Remember, even your favorite author was once a newbie. Shakespeare, Austin, Dickens... Even Mark Twain once upon a time sat down with pen and paper (or maybe that thing they call a typewriter) and said to himself, “I think I’ll write a story.”
You’ve got the whole thing all plotted out in your head; you can see the characters and hear their voices. And you say to yourself, “I don’t need no fancy degree in creative writing, no stinky experience or practice under my belt, this story is so freaky good it’s going to be a best-seller right off the presses. (That’s an old term that refers to a printing press for those of you now saying to yourself “Huh?”)
So you write, and it’s great; the story pours out of you. You laugh, you cry, you kill off a character or two, maybe three. Hell, the whole world blows up just seconds before your main character rides in on his or her big black Harley and saves the last known handful of survivors from what everyone believed was an incurable disease. You’re a genius; the Tolkien of the 21st Century and your books are going to be so popular you won’t be able to write the next one fast enough to keep your audience satisfied.
Flash forward to the day that first draft is complete. You’re ecstatic, you did it—you finished the book! So you post a few lines, a snippet, maybe a page or two, or if you dare a full chapter. Perhaps you even try a few beta readers, a critique group... And now you’re asking yourself, “Why?” Not why did I ever think I could do this, but “Why are those a**holes telling me I need to work on my writing? Character development? There’s nothing wrong with my character development. Story structure? Plot holes? Pacing? What the hell are they talking about?”
The best advice I ever got, and it came from some of the greats: If you want to improve your writing, write, write, write and read, read, read. And I’m going to add something to that. Never forget that you’re not alone. Every writer, no matter how well-known, whether they’ve published one book or three hundred, was once a newbie and believe me, they weren’t perfect; they made mistakes too, and I can pretty much guarantee they even had that niggle of self-doubt pulling them down along the way.
So here are just a few of the most common mistakes new writers make. Read on, and just maybe you can save yourself from making one or two of them.
(1) Embrace the Contractions
Contrary to popular belief among newbies, avoiding contractions does not make your character sound unique or intelligent. And I’m not just referring to dialogue—I’m talking narrative as well. Unless your narrator/character is royalty (and maybe not even then) please, just don’t. Narrative written in this way can come off sounding forced and stiff. Dialogue written without contractions sounds unnatural, thereby making the character speaking unbelievable.
(2) Beware the Over-used Words
Just like everyone has a pet peeve or two, every writer has pet words they tend to use often, and usually without realizing it. More often than not, these over-used words tend to be the first word in a sentence (typically dialogue) like, “But,” “Oh,” “Well,” and many more. So be aware and watch for those over-used words. And keep in mind too that “that” is often used when it isn’t needed. So read that sentence back to yourself without it and see if “that” can be eliminated. I’m willing to bet more than 50% of the time it can.
(3) Nix Those Not-So-Fabulous Adverbs
Using adverbs can come across as lazy writing. They go hand on hand with that dreaded passive voice too, but I promise not to go there here. (You got that, right?) Anyway, don’t tell us Prudence walked quickly across the room. Instead, try Prudence strode across the room. And rather than Max speaking quietly, what’s wrong with Max whispered? Take those extra few seconds to ask yourself, “How can I allow the reader to see and hear my character? Instead of simply telling us a story, allow your reader to be a part of it.
(4) Trash the Info-Dump
I know it’s tough—you want to get all of that background information out there. But dumping a page or even half a page of backstory on the reader can slow your pacing in a heartbeat. Read and see how the more experienced writers do it. Scenery, dialogue, action. Just as your scene itself advances the story (and if it doesn’t, it shouldn’t be there), that same scene can reveal clues about the past. Use your narration and dialogue wisely. If done right, you’ll also be sneaking in a good amount of character development at the same time.
(5) Stuff the Fluff
Whatever you do, don’t try to pack your word count with needless information. Unless Brandon’s toothbrush is the murder weapon, the reader really doesn’t need to know that it’s blue or that he remembered to brush his teeth before heading out the door. Nor does the reader want to know about Becky’s bathroom habits; unless she dunked Brandon’s head in the toilet, that is. In other words, we don’t need to know a character’s every move. Told right, your story will be just as long as it should be. And please, we don’t need to read that Simone descended the stairs, walked to the door front, opened the door, closed the door behind her, strode down the sidewalk to the driveway, opened the car door and climbed inside, then started the car and backed out for you to get the character to the next scene.
Again, these are only a few of the most common mistakes made by new writers. So if while reviewing that finished first draft, you discover you’re guilty of even one, remember that you’re not alone. And instead of giving up or ignoring the mistakes altogether, be proactive. After all, that’s what second drafts are for.