Five More Mistakes That Will Expose You As a Rookie

Last week we looked at five common mistakes made by writers at all levels, but perhaps most commonly by newer writers.

The terms “newer” and “rookie” make me nervous, because they may be interpreted as “less than.”  Not my intention, because it’s not true: experience doesn’t always equate to quality or knowledge, and very often a new writer comes out of the chute to blow the rest of us crusty old vets off the page.

My hypothisis: a newer writer who embraces the principles of craft will quickly fly past the still-trying-after-all-these-years writer who won’t.

Rookie mistakes, in the intended helpful context used here, refer to traps that are easy to fall into.  One can remain stuck in these traps – sometimes for decades – until someone (like, a crusty old vet) points them out.  It’s like dieting and salad dressing… rookie dieters sabotage their goals within otherwise salad-intensive best intentions, and experienced yo-yo dieters know better. 

Not all diets are created equal, and any diet that works relies on the exact same principles of nutrition and human biochemistry, no matter what or how they suggest you eat.

Best analogy I have for you today.  But I bet you’ve been there.

1.      Multiple dialogue paragraphs.

This rule is inviolate: when you change speakers, you change paragraphs.  Every time.  No exceptions.

This is wrong:

“Great concert,” offered George, who was driving because the others had drank too much.  From the backseat Gretchen chimed in, “Yeah, if you like nostalgia groups in which only the drummer actually played in the band.”  To which George replied, “Now playing at a casino near you.”

This is right:

“Great concert,” offered George, who was driving because the others had drank too much. 

From the backseat Gretchen chimed in, “Yeah, if you like nostalgia groups in which only the drummer actually played in the band.”

To which George replied, “Now playing at a casino near you.”

2.    Your first writing teacher is dead.  Or at least obsolete.

Maybe.  At least, if they told you any of these things:

–         Never write a story in first person.

–         Describe the hell out of places, people and things.

–         Never tell a story from multiple points of view.

–         Adjectives are evil.

–         Grammar is holy.

–         Exposition should never be conveyed via dialogue.

–         Character trumps plot.

–         All good stories will find a publisher.

–         All published stories are good.

All of these things are wrong.  All of these things can lead to your exposure as a rookie relying on out-dated, and now dangerous advice.

3.   The two legit choices of manuscript font.

There is one standard typeface for professional submissions: Courier, and lately, Courier New.  All in 12-point.

Because of the advent of word processing, writers now have choices in this regard.  Most of them are wrong.  Times New Roman is acceptable in traditional publishing, but anything other than these two fonts will label you as… new.

Some fonts, like Georgia, Garamond or Palatino, are close enough in today’s liberal environment to sneak by.  Others, like Arial, Veranda, or God-forbid, something sexy like Broadway or Papyrus (great for chapter titles, though) or something else that looks like copy from a Hooters ad, will get you thrown out of the game.

Using bold or italics as your default narrative fonts: never.  You’ll not only get rejected, you might get assaulted.

Of course, you may not be intending to submit your work to a traditional publisher, large or small.  In that case, all the font rules go out the window.   Which is why self-publishing in digital is still a wild, untamed frontier, and is quickly, explosively, becoming a depository for the manuscripts that New York is sending back in a S.A.S.E.

Sometimes for the very reasons you see here. 

The bottom line is this: success in the ebook world should have, and will have, the same standards of professionalism that traditional publishing clings to, and with good reason.

Which means, rookies will stand out as rookies in any venue.  Writer beware.

4.    The name game.

There are two common mistakes that rookies make when bestowing names upon their characters.

First, they use names that sound too much alike.  That alliterate like names of twins.  Bob and Bill.  Mary and Carrie.  Andy and Amy. 

Instead of naming two characters Stella and Bella, name them Stella and Gretchen.  Instead of Robert and Rupert, name them Robert and George.   Try to avoid using the same first letter across your entire roster of names, and try to avoid using names of major characters with the same number letters, or close, like Larry, Barry, Harry, Carrie, Willy, Milly, Sherrie, Terry and Cher.

Obvious, perhaps, but you’d be surprised how often it happens.  Anything you do that makes the reading experience confusing or frustrating will always work against you.

This problem extends to the other common mistake in this name game, usually in science fiction, fantasy or even historical genres: your names are gobbledygook, unpronounceable, unfamiliar and difficult to remember from one page to the next.

Notice that J.K. Rowling used made-up names that still held some semblance of a connection to the human experience: Dumbledore, Bellatrix, Sirius… just a twist of the tongue away from familiar.  Notice, too, that the main characters are named Harry, Ron and Hermione, rather than something like Dysteronius, Anaconsiskboomhah and Xphenetieria, or the like. 

You know who you are.

Don’t do it.  Rookie mistake.

Go HERE to see a list of Harry Potter characters, by the way, and see how brilliantly Rowling navigates this issue.

5.  Don’t belabor the backstory.

Backstory is wonderful.  Backstory is critical.  Backstory is tricky.

Just as true: backstory is art.   The degree to which an author weaves in necessary backstory that creates context, sub-text and even sub-plot is the degree to which the entire tale is rendered artful.  It can take years to get it, years more to give it properly.

The best advice – after you have a complete command of what backstory even is, and how it is used to make a story compelling – is to look for how the authors you love handle it.  To notice how it pops up when and as necessary, and how (usually) less is more, and relevance trumps excess.

Notice, too, that exceptions to any of these rules that are otherwise successful are almost never written by new authors.  Never imitate a mistake or bad execution, even when it has a famous name on the cover.  They got away with it… you won’t.

The empowering golden goose here is to know your story as you write it, which means either a solid story planning and vision process before your first draft, or a series of drafts that incorporate the solidification of the story as you go.

The study of craft can keep these demons at bay.

Some writers desire to make their own way, discovering craft as their writing career moves forward, sometimes in the mistaken belief that they are inventing it for themselves.  (Note to such resistant writers: it must be a coincidence, then, that virtually all commercially successful novels and even movies adhere to and demonstrate the same execution of a set of core principles, which those authors did not make up for themselves.)

All of these things, including the five rookie mistakes offered in the earlier post, are available out there, in many forms that end up saying the same things, as standards and benchmarks that apply to all stories, all writers and all story development approaches.

Life is short.  Craft is out there waiting to help you, not tie you down or limit your experience.  Ask any writer who has successfully evolved from rookie to proven professional, they’ll agree that craft is king, and that the king is not dead.

How do I know so much about rookie mistakes?  Two answers:

One, been there, done that. 

Two, I read unpublished manuscripts as part of my work as a story coach.  If you’re interested in having your novel or screenplay critiqued and coached, contact me, let’s see if we can get your story working up to its highest potential.

For more craft, please consider my book: “Story Engineering: Mastering the Six Competencies of Successful Writing,” published by Writers Digest Books.

If you’d like to see if I walk the walk, please consider my newly re-published novels (issued as paperback originals from Penguin Putnam): Darkness Bound (my USA Today bestseller)… The Seminar (originally published as Pressure Points)… Bait and Switch… and (from Sons of Liberty Publishing), Whisper of the Seventh Thunder.

All of the links above take you to the respective Kindle pages.  But all are available via Smashwords and Nook, as well. 



Filed under Write better (tips and techniques)

31 Responses to Five More Mistakes That Will Expose You As a Rookie

  1. I particularly admire your candor as to how you learned this knowledge. Rule #1 here is one that I’m still surprised to encounter in some experienced writers. Outside of crazy modernist/post-modernist fiction, I can’t comprehend doing it. Separating dialogue by paragraph goes to the very point of paragraphing.

  2. nancy

    Such valuable information for the new novelist. Thanks. Got my copy of Bait and Switch. Ready for the deconstruction.

  3. Not to nitpick, but the names in the Harry Potter series are: Dumbledore, Sirius (as in the Latin name for the dog star), and Hermione. Also, Jo used a strong Latin background for the names, which is interesting as the scientific world still uses a great deal of Latin for names. Latin is found in the names of diseases, species, anatomy, and astronomy. As a reader, I found the use of such a familiar Western staple added to the plausibility of Harry’s world coexisting with our own.

  4. Ted

    2 questions:

    A – Describe the hell out of places, people and things / Adjectives are evil. These seem contradictory. Which one is it?

    B – How do you feel about using titles in character’s names such as Mr. Jones or Dr. Thomas?

    • @Ted — describe the hell out of things… not referring to adjectives, but to the tendency to describe the obvious. Someone goes into a post office, and the writer goes into exquisite detail to describe a place we’ve all been, and that all look alike. Not necessary. As for adjectives, that’s a writing style issue, executed in the moment. One is quantity, the other quality. Hope this clarifies.

      You other question about using proper titles… sure, that’s the author’s call. Mr. Jones is just as appropriate as “Steve” if the context of the use fits. Adding the title implies a certain context, so the trick is to make sure the context is spot-on and value-adding.

  5. Regarding item #3 — how about using italics to delineate a character’s thoughts?

  6. So on board with all of this. Especially the backstory thing. I can’t even tell you how many manuscripts I’ve critiqued with a big, fat, exposition-laden backstory dump right smack in the first chapter.

  7. Estee

    I found #3 interesting. I recently submitted a ms to a critique group in Courier font and every one of them told me publishers/agents only want Times New Roman. I thought maybe the New style trumped the Vet tradition (kind of like two spaces after a period . . .).

  8. @Krista — italics for inner thoughts… go for it. I do this, too, and I think it works as long as we do it in little bites, rather than long expository italicized paragraphs. It’s a style and consistency thing, and if you remember that “less is more,” then I think this is a great narrative technique. L.

  9. excellent post, and I shall save this for good keeping.

  10. Oh, Gosh! I made each of these mistakes, especially naming two brother Jason and Jacob… At least it wasn’t Anaconsiskboomhah. Wish StoryFix had been around back then, the advice would’ve saved me years. Peace, LL

  11. Eeek! I need a fig leaf, STAT!

    My first serious sci-fi story tripped on #4. I actually have 10 characters with three-letter names that begin with the letter B.

    It won’t happen again. My son took me to task for the other error: all the names sound too similar and “Anaconsiskboombahbish”!

    Thanks for pointing out these newbie mistakes.



  12. Great advice. Bob Mayer taught me one other thing I’ve always remembered. Know the rules before you break them, have a reason for breaking the rules and take responsibility for breaking them. It helps me a lot when thinking about those English teacher rules!
    Thanks for the insight.

  13. Cookie

    @Elizabeth Ann West- Sirius is Greek. Aside from the heavy Latin influence, she did use a lot of Greek names too.

  14. @Nigel — thanks for sharing Bob Mayer’s advice, it’s stellar, critical and career-changing. Folks like to cite examples to what I set forth as principles, even rules, and in each case, they come from an author who heeds that advice… you have to really know your stuff to depart from a fundamental principle. Like Michael Jordan shooting that free throw with his eyes closed. The rest of us… we’re not Michael Jordan. Thanks again — L.

  15. Thanks for another thoughtful and helpful post on writing.

    Loved your “they’ll agree that craft is king, and that the king is not dead.” Very well said, of any art…creativity without craft sticks out, flops and fails.

    I love interesting character names like Rodman Philbrick’s Spaz in “The Last Book In The Universe.” The fact that this character risks, matures, and changes names burned Spaz boy’s nickname into my memory.

  16. Loving this series Larry! Keep it coming!

  17. Followed this link off of twitter.

    So glad you tweeted it out.

    VERY basic and helpful for an aspiring like me.

    Thank you.

  18. Hi Larry,

    Yes, the addition of millions of fonts does lure too many people to dress up their words with a “special” typeface.

    One question though — when you say that fonts like Papyrus make good title fonts, do you mean for submitting a manuscript or for the finished product (covers, etc.)? I was led to believe that you should submit manuscripts as plain Jane as possible — no fancy fonts anywhere, no sparkle dust, no stickers… Has this changed too in the liberal environment?

    (Not sure I’d do it anyway, but just curious…)

    BTW, I likely would have submitted using Word’s default Calibri, so thanks for saving me from that! I’ll switch to Georgia.


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  21. Dani

    Notice that J.K. Rowling used made-up names that still held some semblance of a connection to the human experience: Dumbledore, Bellatrix, Sirius… just a twist of the tongue away from familiar.

    Shhh, the names Bellatrix and Sirius, just like most of the Black family are actually names of stars (Bellatrix, Sirius, Regulus) or star-constellations (Andromeda, Draco). And dumbledore is Early Modern Englis and means bumblebee. So the names weren’t made-up but chosen to fit the specific characters perfectly: Bellatrix = female warrior, Sirius as a star is part of Canis Major, Remus = one of the two founders of Rome who were nurtured by a she-wolf, etc.

  22. @Dani — that’s cool, didn’t know that. Helps make my point, too… she didn’t make up names, didn’t go for something that was odd for odd’s sake, but rather, something that rang familiar or at least real. That was my point, thanks for helping flesh it out with an even cooler edge. L.

  23. I wonder if some of these mistakes just come from a lack of regular reading. Seems to me like even a moderate consumer of books would realize not to make giant paragraphs of dialogue. Of course, it’s also easy to read a lot and not realize what makes everything really work–5 was definitely a problem for me for a while, before I realized that just because Rowling knew every character inside and out didn’t mean that she told the reader all the backstory.

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  25. Hi,
    I really enjoy reading your blog posts, even though I am learning as much as I can about copywriting, it’s valuable to get a better insight about writing. :o)

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  27. Here by way of Elizabeth Spann Craig.

    Useful advice, especially about craft being king.

    Thanks for sharing 🙂

  28. Craig

    I just found this while browsing, so I’m a bit late. I love the point about names. Some of them make the reading and comprehension tough. The dwarf names in The Hobbit made the reading more difficult. The main characters had better names though.

    Awesome post!

  29. I found this since I came to your site to check out plot point placement and things like that… I’m one of the authors who just sat down and wrote and it turned out fine — I have four more books in the series coming out. That said, I want to make sure I didn’t make fatal mistakes && I want to try to deconstruct my own novel and see how well it matches up (or doesn’t!) to what you advise works.
    But these 5 tips — I’m glad I haven’t broken any of these rules but so many do and I’m sure I did when I was beginning. It’s great that you offer these to people just starting out … and published authors who need to be kept in check and remember the rules (especially if you want to break them ;))

  30. I attended the Sanibel Writers’ Festival, and one of the writers said to describe local brands, including food. My novel describes some meals, using brands specific to Louisiana, which is where it is set. Can the rule about describing meals be broken in this way by a beginner?