As I noted in a post on another blog dealing with essays, it's hard to pinpoint what makes a particular piece of writing good, but it's pretty easy to explain what makes it bad. The same applies to fiction. So just to get it out of my system, I'm going to list some of the things I've come across so many times that they've begun to grate on my nerves.
- Generic country bumpkins. You know, the ones who always call their parents Ma and Pa, drop their g's, drive pick-up trucks (of no particular make or model). and, of course, treat their wives like crap. They never live in any specific state or county. They rarely have any distinguishing physical features, because all country folk look alike, don't they. Word to the wise, if you've spent your entire life in the city or the suburbs. If you think coffee means a double mocha latte from Starbucks, don't try to write about country folk. You'll lack the specifics to make it believable.
- Thesaurus junkies. These people take avoiding cliches and using evocative language way too far. They write the story then go back to find a "better" word to replace everything but "a", "and", and "the". Here's a clue. If you aren't sure what a word specifically means, then it just isn't you. Don't even bother to look it up in the dictionary. Just don't use it.
- Simile required here. Similes can create a clear image in the reader's mind, but you don't need to insert one every other line. Furthermore, if a simile doesn't pop easily into your head then whatever you come up with isn't likely to work well for the reader either. Sometimes you can just let the snow fall or the rain pour down and move on to more important aspects of your story.
- Nondescript protagonist. This is the protagonist who is just there to reflect all the other characters. He/she is never described in any detail, has no particular character traits, and totally lacks motivation.
- Nothing left out. "Susan walked across the living room and sat down on the red sofa. She picked up a glass of water from the table and sipped it. Then she put it down. Then she picked up her book and opened it to where she had left the bookmark the last time. She placed the bookmark next to her on the sofa and started to read the book. The phone rang. She laid the book down beside her on the sofa, pages down, and she got up and walked to the desk and picked up the receiver." If you don't see what is wrong here, you are obviously the person who submitted this.
- The shock/surprise ending. Please stop. I beg you, please, no more surprise endings until you learn how to write a good story without one. Writers are so fixed on the shock and surprise at the end that they fail to develop the character or plot. Worse, in an effort to keep the reader from guessing the surprise, the writer provides not the slightest clue that it's coming and then, boffo, out of nowhere, the kind old grandpa turns out to be Hannibal Lecter's twin. Guess what? All those great stories with surprise endings, like The Lottery, had lots of clues. They were just so skillfully placed you didn't notice them. But, you know what, just to be safe, skip the surprise until you've learned to develop real everyday characters and tell a real story. After you've had a few of those published, and you still want to try, have a ball.