Please note this article was originally published in the Romance Writers of Australia Heart's Talk magazine and has been expanded for this blog.
One of my books had a very interesting journey to publication. Some books get written and find a home quickly and before you can even blink, revisions are done and the book is edited. That was not the case for one of my books. The story was originally written early in my writing career, back in early 2013. In fact, it was my second manuscript. Ever.
I sold the book in 2014, but due to some delays (as are so common in publishing) I completed the revisions in 2016, three years after it was written. Let me tell you, going over something from so early in my journey was a humbling experience to say the least. There were tears of frustration, slabs of deleted text, plenty of ‘oh dear god why did they buy this book?’ moments and a whole lot of cleaning up—both in terms of the writing and the story.
I’ll be honest, it was brutal.
But it did get me to thinking about how my writing has changed from book one to book eleven (and beyond). I thought it might be helpful to share my top 3 newbie mistakes with you:
1. Cliché-driven plotting – I think the biggest item I noticed what the characters were propelled through the story by things outside their control. Chance meetings, meddling secondary characters, coincidences and gratuitous disasters all made a showing in the old version of this story. The characters themselves and the decisions they make should drive the story forward. As an editor once said to me ‘you get one coincidence at the start of the book if you need it to bring the characters together, but that’s it.’ If the characters don’t start to take control of their actions, it won’t feel like they’ve earned their happy ever after moment.
2. Arguing in place of actual conflict – My characters bickered. A lot. Now, it’s not to say that having your characters argue is a bad thing, but an argument in itself is not conflict. Conflict is what holds your characters apart; the barrier between them their happy ever after. But it needs to be rooted in something real and concrete within the character’s fears/hopes/backstory/personality etc. If your characters are arguing in a scene, ask yourself why. If you can link it to their GMCs (Goals, Motivations or Conflict) then you’re on the right track.
3. Echoes – I’m talking about the echo or repetition that occurs when a character says or does something that’s then repeated in internal thought. For example, the heroine voices her frustration to the hero and then she thinks about how frustrated she is. These echoes occur because the writer might not have confidence that the character’s feelings were conveyed strongly enough in the dialogue or action. All of that internal repetition was deleted and in some cases the dialogue/action strengthened to make sure the echo wasn’t necessary.
But what other mistakes can newbies make?
Those were the three biggest errors I made with that manuscript in it's original version. Since then, I have learned a lot about crafting a compelling story. I've also read a lot of unpublished work by judging competitions for several writers groups and mentoring aspiring authors. So, to expand my original list (as published in the RWA Heart's Talk magazine) here are a few extra things to look out for:
4. Cliché openings - you know the ones, the girl looking out of a car window while she contemplates what brought her here. or how about the one where the character is brushing their hair in the mirror and describing themselves? The character walks in on a cheating spouse... and there are so many more! A unique opening is necessary to grab the attention of the person reading it, and compel them to keep reading. If you've got a manuscript with one of these openings, try to think of a new scenario that will showcase your unique storytelling abilities and demand that your read keep turning the pages.
5. Overuse of character names - if you listen to the way people really speak, we don't often use a name to address someone unless we're making a strong point or introduction. Or if we're trying to get their attention. Repetition of the character names can really slow the pace of a scene and cause the reader to get bored. The same goes for using character names in dialogue tags: less is more. The dialogue should be strong enough that we know who is talking without each line being identified with a name
6. Too much or too little backstory - this is definitely one of those Goldilocks things. Too much backstory and you're not allowing the reader to be invested in the "here and now" of the story, and too little will leave them feeling lost. You want to tease the reader with the character's past, give hints that leave them wanting to keep reading so they can find out what happened.
This is a good place to start if you've written a story and can't figure out what's wrong with the opening. And if you have made any of these mistakes, don’t worry. That’s what revisions are for.