Letters from Somnolescent January 3, 2020

Five Reasons I’ve Stopped Reading Your Story

by mariteaux

Amateur and fan writing is something I’m no stranger to. In fact, it’s what I’m most familiar with. I don’t read a lot of books, but I do peruse toyhou.se and places for my own amusement and occasionally in the hopes of actually finding something good to read.

Of course, it being the internet, most of it isn’t great. Good writing habits are rarely taught in schools, at least here in the US. Past basic grammar (and even that’s not much), creative writing tends to be side-eyed and pushed aside, and otherwise bright people trip on the fundamentals, let alone anything involving tone, pacing, or dialogue.

Here’s just a few things I notice a lot in people’s writing that ruin it for me right away, plus examples. (Don’t go looking for these people to bug them, thanks.) No judgement for any of these; I’ll tell you how to fix them as best I can.

Reason #1: Weak opening

Gravity was sitting on a couch reading a book about mythology, while Strange came into the room wearing something other than the blue robes he’s usually seen in. “I’m heading to the grocery store, Gravity I need your help getting groceries. Can you come with me?” Strange said while he wore his coat. Gravity peaked an eye from her book at him and put the book on the table. “Oh, erm.. Of course!” She stood up “But I don’t know if I want to be in public yet? I don’t know, feels weird.” She shrugged and Strange thought for a bit.

Hold on, slow down. Slow. The fuck. Down.

Nothing stops me dead faster than an opening that doesn’t appropriately set a setting, a tone, or show me anything about the characters you’re playing with. And I guarantee you, it’s stopping everyone else reading your work as well.

Your first sentence should grab my attention, and if not, then it should be leading up to something strong. That’s not to say you need to start with screams, gunshots, or spooks, absolutely not, but it needs to be vivid. It needs to put me there on the spot. If it’s a cold walk in a November forest, I need to see my breath, feel my nose sting, hear the rustle of wet leaves underfoot, I could go on. Wording counts too, or humor, but if I’m not asking questions by the end of the first paragraph, you’ve failed.

It all goes with that old adage that everyone, even me, can follow a little more closely: show, don’t tell. I guarantee you that reading about a character pulling his clothes tighter and burying his face in his jacket is gonna interest me more than “it was cold out”.

To fix: Put your best detail forward. Find some way to grab me from the start, either with a neat description, a bit of wordplay or alliteration, just something to keep it from feeling like a limp noodle.

Reason #2: Present tense

As the party walks on, an odd vibe can be felt in the area. It’s almost as if a silent war is being fought by no one. Good luck and bad luck, fighting for dominance in the immediate surroundings. Just as quickly as the feeling arrived, it fades.

In grammar, “tense” refers to how time is implied through your wording. “Past tense” means the words describe events that already happened, while “present tense” means the words describe events currently going on. (“Future tense” means the words describe things that haven’t happened yet, and that’s a weird idea for a story to begin with.)

You might be tempted to use present tense to give your story a sense of urgency or immediacy, but for longer passages, it’s a headache. Present tense can work in short bursts (say, if the narrator is trying to put you in a scenario to set a scene before he describes the actual events), but not for an entire story. It doesn’t work much for roleplays either, I’m afraid.

To fix: Write only in past tense unless you know what you’re doing. If you’re not fully aware of why you’re changing the tense, don’t.

Reason #3: Not keeping your tenses straight

“I’d love some eggs.” His voice was lower during the morning, something Erlendur had commented many times to find very attractive. The man now also purred happily as he nodded and replied.

This one’s actually really easy to make; even other Somnolians do it occasionally. Aside from just being really clunkily-written, this passage seems to be happening both in the past (“nodded and replied”) and currently (“The man now also”). It’s just confusing and it takes me out of it.

To fix: Pay attention and have an annoying Flareon proofread your stuff.

Reason #4: Bad paragraph structuring

Mori knelt in front of the fireplace with a burning piece of paper, trying to ignite the logs in the fireplace. His hands were shaking quite a bit, but that was because of the cold if anything; usually the winter up in Heaven wasn’t this bad, but it was quite snowy outside during this winter. Mori could have handled it, but he wasn’t sure if AK could have handled it… or at least be comfortable in it; while AK’s former realm in Hell was quite icy and cold, AK himself admitted to not liking the weather there. But… the weather in Hell basically was a much worse version of Heaven’s weather; if it was a pleasant and snowy day in Heaven, down in Hell it would have been a raging blizzard complete with ice shards that could cut your face if you weren’t careful… Mori told himself to not let his mind wander, and when his attention was focused right back onto the fire, the fire had grown from the tiny embers that it once was.

This kinda thing makes my eyes glaze over. A paragraph expresses a single complete thought. Longer paragraphs don’t necessarily bother me, but they need to be focused and purposeful. What is this paragraph’s purpose, necessarily? A character who’s cold, then a sudden detour into exposition about the relation between Heaven and Hell’s weather, and how another character we haven’t even seen yet feels about it. We’ve gone completely off the rails.

  1. Start with a topic sentence. In the case of a story, you’d use that first paragraph to set a vivid tone, either focusing on a character or on the setting. Either way, this sentence establishes what that paragraph is about.
  2. Go through each sentence elaborating on the topic. Details that add nothing need to go or be relocated. Every sentence should reinforce some detail about the topic of the paragraph. If you’re describing an event or a movement, another character’s reaction makes sense if it’s important. Otherwise, needs to go.
  3. Ideally, the last sentence should terminate the thought comfortably. In the example, the last sentence of the paragraph just returns to the character who was oddly forgotten in all the exposition about Heaven and Hell having weather battles like Mario Kart. If the paragraph is about the weather, it should be about the weather. If it’s about the lad, it should be about the lad.

As an aside, do know what each bit of punctuation does before you use it. A semicolon links two insubordinate clauses (that is, two clauses that could function as independent sentences). Unless they’re about the same topic, you’re best off just splitting them into two separate sentences. In this person’s case, the semicolon doesn’t even link related topics and thus just unnecessarily extends out one sentence. Periods and short, punchy sentences are nothing to be ashamed of.

To fix: Practice and editing. If you write a paragraph that seems unclear, whittle it down and take out bits until it reads clear. Rewrite it if you have to. The fewer words, the better.

Reason #5: Passive voice and weasel words

Finally, he went up a small set of stairs that lead up to his humble apartment. It was simple and rather unimpressive on the outside; a pale door with a mail hatch on its front beneath a square window next to a doorknob that seemed to be getting on in age judging by the significant loss of paint. Regardless, it was where he’d return to after a long day’s work.

Am I cheating including these two in the same section? They add up to the same result anyway: a lack of clarity, bloat, and a lack of confidence on the part of the author.

Passive vs. active voice is a discussion that should be more common outside of people using Grammarly because it has a direct impact on the wording of your sentence. In short, in passive voice, the verb acts on the subject; in active voice, the subject performs the action.

Passive voice dilutes the action by putting the subject of the sentence second. It is useful at times (I’ve used it in this essay, even), but in a story full of actions, it’s useless. Compare the snappiness of these two examples, the former in passive voice, the second in active voice:

The dirt path was well-worn by car tires to the point of ruts forming down its length.

The tires of passing cars wore ruts into the length of the well-worn dirt path.

In the first sentence, the focus seems to be on the dirt path being worn, but by what? Cars, obviously, but it takes a bit more reading and a few more clock cycles to get that far. The second is more vibrant, clearer, and the point of the sentence (cars coming down here often) is put first.

Weasel words are a much subtler infestation. These are essentially “bloat” words, adding much of nothing to the sentence, and in fact, making the point of the sentence less wieldy. This usually happens when a writer isn’t sure of their point and starts to ramble.

Remember that each paragraph should add up to a coherent thought: a bit of detail, an action, and so on. While there are details in the above example, there’s just as much tell as show, and “rather” and “seemed to be” implies a lack of assurance. Either the narrator is an eyewitness scared of getting a detail wrong in their own recount of events, or the writer’s scared of specifics.

To fix: Keep what you want the reader to focus on in mind as you write and make sure it’s up front and center when the time comes. Don’t be afraid to make things specific. It’s your story. No need to mumble.

This list’s by no means exhaustive, but it’s a good start. None of these are the sign of a bad writer, just bad writing. Without fundamentals, you can’t get much further with all the cool moody stuff people jump to. It’s as simple as that.

The nice thing about fundamentals is that they can always be trained and touched up, no matter where you are with your writing.

Tags: writing,

About mariteaux

Somnolescent's webmaster with way too much to write about and a stack of CDs he'll never finish.

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