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How to Avoid 5 Common Writing Mistakes


How to avoid five common writing mistakes by Kristin Noland speculative and crime fiction editor

(Scroll down for the video version!)

 

Every author struggles with some aspect of storytelling.

Having worked with thirty authors on over seventy novels, I know this is true.

 

Maybe you are a new author and don’t want anyone to read your novel, or you don’t have support from your friends or family, or you’re simply a private person.

 

Maybe you are an emerging author with three published novels, so maybe you have increased your writing skills, but still grapple with certain elements of storytelling.

 

What you struggle with is common amongst authors.

 

You are not alone.

 

Even bestselling authors have their hangups.

 

In my experience, there are five common struggles.

 

1.      Telling not showing (I know. Stay with me.)

2.      Weak hooks

3.      Consistency of perspective

4.      Lack of conflict

5.      Impossible simultaneous actions.

 

 

1. Telling not showing 

 

There’s a reason you’ve probably heard or read this hundreds of times.

 

It’s the most common struggle. (I come across too much telling and not enough showing in every novel I’ve edited.)

 

Telling is when the narrator informs the reader of everything from backstory to what is happening, from setting descriptions to relaying emotions and revealing intentions.

 

Showing is when the characters interact with each other through actions, dialogue, expressions, and body language.

 

It’s more difficult to show than tell, which is why this mistake is so common.

 

Telling is our default setting.

 

When we are relay a story to a friend, we tell them what happened. We give them the facts and maybe a bit of dialogue. Since the narrator is the one telling the story, it feels natural for us to “tell.”

 

But describing everything characters see and experience by relaying facts keeps the reader at a distance rather than making them feel like an active participant.

 

They want to be in the story. They want to feel what your characters feel.

 

You don’t have to write in second person to make them feel like they are immersed in your world.

 

Example of relaying backstory.

 

Telling

 

In high school, Mary was shy and had only one friend, Jenna. She didn’t like parties or even go to the movies. She liked to hang out at home or at her friend’s house, where it was only them and their families. Sometimes, even the families were too much for her.

 

Showing

 

“In high school, you were shy,” Jenna said. “You didn’t like parties. We never went to the movies. We just hung out at our parent’s. Sometimes, you couldn’t even handle that.”

 

Mary rubbed the handle of her coffee mug. “You were my only friend. I appreciated that. I still do.”  

 

All I did was turn the narrator’s explanation into dialogue, but I bet you felt closer to the characters.

 

 

2. Weak hooks

 

You have six to ten seconds to hook your reader!

 

That equates to about four to ten lines of text.

 

For most genres, an introductory narrative—backstory—doesn’t cut it anymore.

 

In our current impatient society where everything is about immediate gratification, many readers will stop reading if the story starts by explaining the history of the world or begins like my telling backstory example.

 

 “It was a dark and stormy night.”

 

While Shelly’s “It was a dark and stormy night” first line will draw some readers in, people are mostly reading it because they assume it’s a great story.

 

Today’s trend is to start with something a bit more exciting.

 

Try leading with some type of action. It doesn’t have to be an alien attack in progress or exploding bombs, but a character should be doing something. Not waking up. While waking is an action, it’s become cliché, and it isn’t exciting.

 

It could be as simple as ‘Lucy punched the back of the bus as it pulled away.’

 

You may be tempted to tell the reader she missed the bus that would have taken her to work or to her date. But the reader will understand she missed her ride. And where she was going could be revealed through her next action or statement.

 

“That’s just great. I’m going to miss my audition?” She switched her violin to her other hand and pulled out ten dollars from her sweatshirt pocket. That will get me exactly nowhere. 

 

The character can give away a bit. The narrator can expand, but the action should continue. In the next line.

 

The narrator shouldn’t go into where the audition is, why it’s so important, how many years she’s been practicing, or describe what the street looks like.

 

All that information isn’t exciting enough to keep the reader interested.

 

Instead, reveal these things through action and dialogue.

 

3. Consistency of perspective

 

Perspective is difficult to adhere to, because you, the author, know exactly what every character is thinking, feeling, and their intentions behind what they do.

 

Unless they are omniscient, your narrator shouldn’t know or reveal these things to the reader. If you are a new or emerging author, I caution you about writing in omniscient.

 

Omniscient is hard to pull off, and you may want to wait until you have at least a few novels written before you try to tackle an omniscient narrator.

 

In third and first person, make sure what you write can be known by your perspective character.

 

Dropped point of view example

 

Alexia wondered why Caleb was staring at her, then he pointed to his head to let her know her hair was on fire.

 

Since the narrator is revealing what Alexia is thinking, the perspective character is Alexia. So, the narrator can’t know why Caleb pointed to his head.

 

The author knows Caleb’s intentions and wants to reveal them to the reader, but it’s a shift in perspective. His intentions need to be revealed through his actions, dialogue, or the perspective character's reactions.

 

Alexia wondered why Caleb was staring at her with his eyes wide. He pointed to his head, then at her. She reached back and singed her fingers, then yanked the rag from her apron and covered her locks of fire.

 

The revision shifts the story back to Alexia’s perspective.

 

4. Lack of conflict

 

A lack of conflict is most noticeable when things come too easily for the characters. I’m going to put poor conflict in this category as well. An example of poor conflict is when issues could be solved if the characters simply talked it out.

 

For external conflicts, the characters should try and fail, their plans should be thwarted, the antagonist throws a spanner into the works.

 

Internal conflicts should also be present. The ‘should I, shouldn’t I’ debate or deep contemplation about their feelings, their past, their future.

 

While your characters will win sometimes, in almost every scene, they should be worse off at the end than at the beginning.

 

Conflict leads to tension and suspense. Most likely the reader knows the character will get out of a bad situation, but it’s the how and when that keeps them up at night.

 

Without conflict, the story reads flat. Even uplifting happy novels have conflict, so the reader enjoys their success even more.

 

Make sure your story has enough conflicts, both internal and external, that your reader worries about them and roots for them.

 

Increase the severity of the conflicts as the story progresses to build tension and suspense in your novel.

 

When things come too easily for characters, your readers can’t relate to them, and they want to feel like they are part of the story.

 

5. Impossible simultaneous actions

 

This is an issue on a smaller scale, but no less important.

 

Mostly, I see this with dialogue.

 

“It’s not your only problem,” she said, sipping her coffee.

 

The character can’t speak and sip at the same time. 😊 And no, we can’t smile and say lines of dialogue. We might be able to smile through a word or two (some will debate this), but it’s physically impossible to smile the entire time we talk.

 

There are less obvious instances, though.

 

Running to the cab, he opened the door and hopped in.

 

The character can’t run and do the other things simultaneously.

 

These errors in concurrent actions usually happen when the author is trying to vary the sentence structure.

 

For instance, they know too many sentences in a row start with ‘he’ and can’t think, at the time, of a better solution. Or the narrative reads a bit boring, with many subject-verb sentence structures. (Most of the time, subject-verb works, but mixing it up is more entertaining.)

 

Tip: If three sentences in a row start with the same word, it’s time to mix it up!

 

Watch for places in your novel where this happens and vary the sentence structure of one of the sentences.

 

But be careful not to let your characters perform actions that can’t be done concurrently.

 

One way to check is to try to do these things yourself. Maybe not the chasing-a-car-and-hopping-in thing. That could be dangerous. But to drink and talk at the same time. Or one of my favorites—try to wink and frown at the same time and see how that feels.

 

 

Obviously, there are more mistakes authors make, but these are the ones that are the most common.

 

1.      Telling not showing (I know. Stay with me.)

2.      Weak hooks

3.      Consistency of perspective

4.      Lack of conflict

5.      Impossible simultaneous actions

 

If you are struggling with your speculative fiction or crime fiction novel, contact me! I’d love to help.

 

Sign up for my newsletter and get more writing advice.

 

Happy Writing and Revising!

 

Kristin Noland – Speculative and Crime Fiction Editor

 

 



 

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