Seven Common Mistakes Authors Make and How to Fix Them

improveRecently, I was asked to speak to a group of accomplished mystery writers about the kinds of mistakes that could derail an otherwise good story. These seven mistakes in mindset are the gist of that talk.

The point in telling a story is to convey an experience to the reader.

Communication via text doesn’t afford writers with the luxury of gauging audience reaction on the fly. To compensate for this we seek out advanced readers and editors to help hone our craft. While that type of feedback is valuable, picturing an ideal reader, a target audience of one, can focus the story in a way that multiple sources of feedback cannot. Once you know who you are writing for, avoiding these seven pitfalls becomes easier.

1. Being fuzzy about what the story is about. This is normal in a first draft, especially in the beginning when you are still working it out for yourself as you write, but needs to be addressed in the second pass. Draw a big picture. Give the reader an idea of what to expect up front by setting the tone and the mood of the story from the opening scene. Set expectations. The end is in the beginning, the beginning is in the end. They are the bookends of your story and should match.

2. Not realizing that a good deal of what you want to convey to the reader will be lost in translation. Readers skim, get distracted, get interrupted, or put the book down in the chapters. Some readers absolutely will enjoy picking up on the subtleties of your character development. But many others may never figure out which character is which. Draw bigger than life, easily recognizable characters. Each character should have a unique voice, their own desires, and be the hero of their own story. Even unnamed characters can be created to be memorable. One author described story as a frosted window. Some of what the author wishes to convey to the reader gets lost in translation. Make features so colorful and distinguishing that even through the frosted window of story, the characters convey to the reader. Only name important characters who appear more than once in the story.

3. Thinking that the reader is interested in more than just the story.

Keep it simple. Don’t introduce material that isn’t necessary to the story, be it setting, characters, or even entire scenes and chapters. Everything else is off topic.

One important distinction is that authors like Tom Clancy and James Michener made the story about the technology or the history, so in that case it was an important element of the story that readers were expecting. The descriptions of the whales in Moby Dick were arguably padding acceptable in a time when authors were paid by the word. Melville probably wanted to get paid for all that research he did. Don’t be that guy.

To aid in deciding what to leave in and what to leave out, write a one sentence summary of your story. Make sure that everything in the story supports the premise in that summary.

On a related note: Dramatize Key events; summarize or skip the less important bits to keep the story moving. Fold description into action or dialogue, or even into verb choice and keep it as brief as possible.

4. Hyper-focusing on action and leaving out the responses.

Include emotional responses to reveal your characters’ motivations to the reader. This fits easily in Romance novels, but in other genres, authors have to work hard to make sure the viewpoints characters feelings and thoughts about the story events appear on the page are not left up to the reader to assume.

Make sure you include a bit of reaction to each event in the story. This will be woven into your scenes: Stimulus—Response. It will also appear in the sequels or narrative that connect the scenes of the story. Reaction shows the where the story will go next, and is a useful motivator leading into the next scene.

5. Telling the story in a linear fashion.

boy writingRaise questions in the reader’s minds. String them along before answering. Keep secrets, but hint at their existence. When stuck, brainstorm five things that could happen, and choose the worst one for the character. Make the problems so difficult and unpredictable for that the reader can’t wait to find out what happens. Lay in a subtle setup for seemingly out of the blue events so that they seem familiar if not inevitable while remaining unexpected.

6. Not immersing the reader in the experience.

This is often another “lost in translation” issue. As authors we see clearly what is happening in the story as it is generated in our imagination. Translating a sense of being-there is a little more complex than writing the scene as we see it in our mind’s eye. We have to slow down and inventory the setting to create ways to put the reader into the story even more fully that we first imagined the scene.

  • Use all five senses plus anticipation and emotion setups. Think the Star Wars garbage compactor scene.
  • Attach emotional significance to objects, people, or words as the story builds. A not-so-subtle example is G. R. R. Martin’s phrase “Winter in Coming.”
  • Also consider using an immediate voice.

7. Falling in love with beautiful language.

Write for clarity, not beauty. It’s surprising how few literary devices you need for readers to comment on the writing quality. Use too many similes and metaphors, and they loose their punch. Like cayenne pepper, a little figurative language goes a long way. Trust that form will follow function.

A few hints on technique:

  • Make verbs do the heavy lifting for the clearest, most powerful fiction.
  • Use sentence length and complexity to moderate tone and pace. Reel the reader along. Short sentences convey urgency. Throw in detailed description when you want to ratchet the tension or, in less tense situations, when you want give the reader a rest.
  • Write short, eliminating needless words and phrases.
  • End sentences with strong words.
  • Keep analogies fresh, clear, and fitting to the overall tone.
  • Create images and sensations in the reader’s mind: Language is the writer’s tool and clay. Use it well.
  • Aim to give the reader a pleasurable experience by making the text easy to comprehend and brilliantly clear.

Each of these tips could be an entire session in and of itself. Recognizing any of these lapses in your writing will give you the power to fix them.

Happy Writing!  –Kate

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Characters from Real Life

Authors, do you base your stories on people you know?

Using real people as models can lend depth and backstory to your characters–details that can take a lot of time and effort to develop. But be warned, it can introduce problems as well.

Color it up! Changing your characters makes them more interesting and separates them from real life.

Color it up! Adding new dimensions and hues to real-life models can result in believable, complex characters.

You may have run into trouble once
you started writing because your mind sees things as they were. Real-life events are so vivid that they can overshadow the imagination. As a critique partner, creative writing teacher, and occasional editor, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve suggested changes to a story only to have the author say, “But that’s not how it really happened!”

Surprise, you’re trying to write fiction.

Or you wrote about Auntie Mary but you’d just die if she read what you said about her in your story. That book won’t see the light of day until your dear Auntie Mary passes to her eternal reward. There’s a better fix other than offing you relatives or writing a memoir.

Characters have layers (like an onion)

Superficial Layer

On the surface is how they look–physical features such the skinny blonde, the slick banker with sharp features who dresses in New-York black suits, the tall cowboy prefers a duster and motorcycle boots with his Stetson, or plump Auntie Mary with her silver curls and an apron tied over her floral blouse and capris. You get the picture and can think of many more examples.

Quirks and Traits

The second layer to your characters consists of their mannerisms, likes, dislikes, quirks etc. Auntie Mary is always trying to feed you something. You broke up with your boyfriend, she bakes a pie. You cut your finger, you can’t leave until she makes you a lasagne. We see these personality trails through the character’s actions.

Deeper Layers

Additional deeper layers don’t show right away but can have an effect on the story. These are things like the character’s backstory and core beliefs.

Bedrock

The deepest and most important layer is who your characters are under pressure. Through the story’s conflicts, your characters’ beliefs come under fire. How they respond to the most intense conflict reveals elements of character that even the character may not have known.

In facing tough situations, the characters may learn something about themselves. More importantly, the reader comes to know the characters at the deepest level. This makes for an excellent story.

If you are stuck on what happened in real life, you cheat your story of those moments.

How to make fiction

To separate real life examples from the people in your story change the first layer–the outward appearance of your character. We rely so heavily on our sense of sight, that the difference between the image of the character in real life and in the story may be all you need cut the strings that bind the two together. Turn Auntie Mary into an anorexic. Change her gender, race, or national origin. Anything that will make her different in your mind from your real life Aunty Mary.

If you still think she is too recognizable to the real life version, give your character a different second layer. Auntie Mary could love to tell dirty jokes, or become a compulsive cleaner or a real mess. Or she could dress in fall colors. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that in your mind and hers (if she ever reads your work), she will not be the same as the original.

You should begin to see the character as someone other than Auntie Mary. But in many ways she will stay the same. Her core values, her smile, the way she makes the other characters feel can all remain, giving her more depth than a character dreamed up from thin air. But when she gets in a pressure situation, the response can come from you fictional character without being influenced by what Auntie Mary would do. Hopefully, you will never again be tempted to say, “That’s not how it really happened!”

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The Writer’s Nest

The Value of Conferences

Writers seeking professional development often turn to conferences as a way to learn about the craft, meet other writers, and pitch their work to agents and publishers. But the biggest and most publicized conferences can be expensive, even more so when you factor in travel and hotel expenses.  There is another option: the local conference.  These are often hosted by state or regional writing groups or the local chapters of national groups and offer great value.

I recently attended a mini conference held by the Central Florida chapter of the Florida Writer’s Association. The sad thing was that I almost didn’t go. With just over a hundred participants, The Writer’s Nest was intimate, “cozy” in real-estate terms. When a friend invited me, my response was, “It’s not big enough to attract agents with the clout to sell my book. And who is going to lead the sessions? The same people I know from critique groups?”

Despite what they say about a cluttered desk,  when mine looks like this it means I'm focused  on a project to the exclusion of everything else.  Right now it's getting Rosamond Eternal out the door.

Despite what they say about a cluttered desk,
when mine looks like this it means I’m focused
on a project to the exclusion of everything else.
Right now it’s getting Rosamond Eternal out the door.

Thank goodness I checked out the program before saying no. I almost didn’t; I’ve been busy as evidenced by the state of my desk.

At this conference small were several agents who flew in from as far away as Los Angeles just to spend the day with a group of 100 plus writers. What an opportunity for these writers to not only pitch their work to agents actively building their lists, but to talk with these people who have a window on the other side of the publishing business. Several of the agents conducted sessions in which they shared their understanding of the publishing business and welcomed questions from the writers. One session had less than twenty participants and two literary agents from a well-respected Boston agency.

Then there was lunch, a healthy and delicious lunch at which the presenters (agents, publishers, social media experts, editors, and so on) mingled and dined with the participants. Talk about intimate.

As for the local talent, that’s Talent with a capital T. Sitting across the table from someone once or twice a month in critique groups is not the same as listening to their professional presentation at a conference. Some of these folks travel to national conferences to present the same material. Some are amazingly skilled writers with insight into the craft and the willingness and ability to share that with others. I humbly admit that I learned a great from the hometown prophets in Central Florida.

But I should have known. Thinking back on the first conference I ever attended, it was much the same. Held by the Space Coast Writer’s Guild, it offered only sessions, no agents, no booths, just sessions on skill building, publication, and promotion. Looking back, the presenters at that simple conference gave me the vision of my future career that I’m still using as guidance.

True, the national and international conferences draw big names. But they draw big numbers and big price tags as well. My advice–don’t discount the value of local conferences on whatever topic. There is no substitute for intimacy.

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