Top 5 Mistakes Amateur Writers Make

I agree that these are the top 5 mistakes new writers make, and I have seen all five in the stories people have asked me to critique.


 

P.O.V. Mistakes

1st Person P.O.V: This is the “I” point-of-view. The story is written from the singular perspective of one character in particular.

Problems: People using 1st P.O.V. tend to forget that their main character can only know exactly what he/she experiences. That means characters can’t suddenly have knowledge of a meeting they didn’t attend or of the contents of a suitcase they’ve never seen. 1st person P.O.V. is necessarily limited.

2nd Person P.O.V: This is the “you” point-of view. The story is written from the perspective of a reader, usually found in Choose-your-own-adventure novels, though there are a few other books that utilize this viewpoint.

Problems: 2nd P.O.V. should never be used by an amateur writer, period. Using the “you” P.O.V. without aggravating the reader requires an incredible amount of skill. Since there are few professional writers who can use the “you” P.O.V. in such a way, amateurs are better off avoiding it altogether.

3rd Person Limited P.O.V: This is the “he/she” P.O.V. Since it’s limited, however, that means it’s necessarily restricted to just one of the characters. If the main character–let’s say Mark, for example–doesn’t know about a meeting that occurs, then you can’t mention it in your novel. If Mark doesn’t witness an event, then it didn’t occur.

3rd Person Omniscient P.O.V: This is also a “he/she” P.O.V., but because it’s omniscient, you can write from the perspective of multiple characters. Judging by the number of fantasy novels I’ve read (where this style is most often seen), the number of perspectives used ranges from four to seven, with the average being four.

Problems: The first problem with 3rd person P.O.V. is that amateur writers get the two types confused. If you start out limited, you have to continue using a limited style. You can only write from the perspective of the main character.

The second problem with 3rd person P.O.V. is one I see with the omniscient style. If a scene is from the p.o.v. from Character 1, you can’t suddenly start writing the scene from the p.o.v. of Character 2 (this is the head-hopping she referred to in the video).

The other problem is that a lot of writers choose to use omniscient when they would be better suited to limited. 3rd omniscient is best used when you have a lot of subplots that will eventually intersect with each other near the middle/end of the book. On the other hand, if you have one primary character with a goal who just happens to pick up characters on their way (adventure type story), you’re better off using a limited style.

What I See the Most: 3rd person to 1st Person P.O.V. hopping and unnecessary usage of the omniscient 3rd when the limited 3rd will do.


Voice Mistakes

Definition of Voice:  The writer’s voice is the individual writing style of an author, a combination of idiotypical usage of syntax, diction, punctuation, character development, dialogue, etc., within a given body of text (or across several works).

(Yes, I did take the definition from Wikipedia, because the definition is worded well enough for my purposes).

Finding a voice takes time. Most writers don’t develop their voices overnight–it takes years. I have an established voice in my fiction because I’ve been writing fiction for fifteen years. I can describe my style as well as the aspects of writing I struggle with, and if you can’t do that as a writer, then you still have a lot of work to do. And that’s okay. We all have to start somewhere.

My writing style: I write in 1st person, use a ton of internal and external conflict, avoid describing rooms/objects/people as much as possible, vary sentence lengths in order to create suspense or reduce it as needed, and delve deep into the psyche of my main character.

My strengths: Excellent main character development, tons of action, lots of suspense, and a fast pace (which goes hand-in-hand with action/suspense). I also write chapters as mini-stories, so I don’t use cliffhangers. (I’ve had other writers criticize my writing because I don’t use cliffhangers, but all of my readers have told me they love how I wrap chapters up so they can have a stopping point to reflect on what they’ve read. Since I write for my readers–and myself, of course–I take their advice over other writers’ critiques). 

My weaknesses: Too little description–I go back and add it as needed. I overuse sentence fragments and em-dashes–again, fixed upon editing. My main characters are well developed, but my side characters have to be fixed when I edit (as they are just sorta there as place-markers until my main character reaches his/her goal). And I add too much back-story when I write (a.k.a. info-dumping), which I then have to remove upon editing.

Too Much Voice: In the video, she mentioned that amateur writers tend to try to mimic other writers too heavily. I’ve seen this, over and over and over. If you’re a fantasy writer and you read a lot of Robert Jordan, Tolkien, Martin, or Terry Goodkind, don’t try to write like them. Be inspired by them, certainly, but don’t mimic the way they write.

When you mimic the voice of another writer, you are screaming, “Look how little confidence I have in my writing!” No agent or editor wants to try and deal with writers with blatantly obvious insecurity issues. It’s like a rock band that only sings covers of other bands (and never creates any music uniquely their own) trying to get signed by a major record label. Writing, like all art, is about taking risks, and when you mimic someone else’s style, you’re leaning on a safety net. Only that safety net is an illusion and it’s really the reason your manuscripts get rejected before an agent/editor even gets through the first page.

Too Little Voice: In contrast, too little voice makes the writing boring. You’re too distant from the characters and the reader has no interest in learning what happens next. This generally arises from using too much passive voice in your writing. If you go through your manuscript and find tons of was, is, were, had been, have been, etc.–this is where part of your problem is at. Passive voice boring.  It’s that simple.

What I See Most: A lot of new writers overuse passive voice because they don’t understand the difference between active and passive writing. That’s the number one piece of advice I’d give: Learn how to tell the difference between the two. I do occasionally see writers who use too much voice, and that is recognizable by using overly-flowery language and turning a five word sentence into a fifteen word sentence.

An example of that would be when a sentence like:

“The girl scrambled under the desk, heart racing as she waited for the danger to pass.”

becomes something like:

“The girl, clad in a black skirt with pink hearts and a white lace blouse, hurriedly maneuvered herself into a position underneath the nearest desk, her heart palpitating rapidly as she waited for the unknown dangerous assailant outside in the hall to bypass her classroom.”

Most people will read those two sentences and ask why anyone would write the second sentence–even the people who have a tendency to write that way–simply because I introduced a better version of that sentence beforehand.

Yes, you get more information from the second sentence, but you get too much information. You lose the sensation of danger, of the tense atmosphere, and that’s the last thing you want to do as a writer. A good rule of thumb? If the sentence detracts from the atmosphere you want in a scene, rewrite the sentence.


 

Telling vs. Showing Mistakes

‘This is the number one piece of advice given to writers by other writers. I can’t count how many times I’ve heard “Show, don’t tell,” or given the same advice myself.

The advice should really be worded, “Show the scenes that advance the plot and drive them home with the imagery you use,  but tell the elements/scenes that don’t need elaboration or you risk having your writing become boring.”

I.e. The first scene in your book opens with an armed robbery and the main character is one of the people in the crowd. In this scene, show what happens by using body language, emotions, description, etc. Make the atmosphere tense through the language you use.

Now, say the next scene you have is the main character being debriefed by officers after the robbery occurs. There’s no reason for you to write the scene showing the interaction between the main character and the cops (unless the cop is going to do something crazy like attack the main character), so the best thing to do is sum it up in a paragraph and tell that it happened.

Professional writers mix showing and telling all the time. It’s learning when you should show and when you should tell that trips amateur writers up. A good rule of thumb? If the scene is something that would bore you to read, then don’t write it!


Conflict

Conflict is the bread-and-butter of writing. The more you have, the better your story. There is no such thing as too much conflict. 

In real life, we all hear people say, “Damn, I wish I didn’t have to deal with all this drama.” And yeah, sure, a lot of us think we feel that way. But I’ve learned over the years that we get bored when nothing’s going on.

When we lack drama in our lives, we will go out of our way to create some, or to find someone dealing with drama so that we will stop being bored out of our minds. Drama is where life happens. 

And that holds true for writing, as well. The more conflict, the more drama, you inflict on your characters, the more attention you’ll hold in your readers.

Throw your characters into the middle of a conflict as soon as you start your book. Thrust them into danger in every scene, if you can, and your book will become one of those that readers throw across the room in anger b/c of all the crap the characters go through. But then, because there’s so much drama, those readers will pick the book up and continue reading it.

The best books, in my opinion, are the ones readers want to throw (or do throw) multiple times because the sheer amount of conflict/drama/mess the main character goes through pisses them off. But then they pick the book back up because they think, well, maybe things will get better. 

After all, isn’t that how all of us react to life normally? I mean, we all hate going through all the drama and bullshit we put up with, but I know, in the back of my mind, at least, that I’m always thinking, If I grit my teeth and get myself through this, then things will get better. 

Recreate that in a book, and you’ll have lifelong readers of your work.

 

 

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