifically about how a crazed killer went around killing all women with nice handbags, no need to waste your time telling us who has a nice handbag and who doesn’t.
Seriously, look at almost any good piece of writing and show me the paragraph where the author describes a character’s physical traits. It’s not there. When I discovered, at age 11, that you don’t have to provide a painstaking physical evaluation of every single character who enters the scene, it was a G-D revelation.
Eh, you get the idea. I’m crotchety. There are tons of other things that you should stop doing in your writing. Perhaps Tao Lin could stop by and tell us some more.