The first writers’ conference I ever attended was the Short Course in Professional Writing at the University of Oklahoma, an intensive five days of classes and panels featuring some of the most important writers and teachers from across the country. Jack Bickham, who taught fiction writing there, gave a wonderful lecture that was later expanded and published as The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes. Here are a few of Mr. Bickham’s what not to do’s that helped me. I hope they’ll help you, too.
Don’t describe sunsets. Keep the story moving forward by avoiding too much description. Description is static. Fiction is movement. Work in your description a little bit a time. Don’t shovel it onto the page. Limit exposition and description in favor of narrative, dialog, and dramatic summary.
Don’t ignore scene structure. Keep in mind what the scene question is. (Will your protag get the bank loan he needs? Will the child make it across the raging river?) One you know whether the answer to the question is yes or no, bring in another character whose goal is the opposite. Write the conflict between them moment by moment, then devise a disastrous ending to the scene (a turning of the tables or a surprise.)
Don’t lecture the reader. Novelists sell stories. Pamphleteers sell beliefs.
Don’t forget to let your characters think. Novels are made up of scenes (action) and sequel ( those quiet times in which characters reflect upon what has happened and decide what to do (or not do) about it. ) Put yourself in the mind and heart of your character’s emotions, thoughts, and decisions. The new goal-motivated decision your character makes leads to the next scene.
Don’t expect miracles. Sometimes a new writer lucks out and finds tremendous success ( Sara Gruen for instance, whose Water for Elephants sold after numerous rejections and is now a major motion picture) or Charles Frazier, author of Cold Mountain, but for most of us success requires plenty of hard work, patience and perseverance. Develop a career plan. Where do you want to be in your career a year from now? Three years? Five? Having concrete goals can help you succeed.
Now, grab a cup of coffee and get going.