Walking a Tightrope—Seven Deadly Sins of Writing

When I began writing, I was so overwhelmed by the possibilities my new means of artistic expression offered me that I completely forgot I should keep my words on a leash. (Who among you, dear writers or writers-to-be, right after the first writing course, would care about a damn leash?) Writers should be free, and crazy, and do whatever they feel is right. But they should also more or less following some guidelines, as far as structuring a novel and developing characters is concerned. Those rules are actually pretty easy to follow. The hard part is in keeping your balance—you can’t learn how to walk a tightrope from a book, sorry.

What do I mean by balance? Everything that writing is about. Keeping your balance with your choice of words, keeping your balance regarding the length of sentences, keeping your balance between narrative and action, keeping your balance regarding the length of chapters. Writing is walking a tightrope hanging 200 storeys above the ground: you need to mind every single step—otherwise you’re going to fall down to Amazon’s lowest-ranking hell. And stay there forever, adorned with your one-star reviews.

I don’t know if you know, but there are seven deadly sins every writer should avoid if he or she prefers to stay away from the hell I mentioned. If you try hard not to jump into any of these traps, you might escape punishment. Yes, there will certainly be reviewers who will piss you off with one or two stars, but there will also be nice, five-star opinions to cheer you up. So… let’s take a look at my “how to keep your balance” list.

  1. Killing spree? Make sure you have a motive.

My English publishing partner claims I should have my own slogan: “Kata Mlek—bringing more corpses since 2012”. This is a joke of course—now that I’ve been a writer for some time, I know killing for fun isn’t necessary. It’s as stupid as a safari when you shoot one animal after another with no greater purpose. If you’re going to kill somebody, make sure the corpse is absolutely necessary. No killing for fun. No rage killing when you’re unable to deal with a character’s plot. No killing to impress the reader.

To sum up: Every corpse must have a purpose.

  1. Want it gory? Don’t make the reader sick.

The temptation is great, I admit that. Writing something that will cause readers to cringe is tempting. And really, it’s easy—we, people, react to stimuli, and have great imagination, so when you, the writer, show the reader some disgusting situation, and you can more or less write, you can be sure the reader will shudder. Just describe injecting a needle into someone’s testicles, or somebody self-harming—see, there are some particularly nasty examples. Also, every bodily function, like peeing and so on, should work fine … But why do this? Why? To show off, and prove you can push the reader’s buttons? No, this is not touching your readers. This is razzle-dazzle, smoke and mirrors. So don’t do it.

(Or rather, only do it when it serves a purpose, like I did in Absolute Sunset.)

To sum up: No gratuitous nausea allowed.

  1. Love dialogue? Get a job at the radio station.

Dialogue (if you can write it) is a great tool. It can convey so much information and so much emotion, and is a great way to boost the tempo and heat up the atmosphere … For these reasons writers sometimes get lost and write endless dialogue resembling The Bold and The Beautiful, with numerous sentences aimed at confirming what was just said, informing the readers on the characters’ feelings and the circumstances of a given situation, the weather outside, the color of the curtains and cushions on the couch, and so on. Well, the truth is, putting everything into dialogue is much easier then developing a decent narrative element to a story. Sometimes, when I’m tired, I succumb to temptation and do this … And later I fix it …

The opposite version of the problem is also potentially deadly—I mean putting everything into narrative parts. If you want to kill the reader, do this. Even if the narrative tells the story of a possessed girl who guts every single person she meets, the reader is still going to die, or at least fall asleep.

To sum up: Balance out chatting and shutting up.

  1. Fond of Discovery Channel-like details? Let it go.

I know you’ve probably spent months doing research. And now you feel like including every single detail you discovered in the book. Details should never be wasted! They cost so much: so much money, so much time, so much torment for your sources of information … Thus you often decide they all must go in the plot, no matter whether they do it good or harm. The reader must understand, and see, how much work you’ve done.

I was the same, truly. I loved every single piece of information and was fascinated with all of the new things I discovered, and I was sure everyone else would be curious and stunned as well. No, they weren’t. They were bored. So keep the balance. Gather information, as much as you can, to help you feel the plot, but don’t, please don’t share it all with the reader.

To sum up: No Discovery Channel.

  1. Like to abuse words? Go and play Scrabble.

Sometimes you hit such a flow that the words are simply pouring down onto the paper. You use them, one after another, and so many beautiful synonyms come to your mind… and your text looks like you wanted to show your readers that you’ve memorized the thesaurus. It feels great, I know, the flow is … Aw, hard to explain … I also feel the flow. But in those moments, I open up my special file called “bullshit”, and put down whatever comes to my mind. Then I either use it or not—the decision comes after I’ve cooled down.

Sometimes word abuse turns into sentence abuse: the sentences get enormously long and complicated. Following the thread is impossible, even for a writer, but the writer doesn’t care when writing it, since he or she is flying high. Please, mind your sentence abuse. This is deadly for the reader. There’s an easy rule: can you write it in a simpler way? Do it.

To sum up: No thesaurus allowed, ever.

  1. Your lovely diary? Keep it locked. In a closet.

Some writers love to share the details of their private life. A long time ago, as teenagers, they kept a diary or something like that. Or, they just have some memories they love or hate and want to share. Or family stories they don’t want forgotten. Or I don’t know what, but something private. And it goes straight into the book.

I spend hours removing myself from my books. Yes, to some extent, I’m always there. The book is mine; I was the filter for the story. But I remove any details that might potentially be retelling my own experiences. Why? Because they spoil the book. Because whenever I see them in the text I get distracted. My vision of the plot gets skewed. I’m not neutral anymore—I take my side, when I should be taking the side of the story.

To sum up: Get out of the text.

  1. Sex, sex, sex? Come on, everyone’s doing it …

My Polish editor, who work with from time to time, jokes that there should be either a corpse or sex every 50 pages. Or both. Probably this is why in One God there’s a fair bit of sex.

Sex is okay if used correctly. But … the 50 pages rule is unacceptable. If you are writing erotica, it’s not enough. And if you are writing non-fiction, it’s probably too much. Anyway, the rule is pretty much the same as the rule concerning killing: sex must have a purpose. Why are they having sex? What for? How is the sex moving the plot forward? Or perhaps it’s just to entertain the reader, and you will smash him right in the head with some plot twist in a moment?

Also, be careful about the quality of sex. Writing about sex is, I think, one of the hardest challenges. Too many details will make it look cheap. Too few won’t turn the reader on. You have to practice a lot to write a decent sex scene. I practiced for 600 pages in my novel Long Dream of Falling—to be published in future, provided my publishing partner agrees to release it—we have to be careful not to go too far.

To sum up: Use sex wisely.

That’s basically it. Seven rules. And as usual, a disclaimer: I don’t guarantee you’ll succeed at keeping the balance while sticking to my guidelines. But give it a try, and let me know if my recommendations worked for you. You can also blame me for any nasty rejections you get from agents, if you like.

If you want to read more advice on how to write, drop by my other posts:

Feel free to comment and ask for further advice!

And last but not least … Absolute Sunset will be free for download this weekend (30th and 31st of July)! Don’t forget to get a copy!