10 Most Common Mistakes of Novice Writers
...or 15 if you are paying subscriber!
On May 9th I will be giving this crucial lecture to attendees of my Guardian Masterclasses
I highly recommend you sign up for the lecture to hear the full story. But in the meantime, here’s a brief outline of the content for my Substack readers.
Incidentally, the first ten items are free, but the last five are behind a paywall, so if you want to see the whole list ( and an excellent video by a New York book editor about common mistakes) sign up here -
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I have read hundreds of manuscripts over the last 15 years and the same errors appear again and again. By reading this post - and ideally attending the Guardian lecture - you can hopefully learn to avoid them.
1. Confused narrative.
Very often when I start reading a story by a novice writer, I find myself lost very quickly - in time, in space, in character. The trouble is usually that although the writer knows what's going on in their own head, they haven't made the leap of asking whether the reader will understand what's happening. Be absolutely clear about where you are in time. Label scenes/chapters with dates. Don't have great long threads of dialogue without identifying who is speaking. Don't skip about in time too much, too quickly
2. Lack of specificity. One of the real keys to writing is detail. Most beginner writing is not granular enough. It skips about without telling things scene by scene, picture by picture. A book is a film in the head. Write in pictures.
3. Dialogue not moving dynamically. Dialogue, like everything else in a novel, needs to be moving the story forward, or establishing character or illustrating conflict or doing something. It's not just there to fill the pages. Dialogue is conflict, a battle between two characters to seize control of reality or to get what they want. Or it is exposition, but this is something to be careful with as too much exposition is inevitably boring.
4. Handling of Time. This intersects with point 1. Too many manuscripts skip about too much. This is usually because the writer doesn't know what happens next, so to fill the blank page, they have a flashback or flashforward. There is nothing wrong with such devices, but they must be handled with care because they usually interrupt the forward movement of the story. So they need to be doing work for them to justify themselves.
5. Crunching the first 20,000 words. Richard Skinner from the Faber Academy calls this ‘Front Ending’ – piling all the story into the first few chapters so there is a car crash of events in the first 50 pages or so and nothing thereafter. As Skinner remarks , 'events have to spread out evenly, like pearls on a necklace’
6. Characters who are insufficiently motivated. Storytelling is all about desire. What does the character want? How are they going to get it? What stands in their way? All too often I read characters behaving in ways that just don't make sense. This is because the writer has not bothered to motivate them properly - they find it more convenient to just have them do something so it fits the plot. But the plot and character must segue together, feeding and informing one another.
7. Story unfocused. When you start writing a book, you can take a lot of liberties with what's going on. As the novel progresses, or when you get into a second or third draft, you have to FOCUS the action, so it all coalesces around a single theme or storyline. It can't just wander around at random.
8. Handling the big, dramatic moment. One of the hardest things to write is the Big Moment - the husband says he's leaving the wife, the car crash mortally injures the driver, the son finds out that his parents have disappeared. My trick for this is simply GO IN CLOSE and SLOW DOWN THE TIME so we see the scene unfold moment by moment. Try and avoid melodrama, which is a scene asking for a sentiment that has not been earned.
9. Clichés. Clichés are a very good idea for a phrase that someone had a very long time ago and are now stale. So if you're character is feeling as bright as a button or if their blouse is as blue as the sky, resist the temptation to describe them as such. One of your jobs is to forge fresh language to describe reality
10. Waffle. Too many manuscripts are full of air, treading water, full of scenes that do not move the story forward or develop the characters. I don't worry too much about this in the first draft, but in the following drafts you have to cut, cut, cut ruthlessly until only pure meat is left. No fat, no water.