Tuesday, April 27, 2010

3 Newbie Mistakes I Nixxed

When you begin writing novels, you're pretty clueless about a lot of things. I knew about head hopping, passive voice and showing, but I needed to know more in order to write well. My first novel is stashed in a purple folder somewhere, destined to stay there unless I feel an itch to give it a major rewrite.

Here are the top three mistakes I made:

1. Flimsy Story Question. When I wrote my first novel, I didn't know there was this thing called a story question. A story question is the main concern the protagonist adopts at the beginning of a novel. Sometimes it's birthed in a call to action, a shocker, a stated goal, a fresh start or a conflict.

Can a meek hobbit like Frodo actually destroy the ring? Will this jaded woman find true love? Can this rookie cop find the Beatles serial killer who arranges his death scenes to match Fab Four songs?

You can tell a story without one, but you have to work extra hard to hook readers.

I recently read Green by Jay Lake and there's no story question to speak of, nor arc. The main character is sold into slavery as a toddler and trained to be a courtesan but you have no clue where the story is going. It's not a bad book at all. It's lushly written, the MC is feisty and strong, the voice, distinct, description, light-handed, but it's not very hooky. I'd put it down and not pick it up again for weeks.

That's okay for some writers, but that's not what I want in my books. I want to have works that readers hate to put down and feel a bit sad over when they reach the end.

In order for your story to have that kind of hooking power, you should have a story question. Even literary fiction can have a story question. An MC, for instance, who wants to uncover her family's buried secret, may do a lot of reflecting on every detail she finds. The questions would then be will she discover the whole truth and how will she deal with it if and when she does. The longer you keep the questions unanswered, the more gripping your story will be. You can create tension and suspense with the simplest thing. If the main character cares deeply, the reader will care as well.

The mistake I made with my first book was I answered the story question before the climax and the story's tension dissolved. Use any kind of plot pathway you want, three acts, a circle, a rollercoaster, doesn't matter, your biggest structural concern should be that question and keeping it taut until the climax or later, if possible. Then, you'll be able to create a gripping read.

2. Be-verb Overload. I honestly never gave Be-verbs much thought at all until one of my reviewers pointed them out. Every...single...one. Be-verbs work just as good as any in getting your point across, however, they're blah and reflect laziness. Stretch yourself for juicer verbs. They'll breathe more life into your prose. Those other little buggers that fly under the radar die on the page and may also indicate you've used too much passive voice.

I try to only use no more than 15%. You should only really use them if it's the true voice of the narrator or if not using one would be too awkward.

3. Purple Prose. When I first started writing novels, I often would go the round-about way of saying everything. I notice this mistake a lot with many new writers, that's why I'm bringing this up. I thought that was my voice: lush, lyrical, descriptive, eloquent. It sounded good to me, pretty, intriguing, writerly. I didn't go all historical Harlequin exactly, but still, my work was chock full of superfluous fluff that wasn't needed.

Purple prose and flowery rills are okay in small doses, but if your story is packed with such chunks, it'll be more difficult for readers to get through and become engaged. You need to know that. It becomes more about the words than character or plot or story.

If you're going for arty-fartsy, knock yourself out. But if you're trying your hardest to write right, to sell your book to the masses, stop going all over the place and get to the point. Your readers will appreciate it and your writing will be tighter and overall better.

So, those are my top three book killers. What tips have you learned that have improved your writing once you implemented them?

~ Signing off and sending out cyber hugs.


  1. I had a lot of the same issues you did. For one thing, I got very dependent on those darned "-ly" adverbs in my writing. Knocking them out of my prose completely (ha! there's one now!) helped a lot. Then I realized I used too many adjectives too. So I pared those down as well. Then someone told me I had to tame my verbs, that sometimes walking is just walking, and that helped a little. But the biggest thing that helped was becoming a minimalist with my prose. Saying as little as possible; using as few words as possible; making sure the words I used effectively transmitted information and imagery, not launching into an artist's forcing his own mental pictures onto the reader's. Letting the reader have their own image was key to this.

    Great article, Courtney!

  2. Much as it pained me, the thing I had to learn to do was write simple sentences. I love a good sentence that's lush and clever at the same time, but who has time to read a book full of such sentences? :D When I get carried away, I remind myself that today's reader has a lot less time to spare, so I have to get the job done quickly and efficiently.

  3. Thanks. I'm glad you liked the article and pointed out what helped you sharpen up your writing.

  4. I love to have a few lush gems, but having page after page of them gets tired for readers. Having a sentence or two per chapter that highlight surprises or give interesting breadth to your voice works best.