I thought it might help aspiring writers to see a quick summary of the common mistakes I’m seeing as I look at entries and talk to authors looking to get published. So here they are, in no particular order.
- Not starting the story with a compelling situation. So many entries and rough drafts are starting in a place where the author is either explaining the character’s backstory or creating the storyworld instead of getting to the character and creating a situation where we see him interacting with his world, setting up for the inciting incident (or even in the middle or after it). Remember, the first three chapters of your novel are the ‘drive’ chapters, the chapters that propel your reader into the story. You need powerful language and scenes to hook your reader. Most of all, there must be something at STAKE that makes care and want to read more.
- Short scenes. At the beginning of a book, it is essential to build that storyworld, characterization and stakes, and it’s nearly impossible to do this with a short scene. We need to get into the story, wade around, see the parts, and get deep enough to be taken by the current (by the way, I know I’m all over the place with my metaphors today, but I’ve been teaching for 3 days straight and that’s just where we’re at today). Aim for at least 1200 words.
- Not ending the chapter in a place that makes the reader want to read more. So many scenes are ending with the tension resolved. If you do this, the reader doesn’t’ want to read more! Keep the tension going, or introduce new tension and your reader will go onto chapter 2!
- Not having a complete character journey. This means an inner as well as an outer journey (remember, the outer journey is just the catalyst for the inner journey) as well as an inciting incident, black moment and epiphany. Your story has no point without these elements. Also, be aware of motivation and realistic emotions. The motivations for their actions must make sense, and their emotions must be realistic. Don’t give us expected, soap opera emotions – go deeper and really ask how to create an emotion that feels real.
- Tired writing. Clichés, passive writing, mundane dialogue and most of all, bad writing. Like mixed metaphors (when in doubt, just don’t use a metaphor!), and terrible emotional content, “His heart banged inside him like a parade of marching band cadets” is NOT good emotional writing. Neither is, “Panic bombarded her like an avalanche of snow.” Please, think through how this emotion really feels, and show it through their actions, dialogue, inner thought and even the setting.