by Dave Pasquantonio
Authors (and Loft board members) Erin Dionne and Anna Staniszewski know a lot about writing. They’re published authors—and they’re creative writing teachers. In their recent Loft craft chat, “What We’ve Learned from Teaching Writing,” Erin and Anna talked about how their writing has strengthened their teaching careers, and how their careers have strengthened their writing.
They also talked craft. They’ve seen a lot of good writing from their students—and they’ve also seen the same issues crop up time and again.
Here are some common writing missteps that Erin and Anna discussed during their presentation, along with some strategies for overcoming them.
Starting a story in the wrong place.If you spend too much time setting things up before the story really starts, readers will get bored. But if you start too late and then have to backtrack too much, readers will be confused. Try out a few openings and see which one feels best.
Not positioning a character for change. We should get a sense of what Blake Snyder calls “things that need fixing” in the opening pages of your story. Even if we have no idea how those things will be fixed, we get the sense that things will need to change.
Not giving your story an emotional theme. You need to able to say, succinctly, what your story is about emotionally—belonging, hope, betrayal, truth—and find ways to explore some element of that theme with every character and plot/subplot.
Playing it safe.Don’t save the good stuff for Book 2 or be afraid to exaggerate your plots and your characters. If the emotions are true, then you can make almost anything believable. Push your ideas to their extreme and then pull back if you have to, but not pushing things far enough makes for flat stories that aren’t compelling or memorable.
Being afraid of new genres and techniques.So often we limit ourselves (I only write realistic fiction orI never outline) and it keeps us from experimenting and discovering our potential. Keep trying new things—new techniques, new types of stories, etc.—even if you think they won’t work for you. Creativity is an evolving art. You will continue to grow and change as an artist. Give your work a chance to grow and change with you.
Not finishing. Abandoning a piece when it gets hard to write or when you get bored with it doesn’t teach you the full writing process—it teaches you to start over. Stick with that story until the end, even if something new and shiny comes along.
Not listening to and applying criticism. It can be difficult to hear what’s wrong with our work, but accepting feedback is a major part of this job. You have to be able to not only understand what’s wrong with a piece, but also fix it.
Being vague.The more specific you are, the more universal your story will be (sounds contradictory but it’s true). Give characters, places, events, and situations specific details and characteristics. That makes a story pop off the page.
Being mysterious.At the beginning of your story, if readers have no idea where your character is, or what their name is, or what the world is…that’s frustrating, not mysterious. Instead, ground readers so they can relate to characters and their situations, and use mystery in other ways.
Every writer takes a wrong step or two (or twelve!) when drafting a new story. Keep these strategies in mind when you’re looking at your own work—the key to making a good piece a great piece is editing, editing, editing. If your story still isn’t working, find a partner or join a critique group—chances are good that another writer can spot some areas for improvement and help you get your piece back on track!