Creative writing is not an easy task. Everybody has a great opinion about how it should be done. Most of these opinions are untested. Figuring out just what makes fiction good, let alone great, is a puzzle that takes decades to figure out.
Coming up with the right answers isn’t always easy. If you’re a fairly new writer, however, avoiding the wrong answers can sometimes be just as beneficial. There are a hundred ways to do things wrong; here are seven of the more common pitfalls for you to take note of.
Adjectives will always help your work stay more creative. This is something that nearly every sixth-grader gets told, way back when everybody is learning the basics of sentence structure. Adjectives = description, and description = creativity; therefore, adjectives = creativity. The only problem is, description really doesn’t create on its own. Knowing how to describe is what really matters, and that can be done using nearly any word out there. Adjectives are fine, of course, but sentences like “The tall, Olympian, bronzed man strode through the wide marble corridor” aren’t creative. They’re descriptive, but they aren’t creative.
In A Study In Scarlet, Sherlock Holmes describes his mind as a room, and tells Watson that his ignoring entire fields of learning isn’t stupidity: it’s taste. By focusing only on what he needs to detect and observe, he becomes an unsurpassed detective. Think of your writing that way: you can put whatever you want to in it. You could cram it full of everything you find, or you could prune out the objects that aren’t necessary.
You need a great plot/character to tell a great story. Everybody loves a good “Da Vinci Codesque” thriller, just like everybody enjoys a character as charming as Dean Koontz’s Odd Thomas. But in the end, what matters about your writing isn’t your characters or your plot. It’s your theme: what you tell with your story and how you tell it.
Themes in stories tend to get bad reputations, as obtuse analytical devices that nobody cares about. Really, though, a theme is anything in a story that conveys a message of any kind. Harry Potter tells us of the value of friendship and openmindedness. The Notebook reminds us that it is never too late for love. These aren’t heavy-handed themes: they’re just the morals to the story.
Ulysses, considered by many to be the greatest novel of the 20th century, has a winding, simplistic, monotonous plot, and manages a stupendously complex and interweaving story. (It’s why, for instance, Wikipedia doesn’t offer a quick plot summary for the novel – but I digress.) Meanwhile, a novel like like The Once And Future King takes old, flat characters, and portrays them in an utterly charming, addictive, hilarious manner. They end up becoming characters in their own right not through character development, but through narrative.
The longer what you write is, the better it is. This is another of those old myths from childhood, back when every big book was an “adult book” by default. Many of the books considered to be revolutionary and groundbreaking are in fact extremely long and winding. While long stories have more potential due to their length, writing long just to be long doesn’t make any sense. Depending on the story idea, certain ideas just tend to last longer than others.
Take a book like Lolita, one of the most stunning books of all time and still one of the most controversial. It packs a truly harrowing story and a delightfully twisted narrative that travels across several nations, yet manages to be only about three hundred pages long. And people who think that three hundred pages is in fact long should read “The Vane Sisters,” by the same author, a short story that manages to be far cleverer than books a hundred times longer. Size shouldn’t be pushed for the sake of size; if it is, it’s usually immediately noticeable.
The shorter what you write is… And so on. Some people think that because shorter stories are easier to pack content into, shorter becomes better. While this idea is tempting, it’s just as realistic as the claim that long stories are always better by default. While short stories are easier to work with, they can’t be nearly as expansive as longer pieces of work are: there just isn’t enough room.
Case in point: Ayn Rand’s novel Atlas Shrugged, a book that has attracted a fanatical following in the last few decades. At the heart of Atlas is a fourty-page philosophical treatise that essentially summarizes the themes behind the entire book. Without the rest of the novel, though, that treatise would mean nothing: Rand uses well over a thousand pages to display her philosophy at work, to attempt to clarify her philosophical position further. More space to write means more chances to really create a literary world
In the end, there’s no such thing as the “perfect size” for writing. Short isn’t bad, and neither is long. That is, unless either size is forced.
If you don’t know what to write about, write fantasy: it’s the easiest to work with. Since fantasy really has no rules regarding what’s real and what’s not, the argument goes, there really isn’t any challenge involved in writing it. This argument, mind you, is usually stated by somebody who doesn’t read fantasy often.
Take even a preliminary glance at any good fantasy world, and you will realize just how involved any form of fantasy is. Anything is possible, yes, but that just makes the process of logically defining a world that much harder. Fantasy writers can’t start off from the real world that every other writer gets to pluck from: they need to define their world before anybody can understand it. Fantasy goes even beyond just writing: oftentimes it takes careful planning before the writing even begins.
If there’s a lesson that can be taken from fantasy assumptions, it would be this: just because something looks easy doesn’t mean it is. No matter what you plan on writing, nothing will come that easy. Everything takes work.
Everything has already been done before. This is perhaps the most obnoxious claim that can be made about writing: oddly, it also tends to be the most believed. There really can’t be much of an argument about this one, though: critics have written many papers explaining just why there is no more for literature to truly achieve.
While their arguments make sense, given enough arguing back and forth, never assume that everything has been done. There is always some sort of new grounds to explore. Take the experimental novel House of Leaves, written in 2000, which features telling a story through the positioning of words on a page rather than the content of the words themselves. If you ever start believing that there is nothing else to do, you’ll never get anything truly new done. And if somebody else comes out with the next big new thing, you’ll be pretty upset if you didn’t get there first.