Common writing mistakes plus other tips

From Rick:

I recently watched a short video from Reedsy.com on common new writer mistakes. It’s a short video (13 minutes) and worth watching. However, I’m going to summarize them below, add a few comments, and add some other tips I’ve collected. The video lists only eleven mistakes. The ones I list after that are my additions.

I should note that not just new writers make these mistakes.

Here’s the link to the video:

COMMON NEW WRITER MISTAKES

(1) Trying to do too much in terms of the story or too much for your skill level.

This happens when you let the story get away from you or you haven’t outlined your idea in advance. Now, for those of you who don’t outline, I want to point out that “outline” here also means to think about what you want your story to accomplish. It’s very easy to lose focus and go off on tangents or to start adding too many subplots.

This is something I have to be careful of because sometimes I get so invested in a character or scene that I wander off the main story or simply overwrite the scene. Even if you don’t outline, in the past I’ve offered the advice (which I got from somewhere else) that it’s a good idea to jot down a few summary lines of what you intend your story to be about and where you want it to go. Use this to remind you what your original story intent was and to keep you on track. Of course, you can always modify your idea, but if you do, you should revisit the original concept to make sure you aren’t going off on a tangent.

(2) A weak opening: boring chapter/beginning. This results when the writer attempts to establish a detailed status quo before the story gets interesting.

This for me is often the NUMBER ONE issue with short stories I read. I’ll be a couple of pages into a ten-page story before I know what the story is about. The writer has spent too much time on setup, and there’s no conflict evident.

(3) Focusing on complicated language/flowery prose instead of clarity and simplicity. Occasional complex sentences are fine if they’re also clear.

(4) Too much backstory or too many flashbacks. Don’t get so invested in a character’s backstory that you forget about the main story. Minimize flashbacks, or at least spread them out. Stuffing them all into the opening results in the problem mentioned in point (2).

(5) Worrying about theme. This is more a problem with adults who start in writing. If you’re focused more on theme than on character, then you have a problem in your story.

(6) Not having an inciting incident. When starting a new story, make sure you think about the inciting incident, that is, what’s driving the story. Again, this leads to problem (2).

(7) Characters not having goals. Be sure yours do or the story will be dull. And if all of them, even the minor ones, have some goal, your story becomes more interesting, especially if one or more of those goals conflict.

(8) Characters not having flaws. This makes them uninteresting and may result in the reader not caring about them if they seem too perfect. But see my point (12) below.

(9) Not understanding POV and its complications. I’ve talked so much about this that when I see writers not understanding POV I tend to get super annoyed, but then I remember that these authors are new to the game and haven’t heard my rants on POV. So, I sigh and try to take a more gentle approach.

But seriously, folks, understanding POV is essential to being a good writer. I’ve heard too many writers say it’s too complicated and that they just can’t understand it. Well, guess what? If it’s hard for you to understand, then you need to work that much harder to understand it! And don’t expect any sympathy from me if you’re just too lazy to bother.

(10) Redundant scenes and redundant beats (fluff) in scenes. Anything that’s not interesting or not contributing to the scene should be removed. Start the scene where things get interesting. And if the scene itself doesn’t advance the story, the scene should be cut.

(11) Thinking you’re the exception to the rule. For example, you think you don’t need to show instead of tell, or you think it’s fine to make your novel 300,000 words long because people will love it so much they’ll read it anyway. Experienced writers know how and when to break the rules, but new writers don’t.

(12) One of my pet peeves in stories: stupid characters doing stupid things all the time and never learning from their mistakes. Yes, characters should make some bad decisions that cause them problems, but if your characters continue to do stupid things, then you’re likely to piss off the reader after a while. Overdoing it comes off as an unrealistic ploy just to add tension.

What annoys me in some TV series are main characters that never seem to learn from their mistakes and continue to do stupid things.

I’ll give you a specific example, with apologies to fans of the Supergirl TV series. Granted, in the beginning she’s led a sheltered life. She’s naive at first and eager to prove her worth, but that only goes so far. I couldn’t get over how utterly reckless she remained throughout the series. She never seemed to learn or listen to the advice of others. Maybe I’m exaggerating, but too often it seemed like when she should know better, she’d go and do something stupid that put her or others in danger. I found myself disliking her character because of that, instead of wanting to cheer her on.

I expect characters with newly discovered abilities to make mistakes and to not understand the consequences of their actions, but in real life most people DO learn from their mistakes. In fact, sometimes having made mistakes in the past makes them skittish or hesitant about acting in certain circumstances. If something you did previously got someone injured or killed, you’re not going to want to do that again. That’s human nature. But not learning from experience is, well… stupid.

I’ll admit that sometimes there’s a fine line between having a character be reckless/stupid due to emotional baggage versus not having learned, and some of it has to do with wanting to add tension and upping the stakes in the story. And in some cases the characters are just too stupid to learn from their past mistakes—but I’m not sure this should ever be the case with main characters that we’re supposed to love and empathize with.

I can’t tell you how many times I just wanted to see Supergirl have her superpowers taken away until she learned. I don’t think that’s the way a reader should ever feel about a major character. It’s fine for the reader to feel sorry for the character and want him or her to succeed, but never should the reader want to see the character punished for or suffer for stupidity (at least not more than once).

Okay, enough with Supergirl. Those of you who never saw the series might do well to watch some of it so you don’t make similar character mistakes in your own writing.

A FEW ADDITIONAL WRITING TIPS:

(1) Give your characters personality and make them interesting—all of them, not just the major ones—by adding distinctive traits that make them memorable. For example, you could have a character who used to be a smoker and quit periodically pull out a pack of cigarettes, light one, then stub it out as a reminder of his victory. You could have another character keep seeing this then finally ask the first one why he does that, and that could lead to an interesting backstory or bring up a previously unmentioned plot point. Maybe the character stopped smoking after witnessing someone tortured with a burning cigarette.

Some of you may remember the James Bond villain (Blofeld-first seen in From Russia with Love) who had a white Persian cat on his lap that he stroked. Although the cat is never named, I don’t believe we ever find out why he had the cat. Perhaps you could add something like that to one of your stories but give the cat (or some object always in the character’s possession) a key purpose in the story revealed only later.

(2) Be careful of setting your story in a specific year unless it really matters to the story historically. Always remember the novel 1984. When Orwell wrote it in 1949, it was a chilling prediction of a possible future, but once 1984 actually passed, the novel lost that significance and became just a piece of great literature. On the other hand, take Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, published over 200 years ago (1818). Although it’s dated by the times in which she wrote it, it’s not tied to a predictive year like Orwell’s novel. If you do set your story in a particular year or time period, do the research to ensure it fits the chosen time. Don’t give your 2012 characters an iPhone 8.

I should point out that one of my writer friends deliberately set one of his novels in 1998 because he didn’t want the characters to have cell phones or computers.

(3) Plot idea: Just when you or your readers think the solution for your characters is an easy one, twist it so it isn’t easy after all.

(4) The three pillars of a good story hook: character, conflict, and stakes. In the opening we need to know who is involved, what the conflict is (or some suggestion of it), and what the stakes are if the character doesn’t achieve the goal.

—Rick

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