Sunday, February 5, 2012

The Top Ten Mistakes New Fiction Writers Make

"Jeez, did I do that?"
Not too long ago, I read an article by Sally Zigmond at Writer's World, The Top Ten Mistakes New Fiction Writers Make. While her article is for short story writers, it fits for authors with manuscripts of any length. Some of her comments made me smile remembering how naive I was when I first wrote Knight of Runes. Other items, well, I find some are still a challenge for me. The good news for me is, at least I know what they are and can how to fix them. Here is a short review of Ms. Zigmond's article.

  1. Lack of Editing: The draft is finished. Now what? Is it ready to pitch? No, it's just a rough draft. Now the real work begins. Review your work and make certain the story and character development hold together. Vet out the passive voice, review word choices, ensure the POV is consistent, and layer in emotion. You have to polish and make your story shine.
  2. Dull Writing: People want to read about characters who face challenges and change/grow. It's what holds the readers attention. According to Ms Zigmond, many new authors write dull flat characters and seem to be afraid to let their imagination go. They write stereotypical characters and situations. Fiction must be interesting and entertaining.
  3. Too Much Irrelevant Detail: This runs the gamut from too much background information (and every piece of research information the writer found) to details about insignificant characters. These don't move the story forward, If anything, unnecessary details slow the pace and muddy the story. Writers must learn how 'sprinkle' in the history/research and backstory and avoid information dumps.
  4. No Attention to Language: Clear writing and careful wording is the sign of a good writer. Many new writers rely on "telling" the story instead of "showing" us how it unfolds. And language isn't just about dialogue. It's about infusing emotions and layering in actions into the story to make it pop. It's all about word choice and usage.
  5. Absence of Imagery and Reliance on Cliches: Many stories lack lively images. The challenge is to make the reader see what you see, without relying on cliches. Paint your picture with words so reader can be there, in the moment, with your characters.  
  6. No Sense of Place: Showing the reader the environment helps to set the mood and goes a long way in explaining the characters reactions. The sights, sounds, smell, even the taste of a place, anchors the story and sets the mood for the reader. 
  7. No Shape or Structure: Where you start the story, whose point of view it's written in, how fast or slow the pacing, where and how the tension is built, and how information in provided all must be planned to keep the structure tight and the story moving forward. I agree with Ms. Zigmond. Writing is a craft as much as an art.
  8. Poor Dialogue Skills: The dialogue must sound real and be appropriate for the character, the time, and the place. If the dialogue sounds believable, the readers will be hooked.
  9. Lack of Technical Knowledge: Nothing screams novice more than poor grammar. If you're a writer, learn the basics of your craft.   
  10. Top Tip: When your story is completed, distance yourself from it for a few days. When you take it up again, read it out loud. It's the best way to hear whats not working.
What mistakes have you made or have seen others make? How would you handle them?


    1. Ruth, I think these are priceless. As in, they should be posted on the wall in every writer's study or kitchen or bedroom, or writing room.

    2. Great advice! But I adore that picture of the little girl. I have many days when I feel like that!! Thanks for the thoughts and the laugh.

    3. @Julia Rachel Barrett - I agree. I need reminders. Sometimes I loose my way.

      @Jean - She is cute isn't she. That's exactly how I feel when I re-read my draft, especially something I did a year ago.

      Enjoy the rest of the weekend ...

    4. I'm a "Was Witch" - passive voice is my vice, but I'm happy to say I recognize it immediately, where a year ago, not so much. Thanks for the tips!

    5. @J. Coleman

      Mine is POV. I still head-hop. I'm looking forward to the day when I only head hop on purpose!

      Wnjoy the super bowl!

    6. The first book I wrote was a chapter book. I wrote the first draft, 5000 words, in a weekend -- and spent about the next two years learning enough to rewrite it into a solid story -- it ended up 11000 words. My biggest shortcoming was plot arc.

      Great list, by the way, but when I started I didn't know how much I didn't know. On the plus side, I wrote/write poetry, so I had/have a decent sense of language, and, thanks to my father, a pretty solid knowledge of English grammar.

    7. @Margaret Fieland

      I wrote my first book in four months. It was 104,000 words. I had no idea what to do next. I searched for a support group and found Romance Writers of America. I spent the next eighteen months learning how to turn it into a good story. Last November Carina Press published it. My biggest short fall was head hopping. I gave me editor a headache :)

      Thanks for leaving a comment.

    8. All great points. No matter how many books (or years) we have under our belts, we can always stand to be reminded. Some days it's the "but" that gets us in trouble other times another replicant sneaks in.

      A variant of tip no. 10 - Instead of reading the story aloud to yourself, many computers now come with a text to speech capability. Having the computer read the story to you disconnects the eyes and allow the ears to pick up blips you might gloss over otherwise.

    9. This is great advice Ruth. I'm editing a first draft now and will use your points as I'm going over my work. - Also love the little girl pic :).

    10. Ruth, you are so right. I re-wrote She Can Run 5 times in 4 years. I was a banker. I had a story in my head but lacked the technical skills to bring it to life. It was through reworking that same draft from every angle (pacing, character development, story structure, etc.) that I learned the technical aspects of writing. It's a never-ending process, though. Craft can always be honed.

    11. Oh, number three! As a reader, this one drives me crazy. Even veteran writers do it. But I think, to some extent, it's also a matter of reader preference. Some readers like details -- they want the scene painted out for them and all questions answered. Others just want the bare minimum, so they can imagine and wonder about the rest on their own.

      Personally, I like sparse stories that stick to the essentials. And I wrote my first novel that way. By the time it was being edited for publication, I spent more time ADDING details than removing them, and even then I still have readers who ask me questions about non-essential elements of the story, or wondering why I didn't elaborate on, say, the heroine's visit to a refugee camp (day to day life at the camp wasn't important to the story).

      It's a tough balance.

      Wonderful article! Thanks so much!

    12. That picture says it all! LOL!

      This is a good guide to have as a reminder. Thanks for the post

    13. @Helen Henderson
      I've always read my work out loud to find mistakes. In those early days of my writing when I had no idea about craft it was rewarding to learn I was doing something right!

      I'll have to try the computer idea. Thanks for stopping by

    14. @Carolyn Gibbs

      I couldn't help put that little girl in. Good luck with editing your draft.

    15. @Melinda Leigh

      5 times in 4 years! that is perseverance. I'm a banker by day. I write marketing, communication and do some technical writing too. It's nothing like writing fiction although sometimes I really wonder!

      Thanks for leaving a comment

    16. @J.L. Hilton
      I love painting the story with words. I want you to feel what my characters feel, see the sky and taste the atmosphere. Beta readers told me where to eliminate unnecessary explanations. When my editor gave me my first round of edits she told me what was missing. It was usually the text I had removed. Go figure!

    17. @EW Gibson

      I really love the picture - it really says it all.

    18. Spot on. I've been on the acquisitions team for four anthologies and can vouch for the accuracy of your list.

      Have just linked to this at my blog.

    19. Great list, Ruth! Love the pic, too! I'll be listing your blog on my site - you always have such wonderful insights!

    20. @Charlie Cochrane - Thanks for adding my post to your blog.

      @Anonymous - I know, that picture is too cute. How many times have I felt like that! I'm glad you enjoy my blog.

      Thank you both for stopping by.

    21. Hi Ruth,
      I have to admit, I do love to research and sometimes I have to remember to sift out what I think is imporant--and what the reader will think is important. LOL

      Thanks for posting this list.

    22. This is awesome advice. I cringe when I think of how many of these mistakes I made with my first book.

    23. Super Dee Duper late but that doesn't keep this from being a valuable article, Ruth. Thank you! My weakness is passive too. I strive to not do it... and then do it anyway.

    24. Great post. It's about time I pull out my first ms and rework it.