Sunday, September 8, 2013

The Seven Biggest Mistakes Writers Make

Scary title, huh?  But, it's true.  As I have learned.  Being a writer/published author in the most digital age the publishing industry has ever seen, I have done my fair share of research on the subject of What Agents Want.

Of course, as I continue to publish independently, it is all too clear that I may have not yet reached that holy grail.  That won't stop me from helping you, however.  And since my books are consistently accepted by publishers in the independent world, I must be doing something right.

So, at the risk of sounding nerdy and too know-it-all, I want to give you my take on the seven biggest mistakes we authors make when we are writing our babies.
    1. We make everything in our book sound like fantasyland, even when we are not writing a fantasy.  Let me explain. There may be men in the world who always wash the dishes when they finish a meal, who always put the lid down, and who always know just the most perfect thing to say when their loved ones feel fat/unhappy/unfulfilled, etc.  There may be, but I personally have never met one.  Therefore, I have no business writing one.  Perfect people piss me off.  I can wrap my head around a flaw, people.  I can relate to it.  I can understand it.  And if I can do those things, I will love the character who has them. Remember, perfect pisses people off.
    2. We make happy endings out of everything.  Okay, that pisses me off, too.  I don't want the guy to always get the girl.  I don't want the girl to always choose the right guy. I am far more interested in reading about the misfit who goes her own way, the guy who marches to his own beat, and the villain even, that goes against type.  Those people lead more interesting lives and are far more fun to learn about.  As writers, we are charged with creating complex, layered characters.  I liken it to the seven-layer dip. You know the one? You chow through the beans to find the meat.  You rip through the meat and find guacamole.  Which then unveils the cheese.  Each layer is more exciting that the previous because you couldn't guess what was there.  Peeling layers away from your character makes the reader love them even more.
    3. We cliche our characters.  You know....the Prostitute With a Heart of Gold.  The Mean Boss.  The Uncaring Stepmother.  The Absentee Father.  I'm not saying you can't use these themes for your protag or antag. I am saying you have to make them interesting. Does the prostitute secretly send her money to an autistic brother?  Is the mean boss putting up guards because his wife is dying of cancer?  Is the absentee father harboring a secret, second family?  Make it interesting, people.  Make me want to read it.
    4. We bore you to death with insincere dialogue.  If you are writing Middle Grade, you damn well better have spent a decent portion of time at an elementary school at lunch or your readers will call you out.  If you are writing about doctors, you better have spent a fair amount of research at hospitals, clinics, or even elevators.  I know a writer who rides elevators at courthouses to get a flavor of the expertise of the professionals and the anguish of loved ones.  (Maybe those two examples are me.  Not saying. Whatever. Move on.)
    5. We paint scenes like a travel writer.  Those flowery phrases describing the lush, tropical climate, or the austere presence of a brick government building, or the sounds the water makes lapping at the shore do have a place, but not in the opening of your story. Describing anything there is a no-no.  With one exception.  You need to be inside your character's head and you need to invite your reader to get in there with you.  If you don't, your protag or antag will always be one dimensional to your reader.  And they won't be a reader for long.  They aren't interested in the length of the grass; they want to know about the kid cutting it.  Period.  Save the lovely scene-making for Sunset Magazine.
    6. We forget the tension.  Say what you will about Stephenie Meyers.  I have said it before and will say it again: the woman gives good tension.  Every page of those books are fraught with danger and teenage angst.  As a writer, you have to make your action scenes almost life-threatening.  At least to your characters.  Because in real life, they are.  If you are writing YA, you know that everything is life or death to a teen.  I remember wailing uncontrollably in my teens because my mum had sewn the hem of my Salt-of-the-Earth jeans too high.  It was unthinkable! High-waters!  I would have been laughed out of the quad and the whole school year would have been ruined.  I may as well have moved to a convent; no boy would ever speak to me again. Remember that? Good.  Now, write like that.
    7. We think if we get bored with our own material, no one will notice.  Wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, and wrong.  If we lose the passion for our work, so will the reader.  No passion will equal no tension, which will mean your reader will no longer care about what happens to your protag.  And as writers, that is really the only job we have: we have to make our readers care about our characters.  This neatly ties in with the other mistakes we make.  We forget to layer our characters, make them realistic, make them talk like real people, and forget to put them in crazy situations.  Because life is crazy.  It is not smooth, or predictable, or even seamless.  It is choppy, and unexpected, and wonderful and weird. Make your characters lives that way and your readers will be unable to put the book down.  And when they do, they will crave more from you.  See, your only job.  Easy, right?  
So, in closing, I want to reiterate this:  your reader only expects two things from your book.  Sure, they want it to entertain them, that's a given.  But, they also want to connect with your characters and by extension, you. Make yours believable.  Read their dialogue out loud.  if it sounds stiff, it probably is.  Chop it down.  Make them face life-threatening and life-affirming decisions.  Because we do, everyday.  We'll relate to them better.  And give them flaws. Flaws are interesting.  They add character, depth, layers.  Make me want to meet your characters in real life, and you will have me reading your books for all of mine.


  1. Great post...have to keep those things in mind.

  2. Great post, I get see interactions between students at the college I work for. They start at 17 so they fit help my YA writing and I have a son that jabbers a lot he is 13, but it all helps. I would say a good use of a sunset description in a novel at the beginning is if you are going to break it and turn it into a nightmare pushing your characters out of a safe world.