No problem is just one kind of problem

By way of makinglight, Keith Snyder’s letter to his novel writing students.

No problem is just one kind of problem. Every weakness is a weakness in more than one way. a problem with ‘characterization’ turns out to be, coincidentally, where the plot also happens to lose track of itself. Lack of sufficient description is also where character voice disappears… This may go partway toward explaining why I’m probably contradicting other authors from whom you may have had advice, and why the next author you consult will contradict me: Sometimes, it’s because somebody’s actually wrong, but it’s also possible that we’re all seeing the same weakness, and simply approaching from the particular angle with which we’re most comfortable.”

This fact has me more and more hesitant to offer solutions when I critique, actually. I can point out problems, and others can point them out to me, but more and more, once I see the problem, I need to find my own solution. And yet, I have gotten–and seen others get–useful things out of critique group brainstorming sessions. But one has to keep in mind that the suggestions made in such sessions are only suggestions. When we begin assuming we know how other writers should actually write, we get in trouble, and stop being helpful.


Ineffective writing isn’t necessarily the result of doing things wrong; it’s usually the result of missing opportunities. Look for places to be interesting, unusual, unexpected, efficient, galvanizing, heartbreaking, funny, intriguing, clever, provocative, evocative. If it suits your style, try writing (as Raymond Chandler said, though I can’t confirm the quote) “something delightful in every paragraph.” If you don’t, you may be getting a lot out of writing your book, but what am I getting out of reading it?”

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