Thursday, July 29, 2010


JANET TAY looks at some of the pitfalls writers should avoid when writing short stories

IN THE LONG AND OFTEN ARDUOUS PROCESS of writing and rewriting your story, it is useful to bear in mind some of the common problems that may be encountered in producing creative work. Using the short story as an example, and the flaws that occurred most often in manuscripts received and rejected by MPH Group Publishing, as well as the entries for the MPH-Alliance Bank National Short Story Prize 2009, here is a list of pitfalls that should be avoided:

1. There’s no need for a moral in the story
A story doesn’t have to end with characters being repentant or turning over a new leaf. A protagonist can experience a change, but the change does not always have to be a positive one. A writer should not write a short story to deliver a moralistic message but simply to tell a story. Leave it to the readers to make their own judgments.

2. Too much sentimentality
A tendency to be overly sentimental may result in self-indulgence. Not everyone may share your nostalgia for that old coffee shop you used to visit in Taiping in the 1960s or your first love. There’s nothing wrong with writing about either subject but do make sure you think of your reader as well before you launch into a reminiscence that only you might find interesting.

3. Written like a school essay
Fiction, and short stories are no exception, require a great deal of creativity. Do not submit work that read like secondary school essays with assigned titles. This is why reading other novels or short-story collections is important so you can compare your work and see the difference.

4. Bad grammar and spelling
Grammar is something that can be learnt and improved. Don’t let bad grammar ruin that fantastic story you have, hidden under piles of errors. An editor gets put off by an abundance of grammatical errors and may reject your work based on the fact that you lack even the basic skills in wielding the language.

5. Written like reportage
Short stories are supposed to be creative and fluid. Don’t just tell us what you see, let us know what the story is too.

6. Bad dialogue
Make dialogue believable and natural. In real life, people don’t always speak in complete sentences and often interrupt each other. Don’t have people speaking in complete or formal sentences if it is an informal setting. Your characters need to be alive and breathing, not talking cardboard cut-outs. When you watch a movie, the actors inhabit the characters they play. In Saving Private Ryan, for example, it is the voice of Captain John H. Miller that should be apparent, not Tom Hanks the Hollywood actor.

7. No story, just observations
Make sure you know what a short story is. A 5,000-word piece on your reflections on life and society is not a short story. Remember, there has to be a story to tell. This may seem obvious but there is still a need to say it.

8. Too much telling, not enough showing
This is perhaps one of the most common rules that have been broken time and again. There’s nothing wrong with breaking rules, but know them first. Whenever possible, show how the characters feel instead of telling the reader.

9. Too gimmicky
There’s no need to impress the reader with your knowledge of various styles and gimmicks in writing. You may think writing in the second person is stylish but it is unlikely that anyone would want to read something that has style but no substance. Ultimately, they may ask themselves, what was the point of reading this? Always put the story first and think of the most interesting way to tell it.

10. Verbiage
Keep your story simple and precise. Every word and sentence is there for a purpose. Excise unnecessary descriptions or explanations and use fewer words to avoid convoluted, confusing sentences.

11. Sesquipedalian?
I had to look up this word and can still barely spell it. Try to avoid big or unfamiliar words that don’t sit well in the context of your story. If you must use polysyllabic words, then use them wisely. If your character is not an obsessive physics professor who can’t stop talking in jargon, don’t make him or her sound like one.

JANET TAY is a litigation lawyer by training, but decided to leave the legal profession to pursue her first love—books and writing. She is now a book editor at MPH Group Publishing in Kuala Lumpur. She is also working towards a Master’s degree in English Literature at Universiti Malaya, Kuala Lumpur. She is the co-editor of Urban Odysseys: KL Stories (MPH Group Publishing, 2009). She is also a contributing editor to Quill magazine.

Reproduced from the July-September 2010 issue of Quill magazine


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