I love teaching writing because the creativity of others is inspiring. It’s a joy to encourage authors while making recommendations for how to advance as an author. Over the years, I’ve noticed a few things that new writers tend to do, and while I’m sure that these are growing pains inevitable to all, I’d like to draw your attention to them, so that’ if possible, you can purge these habits from your writing sooner than later.
Being Overly Descriptive
I cringe when I think of my early attempts at fiction because I mistakenly thought that descriptive writing meant lavishing my prose with details. Adjectives and adverbs have their place. You want to firmly set your reader in the scene, and you want them to be able to visualize the characters; however, new writers tend to describe every. Single. Detail. They leave little to the audience’s imagination.
For example: Leona laced up her leather knee-high boots that had a snakeskin-like texture to them. She tucked her Ruger into its holster. The belt slung around her size-two waist sagged under the weapon’s weight. Leona then tucked a silky, black long-sleeved Givenchy top into the waistband of her Seven jeans. She put her hands on her slim waist and sized up her reflection in the mirror. If only she had larger breasts. It would be so much easier to seduce perps into giving her info. Of course, that’s what her gun was for.
And so on and so forth. So, here are a few things that are painful about that writing.
- First, it lacks in specifics. Instead of “weapon”, for example, the word pistol or gun would be more appropriate. The word weapon could imply anything from nun chucks to carving knives to Louisville sluggers. Strong nouns and verbs reduce the need to describe in excess.
- Next, the character’s outfit is over-described. Unless it’s critical that we know the nuances of Leona’s outfit because it’s going to be used in the action to come, details can be cut back. For one, we don’t need to know the brand of every one of her garments. I added the bit about the snakeskin-like texture because I think it makes the writing extra cringe-worthy, don’t you?
- The character also has an impossibly attractive figure, which is boring, cliché, and annoying. Unless you’re writing genre fiction (cough, romance) in which yes, you do want your characters to be attractive (because let’s be honest, your readers are at some point going to imagine themselves kissing them or sleeping with them and will be falling in love with them, you’re not going to want to describe them in a way that they resemble actual humans (i.e., pear-shaped, excessively thin ankles, morbidly flatulent, etc.).
Neglecting the Setting
Your story, like real estate, is all about location, location, location and yet when I read stories by new authors, location is the most oft-neglected aspect of storytelling. This is not to say that setting isn’t not addressed and that characters float amorphously through a miscellaneous house, city, etc. as they fall in love, fight crime, work for the man, etc. It is more to say that the author will forget about grounding us in a clear, fixed setting (one as developed and dynamic as a character) until it’s important at which point the reader is jarred into having to orient themselves in the story, and usually, mistakes are made.
For example: Jack and Diane crept into Rachel’s house. They finally reached a door toward the back of the dungeon and snuck through. Diane spotted a flesh-eating rhododendron in the arboretum. Diane’s pulse quickened, and she reached for Jack’s hand. They had to get out now. They turned around to see Rachel, standing not a foot behind them, wand in hand. Diane grabbed an acid-spewing begonia and launched it at Rachel’s face.The problems:
- First, this is a sci fi / fantasy-type premise, which means that world building is especially important. In other words, we aren’t in your typical ranch-style home with its carport, kitchen with laundry off the breakfast area. This is a witch’s house, and she’s got an arboretum off the back of her dungeon, and it’s filled with plants that have undergone some serious GMO mods.
- So, first, what we need is more of a description of the lay of the land as they’re making their way down the hallway because I expect after Rachel takes an acid-spewing begonia to the puss, a chase will ensue. Readers need to be oriented before that happens. In Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, J.K. Rowling does a great job of this when the kids from the DA penetrate the Department of Mysteries. A rotating door, various rooms with mysterious magic…the readers needed to see these rooms and have a sense of them before the kids flee the Death Eaters. Imagine if Rowling failed to do the setup, and we’re told Ron runs into a random room where a tentacled brain wraps around his head. Readers would be annoyed and confused.
- Another thing we need is a sense of what all is in the arboretum. Diane needs to observe the entire room, and where is she in relation to the acid-spewing begonia? She just reaches over and grabs it? How convenient. Maybe put some sneeze-inducing basil in her way first?
Tense shifts are when a writer unintentionally shifts back and forth between past and present. Usually this happens when the writer launches into an exciting scene be it a chase or a love scene or what-have-you. I don’t need to show you an example. My only recommendation is to pick a tense and stick with it to the best of your ability. Handle the rest in editing.
UNSURE OF THE POINT OF VIEW
Point of view (POV) can be daunting for experienced authors because it’s very easy to slide from a third person to a third-person limited or even to a second-person POV. Having a clear idea of your narrator and what they can and can’t see helps a lot with this.
New writers will have dramatic shifts in POV because for purposes of storytelling, they need one character to show one thing, another to show another, etc. The reality is POV is limiting. There’s no single perfect POV that’s going to solve all of your problems. I recommend playing with POV. Start writing your story or write a particularly well-conceptualized scene trying out different perspectives.
A mistake that I’ll own up to is starting a story in a particular POV only to find after several thousand words that a different style would better suit the story.
Now, bear in mind this is different from hitting a wall and having to overcome an obstacle posed by POV. POV is rarely a major point of consideration for writers who haven’t been at it for a long time, but it needs to be.
THE WAY TOO HAPPILY EVER AFTER
Question. When was your last perfect day? Week? Month? Year? Describe it. When was the last time everything in your life was above reproach? You got the job. The big-dog salary. The hot spouse. The amazing sex life. Gorgeous, healthy kids. Healthy parents. Good parents. A non-traumatic childhood. Sane in-laws. Not even a pimple in high school.
There is no one like that, so why in the world would we want to read about someone like that?
And look, I’m not saying new writers write about perfect people and their perfect lives nor am I saying that you need to drag your characters to hell and back to make a story good, but stories need conflict. Any time you introduce conflict, ask how it can be made more intense. This works for drama, romance, comedy, etc. Some of my greener student writers have a tendency to not want to twist the knife.
Here’s a synopsis to explain what I mean: Boy and girl have been dating for a long time. Girl wants a wedding ring. Boy starts to grow distant. Girl is confused. Girl finds out that boy has gotten chummy with new girl at work and they’ve been hanging out. Girl is hurt. Boy is annoyed by girl’s whining. Boy swears he’d never cheat. Boy, girl, and work girl go out to dinner and work it out. They become BFFs. Boy proposes to girl. They all live happily ever after.
Problem…now, I realize not everyone is a jealous sociopath, and I know that problems can’t be resolved. This story would probably be a good problem / solution scenario for someone doing couples therapy, but for fiction it falls flat because the tension seeps out of the story like it’s a leaky balloon.
I’m not saying these characters don’t get to have a happy ending. I’m just saying it can’t come as easily as a trip to Outback Steakhouse where they share a blooming onion and bond over the remoulade sauce.
No, they need to hit some serious speed bumps first. For example, her jealousy and insecurity and neediness are what made work girl so attractive. He hasn’t cheated, but he’s got feelings for work girl. The two split up. Girlfriend goes through an experience or a series of experiences where she overcomes her security issues and becomes more confident. The key component is the transformation. Whether or not she and the boy get back together is immaterial. She’s now capable of having a successful relationship where she can survive the speedbumps.
Here are some examples:
- In Legally Blonde, all Elle wanted was Warner, but when he broke up with her, she moved heaven and earth for them to get back together only to find real love with a really nice man along the way. She got the ring she wanted and an even better guy.
- In Sex and the City, Charlotte had some pretty high-and-mighty hang-ups about Harry’s appearance and how people perceived their relationship. When she, also hankering for a wedding ring, exposed her inner ugliness, Harry broke up with her, which humbled Charlotte, teaching her an important lesson about inner beauty. When she and Harry reconnected, Harry could see that Charlotte had changed, and the two got engaged on the spot.
My point is that characters have to endure struggles to experience transformations that make them deserving of happy endings.
Phew. This went on a little longer than I intended, but these are things that if you’re aware of them, you can avoid them (or at least avoid them more readily) and therefore write stronger stories that require less editing and less rewriting.
Writing well is something that takes practice for everyone...even the most successful authors. Getting feedback helps, too. If you're a writer who's ready to have your work edited or who is looking to get some insight on your writing, contact me, Vonnie York. I edit finished works and works in progress. I also offer author coaching services. Click this link to contact me, or send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. Happy writing!