Sunday, August 26, 2012

Three Beginners' Mistakes

Three Beginners’ Mistakes

Occasionally, aspiring writers ask me to read their work. I don’t like doing it because all too often they want praise, instant success, fame, and fortune instead of criticism. What they get from me is usually criticism.

However, I notice some very common mistakes showing up over and over. If you want to write a story, let me hit three of the most common ones that you should avoid.

  1. B eginning at the wrong spot. I know, I know, you’ve developed this tremendous backstory for your protagonist. But don’t dump it all on the reader at the very beginning. Don’t start by listing a dozen names of people who are going to be important. Don’t start before the story starts. And the story starts when your protagonist is challenged and acts. You can drop in the backstory later on. Get things moving right away, and keep it going.
  2. Holding back too much information. If your main character is a squirrel, not a human, let us know pretty darn soon. If the character is not male but female, let us know. This is almost the opposite of number 1, but it’s equally annoying. I once read a story that went on for ten pages of description of a place and activity before the writer even mentioned that the main character was present. People like to read about people. Get your characters on stage.
  3. Yakata-yak. “Show, don’t tell.” Don’t go on and on about what a great (or evil) person your protagonist is. Let the protagonist do and say things—and let the readers make up their minds about what kind of personality disorders they might have. Don’t stay too subjective. Don’t go into detail in narrative about your protagonists’ hopes and dreams and fears. Have the protagonist demonstrate these through action and dialogue. And don’t have long static talking-head conversations that ramble without point. Keep on task.

I’ve been guilty of each of these from time to time, but I do try to educate myself to weaknesses and to watch out for them. Remember, writing is not an idle activity, but a process. No one can teach you to write, but you can learn to write by observing your own work, considering it critically, and determining to learn something each time you begin a new story. Experiment. Keep what works and develop it and get rid of the weaknesses—and the beginners’ mistakes.

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