COMMON WRITING MISTAKES: A SERIES
‘If nobody never made no mistakes, nobody’d never learn nothing.’
The quote is apocryphal, but like the best apocryphal quotes, it encapsulates a ton of wisdom. Making mistakes is how we learn. I touched the tip of my middle finger to the surface of a fresh-from-the-oven jam tart when I was a boy. I didn’t do it a second time.
It goes for writing, as much as it does for life. With that in mind, here are some of the most common writing errors I see in work by beginner novelists. And, to be perfectly honest, from experienced writers (or their editors) who really should know better.
Lack of conflict
1I don’t mean that your cozy mystery has to have a blazing gun battle in the drawing room of Woddlesbury Castle. Nor that your bad-boy billionaire romance needs a skyscraper-sized radioactive monster chasing your tux-wearing hero down Fifth Avenue.
But every great story revolves around a central conflict. Beowulf versus Grendel. Harry versus Voldemort. Kramer versus Kramer. See what I did there? The last versus was an emotional conflict. Or how about Sophie’s Choice? A woman has the chance to escape death but can only save one of her children. There’s conflict for you.
Rookie authors can fall foul of this one because although they give the protagonist a goal, they forget to put any obstacles – internal or external – in the way. We’re left with a dutiful trudge in their footsteps as they journey towards their destination without let or hindrance.
This style of storytelling reminds me of the old movie director’s warning, “Don’t mistake motion for action.” Picking that apart, it means that things can get as kinetic as hell, bombs exploding, monsters thrashing their tails into helicopters, horses galloping down country lanes, but unless it results in a change for the characters, it’s not action, it’s just motion.
Kurt Vonnegut Jr said, ‘Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.’
This would make a great creative writing exercise. Come up with a character. Now introduce the glass of water that will slake their raging thirst. They move, gratefully, towards it. So far, so motion. Now put an obstacle in their way. A barbed-wire fence. An armed guard. A jealous ex who rushes in and snatches the water away. What is your character going to do now? Action. That’s what.
Conflict comes in two basic flavours. External and internal. It might be tempting to see those flavors as relating to action-orientated books in the first case, and more reflective styles or genres in the second. Mistake! Yes, a secret agent, U.S. Marshall, detective third-class or alien battleship commander is going to face plenty of physical threats. But is that really all there is to their character? Might the agent have cancer but not told her husband? Or the alien commander be in the midst of a painful divorce from the daughter of his second-in-command?
My suspicion is that readers, while professing to be more interested in external conflicts, are actually more engaged by the internal variety. After all, very few of us will ever have to defeat a hostile species trying to invade Earth, or round up a murderous gang of cattle-rustlers. But most of us will experience deception, love, jealously, betrayal, professional rivalry or online trolling at some point in our lives. The external conflicts provide the escapism; the internal, the empathy that pulls us deep into a story.
Dialogue, doing and description in balance
2My friend Tom Bromley is the director of the Salisbury Literary Festival. Tom is also a fantastic writing teacher, editor and author in his own right. One of the things Tom taught me was the need to strike the right balance between the Three D’s. Doing, description and dialogue.
Doing is what we were just exploring, ie action. Characters performing physical actions. Not speaking, but acting. This could be kissing, climbing, dissecting, fighting, shopping, drinking, cooking … anything as long as we could watch them with the sound turned down and know exactly what they were up to.
Description is the author telling, or better yet, showing (of which more in a minute or two) the reader what things in the character’s world are like. Incidentally, a rookie sub-error is to concentrate too much on what things look like.
The sense of sight is dominant in humans, so it’s only natural that we should focus on the visual appearance of things. Natural, perhaps, but not very interesting. It’s much more involving for your reader when you give them clues to what things sound, smell, taste and feel like. A castle battlement is grey and scabbed with yellow and white lichen. OK, that’s good. But when the heroine trails her fingertips along the stone is it rough beneath her skin? Is it as cold as winter? Does the loose grit get under her fingernails or the lichen flake off and tickle?
Dialogue is when characters talk. And beware of lone characters engaging in long speeches. Yes, we all speak aloud while on our own, from time to time. But making a habit of it tends to draw puzzled glances. It’s better to introduce, technical term alert! – an interlocutor – so they have someone to talk to. Failing that, reproduce their inner monologue.
What is the right balance? Maybe it’s a simple as a third, a third, a third. Though aiming for such a precise split would no doubt produce a peculiarly robotic effect. It might also drive you crazy. Better to aim to switch between the three modes of writing as you go and have a look afterwards. (The Authors A.I. tool Marlowe is brilliant for this.)
‘As you know, Bob …’ – research masquerading as dialogue
3My development editor (you Yanks call them developmental editors) Russel McLean came up with a piece of advice that made me laugh out loud. We were talking about what to do with the stuff we come up with during research. In my case, that means a great deal of esoteric information about firearms, autopsies, police procedure and spy tradecraft.
Russel said,“Never have one of your characters start by saying, ‘As you know, Bob …’” After which, you are free to paste in that Wikipedia page on the history of Eighteenth-Century basket-weaving or bundle of fascinating facts you unearthed about night-vision goggles.
It’s a problem for a number of reasons. One, people don’t go around talking like that. If Bob does know, then why is our speaker telling him? If Bob doesn’t know, the speaker wouldn’t say ‘As you know.’ The second, and more serious reason, is that nobody cares! Okay, not nobody. Because you care.
You spent an afternoon poring over unredacted CIA memos from the Vietnam War about cluster munitions and you just have to include it in your novel (yes, reader, this was me). But your reader isn’t really that interested. When, in the same book for which I went down the Langley rabbit hole, I had an elaborate back story for a rogue CIA agent, my first reader emailed with the pithy comment, “You could cut nearly all of this. We know what these characters are like.”
A simple rule is, cut everything that doesn’t move the story along. In my experience, that’s probably no more than 5% of what you discovered and maybe less.
Next in this series
Stay tuned for the next entries in this series:
And to get help with spotting some of these errors, turn to Marlowe, the Authors A.I. manuscript analysis bot.
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