Review: The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes (And How To Avoid Them)

Title:  The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes (And How To Avoid Them)
Author:  Jack M. Bickham
Published:  September 15, 1997
Author’s Website:  N/A (I can’t find one)
Genre:  Non-Fiction, Writing (How-to)
Review:  Mr. Bickham makes quick work of the 38 common mistakes.  This isn’t simply a list of what not to do, though.  Once the mistake is identified and explained why it is a problem, Mr. Bickham offers advice on how to avoid making the mistake.  Some mistakes he explains by manner of example, using work some of his former student had turned in.  Other mistakes are more straight forward…to the point that you’ll be slapping your forehead and thinking, “Of course.  I knew that.”
While not a head-slapper, one of the chapters (mistakes) that stands out for me is 19:  Don’t Be Afraid to Say “Said.”  I like to think that I write fairly good dialogue, but I sometimes struggle with the attributions.  If there’s a need for a lot of attribution in a scene, I find myself trying to come up with words other than “said.”  Jack has set me straight:
“Said” is a transparent word — a pointer to a who who said something.  Any other attribution word will stick out and perhaps distract the reader without need, unless the situation really does demand a “scream” or a “sigh” or a “shout.”  You should use the invisible word “said” about 90 percent of the time.  Of course you will use other words like “asked,” “replied,” “told,” etc.–when the context makes such a word obviously appropriate.  But you should use even these only when it really does seem natural in context.
One other big nugget chapter for me is 10:  Don’t Have Things Happen for No Reason.  “Because fiction is make-believe, it has to be more logical than real life if it is to be believed.”  Boiled down, this chapter explains that unless luck or coincidence is a key characteristic of one or more of your characters, it doesn’t belong in your story…it is lazy writing.  I find this to be a serious problem in a number of the TV shows I watch.  The main character(s) working to find out what’s going on or who did it and in the last fifteen minutes or so a miraculous piece of evidence or clue leads to the final confrontation…almost every week.  It’s boring.  It’s predictable.  It’s poor writing!
Some other chapter titles include:  Don’t Use Real People in Your Story, Don’t Forget Whose Story It Is, Don’t Worry What Mother Will Think, Don’t Chase The Market.
Bottom Line:  A very good book.  All 38 “mistakes” are identified and dealt with concisely, with examples where needed.  I highly recommend this book for writers, especially novices.

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