Turkey City Lexicon Part Two
This is Part Two of the Turkey City Lexicon. This guide covers the worst of the fiction writing sins. It is a great place to start if you are trying to make your writing better. If you want to write a novel, and you don’t want a load of bad reviews on Amazon, avoid these mistakes at all cost.
Part Two: Paragraphs and Prose Structure
A sudden, alarming change in the level of diction. Ex: “There will be bloody riots and savage insurrections leading to a violent popular uprising unless the regime starts being lots nicer about stuff.”
This is often seen most notably in character dialogue. It happens because the writer has no clear idea what the character sounds like. The result is characters that sound like red necks at times and like scientists when the situation demands it. To make your characters memorable and distinct, give them a certain diction. As an example, see J.K. Rowling’s dialogue for the character of Hagrid.
A form of expositional redundancy in which the action clearly implied in dialogue is made explicit. “‘Let’s get out of here,’ he said, urging her to leave.
Countersinking happens when the author either has no faith in their ability to make the action clear, or a lack of faith in the reader’s ability to understand. I can’t help you with the first problem. If you don’t have faith in your writing, it’s going to come through loud and clear. The only way to solve this is to read more and write more. As for the audience: they aren’t stupid. You don’t have to spoon feed it to them.
The unwitting intrusion of the author’s physical surroundings, or the author’s own mental state, into the text of the story. Authors who smoke or drink while writing often drown or choke their characters with an endless supply of booze and cigs. In subtler forms of the Dischism, the characters complain of their confusion and indecision — when this is actually the author’s condition at the moment of writing, not theirs within the story. “Dischism” is named after the critic who diagnosed this syndrome. (Attr. Thomas M. Disch)
An ailment endemic to genre writing, in which soap-opera elements of purported human interest are stuffed into the story willy-nilly, whether or not they advance the plot or contribute to the point of the story.
Every jackass SJW who entertains dreams of being a writer is guilty of this, along with much of Hollywood. Lately, Marvel Comics has been guilty of forcing cultural issues into the pages of their superhero stories. Not surprisingly, their sales have tanked. Don’t pigeon hole women’s rights into a story about deep space mining.
A cheap labor-saving technique in which the author, too lazy to describe the surroundings, afflicts the viewpoint-character with a blindfold, an attack of space-sickness, the urge to play marathon whist-games in the smoking-room, etc. Man oh man, if we had a nickel for every time we encountered this in prose!
An element of motivation the author was too lazy to supply. The word “somehow” is a useful tip-off to fuzzy areas of a story. “Somehow she had forgotten to bring her gun.”
Forgot to Mention
A close cousin to Fuzz, Forgot to Mention happens when an author leaves vital information out until it becomes crucial to the story. How will the main character escape from the burning highrise? Did I forget to mention she has a backpack full of rappelling gear and she holds the world record for fast roping? Well, now you know.
This is used by authors who don’t outline their novels and are too lazy to do rewrites.
An attempt to distract the reader with dazzling prose or other verbal fireworks, so as to divert attention from a severe logical flaw. (Attr. Stewart Brand)
Much as we love the late Michael Crichton, he was guilty of this on several occasions.
Characters grandstand and tug the reader’s sleeve in an effort to force a specific emotional reaction. They laugh wildly at their own jokes, cry loudly at their own pain, and rob the reader of any real chance of attaining genuine emotion.
Don’t tell your reader how funny it is. Tell a joke. If the reader thinks it is funny, they will laugh. What ever you do, don’t dictate what they should find humorous. Like Dischism, this happens when a writer has no faith in their ability to tell a story.
Show, not Tell
A cardinal principle of effective writing. The reader should be allowed to react naturally to the evidence presented in the story, not instructed how to react by the author. Specific incidents and carefully observed details will render auctorial lectures unnecessary. For instance, instead of telling the reader “She had a bad childhood, an unhappy childhood,” a specific incident — involving, say, a locked closet and two jars of honey — should be shown.
Rigid adherence to show-don’t-tell can become absurd. Minor matters are sometimes best gotten out of the way in a swift, straightforward fashion.
Signal from Fred
A comic form of the “Dischism” in which the author’s subconscious, alarmed by the poor quality of the work, makes unwitting critical comments: “This doesn’t make sense.” “This is really boring.” “This sounds like a bad movie.” (Attr. Damon Knight)
If you find your characters uttering these phrases, go back and take a look at your outline. You’ve got a major story flaw. You did start with an outline, right?
Squid in the Mouth
The failure of an author to realize that his/her own weird assumptions and personal in-jokes are simply not shared by the world-at-large. Instead of applauding the wit or insight of the author’s remarks, the world-at-large will stare in vague shock and alarm at such a writer, as if he or she had a live squid in their mouth.
You meet this guy at holiday parties. He lectures on about esoteric subjects that don’t apply to the topic at hand and which no one cares about. Worse, he doesn’t realize he is being obnoxious and everyone in the room wishes he would shut the hell up or choke on an hor d’oeuvre. In fact, he thinks he’s the life of the party.
White Room Syndrome
A clear and common sign of the failure of the author’s imagination, most often seen at the beginning of a story, before the setting, background, or characters have gelled. “She awoke in a white room.” The ‘white room’ is a featureless set for which details have yet to be invented — a failure of invention by the author. The character wakes in order to begin a fresh train of thought — again, just like the author. This ‘white room’ opening is generally followed by much earnest pondering of circumstances and useless exposition; all of which can be cut, painlessly.
The White Room (now I have Cream stuck in my head) is used by mystery authors frequently. I can’t count the times I have read about a hapless female lead who wakes up in a strange place at the beginning of a novel with no idea where she is or how she got there. This is another symptom common to authors who wing it rather than taking the time to prepare a proper outline.
Wiring Diagram Fiction
A genre ailment related to “False Humanity,” “Wiring Diagram Fiction” involves “characters” who show no convincing emotional reactions at all, since they are overwhelmed by the author’s fascination with gadgetry or didactic lectures.
A similar symptom can be found in genre fiction when characters react in unrealistic ways. Think teen girl going outside in the dark to check out that “strange noise” she just heard in the back yard. Yeah, sure.
You Can’t Fire Me, I Quit
An attempt to defuse the reader’s incredulity with a pre-emptive strike — as if by anticipating the reader’s objections, the author had somehow answered them. “I would never have believed it, if I hadn’t seen it myself!” “It was one of those amazing coincidences that can only take place in real life!” “It’s a one-in-a-million chance, but it’s so crazy it just might work!” Surprisingly common, especially in SF. (Attr. John Kessel)