Common Mistakes for First Time Writers, Part 1

This week’s article has been a real eye-opener for me, and I really hope those of you wanting to become writers or get better at your craft get a lot of information from this one. There is a wealth of information online about pitfalls and how a publisher or agent knows your an amateur. No amount of editing will help with some of these, so they are very relevant if your goal is to write a full-length fiction novel. For the non-fiction writers out there, there won’t be much in the way of love for you here, despite your amazing contributions to the world.

I’ve researched for a couple of weeks, and yet I still think there will be even more information available if I looked in the right places. For now, let’s keep this as precise as we can. I’m reducing this into 4 categories: The Beginning/First Chapter, Characters, Exposition/Prose, and Dialogue. This article will be about the mistakes, but later on, I may be able to write an article with ways on how to fix these. That will require a fair bit of research and understanding on my part, and at this point, I want to stick with the stuff I know. So without further ado….

In the Beginning…

There was nothing… but a blank sheet of paper. Then one day, the creator lifted his pen and wrote a lifeless beginning, and when the people read it, they wept. Darkness filled the earth, and life felt empty and hopeless.

The beginning of a book needs a hook, something to grab the attention of the reader from the beginning. Many write the hook, though, and as above, it can be fairly cheesy and trite. This can be just as bad as having no hook at all. There needs to be a happy medium. The hook is perhaps the most important part.

The hook is designed to introduce your audience to your characters and plot, but also set up the action. George RR Martin started his first book in the Song of Ice & Fire series with a first chapter filled with dead king advisers, betrayal, incest, and paralysis. That was just in the first chapter, and it was a barometer for the rest of the book. Now some may say his exposition throughout can be noticeably long-winded and lengthy (more on that later), but there is no denying the book hooks you in straight away.

If the beginning focuses too much on back story, you need to rewrite it. In fact, some people even write a prologue to provide a complete back story. (I did! And I thought it was brilliant!) Of course, most literary agents agree that this is a cheater’s way to introduce back story, and they warn against it. Unless you’re an established writer, prologues and back story first chapters just will not cut. Introduce it later in the book, in a less obvious way.

Then we have the too much information first chapters. When you’re introducing your world, you don’t have to spend 2 or 3 pages explaining how Sarah knows crocheting so that later in the book you can have her teaching her little sister how to crochet for the first time. Just get to the action.

That being said, it seems that it’s important you start your story in the right spot, just before the action starts. That doesn’t mean you have to kill someone straight away. In fact, unless it’s a murder mystery, killing someone at the start is a big no-no. Your audience doesn’t care about this person, and so they will feel cheated rather than sympathetic. Additional to this is false starts like making the first chapter just a dream. Again, you’re cheating your audience, and they may either put the book down to never read it again, or they will be overly harsh on the rest of the book.

Last, but not least, is bland beginnings. The common consensus is that if you start with a date, “My name is…” (in first person), or the weather, you are not inspiring your readers on your writing ability. This is perhaps one of the biggest ones, since it seems to be a staple in short fiction. But it definitely makes most agents and publishers cringe, because they really just want you to get to the point. (Seriously, who would have thought this was a problem?!)

It’s all about Character

It’s no surprise that your characters have a lot to do with the success of your book. If your audience isn’t in love with them or rooting for them, then you probably haven’t done your job as a writer. Yet, it still happens. Characters and point-of-view are often the downfall of many a writer.

For this, I want to use the example of Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games series. She’s a very complex character, and we spend 3 novels listening to her internal monologue about the world around her. She’s also probably one of the worst people I’ve ever had to read. And that’s a good thing! She isn’t perfect. The perfect hero is a boring hero. She’s flawed. Sure, she can be badass and can kill just about anything with her bow and arrow, but she also has no idea what she wants. She’s basically emotionless, and in a lot of instances, she is incredibly selfish. We are forced through her point-of-view from start to finish, but the other characters in the book have a depth to them despite her bland representation of the world around her. It’s really fantastic.

So what exactly do first-time writers do that make their characters seem amateurish? The exact opposite as above. A character that is too nice or too perfect can be off-putting to the reader. Give your character depth by making them flawed. Make your readers angry with the decisions they make, because this means they are invested in them. Believable characters are just like normal human beings. I’m sure you have a friend that you love dearly, but even (s)he makes you furious from time to time.

A very evil antagonist can be a bad move too. Your villains should have depth as well. They need to have a focus or purpose for the way they behave. What has caused them to be that way? If your villain is just evil because he was made that way, then that’s just poor writing. Make him/her conflicted about their motives, or given them a past that explains why they became who they are today.

When writing a character, remove all stereotypes and the need to explain them straight away. The reader has already read a ton of stories about dumb blondes, or doe-eyed girls who want to make it big, or men with big muscles and perfect attitudes. Most men don’t act like they are from a Nicholas Spark novel. Also, though, you shouldn’t have to spend a page or two explaining your new character either. Introduce him/her slowly and reduce the desire to explain their motives from the start. A bit of mystery is good, and it also will help to not alienate your readers who are probably just as clever as you are. They don’t really need things spelled out for them.

Lastly, we have point-of-view. There are three, generally, for fiction. First-person narrative is in the mind of the main character. Third-person narrative is writing about your characters and what is happening to them. Third-person limited is limited to one or two characters minds only, where omniscient is for everyone in your story. With both, writing in past-tense is the preferred option, so if your tenses change, this can be jarring for your readers. But also, if you are writing in omniscient and keep jumping to different viewpoints, it can be confusing. Stick with one viewpoint for a chapter or scene, and then jump to another if you require it.  Just be certain not to change point-of-view within your book once you’ve decided to go with one. (I tend toward limited, because of this issue.)

Sooo this article is definitely going to have to be a two-parter. We are at 1300 words before I even started to write this final paragraph, which makes this a 10-15min read. As always, I want to make sure you’re not having to spend too long reading one article. 😉 Next week I will finish off this subject with a focus on exposition and dialogue. Then I’ll move on to Show, Don’t Tell, which I really am excited to discuss.  Til’ then! Keep writing and dagnabit! Have fun doing it!