An Editor’s Guide to the Worst Writing Mistakes


Editor and Creative Writing teacher Dr. Stephen Carver wrote a blog post recently outlining the top writing mistakes he encounters. First off, he quotes Newman and Mittelmark from their book How Not to Write a Novel: “We are merely telling you the things that editors are too busy rejecting your novel to tell you themselves, pointing out the mistakes they recognize instantly because they see them again and again in novels they do not buy.”

“However good the idea behind a novel,” Carver says “when the author is still learning the craft of writing – like any other apprenticeship – the same mistakes do come up again and again. If we were discussing, say, learning to drive, I don’t think anyone would have a problem with this type of analysis. Personally, I wouldn’t attempt to service a gas boiler or walk into an operating theatre, scalpel in hand, without years of training, but plumbers and surgeons and all manner of specialists in other fields routinely presume they can do the job of a professional author without any prior knowledge whatsoever.”

He then goes on to give ten examples of the most common writing mistakes. These are a sample:

Starting Too Slowly

“You need to hook your reader from the first line. Following this startling and intriguing opener, make the first scene a good one. Consider starting your story in medias res – in the middle of things – and introduce a compelling character at a moment of crisis … establish your primary character, set the scene, state the dramatic premise, and start the story.”

Bad Dialogue and Too Much Of It

“Bad dialogue … is usually the result of a poorly planned character. In this case, you’ll probably find that all your characters sound the same, probably like you, with little difference in tone from the narrative voice of the text itself. Another common issue is superfluity. If dialogue does not tell us something important about the speaker or move the plot forward, then cut it. Don’t chat.

The biggest mistake I see in dialogue, however, is the quantity. Even though novelists have all the tricks and tools of narrative prose available to them, many still insist on writing screenplays by mistake … Break it up and cut it back.”

Minimal Scene Setting or Purple Prose

“In many ways this relates to my point on the overuse of dialogue, in which very little scenic detail is provided, let alone stylishly conveyed … Practice describing the essence of people or places, and be aware of your genre while you’re doing it: horror stories and thrillers, for example, rely more on atmosphere and suspense, while historical fiction seeks to recreate a vanished era, and science fiction to build worlds and civilisations … Be vivid but do not overdo it. You are not in advertising, so avoid ‘Purple Prose’ – anything that is overly ornate, sentimental, or rhetorically extravagant draws attention to itself and interrupts the flow of the narrative.”

Failure to Understand Dramatic Pacing

“Maintaining a strong, page-turning momentum requires an understanding of narrative pace. Basically, you have two gears: ‘Mimetic’ narration is a ‘slow telling,’ which dramatically stages events for the reader, creating the illusion that these events are unfolding in real time. ‘Diegetic’ narration is rapid, panoramic, and summary, communicating essential or linking information efficiently, without the illusion of reality. The diegetic narrator says what happens, without trying to show things as they happen. Prose narratives necessarily use both modes of telling: a fully mimetic story would last forever while a totally diegetic one would just be a plot summary. Aim for balance, ebb and flow; don’t get stuck in one gear. I have read many novels in which far too many trivial and tangential scenes are portrayed mimetically, like the live stream of a reality TV show, in which both primary and secondary characters randomly display and repeat their typical behaviour. Equally, I’ve read many primarily diegetic novels, with much of the plot told and not shown, as they say, in which the prose feels more like an essay than a story.”

Too Long or Too Short

“[Some] novels … are as rambling and digressive as a family anecdote related by your grandmother at Christmas; the real story does not start for several hundred pages, if at all, while similarly ending only when the protagonist dies of old age. If you have that much good material, consider a trilogy, because most publishers will not touch a novel by an unknown author over an absolute maximum of 100,000 words.

Similarly and conversely, some ‘novels’ are more accurately ‘novellas’ or ‘novelettes,’ and only 40 – 50,000 words in length. This is fine if the average age of your intended audience is twelve, but a bit thin otherwise.”

Lack of Editorial Revision

“Most manuscripts that land on my desk aren’t ready … The first draft of anything is just that, the beginning of the creative journey, never the finished product. The first draft is all about getting the ideas down, and this is why I always stress the importance of writing every day and just adding new words to a big project. A common misconception at this point is that the job is now done. Not true. You have only built the house; now you have to decorate. This should be fun, but the process is no less important or involved than the original composition. If you want your book to be any good, then expect the redrafts to go into double figures.”

You can read the entire blog post here


Brutally Honest Writing Advice from Brutally Honest Writers

Getting Started

Dorothy Parker

“If you have any young friends who aspire to become writers, the second greatest favour you can do them is to present them with copies of The Elements of Style. The first greatest, of course, is to shoot them now, while they’re happy.” – Dorothy Parker

Following the Rules

“There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.” – W. Somerset Maugham

First Drafts


“The first draft of everything is shit.” – Ernest Hemingway

“Get through a draft as quickly as possible. Hard to know the shape of the thing until you have a draft. Literally, when I wrote the last page of my first draft of Lincoln’s Melancholy I thought, Oh, shit, now I get the shape of this. But I had wasted years, literally years, writing and re-writing the first third to first half. The old writer’s rule applies: Have the courage to write badly.” – Joshua Wolf Shenk

“Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very;’ your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.” – Mark Twain

Taking Criticism


“Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.” – Neil Gaiman

“I would advise anyone who aspires to a writing career that before developing his talent he would be wise to develop a thick hide.” – Harper Lee

Be You

“Start telling the stories that only you can tell, because there’ll always be better writers than you and there’ll always be smarter writers than you. There will always be people who are much better at doing this or doing that — but you are the only you.” – Neil Gaiman

And Finally

“Don’t take anyone’s writing advice too seriously.” – Lev Grossman

*New Short Fiction* I Remember Sorrento


My latest piece of short fiction – “I Remember Sorrento” – is now up on the wonderful “Organic Coffee, Haphazardly” website.

You can read it here.


What’s Wrong with the Live Music Scene (And How to Fix It)

241. Live band

Bars and clubs in Ireland are in trouble. That won’t be news to anyone – outside of the major cities – who has been in one on a Saturday night recently. One of the reasons for this is that many have stopped booking live music. Now, I understand the dilemma bar and club owners face: they can’t afford to pay X amount of Euros to a band only to have two people sitting at the bar watching them. But, conversely, if there isn’t live music in a pub, people are not going to go out.

So, they have tried to come up with a quick fix solution: replacing live music with DJs. Because DJs are cheaper. But the big difference between the DJ and the live musician is that, while people will listen to a DJ in a bar, they’ll listen to the music as background music while they chat. But live music will actually bring people into a pub. A DJ won’t do that. People faced with the prospect of getting ready, booking a taxi (and possibly a babysitter), and heading out to a pub to listen to a DJ playing songs they’ve been listening to all day on the radio will oftentimes just buy a couple of bottles of plonk in Lidl and opt to stay home.

So … venues need live bands. But there are two major problems with this.

Problem Number One: Money

Or the lack thereof. Because – for some bizarre reason – bar and nightclub owners don’t want to pay bands. I say bizarre because, in any other business, where would expect to get a service supplied to you free of charge? As a case in point, the following is something that has been doing the rounds on social media for some time.

240. Craigs List Musician

The reply is funny but the original ad is 100% genuine. And it proves the point.

Problem Number Two: Expecting the band to supply the crowd

Jazz musician, Dave Goldberg, addressed this in An Open Letter to Venue Owners

This is where the club owner needs to take over. It is their success or their failure on the line, not the musician. The musician can just move on to another venue. I’ve played places where for whatever reason only a few people have walked in the door on a Saturday night. The club owner got mad at me, asking where are the people? I turned it around on him asking the same thing? Where are all the people? It’s Saturday night and your venue is empty. Doesn’t that concern you? What are you going to do about it? Usually their answer is to find another band with a larger following. This means the professional bands get run out of the joint in favour of whoever can bring in the most people.

But here’s where the club owner doesn’t get it. The crowd is following the band, not the venue. The next night you will have to start all over again … The goal should be to build a fan base of the venue. To get people that will trust that you will have good music in there every night.

So, what’s the solution? Venue owners have to bring the music back but it means being creative. And this applies equally to musicians. There needs to be a much more proactive approach by both musicians and venue owners at getting the word out about their respective gigs and venues. Venue owners and musicians became complacent during the boom times. The owners thought they could book any old band to entertain the crowds and musicians thought they could just turn up without any advertising and there would be a ready-made crowd there. And that was often the case. Not anymore.

There now needs to be a partnership between the owners and the musicians. And it needs to be more than just a band turning up to play a gig. There needs to be some fresh new ideas. Come up with themed nights: if it’s a bar that likes rock music have an AC/DC or a Rolling Stones night; if it’s a bar that likes Irish music, have a Christy Moore tribute night. Have a request night where the musician passes around a book of songs and the audience get to choose which one the musician plays. Or – if you like your improv – just do what Springsteen does and have the crowd shout random covers at you. You might not be able to play all the requests but, sometimes, trying to is half the fun.

And that’s what it should be about these days: fun. There are so many venues in this country that look like a morgue on a Saturday night. It’s time to bring the fun – and the live music – back into them.

© Derek Flynn 2015

 (Click on images for credits)


And Then They Came For The Buskers …

239. Busking

No matter where you live in the world, you will probably at sometime – whether in your own country or whilst travelling – have encountered buskers. If you’ve ever been in any major city in Ireland, you will certainly have seen some. If you’ve visited Dublin, you can’t have avoided them. They are very much a part of Dublin’s heritage and culture.

And now, it seems, there are some people who would like to ban them. Or, at least, ban them from using amplifiers. Now, while there might be an argument for this in a residential area, this is not the case here. This ban is being suggested for Temple Bar and Grafton Street, two of the most built-up shopping streets in Dublin, filled with pubs and shops blasting out music that equals anything the buskers produce.

In Ireland we have an unfortunate and very particular type of amnesia. We like to – rightly – celebrate and promote the talents of our various singers, writers, artists and so on. However, we often forget where they came from. Glen Hansard has built a global career as a singer-songwriter, as well as starring in (and scoring) a movie about buskers in Dublin called “Once”. “Once” went on to win an Academy Award for “Best Original Song”, an amazing achievement for a small Irish film. Irish people were immensely proud. However, a lot of them perhaps didn’t know or had forgotten that Glen – as so many Irish bands and singers have done – cut his teeth on the streets of Grafton Street as a young busker.

237. Once

Another band who is doing this is Keywest. Without the help of a record label or a PR machine, Keywest have carved out a career for themselves largely though busking on Grafton Street and selling their CDs. They now have a huge following on Facebook and Twitter, and videos of their performances on Grafton St. have been viewed over a two million times on YouTube.

238. Key West

“The busking pays for everything really,” Andy (lead singer) admits. “It’s crazy. We have funded all our records, marketing , publicity, this way. It is a godsend. It’s an amazing thing to have stumbled upon because it is the dilemma for every artist and band, how do we put a hundred per cent of ourselves into our music, whilst keeping the band together? … Something like busking, (which we still love and do to this day) is a great way to make money while you can play your songs, test new material and hopefully see your fan base increase with everyone that is kind enough to pick up a CD … It is the fans that make it for Keywest … It is all very much built from the ground up, with the busking feeding into the club gigs and the radio.”

Keywest are at the forefront of a new campaign to save busking in Dublin called ‪#‎saveirishbusking‬You can watch a video and find out more about it on their Facebook page.

At a time when music (and especially live music) is becoming more homogenised and bland, artists who can stand in the street and belt out songs without the aid of auto tune and huge production values should be hailed not hindered. Hands off our buskers!


When Writers Attack …

Many writers are known for their sharp turn of phrase and withering put-downs. It’s no surprise then that when they decide to turn their attention to other writers, the results are entertaining to, to say the least.


Vladimir Nabokov is regarded as one of literature’s finest prose stylists, and he certainly wasn’t shy when it came to sharing his opinion of other writers. On Dostoevsky:

“Dostoevky’s lack of taste, his monotonous dealings with persons suffering with pre-Freudian complexes, the way he has of wallowing in the tragic misadventures of human dignity – all this is difficult to admire.”

On Joseph Conrad:

“I cannot abide Conrad’s souvenir shop style and bottled ships and shell necklaces of romanticist cliches.”

On Ernest Hemingway:

“As to Hemingway, I read him for the first time in the early ‘forties, something about bells, balls and bulls, and loathed it.”

He wasn’t alone in his loathing of Hemingway. William Faulkner said of Hemingway:

“He has never been known to use a word that might send a reader to the dictionary.”

Faulkner Hemingway

Although, the feeling was mutual: “Poor Faulkner,” said Hemingway. “Does he really think big emotions come from big words?”

Joseph Conrad was no fan D.H. Lawrence: “Filth. Nothing but obscenities.” Indeed, Lawrence came in for a lot of criticism for his “obscene” writing. As such, one would think he would have been sympathetic of James Joyce’s Ulysses. Oh contraire:

“My God, what a clumsy olla putrida James Joyce is! Nothing but old fags and cabbage stumps of quotations from the Bible and the rest stewed in the juice of deliberate, journalistic dirty-mindedness.”

Mind you, he wasn’t alone in his opinion of Joyce. Virginia Woolf:

“[Ulysses is] the work of a queasy undergraduate scratching his pimples.”

Harold Bloom is a noted critic of literature who does not suffer “lowbrow” literature gladly:

“How to read Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone? Why, very quickly, to begin with, and perhaps also to make an end. Why read it? Presumably, if you cannot be persuaded to read anything better, Rowling will have to do.”

Even the sainted Jane Austen does not escape criticism. Mark Twain:

“I haven’t any right to criticize books, and I don’t do it except when I hate them. I often want to criticize Jane Austen, but her books madden me so that I can’t conceal my frenzy from the reader; and therefore I have to stop every time I begin. Every time I read Pride and Prejudice, I want to dig her up and hit her over the skull with her own shin-bone.”

Mark TwainJane Austen

Oh dear.

While one would presume that the Romantic poets were all great pals, the following quote would suggest otherwise. File this one under “With Friends like These”. Lord Byron on John Keats:

“No more Keats, I entreat: flay him alive; if some of you don’t I must skin him myself: there is no bearing the drivelling idiotism of the Mankin.”

Then there are comments which could be filed under “How Could He Know That?” W. H. Auden on Robert Browning:

“I don’t think Robert Browning was very good in bed. His wife probably didn’t care for him very much. He snored and had fantasies about twelve-year-old girls.”

Evelyn Waugh on Marcel Proust:

“I am reading Proust for the first time. Very poor stuff. I think he was mentally defective.”

Some of the comments made – while often cruel – are also often very funny.

Gertrude Stein on Ezra Pound: “A village explainer. Excellent if you were a village, but if you were not, not.”

G. Wells on George Bernard Shaw: “An idiot child screaming in a hospital.”

Robert Louis Stevenson on Walt Whitman: “…like a large shaggy dog just unchained scouring the beaches of the world and baying at the moon.”

Gore Vidal on Truman Capote: “He’s a full-fledged housewife from Kansas with all the prejudices.”

Truman Capote on Jack Kerouac: “That’s not writing, that’s typing.”

Oscar Wilde on Alexander Pope: “There are two ways of disliking poetry; one way is to dislike it, the other is to read Pope.”


Here’s To You, Mr. Rushdie

I wrote this blog post at the time of the firebombing of the offices of “Charlie Hebdo”. It seems sadly appropriate to repost it today.



Today’s post was meant to be an entirely different post but something a friend of mine pointed me to this morning led to this. It’s probably going to piss off a lot of people, but for that I’m not going to apologise. What my friend pointed out to me was an article on the firebombing of the offices of the French satirical paper “Charlie Hebdo” for printing a cartoon of Mohammad on their front cover. Now, we’ve all become so familiar with this notion that the image of Mohammad being printed is blasphemous that we perhaps lose sight of how ludicrous the notion is.

It’s a cartoon.

Nobody deserves to die over a piece of ink on a piece of paper. So many people tip-toe around this issue, that it’s probably important to put this on the record, once and for all.

*Just because you believe in a particular god does not mean you have the right to be protected from free speech. (I may believe in the Force. That does not give me the right to stop you taking the piss out of Star Wars.)

*As the famous quote goes, “I may disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

And in case I give the impression that this is a Muslim-centric issue, it’s not. Other religions are more than capable of the similar kinds of sensitivity to criticism. William A. Donohue of The Catholic League is the perfect example of this. Donohue has condemned and called for the boycott of everything from the movie “Dogma” (directed by Kevin Smith, a practicing Catholic) to – ludicrously – the Joan Osborne song “One of Us”. Donahue consistently speaks of bullying of Catholics as if they were some kind of downtrodden minority. There may have been a time when this was the case – perhaps in the 19th Century when priests in Ireland were hiding in hedges – but hardly now, when the head of the church is sitting on the most expensive tract of land in the world (not to mention sitting on reports of child rapists).

Everybody in public life – be they a politician or a celebrity – accepts that by putting themselves out in the public domain, they are open to scrutiny. And oftentimes, satire. There is only one organisation in the public arena that seems to believe they are above criticism, and that is organised religions. (And make no mistake – all religions are in the public domain). This criticism or satire may not be kind; however, it is free speech. And free speech is more important than anything else. Those who took part in the uprisings of the Arab Spring will testify to this. (Ironically, there are many who demanded an end to totalitarian regimes who still adhere to a religion that would have a person murdered for drawing a cartoon).

But this is the world we live in now. We’re scared to talk about religion in case we offend anybody. We’re straddling the 21st century and the 19th, almost as if the 20th never happened. We’ve got 21st century technology taking our race forward at an astounding rate, while we’ve got the resurgence of the 19th century superstition of religion raising its ugly head once again. In the late 90s and the early years of the 21st century, most of us thought that atheism was a given; now, in the last couple of years, we’ve had atheists having to write whole books to defend their positions, as if they’re some kind of Medieval devils once again. It’s a very worrying trend, as are incidents of violence such as the one that inspired this article. As Voltaire famously said: “Superstition sets the whole world in flames; philosophy quenches them”.