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L.T. Suzuki

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Novice Writing Mistakes
5/27/2012 7:19:05 AM
Novice writing mistakes made by aspiring and published authors.
Novice Writing Mistakes

As most of you who are regular readers of my blog know, I now make it a point of reading a sample of all works by authors I consider featuring on my website.

In doing so, a few of the authors I initially considered were quietly passed over as I continued my search for the next to be featured. Though these authors are fabulous individuals and obviously have a great imagination and the tenacity required to write a novel to completion, I discovered a number of them were struggling with what some of my writing mentors described as mistakes made by novice authors! And yes, these errors were in already published books, both self-published and those published by small, indie presses.

Now, before you get angry, accusing me of picking on my fellow writers, this is not my intention at all. I’ll be the first to admit my published stories are not perfect and neither am I. Having just finished writing the draft of my 12th and what is sure to be my final fantasy novel, I’m in the editing and proofreading phase of the creative process. And even though I’ve written over 1.8 million words, I still consider myself as somewhat of a novice, always striving to find ways to improve my writing and storytelling skills.

Having taken part in critique groups, attended numerous writing workshops led by talented writers like Diana Gabaldon, Jack Whyte, and Terry Brooks, to name a few, I’ve learned a lot in these past ten years of writing.

So, what are some of these novice mistakes? The most common writing mistakes I found included the “show, don’t tell” error. I read one novel and its opening scene went something like this: “There was a fight raging all around him, but he just lay there…” This is not a direct quote from his novel, it’s just an example so you’ll have the gist of this show, don’t tell problem I’m speaking of.

Here was the perfect opportunity for the author to put the readers right there in the middle of the action by immediately immersing them in the utter chaos of battle, but as I read on, there was no ‘showing’ of the battle being waged! Was it modern day warfare with automatic weapons? Sword and bow? I had no idea what he was trying convey in terms of the level of carnage or type of confrontation the protagonist was caught up in.

A little farther down the page you discover the protagonist is wounded, but salvation comes in the form of a female rescuer. What did her long blonde hair and piercing blue eyes have to do with her ability to assess his condition? It seemed out of place at that moment. Had the author wrote something like: As he slipped into unconsciousness, the last thing he’d remember was her long hair blowing like golden banners caught in a stiff breeze as her eyes turned a deeper shade of blue with her growing concern…

In my humble opinion, physical description is important, but I prefer to have it worked in as part of the story. This author’s example wasn’t as bad as some, but I’ve seen descriptions that rattled off like a grocery list, i.e.: She was 25 years old with shoulder-length, chestnut brown hair, dazzling green eyes, pouting red lips, and the perfect body for that clingy red silk dress that showed off her long legs, etc. See what I mean by the “grocery list”?

Another thing that a number of writers, even those claiming to have had their stories professionally edited, are the misplaced modifiers. In your own mind, you know exactly what you’re attempting to describe to your readers. It probably even makes perfect sense to you as you read it on paper because you know what you’re trying to convey, but I’ve seen this often and heck, even I’ve made this mistake, but now that I know what to look for, I make every attempt to fix them.

Here are three examples:
• I found my missing scarf cleaning my bedroom.
• Stay away from the crazy dog on the porch that is growling.
• The library has only three books about wolves in our school.

You get that whole misplaced modifier thing now, right? As goofy and as glaring as it seems now, you’ll be surprised by how often I see this!

Here’s another mistake: I recently heard one self-published author dismiss his detractors for mentioning his use (or lack of) proper punctuation in his novels. They complained that this author had many missing commas. If I remember correctly, he basically chided them with something like: “Who needs commas? They’re not necessary!”

Well, to me, there is a big difference between: “Let’s eat, mom!” and “Let’s eat mom!” So, yes! Commas do matter.

And remember to choose your verbs carefully! I had one author ask if I’d critique his already published novel. I don’t why he asked me to do this after the fact, but I took a peek at the first chapter and was astonished that in the first big paragraph alone, he used the word looked and walked about three times each! I don’t recall the exact words, but it went something like this: Joe looked up to the sky to see the many stars… He walked across the meadow, then looked toward the market where loud shouts rang through the night. Drawn by the commotion, he walked quickly through the square where he looked upon a great fire where a Wizard was telling grand tales of adventure.

Not once did this character glance, stare, spy, gaze, glimpse, peek, nor did he stroll, saunter, strut, trot, dash. Nope, all he did in this big, opening paragraph was ‘look’ and ‘walk’.

Here’s another item some agents and best selling authors described as a novice no-no: Starting a paragraph with suddenly… i.e.: Suddenly, she screamed, falling to the ground as a loud boom sounded, blowing the door open…

Instead of setting up the scene with a suddenly, why not just jump right into the action and surprise the reader? For example: A bone-rattling boom knocked her off her feet. The percussion blew the door wide open! She screamed, her skin prickling with the heat swelling from…

The final novice mistake to be aware of: Using unnecessary words. Trim off what you don’t need to tighten your prose. For me, my worst enemy was ‘that’ while other writers admitted they would go through their ms deleting the overused ‘and’ or ‘as’.

Inevitably, the odd error will slip by, even for me there is the ongoing struggle with grammar tense issues. In the movie optioned novel that was scrutinized by my former agent and two editors she appointed to polish up A Warrior’s Tale, there are some of these grammar issues that were overlooked by all three very capable ladies!

Ultimately, in my quest to create the perfect novel, I soon discovered there is no such thing as perfect. I’ve learned to embrace the advice shared by one of my favourite writing mentors, Terry Brooks.

Mr. Brooks, once said that even best selling novels produced by mainstream publishing houses have the odd mistakes. He attributed this to the fact that people do the proofreading and editing; therefore, one must make allowances for human error.

He also went on to say, “People are far more forgiving if they read a story they love and it has a few typos, but what is unforgivable is for people to spend money on a book that is technically perfect, but the story falls flat.”

So, with this in mind, it’s never too late to scrutinize your manuscript. If you can afford a professional editor, the old adage ‘you get what you pay for’ is very true. Too often, I’ve seen an indie author that has published a book and received a few mediocre to rave reviews get it in their heads that this now qualifies them to offer their services to others. If you can’t afford an editor, at the very least, attend creative writing classes or join a writers’ conference where you can learn from some of the best in the industry. Failing these two, pick up one of the many writing guides published by Writers Digest to help hone your skills.

At the very least, respect your readers enough to take a moment to see if any of these tips shared by my writing mentors can help you to polish up your story. You have only one chance to create a positive, first impression, so before you share your novel with the world, do yourself this favour. Thank you for reading today’s post!


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