7/11/2016

The Seven Deadly Sins of Fiction Writing


Alright. I'm not the first to publish a blog article along these lines. You caught me. What can I say, it's a grabber!

Despite how often people trot out the idea of the Seven Deadly Sins, I still think there's some use in listing the worst things you can do to damage your writing and your career. What you don't hear about often are the Seven Heavenly Virtues, which oppose the better-known sins. That's what I plan to add to the discussion; not just the diseases, but the cures.

First, though, we have to take a look at the bad stuff:

The Seven Deadly Sins of Fiction Writing


Pride


For a writer, pride can take many forms, but it usually boils down to one poisonous thought: "I'm better than other writers".

Many who are stricken by pride may not even admit it to themselves, but deep down they labor under the pretense that they, above all people, know what they are doing. These are the amateurs who think they don't need to learn grammar, story structure, and self-editing skills. These are the journeymen authors that think their lengthy publication record exempts them from criticism.

Most successful people in the world agree that successful people never stop learning. Recently, I saw a video that highlights another disturbing facet of this notion: once you stop learning, you get old. When a writer decides he or she knows everything they need to know, that's the moment they begin their inevitable descent into irrelevance.

If life and history have taught us anything, it's that new ideas and innovations are constantly overtaking established methods. The person who balks at new knowledge refuses to accept this. Even if a writer really did know everything about writing, language is a living, changing organism, and there will always be new things to learn.

So never assume you've seen it all. They're coming up with new stuff all the time. And never assume you can't learn something from someone just because they're in an earlier stage of their career than you.

Envy


Writers are readers (at least they should be), and that means we all have our favorite authors that inspire us. Many of us feel indebted to a particular author for motivating us to start writing in the first place.

Envy is what happens when that admiration turns bad. Instead of learning from our idols, we hate them for their success, or we try to ape their style in an ill-conceived attempt to ride their coat tails.

The more time you spend talking shit on other writers, the less time you spend growing in your own career. That's the real sin of envy; by focusing your emotions and efforts on another person, you do yourself an injustice. Sure, some famous writers are hacks. Some of them didn't work for their success. Some of them don't deserve it. So what? How does that affect you? Are you under the impression that every writer deserves an equal share of the fame?

Be inspired by others, of course. That's part of how you learn. But don't focus on them. Work to improve your own writing instead of tearing down that of others.

Greed


For writers, greed can be related to envy. Greedy writers hop from one trend to the next, writing whatever they think will sell. They see a successful movement, and they drop what they're doing and try to write something that will fit in.

Greedy writing is devoid of theme. It lacks identity. Even if it's well written and edited, the writing is missing the spirit that makes true originals worth learning from.

In writing, greed is another perversion of inspiration. Greedy writers are posers. They're fickle. The moment something drops below a certain rank on Amazon, they're off to find the next trend. They have no ideas of their own, nothing original to say, and while they might occasionally entertain, their work is quickly forgotten. Readers, whether they're aware of it or not, can sense fluff. That's what greed produces: fluff.

Gluttony


Speaking of fluff, gluttony is when a writer is so obsessed with words and clever ideas that they crowd out the story. Purple prose is a well-known pitfall, especially for beginning writers who have not yet learned the wisdom of restraint. Beyond the words themselves, though, there is a sort of violet-tinged aura that some stories take on when an author tries too hard to stuff them with whiz-bang, neato ideas.

Gluttonous writing is filled with unnecessary detours, either to flex the writer's poetic muscle, or describe some pet object, idea, or character in exhaustive detail. These are the writers who spend whole chapters describing the social machinery of a futuristic society, but somehow don't derive a plot from all that information. These are the info-dumpers. These are the people who include a list of the name of every crater on Mercury, even though the reader has no need to know them.

The fruits of gluttonous writing are ultimately distractions from the story. Everything in a story must matter; every object, idea, or character must advance the plot and draw the reader more fully into the author's world. You can't make a story "cool" by hanging a bunch of neat stuff on it. You can't make a novel poetic by tacking a bunch of florid descriptions onto every scene. Every addition must serve the whole, or else be cut out.

Lust


Similar to gluttony, lust is when a writer fills his or her book with lurid tales of sex and violence as a way of shocking the reader into paying attention. Don't get me wrong, readers love a sexy, violent story, and I'm no exception. But when those scenes are shoehorned in at moments where they don't matter, or when they go on so long it becomes obvious that the story is just an excuse to exorcise the writer's lust (for flesh or blood), that's a problem.

People love sex, drugs, violence, and swearing. But that doesn't mean that including those things will make people like a story more. Cheap thrills are just that: cheap. It takes no skill to toss in some debauchery just for the hell of it. Making the debauchery matter, however, can make for gripping writing. Don't shy from red-faced vitriol or red light district pleasure, just make sure they're in the story for a reason. And for God's sake, don't make us sit through page after page of that stuff. It gets embarrassing after a while.

Wrath


Wrath is when a writer creates a story only as a means of expressing some fiery political, religious, or philosophical view. Granted, narrative can be an effective means of elucidating a philosophy, but ultimately it does a disservice to the fiction itself.

The issue here is similar to gluttony and lust. A writer should not write a story as an excuse to do something else (Like this quote? Click here to tweet it!). If you want to be a poet, be a poet. If you want to write steamy love scenes, erotica is your game. If you want to spread your ideology, you should be writing essays. Why hide your true objective under a shroud of fiction? To me, it's a sign that the writer lacks confidence, especially when it comes to philosophy. If your ideas aren't strong enough to stand on their own, or if you don't feel capable of defending them, maybe you shouldn't be trying to sneak them into reader's minds by disguising them as a story.

Furthermore, when you write a book to espouse an ideology, you're spreading yourself too thin. You're doing two jobs; crafting a story and defending an argument.  I'm all for political and philosophical themes in fiction; my work is full of them. But a good story must be its own objective. If you're guiding inspiration is a message, and not the story itself, you will choose the message over the story whenever the two come into conflict. The result is a weak story, which in turn makes your message harder to digest. Ultimately, it's counter productive.

At the risk of sounding heretical, this is why I'm not a fan of so-called "literary" fiction. This is why I, an avid reader, was always the vocal dissident in any English class. Many of the books I was forced to read just didn't hold my attention. I read them, and I enjoyed more than a few, but I could always tell when a writer was just using a boring, barely-there story to bludgeon me over the head with some pet idea. I wish I could have put my finger on it at the time.

Sloth


Writing is a stationary pursuit, so perhaps it is fitting that the most common and most deadly of the seven sins is sloth. We all know our own capacity for laziness in writing, and it infects us at both the micro and macro levels.

On the micro level, we have lazy writing; common missteps like too many adverbs and adjectives, or empty words like "very" and "beautiful". Many of the articles on this website are dedicated to fighting lazy writing.

On the macro level, writers are often lazy in their approach to the task. We're all guilty of this sometimes; we don't always feel like writing, or we simply can't muster the energy to do another round of edits on our latest work. Even if we do find the energy, we half-ass the job sometimes. And who among us is immune to the dreaded writer's block?

Sloth is arguably the most deadly sin of fiction writing because no matter how it attacks, it prevents you from building your story world. Readers cannot read what we do not write (Like this quote? Click here to tweet it!), and they cannot visualize what we frame in lazy writing. Either way, readers are left wanting, and we are left wallowing in obscurity and self-pity.

Unfortunately, there's no one-size-fits-all solution to sloth. Writing is a habit like any other, and it must be undertaken deliberately and repeatedly until not writing is more vexing than writing badly. We may die before we accomplish everything we want to, but if we write anyway, at least we will have done something.

I've always believed in lofty, even immodest goals. Set your sights on the mountain's peak. You may not reach it, but you'll get off the ground.

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Next week, I'll take a look at the virtues that oppose these sins. If any of the above sound like you, hopefully my thoughts will be helpful!