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Stop writing crappy fiction: seven (7) huge mistakes new writers make

So, you want to write the Great American Novel? Good for you. But be warned, there’s a lot of competition out there, and there are tons of writing landmines out there waiting to be stepped on.

Part of the problem is that much published fiction isn’t that well written, so you don’t have great examples to follow. And most of the fiction coaches out there are aspiring fiction writers themselves who don’t know what they are doing either, so a lot of their advice is bad, bad, bad. But have no fear, I can help you avoid seven of the biggest mistakes that new writers of fiction make.

As a ghostwriter, I have had the chance to read a ton of new fiction, most of it from new, hopeful writers. And almost every new fiction writer I have read makes the same mistakes.

For the sake of my sanity—and for the sake of literature in general—here are the major mistakes most new writers make and a few tips on how to avoid those mistakes. So, if you want to improve your writing and have a snowball’s chance in hell of getting an agent and being published, read on.

First mistake: too much description

Almost every piece of newbie fiction that has come across my desk has suffered from too much description—also called exposition—in the first several pages. While I understand that you do need to provide some description to set the tone and begin to build a new world, especially if you’re writing fantasy or sci fi, but try to keep your initial descriptive passages short. Don’t go on for several pages telling us details that our minds can fill in if you keep the description sharp. Too many writing coaches out there will tell you to show rather than tell, and they will encourage you to fill your writing with vivid descriptions. Yikes. Unless these coaches have sold millions of copies or are being asked to write for the movies or television, you may want to ignore their advice.


Because reading long descriptive passages at the start of your novel are boring, especially for agents and publishers, who are the ones who decide if your novel gets published traditionally or languishes forever as a self-published or unpublished book. Bore them and your book will never see the light of day. Never. In fact, the first commandment of all good writing should be:

Thou Shalt Not Bore Thy Reader

 Second mistake: kicking off the story too late

Just like in movies, your inciting incident, the event or discovery that kicks everything into motion, needs to happen soon, within the first page or two at the latest, and it needs to be clear to your reader what is going on.

I can’t tell you what that inciting incident should be, but there must be one.  In other words, does your protagonist come home and find his father in a compromising position with the lady next door? Does your protagonist get mistaken for a spy and get kidnapped (think North by Northwest)? Or does your protagonist come home after running an errand in the next town to find his aunt and uncle (who are his guardians) killed (Star Wars!)?

If you make your reader wait pages and even chapters before finding out what is at stake, your fiction will die a lonely, quiet death.

Third mistake: making the stakes too low

Someone, I can’t recall who, once said that characters in good fiction should always have the Sword of Damocles having over their heads.

Now, your characters don’t necessarily have to be in physical danger, but it doesn’t hurt. My point is, your characters have to lose something, have something change, or have something taken away from them that matters, and then they have to spend the rest of your book, novel, or story, getting that thing back.

If your characters are doing just fine and nothing is really wrong, then you’re typing, not writing, as Truman Capote said about Jack Kerouac’s writing (which was very journalistic but apparently lacked much in the way of action).

What are the classic plots that can make the stakes high?

One possible, classic plot is to put your character in harm’s way, and then have them struggle for the rest of the story to get out of harm’s way.

Another classic plot line is to dangle something (or someone) desirable in front of your character and then have them spend the rest of the story trying to get that thing.

Still another is to have your character meet the love of their life in the first couple pages only to realize that they didn’t get their name, or that the person was married, or that the person’s (or the protagonist’s) parents forbid the union, or that the love object is rich but they, the protagonist, are obviously not. The rest of the story becomes how to get together with their beloved, despite all odds.

Another classic plotline has your character, who is poor and unlucky, have some good luck, but then lose the good luck they had, setting the stage for them to spend the rest of the story trying to get that good luck back. This is called the Cinderella story, since that’s the plotline that that fairy tale follows.

And one more possible plot line (that I can think of) is to introduce your rich, happy, protagonist to your readers and then take everything away from that protagonist, causing them to have to fight to get back to normal—or even exceed where they started. This is the story of Job in the Bible.

No matter what plotline you use, you must either put your characters in danger or make them desperate for something and thus make the stakes high. Because no high stakes=no story.

Fourth mistake: using too many adverbs and adjectives

This mistake delves into the actual words you use to tell your story. While you can maybe get away with making this mistake if you have a compelling, fast-moving story where you have put your characters in danger and then paved the way for them to struggle to get back what they lost, your story will still suffer if your own words get in the way.

Yes, even though your middle school English teacher told you to write about the crimson leaves settling slowly to die their quiet death on your rain-glistened driveway during a biting late October day, try not to junk up your story’s prose with too many adjectives and adverbs.

In fact, use adjectives (words used to describe or modify nouns, in case you forgot) only to keep your story clear or avoid being overly drab. You can likely get away with not using adverbs at all, especially to describe dialogue, because not only are they unnecessary, they scream amateur fiction writer. Sigh.

So, if you want to make your prose sound like that of an old pro, minimize these two word formations and watch your story come into greater focus.

Fifth mistake: using too many words (wordy writing) in general

“Less is more.”—Ludwig Mies van der Rohe

In 1947, the famous architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe said the above about modern architecture. It was his way of explaining the simplicity of his designs, perhaps, but it can apply to so many fields, especially writing.

Because when it comes to writing, you need to keep things simple, clean, and moving quickly. Once you weed out your unnecessary adverbs and adjectives, you need to keep tightening your prose and making your story really move. Thus, if you have a compelling story to tell, you need to pay attention to how wordy your writing is.

Wordiness can creep into everyone’s writing, so pruning and paring your words down to only what must be there is a lifelong discipline.

Therefore, find ways to use active voice rather than passive voice, use smaller words when you’ve inserted a big word that just isn’t right, and keep your to-be verb forms to a minimum.

Tightening your prose could be an article all by itself, but suffice it to say that being aware that this is an issue is a good part of winning the battle and taking your fiction writing to the next level.

Sixth mistake: too many characters

I won’t say too much about this mistake, but when your story has too many characters, it can confuse and even bore your reader. This often happens when your subplot grows too much and starts to overshadow your main plot, and one way that happens is when you populate your subplot (and even your plot) with too many characters.

Granted, there is no magical number of characters, but if your readers get lost and start to forget who is who in your story, then so will agents and publishers. Again, don’t make your story too complex and with too many characters, or you will confuse or bore you reader.

Seventh mistake: dialogue that sounds like it’s written rather than spoken

Writing dialogue can be tricky. Make your dialogue sentences too long and too correct-sounding, and they will sound fake. Make them too short and you can confuse your readers.

Generally, people don’t speak in complete sentences, don’t explain things in great detail to each other, and often interrupt each other. Your dialogue should reflect this.

So, instead of writing like this:

“Hi,” he said. “My name is John Smith. What’s your name? And how are you today?”

“I’m fine,” she said. “And my name is Mary.”

Actual dialogue probably sounds more like this:

“Name’s John. Nice to meet you,” he said.

“Yeah, hi. I’m Mary. Likewise,” she said.

If you write dialogue that is too formal and has long, overly complicated, or perfectly complete sentences, you risk your characters sounding like they stepped out of a foreign language textbook.

And again, avoid dumping long, explanatory text into the dialogue. Sometimes it’s hard to avoid, but you should generally avoid it, but it’s not how people speak, and it’s clunky. Find another way to communicate that info, like in the narration.

Bonus writing tip #1: how to show (rather than tell) without being too wordy—or showy

Many writing coaches and teachers tell their students to show rather than tell in their writing. While this is generally true, you do need to do some telling (we don’t need simple things like how to drive down the street explained), but sometimes you need to add a little more detail—to tell.

But since I advised above that you not describe too much and use adjectives and adverbs sparingly, how can you show without being showy?

It’s easy: add concrete details when they are relevant and let those details paint your picture, rather than a lot of big words that are adjectives or adverbs.

For instance,

John loved all cars, especially the old American-made muscle cars from the late 60s and early 70s: the ‘69 Chevy Chevelle, the Pontiac GTO (any year), the 1967 Ford Mustang (because that year that had the best-looking rear tail lights), and the ’71 Dodge Charger, which was its best year. But nothing filled him with car love more than his buddy’s 1974 gold Chevy Camaro with its 327-inch small block engine. That was the car.

Keep your writing concrete, specific, and real, and your readers will think they’re reading a true story rather than fiction.

Bonus writing tip #2: edit your damn manuscript, please

Even though I am a professional writer[!], I sometimes misspell or mis-type words.

No, really.

Luckily, I have spell check, but even spell check sometimes can’t save me from myself. For instance, if I write form instead of from, spell check won’t find it. If I write at instead of an, spell check won’t find it. And if I type asses instead of assess, spellcheck is silent. Ha!

Sure, some word processing programs with grammar check will catch a few of these and alert me, but they won’t catch all of them.

This means that all of us have to—you guessed it—proofread what we’ve written.

Whether you are writing a novel, a nonfiction book, a memo, or an email, you should always proofread. And if you are writing a book, you need to have someone else come after you and proofread. (It’s probably not a bad idea to have someone else proofread your important, company-wide email, too.)

So, before you send off your manuscript to compete with all the other would-be fiction writers vying for an agent’s attention and approval, do us all this one big favor. Proofread your damn manuscript. At least run a spellcheck. Got it? Now, I get that proofreading isn’t fun; it’s work. And it takes time.

But proofreading before sending out your manuscript (or even a mass email) increases your chances of having it read and will almost certainly save you from embarrassment. It might even fool people into thinking you’re more intelligent and articulate than you really are.

So, even though spellcheck will always catch when I misspell occasion (which I just did as I was typing it!), I can’t rely on it to clean up my writing. That’s my job.

Final thought: you don’t have to use the traditional proofreader’s marks, but it wouldn’t be a bad idea.

Want to know more about writing fiction—or writing in general? Or, do you have a writing question or a book or story you want help with? Contact me via the form below:

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