Literary Corner Cafe

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Writing Tips - The Ten Biggest Mistakes New Writers Make - The First Five

Most of my work involves ghostwriting books for established authors, however I also do a lot of independent (not through a publishing house) editing for up-and-coming writers. Many of those up-and-comers ask me to list the ten biggest mistakes new writers make. This isn’t hard to do, as I see the same mistakes being made over and over again. And, learning how to correct those mistakes, and learning to greatly improve one’s writing really wouldn’t take a lot of work on the writer’s part. If you’re going to be a writer, strive to be the best. You might not always meet your aspirations, but your work will reflect your desire. Now, those top ten mistakes. The first five are below and I’ll post the next five on Friday. Avoid these, please!

1. By far, the biggest mistake I see new writers making is “telling rather than showing.” I recently read two debut novels, and both of them were “told” in narrative rather than dramatized in scenes. It got to be a real chore just reading the books, and by the time I finished, I was tuckered out. If I hadn’t had to read the novels, I wouldn’t have done so. “Telling,” rather than dramatizing in scenes, can make your reader feel like you’re lecturing him, or worse yet, yelling at him. All telling isn’t bad, though. You do need “telling” when you transition from one scene to another, and in a few other areas in your book, e.g., to slow down the pace, and to show repetitive action, e.g., if you protagonist is enjoying a day at the Indy 500, you don’t want to “show” your reader every lap! That would just be “too much.”

2. New writers use far too many adjectives and adverbs. You knew that one was coming, didn’t you? I don’t think you should dispense with adjectives and adverbs altogether, just most of the time. Most of the time you need to find the precise noun or verb that expresses just what you want to express. If it’s a sunny day, you might not want to say “the blue sky” because the sky is almost always blue on sunny days. You might, however, say “the cloudless sky” because sunny days don’t always feature cloudless skies as well. If we know your protagonist is happy, then you don’t need to tell us “he cried happily.” We already know it. If an adjective or adverb can be dispensed with without harming the integrity of what you want to express, then it’s probably best to get rid of it. Too many adjectives and adverbs will only make your prose seem ponderous, and in the end, you could veer off into “purple prose,” something I’m assuming you want to avoid.

3. New writers are usually vague writers. And no one gets excited about vague writing, especially not agents and editors. Vague writing weakens your book because it forces the reader to guess what you mean rather than “seeing” your words come to life on the printed page. Vague writing is something most writers have to learn to overcome. I know I wrote vague paragraphs when I was learning to write. I don’t any longer. Vagueness is a mistake that is easily corrected. If you’re talking about trees, what kind of trees? Flowers? What kind of flowers? What does that bone china tea service look like that your heroine is so inordinately fond of? What exactly does your protagonist see when he/she looks in the mirror? What do others see? Be specific. Tell us exactly what your characters see, hear, feel (touch), taste and smell. For example, don’t tell us that the scent of flowers was in the air. Tell us the garden was filled with the scent of summer flowers – sweet pea, mignonette, and stock.

4. New writers almost always try to use another dialogue tag in place of “said,” and usually, this backfires. As a dialogue tag, “said” is a perfectly good word. In fact, ninety percent of the time “said” is the only tag you should use. You don’t want dialogue tags calling attention to themselves, and words like “sobbed,” “proclaimed,” “announced,” etc. do call attention to themselves. The dialogue itself should convey how it’s spoken. I don’t go so far as to rule out every dialogue tag except “said,” though. “Shouted,” “asked,” and “whispered” are sometimes useful. Using anything else marks your work as that of an amateur.

I once edited a manuscript so overburdened with fancy dialogue tags, I couldn’t help but write down a few statistics for future reference. On the first five pages alone, this beginning writer had used twenty-two dialogue tags and not one of them was “said.” This writer must have worked very hard to find them all, and she seemed quite pleased that she had. Words like “declared,” “affirmed,” “assented,” “vowed,” “professed,” “alleged,” etc. were cluttering up the story and weighing it down. I edited out most of the tags and replaced others with “said,” and the author did realize how much better and clearer that was.

5. Beginning writers will often write an opening hook that has little or nothing to do with the story they’re going to tell. A lot of new writers I’ve edited write killer opening hooks, just bristling with danger, mystery, and the readers’ “need to know more.” Problems arise when this “bristling” opening hook really has little or nothing to do with the story these writers go on to tell. When that happens, their readers, including any agents and editors, are going to feel much like anyone would feel if he or she were the victim of the old “bait-and-switch.” Here’s an example:

We crept down the stairs, making as little noise as possible. The old house seemed even larger in the dark, and we weren’t sure where we’d go once we got to the ground floor. We heard a loud sigh and couldn’t tell if it came from the oak trees on the front lawn or the ghost we knew inhabited the front parlor. Then the wind picked up, and the large double doors leading to the front porch blew open.

Scary enough, right? Most people want to know how a human being is going to fare when he’s up against a ghost. Then, we read on:

I felt my children wiggle in my arms as I turned another page. “What’s wrong, kids? Don’t you like ghost stories?”

An opening like that is going to cause your readers to slam the cover of your book and toss it aside. That is, if your book ever makes it far enough to have a cover, and it probably won't if you write opening hooks like the above. Don’t attempt to play tricks on your reader. Don’t try to fool them with hyperbole, dreams, jokes, false alarms, or anything else. Sure, work toward those great opening lines and paragraphs, but make sure they relate to the story that follows. If they don’t, you’re disrespecting the very person whose trust you need to earn – your reader’s.


Anonymous said...

I didn't realize it until I read this piece, but my writing is often vague. No wonder I haven't been winning any short story contests! Thank you, Gabrielle!

Gabrielle Renoir-Large said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
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