Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Five Mistakes Beginning Writers Make

As we all do, I've been spending some reflective moments contemplating writing, the world of writing, and how I can improve my own. In fact, I've been keeping a running record of tactics or habits or actions that I find distasteful in books I read, papers I grade, and even movies I watch. Of course, this doesn't mean that my own writing is immune -- but I'm trying. And being aware is half the battle.

Then, a month or so ago, Amber Argyle composed a post about mistakes amateur writers make. Lady Glamis followed up with a more in-depth post about flashbacks. Since I had been thinking about this very subject, I kept an eye out for like-minded bloggers, and then -- this week -- our very own Diane Gallant discussed writing like a reader and focusing on creating work you, yourself, would like to read. She touched on things she disliked in books, and it prompted me to pull out my list again.

It's time, then, to present my own top five mistakes that beginning writers make. There are, of course, more scribbles on my list, but these are the five that beckon today.

1. Cliche'd beginnings, middles, or endings: I know: the publishing world wants you to write something that is familiar but different. Tough request. But if you don't add that creative twist, that flavor that is distinctly you, you're doomed. I must say that Lois McMasters Bujold completely blew me away with her Chalion series...not only did it feel real and natural and familiar, but she injected intriguing, non-predictable elements.

2. Beginning or ending with a dream. A lot of my junior high students like to use this one. Not only is it 'so last century', but it's also a cop-out. Write strong; you won't need a dream to pull readers into your work or to help ease them out of a bad plot.

3. Head Hopping (vs. Point of View shifts): When one leaps between brains or view points within the same scene, it's not only annoying but it's confusing. You never want to confuse your audience. Yes, I've already posted about this. And then D. M. McReynolds wrote a thought-provoking post and further fleshed out the topic when he guest-blogged for me back in October. I won't belabor the point: suffice it to be said that one shouldn't engage in head hopping.

4. Repetition & redundancy, ad nauseam. My high school art teacher told me to leave some lines unfinished because the viewer likes to engage in the experience as well, becoming part artist and filling in the missing pieces with her own experiences. The same applies, I think, to writing. We readers are not particularly short on brains. I just threw a book across the room where every single action, thought, or plot point was repeated at least five different ways. It's wearisome and, frankly, a bloody waste of a reader's time!

5. Absence of dialogue: I just finished reading a delightful (in potential plot) short story that held no dialogue. I felt bogged down, as if I were slogging through spring mud. Dialogue drives writing forward, injecting action into a piece that might otherwise feel stagnant. It also allows for "show don't tell" if done with a delicate touch. Of course, the pendulum can swing the other way -- but that's another entry on the ever-expanding list.

By no means is this a comprehensive list -- so tell me your pet peeves in the writing world. What drives you bonkers or erects road blocks or sets off the warning bells? Agent Nathan Bransford blogged a bit back about books beginning with the protag staring out a window... there has to be a million things out there that we should avoid. What do you have to add to the list?


  1. #3 Head Hopping - I couldn't agree more. I confuse easily. Hopping from head to head is sure to confuse the heck out of me.

    When I'm writing from multiple perspectives within a chapter, I make sure that each perspective is its own section, and the next section is clearly identified by using asteriks to separate the sections. This is what works for me. I also don't think I'm talented enough (well, maybe I am, and I'm just lazy) to write from the perspective of every dang character in my novel. I normally try to limit the perspectives to three at the max. I'll leave the actual head hopping to far more capable minds. : )

  2. These are all great points.

    I hate when a writer feels the need to narrate every little detail, and describe everything down to it's texture and color, and then pile adjectives on top of that. I actually prefer a little vagueness so I can visualize it myself.

    I made that mistake at the beginning of writing. I saw a character or scene so crisply I wanted to convey that. I've learned it's great that I see something that way, but to give room for the reader to see it his way as well.

    And minute details really bog down the story.

  3. I agree with Heidi. If a book goes into too much detail about something, for instance what a screwdriver looks like, I toss it aside. I know what a screwdriver looks like. Even if it is a tribal worship idol, I have a pretty good imagination if you give me the broad brush.

    The other big one for me, and I think this is because I am an engineer, is unbelievable technology. It's OK to have unbelievable technology in science fiction, but when you have characters jumping out of airplanes with no parachute and landing in a stream unhurt, I'm not buying it. Anyone know which movie this is from? I'll give you a hint, it's about to be released.

  4. Great points, but I think #5 should be taken case by case. I first started in screenplays, and when I switched over to a novel, an agent read it and said quickly that there was too much dialogue. Perhaps this is what you meant by the pendulum swinging the other way, but I think, with the world switching more and more to medias such as film and television, most work from beginning writers I've read could be seen more as a transcript than as an actual story.

    This being said, I do understand the huge strengths that come from dialogue, particularly speeding up the pace of the book, giving the characters their unique voices, and also a more organic way of showing the story. However, I've learned that too much of it can 'shallow' a story, make it simply about what people are saying, and not what they are involved in.

  5. This is a great list! I agree with every point and luckily the only one that is a really hard one for me now is the redundancy. I can get so repetitive. But that's what edits are for. Thanks for some great information!

  6. I cannot find anything in your post that I cannot agree with. But, times the line is not easy to be drawn especially when you have to deal with the issue from various perspectives - clarifying yet caused confusing. I am not sure whether it warrants us to be considered as head hopping or not. Hope you can shade some light to me in this aspect. Thank you and look forward to hearing from you,

  7. @Scott: good tactic. one of my childhood favs is Edgar Rice Burroughs -- tho he usually made sure the POV shifts happened at chapter breaks. I don't think it matters as long as you make it clear to your audience...

    @Heidi: one thing i dearly love about writing is that there's always a lesson to be learned :) You've got a great point, there. And, I think readers want to make the novel their own -- and through that bit of vagueness, writers can gift them with that experience.

    @Doug: too true -- and even in the science fiction world, the technology has to be logical or readers won't buy it. There must be a set of laws or rules that govern and can't be broken (even in the fantasy world)... and, um, not coming up w/ the movie title. Actually, I don't even know what's coming out.

    @Pat: what an interesting view you must have with that background! I hope you're going to Wenatchee's Write on the River. McDonald is a must hear.

    @Lady Glamis: thanks ;) you're right: redundancy (within sentences, at least) are best dealt w/ during edits. The author I tried to read, however, had a trend of writing entire paragraphs of redundancy. i'm thinking that probably needs to be consciously dealt w/ the first time through...

    @james oh: ah no -- dealing w/ an issue from various perspectives isn't head-hopping at all. as long as you make a clear break for your audience, you're fine. but leaping heads in the same scene or paragraph is probably a no no. Seriously, check out the link to DM McReynold's post -- he did an awesome job of explaining it!

  8. OK Alex, this is a bit of a spoiler, but I suspect the movie won't be that great anyway. It's Angels and Demons from Dan Brown's (aka The Da Vinci Code) book.

  9. This is a fun post because I can think of times when I've read stories that violate these ideas and it bothered me. I doubt I threw the book. More likely, I quietly put it down and did not pick it back up for awhile.

    However, a part of me hesitates at these rules. They make me nervous. What if the rule scares away a brilliantly rebelious idea? Sometimes I write with cliches and go back and change them to fit the worldview of the culture I am writing in. I'd hate to worry too much about the rule (which is a good one for a final draft).

    Now, I should say for people that don't know me too well yet, I like to provide a counter point. It's the whole Socratic method and iron sharpens iron idea.

    I might just have to do my next post as a counter point to number two: no dreams.


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