Sunday, August 21, 2011

To Err is Human, To Learn Divine

My 8 Biggest Mistakes in Writing

From the time we learn to form complete sentences, we notice and point out other people’s mistakes and flaws (for a sample, visit your nearest playground or listen to a pair of siblings arguing.) But it takes decades for us to acknowledge our own errors—if we ever do. It seems especially difficult to find mistakes in our creative endeavors, particularly in our writing. There is something about this art form that feels very personal. Many times we need someone else to tell us what's wrong with our manuscript. Other times—if we’re objective enough—we’re able to identify the problems ourselves. This is an important step for a writer; if we never acknowledge our mistakes, we are bound to repeat them. Equally important is to be able to learn from them, but this is not always easy. Sometimes we’re too immersed in our work to see clearly, or we’re too impatient to be published to take the time to rewrite—even if a little voice inside our heads keeps telling us the novel is not ready. This is why time and distance are key. If we come back to our novel weeks, months or years later, we’ll be able to read it like outsiders and identify what’s not working. But we won't be able to do this until we have grown in our craft. Thus, practice and reading are essential. Our favorite books, or even the ones we don’t like, can be great learning tools. As with any other skill, like playing the piano, cooking, or roller-skating, the more we do it, the better we’ll get at it.

Going back to the earliest drafts of my first novel, I can now see clearly the mistakes I made. Here are my eight worst mistakes and what I’ve learned from them:

1. Ms. Ghost or the Passive Protagonist

In my attempt to create a vulnerable and likable heroine, I made the mistake of making her too passive. She was agreeable and nice, but boring. (And she was always smiling!) Things just happened to her and she had no other option but to react. Somewhere in the creative process, I crafted secondary characters that “came to life” and became a lot more interesting than my protagonist. Ms. Ghost became a witness to the more active characters and I kept hearing how much my readers loved the other characters (buuh!)

Possible solutions: If another character becomes more engaging to you, consider making her the protagonist. If this is impossible, then find ways to make your main character more active and interesting. Instead of letting the circumstance and/or other characters dictate her actions, make her take the initiative. Give her a backstory (but don’t share the entire thing with the reader, please.) One of the problems I had with my heroine was that she was “born at 19.” I never gave her a past, therefore I didn’t know who she really was; only what was going to happen to her in the future.

2. Ms. Magnet or the Inexplicably-Attractive Character

Not only was my heroine passive, but men were falling for her like flies on a quarter sheet of chocolate cake. (Maybe because of her smile?) She was an irresistible magnet and at least three men in the novel were fighting for her affection. The leading man, for example, practically fell in love with her “at first sight.” Although it’s not unusual for people to be immediately attracted to each other, it’s not enough to build a convincing/touching tale. Neither is it realistic that with so many women in the world, everyone falls in love with the same one.

Possible solutions: Dissolve her fan club and focus on the relationships that are relevant to the plot. More importantly, give the hero and heroine things in common: likes, dislikes, backgrounds, ideals, goals, etc. You know, things that make couples in real life fall in love.

3. The "We are the World" Syndrome

If you ask me how many characters and subplots I had in my first draft, I couldn’t tell you. There were just too many to remember! My innocent goal was to tell the story of a town, not just a family, a la Peyton Place/Macondo. The problem with this is that it’s extremely difficult for a novice writer to keep track of all the developing storylines and character arcs, and be able to time them just right with the main plot. Not only that, but the manuscript becomes as thick as an encyclopedia, and you find yourself cutting down on scenes that contribute to the main plot or the characterization of important characters. (I should mention, too, that I was jumping from head to head at whim!)

Possible solutions: Press “delete."

4. The Anything-Goes Novel

In my conversations with other writers, we all agree that there is an innocence and bliss to that first draft that never comes back. When you first start, you feel unrestrained, powerful, enthusiastic with your creations and developments. A free spirit. You are overflowing with ideas and you must fit them all in your magnum opus. You are the “owner of your world.” But then you bump into that first door (aka: reality) be it through an editor, agent, teacher or critique partner and you realize you’re not as free as you thought. Your world has to have a direction, they tell you. You can’t have errant scenes just because they’re fun to write if they don’t lead anywhere. You can’t ramble about until you find a solution to the protagonist’s dilemma and your manuscript reaches 153,000 words. (True story.)

Possible solutions: Plan your novel before you start writing it. By planning, I don’t mean “think about it.” I mean write an outline or a summary of scenes. If you cringe just reading the word “outline," then at least figure out how you’ll get from opening dilemma to climactic scene to resolution. I know this is not a popular answer. Many writers feel their creativity will be shut down if they use any kind of structure or guideline. But in my own experience, complete freedom can be more paralyzing than setting limits for yourself. (If you can go any direction, how do you know which one is the best one to take?)

5. “Do what I tell you, Dammit!”

So you have an idea of how your plot should go. You figure out every twist and turn until you reach a satisfactory conclusion. Then you create your characters. But for some reason, they’re not doing what you want them to do. Or if they are, IT’S NOT MAKING SENSE. You’ve fallen into the trap of forcing your characters to follow the plot. They’re little puppets acting in ways that seem unnatural to who they are or to real life reactions.

Possible solutions: Be honest with yourself. How would you really act under the circumstances you’ve orchestrated in your novel? Don’t try to make your character act a certain way just because you want to use a particular setting, line of dialogue, or because you want to include that funny scene you love. It’s more important to craft believable characters and situations that your readers will buy. (A noteworthy comment: if you don’t think something you wrote is funny, neither will your audience.)

6. The Unsolvable Puzzle

When I first started writing it was difficult for me to determine how much information I should give away and how much I should withhold. Since I was writing a mystery, I was very careful not to give away too much. But the problem is I didn’t give enough and some conversations and scenes were so cryptic my readers had a hard time understanding what was going on. (I apologize for the frustration I imparted on my early readers.)

Possible solutions: Make the reader an accomplice of the protagonist’s discoveries. Give away information throughout the novel so that the reader doesn’t have the feeling he skipped three pages and doesn’t want to waste any more mental energy interpreting what your characters are saying/doing. In the end, you may lose your reader to a bottle of Aleve.

7. Telegraph Scenes

In my first draft, scenes were very short and lacked enough setting and inner thought. They were like characters in a school play coming in and out of the stage to recite their lines. My average chapter had ten or more scenes!

Possible solutions: Figure out what purpose each scene is serving and find a way to meet these needs by either joining scenes or rewriting them. Balance the dialogue with inner thought, action, setting, etc.

8. Rushed Ending

Somewhere in the middle of the first draft I read that 150,000 was a high word count (imagine that!) When I came to this realization, I started rushing my novel so that I wouldn’t add too many words to my already Bible-size manuscript (actually I did this with the second draft, too). What a mistake this was! There is nothing more unforgivable than an unsatisfactory ending! Many readers will swear off a writer if they don’t like how he or she wrapped up a book. Some writers also make this mistake because they’re eager to finish their books.

Possible solutions: If you realize late that you have a high word count, don’t sacrifice the quality of your book in order to cut down your words. When you revise the text from the beginning, cut any extraneous scenes/characters/subplots/words.

Your turn to own up to your mistakes. Which ones did you make when you first started to write and what have you learned from them?


  1. Have struggled with no. 1 with each novel I've written.



    (One of your best-crafted posts to date, L. Good stuff.)

  2. Oh #4... Sigh. I was crushed when I leaned that anything-does-not go.

    My #9: "You mean something has to happen?"

    Even though I have been a voracious reader of fiction for most of my life, it didn't immediately dawn on me that I couldn't just describe an interesting world. Something had to happen. Grrr. I confess I still struggle with that one.

    Great post Lorena!

  3. Number Threeeee! Sister Lorena, who´s been my Beta Reader since the beginning of this century, can vouch that I have evolved somehow since my first innocent drafts which were crowded with multiple POVS, back-story and so on. But there is a recurrent problem in my novels: characters and subplots grow like fungus on rotten bread.
    Every time I begin a new project, I vow to keep it short and sweet, but no--- those unrequited characters and their baggage keep on coming.
    Another recurrent problem, which might derive from cultural differences, is that I am always writing something that offends modern sensibilities, and since these vary from country to country, I guess I always will.

  4. Great list of holes we all fall into. I'm guilty of letting my mc watch what's going on around her instead of being part of it. Enjoyed the post.

  5. Lorena,
    This is wonderfully written and packed with great information. Have you considered submitting it elsewhere for publication? It would really liven up the SouthWest Sage for example. :)

  6. Great post, Lorena! I'd say I've been a bad head hopper in the past. I thought my first novel had a great ending, but I learned later that it wasn't really an ending. I just kind of left the story hanging and when I started filling it in a whole second half of a story came to mind. I always try to have a puzzle in the mix, so I understand when the reader gets confused because, hey, I know what's going on inside my head so shouldn't they? Funny what we all do!

  7. Dear Suze, I also struggle with No. 1 a lot. Even now that I am conscious of this problem, I find myself making my MC too passive in certain scenes and having to go back and change her reactions or the things she says.

    Raquel, your No. 9 is more common than you may think. Many writers have a great voice and can craft unique/interesting characters but have difficulties creating a compelling plot. I think part of the problem is that since so much has been written already, it's hard to find situations that are original or different. This is why I'm now writing Historical Fiction. They say that real life is stranger than fiction and I think, to some extent, it's true. I have found a lot of inspiration in history.

    Sister Violante, you and I both suffer from the same malady (Excessive Subplot and Character Syndrome, ha!) I think our "problem" is cultural. Yes, telenovelas have influenced our writing, but look at the Latin American writers. They all do the same! It's just that we are trying to break into the American Industry (which is more unforgiving, IMO) and where this kind of writing is not as common/accepted.

    Julie, welcome to our blog and thanks for commenting! I think you're problem is extremely common. This is why we have to know it's a problem so we can fix it :) Please come back to visit us!

    Thanks Joycelyn for your kind words! I will look into it. I was thinking of you and Don when I mentioned my puzzled-early readers :-) You guys were so patient with me! (I really appreciate it.)

    Sister Mary, in Spanish, there is a saying that applies to us: "Nadie aprende en cabeza ajena" which means: nobody learns in someone else's head. How much time would we have saved if we had simply followed the *rules*? (I'm afraid to write this word without offending someone, ha ha!) But literature is not like math. You know there are rules, but since they're always broken (and sometimes successfully) we think we'll be the exception, too. So we go ahead and do whatever we want only to realize that in many cases, the damn rule was right. :p

  8. Fantastic post, Lorena! Wow, I recognized myself a little too well in everything you listed. The Excessive Subplot and Character Syndrome is my biggest bugaboo, one that early readers always point out to me in every manuscript. It's so hard to stay disciplined; to keep plot streamlined and characters to the minimum necessary.

    Thanks for your honesty and your excellent tips on fixing those errors ... hopefully before they're made!

  9. Wow! I just discovered your site and I love it! The possible solutions to the 8 writing mistakes are really helpful - especially the importance of walking away from your writing for a period of time to gain a fresh perspective. I also really liked reading the agent interviews. I'll be back!

  10. Time, distance, practice and reading = perfect advice.

  11. Dear Steph, you may have some of the problems listed here but your protagonist is definitely NOT a passive heroine. So you don't have to worry about that!

    Welcome Dana and I'm glad you found us. Please do come back to visit us!

    MP, it all boils down to those four things. Doesn't it?

  12. Such a good post! I confessed all my iniquities in a similar (but less detailed) post last year:

    Put me down for number 1 too - but I did fix it in editing. Yes, it's possible sometimes to actually rewrite to give a protagonist a personality. Possible, if not ideal!

    I think the only downside of increased self-awareness as a writer is that I've slowed down. My first draft for my current project is going excruciatingly slowly, probably because I know what I can and can't include and I'm eliminating fluff before I even write it...which takes a little joy out of the whole first draft process. I think I've yet to take my editor hat off and just let the words flow!

  13. Hi Lorena, I am so happy to have discovered your blog. I don't have an answer to the question you posed at the end of your post, but I love a lot of what you said, and this line stuck out among many good ones: "Make the reader an accomplice of the protagonist’s discoveries."

    In both my novels, I used the third person limited omniscient narrative voice. (In the first novel, I wasn't aware that I was doing it; one of my critique peeps/reviewers, though, told me I had.) That "voice" means that not a single scene or word of dialogue takes place outside the protagonist's presence. In my first novel, which has a surprising twist, using that narrative voice ensured that the reader and my protagonist would make discoveries simultaneously. It was a fun challenge!

    You write beautifully, by the way.

  14. This was a wonderful and very helpful post. It gave me a lot to think about as I continue slogging along...although at this point, I WISH I had 150,000 words! :)

  15. Lorena, I'm truly impressed. This does not sound like the young writer struggling with Malena back when I knew her. Very good post. Lots of gems. Congrats on your growth as an author.

    Don Morgan

  16. I am working on my first draft. Thank you for this invaluable advice. I will take it on-board and hopefully not make TOO many mistakes!

  17. Hi! Great to see you're in the campaign. Seems a long time since I visited. This was a great post. I related to No 1 especially. How to get that MC a bit more edgy! Thanks so much for sharing this.


  18. Welcome back Adina and Denise! We have missed you guys' insightful comments. Thanks for remembering us and stopping by. Adina, hope everything is going well with the new baby :-)

    Katie, I'm glad you found us, too. POVs for me have been a big challenge (especially because this limited narrator is a new concept). For years I read books with omniscient narrators, so I resisted the change for A LONG time, but I now prefer the limited narrator--it actually makes things simpler. Thanks for your kind words.

    Maggie, the grass is always greener. When you have a huge word count like I did, things can get incredibly complicated (it's really hard to discern what subplots and characters to keep and how to restructure the whole thing.) So be happy that you still have a clean ms!

    Don, thanks for stopping by. Your words mean a lot to me. I hope your projects are going well.

    Hi Ann! Good luck with your novel. Let us know how things are going!

  19. I think #7 was the mistake I made with a lot of my earliest books. I guess it can be blamed on how many soap operas I watched at that age, where the camera would indeed come in and out of scenes instead of just focusing on one long enough to build a setting and characters!

    I actually don't think #3 and #4 are bad, if one is deliberately writing a very long novel. 150,000 words are a drop in the bucket for me, since I've written books that are much longer, and my current WIP is around 236,000 words so far, with my final goal upped to 350,000 from 300,000 so it would be around the length of the book it's a sequel to and I wouldn't feel stressed about making the rest of the chapters far too short. But then again, I know I'm in a minority for still loving to read and write supersized books.

  20. Carrieannebrownian, it sounds like you and I have a lot in common. I'm also heavily influenced by soap operas in my writing (you can read about it in my Confessions of a Telenovela-Addict post.) And also by the fact that I'm from Latin America and I grew up reading novels with tons of characters and subplots. But I believe publishing is changing (especially in the US) and they are becoming less patient with books. In my own personal experience, my second book has been simpler to write because it only has one POV (as opposed to entering the minds of every character, the way I used to do) and I focus on one main plot (as opposed to several subplots of equal importance.) It's not that this stuff is bad, it's just that it requires a more experienced writer than I was to be able to pull that off.

  21. Great post, I'm bad with the "We Are the World" syndrome, I always have to go through my first drafts and delete so much random.

    I'm in the WF campaign group with you ladies and glad to have found your blog!

  22. Hi Jennifer, it's nice to meet more WF writers! The majority of bloggers I know specialize in YA and/or fantasy. In the Sisterhood, Stephanie and I write Women's Fiction and Historical, Mary Mary writes Historical, and Violante writes Historical Fantasy. Welcome to our blog!

  23. Great post, Lorena!

    My two from you list are #3 and #6. I'm constantly trying to do too many characters and they're constantly being too damn cryptic :) in an effort not to give too much away.

    To solve this, I usually add too much in the first draft and then trim out as needed.

    Oh and like #3, I have a too-many-worlds problem :-/ ... My first-ever book was at 200K because of two many worlds. Yeesh.

    Thanks for the post!


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