Guest writer Karen Newcomb a fiction consultant, writing teacher, book author, and columnist. She is also Executive Director of the Lake Tahoe Writers Conference and conference weekend writing workshops.
It is rare to find a new writer who has mastered it all, from conception to ending. When I first formed a critique group I had the idea that I could incorporate a lesson each time. Instead, I found that as each author read his or her chapter, the same elements seemed to be missing. Published authors are so polished that beginning writers don’t seem to pick up on the techniques.
Here are the top 10 mistakes beginners make:
Not knowing who their readers are. Beginners are often surprised to learn they have to write to a reader, and sometimes there is an age group that goes along with their genre.
Not fully understanding the genre. Again, beginners seemed stumped by the fact there are different types of imprints (or subgenres) within their genre, each with specific guidelines.
Not developing a believable or likable character. Readers like fully developed characters. Another mistake is to add too many other undeveloped characters to interact with the main character. When you create a developed character on paper, before the story starts, the characters will react appropriately in the story.
Not understanding viewpoint (point of view). I think this is one of the hardest elements to explain. Instead of getting into the character’s head and showing us the story as it happens to them, the author usually begins to tell the story about the character.
Not understanding the need for emotional tension. The characters don’t react to the situations they’ve been put in and walk through the pages as if the conflict is going to solve itself. This is where the need for motivation-reaction is important.
Plotting. Sometimes a plot reads like randomly chosen incidents. “Just because it really happened,” is what I usually hear. Even when the plot makes sense, authors tend to break it up with unnecessary subplots that don’t fit into the structure.
Not understanding scenes and sequels to the scenes. If the character walks through a scene with no resolution to the scene, it leaves the reader feeling cheated. Beginning authors seem to need to explain everything…out loud. I remind them they won’t be there to tell an editor what they mean. The scene keeps the story moving forward by leading into the next scene. Beginners always skip over the sequel to the scene.
Not understanding the need for the character to change. If the character was well-developed beforehand, then this should be easy. The change can be subtle or enormous, but in the end the character does have to change.
Not understanding conflict. Mastering this element could go on forever.
Rewriting as they go along. This may not seem like a problem but it is. Never do a major rewrite before a book is done. Many beginners spin their gears rewriting and rewriting only to find they need to rewrite after they’ve finished their manuscript. They need to wait to see the “whole picture” so the flaws jump out in places that need rewriting. Editing is a very important learning curve for beginners. This is where a beginning writer starts their journey to becoming an author. To finish a project is important. Whether the book idea is good or bad, to finish the project is a huge accomplishment.
This is a very useful article. Thank you.
Excellent advice.If I like my characters, I don’t want them to change too much. I just finished reading Love in the Time of Cholera. The writing was terrific; however, at the end I decided that I didn’t really enjoy the book because I didn’t like, nor could I relate to the main characters.
I plan on posting this on my wall. It’s so practical and useful it makes me want to kick myself for falling into the same traps an habits (but at the same time I ablsolutely love this beginning process)
good helpful guide
Thanks so much! These are really very valuable tips and only you give it. nobody else seems to be harping on these crucial points.
Great article. I have a question, though: is it a mistake to model the main character’s looks and a few characteristics after your own, and model some lesser characters after your friends?
Many writers draw inspiration from reality and base their characters on people they know in real life. It can even be argued that we all incorporpate ourselves into our characters whether we mean to or not. You just have to be careful not to tip over into Mary Sue territoryâ€”that is, writing an over-idealized fictional version of yourself for the sole purpose of playing out personal fantasies. This often doesn’t benefit or drive the story, and can actually alienate your readers if it’s too obvious.
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Perfect advice I needed! I will now finish my story before I start second guessing certain scenes. I’ll begin rewrites after the first draft is complete!
Rod, We’re so glad our article helped. We wish you happy writing and revising!
Wow! Finally someone who gets it. It can be very frustrating to write and not understand why you’re not getting anywhere. these hints are perfect for writers to follow. It gives focus, helps put things in perspective and allows authors to write without forcing the issues. Well done.