Beginning Writer Errors

the writer blue devil'd


While culling old files, every once in a while I discover caches of writing stuff. Most of it I toss after a laugh or two (especially my own attempts at “wisdom”) but sometimes I find things I think might kick off discussions.

Such as this con report on “the three worst mistakes made by new writers” as offered at a LosCon panel in the mid-nineties. It began with the audience writing on an index card what they considered to be beginning writers’ three biggest mistakes, and passing them forward before the panel started.

I think these lists interesting mostly because they reveal writerly process at least as much as they do beginner errors. Some of the best discussion arose out of what some considered no error at all, and others considered advice for revision, not for first draft errors, and what the difference was.

For pants writers (those who sit down and let the tale spin out through their fingers before going back to see what they have) one set of rules might be helpful and another useless; for plotters and planners, a completely different set.

The first panelist’s set:

  1. Sending first draft stories or novels out.
  2. Characters who all sound and think alike.
  3. White room openings.

Tales_of_wonder_by_James_GillrayAccording to Panelist One, there was a lot of very bad advice being passed around that in order to look professional, a writer had to keep flooding the magazines and agents with submissions. “Gives you a bad name—editors see your name and don’t even read the first page, after a slew of half-baked first drafts.”

Second panelist: “I agree. Don’t send it fast. Nobody cares when you send it, if you don’t have a contract. Send it when it’s right.”

Back to Panelist One (on being asked): “’White room opening’ is a story that begins with a guy sitting in a room thinking his history at the reader, who doesn’t give a flying finger, because nothing’s happened yet.”

Second panelist’s three rules:

  1. Rewriting chapter one and never getting past it.
  2. Not knowing where to start.
  3. Telling, not showing.

author struggling

The “show not tell” turned up a lot in these lists, and gets plenty of airtime wherever writers congregate, so there isn’t much use in typing up the notes I took. Though there are a bunch, particularly on when to show and not tell. (Short answer: it depends!).

But number two was explained this way: “When you feel you have to keep going back in flashbacks and datadumps to explain, you might be starting the story too late.”

To that, someone else said, “Start right before everything changes.”

Panelist’s Three’s list suggests to me that that writer works by a completely different process:

  1. Ending every chapter on a transition.
  2. Letting the narrative voice tell readers what to think.
  3. Long, clumsy sentences.

To number one, half the panelists disagreed. Note: “transitions are natural chapter breaks.” The writer defended it: “this pattern reads artificial.”

To point three, the writer said: “Beginning genre writers too fond of semi-colons. When too many turn up in every paragraph on every page, read aloud the sentences have a klunketta-klunketta rhythm, like a broken washing machine. For the extra turgid effect: sentences with both a semi-colon and an em-dash. Learn the elegance of the simple declarative sentence!”

Victorian lady writer

Next set:

  1. Predictability (unexamined tropes)
  2. Red shirt characters, especially girls.
  3. Repetition and redundancy bolstering weak verbs.

I underlined number two—this was before the “fridge women” term came around: characters who exist to die (usually wives or daughters), in order to motivate the protag (usually a man) to get busy protagging.

Number three, I noted down that the writer went on about unneeded prepositional phrases and adverbs larded into sentences: “He put down the knife onto the table in the dining room.” Why not shorten that to “He laid (or tossed, or jabbed) the knife on the dinner table.”

The writer also went on about “very” as an adjective, short answer: “Don’t.”

That launched a discussion of purple prose, what is and isn’t purple. Most agreed that purple = cluttered, overuse of adverbs, sentiment instead of real emotion (note from this panelist: “which is usually pretty much everything before the phrase his/her very soul”).

Next list:

  1. Maid-and-butler dialogue.
  2. Sentence fragments.
  3. Opening with generic pronouns.

cruikshank on shakespearean pundits

Maid and butler dialogue is another name for characters telling each other what they already know, usually as a substitute for data dumps.

That writer noted that strings of sentence fragments sound jerky when read out loud, and can be confusing. And on point three, said they lose interest fast in a book that starts out with some lone character, usually “He,” drifting around without a name. “It’s not intriguing, it’s coy. I hate coy.”

Last panelist:

  1. Writing without an outline. [Pantsers beware!]
  2. Cliché characters, situations, and prose.
  3. Unsupported endings.

I noted that ‘unsupported endings’ was defined as cheat endings, endings out of left field, ‘and then they were all hit by a bus’ endings, but someone else said that worse than that were endings that the narrative voice had to explain to the reader.

Then the moderator quickly read the audience lists.

I noted down concepts that showed up in more than one list: show don’t tell; repetitive prose; datadumps up front before anything happens (expressed in different ways, such as ‘starting in the wrong place’ and ‘beginning with prologue data’ or ‘starting with long flashbacks’).

The discussion strayed into self-editing, the only note from which I’ll list here: try to be aware of your own quirks—words or phrases that may not necessarily be clichés, but show up a lot, such as one ms that featured a lot of “creamy smiles.” Or words that stand out or have become buzzwords, like “redolent” and “nuanced,” and nouns turned into generic-sounding adjectives, like “touch,” as in “He was a touch angry,” and “She was a touch awed.” That last one resurrected “purple prose” again, then the panel ended.


About Sherwood Smith

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36 Responses to Beginning Writer Errors

  1. Mary says:

    One notes that by starting the story where you do, you figure out that it needs to start earlier.

    • One of the issues raised was that some lists were for first drafts and others for final drafts, which I don’t think really got resolved.

      But in another discussion elsewhere, an editor pointed out that a massive beginner error is assuming that white heat first drafts are final drafts.

  2. Helen Hall says:

    When I was tutoring beginning writers, one mistake that came up time and time again was dumping too much backstory and explanation in the first few pages. I was forever typing: Though you, as the writer, need to know all that, the reader doesn’t need to know everything about the character right at the beginning.

    • Asakiyume says:

      Hee, the comment I left could seem at odds with your comment, but it’s not at all: with practice, a writer learns how to add a little here and a little there so that readers don’t get whiplash from plot or character shifts, but at the same time don’t have to wade through lots of explanatory information.

      • Exactly–though as one of the panelists pointed out, that often can mean that the story needs to start earlier.

        • Lenora Rose says:

          It can be either, or both. Or it can even be the opposite; starting too soon. The writer is piling on the history of their galactic empire for three chapters before they actually get to the current character. Someone tells them this, so they rewrite the first three chapters as the main character delivering their planet’s equivalent of pizza, thinking about the history of the galactic empire.

          Sometimes, it turns out, they only need to start learning about the whole history of the empire after three or four chapters of the character going out in their spaceship and getting into some weird trouble with the law that makes them start questioning why this empire has such a stupid wrongheaded law.(Aka, “don’t start answering questions for the reader until the reader is asking them”). Sometimes, not even then; what the reader needs a few pieces blended in with the story, and the complete history can be thrown into an appendix for only the completists to dig up.

          I think, in the course of a stupid number of unpublished novels and more unfinished novel drafts, I’ve made mistakes in all three directions; starting too soon, starting too late, and plain old we don’t need to know this yet/at all.

    • Mary says:

      That’s the other reason why you go into past perfect too often!

  3. Asakiyume says:

    As I think back on my beta reading experiences, I think the problem I’ve noticed that jives most with the suggestions here is unsupported developments–not only unsupported conclusions, but unsupported swerves in plot or in character. The plot has been moving along in one direction and then suddenly hey-wait-what? it’s something else altogether. Or a character seems to have one set of motivations and traits and then suddenly they’re behaving completely differently.

    Speaking from personal experience, it’s hard, as a new writer, to prepare the soil of the novel so that these developments feel natural. They can be surprising, if you want them to be surprising, but they shouldn’t be WTF surprising.

    • I suspect one problem might be that writers are exhorted to keep things moving, or that character development = violence. Which is certainly the easy out for pacing and change.

  4. Merry Lochlain says:

    Happy New Year Sherwood!
    Thank you for another really annoying post – really annoying because I have already spent far too long thinking about it. Oh, to be able to sit down over a cuppa and just natter.

    Anyway, natter thought 1 – yes, (nodding in agreement) these points are about the writing process – structuring and editing. I thought it interesting that points about style also seem to point to other problems – so purple prose and maid and butler dialogue are as much about waffling, and loosing the plot, literally, as poor prose. Some of the style points I think you could make exceptions for – so sentence fragments may be used to break the rhythm of the prose effectively rather than annoyingly. I like the test of reading out loud.

    Natter thought 2 – beta readers and editors should also be aware of these problems, and be able to fling (metaphorically) mss back in writers’ faces when the ms is not working – in a helpful and objective way, of course, that will ensure their critiques are heard and understood, even if not accepted.

    Natter thought 3 – back story and where to start a story – it’s a balancing act isn’t it? every writer needs tonnes of back story, but the reader doesn’t. (As Helen says). I very much like the advice to “Start right before everything changes”. Of course, some stories are based around memory, and revealing the past, but that process usually starts with a trigger of some kind.

    Natter thought 4 – does anyone else get annoyed by ‘pointless protagonists’ – main POV characters that act only as a shoulder for the reader to peek over, so they tend to run around a lot in order to witness the action, but they don’t themselves add anything to the story?

    Natter thought 5 – I do like the illustrations you’ve picked – they make me smile.

    • I wonder if the protagonist-as-camera is a leftover from the days of the omniscient narrator who was part of the story only to report at the beginning and end that he or she had witnessed all the action. But never participates.

      • Merry Lochlain says:

        Mmm, maybe. Off hand I can’t think of any passive Ominiscient Narrators who were also set up as the protagonist.
        I suspect it’s a lack of confidence in stepping away from 1st person narration to multiple points-of-view.

    • Mary says:

      natter on natter thought 2– when they think something is wrong, they are probably right. When they think they know the problem, they are often wrong.

  5. Pilgrimsoul says:

    I teach non fiction prose, but I think its successful practice does demand imagination in the form of empathy. To get the point across, and fiction writers although they use different techniques need to do this too, one has to put oneself in the position of the audience at least during the editing process.
    This is the major mistake I see in beginning writers–assuming the reader knows what they know or will understand no matter what.
    Same as fiction?

  6. A very accomplished mystery writer, whose prose was clean and workmanlike enough that, when he bobbled, it stood out on the page, died a few years ago. His son, who had helped him finish the last book or two, took up the gauntlet.

    And half the chapters end with some version of “little did I know…”

    Drives me crazy. I will go back and re-read the books of the father until the son learns better. If ever he does.

    • The editor must be asleep on the job. “Little did I/he/she know” should be exterminated with extreme prejudice–unless handled like someone with the chops of Terry Pratchett, imo.

  7. Judith Tarr says:

    One thing I’m seeing in literally every not-ready-for-prime-time ms. is what I call “offstaging.” Or writing in negative space. Writing all around the real action. Characters talk about what happened, what is happening now, or what is going to happen. While it all happens elsewhere. Revision is as simple (if never easy) as getting rid of what’s there and writing what’s not there.

    There’s also a tendency not to understand how dialogue works. Writing all the small talk and conversational filler. Throat-clearing and rambling without actually addressing the key information that’s needed to move the conversation forward.

    Both of these things can be intractable. I’ve learned to say, “There is no bad or wrong way to write a first draft. The second, however…”

    • Oh, yes. That negative space thing.

    • Leigh Kimmel says:

      Sometimes a scene may be written around because the writer can’t figure out how to write it. I got hung up like that with one scene in my current WIP.

      Ever had someone say something that, on the surface, was an expression of sympathy but left you feeling worse? I’ve had it happen to me, but I can’t figure out how it’s done so I can actually write it as a scene — when it’s happening to me, I’m too busy dealing with the hurt to step outside myself and watch how the other person’s sticking the knife in and twisting.

      So I asked some other people in an online forum, but instead of answers, I got a lot of talking around the question. I thought I hadn’t asked clearly enough, so I asked again, rephrasing it in hopes of getting across what I was talking about. Still a lot of circular discussion that gave me no more idea of the mechanism of what I needed to portray. After a couple of iterations, I finally just gave up and decided to have the incident fall between two chapters, and the characters be feeling that frustrated bewilderment of how the third character manages to issue a statement that on the surface looks like an expression of sympathy, but stings like fire and ice.

      I’m hoping that it’ll work that way, because if it doesn’t, I’m quite at a loss as to how to write it, for the simple reason that as long as I don’t understand the mechanism by which it’s accomplished, there’s no way that I can write the specific details for a scene.

      • sherwood says:

        Sometimes a scene needs to fall between the cracks, as the reaction to it afterward can be more dramatic than the scene itself.

        But as to the specific situation, I suspect it really depends on the two individuals: say person A is the recipient and person B is the speaker offering sympathy.

        Person A can perceive sarcasm, or falsity, or mockery, or merely rote politeness in the sympathy, and be hurt.

        Person A can hear genuine sympathy, which sparks a welling of fresh grief. Or can be one who would rather not hear anything at all, but others seem to feel that words are necessary.

        Person B can be one of those who hits the wrong tone, or who isn’t able to see the signals that their words are impacting A negatively. (And can also mean to mock, or make light of A’s grief.)

        There are just so many variables.

        • Asakiyume says:

          This is a good elucidation of some of those variables.

        • Hanneke says:

          I can see at least two more patterns that fit these criteria.
          – If the sympathy offered on your bad luck and/or bad karma makes you feel powerless to do something about whatever negativity has befallen or overcome you, the perceived powerlessness makes you feel worse. The bad karma variation can also put added guilt on you for having done something bad to deserve it, without pointing to a concrete reason that you could ameliorate (perhaps even in a previous life, depending on your beliefs, thus making you utterly powerless to repair whatever you might have done – added guilt and powerlessness in one stroke).
          – The mean girl tactic, saying something that’s (falsely) sympathetic on the surface but carries a heavy subtext of scorn/denigration/nastiness. Like expressing sympathy for a girl who’s got glasses in such a way it implies her face wasn’t much to look at so it’s a good thing the glasses take the onlookers’ attention away from it. I’m sorry, I’m not a writer and can’t come up with better words to demonstrate it with.

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  9. Sara Stamey says:

    Thanks for more productive examples and discussion! So many of my students believe that their “inspired” first drafts need nothing more than a slight tweak here and there. My favorites lately are the writers who don’t know the definition of a misused word but “like the way it sounds.”

    • Oh lord. Sounds like the writers who object to any criticism because “I wept buckets while I wrote this.”

      • Sara Stamey says:

        Oh, yes, because intention is what counts.

        • And the writer’s emotions (no doubt as intense as reported) while writing. It is a tough lesson to learn that the purpose of rewriting is to try to get the words on the page to reflect those emotions, because one cannot stand at the shoulder of the reader, nattering, “I really suffered while writing this. Don’t you see the symbolism here? You’re . . . turning the page after scanning one line? How dare you! You simply don’t understand true poetry!”

  10. Faye Ringel says:

    It doesn’t help that one can easily find a published work (not self-published–Big Publishers) that embodies one or more of the complaints.

    Interesting about the “maid and butler dialogue.” It was long a stage-play convention, whether for comedy or drama, to have the play open with the maid answering the door or the telephone and revealing vast tracts of exposition. “Yes, sir, Lord and Lady X are not receiving callers since their daughter disappeared. Their American cousin, Mr. Suspicious, is out digging in the garden.”

    • This is true, and just about every discussion of such matters I’ve ever been part of has included folks who offer exceptions to whatever rules are being offered.

      To which it can only be said that writing is not like math with provable theorems. We can only go on perceived patterns of success!

  11. Cliff Burns says:

    I was talking to a colleague who also teaches creative writing and I told him I’d “murder the next idiot who advised his students to always come up with a snappy first sentence”.

    The chap looked down sheepishly and admitted he had done so on many occasions.

    “Well, quit it,” I snarled, “it’s moronic and downright annoying to intelligent readers.”

    He agreed and I hope he kept his word to cease and desist.

    Young and aspiring writers, take heed…

  12. Dawn Bonanno says:

    Show and tell could be a book all on its own.

    Thanks for sharing!