Literary Corner Cafe

Friday, July 15, 2011

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


6. Many new writers, and some experienced ones as well, fail in knowing when to use “that” and when to use “which.” Often, in editing a manuscript, I’ll change either “that” or “which” to the right word, only to have the author change it back to the wrong word again. It’s really not difficult to know when to use “that” and when to use “which,” and there’s no excuse for using the wrong one. Just no excuse. When you use the wrong word, it’s very jarring to the reader.

Use “that” before a restrictive clause, and use “which” before everything else. For some, this begs the question: What is a restrictive clause? A restrictive clause is part of a sentence you can’t omit because it specifically restricts the other part of the sentence.

The cookies that are on the table were baked by me.

Did I bake all the cookies? Thank goodness, no, I did not, but I did bake the cookies on the table. Without the restrictive clause, however, the sentence would mean that I did bake all the cookies.

A nonrestrictive clause, on the other hand, is something that can be omitted from the sentence without changing the meaning of the sentence as a whole. A nonrestrictive clause adds information, but not necessary information, and it’s usually set off by commas:

The Sound and the Fury, which is generally thought of as Faulkner’s masterpiece, is Jane’s favorite.

We could say: The Sound and the Fury is Jane’s favorite. However, we’ve added a nonrestrictive clause to show that Jane’s favorite novel is also generally thought of as Faulkner’s masterpiece. Did you have to have that information? No, you didn’t. It “adds to.”

It’s really as simple as that.

7. Many beginning authors do not understand point-of-view and do not realize when point-of-view is broken. And point-of-view can be difficult as it’s one of the most complex things about fiction writing. Point-of-view will determine everything about your novel: its theme, tone, characterization, etc. Write the same story with a different point-of-view and you’ll find that while you’ve utilized the same basics, you have a totally different book. The purist stays in the same POV for an entire scene, while some big name authors change POV at whim – often to the detriment of their books. I was reading a “Grand Prize” winning story from one of the many writing contests out there today, and I noticed that the author had broken point-of-view in the first paragraph. I doubt that even the contest judges realized what had happened or they wouldn’t have given that particular entry “Grand Prize.” Point-of-view can be very subtle.
Although first person POV is en vogue right now, I think it’s best for beginners to use third person limited point-of-view. First person can work well in some books, but it’s fraught with danger for the inexperienced writer. When choosing a POV character, use the POV of the most important character, usually your hero or heroine.

8. New writers often give characters similar sounding names, causing confusion for the reader. It’s almost always wrong to give characters similar sounding names. Let’s say you have two characters with names beginning with “S” – Susan and Samantha, and Samantha is introduced first. Readers will invariably bond with Samantha and give Susan short shrift, even if Susan is the more important of the two. This holds true even if one character is a woman and one is a man, say Samantha and Samuel. How difficult can it be for the author to change one of the names? I’m working on a book now with a fairly large cast of characters and none of the characters have names so similar as to cause confusion. I can tell you, I didn’t have an unduly difficult time choosing character names. You should also avoid names that sound alike even if they do begin with different letters, e.g., Aiden and Jayden or Addison and Madison. It just confuses the reader and muddies the story. If you have names that are alike, choose one of the names to use, and rename the other characters.

9. Beginning writers often neglect a character’s interior monologue. Yes, it’s possible to write an entire book, and write one very well, without giving the reader any of your characters’ interior thoughts. Eudora Welty did it at least once and did it well. However, it’s not a good stance for a beginner to adopt. Interior monologue can reveal facets of the story not available through dialogue, it can deepen characterization, it can impart vital information to the reader. Just make sure it’s unobtrusive and doesn’t seek to explain emotions or details already shown through dialogue or action.

10. The work of beginning writers often lacks a unifying theme. When a book lacks a unifying theme, many readers will end the book with the question: Now what was that all about? A theme, if you do a good job of exploring it, will add depth and complexity and richness to your novel. Just remember to be subtle. Don’t state the obvious. A theme does not “stick out like a sore thumb,” and yes, I do realize that’s a cliché, but is woven subtly throughout your story. It's sometimes difficult to choose a theme before beginning writing. Often the theme will emerge during the crafting of the story.

Note: Since the posting of the first five “mistakes” many readers and writers have asked me about voice. Voice is not style. Voice is not POV. Voice is unique to each author, and is best developed by writing, writing, writing. If you do enough writing, you’ll eventually develop your distinctive voice. Some writers have a voice that is easily identifiable, such as Edna O’Brien, while other writers have a voice that is transparent. Sometimes, a transparent voice works best. One way to know if you have a truly distinctive voice is by entering various writing contests and then studying the judges’ feedback if available. Usually a distinctive voice will receive very high marks from some judges and very low ones from others. People will either like a distinctive voice or they will not.

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