Nasty Traps Writers Can Fall Into

Writing is such a tricky business there are probably hundreds more out there waiting to ensnare us. But I’m going to give you a couple that have nailed me at one time or another. I’ll start with the ones that only inflict minor flesh wounds and progress to the traps that will really do you damage.

Repeating is something we all do instinctively. We use a word in a sentence and then use the word again. It’s the easiest thing in the world to do. And why is it a trap? Because it flattens out your writing. If I rewrite the above sentence, see how much more flavor and character it has? Choose a word for a sentence and work it to death by using the same one again. Grisham nailed me on repeating at least fifty times in the first draft I submitted to him. Here’s an example:

In the second sentence, I used the word “satellites” three times. While it’s a well-constructed sentence and John makes a rare positive comment, the word starts to honk at the reader and become a distraction. Let’s rewrite it:

While the Americans had the latest satellites and the most cutting edge technology, hundreds of eyes in the sky, millions of powerful computers, giant radomes positioned all over the world tracking everything overhead and instantly relaying information, al Qaeda ’s efforts are homespun, almost rudimentary and neatly tucked in under the radar of their enemy. Hear the difference? Though John didn’t point it out, “Americans” is used twice so I changed that as well.It’s a tough discipline to catch onto but once you ingrain it into your neural processes, your writing will dramatically improve.

Wandering is inherent to storytelling and we all have fascinating offshoots of our stories we ’re tempted to unfold for our readers, But when you get off onto the rhubarb pie that Grandma’s uncle used to make back in Columbus when you had to cook over wood fires, yadda, yadda yadda—you’ve gone too far. Grandma’s only in one scene. The uncle’s pie in Columbus has got to go. Wandering is a detour that takes you off the main road of your story, annoying your readers and leading them to wonder, “Why in the hell is the author telling me all this?” You have to keep calling yourself, “Does this digression have anything to do with my central plot or is it a deviation that’s going to distract my reader until he or she finally sets my book aside in frustration?”

Roadblocking is a term used by Grisham ’s agent, David Gernert, and relayed to me by John. Literally throwing a roadblock in front of a reader’s train of thought, you bring the reader to a complete stop. Here’s an example: “Joss poured himself an ice-cold Coke from the bottle on the counter and sat down next to me. ‘Looking cute today,’ he said and I whipped my hand out and slapped him, almost knocking the beer out of his hand.”

Wha??? He was drinking a Coke but in the next sentence had a beer. The reader’s left puzzling and as a writer, you’ll be lucky if you don’t lose him or her.

Speeding is putting the pedal to the metal when you need to take it slow. Grinding out a novel or non-fiction can be wearying and dismaying so it ’s natural to smell the barn and rush for it. Invariably though, your writing is going to suffer. Not that you have to crawl, but trying to write an arbitrary eight or ten pages a day is not going to help you in the long run. You’ll make mistakes, take easy ways out, shortcut the really sparkling writing with ordinary stuff, you’ll end up putting yourself in a hole that’s hard to crawl out of.

Salivating is fun. It ’s dreaming of the gleaming red Boxster you’re going to rush down to the dealer and buy when your six-figure advance comes in. But it’s imagining the dessert before you get dressed for the date. Distracting and what’s more, since only something like 3% of books sell over 5,000 copies, it will build you up for a big crash when you look on the list and find your baby’s not even on the top 500. Keep the juices for the writing, not the pie in the sky rewards and you’ll be better off for it.

Surrendering, getting up from your keyboard, slamming your first draft down on the floor and stalking out of your writing room, muttering, “That’s it, goddamnit, I’m giving up, it’s too damn hard.” We’ve all been there. The slope seems too steep, the rocks keep rolling down at you and the wind’s whipping up. “That’s enough, I’ve had it.” But if it was so easy everyone would be doing it. You’ve just got to hold onto the fact that only you can make this work. All you need is a little outcropping where you can pull yourself up and get a little perspective. Then forge on, like Faulkner did, Hemingway, any writer worth his or her salt has been there, goes with the territory, as they say.

Over-reading. You get a rejection notice from an agent, or publisher or producer, it makes no difference. They are all the big N-O. So let it go, they didn ’t like it, it’s no big deal. The last thing you want to do is lay awake at night or stare out over your screen and wonder why they didn’t like it. I’ve done it too many times. Go down the road of, “Well, they represent X or Y and their stuff is really charged so maybe I need to electrify my prose?” Or maybe I should do this, or that? STOP. You are reading too much into the rejection. Just let it go for what it is.

Saying no. I really mean saying no too soon. “That’ll never work,” I’ve said it a million times to myself. It’s a total cop out, a denial of your own talent to come up with a workaround. And it’s the easy way out. You know what Nancy the Navigator in your car GPS does when you don’t follow her directions? She quickly recalculates and sends you on a new route to your destination. So instead of saying, “No”, start looking for a way around, a route over or under your problem. I had this idea about writing a book about the experience of penning a novel with John Grisham. Told myself no at first, did the whole “That’ll never work,” thing. But I took five runs at it and on the fifth I finally broke through. And Writing With The Master was published in February along with the novel I wrote with John Grisham, Sleeping Dogs.  Writing With The Master is my first and it never would have happened had I kept on saying no.

Get these traps out of the woods you write in and you’ll have a much nicer write. And if you find any new ones, let me know so I don’t step in them too.