Common Mistakes of the Beginning Writer
1. Show, donít 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/sheís 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.
Itís more effective to bring out this information through scenes. You donít
have to reveal everything at once. In fact, itís 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 itís necessary to deliberately slow things down or to add to
a scene or for a repetitive action. Donít want to show every race at the
track. Summarize what doesnít affect the story, then show the important race
on stage. Slow pacing between active scenes so reader doesnít end up
breathless trying to keep up.
Use showing to convey your characterís feelings as well. Itís
important for the reader to become involved in your characterís life, but you
donít want to tell your characterís 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
characterís feelings and resist the urge (RUE) to explain in detail. While you
may think itís 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
Show, donít tell with things as well. Itís 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
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 detailójust 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 lifeóa little at a time.
Summarizing your characters puts limits on them so thereís 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 characterís pastóanother 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 doesnít 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
couldnít stand to be in the same room with him."), internal thoughts about
others reveal the characterís personality or the characterís 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 expositionóscene, setting or background,
which is another type of character. Work in gradually, donít lecture, reveal
only what is needed.
3. Point of View
Four major points of view
Purist stays in POV for entire sceneóeasier for reader to
follow. Others (usually well-established authors) change POV oftenócan 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, donít tell. Use dialogue to convey emotions rather
than tagging it. "You canít 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 donít 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 donít need them as they only
describe a personís feelings. Can be shown through action or dialogue. Mark
Twain said, "Every time you catch an adverb, kill it."
Donít throw in a ton of dialogue tags. He growled. She
exclaimed. He whispered. She murmured. He grimaced. She chuckled. He smiled.
Itís impossible to smile, chuckle or grimace dialogue. Use "said." Itís
invisible to the reader. Or better yet, use action tags to show whoís
speaking. ShaíNara whirled to face him. "I canít believe that." If you do use
a dialogue tag, use it with the speakerís name first. Dave said. While said
Dave is used, itís most often in childrenís books. You can do up to three
interchanges without using any tags at all, but after that, the reader can get
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 isnít
going to speak the same as a professional woman. A good writer can make the
reader know whoís speaking simply by what and how the dialogue is said. Be
sure to use contractions. Thatís how normal people speak.
Use double dashes rather than ellipses to show interruption.
Ellipses (Ö) 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
Start a new paragraph with a new speaker. Keep the internal
thought with the speaker. Watch using a dialect. While dropping a Ďgí or using
a Ďlemmeí or Ďgottaí 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 donít 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
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 heíd 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 characterís 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
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.
In addition, the opening paragraphs should immediately
address--without telling--where am I? whose head am I in? what's the
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 a 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,
"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
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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
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
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
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 your name, title, and page number at the top of every
page. Manuscripts can get dropped.
Put THE END at the end so the editor knows there aren't any
Mail in a sturdy envelope--Tyvek is recommended. Do not use
the padded envelopes. Editors hate opening them.
Include an SASE for return of your manuscript.
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.
Writing is hard work and it's rare to sell your first book.
But take time to look back over your writing. You'll see your improvement.
Take pride in small victories along the way--contest
placements, personal rejection letters.
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