Friday, 13 March 2015

Common Mistakes by New Writers

I’m always a bit wary of doing things like this because similar online articles become ‘rules’ and then writers start feeling they can’t do anything right. These are not rules, or things new writers should do. They’re just things to beware of when you first sit down to write. I’m not discussing grammar and spelling, because to be honest if someone has real problems with spelling and grammar only a course on basic literacy is going to help them. I just don’t have the space to deal with that here and also whilst I’ve learned to use fairly decent spelling and grammar, I couldn’t even begin to explain the technical terms. I just sort of ‘know’ if I’ve got it right.

So now we’ve got the disclaimer out of the way, what are the most common mistakes made by new writers? We’re talking craft mistakes by the way, not how new writers behave publicly. Though reading a sample from a certain ebook much in the Internet news lately may have inspired some elements of this post.

 Please note all examples used are made up by me, and not taken from anyone else’s story though they may be inspired by what I’ve seen around and about.

They Write As They Speak

This is a common problem amongst new writers. They write as they speak. By writing like they speak, I mean in this way: There was this girl, see? And she went on a trip with her friends. And you’ll never guess what happened next. Sometimes this can work, giving a nice colloquial feel to a story, and often does work in first person or epistolary stories, but it can look amateurish if it’s overdone.  I’ve seen it done in third person stories by amateurs and it doesn’t work. It looks too self-conscious.

Children write as they speak a lot, but it’s amazing how many adults do. In a comp I judged, open to adults only, one story was full of such language which spoke directly to me the reader in a way that I found patronising. I probably shouldn’t have been surprised that when later matched the story to the cover sheet, the author had also explained the story. In case the judge didn’t get it. What such language does is tell the reader ‘you’re really too stupid to get this so I’m going to flash a headlight – you see? - every time something important happens.’

I’m not talking about dialogue, with which you have a little more latitude for colloquialisms, but narrative. If you listen carefully to someone telling an anecdote – not a joke – you’ll notice that they’re all over the place. They might start “I was in Marks and Spencers … but before that I went to Primark and got that new top I showed you … anyway, there was this really strange woman … In Marks and Spencers I’d just come up the escalator when I saw her … standing near the knicker rack. Her. Not me…” Their speech is disjointed, but you somehow get the point of the story from their tone of voice (or maybe you don’t!).

This doesn’t work when writing a narrative. Your reader will soon get bored with your narrator’s diversions to visit Primark or go up the escalator and may give up reading. Even if you’re writing in the first person, you need to put some distance between your narrator and your reader. Bridget Jones Diary is full of Bridget’s most private thoughts. But even she doesn’t write as she speaks. Even when she’s being particularly ditzy, there’s a focus and formality to her narrative.

That’s not to say that a writer should never write in such a familiar, colloquial way. But it has to be something they’re stylistically aware they’re doing, and not just because it’s the way they speak.

They don’t understand what a story is 1.

By this I mean new writers will often write a joke and try to pass it off as a short story. Or they may write an anecdote about something that really happened to them. Neither of those makes a short story. Short stories not only has a beginning, middle and end (not necessarily in that order), it has a conflict and a plot. So the story of the day you lost your purse but found God on the number 9 bus is not a proper story – unless you were really conflicted and had the devil sitting behind you saying ‘take the number 10, it gets there quicker’. The joke your mate told you in the pub last night isn’t a story either, even if you do add more characters and give the barman more lines beyond ‘we don’t serve spirits in here’ (boom boom).

When I was judging recently I read a lovely piece of writing that was the writer’s remembrance of their mother. But, getting away from the fact it was obviously true, and the comp was for fiction, it wasn’t a story.

That doesn’t mean that you can’t turn a true story into a fictional piece of writing. The trick is in finding a kernel within the true story that resonates and then weave a fictional element around it. I often hear established writers say that they had a story turned down by a magazine as being ‘unbelievable’ even though it’s been based on a true story. Tom Clancy sums it up neatly: “The difference between fiction and reality? Fiction has to make sense.”


There is also a problem where an anecdote, otherwise unconnected to the story, is included because it’s something that happened to the author and they thought it was worth mentioning as being amusing/interesting. If it adds nothing to the story then it isn’t. Leave it out.

They don’t understand what a story is 2

I’ve put this separately as it deals more with the format in which a story is submitted rather than the content. I’ve often seen it on writers’ forums where newbies congregate. In fact when I was a new writer hanging around fanfiction forums I saw it so often, and saw the authors praised as being fantastic writers that I wondered if I was doing it wrong. The truth is that some new writers can’t seem to decide if they want to be prose writers or playwrights. They present their story in the following manner:

Kathy was walking down the street, feeling really fed up. She’d lost her job, her boyfriend had dumped her, and she had to find a new flat.

Fred: Hey, Kathy!

Kathy turned around and saw her friend, Fred. He used to work with her, but had left the office and become a multi-millionaire at the age of twenty-seven.

Kathy: Hey, Fred. How are you?

Fred: I’m fine. What about you?”

Kathy: I’m fed up. I’ve lost my job, my boyfriend’s dumped me and I have to find a new flat.

Fred had always fancied Kathy, so he thought of asking her to move in with him.

Fred: You can move in with me if you like.

Kathy had never really fancied Fred when he worked at her office, but she had to admit that he had changed since he lost all his spots, and bought some new clothes. She heard he owned a fabulous mansion next to the lake. Suddenly she was in love as she’d never been in love before.

Kathy: Oh yes, that would be great, thanks.

Kathy went back to her flat happy that all her problems had been solved by Fred.

Yeah, yeah, I know that story has LOTS of problems. I’ll discuss exposition repetition and deus ex machina later. But the point I’m making is when writers mix up prose and script and think it makes a short story. It doesn’t. It doesn’t even make a script. It makes a clumsy hybrid that fits nowhere. It also suggests that the writer has never actually sat down and read a book, because if they had they’d know how stories are told even if they didn’t get it perfect first time.

They can’t decide whose story they’re telling

We’re all capable of waffling on and writing ourselves into a story. When I recently judged the Write Space comp there were some perfectly good stories that would have been just as good if the writer deleted the first few lines. But some new writers start off in one point of view and then we move away from that character and find out we’re being told someone else’s story.

I read a story some time ago which started in ‘Fred’s’ point of view (not the real name of that character) and went on in Fred’s point of view for several paragraphs – almost to the bottom of the first page - but then we found out that ‘Kathy’ was telling Fred her story and it was actually all about Kathy going through a sad personal experience and the story ended very much in her head. This isn’t even about a clumsy pov change (I’ll get to clumsy pov changes later). It was written in such a way that Fred as a character was completely redundant. He didn’t even come back into the story near the end to say ‘there there, Kathy’ after she’d finished emoting. Which leads me to:

They have too many redundant characters

In a novel one can have quite a few characters, some of whom may not actually be essential to the plot but just add colour to the story. In a short story there’s no room for a character who doesn’t earn their keep. So there’s no need to name the taxi driver who takes the heroine to the airport or to tell us his life story (unless he’s going to turn out to be the new love interest that is). Same with the woman in the newsagents who sells the heroine her morning paper. In fact you could leave both out altogether and just say ‘Kathy bought a morning paper before taking a taxi to the airport’. Or words to that effect.

They can’t decide what story they’re telling

This is harder to explain, and has nothing to do with the characters, though it may include not knowing what you’re going to have your characters do when you start writing. What I mean is that the story has too many elements to it; an abundance of plots and sub-plots that make the readers’ head spin. In a novel there’s room for a sub-plot or two. But even then it needs to be tight and have a central conflict.

 Decide before you start writing what story you’re going to be telling. If you’re writing a romantic intrigue, is it going to be about how your lovers meet, and the criminals and events that keep them apart? (most of mine are) Or is it going to be about their honeymoon and the criminals who threaten their lives and their relationship? It may be about how they met, married and then went on to have an adventure together (whistles nonchalantly and insists she’s not talking about any particular novel…). You need to decide before you start writing as that will dictate where your story starts.

 I’d argue that if it’s going to be about the honeymoon and the ensuing danger from criminals, then it’s best to begin the story as your newlyweds are boarding the plane or the yacht or the train. You can always add any conflict that might affect their relationship, as well as their lives, as you go along. Does she think his family hates her and might turn him against her when they go home? Does he think she only married him for his money?  Or is he still in love with his old girlfriend and only married our heroine on the rebound Meanwhile they’re fighting off the bad guys and working towards realising they do love each other very much. Or not as the case may be.

The mix up their tenses

Past tense, present tense, future tense, pluperfect tense. It’s enough to make your eyes water trying to remember. But it’s a common problem amongst new writers – and one the hardest things I had to learn – that they mix up their tenses, moving from present to past to future to pluperfect at random. I can’t begin to explain. Like spelling and grammar it’s one of those things I’ve learned to get right without understanding properly how it works. So I’ve found this webpage that explains it better

They mix up their points of view

Points of view can relate to two elements of writing. Who’s telling the story (First, second and third person) or whose head we’re in (focalisation) at any given time, even if the story is told in the third person. The differences in first, second and third are explained here

But changing points of view using focalisation is problematic, as it’s easy to slip from one to the other. Here’s an example: Kathy glared at Fred, furious with him. He was bloody furious with her too.

If you write several paragraphs explaining Kathy’s fury, remember that she can’t ‘know’ what Fred is thinking though you could write ‘Kathy looked at Fred, who was clearly angry’ (this is just an example. Obviously in a story you’d show Fred’s anger in some other way).  Then you could go on to write several paragraphs describing Fred’s anger and what he thinks she’s thinking (though I’d advise about going over the same ground and describing the same scene simply from a different point of view).

At one time it used to frowned upon to even change pov for a couple of paragraphs at a time, but this is less frowned upon, as writers like Sarah Waters and Sadie Jones have done it in recent bestselling novels. In Mills and Boon novels it’s quite common for sectional pov changes. However, I’d advise against changing pov for a sentence at a time within the same paragraph. It makes your writing look all over the place.


They repeat information

New writers have a tendency to repeat information (Dan Brown does it too, so it can be done with some success – or not depending on how you feel about Brown). In my script/prose example above, it’s mentioned that Kathy has lost her job and her flat and her boyfriend, and then she goes on to repeat that information to Fred when they meet. There’s no need to do that. You can either describe why Kathy is fed up at the beginning, then later when she meets Fred say ‘She explained to him what had happened’, and move on with the story, or you could hold back on why Kathy is upset when we first meet her at the beginning of the story, then have her explain to Fred (and the reader) in dialogue what’s happened.

Now a lot of novels and longer stories, particularly crime and thriller novels, may have a ‘catch up’ part, for the benefit of readers, in which the characters discuss what’s happened so far. In crime stories it’s usually the sleuth explaining to their sidekick what they’ve learned so far by questioning the suspects:

No, you’ve got it wrong as usual, Watson. Lady Elspeth couldn’t have been in the parlour when Colonel Blimp died because she says she was meeting Lord Cedric in the summerhouse and he confirmed that. At the same time, Minnie the maid says she was talking to George, the butcher’s boy, at the back door. She didn’t hear anyone come in through the front door.’

It sounds as if Holmes is having to tell Watson because the good Doctor is stupid, but really it’s because the reader needs to be reminded of what’s gone so far (incidentally, the above example is not from a real Sherlock Holmes story. I made it up). But your readers don’t need reminding every other page that the hero and heroine are on the run from the bad guys. The reader will have got that point when you mentioned the bullet whizzing past the hero’s ear as they were jumping into the getaway car…

They Use Exposition

New writers tend to use a lot of exposition in their work. This is not the same as being predictable, where the reader guesses what’s going to happen, perhaps because the author has used a common theme. Exposition involves pretty much laying out the story in the first paragraph or chapter or at some other early point in a novel. In fact Dan Brown does it in The Da Vinci Code, where halfway through the novel he has Prof. Hampton conjecture what does turn out to be the ‘twist’ at the end, which rather took the edge off the twist. Or it did for me. The best way to build up tension, especially if you want a twist, is to mention to the reader everything but the truth, so that you’re always nudging them away from it. Hints are fine, but having your sleuth think ‘I wonder if she’s the great (x10) granddaughter of…?’ in chapter 15when there are 15 more chapters to go is not good…

But for new writers it can be a bigger problem, in that they’ll start a story with something like ‘this is the true story of the day I nearly died on the way to work’. Whilst I’m aware a dead person couldn’t possibly be telling the story anyway (though nowadays, post-Alice Sebold and The Lovely Bones anything is possible.) it does rather take the tension out of the story when you know the main character survived. Or they may start ‘this is the story of when Carla went on holiday and met some bad guys and they nearly killed her’. Again they’ve removed the tension, because we know that Carla survived, so why would we read on? Unless there was some other conflict, like Carla’s husband perhaps ending up dead and we don’t know that until the end. I should add again that it isn’t just children who do this. I’ve seen stories written by adults which make the same mistake.

Maintaining the tension in a story is like playing poker. You bluff for as long as possible and only show your hand when it’s absolutely necessary.

They fall back on deus ex machina too often

The deus ex machina is the ‘God in the machine’ or a sudden and unexpected event that solves all the characters problems. For example, Kathy and Fred are having marital problems and we see that most of the problems are down to finances (Fred obviously having lost his multi-million pound business and house by the lake). Suddenly at the end, Great Aunt Marge (who hasn’t been mentioned thus far) dies and leaves them all her money, thereby solving Kathy and Fred’s problems. There are a couple of issues with this. First it’s a con, because the reader had no idea from the story it was going to happen. Secondly, it hasn’t allowed Kathy and Fred to solve their own problems, perhaps teaching them that they don’t need money to be happy together.

The most cringe worthy example I ever read was where a homeless dude, who just happened to be a writer, saved a man’s life. But would you believe it turned out the saved man was a publisher? The publisher went on to give homeless dude a publishing contract (without ever having read his work! But luckily it was a good novel anyway and an immediate bestseller – phew!). Because that’s exactly how it happens and how you become a famous writer (though there is the homeless guy who’s become a radio presenter in America so perhaps not so improbable…). There was too much of an element of wish-fulfilment in the story.

It’s best, if possible, to let characters solve their own problems. That doesn’t mean they can’t have help, but it must come from the story, not anything sudden and unexpected or a big shot publisher in disguise. In It’s A Wonderful Life, we spend a lot of the film wondering how George Bailey is going to get out of the pickle he’s in regarding the missing mortgage money. At the end, he’s saved from disgrace by all the people he’s helped through the years turning up to help him in his hour of need. It’s not a deus ex machina because in a sense he has solved his own problems by being the kind and generous small town man he’s been all his life. His kindness and generosity is simply repaid in kind.

That’s all I can think of for now (and my hands are aching). I may revisit this subject in the future, if I think of any more ‘mistakes’.

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