Since the beginning of time in the history of writers writing, every writer has sought a writing pal, they admire and esteem to help them look at their work another way. A pair of wise eyes. Hemingway had Gertrude Stein. T.S. Eliot had Ezra Pound. Scott Fitzgerald fought with Hemingway, but took his advice. Every decent writer turns to another writer for help at some time. And even author tutors have author tutors. We all need sound advice from someone who knows a thing or two about writing. I turn to my friend Tim Lott as my sounding post, and he gives me pithy, smart insights. So naturally, the first person I wanted to add to our tutors at The Novelry was Tim. Tim's got nine novels behind him, and you can review his accolades and achievements here, but he's something of a story expert too. He's fascinated by how stories work or fail.
It seems crucial to me that you have someone you respect and trust to aid your development of every novel you write, whether you're an old hand or a beginner. It's never enough to go solo and fly by the seat of your pants. At some point, you're going to have a reader, after all, whether a literary agent or hopefully publisher and it's best if your first reader has spotted the mistakes before you get a dressing down which is preferable to being completely ghosted. (No response because a response would take too much time. No agent is going to spend hours teaching you how to avoid common mistakes.)
So here's Tim's watch list. Over ten years of mentoring writers, many of whom have been published, Tim has seen some common writing mistakes, repeated time after time. Draw on his experience, and fast track your path to writing glory.
Over the last ten years I have read innumerable manuscripts. They are all different, and yet many are all the same - at least as regards the mistakes they commonly make. I have tried to detail 15 of them below. Check and see if your story stumbles on any of these blocks.
1. Confused narrative. Very often when I start reading a story by a novice writer, I find myself lost very quickly - in time, in space, in character. The trouble is usually that although the writer knows what's going on in their own head, they haven't made the leap of asking whether the reader will understand what's happening. Be absolutely clear about where you are in time. Label scenes/chapters with dates. Don't have great long threads of dialogue without identifying who is speaking. Don't skip about in time too much, too quickly.
2. Lack of specificity. One of the real keys to writing is that most beginner writing is not granular with detail. It skips about without telling things scene by scene, picture by picture. A book is a film in the head. Write in pictures.
3. Dialogue not moving dynamically. Dialogue, like everything else in a novel, needs to be moving the story forward, or establishing character or illustrating conflict or doing It's not just there to fill the pages. Dialogue is conflict, a battle between two characters to seize control of reality or to get what they want. Or it is exposition, but this is something to be careful with as exposition is usually boring.
4. Handling of Time. This intersects with point 1. Too many manuscripts skip about too much. This is usually because the writer doesn't know what happens next, so to fill the blank page, they have a flashback or flashforward. There is nothing wrong with such devices, but they must be handled with care because they interrupt the forward movement of the story. So they need to be doing some work to justify themselves.
5. Front Loading. What happens after the first 30,000 words? Writers often load all the story into the first few chapters so there is a car crash of events in the first 50 pages or so and nothing thereafter. Spread the plot through the book!
6. Thin Characters. Characters who are insufficiently motivated or too simple or simply anonymous. Storytelling is all about desire. What does the character want? How are they going to get it? All too often I read character behaving in ways they just don't make sense. This is because the writer has not bothered to motivate them properly - they find it more convenient to just have them do something so it fits the plot. No. Every single thing every single character does has to make sense - at least to you, the writer. It doesn't have to be broadcast to the reader - they will sense it if there is an internal logic to the characters actions - or at least they will trust you that there is one. Apart from desire, individual characters should be just that - individual. Every single character should have a different view of the world, that will show up in their speech, behaviour and attitude. Too many times I read manuscripts when all the characters could be the same character (usually a disguised version of the writer) just with different names and different jobs in the plot.
7. Story focus missing. When you start writing a book, you can take a lot of liberties with what's going on. As the novel progresses you have to FOCUS the action, so it all coalesces around a single theme or storyline. It can't just wander around at random.
8. Handling the big, dramatic moment. One of the hardest things to write is the Big Moment - the husband says he's leaving the wife, the car crash mortally injures the driver, the son finds out that his parents have disappeared. My trick for this is simply GO IN CLOSE and SLOW DOWN THE TIME so we see the scene unfold drip by drip. Try to avoid melodrama, which is a scene asking for a sentiment that has not been earned.
9. Clichés. Clichés are ideas or phrases that someone had a very long time ago and are now stale. So if your character is feeling as bright as a button or if their blouse is as blue as the sky, resist the temptation to describe them as such. One of your jobs is to forge fresh language to describe reality and help us be present.
10. Waffle. Too many manuscripts are full of air, treading water, full of scenes that do not move the story forward or develop the characters. I don't worry too much about this in the first draft, but in following drafts you have to cut, cut, cut ruthlessly until only pure meat is left. No fat, no water.
11. Going back to fix what you’ve already done rather than moving forward. Frustrated writers spend too long on existing work to avoid working out how to go forward with the story. They fiddle endlessly with the last few chapters they've written, trying to polish them. Don't. Prose can be under-ripe and ripe, but it can also be overripe. Edit things too often and they lose their energy.
12. Point of view issues. Sliding from one perspective to the next, or the narrator not being able to know what it is they know. Writers often switch points of view just to avoid the question of what happens next. Every time they run out of steam, they switch to another point of view or introduce a new character. It's evasion.
13. Dreams. Don't.
14. You don’t have to spell everything out. Trust the reader. Make the reader an active participant in constructing the narrative.
15. Too much voice. That is, the narrator, whether author or character, narrating like mad to explain everything. A story consists of things happening not people banging on. The action contains the meaning.
So avoid ALL these mistakes, and what you will be left with is a GOOD NOVEL.
When you join The Novelry to take one of our online writing courses, The Book in a Year Program, the Ninety Day Novel course tutored plans, you can now book your personal coaching and mentoring sessions with Tim Lott and get feedback on your work from him too. If you're a member of The Novelry taking the Classic course to start writing your novel, or the Memoir course you can book single paid sessions with Tim Lott here.
(The video is Ellen Brock describing the 5 Common Mistakes writers make.)
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