[img_assist|nid=841|title=|desc=|link=node|align=right|width=125|height=145]By Aimee LaBrie
Columnist, Philadelphia Stories
Though I have not written any interesting fiction in, oh, years, I still find it easy to judge the writing of others. This impulse comes not just from having taken years of workshops alongside teaching undergraduate writing, but also from my own dark little heart, which says something like,Well, I may not be writing, but at least I’m not writing this kind of stuff. However, I do think this list of things not to do can be helpful in avoiding common errors that seem to happen again and again in beginning writing.
1. Having a first person narrator who turns out to be dead at the end. As in: “And then he shot me dead…” Or, “And that’s how I died that day.” Because, really, how is the narrator telling the story then? (Also, it violates rule #3, see below). Same goes for: “And it was all a dream.”
2. Cramming 15 characters into a ten page story. Unless you’re George Saunders and using this technique satirically, the only thing it does is give your reader a headache: “Tommy opened the door. ‘Hi, Timmy,’ he said. Tony was in the kitchen, blending the drinks with Rich. ‘Come on in,’ called Joe from the living room where he was playing cards with Jack, Jim, Todd, and Dan. ‘Sam called,’ announced theman with the blue suit from the top of the stairs. The dog, Jeff, barked. ‘We’re in for it now,’ said a familiar voice.”
3. Again, unless you are a fantabulous writer or a blood relation of O. Henry, the “ah-ha” ending most often leaves your reader feeling tricked and cheated. The “ah-ha” ending occurs when there is a final huge reveal at the end that turns the entire story on its head. For instance, you find out that the narrator,who seems like this total womanizer (keeps referring towomen as “bitches”) is really….a golden retriever!
4. For literary journals, don’t submit genre fiction. That means your story cannot contain elves or unicorns or hobbits or dragons or vampires or swords andmost especially not elves on dragons with swords chasing unicorn-riding, undead hobbits.
5. Not a big fan of the “crazy narrator” story. Unreliable narrator: fine. Nutso: no good. It’s difficult to create an interesting, complex, believable crazy, and very easy to fall back on stereotypes from movies and clichéd endings such as the narrator making plans to escape his padded cell.
6. Third person stories where the point of view shifts suddenly and for no reason. You’ll be reading a story written in third-person limited (inside the mind of just one person) for the first 10 pages, and suddenly get a random interior thought from a periphery character. Often, the thought doesn’t impact the story and so serves to just be jarring: “His sister Mary wondered why it was that grapes were round.”
7. I’ve been told that you’re also not supposed to write stories about other writers, cancer, break-ups or mental illness. I know this rule, and yet, I have attempted to write all of those stories with varying degrees of failure.
8. Nonfiction masquerading as fiction. You can spot these pieces because they contain more “telling” rather than “showing.” If you happen to workshop such a piece, the author’s defense to criticism will be “well, that’s the way it happened, so…” So, write it as an essay.
9. Stories where the narrator is an animal or an inanimate object. My friend Luke recently toldme about a girl in one of his workshops who turned in a story called “Sweat Beads.” In the story, the sweat beads referred to the sweat between the breasts of the female character. In any case, cats, trees, mailboxes, etc. do not make compelling narrators outside of children’s books.
10. Avoid sound effects in writing unless you’re writing a graphic novel (“The car back-fired with a ker-blam, startling the owl who cried hoot-hoot, setting off the sprinklers, which went tsk-tsk-tsk amid the frat boys yelling whoo-hoo!”) Same goes for exclamation points! Or the overuse of adverbs (“she advised guiltily, knowing truly that she too was particularly given to this gravely amateur error”). Or the use of the participle clause. Example: “Revving the engine on his motorcycle, the two-year old began to wail“ (makes it sound like the two year old is about to take off on a Harley).
But you know what? Write whatever the hell you want. Someone famous once said that the secret to writing is “Ass in chair.” At first, I thought that meant you had to be a jackass to sit down to write. Later, I realized it means that as long as you’re showing up and sitting down in front of the page, you’ve already started to succeed. So go ahead.Write it.
What I Learned in Workshop Hell
Aimee LaBrie’s stories have been published in many literary journals. She recently received the Katherine Anne Porter Prize in Short Fiction, which will publish her short story collection in December. Aimee serves on the Philadelphia Stories Planning & Development Board.