Saturday, July 04, 2009

How Not To Write A Story

This is a repost of a blog I did last year, because once again I'm judging a short story contest, and once again I'm ready to fling myself off a cliff.

-----

In the spirit of full disclosure, I'm in a bad mood. For the past few days I've been wading through hundreds of short stories. I'm a paid judge for a big contest, and my verdicts are due.

This bad mood has been brought about by seeing the same story mistakes, over and over and over and OVER AND OVER...

So, for the benefit of the newbie writing world, and to save me future pain if I ever judge a contest again, please take the following to heart:

DO NOT START A STORY WITH WEATHER
Yes, you can work weather into the scene. But I don't care that it was sixty-five degrees on a spring morning, and if you make that your first sentence you're going to remain unpublished.

DO NOT START A STORY WITH CHARACTER DESCRIPTION
Your protag may be named Bob McTestes, and he was born in Sunnydale, Ohio in 1967, but you need to work that into the body of the story and not make it the first sentence. Better yet, don't work it in anywhere.

DO NOT START A STORY BY ADDRESSING THE READER
"You'll never believe what happened on July 2, 1943." You're right. I won't believe it, because I just stopped reading.

DO NOT START A STORY WITH PREMONITION
"Phil Assmaster didn't know he was going to die that day." But Joe Konrath knows you're not going to win this contest.

DO NOT START A STORY WITH THE PROTAG WAKING UP
Frankly, it shocked me how many stories began like this. More so than any other way I'm warning against. Opening your eyes because you had a bad dream or heard a strange noise is a quick way to put the reader to sleep.

DO NOT START A STORY WITH CLICHES
Once upon a time. A long time ago. This is a true story. Ugh. Next time, save me the trouble and put the story in your own recycle bin.

DO NOT START A STORY WITH SETTING DESCRIPTION
"Moronville, Ohio was a town of 8371 people originally founded in 1872 by Quakers." Hopefully, one of those Quakers has a gun and will shoot me.

DO NOT START A STORY WITH TELLING
"Josh felt terrible." Really? How am I supposed to picture that? Maybe I picture Josh's stomach aching, his head throbbing, and the hole where his heart is supposed to be. If I'm picturing that, perhaps you should have as well and written it that way.

DO NOT START A STORY WITH ANY DESCRIPTION
I don't care if you're describing a person, place, thing, era, or whatever. I want to read about conflict, not helper words.

DO NOT USE HELPER WORDS
Force yourself to pare away every adverb, and half your adjectives. Also kill any speaker attribution other than "said" and "asked."

DO NOT START A STORY WITH A PROLOGUE
Your short story doesn't need a prologue. Your novel probably doesn't either.

DO NOT USE EXCLAMATION POINTS!
Especially a bunch of them!!!!!!!

DO NOT USE THE SAME FARUQING WORD TWICE IN THE SAME FARUQING PARAGRAPH
Get the faruquing point?

GRAMMER AND SPELING SHOULD BE PREFECT
If you don't care, why should I? Ditto annoying dialect spelling. Y'all get a-ight wit dat sheet, 'kay?

And finally:

DO NOT MAKE YOUR MAIN CHARACTER AN ANIMAL
Ever.

Are there exceptions to these rules? Of course. There are always exceptions. But I didn't see any in the 2000+ stories I had to endure.

Also, for the love of all that is good, use 12 point Arial, Courier, or Times New Roman, double space the text, one inch margins, and indent each paragraph but don't add extra spaces in between them. One staple, in the upper lefthand corner.

Rant over. Ignore at your own peril. Now I'm going to go have some bourbon and scour my eyes and brain with steel wool.

And if you want an example of what I've had to endure, here's another blog entry I did on this subject:

http://jakonrath.blogspot.com/2008/01/bad-stories.html

97 comments:

margaretdilloway said...

At least it's time-saving-- read the first sentence, put it down, go to the next. Or do you still have to read the whole thing?

These are great tips, and I'm not exactly sure why, but after I read them, I opened up Word and am starting a new story-- so, thanks!

Eric J. Krause said...

All excellent points. I'm pretty sure I haven't started any stories like that in a long, long time, but I'll double check just to make sure. I don't want to be one of those who gets thrown out by a publisher two sentences in.

Deborah said...

Amen. Just judged a contest myself. I saw the same things over and over.

Ty Johnston said...

Yep. I've read slush for a couple of ezines and anthologies, and I'd rather be shot than have to do so again.

Karen from Mentor said...

Joe,
I loved this post. It reminded me of judging a short story contest for seventh graders.
Hey, you aren't judging a short story contest for seventh graders are you?
Karen :)

lunggwai said...

My high school history teacher once told us that the secret to grading thousands of AP exam essays was the continuous ingestion of frozen tequila drinks. So, there you go; Tequila: Making Puerile Writing Bearable Since 1888.

Scott said...

The weather was warm and moist as I lay in my Findlay, Ohio bed on what would turn out to be a breezy Monday. I felt awful. Drank to much last night!!!

Now, let me tell you, this was about to be one strange day. 'Cause, I, ol' Charlie Numnutz, had a dream that I would become a vampire. And, damn, if I didn't!!!

The day started off pritty much like all my days.

"Get your drunk ass up," Mary Lou screamed lovingly, emploring ol' Charlie to wake up. She's ma wife, u see.

Once upon a time, Mary Lou was a site to behold. Lord, she'd take you breath right away.

(Sorry, I couldn't help myself)

JA Konrath said...

LOL, Scott. I think I read that entry a few dozen times. :)

AstonWest said...

I'm in the middle of judging a contest right now, and all of this is spot-on...

Pass the steel wool.

Anonymous said...

Re: #5 "Frankly, it shocked me how many stories began like this. More so than any other way I'm warning against."

Cormac McCarthy's "The Road" starts with the main character waking up. How come he doesn't have to do better?

Kmuzu said...

Once upon a time, on a stormie night in October the singing cat man, who was miraculously change into a half cat - half man by a radioactive litter box in morning of 1967. His six foot three inches tall frame with broad shoulders and furry body gamboled up to the me, who is the narrator and guess what he exclaimed, "I got a bad feelin' about this comment!. Do you?!?!", he asked. Did I mention this tooken place on the stormiest of stormy nights?

I'm still working on the first draft, could you send me your personal contact phone numbers to all of your agents?

Thanks a bunch.

Cicily Janus said...

Hmmm...well,you won't believe it! When I woke up this morning, I didn't know today might be the last day of my life but at the crack'o'dawn it was already hot outside, like 82.3 degrees F hot outside!!!!!!!!!!!

Great points here. And a nice way to get them all across. I passed this post on to my writing group. Thanks.

Rebecca Woodhead said...

This all sounds useful but I'm so confused now.

Does this apply to all fiction writing or just short stories? The reason I ask is I like the idea of starting a novel in the middle of the action and with dialogue that gives insight into the characters. I was told this was wrong and I should start with description so I swapped it all round. The pace changed and I wasn't as interested as a reader but so many people insisted you can't start a novel with dialogue that I thought the error was mine. Now, you're saying don't start with description.

If you don't start with dialogue and you don't start with description then what do you start with? If I want to start with action, that action either needs to be described or shown. If it's shown, I need dialogue. I'm so confused. Please help.

V Confused of England

Pan Historia said...

You said what needed to be said and with a very sharp knife. I'm glad you included the bit about there being exceptions to every rule - though the trick is knowing when you managed to pull that exception off with skill and verve. If you don't know than don't make the exception.

NickJS said...

/Echo Rebecca's question. How Should you start a story, be it short or long? (I pulled up my own W.I.P. while reading this, just to check i didn't violate any.. I don't think i did)

Scott said...

I don't think there is one right way to start any work of fiction. The story must be compelling. I think that's the most important element. Grab your reader by the throat immediately and start squeezing.

NickJS said...

Well, that goes without saying, really, but this article excludes a hell of a lot of openers - Some of which i would have avoided anyway, others which I hadn't considered to be poor choices.

I guess what i'm asking for is, "What's an example of a good opening line/scene?"

JA Konrath said...

How come he doesn't have to do better?

There are always exceptions. Don't base your career on thinking you're an exception.

I like the idea of starting a novel in the middle of the action and with dialogue that gives insight into the characters. I was told this was wrong and I should start with description so I swapped it all round.

Who told you it was wrong? I start all of my stories in the middle of the action and with dialog.

Grab your reader by the throat immediately and start squeezing.

Exactly.

"What's an example of a good opening line/scene?"

Pick up one of my books. :)

Seriously? Go through your book collection, or an anthology of short stories, and read the first few lines of each.

The ones that make you want to keep reading--those are the good ones.

The ones you can't stop reading--those are the great ones.

Scott said...

OK, I'll play the part of guinea pig. Here's the opening for my WIP.

Now, be gentle. I am a fiction newbie, and this is a first draft. This is the opening section of my PROLOUGE, which I will likely cut up and weave into the first few chapters.

That said, let the slicing and dicing begin:

Night time is the hardest part of the day. After I’ve put Greg down for the night and prepared his bottles for the next day, there is only quiet in the house. I hate it. There’s nothing standing between me and my thoughts.

It’s been six months since Greg was born and Susan died. Every moment I’m not making a traffic stop, doing paper work, taking care of the house or my son, my mind returns to October 15, 1987.

Each second of that day is etched permanently into my brain. I can’t escape it.

It’s midnight now. In about six hours, Greg will be crying for his morning feeding. Until then, I am a prisoner. As I glance around my nearly pitch dark bedroom, the dresser, closet and walls disappear the more I stare at them. Instead, I see Susan lying there on a gurney bleeding uncontrollably. I see the color streaming out of her face as she pushes and pushes to bring our son into the world. I see the nurses and doctors working frantically to help her deliver Greg. I see the nurse finally holding him up and suctioning his mouth clear. I hear my boy scream his first screams.

I want to rush into the room. I want to stop Susan from delivering. I want my wife to live. But I never do. No matter how many times it replays in my head, I stand on the sideline and watch her body go limp. The doctors try to revive her for what seems like hours. Then they stop and I hear her time of death announced. I am paralyzed with shock.

I stand at the window looking into Delivery Room 1 sobbing. I see the nurses whisk Greg out of the room in a cart. He’s snuggly wrapped in blankets and a white cap. The thing is, I don’t care. Not even a little. I feel utterly without hope. I am lost.

Jenna said...

Scott - Ok, I'll be the first meanie... ;)

*In general, prologues only work with SciFi/Fantasy written prior to 1985. You would be correct to kill yours.

*Your first line is telling. Actually, your first 2 paragraphs are.

*NO DATE! Later on, work in a desc of late Reagan era or something. No date.

*starting with 2 shots of telling and then a flashback is jarring at best.

*this might be personal preference, but first person present tense that occasionally switches to past and imperfect tense, then back again generally makes me want to rip my eyeballs out. I do not think that I am alone.

Suggestions:
-switch to past tense, 1st or 3rd person. I'd personally prefer 3rd person.

-start in the middle of the action. Baby comes out, Susan dies. That should be maybe paragraph 1. ;)

-"making a traffic stop" does a good job of SHOWING us that he's a cop. GOOD! More of this please.

-show, don't tell.

-Integrate date and backstory into the main body of work.

Just to prove that I'm fair, and to give you a fair shot back, I'm going to post some of my first draft work also!

Scott said...

Thanks, Jenna. All of your criticisms are fair - no problems. Please leave your eyeballs in your head, however.

Jenna said...

In fairness to Scott, here's my opener. It's a first draft, and I haven't looked at it since I wrote it. Feel free to be truthful and harsh, but not rude.

Thanks!

(FEATURES SWEARING, ETC.! MIGHT BE RATED PG-13 or R. FAIR WARNING!!)


****
"Oh for fuck's sake, Katie, you can't be serious!"
Katie smirked at the note of hysteria in Frank's voice, but that was probably because she had him on the business end of a Colt .45.
"Frank, lovey, I am serious. Completely. Now sit down."
His hand shook as he pulled out his chair and fell into it. He almost knocked over his soup. She'd never seen his eyes so wide. He reminded her of herself - whenever she'd seen her reflection just before he was about to hit her, she'd had those same, terrified eyes, a small prey lame deer just waiting for the end to come.
She'd made him the lame deer, now, and it was about time, too.
She used her free left hand to pull out a chair at her end of the trestle table. She was well out of his reach, and meant to stay there.
"You just wait, Katie, you just - "
"Just what, Frank? Wait until I'm unarmed again, so you can outmatch me physically? You only have eighty pounds on me, I suppose that makes it a fair fight when I'm naked and have no weapon."
He swallowed. His adam's apple bobbed. She resisted the urge to blast it off his neck for good. How she hated being eye-to-apple when he was on top of her. God willing, there would be no apple-ogling in her future.
"What do you want, Katie?" he finally asked. "I know you're angry, and that's my fault. I'm sorry. What can I do? What do you want?"
"You can pick up that pen and write a couple of things on that paper for me."
He stared at the pen and cheap spiral notebook like he expected them to bite him.
"Pick up the pen, Frank."
He did as he was told.
"Write on the notebook for me. Write 'I'm sorry. I was wrong. I should not hurt my wife. I'm a bad person'-"
"You're going too fast," he snapped. "Slow down!"
Katie smiled, her soft pink lips curving and cold.
"I'll start over. 'I'm sorry. I was wrong'."
"I got that part."
" 'I should not hurt my wife. I'm a bad person.' "
He scrawled so ferociously on the last word that he forced the point of the pen through the page.
"Anything else?"
"Yes. 'I don't deserve to live.' "
His eyes widened again and he wrote the last sentence very slowly.
"Sign it."
He did. He held the pen and stared at the paper. He swallowed again, and then looked at her. He'd never given her such a beseeching look, with his eyes full of tears. She expected him to start begging aloud any moment.
"Put down the pen, Frank."
He dropped it.
"Katie, I - "
"Frank, your soup is getting cold. Eat up."
He stared at her as she set down the gun and picked up her coffee cup.
"That's it?"
"Frank, I just want it in writing that you're an asshole. You're going to be fine."
"You're not gonna shoot me?"
She laughed, making certain that she did so with a grating derisive tone. He flushed.
"Frank, why would I go to jail because of you?"
He seemed to accept this, and picked up his spoon.
"Is this the cream of spinach from last night?"
"Waste not, want not."
He set his lips in a firm line and took a bite, while she enjoyed making him eat leftovers. She wouldn't allow him to insist on fresh food this evening.

Jenna said...

(CONT.)

He started to put down his spoon, but she picked up the gun again, and he thought the better of it. They were silent while he ate the bowl, swabbing up the remanants with crusty bread and drinking his iced tea. She could tell he was barely tasting what he ate.
He finished, and stayed in his seat, dumping his napkin in the empty bowl as was his habit. He looked as though he expected her to come fetch his dirty dishes as usual. She didn't.
He flushed again, and started to pick up the bowl.
"Leave it, honey, I'll get it later."
He looked mollified, then bold.
"So where does this leave us, Katie?"
"It doesn't leave us anywhere Frank."
"If you aren't going to kill me, then what's the point?"
"The point is that I'm in control, and not you."
"But you're not going to shoot me."
"Correct."
He leapt up, and fell headfirst onto the kitchen floor. He tried to pick himself up, but couldn't seem to find the ground. He looked around blearily, trying to find her.
"Can't see right," he mumbled, fumbling for the table.
She jumped up and backed away, and picked up his cell phone from the counter by the door. She kept the gun pointed at him while she put his phone in her open purse.
"You bitch! What did you do to me?"
She picked up her purse, and made sure that all the phone cables from the house phones were in it. Her cell phone was, too.
"Frank, you asked me if I was going to shoot you. I'm not. But you are most certainly going to die."
He scrambled like a wounded dog on the linoleum and screamed at her.
"Bitch! I will kill you this time! I - " His words were cut off as he twitched and retched. His nose started to bleed.
She took her jacket from by the door and slipped it on over her tank top, covering the bruises on her arms, but not the ones on her throat. It didn't cover the shiner on her right eye, either.
"Goodbye Frank," she whispered.
He shivered on the floor.
She put the gun in her purse, turned her back and walked out the door, closing it quietly behind her.
Finally, she was free.
***

Scott said...

Why third over first person, Jenna? I want the reader to have a more intimate understanding of the Protagonist. I thought first person would be a good vehicle to do that.

Jenna said...

Scott - 3rd person is just my personal preference. 1st person present tense starts to sound like a D&D game gone awry! I've also only seen very few examples of 1st person done extraordinarily well. I've also seen very few examples of present tense done well. Trying to do both well is nigh impossible for a new writer (and by new, I mean someone who just started writing in the past 20 years.)

If you prefer first person, then go for it - your reason is valid, and this is a completely personal choice on the part of the author. Just skip the present tense for now, and know that there are some people, like me, who will not put a 1st person POV at the top of their reading list.

You could take some advice that I got ages ago, which is "Write it all in past tense, and make it good. Then, make it better. Then, make it amazing. THEN convert to present tense, and you will have done what you need to do to make that device work."

Anonymous said...

Anon 4.0

If only you could give the best sellers some editors with guts as well as advice for newbies who don't know any better.

"Think Harrison Ford in tweed."

;)

So I wrote this book... said...

Hilarious. Made my day.

Scott said...

Jenna:

I like what you have done here. You put the reader in the scene very well. Just a couple of things:

1. Since Frank and Katie are husband and wife, the fact that they keep calling each other by name is a bit annoying. I would prefer more he said, she saids instead of using the dialouge to ID who's talking.

2. "She could tell he was barely tasting what he ate."

How could she tell? Without being Frank, I don't know how Katie could tell what or what he was not tasting. If you had said "enjoying," I could buy it a little better.

Overall, a very good effort. I want to know why Frank was abusing his wife (rotten bastard!).

Jenna said...

Scott -

Thanks for the feedback!

I literally copy/pasted this in without reading it. I wrote it in a frenzy the other day when I had a wild idea, and I had no clear idea what I'd written when I posted it, so I appreciate the candor.

Now that I've reread, you are so right.

1- I have a weakness for tossing names in dialogue or else leaving them out altogether - I am either annoying or vague. I have to watch that one for sure, so thanks!

2- Eeek... how *could* she tell? Here's a great reason why folks should edit their work! That's just awful! ::hangs head::

Thanks for the props. Yeah, Frank is a jerk. Frank is also a stand-in name, as is Katie. I just tossed in junk names as placeholders. If I ever get published, I'm going to have to be really careful not to have 900 'Stacie' characters!

Funny thing about this story - she hasn't met the assassin yet. ;)

John Ruschmeyer said...

"It was a dark and stormy night."

The first line of Snoopy's great unfinished novel as well as the first line of Madeleine L'Engle's "A Wrinkle In Time".

sex scenes at starbucks said...

Thanks. As a short story editor, I concur with all the points, and would add: please put conflict (ie: what your story is about) as close to the front page as humanly possible.)

If you want to sell it to me, that is. :)

Anonymous said...

anon 8:54--cuz The Road sucked.

David Gerard said...

@anon 8:54 - when you can write like Cormac McCarthy, you can do all of these things and make them work. Until then, they're best avoided.

(This is the "some A is B therefore my B is A" fallacy favoured of bad fanfic writers. "Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman and *Shakespeare* did things that could be called fanfic, therefore all fanfic is brilliant including mine!" When you can write like them, you can do what you want, because you'll know how to make it work. Until then, best avoided.)

Ryan K Lindsay said...

I always find that a lot of this sort of advice is based more on personal preference, and that if you go further enough afield you will always get conflicting views.

You can't just say when someone is good enough they can break the rules. That's a generalisation, and an unfair one. When is a writer considered 'good enough' to break the rules, or is it more his/her fan base will suddenly overlook it, or not nitpick on it.

Though, I must say, most of the advice here is sound, but it is not a concrete rule that we must always abide by. Sometimes a story just writes itself, and works best that way.
Examples:
Stephen King's Hearts In Atlantis opens with a description of a place and a person's belongings, and a date.
Philip K Dick's The Man In The High Castle begins with a man anxiously watching the mail for a week. Very simply told.

There is no 'right way' to start a story, is there?

Horst said...

I agree with some of your points, and I don't agree with others. It really depends. What all your points have in common is that they are prone to becoming clich├ęs, and that they seem like obvious beginnings, but can quickly fall apart in the wrong hands. There's nothing wrong with starting a story by letting a protagonist waking up (Franz Kafka anyone?), but it has to continue in a way that is innovative and interesting, and, let's admit it, most stories that start that way simply aren't.

Still, I've come across a lot of stories that start off perfectly, but lose all impact later on, so it's not just all about beginnings... of course I agree that a lot f stories turn out to be a waste of time in the very first sentence.

Anonymous said...

What have you got against "replied"?

April L. Hamilton said...

I think these 'rules' are a little harsh, and overreaching.

You say, "Also kill any speaker attribution other than "said" and "asked."" I recently finished Crichton's Timeline, which more or less follows this advice, and found his limited use of speaker attributions repetitive, annoying, and ultimately distracting from the story. I'm all for pared-down prose, but as both a writer and a reader I enjoy the economy of conveying necessary information in speaker attributions, such as when an angry speaker "barks", an hysterical one "keens", or a condescending one "smirks".

Also, some of my favorite stories and books of all time begin with a brief but effective description, scene-setting, a mention of weather or time, or the use of adjectives or adverbs. Do you recognize this opening sentence, which breaks every one of those 'rules'?

"During the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country..."

How about this one?
"It was a nice day. All the days had been nice. There had been rather more than seven of them so far, and rain hadn't been invented yet. But clouds massing east of Eden suggested that the first thunderstorm was on its way, and it was going to be a big one."

And this?
"Snow fell against the high school all day, wet big-flaked snow that did not accumulate well."

Or this?
"On the third day of rain they had killed so many crabs inside the house that Pelayo had to cross his drenched courtyard and throw them into the sea, because the newborn child had a temperature all night and they thought it was due to the stench."

The first is Poe's The Fall of the House of Usher. The second is Good Omens, by Pratchett and Gaiman. The third is Updike's A Sense of Shelter. The last is Gabriel Garcia Marquez's A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings. Based on the admonitions in this article, you would've rejected every one of these on the basis of the first sentence alone, yet every one is either a literary classic or bestseller---or both. Had these authors heard, and followed, your advice early in their careers, how much great literature would've remained unpublished, or worse, unwritten?

I think that in judging your fellow authors' work, you owe them an open mind and a willingness to be pleasantly surprised by an effective break with the 'rules'.

The "rules" of writing are like the "rules" of fine art. In either discipline the artist must master the rules in order to be able to break them effectively. But without exception, the acknowledged masters in both disciplines *do* break the rules, and in fact it's the precise manner of their rule-breaking that comprises their unique "writer's voice" or artistic style.

In my opinion, the only "rules" any writer need know or follow are these:
1) If it strengthens the work, do it.
2) If it weakens the work, don't do it.

As to the question of what strengthens or weakens a given work, well, that varies with each author and manuscript and only each writer's own level of experience and confidence can dictate his or her choices. Even grammatical errors and misspellings can be used purposefully and effectively; just ask Anthony Burgess, Kurt Vonnegut or Flannery O'Connor. Call them exceptions to the rule all you like, but the classics of literature are littered with the wreckage of rules, and I don't think it's any accident.

JA Konrath said...

You can't base current standards on writers who got their start in the 80s, 70s, or before. Times have changed, and for the most part, their writing hasn't.

In 2009, my rules for new writers are valid, and I haven't seen any exceptions to them. Ever. In five years of judging.

Also, if a story does break these rules, and it does so while immediately introducing conflict, I'm okay with it.

But they never do...

April L. Hamilton said...

JA -
But even "immediately introducing conflict" is a 'rule', of sorts, and there are plenty of great books and stories that don't follow it.

As to the notion that all the writers I quoted got their start in the 80's or before and therefore don't count for some reason, I don't see how that's relevant. Fads and trends aside, great writing is great writing, no matter when it was written. Still, if you think it matters...

How about Sara Gruen, whose first novel was published in 2004? This is the opening to her Water For Elephants (2006):
"I'm ninety. Or ninety-three. One or the other. When you're five, you know your age down to the month."

This opening is from Susanna Clarke's debut novel, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, which she began writing in 1992 and published in 2006:
"Some years ago there was in the city of York a society of magicians. They met upon the third Wednesday of every month and read each other long, dull papers upon the history of English magic."

This opening is from The Life of Pi (2002), the celebrated novel from Yann Martel, whose debut novel was published in 1996:
"My suffering left me sad and gloomy. Academic study and the steady, mindful practice of religion slowly brought me back to life."

None of these openings immediately introduces conflict, and every one of them breaks some writing "rule" or other.

When a reader is turned off by the use of adverbs, or description, or the mention of weather, etc. etc. in a given passage, it's not because authors shouldn't use adverbs, or description, or mention the weather, etc. etc. It's because that specific author didn't do a good job of writing that specific passage.

JA Konrath said...

Fads and trends aside, great writing is great writing, no matter when it was written.

I'd contend that Dickens wouldn't get published today. Hell, I'd contend Portnoy's Complaint wouldn't get published today.

Writing. like all media, is very much a product of its generation. "Great" is a subjective term. "Published" is what we're going for, and that means meeting a certain current standard.

Of course, you're welcome to write a play in iambic pentameter and try to get it produced on Broadway...

As for your three exceptions; there are always exceptions. I'm not judging novels. I'm judging shorts.

Published novels have been vetted by agents and editors. If it gets off to a slow start, you can probably assume things will pick up.

If you're competing against 2000 other short stories, trying to win a contest, your first sentence better be awesome. Because guess what--when I pick the winner, it will have a great first sentence.

Can we disagree? Sure. But it makes no sense at all to bury your lead in a newspaper article, and it makes no sense at all to start you short story in any of the ways I mentioned unless you can defend your reason for doing so.

In fact, you should be able to defend every word in your narrative, and have specific reasons why its there.

playwrighter said...

Fuck you, JA.

As for your rules, stick them where they belong.

Up your ass...

April L. Hamilton said...

You called me on referencing novels instead of short stories, so I'll offer you The Nimrod Flipout short story collection (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002), about which the Washington Post book review says:

"The Israeli author Etgar Keret writes short stories, some of which are very, very short and nearly all of which are very, very substantial. It's an achievement of economy that begins with his rousing opening sentences:

"Surprised? Of course I was surprised."

"So let's say I'm dead now."

"This is a story about people who once lived on the moon. Nowadays, there's no one up there, but up until just a few years ago, the place was mobbed." "

The reviewer singles out Keret's opening lines as a specific strength of the collection, even though every one breaks one or more of your rules.

Of course there are badly written stories and books, but again, it isn't the author's choice to use description, adverbs, or exclamation points that makes them bad. It's that the author didn't use those things effectively.

I'm always troubled by lists of "rules" and "mistakes" offered to aspiring authors, because they discourage originality and leave little room for innovation. A writer who aspires never to break any "rule" of writing aspires to nothing greater than mediocrity.

David Gerard said...

"A writer who aspires never to break any "rule" of writing aspires to nothing greater than mediocrity."

In this case, the problem is writers aspiring to adequacy, and failing.

There are no rules. "Nobody knows anything." However, if a slushpile reader sees the same errors over and over, compiling a list is entirely in order and quite helpful.

Take all these rules as "don't do this unless you're brilliant and it's immediately obvious to me."

JA Konrath said...

I'm always troubled by lists of "rules" and "mistakes" offered to aspiring authors, because they discourage originality and leave little room for innovation.

Starting a story with weather isn't innovative. It's boring and lazy.

Telling not showing isn't a narrative, it's an anecdote.

Adding an adverb to every verb, over-describing every noun, and thinking you need a paragraph of setting in a short story--they are all examples of boring, unimaginative writing by people not bothering to learn their craft.

If you want to write good short stories, read them. A lot of them. Then join a decent writers group.

And I am NOT joking--so far over 200 stories in this recent batch have begun with someone waking up.

Can it be done effectively? Yes.

But the waking up immediately segues into internal monologue, detailed descriptions of the bedroom, and telling why the protag (names John Smith, who was six feet two inches tall and had steely eyes the color of gray flint) bothered to wake up.

Am I being unfair? No more than an editor looking for a story to publish.

I'm not being paid to hold hands and make these folks better writers. I'm being paid to pick a winner.

The winner will begin the story in media res, catch my attention right away, and use things like "conflict" and "rising action" in order to keep me hooked.

Take all these rules as "don't do this unless you're brilliant and it's immediately obvious to me."

That's what I'm talkin' 'bout.

Fuck you, JA.
As for your rules, stick them where they belong.
Up your ass...


LOL. I'm letting this comment stay, because he had the guts to to post it using his name. But this blog isn't about hurling insults, and if you do it again, I'll delete you.

If you want to engage in intelligent discourse about why my rules are incorrect, I'm listening. If you want to troll, troll elsewhere.

stevemosby said...

Joe -

""Take all these rules as "don't do this unless you're brilliant and it's immediately obvious to me."

That's what I'm talkin' 'bout."

Yeah, but it isn't really. By your own admission just there, they're not rules at all. What you're saying is that bad writing often includes such openings. It's not the same as saying such openings should be avoided. And therefore a paid judge isn't justified in rejecting a story based on it having one of these openings (which is what I believe you said you would do in your original posting of this).

What's wrong with a premonition, for example? Off the top of my head, the opening sentence "Phil didn't know he was going to die that day" (not, technically, a premonition, by the way) could easily go somewhere interesting. What if Phil is on death row, and today is the day of his scheduled execution? What else doesn't Phil know, and why?

Sure, you can say the sentence doesn't grab you. It might not grab an editor off a slush pile, either. So what? It's a short story competition. From what I can remember, people paid for their stories to be judged, and you were paid for doing so. You might groan inwardly to read "Phil didn't know he was going to die that day", but - sorry - you have a duty to read on. At least a little.

The only rule is to be interesting. I know it's not a particularly useful or crowd-pleasing rule, but I don't see that making other ones up is all that productive either.

JA Konrath said...

It's a short story competition. From what I can remember, people paid for their stories to be judged, and you were paid for doing so. You might groan inwardly to read "Phil didn't know he was going to die that day", but - sorry - you have a duty to read on. At least a little.

I'm being paid to pick the best, not give critiques.

The best will have a hook at the beginning. Simple as that.

I read at least the first paragraph, to be fair. But here's the thing:

My first impression has NEVER been wrong.

By that, I mean I'll read past a mediocre opening, knowing it isn't going to get better, and the story NEVER gets better.

You'd think that some of them would. You'd think that maybe there is a gem buried behind a poor opening.

But there isn't. I've looked.

After that happens a few thousand times, you begin to notice trends. Things that authors keep doing, over and over, that hurt their stories. Telltale signs that a story isn't any good.

I've posted this blog entry so authors can take a look at their own stories, WHICH THEY SHOULD BE DOING ANYWAY.

Here's another thing I've never been proven wrong on: the winners always use correct formatting.

I could, if I wanted to be a dick, throw away any entry that doesn't have proper manuscript formatting, because I've never read one that became a winner.

I read them anyway--I do my best to give everyone a chance. But I read up until the point where I know it isn't going to win.

In fact, I recall saying many times that writers shouldn't enter contests--if they have a good story, they should submit it to a paying publication.

But I will be a paid judge, because I do know what makes a good story, because I learned my craft.

What if Phil is on death row, and today is the day of his scheduled execution?

Then the author should show it, not tell it.

stevemosby said...

You should - of course - read up to the point you're sure they're not going to be a winner. That's obvious. The question is what point that is.

If you're deciding that something is bad writing based on the fact it "begins with a premonition" then - sorry - you're not qualified to be a judge, and you're doing a disservice to the people who have paid to submit the story as a whole for your consideration. And you're taking money for work you're not doing correctly.

Look - let's be straightforward about this.

You say in your original post that there are exceptions to these rules. You also say, in your reply, that you've never encountered a story in a competition that overcomes them, and that this justifies you in reading ... well, up to a paragraph.

How do you square these comments, Joe? "Don't begin with a premonition, unless you're a really good writer ... in which case, I'll probably have discounted your story anyway, as I've never encountered a good story that starts that way in a competition. And yet, I admit, there are always exceptions ... somewhere."

It's rubbish, isn't it? All you can possibly be saying is "be interesting". It has nothing to do with how a story begins. It's not helpful to the readers of your blog to offer such advice, but it's dishonest to pretend there are easy things to avoid.

Something has to have a hook at the beginning? Surely that's to grab the attention of an editor looking at a slush pile, or a reader browsing the shelves - not a judge who's been paid to read further, and whose name and endorsement will provide a clue to potential readers that the absence of an obvious hook is no reason not to continue?

Joe, if these people have paid money to enter the competition, and you've accepted money to judge a piece of writing they've worked on, no matter how rubbish that piece might be, they deserve better than to be dismissed or ridiculed over an arbitrary list of rules that even you, in your original post and comments thereafter, admit don't apply to good writing in any way whatsoever.

JA Konrath said...

The question is what point that is.

In some cases, within the first sentence.

This isn't about giving people breaks, or encouragement. It's not about teaching them anything, or giving detailed critiques.

The best story WILL have a great opening paragraph, and every paragraph after it will be great as well.

If the opening paragraph isn't great, it is not going to win. And from my extensive experience, if writers do the things I've mentioned in this blog, they are going to have unimpressive opening paragraphs and are not going to win.

Are there exceptions? Yes. I said there were. That's why I don't automatically dismiss stories that begin like this.

But, as I also said, even when I read on, the story doesn't get any better. It just doesn't.

"Don't begin with a premonition, unless you're a really good writer ... in which case, I'll probably have discounted your story anyway, as I've never encountered a good story that starts that way in a competition.

I don't believe you're getting my point here. If a person is a really good writer, they can break the rules I've mentioned with good writing.

Good writing hooks and engages, immediately.

But, as I've said, I've never seen any stories started in these ways that hooked and engaged immediately.

I didn't create this list, then begin judging stories. I made this list AFTER judging stories. These are the observations I made from stories that failed miserably.

they deserve better than to be dismissed

No, if anything the winner deserves to win because they worked hard enough to be engaging from the very first sentence.

But if you follow my blog, you know I hate the word "deserve." No one deserves anything in this business.

You don't have to agree with me. You don't have to think I'm fair. You don't have to like me.

But if you're in this contest, you do have to hook me immediately.

I'm willing to admit that I may be hooked by people who break these rules I've observed.

I just haven't seen it yet. And after five years and over 13,000 stories, you'd think I would have.

Now, do I think I could write a good story that begins with weather? Or a premonition? Or with a protag waking up?

Yes, I think I could. But I'd do it in a way that hooked.

"Once upon a time, Josh, who was 6'2" tall and had steely gray eyes the color of flint, woke up from a very horrible nightmarish dream and knew that he was going to die that day" is not a hook. It's awful.

stevemosby said...

Joe -

"I don't believe you're getting my point here. If a person is a really good writer, they can break the rules I've mentioned with good writing."

I'm getting your point. It's right there in your quote. These aren't rules. All you're saying is "write well".

Correct me if I'm wrong, seriously. As far as I can see, you're saying lots of bad writers will use these openings, and it won't work. Presumably, you're not saying a different opening would make these people good writers? Especially since you acknowledge the openings can be made to work by a good writer.

So, really, they're not rules at all, are they?

If there are exceptions, you can't justify discarding a story on the basis that it begins a certain way, can you?

Which competition is it? Surely it would only be fair to have the courage of your convictions and name it? After all, if people are going to pay to have their submissions considered, it's only fair for them - and the organisers - to know in advance that certain submissions might be discarded not on the basis of "bad writing" but on spurious rules, easily summarised to form the basis of a self-promoting blog post?

Ally said...

JAK - To entitle your post “How not to write a story” is misleading.

What your rules address is “How not to write an opening sentence if your sole reason for writing a short story is to enter a competition judged by JA Konrath.”

April Hamilton - I’ve just ordered Gabriel Garcia Marquez's “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings” on the strength of the opening paragraph you’ve quoted above. Thanks!

JA Konrath said...

These aren't rules. All you're saying is "write well".

No. I'm saying don't do these things I've mentioned.

You should "write well" no matter what you write.

If you "write well" and do these things I've mentioned, it'll have to be damn good writing, because I've seen the things I've cautioned against used a whole lot of times and they've never been the beginnings of good stories.

Which is why I posted this list, and posted it last year, and will post it again next year. Because maybe it will give some writers a heads-up. Maybe writers who enter this contest will perhaps read some short stories first, and join a writing group and workshop their stories and send something readable next time.

You seem to think that you can start a story any which way and it can be good enough to win. You're wrong.

Stories have structure. An essential part of that structure is a hook.

I'm not judging published stories that have already been vetted by editors. I'm judging stuff that is, 99.9% of the time, unpublishable. As in: It Will Not Ever Get Published.

might be discarded not on the basis of "bad writing" but on spurious rules, easily summarized to form the basis of a self-promoting blog post?

How exactly is this blog post self-promoting? And why do you read my blog if you think my advice is so bad?

As for the rules being spurious-- they aren't. You just don't like them, for some odd reason. Or perhaps you can point out a hundred stories that begin the ways I advise against.

If you can, good on you. I'll point out fifty thousand that don't.

What your rules address is “How not to write an opening sentence if your sole reason for writing a short story is to enter a competition judged by JA Konrath.”

Actually, I'm pretty confident that any professional writer who judged this contest would come to the same conclusions, and pick the same winners.

This isn't a question of taste, folks. This isn't subjective opinion.

Subjective opinion begins when stories reach a minimal level of readability, based on the rules of narrative structure, which include hooks, conflict, characterization, rising action, resolution, voice, setting, and mood.

I wish I could wave a magic wand and let everyone have the experience of wading through thousands of stories written by folks who haven't bothered to learn something as simple as comma usage. It's an eye-opener, and a learning experience.

But I suppose I can't expect anyone to know what that's like.

But I can expect people, when they enter a writing contest, to understand what a hook is, know the difference between showing and telling, and perhaps, I dunno, maybe read some short stories to see how it's done correctly.

JA Konrath said...

Here's a much simpler way to say it.

"You need to hook me. Here's a list of things I've read that are shitty hooks. I've seen these things so often that I believe all writers should be aware of them."

PennyAsh said...

And please don't inflict first person present tense on anyone, not even your worst enemy.

Alina said...

I'm not really a writer (I stumbled across this) but I am a reader and a high school English teacher for many years. I've read many, many short stories by students that started in these ways and only got worse, so I can see your point. I certainly know what it feels like to wade through piles and piles of bad writing - and remember that the sort of writing I'm talking about comes from angst-ridden teens!

In my personal reading, I prefer to avoid short stories. This is because, even in the good ones, the 'hook' opening annoys me. I don't want to be 'hooked'. I want to be led into the story by the hand, rather than slapped around the face with it. I'm just not impressed with breathless action or startling dialogue in the first sentence - to me it seems such an obvious ploy.

Maybe it's not the type of opening that makes these stories you are reading bad, so much as the fact that they are bad stories, written badly. A badly written opening that follows all the rules is still badly written.

One last thing - as a reader I don't object to adverbs. I don't get why writing advice sites tell writers to cut out all adverbs. I don't want them with every verb, but occasional use livens up writing and can stop sentence structure becoming repetitive. And as for adjectives, maybe someone should talk to the creators of English language syllabi who are still encouraging us to teach children the 'rule of three'! I ignore that, by the way!

jessrosen said...

That's a great list for anyone, but especially for a newbie, to have. I found myself ticking each one off as I read with a "no, didn't do that," and relief. Sorry you were in a bad mood, but can't help being glad it paid off so well in an article.

Jessica Rosen

Teresa said...

After getting bogged down reading all the comments/arguments from people who wanted to take issue with the points you had to share, I just want to say thank you. I appreciate any wisdom passed along from successful writers to someone like me, a novice. I also appreciate the forum in the comment section and the realization it's brought about -- writing styles have changed because people change. Isn't that what we as writers should always be aware of, how our audience reads?

Livia said...

Haha, thanks, that's helpful. I've been reading alot about prologues recently, and recently wrote a blog entry about them.

Chris B said...

JA Konrath, the atrocious bad judgement you display in this thread leads me to the conclusion you shouldn't be judging a short story competition at all. You aren't objective. Apparently you won't read the material beyond the point where one of your own silly criteria for what does or doesn't make for a good story clicks in (which may mean you don't even read past the first paragraph!). You aren't approaching the task humbly, and with an open mind. Contestants deserve better!!!

It's a fair bet that what ought to have been the eventual winning story will lie undetected on the pile you reject on some arbitrary whim for random reasons of your own making, or because you really can't be bothered to consider it properly.

Poor judges like yourself are the reason that people like me so often look at the eventual "winner" of literary prizes with extreme puzzlement, thinking the selected winner is nothing special at all.

Joe Konrath said...

JA Konrath, the atrocious bad judgement you display in this thread leads me to the conclusion you shouldn't be judging a short story competition at all.

Everyone has an opinion. But I get paid for mine. :)

Chris said...

My guess is that anyone who disagrees vehemently with these comments has never judged/read for publication a bunch of short stories.

Odds are, they also have never had any published.

Simple fact -- you have a stack of 500 2500-word short stories to read, you'll only read up to the point that you don't think it's going to win.

In many cases, you can figure that out in the first paragraph (the first sentence if the moron uses improper grammar that early on).

And, as a general rule, this information that Joe provided are pretty much the cliche'd openings that you read in four out of every five stories, and you'll have a hard time proving that your story is worth reading.

To put it another way:

You may have the Hope Diamond, but nobody will dig through forty feet of baby shit to get to it.

Laura® said...

Nice list! I'm sure everyone does this stuff, from time to time (even when they know they shouldn't), so I may print this out as a way to double-check manuscripts I plan to send out. I wonder why there were so many "just woke up" stories, though? Maybe people think this is a good example of starting in medias res?

April L. Hamilton said...

Chris - you're wrong. I'm judging for a contest right now, and among the books in my stack are many, many short stories.

Shocking though it may sound, I'm finding it's actually possible to read the *entire* book or story before rendering judgment. In fact, I'm pretty sure it's *necessary* to do so, since I've been asked to judge entire books, not just first sentences or opening paragraphs.

I'm also finding it's possible to maintain a constructive tone in my critiques, that snarkiness and condescension are entirely optional. Though of course, you'd never know this from reading most reviews and critiques from contest judges.

My feeling is, if you begin a judging task already annoyed at the prospect, you're not in any position to do it fairly. I don't know why Konrath keeps judging short stories year after year when he so clearly hates it.

Joe Konrath said...

April--I'm not critiquing these stories. My job is to pick a winner, not help the author improve as a writer, not to review, not to pick apart what works and what doesn't.

A winner will have a great opening paragraph. Simple as that. I read until I know it isn't going to win, and in some cases that happens in the first sentence.

When I judged self-pubbed novels and had to provide a critique, I read the whole thing. And I won't ever do that again, because it was horrifying.

April L. Hamilton said...

That's too bad, because among the 25 books in my allotment, none are horrible and only one is really irredeemable. Four of them are so good that I'm struggling to choose which among them should go on to the next round. Most are flawed, to varying degrees, but not so flawed as to be unreadable. Many could be brought up to par with a thorough, ruthless edit.

The thing is, if there's a judging commentary sheet that will be shared with a losing entrant later, you know darned well the entrant will be going over every word on the sheet with a fine-toothed comb to look for some bit of rationale for why his or her story was rejected. The entry fees for such contests can be high, and very often, that miniscule bit of feedback is all the entrant will get in return for his or her investment. I'm doing my level best to provide each entrant with something constructive to work with, because I know that if I were on the receiving end of the judging sheet, that's what I would want.

Joe Konrath said...

I judged two self-pub novel contests, and even the winners I picked weren't good enough to be traditionally published.

It's a good bet that a book shouldn't have ever seen print when you have to explain what conflict and rising action are in your crit sheet.

April L. Hamilton said...

I think there are more quality self-pubbed books around today because 1) more authors are choosing to self-pub, so statistically speaking, it makes sense there would be a larger number (if not percentage) of good books and 2) publishers have become so risk-averse that they regularly turn away high-quality manuscripts on the grounds that the work doesn't fit any pre-established mold and will therefore be difficult to market.

In other words, if your ms is rejected by a mainstream publisher today, it's as likely as not that the decision had nothing to do with the quality of your prose, plotting, characterization, conflict or pacing. It may be that the boys in Marketing just didn't get enough dollar signs in their eyes when looking at your ms, or couldn't figure out how to boil your plot down into a hype-able tweet or soundbite.

Joe Konrath said...

it's as likely as not that the decision had nothing to do with the quality of your prose

I agree that it happens, but I don't think "it's as likely as not" is a good way to quantify how often it happens.

If your work is repped by a reputable agents, chances are it is good enough to be published.

But if you aren't agent-repped, and you are getting rejected, I'd bet the majority of the time it is a quality issue.

April L. Hamilton said...

I dunno 'bout that, JA. Agents are pretty wise to what's easily marketable and what isn't these days, and they won't take you on if the marketing picture is questionable. Also, some books are nearly impossible to query because the 1- to 2-liner plot description the author must include in a query pitch can't adequately convey the true strengths of the ms.

Take RJ Keller's 'Waiting For Spring', for example. If you boil the plot down, it's a book about a recently-divorced woman who moves to a new town to try and start a new life but finds that she and most of those around her are 'stuck', waiting for change to come instead of making it happen. Described that way, it doesn't sound particularly original, involving or even interesting. Not surprisingly, most agents Keller queried passed just based on the pitch. Two requested the full ms and liked it a lot, but didn't feel they could sell it because of the marketing factor.

Keller eventually opted to self-publish the book and it's moving hundreds of copies a month. That's how I became aware of it. I'm as guilty as the agents and publishers, in that I probably never would've read the book based on its brief description alone. But seeing those numbers and reading the rave reviews from private individuals, bloggers and editorial reviewers alike when Keller listed her book in the Publetariat Vault (a site I recently founded), I took a closer look. And the book is amazing.

It's far from action-packed; it doesn't "start with a bang," "grab the reader by the throat and never let go," or even "put a question in the reader's mind by the end of the first page," as so many aspiring authors have been taught their works must. I've described it as "a quietly devastating drama," and it's the first book I've read in a long, long time that truly touched me on an emotional level---and I've read stuff by Picoult, Monk-Kidd and Gilbert, all supposedly get-out-your-hankies books. The depth of character, the clean prose, the deeply affecting and cathartic third act in Keller's book...none of these things could possibly come through in a query.

I felt so strongly about this book that I elected to query Sourcebooks on the author's behalf, and based the query entirely on sales figures and reviews to date. Sourcebooks immediately requested the book, and it's currently under consideration for acquisition. But without the strong response from readers, I'm sure they would have passed based on the short description.

Among the self-pub contest entries I've got, there are at least two I plan to champion in a similar manner because they're *that* good. One is like Gaiman meets Heinlein, the other is like King meets Tolkien. A third I'm considering is highly experimental, and therefore challenging, but a fascinating read nonetheless; with a little more work, it could be up there with Burroughs. None of these books would query well.

E's said...

Like Elmore Leonard's 10 Rules...

Andrew Jack said...

it took me awhile to read through the comments and complaints, and there are some excellent points in there.

Most of the belong to JA.

Seriously, does the idea of starting with a hook really need to be defended? If you pick up a book at the store, you'll read the blurb and the first thirteen or so lines. If they don't grab you, do you have any reason to buy the book?

I just finished a short story contest today, and sadly I came across something JA said not to do in my MS (I used an exclamation mark...whoops). There will always be another contest though, so I'm glad I learned this now, rather than three contests from now.
JA, if you;re still reading this... what do you think of the word "yelled" as an adverb to be used in place of an exclamation point?

i.e "Help," he yelled.

As opposed to:

"Help!"

Thanks for all the advice so far.

Beck said...

Joe,

Your blogs always (and I do mean always) crack me up.

Your insight is raw, unabashed, and spot on.

And... it always makes me smile. =]

Tammy Wilson said...

I think these are very useful tips but I would also like to see a "how to" list. I get what you're saying about pick up a good book and see how to. I know what I enjoy reading, but that doesn't necessarily mean it's written well. When I read, I read for the enjoyment of the story and don't really analyze the writing, unless it just blatantly sucks. So a "how to" list would be helpful to have alongside this one to be able to glance at when writing.

Anonymous said...

hey um I dont know if you'll read this or not but i always wanted some kind of critic to read the beginning of my paragraph to a story:

500 horsepower raged through the swirling mist as the eyes behind the sv6 snaked it's way through the empty road. The 10 o'clock moonlight was concealed behind grey clouds as it gave the black stripped corvette a look to kill. Hidden by the tented window, the devious driver turned the dial up to he's stereo and accelerated to the max as he made a sharp curve. Steering with one hand, a crease began to from between his brow.
f20bianca08@yahoo.com

Anonymous said...

A little harsh maybe - but I did find this list helpful. A lot of them are obvious mistakes, but others are ones I hadn't really thought about (like the one about the protag waking up).

Anonymous said...

Is it a good idea to start a story/novel and use a characters name?

I am trying to write something that people would be interested in but for some reason I can't get myself off the use of a name.

Crows said...

This is an incredibly stellar article. Thank you very much.

Anonymous said...

Jenna, I loved how you started your story. The first two sentences pulled me in and wouldn't let go.

Question: why did Frank "leap up"? Was that a reaction to the soup, or was he trying to attack Katie?

Manda Mae said...

I'm so glad I found this. I teach Intro. to Creative Writing, and I just read five stories back-to-back that started with characters waking up. I wanted to throw my laptop across the room. Next semester, with your permission, I'm going to make them read these rules and abide by them. Thanks.

TT said...

My aren't we the pretentious one? Clearly because you're a published author, you've never made a mistake, or written something that wasn't up to snuff.

I say this not because of the contest you're judging, but because you wrote this as a how-to article, but it's really just a rant on how you hate your job. Maybe you should have a little more compassion, for both the people you judge and your audience, instead of whining 'poor little me' to everyone. You chose to be a judge, so sack up and do it. You called the guy who told you where to shove your rules a troll, but the fact that its a repost of a previous entry seems to show that you're being deliberately inflammatory. You're the troll here. I don't care about the contest you're judging, but if you can't write a how-to article that's constructive criticism, then maybe you're not as good a writer as you so clearly think you are.

Joe Konrath said...

Clearly because you're a published author, you've never made a mistake, or written something that wasn't up to snuff.

Clearly you don't read my blog on a regular basis. I've gotten over 500 rejections for my writing. Which is why I'm in a good position to say how not to write a story.

but it's really just a rant on how you hate your job.

Not at all. It's meant to be a wake up call to newbie writers, so they don't have to be rejected as many times as I've been.

if you can't write a how-to article that's constructive criticism, then maybe you're not as good a writer as you so clearly think you are.

It seems like you took this article too seriously. I'm guessing you've made many of the mistakes I've said should be avoided. We all have. The goal is to learn from them, not fight with the guy who is telling you to stop using them.

TT said...

You're right, I have made many of those mistakes. Most of them, I'm sure. I'm just saying that writing is a discouraging business, and as someone looking back on it, being a new writer is a fragile experience. It made me embarrassed to think that past writing that I put my heart into could've irritated someone as much as it appears to irritate you. You do make many good points, I might add, it just seems like there are better ways to go about it, IMHO.

Also, I apologize for dissing your writing. That wasn't fair of me. Something about this just seemed to set me off, and I'm not sure why.

Joe Konrath said...

One of the keys to good writing is conflict. If this post stirs people up, it works on an entertainment level as well as an informative level. But it is also meant to be tongue and cheek, and I've never claimed to be always right.

Any writer who is able to see their own writing through another person's eyes (a fan's, an editor's, an agent's, a contest judge's) has a much easier journey than one who refuses to listen to criticism.

Can I be a self-important jerk? Guilty. But this jerk, and this blog, are on your side. :)

Anonymous said...

I'm sorry you are getting blasted for posting these tips. I, for one, thank you for this useful information.

Pedant said...

I shall make it a point of honour to get something eventually published which breaks every one of these goddamn rules, even if it takes me fifty years.

(It may have to have a long first sentence.)

Anonymous said...

"You can't just say when someone is good enough they can break the rules. That's a generalisation, and an unfair one. When is a writer considered 'good enough' to break the rules, or is it more his/her fan base will suddenly overlook it, or not nitpick on it." (Ryan@4:09

It isn't that you can break the rules and people ignore it. It's that, if you're good enough, you can make work what should not. You can do it because you understand exactly why it doesn't usually work--that's why you're 'good enough'.

Joe Konrath said...

I shall make it a point of honour to get something eventually published which breaks every one of these goddamn rules, even if it takes me fifty years.

You should make it a point of honor to get published by writing the best story you can. Not to get published for the purpose of being a rare exception just to prove a blogger wrong.

Anonymous said...

One (serious) question: Why do especially these rules define how to make a story better than others? Please give me reasons for that. Otherwise it is a dictatorial decision of some people who just claim to be right because they are the experts

Joe Konrath said...

Why do especially these rules define how to make a story better than others?

Read some published stories. Look at how they begin.

You want to show action and conflict, as soon as possible, in a story.

If you want examples, download my free Newbie's Guide ebook and check out the craft section.

Mar said...

Oi, you! Once upon a lie, in sunny Grumpville, my unhappily glowering owner woke up with his morning premonition. It was hooge. 'Woof WOOF!' I barked.
Then he rose, tripped over it, floo throo the window nad plummittid ontoo the pavement beloo. SPLAT!!!
"Och Ass tha noo!" he shreek'd in a blatant non-sequitur.

Emily said...

Anonymous "Bianca" (hey, it's the name in your email): I'll point out some of the more obvious issues here, and leave the details to people with more experience.

First off, spell-check isn't everything - it won't say that you've misspelled a word if you spelled it as a different word. For example, is the corvette "stripped", which would mean all the accessories and such are taken off, or "striped", which means that there are racing stripes painted on? Other words you confused are "It's" and "its", "tented" and "tinted", and "he's" and "his". Try looking up the words, and seeing which definition makes more sense.

Also, in your first sentence, what are the eyes doing? "eyes" is the subject, but you haven't provided an appropriate verb - the only verb is "snaking" and I think you mean to say the car is doing the snaking. This issue comes up again in the last sentence, where you've got a verb (steering) and then a subject (a crease), which again technically means the crease would've been steering.

You don't need to describe every little detail - if he was turning up the music, we all know he's steering with one hand. In fact, if the music isn't important to the plot, we don't need to know about it at all. Similarly, we don't need to know how hard he hit the accelerator, but saying he was driving like a maniac or like a racecar driver will tell us much more in fewer words. Last of all, very few people will know what an sv6 is, but everyone will know what the car looks like if you say "corvette" or "sports car" or "flashy convertible".

Laura Roberts said...

These tips are the best summary of bad writing I've ever seen. Plus, they're funny while pointing out newbie errors, instead of angry, like a list of mine would be. So I've linked to your list from my website's Submissions Guidelines page. With any luck, some newbies will read it and think twice before submitting their stories about the sun needing sunglasses and whatnot. Thanks for writing this one, Joe!

Savannah Schroll Guz said...

While these may be helpful points-- and, of course, I have not read the stories that were so abysmal (so that I might share your annoyance)--I suppose it makes me a little sad to see this kind of negative commentary on a professional activity that probably meant a great deal to the writers who submitted. While I respect your opinions on the subject, so much of editing is subjective: you like stories to start with conflict. I and a few other editors happen to like description and, figuratively speaking, a survey of the landscape. Sometimes these approaches aren't handled well, but it doesn't mean I would say to a writer 'don't ever do this--ever'. To create a list of ‘absolutely-do-not-do-evers’ seems to impose a narrow and (forgive me for saying this) condescending take on literary output. Naturally, as judge, this is your prerogative, but let's not forget that works like Orwell's _Animal Farm_ had animals as protagonists and seemed to be received fairly well. Granted, there may not have been any Orwells in the bunch, but maybe we can focus on the positives: what more successful approaches might you suggest instead?

Texas said...

I LOL'd! Hilarious (multiple exclamation marks). I just finished a novel and lo and behold, my character WOKE UP facing a cinder block wall. Oopsie. Thanks for the insight.

Anonymous said...

What a load of bollocks.

He's simply written out the kind of things he doesn't like. It's nothing to do with what or what does not make great writing.

Anonymous said...

I always start my story with a little speech, then go onto the description in the next paragraph.

I prefer the book to start live right from the off, not a full mouthful of long and boring dialogue.

Thanks for the post!

Chris Lugo said...

I did appreciate this article, but I think I know what the central problem with it (and all others like it) may actually be. It's actually not that hard to figure out. There are dozens and dozens of "what to do/what not to do in your writing" lists floating around somewhere on the net. Some version of a similar list turns up in every writing guide in existence. If we could somehow tally up the number of all of the advice lists of this type that have *ever* been written, it would probably number in the hundreds. They're very easy to find. The overwhelming majority of all amateur writers have almost certainly encountered one.

So let's think about this logically for a minute. If the lists and advice and exercises really worked, then all amateur writing would be good. Most of it, *by far*, is not good. The reason is that the essence of writing simply can't be distilled to a list of rules. I would be very happy if it could. So would the rest of us! But it just isn't possible.

THAT having been said, one thing that CAN be done is to at least identify common elements that tend to exist in writing that clearly does not work. And that's definitely worth doing. But we just can't confuse that activity with a blueprint for good writing. Once again, if lists and advice worked as some sort of secret passkey, then there would be nothing but good writing in the world.

So that's why every single one of these elements (and many more!) have been used successfully in writing by someone, somewhere. The real problems with the vast majority of all the writing out there cannot, CANNOT be fixed by following a cookbook recipe. That will lead to writing that is at least smoother and less jarringly wrong, but whatever the central difficulties are, they will remain.

George Edwards said...

I start my book with a facebook note from the main character toward her friends.