Get others to make your writing mistakes for you

You can often learn more from bad writing than you can from good. Reading (or watching) something excellent will make you forget the mechanics and get swept away with the story and at the end think to yourself – wow, how the hell did they do that? You probably find this happens less and less the more you write – as you learn the science some of the magic is bound to get lost. The upside is that you can start to get value from badly written stories – which means less wasted time.

Doing this requires honing three core skills – the ability to ascertain what is wrong with a piece, the ability to understand why it is wrong, and lastly how to fix it – and those things get harder to do in that order. The best way to develop these skills is to join a critique group. Hell, join several. One of the real advantages here is that it's far easier to see other peoples mistakes than it is your own, and so often through the prism of critiquing you'll start to recognise in others the mistakes you make yourself.

Once you've developed those critical faculties, you can then apply them to all the cultural product you consume on the radio, music, tv or theatre – any medium that has a narrative. Before you know it you won't be able to help yourself.

Here are some mistakes I recently learned from people who actually got paid for it.

The true meaning behind dialogue should be subtextual

Nobody, not even in fiction, says exactly what they mean or think. Quite often characters don't even know what they mean or think. This isn't a call for verisimilitude – it's just that characters talking 'on the nose' makes for flat, unrealistic, undramatic scenes. The key to this is having fully realised characters – if you know your characters well, then you'll know what they want and how they will articulate that when confronted with your other fully-realised characters.

If your characters are all so well-adjusted that they know exactly what they want, and are confident enough to articulate it to the relevant characters, then you're not going to have much of a story.

Character 1: Wow, I so fancy you.

Character 2: Really? Gee, I fancy you too – shall we get married?

Character 1: Let's do it.

Character 2: You don't think we should have been more oblique and uncertain and prolonged this for a few more pages?

Character 1: No, that would require us to have some real hang-ups and be far too interesting.

Characters shouldn't just speak to facilitate another character's speech

i.e. to say – really? And then what? No, I…, Yes, but…

Dialogue is not monologue – if it was, it would be called monologue.

The revealing of back-story is not story

No one cares about the back-story if the front-story is shit. If the back-story is where the interest lies, tell that story. That doesn't mean that previously un-revealed back-story can't be earth-shattering, but only because it throws an already great front-story into relief. Luke Skywalker discovering who Dad is is a great example of this.

Characters must be contextually convincing

So you thought you'd have an Eton educated man working in McDonalds? Interesting, but only if you address why he ended up there. Throwing up a dramatic question is only interesting if you attempt to answer it - not doing so can make your interesting situation just plain irritating.

Meaningless events in an attempt to make things interesting aren't interesting enough

Things should happen because putting those characters in that situation will have inevitable consequences. Incidental events can happen, but they are interesting because of the effect they have on the characters, not because of the events themselves. True character is revealed at moments of crisis.

You see, that's the sort of stuff you can learn before you make the same mistakes.


  1. Great post, James. I can't remember when I didn't read with this kind of critical subroutine in my head. To start with, it was about the positives. A great bit of prose would stop me and demand that I ferretted away at it to discover why it was so good. Then I started to notice the bads as well as the goods.
    People often ask me if that spoils reading for me, or watching movies. They might as well ask me if it spoils real life, because my brain does this all the time for me, even if it is not meant to be critically assessing an event for artistic merit. To me, it just seems natural.

  2. Another great read, James. I do feel that learning the art of writing is never ending, whether it be reading novels, text books, writing magazines or attending a writing group. I feel I need to devour info constantly to press forward in my own work.
    I just wish it wasn't so hard to aquire an agent; somedays it feels like pushing a boulder up hill.
    Thanks for a constantly great blog.

  3. @Roz - thanks for your comment, Roz, and your continued support and championing of my blog. I was checking back over my old posts and comments and you were a true 'early adopter' (along with Hemmie, topically enough) - it means a lot, continues to do so, and will forever

  4. @Hemmie - agents are over-rated, Hem, mere gardeners on writers' estates - you keep writing and blogging the way you are, you'll build a readership, then they'll all want a piece. Have you pursued any other avenues? Didn't you try youwriteon for a bit? you know I got an email from them a few days ago saying that my current scores for The Chicken Factory would put me in the top ten if I would only bother to do some more reviews. Probably everyone got one, but rather pleasing that they're chasing me now! Perhaps I should do something about it.

  5. Learning from others' mistakes. Excellent advice!

  6. I immediately recognize in published novels when scenes are that important to the story and I skim, unless I love the characters, then I don't care.


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