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MISTAKES NEW WRITERS MAKE

July 19, 2011

BIRTH OF A NOVEL is proud to have as our guest writer and editor Ellis Vidler.

Ellis writes crime fiction, usually suspense with varying degrees of romance.  To quote her website (http://www.ellisvidler.com): “…love makes the world go round, but death stops it cold. These two elements seem essential to creating characters, conflict, and an exciting plot.” As a writer and a reader, Ellis knows those are the elements writers need to create a memorable stories.  We asked her to put on her editor’s hat and tell us what not to do in order to achieve that goal. Enough from me, let’s hear from Ellis.

Why do people feel that anyone can sit down and write a good story with no preparation or training? Artists in every other art form expect to study and develop their skills and natural ability. (Popular music may be an exception.) As an editor, I often receive stories from beginning writers. Many of them have good ideas and potential, but they haven’t studied their craft. There are always exceptions, but that’s why they’re called exceptions—they’re far outside the norm and rare enough to be newsworthy.

Here are a few things to watch for. There are more, but I’ll save those for another day.

 Starting the story too soon

Too much setup leading up to the action can be boring. The reader may put the book aside before she gets to the precipitating event, the one that changes the status quo and starts the story rolling. Remember in media res, Latin for start “in the middle” of the action.

Name calling and tags with dialogue

You’ve all read books with names in most of the dialogue.

“Bob, I hear you found the body,” she said.

“Yes, Sue, I stumbled over it in the parking lot,” he answered.

“Gosh, what did you do then, Bob?” she questioned innocently.

When only two people are conversing, names and tags are hardly ever necessary. They’re seldom needed even when more than two people are present.

Tags—he questioned/she responded/he said/she said—can be a problem. A tag with every line is annoying. When you really need one, stick to said and don’t run through a litany of exotic words for the act of speaking. Using a beat (an action or gesture) is better if you need to identify the speaker.

Sue turned on her recorder and sidled up to the man sitting in the police cruiser. “I hear you found the body.”

He wiped a hand over his eyes. “Yeah, I stumbled over it in the parking lot.”

“What did you do then?” This interview could put her on the eleven o’clock news—if Officer Do-right didn’t catch her.

This version used more words, but does it give a better picture?

 Too much backstory

Backstory is what happened before now, the time of the story. Many new writers want to tell the reader all about Matilda and her background before anything happens.

Backstory is best in small bits when the reader needs to understand something. It should be linked to what’s happening now. If an accident victim begins bleeding and Matilda faints on the sidewalk, work in that it started when her grandmother decapitated a chicken and the blood sprayed all over Matilda. It isn’t necessary to say it was Matilda’s first visit to the old farm and describe the barnyard and Grandma swinging the axe, at least not in the beginning of the story.

 Telling instead of showing

This usually manifests itself through forms of the verb to be. Davey was a mean son of gun, always angry and ready to fight. That’s telling. Instead, let the reader see Davey in a mean act.  Showing requires more words, but it’s worth it. Let the reader share the character’s experience, taste the blood on his split lip, smell the cigarette smoke. If the story is good and everything else is right, a telling problem can be corrected.

 Poor grammar

The worst sin is substandard grammar, because it will be all the way through the manuscript and there’s no quick fix. If good English is obviously a foreign concept, if there are tense shifts, apostrophes for plurals, and subjects and verbs don’t agree, the work looks amateurish and is difficult to read. For agents and editors, it’s an automatic reject. It’s also a pass for readers—self-publishing doesn’t let you off the hook. Yes, there are places, particularly in dialogue, where the rules can be broken. But you must know the rules to know when to break them effectively.

 These are a few of the things I see. Others, such as repetition of a noticeable word, ly adverbs, passive voice, and overuse of had can usually be identified by searching. Florid prose can take a while longer. The key is to study your craft and learn the basics. Then you can find your voice and develop your own style. Keep writing and learn to read with a critical eye. Join a good critique group (be sure it’s a constructive one), enter contests for cold feedback, and consider the advice of others without taking it personally.  

Good luck with your writing!

Thank you, Ellis, for sharing your expertise with us.

Ellis Vidler’s latest fiction release is HAUNTING REFRAIN. You can read the first chapter on my website: http://www.sandracareycody.com Click on Guest Excerpt.

 Her blog (http://www.theunpredictablemuse.blogspot.com) offers writing/editing advice, author interviews and articles by guest authors

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10 Comments leave one →
  1. July 19, 2011 9:47 PM

    Great basics, Ellis–no one does grammar better than you do!

  2. July 20, 2011 5:00 AM

    Elaine, you’re nice to say that. It’s really just that I’m interested in it and I spent years editing at my job. I have a need to tinker with things. 😉

  3. Pauline permalink
    July 20, 2011 9:14 AM

    Thanks for the reminders, Ellis. It’s so tempting to put in backstory when a character seems as real as a friend and has a backstory from birth to the present but it definitely stops the story’s forward motion..

  4. Katherine permalink
    July 20, 2011 4:08 PM

    When I started writing, my first critique partner circled every LY adverb in the first chapter. Goodness, I don’t even want to admit how many there were. The good thing is that now every time I begin to type one, I automatically stop and try to find a better way to express what that character is feeling. These are great tips. Thanks for the refresher.

  5. July 20, 2011 8:42 PM

    Pauline, I always have to delete a lot on my second or third round. It seems so important at first, but gradually I accept that my character’s history, no matter how interesting I find it, isn’t essential to the story. Finding a balance can be a challenge though.

  6. July 21, 2011 9:37 AM

    This is such good advice and so basic, it’s easy to forget. That’s one reason I was thrilled when Ellis agreed to write a guest post for Birth of a Novel. She always manages to get her point across in a clear, down-to-earth manner (in other words, just plain, old-fashioned good writing).

  7. July 21, 2011 4:19 PM

    As always, Ellis, excellent advice. You make it sound so simple. Fact is, it takes a long time to get things down so that it comes naturally, and even then…Lucky some of us have GREAT critique partners.

  8. July 21, 2011 4:36 PM

    Oh that first page backstory! A killer for sure. After you spend hours, maybe days on it, you read it again and say, Do I really need this? DELETE! Ah, so much better!

  9. July 21, 2011 5:49 PM

    Katherine, that must have been quite a critique to make such a lasting impression. I still let them slid in and have to make an effort to find them. I don’t think eliminating every one is usually necessary, but maybe 98 percent would be a good idea. I’m sure there are instances where they work, but I can’t think of one right now.

    Sandy, this was fun. Thank you so much asking me. I aim for clarity, but I often miss. Thank goodness for editing!

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