Online Writing Workshop for Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror

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By author Nicola Griffith

The first rule of good writing should be: examine everything. Learn to see clearly, to see what is, not what everyone has told you is; learn to think, to question. Then learn to write it down clearly. The last part is the easiest--that's what practise is for, and how-to manuals, and workshops. The first and second parts are what makes the difference between a good stylist whose work is empty, and a good writer whose work comes alive for readers and sometimes changes the way they see the world, changes their life.

One of the clearest markers of bad writing is, in my opinion, the unexamined cliché. Think hard about every single word and phrase you use. Don't write "her heart stopped" unless you mean she died. Don't talk about saucy serving wenches in an inn where the beef stew is thick and hearty and the ale is fresh, nutty, and strong...unless you intend to use such a cliche to good effect, to twist it upon itself and the reader for a purpose. (Why aren't "serving wenches" ever tired, middle-aged women? Why, in worlds with no refrigeration, is the meat never spoilt--or intensely flavored with spices to prevent/slow down said spoilage? Why is the beer rarely yellow, or thin, or cloudy with sediment? Why do barbarians always "come down from the north"? Why do people who fall over the edge of cliffs always "scrabble for purchase?") Stereotypes such as sly Arabs, money-lending Jews, feisty old women, dignified and wise kings, comic-relief peasants, green-eyed and raven- tressed heroines with "mouths just a bit too wide for beauty" and pert noses are signs of lazy writing and/or a failure of imagination. Many clichés are "self-evident truths": women are weaker than men; Americans are superior to Africans; humans are more innovative than aliens; women-only worlds would be boring, homogeneous places where the inhabitants sit around all day and think about men; capitalism is fabulous; all cultures appreciate art; genius is more valuable than compassion; straight men are more butch than gay men; Christians are more reasonable than Moslems; war is inevitable. The list is endless (or at least very, very long). All writers commit cliché to some extent, but the better you are, the less often you'll do it. Clichés undermine fiction; they're like rust on the cables suspending the reader's disbelief. One is a little unsightly, but many mean that disbelief will come crashing down, your books or story will be tossed aside, and you will have lost a reader forever.

Another common mistake is to fall in love with your words. When you find yourself repeating some phrase or lovely long word--"argent," say, or "eldritch"--go back and cut it out. One way in which this obsession manifests itself is sequelitis: Book Seven of the Cycle of the Tree Lords. Most novels should not have sequels; the story is told, the character examined. Let the world and the people go on in the readers' imaginations and turn to new characters, new milieux. Explore. There's so much out there. Learn to see. Learn to think. Learn to write.