Now that I've been a writer for almost two years, I'm starting to get the hang of things. Anyone more than a couple years in knows what I mean. At first, everything is terrible...and you have no idea why. But after almost 750,000 words put down on page, some of this begins to make sense.
After going back and reading some of my early creations, I began to notice the constant mistakes I made. Two years later, I've beta read a lot (and I mean a lot) of new authors work. Guess what? Many of them made the same mistakes as I. Let's investigate some.
1. We use too many adverbs
Actually, we new writers seem to be in love with adverbs. Quickly, rapidly, gruffly, shyly. And most of the time, they made sense...at the time. Consider this:
"I just don't know anymore," Charlotte added shyly.
Okay, that makes my stomach turn when I look at it now. Before, it was beautiful prose; a penned masterpiece worthy of high praise and laurels.
Charlotte peeked at me, her brown eyes barely visible through her long lashes. "I just don't know anymore," she added, letting her eyes return to her quivering hands.
Aside from removing the adverb, the sentence has also become much more active. Here we let her actions tell us of her shyness, her uneasiness with the subject. Before, well it was just blah.
Steven King says kill all adverbs; I tend to agree. If you search your manuscript for every one of these buggers and strike them away, you'll still have plenty left that you've missed. Adverbs, it seems, are perceived to be lazy writing. And I really can't argue with that statement.
2. We tell instead of show
I have a confession for you; at first, I had no idea what this phrase meant. If I wrote, Jim was mad, I believed that conveyed everything the reader needed to know. And to be honest, if you don't have a problem hanging with the B and C level writers, it's fine. But we're missing something if we accept the prior sentence as prose.
The young writer often misses the opportunity to use any of the five senses most, if not all, human beings possess. Let's revisit - Jim was mad.
Sight - I bet his face reddened, or his lips tightened, or his fists clenched by his side.
Sound - Maybe he snorted, perhaps his breathing became labored - audibly.
Smell - We can use this to contrast Jim's foul mood. The scent of lily's dissipated as Jim's anger rose.
Touch - I reach for Jim's arm and feel it tense. Or perhaps he jerks away.
Taste - I'd really have to reach to use this sense in describing Jim's mood. And chances are I would blow it, badly.
Not every situation can be told via all five senses, but the crafty writer includes them here and there to draw their readers into his or her story. When done well, the reader becomes part of the tale; as if they are standing amidst the characters, involved in their interaction.
3. The NSV Issue
Let me ask the world a question: Who told you to write all of your sentences in the same order and all the time?
Dick ran fast. Jane ran faster. Spot crapped on the carpet.
Noun, subject, verb... BORING!
Mix things up; don't copy, paste repeat. And while we're at it, please vary the length of sentences and paragraphs. If everything looks and sounds the same line after line, page after page - we loose our readers shortly after mid-first chapter.
4. Dialog Tags
We put them in the wrong places, we misuse words we believe are tags, and we love to help them with an adverb (see mistake #1 again).
I read a manuscript last year where all of the dialog tags preceded the dialog.
Joanie said, "We don't have much time, Robert."
I had never seen this before. Wait, check that; I've seen this before, but rarely. I'd never read an entire book, novel, or manuscript when the tags came before the dialog. I still don't think it's correct, but I believe that's just a style issue for me; not a hard and fast rule.
"Better hurry up, we don't want to be late," Betty sang.
Yeah, about that. Unless Betty put the words to a melody, I don't believe "sang" should be used as a dialog tag.
"I just don't know any more," Charlotte added shyly.
Again, this is from mistake #1. Don't do it, please!
Some will tell you the only two dialog tags to ever be used are "said" and "asked". After all, most people don't even read the tags. So what's the point in singing or chuckling or spitting words at one another.
5. We forget the plot of our own creation
I'm guilty of this myself. Sometimes I get all caught up in action and dialog and forget to advance the plot. After writing a sentence (okay, perhaps a paragraph) ask yourself this:
How do the preceding words move the plot forward?
At times, my best stuff gets chopped because it doesn't meet the plot test. Great dialog and interaction - gone because all I'd created was fluff. If you take it out (sentence, paragraph, even a whole chapter) and it doesn't change the story and won't be missed, you've created mere fluff. Just something nice, in your mind, that shows this or that about a character or setting.
Steven King says, "A proper second draft, is the first draft minus 10 percent."
Ernest Hemingway once wrote, "The first draft of anything is shit."
So there, even the masters realize that not everything one pens will make the final cut. Look for your plot holes. Be stringent in recognizing writing the adds little to the story. The story, after all, is everything. The fluff we tend to create - sometimes just to add to the word count - needs to go.
There you have it; my top five mistakes from the first two years of writing. Remember, I'm guilty of all above. If you're honest with yourself, and please be, you'll agree with most.
Until next time, enjoy the holiday season. Even if it's not your holiday. Take time during the soon arriving longest night of the year to start reading the classic tale you've always wanted to.