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.
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.