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.