Five Mistakes

I’ve been watching another YouTube video on writing, specifically on the five main mistakes made by ‘amateur’ writers, also known as aspiring writers. I’m not sure which is less depressing.

The first one listed was Point of View, or rather the constantly changing nature of point of view in some early stage stories. I’ve slipped into it a few times and actually found it quite easy to fix, so I’m not sure why it was being listed as such a heinous crime that it would put a thick black stroke through your name on the list of any editor you approached.

It’s certainly something that’s easy to slip up on, but I had some good advice from a tutor along those lines to basically check two things at the end of writing a scene:

  1. Thoughts and feelings are inside you (your primary character) – as such, they’re your reality. The person sitting opposite you at the table is wearing a green necklace, it’s your perception that makes it ugly, but that perception is your view of reality, therefore, the necklace is ugly.
  2. Everything else is picked up in clues by your five senses. So, if Mark is feeling happy, Sarah can’t also be feeling happy – she can be smiling, or chatting happily, or tell Mark “I’m feeling happy.” but being in two heads at once is confusing and will probably cause travel sickness.

The second checkpoint above is also a good reminder to describe, something I need to remember to take the time to do.

The second crime is too much voice, where the writer is trying too hard to be a writer. This is a tough one as there are very few people who get into the whole writing malarkey that don’t have some sort of love for language and the music of words. The problem comes through when the words get in the way of the story. Some authors nail poetic prose (Patricia McKillip comes to mind), most don’t.

I started reading what was supposed to be a children’s story a few years ago called ‘The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making‘. I didn’t finish it. Not because it wasn’t a good story but because the writing was deliberately and densely Victorian. I enjoyed the novelty of it at first, but as I went on, it got in the way of the story. Clearly other people don’t have the same problem, that book is the start of a popular series, it’s won some notable awards and many, highly regarded people have raved about it. I wonder if it works better if you read it aloud – that’s what most Victorian stories were written for after all.

The third mistake is the opposite swing of the pendulum, not enough voice and I can certainly be guilty of this. It creates distance between the reader and the character, which in turn removes the emotion, and emotion is what drives a story (well, conflict but they’re rather closely entwined).

My first drafts are a mad rush to find out what happens, so I have a bad habit of summarising things, and summaries do not do a good job on emotional engagement. Look at the first section of Greenwitch. While I had a lot of fun writing it, my second edit is going to have to at least double the word count, if not triple it, in order to properly draw you into Millie’s world and her cares and concerns.

Number four is the one I hear most often from anyone who is guiding others in writing. Show don’t tell. I don’t want to know that Theresa’s words hurt Theodore, I want to see him flinch as if slapped, then hunch down and avoid eye contact with everyone at the table.

The final one is not enough conflict. In every scene, the protagonist needs to have a goal, and something or someone they encounter in that scene has to be standing in the way of that goal.

Other advice I’ve had is for the protagonist to end every scene worse off than when they started. Speaking as someone who is quite fond of most of my characters, that can be a bit of a challenge to manage. I also think it’s a bit extreme, they need small victories on occasion, otherwise it just gets depressing, and slightly unbelievable when they suddenly turn around and win the main prize at the end (unless they don’t of course, but I prefer happy endings, or at least not deeply depressing ones).

So there you go, five things I’m doing wrong that I need to work on doing right and so I’ll keep putting words on pages and build over time.

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