Mistakes—we all make them. Some of us making them often and in profusion. This fact should not discourage you, rather it should make you aware of the fact that we all need to be vigilant when writing—especially new writers.
Karen Fox's list of Common Mistakes of the Beginning Writer offers a refreshing take on the subject, providing time-tested advice along with rarely considered tips. As you skim the entries, pay special attention to the points that stop you in your tracks as those are likely the ones you need most!
1. Show, don’t tell.
Telling is a narrative, distancing. Showing brings the reader in close, makes him/her part of the story, an immediate scene. Scenes are shown as they happen rather than described after the fact. Narratives make the reader feel like he/she’s receiving a lecture from the author. The author should remain invisible, allowing the reader to become wrapped up in the story. To write long passages of narrative, whether character background, needed information, or previous events, runs the risk of losing the reader. It’s more effective to bring out this information through scenes. You don’t have to reveal everything at once. In fact, it’s better to hold things back and eke them out a little at a time.
Scenes contain background (just enough to help reader get a picture of the setting), action, dialogue, characters.
However, be careful not to turn all narrative summary into scenes. Sometimes it’s necessary to deliberately slow things down or to add to a scene or for a repetitive action. Don’t want to show every race at the track. Summarize what doesn’t affect the story, then show the important race on stage. Slow pacing between active scenes so reader doesn’t end up breathless trying to keep up.
Use showing to convey your character’s feelings as well. It’s important for the reader to become involved in your character’s life, but you don’t want to tell your character’s feeling. Rather than saying Doug was angry, show Doug whirling around to kick the nearby signpost, his fists clenched or jaw tightened. The reader will share the emotion with Doug without being told what to feel. Use dialogue and action to get across your character’s feelings and resist the urge (RUE) to explain in detail. While you may think it’s vital for the reader to know that Doug kicked a rotting signpost for Broadway and Main, that information adds nothing to the story and only slows down the impact of his anger which is what the writer wants to get across.
Show, don’t tell with things as well. It’s not necessary to explain that the house was falling apart. Show your character nearly falling through the porch steps as she approaches, the door handle coming off in her hand, the flakes of paint that land in her hair. The reader will get the picture.
2. Revealing characters.
A lot of writers feel they have to describe everything about their main character when they first introduce him to include a full description, past life and personality description. I recommend including some personal detail—just enough to give the reader a mental picture, but reveal the personality through bits and pieces in his dialogue and actions and internal thoughts. Introduce your character to the reader just like someone in real life—a little at a time.
Summarizing your characters puts limits on them so there’s no room to grow. By allowing the reader to get to know your character gradually, each reader adds his or her own interpretation and gains a deeper sense of the character than could ever be summarized.
Avoid going into the character’s past—another form of telling, even if you show the scene. It means going into flashbacks, which again slow the story and can make the story hard to follow. While the past can be important regarding who the character is today, reveal it through dialogue and action as the story progresses. The reader doesn’t need to know the reason why Alanna distrusts anyone wealthy, just that she does. The reason why can be revealed later when it has more impact.
Fictional characters needs to be larger than life yet still believable. In order to do this, they need well-defined goals, motivation and conflict. What do they want? Why do they want it? And what's keeping them from getting it? Avoid using real characters. Bits and pieces can be okay but real people are boring. Even Robin Williams has days when he's not the life of the story.
How to reveal character (many books): dialogue from others ("I couldn’t stand to be in the same room with him."), internal thoughts about others reveal the character’s personality or the character’s own dialogue and actions. The opening in The Great Gatsby uses other people's dialogue to give us a first glimpse of who Gatsby is.
This also applies to exposition—scene, setting or background, which is another type of character. Work in gradually, don’t lecture, reveal only what is needed.
3. Point of View
Four major points of view
1st person (I)
2nd person (you)
3rd person (Jane)—recommended
Omniscient (author’s)—used sometimes for setting scene but keeps reader from getting into story
Purist stays in POV for entire scene—easier for reader to follow. Others (usually well-established authors) change POV often—can make it difficult to keep track.
Third person POV is the best to use for writing fiction. First person is often done, however, especially in detective novels. It can be more difficult to write because it requires keeping the tenses straight throughout. First person can also be a useful tool for helping a beginning writer get into a character's POV. Write the scene first in a character's POV. This limits the writer to only what that character can see, touch, smell, hear and think. Then change it to third person later.
Use the POV of the character with the most to lose in a specific scene. Usually this is the hero or heroine. If the central character is not on the scene, use the POV of the most important character.
Again show, don’t tell. Use dialogue to convey emotions rather than tagging it. "You can’t be serious," she said in astonishment. Rather, she dropped her spoon, her eyes wide. "You have to be kidding me."
Read dialogue aloud to see if it sound real. What works on paper can often sound stupid when read aloud. Watch for long paragraphs of dialogue. Most people don’t speak that long without pausing. Break it up with action tags. Avoid lecturing. While research is great, pass it on through conversation with someone who isn't familiar with the subject instead of spending paragraphs describing the subject.
Watch ly adverbs. Usually don’t need them as they only describe a person’s feelings. Can be shown through action or dialogue. Mark Twain said, "Every time you catch an adverb, kill it."
Don’t throw in a ton of dialogue tags. He growled. She exclaimed. He whispered. She murmured. He grimaced. She chuckled. He smiled. It’s impossible to smile, chuckle or grimace dialogue. Use "said." It’s invisible to the reader. Or better yet, use action tags to show who’s speaking. Sha’Nara whirled to face him. "I can’t believe that." If you do use a dialogue tag, use it with the speaker’s name first. Dave said. While said Dave is used, it’s most often in children’s books. You can do up to three interchanges without using any tags at all, but after that, the reader can get lost.
Be consistent in referring to a character. If you call him Mr. Ward on one page, then refer to him as Montgomery on another, the reader will get confused. Also, watch the overuse of a person's name. In another example from Robert Newton Peck's Secrets of Successful Fiction:
"Hi there, Marsha."
"Nice party we're at, John."
"Love your dress, Marsha. New?"
"John, it's just an old rag."
"Wanna dance, Marsha?"
"Love to, John."
As you can see, this gets old in a hurry.
Make the dialogue fit the character. A teen age girl isn’t going to speak the same as a professional woman. A good writer can make the reader know who’s speaking simply by what and how the dialogue is said. Be sure to use contractions. That’s how normal people speak.
Use double dashes rather than ellipses to show interruption. Ellipses (…) indicate a trailing off or break in the conversation, such as showing only one-side of a phone conversation. Use the double dashes/em dash (--) to show interrupt, then show what caused the interruption in the next line.
Start a new paragraph with a new speaker. Keep the internal thought with the speaker. Watch using a dialect. While dropping a ‘g’ or using a ‘lemme’ or ‘gotta’ will work occasionally, writing an accent throughout the book makes it difficult for the reader. Sometimes a writer can choose select words and cadence to give the dialect needed without going overboard.
5. Interior Monologue
Very important in writing. Reveals parts of the story not available through dialogue. A powerful way to establish character, but often overwritten. Again don’t explain if emotions or details are already shown through dialogue or action. This should be unobtrusive. Long passages of internal monologue often become ways of telling the reader information instead of showing.
One way to do this is to get rid of speaker attributions. Instead of Why had she said that? Because he drove her crazy, she thought, use Why had she said that? Because he drove her crazy. He wondered what he’d done to make her leave can be transformed to What had he done to make her leave?
Interior monologue helps set point of view. It is not the same thing as description, though the two can blend together. Use impressions obtained through the POV character's senses. We use our sight, hearing, smell without thinking about it. Your character will, too.
You can use italics to show a character’s thought, but use sparingly. Too many italics are irritating, but they can be a good way to set off a more important thought in the middle of a monologue.
6. Start in the right place.
Many beginning writers start with back story or description to set the scene. This worked in early novels, especially gothics in which the opening scene described the moors and dark house. However, today the reader wants to jump into the action of the story. Start your book right before everything changes.
In the Writer's Journey, this is referred to as the Ordinary World. Set the scene just enough so that we know how the Call to Action will change the heroine's life. Show the conflict and challenge. The threat. The change.
In addition, the opening paragraphs should immediately address--without telling--where am I? whose head am I in? what's the problem?
When writers stop to describe scenery, the action stops. A good example comes from Robert Newton Peck's Secrets of Successful Fiction:
Alma walked hurriedly down the dark and deserted street. Hearing footsteps echo behind her, she darted into a telephone booth. Before closing the door, Alma Glook knew she was not alone. With her in that phone booth was a five-hundred pound gorilla.
"Help!" yelped Alma.
Seeing the gorilla, her thoughts turned back in time to when she was a little girl, back home in Topeka, living with her aunt Mildred who was a taxidermist and scratched out their meager living by stuffing gorillas. In fact, her aunt had earned quite a reputation in college when she had, as a prank, stuffed nine gorillas into a phone booth.
As you can see, this diversion back to telling stops the action cold and leaves the reader frustrated. He wants to know what's happening in that phone booth. Fiction looks forward, not backward. Try to weave in back story and description in small pieces that flow naturally throughout the story.
Beats are little bits of action interspersed through a scene, usually physical gestures. They often help the reader to picture the action while revealing a character's personality. For instance, one sentence can define a character. He blew his nose on the tablecloth.
Be fresh. Notice people--what they do, how they move, the gestures that reveal their emotions and personality.
Fewer beats increases the pace and tension. It's important to strike the right balance between beats and dialogue. Some writers use beats in place of good dialogue.
It's not necessary to show every move a character is making. The readers end up watching the action and lose track of what is being said. Also avoid using mundane conversation. While it's more real, it also slows down the story. Here is an example from Jimmie Butler:
Two gangsters met over dinner in a cheap diner for a last strategy session before The Big Job.
"I've watched all week. The armored car's always there at 3:55 on the dot, Louie."
"Perfect. How many guards? Oh, would you pass the salt?"
"Sure, here you are. Two. You like a little pepper, Louie?"
"Pepper? No, but I'd like some catsup. Does the two include the driver?"
"Catsup coming up. Yep, sure does. How about mustard? Want me to pass the mustard?"
Give the reader just enough hints of what's taking place, then allow his imagination to take over.
Watch for paragraphs that run more than a half page in length. This makes the page look crowded and puts off readers. Instead, use lots of white space by turning long paragraphs into dialogue which is easier to read.
You can add tension but using short, quick sentences. She ran to the door. It was closed. She tugged at the doorknob. It wouldn't open. But don't overdo it. You can't keep up that pace for very long.
Along that line, consider breaking long scenes (over 15-20 pages) into two scenes. Smaller clumps are more readable.
Write a series of scenes if necessary (like you're watching a movie), then add the sequel, which is the quieter section between scenes in which the hero or heroine thinks about what happened in the scene (the conflict) and decides on the next course of action.
While most writers learn to catch the repetition of certain words or phrases, all writers should also watch repeating a theme or effect. As writers, we can get too close to the writing and miss these things.
While we want to make sure the reader gets the point, constant repetition can rob the writing of its power. As we say in my critique group, put away the 2x4. If I read about a gun lying on a desktop even in a minor short scene, I expect to see that gun again.
Watch using name brands. Stephen King is a master with these. They can add realism to your writing, but it can get out of hand. For instance, you can call a car a Corvette, the first time it appears, but you don't need to say it's a Corvette every time you talk about it. Car will do.
Watch using repetitive characters. If you have several minor characters who are basically walk-ons or do the same thing, consider combining them into one.
Avoid stereotypes, especially in villains. Even bad guys have reasons (valid for them anyhow) for what they're doing. Make them real.
Avoid doing the same plot over and over. While some readers want authors to produce the same story each time, it can destroy a writer's originality.
Once is usually enough.
Be careful with your research. While you need enough to add realism to your story, the reader doesn't need to know every interesting fact you encountered. Info dumps slow down a story and usually aren't relevant. Probably 90% of what you researched won't make it into the book.
One successful author who does put a lot of detailed research in his books is Tom Clancy, but his books appeal to a military audience who like to know how everything works. I have to admit I tend to skim over a lot of it.
However, don't assume you know something. If you have the least bit of doubt, look it up. Go to experts for advice if they're available. Use friends, the library or the Internet.
Believe me, some reader will catch your mistakes, no matter how small. And they'll tell you about it.
Today editors are asking for a distinctive writing voice. Unfortunately, this can't be taught. It's not the same as style, though it is similar. It's how you use your words and sentences. Style is the presentation of a story. Voice is the beat, cadence and words used to present it.
The best way to acquire a voice is to write, write, write. It can appear through your characters so listen to them. While each characters should have his/her own voice based on his/her life, emotions and thoughts, the way you present it becomes your voice.
One way to know you have a distinctive voice is by entering contests. Normally, a strong voice will receive very high AND very low scores. Few judges are unaffected.
Plot is what keeps your story moving. However, you can't have things happen just because it's convenient for you. Fiction is make-believe, but it must be more realistic than real life. Even though something might have really happened, it won't work in a book.
Motivation plays a major role in determining the plot. What drives the book forward is the character's choices and why she makes those choices.
Watch out for coincidence. It can sometimes work in the beginning of the book, but never in the end. The characters must be responsible for the resolution. When coincidence happens, it's usually for the author's convenience in order to make the characters do what they want. Instead, figure out why the characters want what they do.
Try to avoid similar names: Mary, Martha, Margaret all in the same scene. Makes it difficult to follow. Try to use different letters for the main characters' names and vary the number of syllables.
Often names can determine a character for a writer. I've had times where I had to know a character's names before he/she could come to life for me.
Save the parentheses and semi-colons for non-fiction writing. They tend to pull a reader out a the flow of the story. Use em dashes and ellipses instead to set the pacing.
Watch for incomplete sentences. At a minimum, readers want a subject and verb.
Keep modifiers as close to the subject as possible. Here is an example of a misplaced modifier: Running a comb through her hair, the snarls came free. This implies the snarls ran the comb through her hair.
"He" will refer to the last male named.
Watch the use of commas. In some cases, you can split an overly long sentence.
Watch the use of jargon, foreign languages or SF terms. Explain what they mean at the first usage. Avoid overdoing it or you'll overwhelm the reader.
Avoid "to be" words if possible. They tend to slow down a story and distance a reader from the action. Search for an action verb instead.
Be careful with exclamation marks. Use them sparingly, such as in "Fire!" This makes the word extra important when they are used. Otherwise, the reader feels like everything is overly important.
15. Don't make excuses.
Even when they're tired, busy, waiting for inspiration or have received yet another rejection. This separates the writers from the pretenders. Writers write. Wanna be's make excuses.
Writing is hard work. Force yourself to sit in that chair. Set manageable limits. Write one page a day. In a year, you'll have 365 pages.
16. Don't expect miracles
Writing looks easy until you actually do it. I can't tell you how many people have told me they plan to write a book. I'm not holding my breath.
While most folks have basic writing skills, not everyone is a storyteller. Telling a story also involves training and practice. No one expects a doctor to jump right in without learning some skills first. The same applies to a writer. There is an apprenticeship during which the basic skills are fine tuned and the storyteller emerges.
Use a crisp, clear type. Most editors recommend using 12 point Courier with 1 inch margins. This helps them to determine word count (estimated at 250 words a page). Times Roman is accepted but makes it more difficult to determine word count.
Don't use fancy fonts. Don't justify text.
Double-space. Use clean, white paper. Type on one side only. Use 1 inch margins.
Put THE END at the end so the editor knows there aren't any more pages.
Always keep a copy.
Allow a reasonable amount of time (at least two months) before you start querying an editor on your manuscript's status.
18. Don't ask a friend to read it.
Friends are too kind. They are more than willing to like what you write. Use a critique group if you want honest feedback.
Write from the heart. Don't chase the market. It will show in your story.
Find a good critique group who will be honest but well-meaning. But don't let them critique your story into something it isn't. Learn to accept what works and leave what doesn't.
19. Don't give up.
Take pride in small victories along the way--contest placements, personal rejection letters.
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Again, don't be discouraged to find you've made any or many of the mistakes mentioned above. Your writing should be a free-flowing expression of creativity. Editing will enable you to clean up the messes.
For those writing a synopsis, click here for a post may help you avoid mistakes with that specific undertaking as well