Besides writing fiction, I also work as a journalist for a local newspaper and I write book reviews for most books I read. GoodReads has 250 of my reviews by now, and I noticed recently how much writing nonfiction improved my fiction.
Writing articles for an old-fashioned print newspaper teaches brevity and influences word choices. In a print newspaper, unlike an online blog, page space is at a premium, and word count is tight, like in a book. I have to squeeze everything I need to say into 800 words, so I learned to formulate my thoughts in the most concise way and to select only the most relevant, truly important points for inclusion in a story. I also learned to use very few adjectives in my writing—no room for flowery prose—and to select the most precise and expressive words to convey ideas. These skills do wonders in fiction.
When I critique a book, figuring out what I like and dislike in a story, I try to use my finds in my own fiction. It’s not as easy with quality, the books I like—these are often highly subjective—but flaws are easy to pinpoint in the other writers’ works. Each one I notice is a lesson to apply to my own writing. A few of the most common flaws—the most important lessons—I list below.
Deus ex machine – this is a No-No! in every textbook on writing, but many writers still use this literary device. It’s very tempting to drop their characters into an impossible situation and then introduce a powerful sorcerer who can wave his wand—and poof! Problems solved. Heroes saved. Or it could be a boss, or Zeus, or a genius rabbit coming to the rescue. Sergei Lukyanenko in his books Night Watch and Day Watch uses this approach. His hero doesn’t solve problems. To keep his conscience clean, he allows others to do it for him, to dirty their own conscience.
I never resort to this trick. My characters always solve their own problems. And if they can’t, then maybe I, a writer, should fix the situation they find themselves in, so they would have a solution available.
Info dumps – another technique frowned upon by all the writing teachers. Still, many writers do it in the beginning of their books. Mercedes Lackey is especially prone to info dumps in prologues. The readers should know the character backgrounds and the world description before they plunge into the story, right? Wrong! Everything the readers should know they could learn from the story later.
I try hard not to use this comfortable and attractive solution. As a reader, I’m bored by the info dumps. I don’t wish to bore my readers, so I start my stories with action.
Unsympathetic characters – this is a border case. I don’t usually finish books where I don’t like any of the characters, but some readers accept this writing quirk, even derive a contrary satisfaction from reading about doormats or villains. In the last decade, a wave of darkness swept the literature, and many writers consider a good protagonist almost a taboo. They add some artificial faults to their heroes, as if a drug user is automatically more interesting than an honest, hardworking non-smoker. I disagree. For me, it feels like a lazy way out for a writer, but liking and disliking has always been subjective. I try to write about characters that I myself sympathize with. I make my characters strong and able, standing firmly on the ‘side of light’. They still have complex problems to solve, so it’s largely a personal preference, but it’s a lesson all the same.
Too many details or unnecessary details – this flaw isn’t huge but it’s often irritating. Some writers don’t even consider it a flaw, they cram their novels with details, but for me as a reviewer, too many details make a book tedious. Every detail, if used, should tell something about the character or be relevant to the story or convey a mood. If it fails to perform any of these three functions, it’s extraneous. I read a book by Alex Bledsoe lately. In it, his hero goes peeing one morning. Who needs this detail? Why is it there? It doesn’t serve any purpose. In my own writing, I try to follow this maxim: no unnecessary details. Sometimes, I fail, but I make an effort.
What other fiction writing technique did you learn by working in another writing genre? Marketing? Technical writing? Communications?