As an active member of Scribophile, an online critiquing community, I have gotten my share of new-author exposure. I’ve decided to compile a list here of some of the most common mistakes I see over and over again. I’ll avoid mentioning prose structure or grammar/punctuations errors, these are mistakes that should naturally resolve with revision and practice. (If you struggle with this, I suggest reading award-winning work and study the writing style.)
1. Beginning the story with a sunrise, or the character waking up
Okay, I understand it may feel natural to begin a story when the day begins. Which would be sunrise, or waking up. But please, NO NO NO NO. The first thing a book should do is hook the reader in, that means something interesting needs to be happening. Waking up is something we all do every day. And nothing is outstanding about waking up to a sunrise, no matter how beautifully described, either.
I recommend author James Bell’s book on how to begin and structure your story.
2. Vivid characters with a white background
This is a big problem I see quite often. Especially for character-driven plots. I suspect the difficulty stems from developing the skill to story-tell in a way that the reader can view the world as you view the world. It’s easy to forget that the reader can only paint the image with the tools you provide.
And while vivid characters are wonderful and extremely important, the scene matters too. Not just for fantasy, but any scene needs to be described well enough to make me feel immersed. I want to feel the grass between my toes. I want to smell the ash in the air. I want to hear the cries in the distance.
Author Angela Ackerman has some great advice on giving your character flaws in order to make them deep and believable.
3. Info-dump and main character monologue
This is a tricky one to avoid, especially for fantasy worlds with wild and complicated settings. It’s very difficult to find that goldilocks zone of introducing information in an active and interesting way without being overwhelming or otherwise too vague. Even in other genres, I find that there’s an info-dump of the character’s past, or details of the layout of the house in such textbook detail that I don’t see the need. The best advice I can give to this is the same advice given to me, introduce one, maybe two, mysteries at a time. Let the reader zoom in and focus on it. Once we’re comfortable with that, introduce something new. It’s a novel, not flash fiction. Take your time and introduce compelling scenes; plant in the world-lore and history in bite-sized-bits.
Additionally, if you want to share information, share it actively. Don’t tell me she’s an assassin, show me she’s fingering a blade under her sleeve. Don’t say that the youngest son is the least favorite of the family of five, show me the father bringing home presents for everyone except the fifth son.
4. A lack of conflict
This shouldn’t need to be mentioned, but after reading quite a few first chapters with absolutely no conflict I’m compelled to point it out. Please don’t go on for two chapters describing someone walking through day-to-day life, I’m bored already. And remember, conflict doesn’t have to be something dramatic. It doesn’t have to be landing aliens or exploding grenades. It can be emotional conflict and internal turmoil. Drag me into the character’s head and let me feel what they feel. Let me feel their fear, their anger, their regret. A good story is built on a problem that needs to be resolved. Without that, it’s just a report.
For conflict, I suggest author Cheryl St.John’s book on Writing with Emotion, Tension and Conflict.
5. Lack of patience, otherwise known as “I’m awesome”-syndrome
While not a technical aspect of writing, it’s important and key to publishable work. Lack of patience means:
- Poor to no editing: The work is full of grammar errors, misspellings and typos.
- Poor to no revising: The plot has conflicts, meaningless scenes, or boring side characters.
- Low (EFFICIENT) word count: I don’t literally mean word count. You can have a 55k word book, but if the filling is not full of efficiently
used sentences, then it’s not good enough. Each sentence should have proper meaning, details should not be needlessly repeated,
and every sentence should add to the entertainment value in one way or another.
I suggest joining a critiquing community, or otherwise I suggest author Browne and King’s book on Self-Editing for Fiction Writers.
If you have any of these pitfalls, don’t fret! Edit, Revise, Tell yourself in the Mirror “I can do this!”, wash and repeat. Happy writing!