Mistakes To Avoid When Writing A Novel
A Little Background to Start Us Off
I have spent a considerable amount of time over the past three years corresponding with editors, publishers and agents. I have done this because I have a desire to be published in the traditional way, by a publishing company, so I decided early on to pick the brains of the professionals and find out what they are looking for.
To put a different spin on it, I also wanted to know what they were not looking for. I wanted to know what mistakes they see during their daily dealings with writers so that I could avoid those mistakes.
This article, then, is a result of those conversations. What follows is a brief description of some errors that publishers have seen over the years, errors that you should avoid regardless of whether you are trying to be discovered by a traditional publisher or you are simply an ebook writer.
Will avoiding these errors guarantee you success? Certainly not, but it certainly will help you as you attempt to write the next great work of literary genius.
Cramming Too Much in the First Few Chapters
You have all seen it done. A writer will feel compelled, for whatever reason, to introduce most of the main characters in the first couple of chapters. Before the reader has even gotten comfortable in his/her favorite chair with a hot cup of coffee, five characters have been introduced complete with their character backgrounds.
Can you say overload?
A novel is a long-process. A writer has 100,000-150,000 words to play with; there is no need to cram so much into the first few chapters. Use those first chapters to write a solid, captivating scene and take your time introducing the main players. Your readers will thank you for it.
A much better approach is to write a dynamic first scene and introduce the main character. Then, as the story unfolds, you can introduce the secondary characters slowly so they can have maximum impact.
A Novel Is Not an Outline
This is a common mistake made by beginners in the writing business. They will write an outline of their novel and then their actual writing of that novel reads like an outline. They move from one subheading to the next and their story ends up sounding like the cliff notes of “Crime And Punishment.”
A novel is scene description. A novel is character development. A novel is a main plot with numerous subplots, all interwoven into an intricate storyline. It should flow and have rhythm. It should never read like a stilted list of events.
When writing a novel, each plot point on your outline should be a compelling scene in the novel, with emphasis on compelling. Do not shortchange your readers; they will thank you for the extra effort.
Avoid Overused, Cute Describers
Cliches are clichés because everyone uses them. Is that the type of writer you hope to be?
It takes time and effort to write compelling dialogue, so put in that time and effort. I was reading a short story recently and in it the author wrote “she was pretty as a picture.” Oh really? Have you ever seen “The Scream” by Edvard Munch? If that’s the kind of “pretty” the character was then I’m glad I didn’t date her.
Also avoid needless modifiers like boring adverbs or lazy adjectives. Saying a character was “slight sad” tells me nothing. Show me what “slightly sad” looks like rather than just tossing out two lazy words.
Don’t Take the Easy Way Out
Yes, I have seen this happen. A writer does a terrific job of building suspense for 120,000 words and then, at the moment of climax, he takes the easy way out and deflates his audience. It’s like all of his efforts went into the build-up of tension and then he had no idea what to do at the end. Great story-teller….horrible promise-keeper!
I read a book once where, at the end, the main character woke up from a dream and none of what happened in the book actually happened. Talk about annoying! If I have invested days in the reading of a book, I want an ending that is worth those days of reading.
If you find yourself lacking a suitable ending, go back to your outline or plot map and re-work it. Do some more brainstorming so that you can come up with a suitable resolution. In other words, reward your readers for the effort they have put into your novel.
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Trying to Stretch a Short Story into a Novel
It is a true that most novelists begin their writing careers by writing short stories. A short story is, in a very real sense, a miniature novel that has all the essentials of a novel….plot, character development, theme…..but…..it is a huge step from writing a short story to writing a novel. Keeping the reader’s interest for 10,000 words is much easier than doing it for 100,000 words.
Many short stories simply do not have the depth to make it as novels. Many short story writers do not have the depth to make it as novelists. Those are truths that must be recognized. If your novel drags about midway through completion, it is usually because that novel needs more than the short story you developed in your mind.
Description Is Awol (away Without Leave)
The writer is the Great Describer for the reader. Through the novelist the reader experiences the five senses of touch, sight, hearing, feeling and taste.
Many first-time novelists are so eager to tell their story that they forget this important part of novel writing. They want to get to the action; they want constant movement; and they forget that they need to help their readers to visualize what is happening.
Here is a general rule of thumb when writing a novel: if it is worth mentioning then it is worth describing. Even a castaway line like “we saw two lovers walking in the park” will have more depth if you write “we saw two lovers in the park looking moonstruck and deliriously happy.” The first example leaves the reader feeling empty and uninvolved; the second example at least gives the reader a visual he can relate to.
Don’t Rush the Revision
This is a very common mistake. The writer has spent months writing the novel and finally the first draft is done. They are eager to finish it, eager to publish it, and just plain eager to get on with their lives….so….they rush through the revision process and ultimately hurt themselves greatly.
Revisions are vital and publishers can tell if you have rushed this part of the process. Many writers will print their entire novel and sit down and read it in one reading, using post-it notes to flag sections that do not make sense or are weak. Then they will return to those sections and strengthen them.
When they are all done with that effort, they will then ask someone else to do the same thing. Count on at least two revisions before turning it over to an editor.
That Should Be Enough to Get You Started
So there you have it. Correcting these errors may not guarantee publication but they will at least put you on the road to possibly getting published.
One final note: there are no shortcuts when writing a good novel. If it is worth doing then it is worth doing well. I send you best wishes as you prepare to write your next masterpiece.
2014 William D. Holland (aka billybuc)
“Helping writers to spread their wings and fly.”