NVDT #40 – Clam Digging

The Prompt – Your top 5 writing mistakes and/or the ones that make you cringe

1 – Loop-de-loop paragraphs. I learned to beat this. The shortest distance between two points is a straight line.  I call them “pinball paragraphs” where one minute we’re a backstory line, the next we’re a set descriptive, the next we’re in a head, and that goes ’round in a circle. There are examples of opening paragraphs written this way in this very room.

2 – Words and phrases strung together that sound like writing. I encountered this in the music business as well. Rather than play an entire solo or phrase we called the punch-ins when they rolled by. Art in that process is elbow grease on the seams. Unfortunately, in writing there’s no way to fix people writing what they think sounds like what they want to say regardless of how illogical or supercilious it sounds. Similar to this is a paragraph of undeveloped scenes or thesis statements strung together. This and this and this and this. Whoa. Start with the first one, develop it, logically, next.

3 – Obvious backstory triggers. Mirrors, photographs. Please. Backstory dumps are SPEED BUMPS and corrupt story flow. Following on the heels of cliche triggers is cliche backstory. Lunch with the wise old wizard, the ex-boxer turned private detective with retired or active cop friends and the magic fireplace/doorway/portal are stale. Wise old wizards who might be geezer horse farmers, okay. But the long cloaks and Love Potion #9? We can do better. Drop backstory into dialog or in pieces. Or at least dress it up in a clever way like Helen Simonton. Hackneyed photograph or staring at the fields backstory is exposed by an interruption or an intrusion by a third party. A formula that makes the dump situational and part of something. I’m sure she read the formula somewhere but she does it well. Better yet, let the characters tell us who they are by what they say and how they behave.

4 – Inside out sentences. I am guilty of this in draft mode. It can sound erudite, or stupid, or pontificating. None are as effective as straight ahead. An example would be the dreaded -ing simultaneous action. Putting on the goggles he walked out the door. Sounds like amateur writing night. Jackson put on the goggles as he walked out the door.

Inside out Example  – Jackson slammed the door behind him as he put on the goggles and walked out. You know sometimes it takes a dead eye to see that junk because when we read it, from ourselves or others, our brain fixes it. Slammed was the last, not the first thing, but we make sense out of it because it goes together. Sort of. I see this all the time.

5 – Echoes. Not just words but thoughts, behaviors, descriptions. Saying the same thing twice in different ways. Holy crap. My first time out I had an editor draw red lines through paragraphs with the note “you already said this two paragraphs ago. No need to reiterate, we got it.” That’s writerly ‘splaining. We want to be sure the reader got it so we do it again. I see that a lot in head time, not just narrative. An event happens, we see the characters’ reactions in the scene and then somebody has to take a stroll and explain it all over again for us in their head time.

6 – C’mon, it’s an even number and it’s perfect for this topic – Not knowing when to stop. Wanting to write that last line or two when it was done two lines ago. That’s another sort of ‘splaining I suppose, but I see it in chapter endings all the time. And it’s one of the things I have to go back and whack. When it’s done, it’s done. Example – “And then they packed up and went home” is nothing but extraneous BS word count. Hell, “then” is extraneous word count.

Expanded list – Selling philosophy/religion/agenda via dystopia or straight-up ‘fiction’ just flat pisses me off. If someone writes to sell me something they should mention it on the flap.


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Published by

Phil Huston


12 thoughts on “NVDT #40 – Clam Digging”

  1. Backstory. Why does any story need pages of it? We’re not writing the Encyclopedia Galactica here. Why not pass it on as a conversation between two people, or as reminiscences of better times. Preferably when hiding behind something solid (with or without bullets whistling past), wondering how it ever came to this?


    1. Amen. However, the bullets flying is in there with the mirror gazing for backstory cliches. But yeah, who they are, where they’ve been, drop that in short and sweet. I put backstory in there with too much scene. Where are we, what’s happening? That will tell us who, you know?


    1. I was speaking more to scenes and chapters. Where they’ll be back, without the added this and that excess dialog or activity.
      “Not gonna be a pretty day tomorrow, Leroy.”
      “Nope. It sure as hell ain’t.”

      Lop off and they rode off into the sunrise or crushed out their cigarettes or asked each other where they should eat breakfast or winked or slapped their horses. Stop where it stops,


    1. I agree. I think decent writing is decent writing, whether the content is dry or wild and crazy. I think it starts at sentences. Write a decent, well constructed sentence. Follow it logically with another. Pretty soon you have a good work whether you’re fighting city hall or teaching knuckleheads how to use a product or setting up procedures for a water treatment plant or Narfling the Garthok.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. One of those “make the reader earn his keep” notions on #5, a few strokes with the brush, not a paint-by-numbers portrait.
    #4, I think that’s just how my mind works, inside out. There must have been 100 of those in my first two books that my editor had to fix.
    (More examples, show us, don’t tell us (smile).)

    Liked by 1 person

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