Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Eight Common Juvenile Writing Problems

Awdur here, live from the Midwest, bringing you:

8 Common Problems of Nonprofessional Writing
And how you can avoid them

1. Limp Dialogue. You know the type:
"Mom, what's for dinner?" Sara asked.
"Chicken and broccoli, dear. Please set the table," her mom answered. "Oh, hello, Richard! How was your day at work?"
"Fine, honey. The chicken smells good!"

What's wrong: There's several problems here. One would be lack of interesting things happening between the dialogue. There's no "Sara rolled her eyes" or "Richard grimaced as he answered" or "Sara's mom itched her nose as she stirred the broccoli". We don't actually know what's going on here. Another problem is the trite answers, the happy-go-lucky mood that everyone seems to have tonight. That's not to say I haven't had a similar conversation in my family every once in a while, but without seeing, as well as hearing, the conversation, the characters seem very 2D.

Try this:
"Mom, what's for dinner?" Sara whined.
"Chicken and broccoli, dear," her mother said with a slight sigh as she placed the tray in the oven. "Would you mind setting the table?"
Sara rolled her eyes and flounced off to the dining room.
"Richard! I didn't see you. Sorry, dinner isn't ready yet," Sara's mom said distractedly as she read a recipe.
"That's alright," Richard answered as he sat down at the table. He rubbed his eyes. "Smells good."

It could still be better, but it at least feels a little more human.

2. All the good people are bosom friends. Here's a snatch from my own writing to demonstrate my point:
A happy day was May 10, when Arene, Will's mother, came home. She was very different from Will's father. Arene had not enjoyed their marriage, which was arranged without her consent or knowledge... Rin had never met her, but from Will said, she was very glad to do so. Arene was delighted in Rin, and in Will's marriage. Her presence made those golden days even brighter!

What's wrong: Often times in stories, if the characters are on the same side, they like each other. If they don't, that must mean one of them is evil or mean or something. Well, sometimes in real life, two people can be on the same team, and neither one of them be a traitor, and still not like each other. Often there isn't one wrong person and one right person, but just two humans, or two people whose personalities simply do not mesh well.

Try this: Develop your characters using a character questionnaire, and make notes of how their different personalities might sometimes clash. Think Ron and Hermione from Harry Potter, who argue half the time and didn't like each other for 30% of the first book but are still great friends. Don't simply say "they became the best of friends" with every good guy or perhaps even no good guy in the book; let them struggle, maybe be enemies for a time or even never become completely friendly toward each other.

3. Grocery list description. This is one I still do sometimes, as it's easy to slip into if you're not careful. A quote from the same story to illustrate:
Rin grabbed an older petticoat, an older pair of chausses, an older chemise, and an older kirtle, and led the room.
Daisy returned with turkey, muffins, eggs, posset, butter, pears, and another fruit…

What's wrong: With description like this, you have to make yourself stop and absorb the information. Description that moves your eyes along without informing your brain is the wrong kind of description. Instead of providing you with a feel for the mood and setting of the scene/character, you get an inventory of their pantry (or closet).

Try this: Use your description to show the feeling of the scene or develop your character.

Rin grabbed some of her old clothes which she'd shoved in the bottom of her wardrobe, shook out the dust and a few of the wrinkles, and hastily pulled the dress over her head, accidentally turning it backwards.

Daisy returned with a sumptuous feast such as they hadn't had in ages. Fruit of this quality had been scarce since the famine, and meat was expensive even for the daughters of a baron. Rin felt like a princess as she sipped the hot spiced posset and delicately nibbled on light crunchy pastries.

4. Precision and Order. Mr. Banks may advocate it, but I'm sure he'd agree it doesn't belong in writing. Saying that the girl weighs 92.1 lbs can work in some cases, but saying "She was tiny like a pixie" is a lot more interesting and you can use such a description to develop the feeling of your style and of the story. This can also be a problem when discussing time or settings. From the same story, two examples:

Rin examined the room. It was about eight feet long and five feet wide. There was a bed, with a long side against the right wall that was six feet long, two feet wide. About a foot away was a table that was about four square feet.

When Nan woke, she was on [a horse]. She had not her eyes open twenty seconds, when someone brought their fist down on her head. The next ten times she woke, it was the same. The eleventh time, bread was shoved into her mouth, and she was made to swallow. Water was poured down her throat. Then she was once again forced unconscious. This entire procedure was followed for about six days.

(I really think that young lady was brilliant, because apparently even after being knocked out countless times, she was still able to count without any trouble and managed to accurately keep track of what day it was!)

What's wrong: Unless I'm the abnormality, most people (except my dad) don't look at a room and say "This is 23 feet by 10". They say "This room is small" or "This room is bright" or "This room has a lot of furniture." Like grocery list description, giving a summary rather than exact details is a lot more interesting and gives you an opportunity to show feeling and mood.

Try this: When Nan woke, she was on the back of a horse. She barely had time to look around her, taking note of the three armed men galloping through the trees next to her and the hair arm around her waist, before a fist on the back of her head turned everything to blackness. She woke multiple times to the same routine, until her head was fuzzy and she had lost count of where she was and how long she had been there. Once, the hairy arm forced a piece of bread and some water down her throat, giving her just enough time to swallow automatically before knocking her unconscious again. Each time she woke, she had no time to think about how she had gotten there or why she was there, so that during the times when she was awake long enough to eat the bit of food, her mind was so wooden that she might as well have still been sleeping.

5. Too generous? In Writing Magic, author Gail Carson Levine says, "The problem is, sometimes we don't want bad things to happen to our main character because we like her. We don't want Cinderella's stepsisters to be too awful, because we identify with Cinderella too much . . . Stifle those feelings! Have Cinderella burn herself cooking her stepfamily's breakfast. Make one of the stepsisters slap her. Let the family dog bite her."
In The Pergle Plant, the story I wrote at age 12 from which most of this post's quotes are from, I give my characters lots of little niceties. At one part, when one girl is in prison, she meets a kind woman named Ligeia who gives her an herbal salve to help muscle pain. Now, I put this part in simply because I was giving the story to my sister for her birthday and she was interested in herbs, so the character who was modeled after her had to be interested in herbs as well. But think about it. The lady is in prison. Where in the world would she get a salve?? Or if she made it, the materials to make such a salve? The answer is that she wouldn't.

What's wrong: A story with lots of trouble in it is a much more interesting story than a happy story. Not that you shouldn't give your characters a break now and then; there's got to be a spot of hope so that the reader knows that there is a point to keep reading. In A Little Princess, Sara finds a coin and is able to get a bit of bread, after being practically starved and being forced to work as a servant. This works. It gives Sara the break she (and the reader) need without breaking realism. At another point during The Pergle Plant, Nan's hero rescues her on a carpet pulled by eagles. While cute, and fine in a story written by a 12-year-old, in a novel you'd pick up from the library, you'd see that and say "Come on."

Try this: Just like Gail said, stifle the feeling that you have to be nice to your characters. Don't! Plan all sorts of disasters (that fit within the story, don't engineer them). But between trials, dab in spots of hope, as long as they make sense. Ask yourself, "Is this likely to occur in real life?"

6. The easy escape. Oftentimes in my juvenilia I would have the characters imprisoned somewhere. Why? Because I like imprisoning my characters (I also liked playing the slave who got beaten daily when I was a child). Even if you don't, at some point you will write a situation where the character is stuck, in one way or another. When it comes to getting out of that situation, you cannot let the characters out too easily!

What's wrong: If the characters escape too easily, not only does it make for a ruther boring scene, but it's sort of anticlimactic. Imagine if a big scary dog had corned your main character in a corner. Then, all of sudden, just because your character says "Good doggie", it lies down and licks her toes. This would be funny, and unexpected, but it makes the problem, and therefore the fright of the character, seem silly. If it was that easy, why did you waste your worry on it? In order to keep your problem still a problem, they can't find the solution as easy as one-two-three.

Try this: Let your characters have one failed escape attempt, or even two or three. But even after doing that, do not let the second escape work completely! Even when you're on the one that's going to work, let there be problems. Make the main character forget her handbag with all her lifesavings in the bathroom. Make the hero permanently injure his hand when saving the heroine. If it's going to mean something, there's got to be a sacrifice of some sort.

7. The engineered Deux ex Machina. A deus ex machina is a phrase that comes from the ancient Greeks. It means "God out of the machine". Sometimes the playwrights would write their climax and then not know how to save the hero. So, the solution was to have a god come down and magically fix everything. Now, I've never done this exactly. But, I have created solutions to problems that were just weird. In The Pergle Plant, I gave my character an unearthly incurable disease and had failed to make an antidote. So I made up this song. When the lover of the dying person plays the song, and wishes with all their might that their love wouldn't die, they don't die. How convenient! But it's just kind of weird. Mental solutions to physical problems often are this way. Think of Somewhere in Time, where Richard thinks his way into the 1900s. 

What's wrong/Try this: I think it's pretty clear. This sort of thing just doesn't work. If it feels awkward to you, have a friend read it. If they think it's strange, you may have to face the pain and rewrite the scene, or even completely take out the problem if there's no other solution you can come up with.

8. Free-form clay vs. the wire-frame. In One Year Adventure Novel, the author points out that there are two different ways to write a novel: free-form or wire frame. He strongly advocates the latter. I was defensive when I first heard this because I'd only written using the former. Now that I've used both, I concede that generally, the way to write a good story is the latter. I'll explain:
Free-form: Getting an idea for a beginning (or a middle, or an ending), and taking off with it, making up the plot and developing characters along the way.
   Pros: There is a certain adventure that comes with letting the story make itself up along the way and surprise you at the twists and turns, building complexity with each new addition. This works well for short stories.
   Cons: It's easy to loose track of the "point" of the story when you don't have a defined conflict, theme, climax, etc. It's also easy to develop inconsistencies when you let the story do what it likes.

Wire-frame: Getting an idea for the story and then laying out a structure for how it's going to go, including a definitive conflict and theme, as well as figuring out your characters, before attacking the actual writing.
   Pros: You can measure your progress well when you have plot points clearly written out. It also helps you when you have writer's block to look at what is coming next. You can guard against inconsistencies in plot when you have it written out.
   Cons: It does take more commitment to a story and can at times be a little less fun.

In reading these eight common problems, you may have noticed a theme: interesting writing. When I wrote The Pergle Plant, I had a very creative plot line. The setting was interesting, the ideas were good. But the writing was not (well, I was only 12) that great. The point being, you can have great ideas, but if you don't convey them well, your readers will loose interest and stop reading.
After all, what is a story? The author's ideas set down in pen. Choose those words with care. Write on, friends!

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