I originally posted this to my blog. It could use a rewrite -- for one thing, some of the categories can be combined -- but for now, here it is:
Since I teach creative writing and sometimes edit anthologies, I get to read a lot of manuscript submissions. This is a list of some of the things that signal to me a story going off track. A lot of them I've done myself. Some of them are my own subjective feelings about issues that mightn't bother another reader. Probably all of them can and have been done successfully, so I'm not saying any of this is gospel. I don't even go to church. Here they are:
1. The story begins with rumination. It proceeds to reminiscing. It ends on a wistful note. No-one speaks. Nothing so wrong with this per se. It's more that it's done a lot, and often the matter of the story is not particularly gripping on its lonesome. Often it's about some internal obsession that the protagonist has, and the reader is trapped in an inert protagonist's head.
2. The whole story is told in voice-over, without getting into the head of any of the characters. It's very difficult to tell a story in omniscient. Which is no reason to avoid it; in fact, probably the opposite -- but know that that is what you're doing, because I think it's close to impossible to tell a story well in omniscient by accident. If your grasp of point of view (first, second, third person and omniscient point of view) is sketchy, ask yourself as you're writing, 'Who's speaking in the narrative? To whom?' If the answer is, 'the author is speaking to the reader,' consider whether you want to break the fourth wall like that. The narrative parts of the story aren't platforms for the author to step on stage and explain or reveal things to the reader. Think about it; what are the characters and action doing while the author does that? Of course explanation and revelation is exactly what any part of a story does, but if you can make it feel as though it's happening naturally through the thoughts, words and actions of the characters, then the reader has a more full-surround experience. Sometimes writers have the protagonist be the person telling the story to the reader. That can work.
3. None of the action is shown first-hand. It's all told in reportage, after the fact. Readers tend to feel more involved in the story if it's written as though it's happening right in the moment, and the events are new to the characters. If the story is told after the fact, we're hearing old news, and in the backs of our minds, we know it, and we disengage a bit. Fiction is about challenging the characters. If we get the story after it happened, we miss the thrill of seeing in the moment how the character deals with the challenge. They've already weathered it, whatever it is.
4. The whole story is an agonized first person narrative of someone's private pain. There is no counterpoint narrative thread. See Number 1. Fiction is artificial. In a way, you could look at it as a time-based art, like film. I think of a fiction story as an imaginative (imaginary) three-dimensional construct in movement. As the story progresses through time and space, the reader should begin to be able to perceive more and more of its shape and architecture. Think of a train approaching from a distance. Imagine that you've never seen a train before. First you might hear an eerie whistle. Then perhaps you see small puffs of smoke moving towards you, quickly. Something big's coming, but you don't know what. Then you hear a chugging noise that's getting louder. And so on, until the few long, exciting seconds when the train rushes by and you get to experience it as it passes. On a craft level, the kind of satisfaction I get from a story that works for me is similar to the kind I get when I look at a building where the design was creative and the construction sound and well-executed. To me, all the bits of a story need to support each other and add soundness to the structure as a whole. And they need to do so creatively. "My wife left me" is one single two-by-four trying to stand upright on its narrowest edge. "My wife left me and it hurts" adds a second element to the story, but that's still not enough to hold it upright and give it form. "My wife left me and it hurts and my boss who's been making my life miserable at work just had to have her cat put down and she's been crying alone in her office but she's still being awful to me so I don't know whether I should try to be nice to her or not, and I hate cats anyway" begins to have enough threads to make a weave.
5. The woman dies. The woman dies. The woman dies. Horribly, or pathetically, or tragically, but always, always helplessly, the woman dies. Or experiences, repeatedly, brutal sexualized violence. Women die, even in fiction. Be weird if we didn't. Women experience sexualized violence. It's fine and useful to depict those horrible truths. But I see it so often and in such loving detail that it's practically its own genre. If that's mainly what your story's relying on to create an emotional response in the reader, you might could stand to develop some more strategies for getting us to react.
6. There's been no spelling or grammar check, and the author can't tell "it's" from "its." Someone once read this description and thought I was belittling people who didn't have formal grammar education. I'm not. In English, written grammar derives from spoken grammar, not vice versa. If you are a native speaker of one or more of the variants of English in your community, then you are an authority on that speech, whether or not you ever learned formal written grammar. The its/it's confusion is a vexation that's peculiar to conventional written English grammar. Even in written English, "correct" written grammar is a matter of choice. It's perfectly valid to choose not to use it. My editorial warning bells are not going to go off when a story begins, "But anybody see my dyin' trial? Is kill them a-go kill de man!" (Pamela Mordecai, De Man, quoted from my chancy memory, so apologies if I have any of it wrong.) But if someone's writing in a mode in which they have chosen to use conventionally accepted grammar but are applying basic elements of it unevenly, what I take from that is someone who hasn't learned to use an important aspect of their chosen tool. "It's" means "it is" or "it has" (the past tense) It never means anything else. The apostrophe is a stand-in for the second "i" (or for the missing letters when you make "it has" into a contraction).
7. For no apparent reason, the author has formatted the story in block memo style.This one I will let go if the story grabs me from the get-go. After all, it's an easy fix. But even with a strong story, I'll be jarred out of it at every single paragraph break. I kid you not.
8. The author has used 1.5 spacing instead of double spacing. You think we can't tell? In nine brief years as a writer, I have ruined my eyesight from staring at print, and I deeply regret having taken decent eyesight for granted. White space gives relief to the eyes. An editor can tell when they're getting so little of it that their eyes ache. Ditto ten point type instead of twelve, and .8 margins instead of one inch. (If you're going to try to cheat more words onto the page that way, try 11.5 type and .9 margins. It might work, or it might get your story chucked into the round file. But don't stint on the double-spacing.)
9. For no apparent reason, the whole story is a core sewage dump of unrelieved grossness told in graphic and unrelenting detail. Or a saccharine syrup. Or a loving and thorough explication of existential angst that leaves the reader depressed. None of those things is necessarily a problem. The problem comes when there is no other element to the storycraft. If the story leans on hitting one strong emotion over and over until the reader is numb, I begin to feel that the author could use a few more tricks in zir kit bag.
10. Front-loading the backstory. This is very like number 1, above. The story begins with a detailed description of the circumstances, the history leading up to them, and perhaps the surroundings. "Lengthy" in this case can be as little as a paragraph. Then, without telling the reader where the narrator is and what he or she is doing at the moment, it launches into, "that got me thinking about -- " (an equally lengthy, abstract socio-philosophical observation about human beings or one human being in particular -- who is also not placed in time or space). Or it does it in the reverse order. I write in a plot-driven genre, so this is something to which I pay attention. As a reader, I don't need non-genre stories to be as picky about plot. Still, I come back to my conviction that fiction has movement. It places a character with a dilemma in a situation. That dilemma can be as small as 'I'm feeling too lazy to get out of bed and change the cat-box,' but something in how the author handles it needs to get readers curious about how the character is going to address the problem, and it needs to make them care about the outcome. If a story begins in the extreme abstract, readers like me are going to skim it until we come to something that pulls us in; a vivid event, character, line of dialogue, bit of description. If the story goes too many pages (paragraphs, really!) without any of those kicking in, we'll put it down.
11. The author takes a maternal/paternal tone towards the characters, either a protective one or an overtly moralizing one. Feels condescending, and tends to lead to clichÃ©s, which rob the story of uniqueness and the feeling of being told a truth about a thing. Of course the author will have a subjective position on certain things. Of course that passion will inform the writing. Writing would be pretty damned boring if you disengaged your emotions while doing it. (And for the record, I think that engaging one's objectivity is different than disengaging one's emotions.) The trick is not making your fiction feel like an uninspired sermon. The way to avoid it is to not lecture. Let your characters live their lives. Let your readers come to their own conclusions.
12. Tense and jumpy. The author doesn't know or won't use the past perfect. The story is written entirely in the simple past, making the reader have to guess when in the timeline of the story the events being narrated are taking place. And/or the author randomly drops into the present tense every so often. I really don't know what the help is for this. Grammar was not my favourite subject in school, either. I picked it up intuitively from being a bookworm, then learned the terms for what I already knew when I had to. I'm not even quite certain that I'm using the correct grammar terms in this paragraph. I just know that the word "had" is not superfluous.
13. Forecasting. "If I'd known then that before the end of the day, the goat would have eaten my hat and my Great-Aunt Hattie would never speak again, I would have worn the blue shirt instead." This cheats the reader of the pleasure of finding out what happened.
14. The story consists of a mournful second person reminiscence to someone permanently unattainable who isn't present or listening, and who doesn't give a damn about the protagonist. The reader isn't told where the protagonist is or what they're doing while they're narrating the story. "You were never the type to let sleeping dogs lie. You entered the shuttle bay that day bent on revenge. I wanted to follow you, to show you how much I loved you, but you pushed me away with an impatient look." Often, the "you" of the story is dead. Or the "I" is. Another variant of Number one, above. This is an 'old news' approach with no challenge to the protagonist in the present of the story. (Dude, you're dead. Let it go, already.) It also depends for its impact on the single note of mournful loss. It can work. It's just overdone.
15. Ending before the story finishes. Or switching horses mid-stream. The author has set up a core dilemma, has gotten the readers curious about it and the characters. The end. The ending either isn't one, or the conclusion is the conclusion to something that the story was not about. Endings are difficult. They close off the weave of the story. This type of ending is achieved by abruptly sticking a few different threads in right near the end, and trying to weave those threads into a selvedge. It won't hold. The ending needs to fall out from the core of the story. It's okay for the core to change -- sometimes the root dilemma is not what the characters think it is at all, and that can work beautifully -- but the new focus needs to be connected to the rest of the story. It needs to be woven in. I've written this type of ending myself, and probably will again. A story takes on a trajectory of its own, and there are times when you can change course, and times when doing that would mean that the entire story jumps the tracks and breaks apart. (Apologies for the many mixed metaphors here.) Sometimes you take the gamble that the story as a whole is stronger than its less-than-congruent ending. Most often I see this type of ending from newer authors. It's an ending I also see from writers who know the disdain with which fantasy and science fiction get treated in larger literary circles, but who find themselves writing a story that wants to be sfnal. They sometimes shy away from the implications of what they're writing by stopping just short of the sfnal element.
16. Summing up the point at the end. Or, for that matter, at the beginning. Or beginning with study notes: "In order to understand the story, you first need to know that in 1285, the heir-apparent of Nidaimnebog was assassinated by his six year-old sister, with the help of a passing French merchant and his pet python." Do we need to know that to follow the story? Or is it just something that you'd really like us to know? Either way, I find it's generally better to just start the story, and sprinkle information in as you go. As to summing up the point at the end; generally, resist the urge. Lots of people won't understand your story no matter what. This point has elements in common with Number 11.
17. A good third to half of the story consists of lengthy quotations from other people's work: songs, poems, etc. Properly cited, mind you; there's no plagiarism. I love using quotations in my fiction. The tricky part is not using them to tell your story for you. If your own content is scarce, consider trimming the quotations down to a phrase or two and putting what you're trying to say into your own words.
18.Run-on sentences. You cannot end a sentence with a comma.
19. Before the reader has any idea who any of the players are or what's going on, an out-of-context narrative that concludes with something like, "But this isn't what I should be talking about." If it isn't, then don't. At least, not until you've got the reader placed in the setting. You've gotten us going down one path, carefully taking in your story elements, only to erase the whole page and make us start again.
20. The title gives away a crucial piece of information about the story. Argh! Spoiler!
21. The basis of the story is a joke. It may be a really good joke. The story consists primarily of variations on and explorations of the joke, with some nods to plot. Doesn't allow the readers to emotionally engage with the story, and feels as though the author doesn't want to, either. Relies on one trick.
22. All dialogue is reported dialogue (i.e. told after the fact and second-hand). All action is reported action. The story has already happened. Another variant of "old news."
23. Mary Sue. The protagonist progresses effortlessly from strength to strength right up until the triumphant ending where zie's achieved everything zie wants in life. Oh, and zie often has impeccable taste in clothing, furnishings and lovers, is fluent in four languages, is both sexy and tasteful, and has an unlimited income. May or may not be half elf; the cute kind of elf, with the pointy ears and long legs. Most of the scenes open in omniscient, the better to allow the reader to enjoy detailed descriptions of what exquisite (but tasteful) designer creation Mary Sue is wearing for this event in the competition. Fiction is about challenges. In that sense, this is not fiction. It can be immensely satisfying to write and read. It allows you to dwell in the world of a character you love and build on it. It's just that it's doing something fundamentally different from what conventionally published fiction does.
24. Magic is used casually, to replace work. By "work" I don't necessarily mean work as a moral value (although I kind of do), but the realness of action/reaction, cause/effect that lets readers know when someone has just done something risky. We need to be able to tell what's at stake. So give your magic those qualities of action/reaction, cause/effect. In other words, make it as convincing as the physical realities of this world.
That last topic could lead into a whole 'nother discussion about using magic -- or science -- to address the root problem of utopia, which is slavery. In other words, if this is heaven, who's going to do the dirty work? That's a topic for another time. In fact, I tackled it here, in my address to the 2010 International Conference of the Fantastic in the Arts.