I’ve been browsing through the writing questions and query critiques for a while now (first as a lurker and then as an active participant) and I’ve come to realize that there are a few commonalities that I experienced as a new writer myself and have taken years (4.5 years and 12 books to be exact) to put my finger on. So I figured I’d share them on the off chance that I might save someone out there some valuable time and rewrites.
For my expertise, I’m an agented author with a book on submission and a serialized story published on Radish fiction. I also spent 3 years interning at a Pitch Conference in New York City where I had the privileged of meeting and interacting with top editors and agents in the field. I’m no expert by a long shot, but I’m (thankfully) well beyond where I was when I started. And I’ve had lots of experience with aspiring authors (not to mention BEEN one for most of my life), so I’ve learned what the most common pitfalls in manuscripts are.
Without further ado, here are those pitfalls:
- A lack of Goals. Goals, more than anything I can think of, are a storyteller’s best friend. If you look at any story, it can be boiled down into goals. Protagonist goals, antagonist goals, secondary character goals, conflicting goals, etc. Goals are fantastic ways to plot out stories and define character (and even setting). For example, what does your protagonist want (both in a scene and in the overall story)? How can you, as their not-so-benevolent overlord, interfere with what they want and therefore create tension? Conversely, what does your antagonist want? How can the antagonist make progress toward THEIR goal in a way that will make the protagonist’s life worse (yes, there is a theme here and it’s not that I’m nice to my characters)? I often see (or used to write) characters who would just exist and/or get pulled along by a story outside of their control, usually in a completely reactionary way. This is a HUGE missed opportunity (not to mention boring and unrelatable). You can almost always jack up your tension and stakes by giving your characters (ALL your characters) specific things they want and then either interfering with those wants or using them to make things worse (or, to put it another way, holding back what they want for the whole story and giving it to them in one huge, climactic moment).
- A lack of plot. Another related trap that I TOTALLY fell into as a new writer was to create a “series of bad circumstances” rather than a plot. What I mean by this is that I thought up a bunch of bad and/or interesting things that HAPPENED, but that weren’t necessarily connected. I thought a story was just a series of cool or tense events. Well, after many failed manuscripts, I learned that you can’t just throw complications at a main character and call it a plot. Plot is, by definition, a character pursuing something and being thwarted. Frodo wants to put the ring in Mt. Doom. Harry wants to stop Voldemort. Daenerys wants to rule the 7 Kingdoms. There is a cohesive goal there (not to beat the horse to death) and a plot is the series of steps that character takes to accomplish it. Specifically, the plot has an inciting incident (the thing that “catapults” the story into action, like Frodo being given the ring by Bilbo), a first plot point when a critical choice is made (like Frodo accepting the burden of the journey), a midpoint where everything is reversed and/or changed in a significant way (which could be debated, but I’d argue it’s where Frodo goes off on his own with Sam), a third plot point which begins the ultimate cascade that will lead to the climax (again arguable, but I’d say where Frodo enters Mordo and begins the final approach to Mt. Doom), the climax (showdown with Gollum in volcano), and the denouement or return-to-normal (return to Hobbiton). Not all plots can (or should) be boiled down into such a rigorous structure, but I’ve found in my research that the human brain appreciates the classic “nature” of stories and it’s very VERY hard to break this framework successfully, especially when you’re new. Even pansters will often do this instinctively (Going back to my first few books, I saw sort of grasping attempts to hit these “story beats”, if you will, but it’s SO much easier to do when I learned to understand them for what they are). Basically, the plot should be a series of falling dominoes, each one bigger than the next one, each one intrinsically and inseparably connected to the one before, preferably involving a struggle between opposing forces. Without that, unfortunately, it’s just a series of circumstances.
- A lack of conflict. More specifically, the problem I often see is a lack of specific and ACTIVE antagonistic forces. I work in SFF, so I’ve seen (and written) a lot of epic type stuff. Inextricably tied to genre fiction is the trope of this huge, distant antagonist who sort of cackles from a mountaintop without actually being very involved in the plot (I’m 100% guilty of doing this in my early books). Again, this is a missed opportunity to make your story more riveting. The best way to make stories tense is active, specific, and ongoing conflict. Look at soap operas for an example here. Love them or hate them, they are very good at prolonging drama AS LONG AS POSSIBLE. How? Everyone’s always against everyone else. Every character is some other character’s antagonist. This is the crux of good drama. Another example is to look at Harry Potter. Sure, Voldemort is a fantastic villain (and also an active one in the story, which is why he works so well even if he’s not actually on the page until the end of the first book). But you also have Malfoy, Snape, and the Dursleys working actively to make Harry’s life harder in that first book. In every subsequent book, there is a clear and present antagonist (Umbridge anyone?) besides Voldemort. I’ve learned in my own fiction that the more antagonism and conflict you can add pretty much EVERYWHERE (without getting melodramatic of course), the better.
- Not specific enough. This is kind of a hard one to explain, but I’ve found that something I’m always fighting to improve at is specificity. I think as writers that we tend to initially form ideas as abstracts. That guy is evil. The book is about destiny. The main character struggles with self-doubt. All good things, but where the really GREAT stories shine is how deeply they dig into these vague and abstract concepts and make them specific. The antagonist is not just evil, she bathes in the blood of children because she thinks it will keep her young. The main character doesn’t just have self-doubt, they have self-doubt because the one time they made a confident choice, their brother was shot by a gangster. Even these are still vague examples. Basically, you want to give the reader specific things, especially character things, to latch on to. This point probably fits under the umbrella of “show don’t tell”, but I think it’s an alternative (and hopefully helpful) way to examine the same elephant.
- Too much specificity. The converse of this, of course, is info-dumping. I was so, so guilty of this early on. I think a lot of new writers are. And I 100% understand why. Especially in SFF (but also in general fiction), we’ve built this huge, complex world of deep characters and intricate, layered plots and consequently, like serial killers, we want everyone to KNOW IT. But this is a temptation that I, along with probably thousands of other writers, have had to learn to rein in. Because the reader doesn’t care about the intricate history of this fantasy race or the deep personal scars of your main character’s brother. Information in a novel should be strictly need-to-know ALWAYS. Because the reader comes into the story trusting that you know what you’re doing, that you value their time and you won’t jerk them around. Therefore, they expect everything you offer them to be directly relevant (also known as Chekhov’s Gun). But the moment a reader realizes that there are things in the story that aren’t relevant to the plot at hand, they begin to skim for the “real story” (or worse, put down the book). I spend most of my second draft cutting out extraneous detail to leave only the sleek sealskin of the story (or, you know, a mess that then needs to be edited approximately 10 billion more times).
- A lack of focus on character. Now this is the thing I still struggle with the most (at least on this list). Because I really like ideas and scenarios and cool what-if questions. However, as I’ve learned through (often painful) failure, stories at their heart are about people, not ideas. Whether in space or in a fantasy land or in Hoboken, New Jersey, they are about the human condition and the struggles we all face. And to forget that is to lose sight of why we read and share stories. After all, what is the real climax of Harry Potter? I’d argue that it isn’t the fight with Voldemort, it’s Harry’s decision to sacrifice himself and absolution he gets from the in-between with Dumbledore. What about Lord of the Rings? I’d argue that the true climax is Frodo’s ultimate failure to destroy the ring and the realization that no one is truly un-corruptable (not to mention Sam’s heroic choice to carry Frodo up the mountain). Looking at any of my favorite stories, it’s not the world or the idea or even the plot that I remember most. It’s the people and their unique struggles and how I related and loved them for it. So now, I start everything with character. I’d posture that it’s even beneficial to build the world and plot around the characters, to address their weaknesses, their fears, and how they will ultimately find salvation or fulfillment (or, in the case of tragedy, ultimate failure).
Sorry for the deluge, but I hope this was helpful to some of you! I’m happy to clarify any of these points. If you guys like it, I’d be glad to do one for querying/pitching too (which I also have a nauseating amount of experience with). And if you’re new to writing, I HIGHLY HIGHLY recommend John Truby’s Anatomy of Story and Stephen King’s On Writing. By far the two best craft books I’ve read so far.
What about you all? What are the writing mistakes you’ve learned the hard way? What are your tips and tricks from the trenches?