Monday, July 25, 2016

5 rookie writer mistakes to avoid at all costs

A post by Mary Fan
Back when I used to bounce around online writers communities exchanging first chapter critiques
with fellow amateurs, I found myself reading a lot of stuff by newbie writers. These writers often had really cool and interesting ideas, but the writing wasn't there. And over time, I began to notice that some of the same things popped up time and time again. Some of these were mistakes I'd made once upon a time as well, so I totally sympathized. Others were ones that I'd avoided because I'd once had a mentor set me straight.

Here are some of the more common ones. If you're just starting out and you steer clear of these rookie mistakes, you'll save yourself a lot of time on rewrites :-). Also, apologies for the somewhat rant-y tone in advance... When you run into the same things over and over, you start feeling like you're running into a wall, and running into walls always makes me grumpy.

5. Thinking they can tackle third omniscient POV

Look, the debate about whether there are "rules" in writing or not has been raging forever, and it's never going to be resolved. But the fact is, pretty much no one likes third omniscient POV anymore. Yes, it was once commonplace to have a story switch from one character's perspective to another's within a section, sometimes even paragraph to paragraph. Yes, a lot of classics are written that way. But the year is 2016, and people don't write like that anymore. In fact, one publishing consultant I know said she hadn't seen third omniscient commonly used since the 1980s. That's practically before Taylor Swift was born, folks.

I noticed that a lot of rookie writers would hop from character head to character head in an attempt to emulate those old-timey styles. And there are those who had more modern examples of third omniscient to look up to. But the fact is, it's extremely hard to do well, and unless you're a true expert in the craft, you're probably not going to pull it off. When done well, third omniscient offers a grand, sweeping worldview of the book. The way most rookie writers do it, though, it mostly just reads like POV ping-pong, which is super distracting and often jarring. Like, you're happily following one character's POV, then BAM! It's someone else's. Then all the POVs feel incomplete, which has the unfortunate effect of making it feel like the reader's being kept at arm's length.

So if you're just starting out, then when it comes to third omniscient--just don't. Pick a perspective and stick with it for at least one whole section.

4. Not defining their world-building

This mostly affect sci-fi/fantasy writers, but can also affect contemporary writers as well. For a world to be believable, whether it's in a galaxy far, far away or just a few miles South, it has to have a defined set of rules. Now, these rules can be whatever the author wants them to be. As fantastical or absurd as desired. But you have to put them in place, and you have to stick with them. Otherwise, readers very quickly notice that things don't make sense, which pulls them out of the story.

Rookie writers tend to dream big, which is awesome, but sometimes, this means they forget to give shape to their ideas. So you wind up with worlds where anything is possible not because a believable cause-and-effect within the universe, but because the writer said so. This comes across as sloppy, and it kills any hope of creating tension or stakes because the reader's too confused about what's possible or not to follow along.

3. Forgetting that readers aren't psychic

This is another one that's big for sci-fi/fantasy writers. Here's the thing: You are the only one who can see the fictional world inside your head. Readers aren't psychic. So if you use a fantastical, made-up term, they're going to have no idea what that thing is. And it isn't mysterious to keep it that way; it's just confusing (and frankly, really annoying). Often, all it takes is a quick phrase defining an object or concept to set the reader straight.

Of course, there is a lot that can be implied as well. People will no doubt point out that hey, great writers don't spell out everything because they assume the reader is intelligent. Well, there's a difference between intelligence and ESP. There are ways to subtly drop in information without spelling everything out, but if you don't give any information at all, then you're putting the burden on the reader to hunt for clues or make things up, and that's just lazy writing.

This problem also manifests in the form of missing descriptions. A writer might have a clear vision of what a character, place, etc. looks, sounds, or smells like, but unless they tell the reader, the reader has no idea. I've heard the argument that the writer "wants the reader to imagine it for themselves." Sorry, rookie writer, but that's also lazy writing. You don't have to give the reader everything, but you have to at least paint an outline. Otherwise, the reader's doing all the work, so what is the point of you? (Sorry--the rookie writers I've heard this from tend to be pretentious as well, making it doubly annoying). Same goes for emotions--rookie writers will sometimes think that dialogue alone is enough, but here's the thing: words have many meanings, and this is a book, not a screenplay. So unless you hint at what the character's feeling, the reader will have no idea, which makes the writing just feel thin and flimsy.

2. Losing sight of what the story's truly about

The opening of a book sets a reader on a journey--to follow a character (or characters) through whatever trials and tribulations the plot's going to throw at them. And in this opening, the reader is promised certain things. If it's a romance, they're promised a pair of lovers who eventually get together. If it's an adventure, they're promised a quest with a goal at the end. If it's a mystery, they're promised intrigue and possibly danger all leading up to an ultimate answer. And so on.

Though stories can twist and wind their way through their plots in unexpected ways, the good ones never lose sight of that promise--what the whole point of this exercise was. Rookie writers sometimes seem to forget what their own stories are really about and go off on tangents that lead nowhere and do nothing but distract the reader from what they really want. For instance, I've read romance novels with random military operations that have nothing to do with the main characters thrown in for some reason. I've read epic adventures where the heroes, for whatever reason, take a detour and apparently forget all about their quest for chapters and chapters. I've read mysteries where the detective figure apparently forgets that there's a killer on the loose in order to have a social life.

While characters can certainly get thrown off course, the promise set up at the beginning of the novel is always going to loom over the story. It's the reason the reader kept reading in the first place, so when the characters (and writer) seem to forget about it, it gets really frustrating. So be sure to pinch all your story points together. There should be a purpose behind each action, and it should all ultimately tie into the book's larger arc.

1. Not reading books, goddammit!

I once had a writer tell me that he didn't read books, and that his stories were inspired by videogames. He said it was because reading other books would taint his unique vision, and he didn't want to do what was done before. Cue tight smile and uncomfortable nodding.

I've also seen writers go on about how nothing good is published these days, and that their inspirations all come from the Truman administration or earlier. Which would be fine if they'd at least pick up a recently-published book now and then, but often, that isn't the case.

Look, wanting to create a unique vision or drawing inspiration from the past are a noble goals, but the way to go about them isn't avoiding what people are actually reading these days. The result won't be something new; it'll be something out-of-sync.

Thing is, at the end of the day, the only way to get better at writing is to read a lot and write a lot. The reading part is because there's a rather undefinable quality to good writing that you know when you see, but that no one can quite explain (many have tried, but it's never all there). It's something you absorb over time and become attuned to.

The writing part is because practice, duh. ;-)


Kimberly G. Giarratano said...

Dude, all excellent points. I happen to like third person omniscient when a skilled writer does it. Also, read your genre. I never get people who don't read within their genres.

Mary Fan said...

Me neither! It's like trying to do a job without doing any of the training...

Carrie Beckort said...

Great post, Mary! And I agree that most starting out don't do third person omniscient well and it's very distracting as a reader.

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