Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Identify your most common fiction writing mistakes--and fix ‘em!

Book giveaway! Leave a comment today for a chance to receive a copy of Myra’s debut novel, One Imperfect Christmas!

For my post today, I decided to pull out my copy of Jack Bickham’s The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes (And How to Avoid Them). I noticed I’d highlighted key points in just about every chapter, so let’s go through several of them together and see what we can learn.

Chapter 1: “Writers write; everyone else makes excuses.” Are you writing every day (or almost)? What’s the most recent excuse you’ve used to avoid applying seat to chair and fingers to keyboard?

Chapter 2: “Fiction does not come from the head; it comes from the heart.” Don’t flaunt your intelligence or your extensive vocabulary. While I’m not averse to using the occasional $20 word when it suits the narrative or the character’s speech, I try to make sure the meaning is evident in context.

Chapter 5: “Every good story starts at a moment of threat.” Does your story begin with boring description of scene or character? Or do you jump right into the middle of the action? It doesn’t have be shoot-em-up or car-chase action. Anything that threatens the main character with change will get your story off to a strong beginning.

Chapter 7: “In real life people often don’t make sense. But in fiction, they do.” Know your characters and their motivation, and make it believable in your fictional world.

Chapters 10 & 11: “Because fiction is make-believe, it has to be more logical than real life if it is to be believed.” Relying on coincidence is cheating your reader. Think “stimulus and response,” and make sure the stimulus comes from outside the character--an event that spurs him/her into action.

Chapter 12: “Figure out whose story it is. Get inside that character--and stay there.” Head-hopping confuses the reader and muddies the characters’ individuality. If you need help understanding point of view, find a good writing text and study it.

Chapter 16: “Modern dialogue tends to be brief, punchy, single-issue oriented. Impatient readers demand no less.” Don’t turn your characters into windbags. Don’t let them lecture. Make the dialogue issue-oriented, and keep each speaker’s goals in mind.

Chapter 19: “You should use the invisible word ‘said’ about 90 percent of the time.” Don’t go crazy with attributions like “scream,” “sigh,” “shout,” etc. Let the dialogue itself carry that weight. Personally, I prefer using a character action instead of “said” whenever it helps show the scene or character more vividly. And for heaven’s sake, don’t use attribution words that are physically impossible! Can you actually nod, smile, laugh, or beam a line of dialogue???

Chapter 23: “Figure out what the scene question is.” Every scene must have a reason to be there. The characters involved must have personal goals about the outcome, and there must be conflict and some kind of setback that also answers the scene question--something that will spur the main character to take further action toward resolving the main story goal.

Chapter 25: “Be sure you know what your story is about before you start.” Pantser or plotter, you need some sort of plan, or you’ll wander around in fiction limbo for pages and pages and then end up throwing a bunch out because you dashed down too many rabbit trails. Bickham lists five key points you should know before you start writing:
  1. The basic plot situation
  2. The main character
  3. The character’s story goal
  4. The primary opposition to the main character
  5. The opposition’s main goal
Chapter 29: “Strong emotion--so often ducked or ignored in real life--must be at the center of your stories.” Readers read novels because they want to be emotionally moved. Don’t be afraid to draw on your own feelings to bring out emotion in your characters.

Chapter 31: “Study with a published author who also knows how to teach his craft.” Bickham has few kind words, unfortunately, for entering contests or exposing your WIP to a critique group. His reasoning is that judges and critique groups are only reading a portion of your manuscript, not getting the big picture--and in a novel, “everything relates to everything else.” Of course, here in Seekerville, many of us got our big breaks as a result of writing contests, and many of us work with critique partners. Bottom line: choose both your contests and your critique partners wisely. Work with writers who know their stuff--and are able to offer helpful, positive instruction. Throw the rest away.

Chapter 32: “Your business is creating stories. If you do that well enough, the trends will tend to take care of themselves.” Write your passion, the story on your heart. Don’t chase the market, because you’ll never catch it anyway.

Chapter 35: “Revise, revise, and be ready to revise again.” There’s really no such thing as “the end” until the book is typeset and bound! As long as you are studying and practicing your craft, there is always room for improvement. There are plenty of good books available with instruction on editing and revision. Find a plan that works for you. Then give yourself some space between revisions so you can come back with a fresh eye.

Chapters 37 & 38: “Your quest cannot be lost unless you choose to throw in the white towel.” “Whatever happens tomorrow, you need to be writing when it does.” ‘Nuff said!

About Myra’s book:

Christmas is the season of miracles,
but when blame and guilt keep people apart,
a miracle needs a helping hand.

Natalie Pearce loves Christmas so much she’d gladly make it a year-round celebration—until her mother suffers a massive stroke while taking down the decorations. Natalie’s guilt over not being there to help her mom soon builds a wall that separates her from the rest of her family, including her husband, Daniel, and their teenage daughter.As the next December approaches, the last thing Natalie wants to be reminded of is another Christmas season. Only her family’s tenacious love and an unexpected Christmas gift from her mother can help Natalie mend the broken pieces of their lives.

A warm, inspirational story of faith, hope, and love
for the holiday season!

Abingdon Press
, September 2009


  1. Thanks for a great post, Myra. I have Bickham's book in my TBR mountain. Sounds like one I need to unearth and read pronto.

    Congratulations on the release of your debut novel. Enjoy the thrill!

  2. Good reminders, Myra. This is a definte blog to print.

    Congratulations on your debut release.


    PS Strong coffee is brewed and ready to drink since it's the first day back to the day job for most of us!

  3. Yep, I've read that book. Good stuff.

    Congrats on your new release, Myra! So happy for you. :-)

    It's really quiet around here. I'm not an early riser, so where is everybody? Getting ready for the conference?

  4. Good morning, Myra -- WOW, what a keeper blog we have today! I have never read Jack Bickham's book, but after this blog, I really don't have to -- you nailed all we need to know!

    “Revise, revise, and be ready to revise again.” Dear Lord, is this not our mantra or what??? I revised A Passion Most Pure about 60 times (seriously), and I can still find TONS of things I would do differently today.

    And my favorite line in your blog? "Don’t chase the market, because you’ll never catch it anyway." Oh, man -- amen to that! Reminds me of the time my editor asked me if I could write Amish. Yeah, right.

    SUPER CONGRATS on your new book -- cannot WAIT to read it, my friend!


  5. Great post, Myra. Thanks for the reminders. Congratulations on your book.

    The part about having a point to ever scene - that's a kick in the head for me. Scenes are there to fill up space, and through revision, revision...oh did I say revision, I'm learning about that :-)

  6. I mean't to say scenes 'aren't" there to fill up space...oops, can't spell this morning.

    Maybe I should try that coffee, Rose :-)

  7. Oh, Myra, I loved your blog today. Okay, my favorite was #23 about each scene needing a question. So, so good. From now on, I'll make sure I remember Bickham's advice.

    The guy's great...so are you. Thanks for sharing such important writing tips!

  8. Myra, good morning.

    Life has kept me working these past days, making the conceptual definition of holiday weekend a misnomer for sure, but I'm here and read your wonderful post.

    And how exciting to be releasing this long-awaited book!

    Go you!!!!!!!

    Great advice. Wonderful.

    And I don't see coffee, so I'm making some ASAP.

    And bagels.

    With maple cream, produced by an upstate maple syrup farm nearby, to die for. Good stuff.

    Not that I WANT Seekerville visitors to die. I mean, not yet, anyway. Only when God wants them to die...

    Oh, man, this is bad and growing worse by the second!!!!!!!!


    Need coffee.



  9. Congratulations, Myra, on your debut novel. What an incredible feeling, I'm sure!

    Thanks for your great post. I'll be printing it out for my writing notebook. :)

  10. What a great post Myra, sums it up nice! Thanks seekers for all your wonderful posts. Now I am ready to write...write...write...only after I refill my coffee!

    Woohoo for your new release!

  11. Good morning, everyone! As usual, I'm off to a slow start. Can't get my you-know-what in gear until I've read the paper, done a couple of crossword puzzles, and sipped a few cups of green tea along with morning devotions.

    Advice like Bickham's is the kind we think we know but can always use the reminders. Kind of like conferences. It's hard to find a workshop topic we haven't heard some variation on many times before, but just sitting through it, taking notes, and pondering application to our WIP pulls it all to the front of our mind again. And that's not a bad thing at all!

  12. I love this post. I recognized part of mistakes as lack of stick-to-it-ness. I am making myself write every single day. Granted it is only in my blog, but I am doing it. It makes my head more organized. I am also giving myself deadlines for specific thoughts, projects, ideas and doing them in order. No cheating and skipping around. Thanks for the great advice.

  13. It's a good post, Myra. I like that 'moment of threat' point. I say 'explode your story' but the moment of threat gives a different angle on it and it's something I'll remember.

  14. Excellent recap, Myra, of the book. Why buy the thing, when your blog post simplifies and shares all the important info?

    In one of the five contests I entered this last winter/spring, one of my judges said, "Look for all the -ing action verbs and see if you can remove many of them. Doing so will strengthen the action."

    Duh! Wasn't until she said that (and she didn't deduct any points relating to my over -ING usage) did I realize that weakness.

  15. Jenny, setting deadlines and writing goals for a blog is good discipline! Yay for you!

    Mary, "explode" takes on a whole new meaning when you use it!

    Gina, I promise you if you read Bickham's book, you'll learn WAY more than I could cover in a single blog post! It really is amazing what faults we become blind to in our own writing. Habits become so ingrained that we don't even realize we're relying on weak sentence structure, repetitive word choices, etc.

  16. Julie, my agent once asked me if I'd write an Amish story. Before I could answer, she said, "Oh, what was I thinking? I now remember reading your ACFW post about Amish stories."

    Anyhoo...back to subject.

    One benefit of entering a slew (okay, 5) contests around the same time is one will get a plethora of judge comments. Now even though I didn't enter the same manuscript in all 5 contest (2, 2, 1), I did notice a general commonality among the comments.

    Apparently my abundant strengths and minor flaws seep through all my writings. Who'd knew? Hmm. Who'd have known?

    Ech. I don't have time for past participale present wonderings.

    Anyhoo, Mary Anonymouse, once said, "I take editorial and judge's comments seriously becuase even if they are wrong, they're wrong for a reason. And that's still MY PROBLEM."

    When I look at judge comments through that lens, I see them a bit differently.

  17. LOL, Myra.

    The book is one of the first COW (craft of writing) books I ever bought. Every now and then, I'll skim back through it. In fact, the last time I looked through it (and ended up looking longer than I intended) was when I was judging one of my bajillion Genesis entries.

    #8 Don't Write about Wimps, page 21-24

    I totally agree with you about re-reading the book. Some of his points didn't make sense to me two, three, six years ago. Now they do.

    Which leads me to say that despite the number of books/manuscripts we write, every now and then, we need to read a new COW book or re-read an older but good one.

    I say that because two nights ago I read a book by an author whose other books I enjoyed. S/he's written 20+ books. While I did like this one more than dislike it, one bothersome thing was the heavy dialogue and lack of action beats or dialogue tags and lack of introspection and setting details.

    I hate having to stop reading, go back to were the dialogue began, and count him/her/him/her/him/her. Okay, so this HIM saying this line.

  18. Ruthy, ummm, I'm afraid I'm leaving. If the maple syrup is gone, don't assume I pilfered it.

    Then again, you know me.


  19. Excellent posts, Myra, and timely reminders. I'm bad about rabbit trails so the part about making each scene have a goal and fit in the overall story really zinged me this morning.

    And to all you Seekers and followers, I HAVE read Myra's book - wonderful writing, good story. You don't want to miss it.

  20. great post! i haven't read that craft book...but it looks like i got a great run-down. :)

    Where Romance Meets Therapy
    charactertherapist (at) hotmail (dot) com

  21. Hi, Myra - great post! Every point made was an important one.

    I felt particularly guilty when I read the first one - about finding excuses not to write. It must have been easier in the old days when writers faced a typewriter. But now with the Net just a mouse-click away, it is just too tempting!

  22. Like I said, refreshers are always helpful--even if we think we've heard or read the same advice a million times!

    So anyone else want to confess your problem areas? I have to watch for characters who sigh too often. I also have a tendency to write about wimpy heroines, so I'm trying to give them more backbone and motivation.

  23. This was so helpful, Myra! I need to dig that book out. I haven't looked at it in quite a while.

    Thanks for sharing!


  24. Oh, Harvey, I hear you on the 'Net distraction! I try to do most of my blog & Facebook surfing, etc., in the morning, and then write-write-write all afternoon (with an occasional pop-in to a select few of my favorite sites).

  25. Dear Myra--Great summaries of chapters! Easy to read, though not so easy to apply. :) I've been trying, though. In fact, I'm challenging myself to not only begin the book with a 'threat of change' but to not write a scene unless it has change or threat of change in it (or some intense romance!) And I'm working hard to make sure the characters' actions and words carry the plot rather than my omniscient view!

    So neat to see another debut novel from a Seeker!

  26. My WIP ignores #12. There is head-hopping in several places; but I find it necessary. The secondary character has an 'outside' person and an 'inside' person. The contrast between the two is very important to the story.

    Some really good points here. I think I'll add this book to my want list...

  27. I love Christmas books, and would
    love to win this one.

    cenya2 at hotmail dot com

  28. Write your passion, the story on your heart. Don’t chase the market, because you’ll never catch it anyway: this is sound advice and excellent advice; " the story on your heart" will bring great results.

    Natalie is one character I would love to get to know.

  29. Thanks Myra,
    I haven't read this one. I'm sure it's not the first time I heard about it but now I'm off to the library search page and putting in my HOLD. I'm still slugging through Fire In Fiction. Now if they'd just sink in.

    I agree you have to go back to these year after year to see what you missed or what you're still doing and not recognizing.

  30. Just back from lunch, then allergy & flu shots--gotta stay healthy for ACFW next week!

    Lily, your story sounds fascinating! Can you tell us more?

  31. Great post, I alread printed for my notebook as well!! I had his book on my list but thanks to your awesome summary I can mark that one off!!! Congratulations on your book!!



  32. Thanks, Milissa! But don't be so quick to drop this book from your list. It's chock-full of a lot more information than I could include here! Another great one is Self-Editing for Fiction Writers.

  33. Haven't read this book. Sounds like I should.

    Please omit me from the drawing. I won last week.

  34. Myra,
    Good post! I've said it before, but I'll say it again...I'm not really an official writer(especially only being a senior in high school!), but I love seeing the process behind writing. It is truly fascinating! Thanks for giving this great recap!

  35. Oh, Hannah! You ARE a writer--doesn't matter if you're still in high school or unpublished or writing essays and research papers! I did some of my most prolific writing in high school (after I finished my assignments, of course). I kept notebooks of short stories, poems, and novels that I'd share with my very best friends.

    So keep writing and learning as you gather your life experiences, and who knows where it will lead?

  36. Excellent information, Myra! I read this book years ago--thanks for the reminders.

  37. One Imperfect Christmas looks terrific, I can't wait to read it!

    XOXO~ Renee

  38. Awwww...thanks Myra! I like to write, but my passion is reading lol! I like how you get to escape with writing and reading...you don't have to worry about life. It is a peaceful escape to my hectic life and it is amazing!

    By the way, I am reading a book called Sarah's Key by Tatiana de Rosnay right now...it is fantastic! Absolutely amazing... I would recommend it to anyone. I will post the description later(I'm headed over to Amazon anyway). Then, you will know if it sounds interesting : )

  39. Thanks, Myra, for a great post! Very clear directives for removing stumbling blocks in fiction writing. Congratulations on your book publication! gcwhiskas at aol dot com

  40. Okay here is the blurb from the back cover of Sarah's Key:

    Paris, July 1942: Sarah, a ten year-old girl, is brutally arrested with her family by the French police in the Vel’ d’Hiv’ roundup, but not before she locks her younger brother in a cupboard in the family’s apartment, thinking that she will be back within a few hours.
    Paris, May 2002: On Vel’ d’Hiv’s 60th anniversary, journalist Julia Jarmond is asked to write an article about this black day in France’s past. Through her contemporary investigation, she stumbles onto a trail of long-hidden family secrets that connect her to Sarah. Julia finds herself compelled to retrace the girl’s ordeal, from that terrible term in the Vel d’Hiv’, to the camps, and beyond. As she probes into Sarah’s past, she begins to question her own place in France, and to reevaluate her marriage and her life.

    A truly remarkable book and I am just over halfway! I read 83 pages the day I started it. Let me know what you think...

  41. I'm not a writer, but I certainly do enjoy reading good Christian fiction - and One ImPerfect Christmas appeals to me. Congratulations on your publishing debut, Myra, and thank you for the chance to win a copy.

    cjarvis [at] bellsouth [dot] net

  42. Great blog, Myra, with lots of good advice. Congratulations on your debut novel. It sounds wonderful! I am looking forward to reading it.

  43. Hannah, that DOES sound like a riveting story! Thanks for recommending it. I just love it when I delve into a book that makes it hard to stop reading, which I know is the goal of every writer here. That's why we keep studying and practicing.

    Carole & Lynn, thanks for visiting, and also for the encouraging words about my book!

  44. I'm almost done the book, Myra! It's soooo good! : )

  45. Congratulations on your new release. One Imperfect Christmas sounds wonderful.Please enter me in the giveaway.augustlily06(at)aim(dot)com.Thank you.

  46. I can't say how excited I am to find you here today, Myra! I met you almost a year ago at the ACFW conference, even looked you up in my pictures, (do you want me to send them to you?) and now I see the cover of the book you told me about that evening, being your debut novel.
    What I'm feeling today about your book coming out this month, not even having read it yet, is what your Chapter 29 talks about: strong emotion. No, I don't think you need to write about mine but I feel the same now as I do when reading a good book that makes me display the uncharacteristic sobs and hiccups. Today, I feel as though I have been reading a good book and have come to the spot where I just need to jump for joy for the character (you) who accomplished a goal in the story (your book) and I'm cheering them on from my comfy chair where I read those grand books that come my way.
    I'm SO VERY HAPPY for you that it is finally here!
    Pam Williams