5 Habits of Highly Ineffective Writers

[[links will be added at a later time, I’m running late]]

I’ve been reading fan fiction again.

Well in truth, I generally don’t stop reading fan fiction. I probably read two stories a day, plus some original stuff from Fiction Press, and serials from my peeps at The Pen and Cape Society, Flicker, and Hero Historia. (Dude… I have peeps now. Remember like a year and a half ago when I was lamenting how little webserial folks communicate?).

Point is, I read a lot. That’s part of the job of an author. In fact, if I make enough this year, I’m deducting the cost of every book I read as ‘research material’ because that’s exactly what it is. What I mean when I say ‘I’ve been reading fan fiction again’ is that I’ve been reading it with a mind toward my brand of ‘what works?’ critique.

That also means, I haven’t been filtering stories so I stop reading a story if it’s not good. Note that I didn’t say ‘bad’, just ‘not good’. I typically click on the obviously bad stuff, and believe it or not, you can tell from the outset when most fan fictions will be bad because the story summaries will be very, very stupid if not offensive (like the first sentence telling you that a beloved character of a children’s cartoon has been the victim of sexual violence—which of course is the catalyst for romance.)

As such, I’ve been noticing patterns of behavior in a lot of the writers I normally would have skipped that either stood between their story being ‘readable’ instead of decent, or ‘decent’ instead of ‘good’. Some of it is personal and specific to me (I cannot abide this first person present tense bullshit), but there are some I’m confident in adding to a list of things writers do that make their stories less effective.

Before we begin, please note that I’m not picking on fan fic writers here. I’ve seen this kind of thing everywhere, but by dint of being freely available in easily comparable to other better works about the same characters and settings, it’s just easier to isolate the problem when dealing with fan fiction. Hell, I’ll give you a list of fics I really like at the end of this thing, for your reading pleasure—some of which still manage to do some of these things, but make up for it by being awesome.


Weakening Language

‘Rather’, ‘really’, ‘pretty’, ‘very’.

It’s probably because little kids use three of these overly enthusiastically, and British humor uses the other to intentionally blunt the impact of words, but often when a writer uses these words in conjunction with another word, they rob is entirely of its impact.

I ran across this one as a verbal tic across five different writers in three different fandoms where they would constantly describe things as ‘rather large’.

Now, when I was a lad (lads being people who wear flat caps and aren’t old men), large wasn’t really large. From popcorn to soft drinks, the sizes were child, small, large and something-rarely-called-extra-large. Usually it was ‘super/king/jumbo-sized’ and it was only a quarter more so you would be a fool—A FOOL—not to pay that quarter. So in my mind, and probably the minds of a lot of people in my generation, ‘large’ is already weaksauce in terms of jumbosity to start with.

Adding rather is just a finishing move to kill it once and for all. ‘Rather large’ is one of those dry British humor deals where you really mean ‘a bit bigger than normal, purely for effect. But over and over, I keep seeing it being used to try and emphasize the bigtitude of a thing. Usually it’s a room. Characters find themselves in ‘rather large’ warehouses and chambers and things. Just as usually, the hugeiness of the thing is completely beside the point and so the ‘rather large’ thing sticks out… rather explicitly.

I suspect a lot of these writers are fans of writers who do use the dry wit version (Douglas Adams, Terry Pratchett, even Neil Gaiman) and don’t realize that the ‘rather’ language is part of the witiness. I’m less sure of why I always see ‘pretty big’ and ‘very pretty’ so often.

Especially ‘pretty’. ‘Pretty’ in this case is something you use when aren’t really sure how big something ought to be. How big are those potatoes? ‘I dunno… pretty big’. It’s indecisive, which is find if you’re trying to convey that, but when you’re saying the dragon swooping down on your heroes is ‘pretty big’… no. ‘Pretty’ should probably one of those things mostly relegated to in-character speech and not in the narration because the narrators shouldn’t be indecisive most of the time.

Very is… boring. Like super-boring. Same with ‘really’ to be honest. It’s fine once in a while, but it’s just a bit of filler when you get right down to it. How big is something big compared to something very big?

Just in general, it’s better to break out the metaphor and similes when you’re trying to sell a description of something rather (heh) than try and say it was ‘really’ or ‘very’ whatever.

Of course, then you have to ones that don’t shut up at all, leading to…

Zero Conservation

No, I’m not talking about the GOP’s environmental policy.

Conservation of Detail is a principle that suggests that only things that serve some aspect of the story will be detailed in the story. Everything else can safely be glossed over.

Some writers have never heard of this and feel that when a character goes from Point A to Point B, the readers need to hear every little step in between no matter how tedious.

Here’s a real experience I had while browsing some fiction about one of my favorite characters. The description involved the character (Col. Jack O’neil of Stargate SG-1) getting stunted to the wrong world, meeting an alt version of himself, then embarking on a cosmic road trip to get home. I don’t know about you, but that sounds awesome, so I clicked it so hard I needed a new mouse.

…Which is where it all went to hell. The fic opened with O’neil waking up at home and getting ready to go to Stargate Command to work. Never in ten goddamn years of SG-1 did we ever open with someone getting ready for work. There is a reason for this.

But no, we learn that Jack eats a grapefruit every morning (nitpick: we have seen him eating breakfast at the SGC and it’s always sugar cereal), apparently showers but doesn’t need to go to the bathroom, and that he has to call and wait for a taxi to the secret government facility he works for.

Ignoring that massive collapse in logic… that was it. That was chapter 1. Two thousand words of morning routine for nothing. Spoilers: Chapter 2 has an exciting elevator ride alone, getting dressed in the locker room, and small talk with T’ealc, the big, awesome alien dude of the series. At least that was funny and unfortunately enough to trick me into continuing to chapter 3, which includes a mission briefing sequence.

You notice how nothing has happened yet? Because I did and at this point, I looked ahead to find that Jack is not separated from the others or on a righteous road trip through the stars with himself by CHAPTER 8!!!!. No, we were still going through the motions because the writer forgot that they could literally just skip all the useless stuff.

Let’s just assume that the talk with T’ealc and the briefing were important (and the talk was funny enough to preserve)… why not start with the talk and then cut to the briefing? Why did you have to actually read about Jack walking tot he briefing room during which nothing important happened?

Writers and fans among you, allow me to introduce you to the single most important string of characters you will ever meet:

* * *

^ That right there translates to ‘and then stuff you don’t have to care happened. If something was important there, I will inform you later at a more interesting time for it’. It is time travel. It lets you fast-forward through all the crap that is neither fun to read or to write. Long walks, days of waiting, and even those annoying ‘character wakes up and preforms a pointlessly mundane morning routine’ scenes can be replaced by those three little stars. Learn them. Use Them.

As an aside, I was going to post a youtube of an R&B song where the female singer waxes poetical about how she woke up and had a piece of toast and two eggs in this section, but I cannot for th elife of me find the name of the song. If you remember that song (From 2000-2002), please let me know.

Anyway, sometimes the power of the asterisk goes too far and the writer uses it to skip things they don’t care about that the audience kind of needs to proceed.


I don’t even know the real term for this because I’ve never actually hear anyone talk about this. Maybe I’m a trailblazer? I doubt it.

To put this in perspective, let me explain how this concept should be used: Let’s say you have a series of events happen in your story and that needs to be told to one character by another. Because the readers have already been through this part, it’s completely fair play to say: ‘Then Bill told Amy what happened’. And be done with it.

Over-gloss happens when the writer can’t seem to stop glossing over details and the above becomes, “Then Bill told Amy what happened and they decided to catch the fake ghost with a net, so they bought a net and set it up in an old barn.’.

Some would call this a case of ‘show don’t tell’, but the ‘telling’ part where we gloss over the redundant info dump is completely necessary. This is more like ‘know what to show and what to tell’. In this case, the new information: the making of the decision, the plan and the set-up are all new information that the audience needs to hear more about than one or two sentences. Even if things like the set-up are condensed, it still requires more meat to the narrative for the sake of the story’s flow.

When I happen upon this, it’s usually a case of the classic ‘rushed ending’. That’s one of those things I never see discussed aside from ‘don’t do that’, but it comes down to a story where the author, either fatigued or short on time, starts omitting or foreshortening chunks of story they feel are less important, reducing the last bit (usually the last bit) to bullet points. I may do a blog post on pacing at some point to discuss this in more detail, but I have a segue now and I’m going to use it:

This glossing over style also shows up when a writer makes a similar mistake in attitude rather than style:

Writing Sequences You Obviously Hate

Okay, here’s the thing. I get that some writers aren’t writing what they actually care about. Chasing popular genres in order to shake some of that sweet, sweet cash out of readers is a thing. Money is a strong motivator, and while I will certainly crack on the profit motive all the live-long day, that’s neither here nor there when we’re talking fan fiction.

Fan fiction, with one notable example is not something you get paid for. You might even get sued for it if the author has an unhealthy enough attitude about it. There is no reason to write a fan fiction you hate. That’s like the opposite of what fandom and fan ficiton should be.

And yet…

There are a lot of reasons someone enjoys a form of entertainment. Even in a fairly straight-forward show like Leverage, where the premise is heists, one can certainly watch the show for the interplay between the characters, or the interesting real-life crime both sides of the pro-antagonist line use. And there are fics out there that are very good without any heists at all, or without any of the interplay at all. That’s cool.

Where we have a problem is when a writer decides to force themselves to write an element they dislike. Typically, this comes in the form of a shipper, who really wants to write a love story, choosing to cleave to a show’s original flavor by writing action scenes they have little to no interest in.

Note that I’m not saying all shippers hate action. I’m a shipper who loves action, so there.

Anyway, the weird thing here is that I hang out on author boards and there’s this pervasive idea that if you’re a good enough writer, you can fake enthusiasm.

You cannot. I can smell a scene someone was forced to write from a mile away and I’m sure you can too. I’m sure those writers who are sure they can get away with heartless action, joyless sex and witless crime scenes can too, the yjust don’t want to admit that they aren’t omni-talented—or tat writing is a singular talent.

And that’s simply not true. I will admit that I’m not a master of descriptions, transitions or romance (as much as I want to be the former). I feel I’m pretty good with dialog and action. I’m also not enthusiastic about sex scenes or darker fare. So I do my best to get better at what I’m not good at, and work around what I don’t want to be good at.

Meanwhile, you get these forced scenes that are clearly being done under protest of someone who didn’t have to do them and… there’s no energy. Everything happens one after another to the point that it could be reflected in a single run-on sentence.

Look, I understand wanting to stick to original flavor, but unless you really are chasing money, a writer should never put something on the page they don’t want there. It’s much better for everyone if you just tell the story you want to tell because you’re flat-out going to do a better job of it if you’re happy writing it.

Speaking of how fight scenes can fail though…

‘And Then’ Syndrome

As I’ve said, I feel that I’m pretty good at writing action. At least I’ve had multiple readers tell me this, so I’m going to take the damn complement.

I credit reading a lot of good Fantasy action for teaching me the enlightened path of action writing. I can only blame J- and tabletop RPGs for ‘And Then’ Syndrome.

For those of you unfamiliar with either (and this wouldn’t be the first time I was shocked by my demographics), both types of games usually use something called turn based combat. That means that instead of everything happening at once, all combatants in a given fight take turns performing their actions. Blocks and guards are usually left up to chance or pre-selected for a given turn.

This system is great for promoting strategic thinking and almost necessary when the game has given you fifty spells and items to juggle. I actually like turn-based games more than real-time combat.

For. Games.

When it comes to stories, not so much. And that’s what ‘And Then’ Syndrome is: the writer describing combat as a linear path with everyone taking turns. Nothing happens simultaneously, no one rapidly attacks and overwhelms anyone—nope, everyone seems to wait around and take turns punching one nother or what have you. You can bet money on many, many sentences starting with ‘and then…’.

I don’t get this. When you watch a show with action, it never plays out like that even when we’re cutting around giving each main character a chance to look awesome. People get knocked into one another, faster enemies hit slower ones in succession… PEOPLE BLOCK. Holy crap, I’ve read so many ‘action’ scenes where they’re literally just trading hits. No dodging, not countering, and absolutely never any blocking.

There’s only one remedy for this: read and watch more action. Watch Roadhouse on Netflix or something. Hell, play a game of Mortal Combat and you’ll get better grounding in combat flow than ‘and then’.

But, you know, above all, read. Read everything you can get your hands on and not just the perfect stuff. Figure out why you like some things and not others. Believe it or not most people know a decent story from a mediocre one, it’s just when tropes you want to read about, concepts you like and other things come into play that you have people flocking to obviously bad fare like Transformers. I’ve never heard anyone say that was a fine film, just that they had fun watching it, which is different from being good. That’s fine. Unfortunate, but fine. Except my friend who likes Godzilla ’98 un-ironically. She is an eternal shame to our entire generation.

And now, a quick list of really good fan fics (not perfect ones—there is nothing perfect under the sun) that I can recommend—because that’s a thing people ask me now.

The Dragon King’s Temple (Avatar:TLA / Stargate SG-1 X-over)

Plot: Zuko and Toph wind up prisoners on a goauld ship along with Sam Carter and Dr. Fraiser. They have no idea how they got there and the SGC has no idea what ‘bending’ is—but they’re about to find out.

Vaal Says: This is a weird but fun crossover that marries the complex and compelling mythos of the two shows into a cohesive and satisfying whole. You don’t need to know either show to enjoy this, but it adds another dimension to both and fits rather well into the canon of both.

Girl Talk (X-men Evolution)

Plot: Deadpool takes a diner hostage because… Deadpool. A succession of x-men badasses come to put an end to that nonsense and end up gabbing and gossiping instead.

Vaal Says: Deadpool fics often struggle to make such a funny character funny. This one succeeds in spades. Bonus points for some really fun in-character beats. Oddly enough, this is more like a general X-men comic fic and has little to do with Evolution.

The Thimble Ninja (Young Justice)

Plot: An interesting take on the Artemis/Wally relationship from YJ, going from pigtail-pulling annoyance to familiarity to love.

Vaal Says: A well-paced love story that doesn’t forget these are two teen superheroes. I didn’t like this pairing until I read this.

Tiger By the Tail (Kim Possible / Calvin & Hobbes X-over)

Plot: Kim Possible has faced the worst that evil has to offer. Now she faces her most dangerous mission: babysitting Calvin.

Vaal Says: My god. Action Heroine trying to babysit Calvin, the king of chaotic kids. A brilliantly written, eternally fun story for people who loved C&H.

All Things Probable (Kim Possible)

Plot: Kim and Ron may well have met their matches in the form of oddly inverted versions of themselves.

Vaal Says: This could have been terrible. A pair of Ocs who are equal and opposite to the heroes and just as competent scream ‘Mary Sue’, but what we get in this fic is nothing short of amazing. It also kicks off ne of my favorite series of fan fiction ever.

And finally…

Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality (Harry Potter)

Plot: What if Harry had been raised by a strictly rational scientist and then dumped into the world of insane magic that is Hogwarts?

Vaal Says: I only just started this, but it is hilarious if you’re a lover of SCIENCE! like I am. I’m not even especially a fan of Harry Potter beyond having enjoyed most of the movies, but this fic is solid gold in terms of how fun it is. Fair Warning: I haven’t finished this (100+ chapter!) fic, so I don’t know if it stays this good throughout.

About Vaal

Landon Porter is the author of The Descendants and Rune Breaker. Follow him on Twitter @ParadoxOmni or sign up for his newsletter. You can also purchase his books from all major platforms from the bookstore
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  1. On HPMOR, I loved it just as much as you did. However, towards then end, it started to make me slightly uncomfortable as Harry started feeling a little preachy on the Atheistic side. I’m not super religious, and having it pushed on me is super uncomfortable, but having the main character call people idiots for believing in souls and an afterlife and what not just lowered my enthusiasm for the story just as much.

    • Huh. I’m not sure I’ll have that much of a problem with it as even at chapter 18, I’m already learning to take what Harry thinks with a grains of salt. He’s arrogant as hell and keeps paying for it. Considering how so much of his other instances of credulity have bitten him in the ass, I should hope that this turns out like the Time Turner: he learns he went way, WAY too far and has to rethink.

      I’m not religious at all, but even I feel the need to slap people who preach atheism. That’s like the opposite of the point of being an atheist.

      • I’ve read everything Elizer has released so far, and my biggest issue with hpmor is it has a serious power creep problem. It is kind of out of control. Harry isn’t just a very rational young boy in this story, he’s an almost infallibly rational magical super genius. I’m going to finish it when the rest is released, but I’m not nearly as enamored of it as I was the first 20 chapters or so.

      • Also, you should check out the Twilight fan fic he recommends. It’s amazing. It also has a bit of a power creep problem, but it isn’t as bad IMO.I haven’t read Twilight so I don’t know how much of that is the writer’s doing.

  2. I keep finding it odd how you talk about fan fiction without even mentioning gay porn. Or any kind of porn even. Or weird stuff like wingfics.

    • In this, I am unique on the internet.

      Also, there’s significantly less gay porn than you would expect.

      • I don’t know, maybe the times have changed. Haven’t read fanfics since the early 00s, but back then it seemed fairly prevalent.

        Which isn’t quite why I stopped reading fanfics. It was the realization that the best fanfic I’d ever read was gay porn (Batman/Wally West), and when porn has better writing than non-porn there’s something wrong with the world. Couldn’t deal with that.

        • Don’t get me wrong, there’s some truly amazing porn out there, but that’s not the main thrust (heh) of what I read. Hell, FF.net kicked out all the NC-17 stuff.

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