Writing’s Aphorisms

Over the past couple weeks I have passed along a list that my instructors mentioned in class. It is a list of some mistakes that beginning storytellers (like me) make.

Top Ten Mistakes Newbie Writers Make
10. Flat writing with weak verbs
9. Setting and description delivered in large chunks

8. Telling instead of showing

7. Talking heads instead of narration

6. A book that begins with a flashback or dream

5. Too far removed from the inciting incident
4. The characters lack yearning the “hole in the soul”

3. Limited conflict or attention

2. Head hopping

1. No scene structure and action is episodic

Other Rules and Strictures

There are other “rules,” such as James N Frey’s ten rules and Elmore Leonard’s Ten Rules of Writing, which includes: “never open a book with weather,” “never use an adverb to modify the verb ‘said’,” and “keep your exclamation points under control.” I can’t show you all of them because, Elmore Leonard now has written a book around his aphorisms. It’s $15 and I probably will pick up a copy.

I admit that I like rules and, by nature, I’m not a rule breaker. I have some friends, who I have met through youwriteon.com, and they love to point out writers when they don’t follow the rules. “Look,” they say, “so and so started with the story with…” One such example of rule ignoring is JK Rowling and her Harry Potter books, he asseverated knowledgeably! One of them steered me toward an entry on Emma Darwin‘s This Itch of Writing blog – “Demandingly ‘wrong’-headed,” that started with the “rules” and ended with being taught how to write.


One dismisses standards at one’s peril. Check out this one example on JA Konrath’s blog, “A Newbie’s Guide to Publishing” titled “Bad Stories.”

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John Stewart – Never Goin’ Back

America has lost its voice and a piece of its soul.

With apologies to Don Maclean, the music died at 7:30 AM on January 19, 2008.

John Stewart (September 5, 1939 – January 19, 2008) was an American songwriter and singer, best known for being a member of the Kingston Trio (1961–1967). He was much more than that.

He wrote about America from the viewpoint of the “wingless angels,” those who drove the trucks and did the jobs that kept the country alive.

I will say that I did not know John Stewart except through his songs and brief encounters. In 1971 (my oh my how the time does fly), I (and others) talked with him when he came to Santa Monica College to talk about the songwriting experience. Still, I went to some of his concerts and shook his hand every chance I got. I’m not a fully-fledged “Bloodliner” (named after his California Bloodlines album), but I have about half of his albums and named my golden retriever “Stewart” as a tribute.

According to Tom DeLisle on Chillywinds.com, “He recorded over 45 solo albums following his seven years in the Kingston Trio, 1961-67” and in a career that spanned over fifty years he “wrote more than 600 songs.”

John told the story of how The Monkees wanted to record a song he wrote in 1968 before leaving the Kingston Trio. The Monkees wanted to record Daydream Believer. But, the song had a problem—a word. See if you can find it.

You once thought of me
As a white knight on his steed
But now you know how funky I can be
And our good times start and end
Without dollar one to spend
But how much, baby, do we really need

The Monkees wanted to substitute “happy” for “funky.” John didn’t know if he wanted to do that; he’d written “funky” in the lyrics after all. As we know, he finally allowed “happy” to be used instead. Daydream Believer is still being played today and in his words after getting his first royalty check, “happy’s working real good.”

For more about John Stewart:
Appleseed Recordings
John Stewart’s Lyrics Database at CaliforniaBloodlines.com
Chilly Winds
Clack’s Cellar

Associated Press Obituary
Chicago Tribune Obituary
CNN’s Obituary

Or better still, play one of his songs. That’s what I’m doing. Every single one I have. Here’s John’s hit, Gold.

Footnote (08/10/08):

After posting this in January I went looking for more music for my library. Years ago I had listened to a live recording of the Kingston Trio featuring John. The double album was called Once Upon a Time. I finally found it at the Kingston Trio Store. You can order it and other Trio songs here.

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The #1 Mistake – No Scene Structure/Episodic Action

No scene structure and action is episodic

Why would scene structure matter?

Have you ever noticed how things work better when the work is organized? Whether it’s a space launch or a pancake breakfast, organizing makes the whole thing work more efficiently. Certain people have certain tasks.

Organization applies to stories too. Communication is underpinned by organization.

Over the millennia, human thoughts have coalesced into words. Certain words had specific tasks they performed. These words were organized into sentences. By agreeing on what the words mean and the pattern and order in which these words are presented we communicate everything from “what’s for lunch” to abstract ideals. Sometimes we communicate through organized symbols—writing.

Concept, encode, transmit ????receive, decode, reconceptualize

Whether spoken or written, the key to communication relies on people knowing the system. When the process is short-circuited, dismissed, or not used, then the message becomes garbled. I don’t understand Portuguese. Someone may speak perfect Portuguese, but I will not be able to decode and reconceptualize the words to know what the person meant.

Stories communicate and therefore have structure. For instance, most genre stories and probably 99% of movies use some form of Joseph Campbell’s Monomyth (Hero’s Journey).

  • The hero leaves the world of the everyday and enters into a mythological woods where he or she is tested
  • The hero has a death and rebirth experience
  • The hero has a confrontation with “the evil one,” and so on.

In his book, THE KEY: Using the Power of Myth to Write Damn Good Fiction, James N Frey demonstrates how these fictional motifs are used in modern novels and films. Each of these pieces is made of one or more scenes.

Scenes advance the story by showing conflict, introducing characters, etc. Scenes have a structure so that we know when they’re complete. It is when the structure is incomplete that the message becomes garbled.

What structure should scenes have?
I have heard of others but the most often used is Jack Bickham’s method. In his book Scene and Structure, Bickham outlines a scene as:

  • Statement of goal (which should relate to the story question)
  • Conflict developed in attempt to reach goal
  • Failure to reach goal
  • Repetition of attempt to reach goal
  • Goal reached/not reached
  • Twist or tactical disaster

Episodic Action
Once the scene is complete a transition is needed. It is the lack of transition that makes a story episodic. Transitions (according to Bickham) are labeled as segues or sequels.

A segue is generally brief narration that moves the story forward in time, space, and place and provides new information.

A sequel is generally longer and is the character’s analysis of the situation. First come the character’s emotion, then thought (including review, analysis, and planning), a decision, and finally action based on the decision (and we are back into a scene).

For more on scenes and transitions:

For other story structures see:

There you have it. A list of the top ten mistakes new writers make as provided by two professional editors. They only provided the list. I have teased out what I think each point meant. Any misinterpretations of their list are mine and mine alone.

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