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Top 3 Writing Mistakes (And How to Fix Them)
January 3, 2018
In my job as a freelance editor, I read lots of books. And as I've been doing this for over two years now, I've noticed quite a few common mistakes in the novels I read, and therefore given a lot of the same editing tips to my clients. Here are the top 3 mistakes I see, and tips for fixing them!
1. Starting the story in the wrong place.
When you sit down to write a novel, oftentimes you probably find yourself wondering, where do I start? Here's a beginning I see a lot: a character wakes up, gets dressed, and probably looks in a mirror at some point to note their features and generally describe him/herself. What's wrong with this beginning? Honestly, it's pretty boring. There are some exceptions to the rule (see The Hunger Games), but 99% of the time, the "character wakes up" opening is the easy way of starting a story, NOT the best way. If you find yourself starting to write an opening like this, it may be a sign that you're starting your story in the wrong place. Either you're falling into the trap of including too much backstory before the inciting incident (the moment that spurs a huge shift in your character's life), or you simply haven't yet found the most exciting way to introduce what makes your main character and their predicament so interesting your readers will just have to keep reading.
Personally, my favorite openings start with the main character already in motion, dealing with a (usually minor but still important) conflict or frustration in their day that will build into the bigger conflict of the story. Action and conflictare great tools to use in any novel opening, but I don't mean you need to start in the middle of a war scene. You could start with an argument between characters, or a character just wandering down the street until they witness some crazy event, or, yes, you could start with a young criminal or space hacker on the run from a government agency, scrambling into a ship and firing bullets and all that. The trick is to introduce a conflict as soon as possible, even if it's small in comparison to the trouble to come.
Fix It: Ask yourself: 1. Is my story's opening unique? 2. If not, how can I re-work it so that there's more conflict to engage my readers right off the bat? 3. What does my main character want at the start of the story? 4. How can I throw a wrench in their plans?
"Info-dumping" is exactly what it sounds like: dumping a ton of information into your reader's lap at once, like you're spewing it all over them. And I'm gonna be honest, I'm definitely guilty of it in my stories sometimes, especially in those early chapters of my novels. It's a constant struggle to find the balance between over-explaining backstory or technology--especially in fantasy/sci-fi stories--and making sure your readers aren't overwhelmed with too much information up front or in one huge chunk that distracts from the story. It's a big-scale version of show don't tell: you want to show your readers what the world of your story is like through the action and dialogue of your characters, rather than telling them what's most important about your world or what they should believe your world is like.
And yes, it can definitely be a tricky business to tell the difference when you're the writer and you're too close to the story, but luckily, that's what revisions are for! In your first drafts, don't worry about spewing all of the information about the world, your characters, etc. however you need to, just to get it on the page. But when you re-read the story, pay attention to those places where you have one big paragraph (or sometimes several) describing what a character looks like, or explaining how the world came to be what it is now, or detailing the intricacies of an element of your world in-depth. And be careful--this can happen in dialogue, too, when you've got a character relaying information to other characters.
Of course descriptions are important in their own way, but you should be weaving backstory and description throughout the forward action of your story, so that every information reveal feels natural instead of like that scene in The Emperor's New Groovewhere the movie freeze-frames and Kuzco comes in with a marker to explain what's going on. Which, yeah, let's be real, is a hilarious scene in the movie, but it doesn't work as well in fiction.
Fix It: "Sprinkle description, don't dump it" is my motto. Always ask the question: Does my reader need to know this piece of information now? Or will there be a more natural place to include it/explain it later in the story? And always trust your beta readers when they tell you you're over-explaining something. Most of the time, our readers will read between the lines and understand much more than we give them credit for.
3. When scenes don't drive the story forward.
What drives a story? Character motivations. Conflict. Change. A character wants something, but something is standing in their way. And sometimes they succeed in small goals that get them closer to their ultimate goal, but soon enough something else sets them back again. It's these ups and downs that carry a story forward and keep your readers on edge, always wanting more. Two characters are getting closer and closer, connecting over something they both experienced in the past, and one goes in for a kiss...but then the other pulls away and runs off, leaving the other character questioning whether they misread everything.
The third biggest place where I often see writers making mistakes (and yup, I've been guilty of this too, not gonna lie) is when they don't infuse enough conflict and change into every scene in their story, resulting in a scene or even a full chapter that doesn't drive the story forward. There aren't any ups or downs, so it just feels stagnant and, yes, boring. Most often in these types of scenes, characters might be exploring a really cool place, or meeting an interesting creature, or learning something intriguing about the world they're in. But the problem is that ultimately, for all the coolparts of the scene, there's no ultimate change in the character's motivations or conflict that forces them to shift their plan of action. It's a scene that exists simply because the writer fell in love with a part of their world and couldn't bear not to include it.
You've probably heard the phrase "kill your darlings," and this is a case where it definitely applies. As writers, we write so many words in our stories that never end up making it to the final page. And sometimes they're damn good words! But good writing doesn't always = a good scene, even if we love the language we've created. Sometimes we have to kill those words we loved once upon a time in order to create a stronger book as a whole.
Fix It: Look long and hard at every single scene of your book and ask yourself: 1. Is there enough conflict in this scene? 2. Does the conflict change my characters' goals and plan of action? 3. Does this scene drive the story forward?
If you don't answer "yes" to all three questions, find a way to strengthen the conflict, re-work how the conflict affects your characters and drives the story forward, or cut the scene.