It’s been a while since I’ve posted anything writing related. 2019 was a horrible year for me concerning pretty much everything that requires having free time, so the only short stories I wrote were super dark self-help ones that will never see the light of day if I have any say in it. Trust me – you’re not missing out on anything.
Then, when I did start writing again more regularly, it wasn’t short stories. During my first two years at university, I poured my heart and soul into a YA fantasy series that was, at the time, called Ascent of Air. Although it had its fair share of flaws and needed major revisions, it showed the most promise out of everything I’d ever written, and in December, I decided to pick it back up again. I read through my old drafts, thought about which things I liked about them and wanted to keep, and then wrote a completely new outline for the entire series. Ever since then, I’ve been working on rewriting the first book. I don’t have a lot of spare time, so it’s going extremely slowly, but as long as I get to write, I’m happy!
Since I’m very occupied with that project at the moment, I realized pretty quickly that I probably won’t be getting to short stories for a while. However, the entire revision process on Ascent of Air sparked an idea for a writing related post I could offer you instead. When going through some of those old drafts, I was absolutely horrified about how terrible some of the stuff in there was – stuff that I had once thought was actually pretty good.
On the one hand, a realization like that can be extremely frustrating. You put a ton of effort into something, and then realize it sucks. On the other, picking up on mistakes shows that you’ve improved as a writer. Nobody is going to write a perfect book on their first attempt. If someone tells you that they have, they’re either a genius, lying, or deluding themselves. And I’m very disinclined to believe the genius option.
To show you how normal this part of writing is, I thought I would show you some typical beginner writing mistakes in one of my own novels.
Obviously, I’m not going to use Ascent of Air as an example, since that’s a story I’m still passionate about, and one that I think could one day turn into a really good book. However, what I am going to give you is the entire manuscript of my second finished novel, Delta, which I wrote during my last two years of school. It was meant to be the first book in a dystopian duology and, in contrast to my first novel (a very shitty pirate adventure story called High Tide), I wrote Delta on the computer, which gave me the chance to edit it a lot more thoroughly. The manuscript went through two major rounds of revisions (the second one unfinished) before I gave up on it, realizing that there was no amount of work that would ever turn this into a great book.
Do I feel sorry I wrote it, then? No. I learned a ton while writing Delta, and even though the book itself is pretty bad, it made me into a much better writer. If I had never written it, I wouldn’t have been able to write the books and stories that followed, either. Plus, this book was such a big part of my life that I have a lot of sentimental attachment to it. Although parts of it do make me cringe, I still like going back to read it every once in a while. Despite its flaws, Delta will always have a special place in my heart.
So, finally, let’s get into what I promised you. For anyone who actually wants to check out first-hand what I’m talking about, here is the final pre-abandonment draft of Delta:
Obviously, I don’t expect you to read the entire thing, or anything at all, unless you want to. Like I said, the book is pretty bad, and I doubt you’d enjoy it very much. However, I thought it might interest some of my fellow aspiring authors to actually get concrete examples of these frequently occurring writing mistakes. I knew about most of these before I started writing Delta, and yet I made them anyway – and, for the most part, I was quite unaware of it. I hope that maybe, this can help some of you avoid similar problems in your own writing.
So, without further ado, here are the top ten newbie writer mistakes I made in Delta:
#1 The story starts in the wrong place
I’d heard this before, but I don’t think I fully understood what it meant until writing this book. I’m usually much more of a pantser than a plotter, and I always “see” the start of a story in my head. That’s what I get down on the page first. What follows builds on that initial scene, so obviously the story needs this beginning – otherwise you wouldn’t understand the connections, who the characters are, and what the world works like, right?
Wrong. That initial part might help you as a writer get to know your characters, but for your readers, it’s a ton of boring nothingness that they have to get through before the actual story starts. If you read the first three chapters of Delta, you’ll realize that they’re little more than introductory bla-bla. Absolutely nothing happens.
The real inciting incident of the story can be found at the end of chapter four, when we find out that the government of this world wants to sacrifice certain groups of people to solve the problem of overpopulation. However, even if that interested my readers, the majority of them probably wouldn’t get to that point. Because if the first chapters aren’t interesting, why should they keep reading?
In order to really hook the reader, your story needs to start where the story begins. That doesn’t necessarily mean there needs to be tons of action. For example, the first chapter of Harry Potter, my favorite series ever, actually has very little action. However, we learn something very important that will shape what the rest of the story is about: Harry Potter is a wizard, and his parents were killed by a famous dark wizard named Voldemort. In Delta, we learn next to nothing in the first chapter. In fact, it can pretty much be summarized as follows: the main character is a girl called Joanne, she has a best friend named Zoe, and a little brother called Jamie. From that alone, would you keep reading? Probably not.
#2 Major info-dumps
My first point leads straight to my second one. Why, exactly, did I start my story where I did, and why does nothing happen in those first few chapters? The answer is simple: in order to describe the problem, I needed to make sure readers knew how the world worked, and, to make them care about how this would affect my characters, they needed to know who those characters were. That lead to a super-cheesy flashback scene in the first chapter – I hated it even when writing it, but I needed to establish the friendship between my two main characters Joanne and Zoe, and this was the best way I could think of doing that at the time.
Another example: all of chapter three is basically a huge info-dump of Joanne explaining how the world works. It’s boring, and it doesn’t make sense that she would be thinking about all of this, since this is her world, and these things should be perfectly normal for her. And the same problems occur throughout the book, whenever something new is introduced.
What then, should I have done instead? My first tip: your readers are smart. They can fill in the blanks if you provide details here and there, you don’t need to spell the entire world out for them. I could have just dropped a hint at past wars in a conversation. I didn’t need to explain how Joanne and Zoe became friends to make the reader get it – one interaction would have shown the reader how familiar they are with each other. That’s the essence of what it means to show, not tell, and though I thought I understood this at the time, my writing shows that I clearly didn’t.
Furthermore, I obviously don’t have to explain everything before the real story starts. It’s okay for readers to feel a bit confused in the beginning – they’ll figure out what’s going on as the scene unfolds, and that little bit of confusion can even help to keep them interested. You can drop certain details later. That’s totally okay.
There was also another aspect of this story in particular that made info-dumping astoundingly easy: the dual point of view. I wanted each of my main characters to have equal and equally distributed page time, and I wanted their timelines to stay parallel so as not to confuse the reader. The problem with this was that sometimes, I couldn’t think of anything important that the other character would be experiencing between the first character’s chapters.
In Delta, this is particularly noticeable in Zoe’s early chapters. There are scenes in which she literally does nothing other than reminisce about her friendship with Jo. They added absolutely nothing to the plot, dumped a ton of boring information on the reader, and are obviously only there to make sure the chapters keep alternating between the protagonists.
This is, of course, something you shouldn’t do as a writer. But how to do you fix this? My first tip – plot more. With a dual POV story, you’re inevitably going to have to structure it a little bit beforehand (or during rewriting). What are the key plot points you want each of your characters to experience? Maybe write those out on notecards and try to organize them into alternating chapters. Maybe there are some subplots you can work on here. And determine whether you really need all those scenes. In my case, a lot of Joanne’s early scenes also mainly consisted of info-dumps that established the world and should have been cut. Had I done that, I also wouldn’t have needed the filler Zoe-chapters in between.
And finally – don’t force it. If your chapters don’t always alternate, it’s not the end of the world. If one of the protagonists has a little bit more page time, it’s fine. As long as the disparity isn’t huge (in which case you might want to ask yourself if you really need the second POV-character in the first place), you should be fine. Readers will be happier with a bit of inequality than random filler chapters.
#3 The main character is a bland and boring Mary Sue
This point mainly concerns Joanne, not Zoe. Other than the fact that she’s supposed to be smart (something that is stated throughout the book but highly questionable in light of some of the astoundingly stupid decisions she makes) and that she would do anything for her little brother, she has no character traits. She lets other characters (Zoe, Captain Gillespie, Gaelan) accomplish important tasks for her, has next to no agency of her own – and when she does, it’s because she does something very stupid, like deciding to rob a hospital with no plan at all – and she spends half the time in the book crying. To sum it up, she has no traits that make her a likeable and well-rounded character.
How did this happen? Obviously, the main character I had in mind was not a bland and boring nobody. The Jo I pictured had far more traits than the ones I put down on the page.
One reason they weren’t there was that I was so focused on the main storyline that I never used opportunities to share personality traits of the characters that weren’t completely relevant to the plot. That, however, is something that would have been very easy to do – when describing the world through your characters’ eyes, have them draw comparisons to the things that are important to them. Have their interests shine through when they talk.
The bigger problem that needs fixing is that Jo needs more agency. I should have given her more opportunities to successfully accomplish important tasks – that would show (rather than tell) that she’s smart and automatically make her more likeable. Unfortunately, there’s no way of getting around this – this is an example of a problem that requires major rewrites. I’d need to come up with problems for Jo to overcome, figure out interesting ways for her to solve them, and integrate them into the story in an organic way. All that requires a lot of re-plotting and re-structuring. However, if you want a good story, that’s something you’ll just have to put up with.
#4 The love interest is too perfect, and the development of the romance sucks
If Joanne is too bland, then her love interest Gaelan is most definitely too perfect. He’s handsome, he’s smart, he has a tragic backstory, but is still really kind, and he solves every problem put in Jo’s way. Plus, he inexplicably loves Jo, even though she never does anything that could possibly make her likeable in his eyes. Their love develops out of nowhere, simply because.
If I wanted a more interesting story, Gaelan would have to be much more complex, rather than the wish-fulfilment boyfriend he is now. He and Jo should have clashed more on matters of importance, they should have had fun together, teased each other, argued. Jo would have had to do things that also made Gaelan respect her, rather than their relationship being a one-way street. And the two should have communicated more and gotten to know and love each other in spite of their flaws.
#5 Side characters aren’t fleshed out enough
This goes in the same direction as the problem of Jo’s blandness. Even if a character only appears for a page or so, a good writer can make them seem like a real, complicated person. Let’s use Harry Potter again: Even very minor characters like Mrs. Figg, Stan Shunpike, or Reg Cattermole have extremely distinct personalities. They’re more than just types, but actual fleshed-out people.
This is most certainly not the case in Delta. Joanne, Zoe, Jamie, Gaelan, Zac, Mr. Delandore, Captain Gillespie, and Susannah are pretty much the only people with at least a shade of personality (although even there, it’s debatable). Everyone other character is a flat stereotype.
As a writer, you should get to know who all of your characters are, even ones who only briefly appear. Think about what motivates them, and what makes them human. Then, make that shine through when you write them. When you know your characters well, that often happens automatically.
In many cases, I didn’t get to know my characters enough. I thought things like, “Oh, it would be good to have an antagonist here”, and because that’s all the effort I put into it, I got a stereotypical villain with no character traits. Take the time to get to know your characters! Trust me, it shows.
#6 Lack of subplots
This is perhaps one of the most common problems new writers make, and I wasn’t exempt from it. Delta basically had two story lines, one for each main character: Joanne has to flee with Jamie, who is in danger of being killed by the government’s anti-overpopulation-measures, and Zoe is taken captive and has to escape. If you want to be generous, you can say that there is also a romance plotline each: Jo falls in love with Gaelan, and Zoe has to come to terms with the fact that she loves Jo. That’s it.
Obviously, that doesn’t make for an interesting, complex story. There is no real depth to it, since I don’t have themes I really take the time to explore. Everything is really predictable because there are not competing plots that interweave and make characters act in unexpected ways. I couldn’t drop hints to anything, since there was only one plotline and everything inevitably related to it.
Nothing makes a story as boring as a single strand plot. And yes, to fix that, you’re going to just have to sit down and brainstorm what your story might be missing. Look at some of your favorite books for inspiration and try to label the different plot strands. Once you do that a few times, you’ll start to understand what kinds of plotlines there can be, and how authors manage to weave them together. And practice, practice, practice. Trust me, your stories will automatically get more complex with time.
#7 Plot holes
Plot holes are a problem every writer has to face at some point. You know you want to get a character from A to B, but you don’t quite know how to do it in a way that stays true to your world. Or you simply overlook details you established earlier, creating inconsistencies. Whatever the reason, it’s not hard to end up with a plot hole, but it can be hard to fix them.
I was actually quite aware of Delta having plot holes while I was doing revisions. The problem was, it wasn’t easy to come up with logical ways to fix them. For example, there is a scene in the book where Joanne and Gaelan become separated, and he needs to contact her. I had established earlier that people use digitals, kind of like personalized tablets, to communicate. This kind of technology can obviously be traced, so I knew Jo couldn’t have taken hers with her while on the run. Instead, I decided Gaelan should send Jo a message to his own digital, which he’d purposefully left behind. That, however, created a whole bunch of problems: If these things could be traced and Gaelan said he didn’t have it with him, why wouldn’t suspicious government officials do a trace? If Gaelan’s digital was issued to him and he contacted himself, wouldn’t the person whose digital he used notice something was off? Plus, why would Gaelan even try to contact Jo at all, considering the risk? That was obviously a maneuver on my part to have the characters separated and change the setting. And so forth.
All this might sound really confusing, but I hope you get the gist. If you don’t come up with a plausible solution, things are going to feel off and unrealistic about your story, and that’s something readers will pick up on, no matter how small the plot hole. So even if it’s hard, you need to sit down and come up with a solution. And if you can’t, then you probably need to do a complete rewrite and leave out whatever scene is causing the problem. If it’s not realistic and you can’t fix it, it has to go. Even if you’re attached to the scene. Even if you put in a ton of work. Your final manuscript will thank you for it.
#8 Not doing enough research
I’m the kind of writer who loves writing and editing (editing possibly even more than writing), but not research. I want to get to my story, not spend time on the internet looking up stuff I will probably never fully grasp anyway! If I don’t have personal experience or can’t use my imagination, I tend to steer clear. In fact, I have huge respect for authors who write in genres like historical fiction. The sheer amount of information you need before you can even begin to write seems extremely intimidating…
But I wasn’t writing historical fiction. I was writing a dystopian novel and had pretty much built my own world. Why would I need research?
The answer is: Because every story ever told is based on something we know. If we suddenly have familiar objects behaving in a strange way and laws that don’t apply anymore, readers will want answers. Otherwise it will come across as extremely sloppy.
This stuff is very noticeable in Delta. I knew I wanted part of the story to take place on a ship, but I didn’t want to do a ton of research. What did I care how the cabins were organized, how exactly steering worked, how the sails were rigged? If what I wrote didn’t completely fit, I could just say this was a futuristic ship. The same rules didn’t apply.
Same goes for a scene in which Joanne, Jamie and Gaelan were fleeing from a wildfire. Do wildfires really spread this quickly and turn out of the blue without any advance warning? Probably not. But it was exciting, and I didn’t want to take the time to research how fires like this really worked. Especially if it meant replotting a lot of that scene afterwards.
The list goes on and on. I didn’t want to research diseases, so I went into very little detail about the ones characters in this book were affected by. I didn’t know much about the layout of the cities I was writing about, so I was sparse on details there.
I think you get the picture. My lack of investment into looking up the things I was writing about showed in the story. Either, things felt unrealistic, or they were underdeveloped because I didn’t know enough about them to include a lot of details. Not exactly a great combination…
#9 Not enough interesting descriptions
I’m not always an underwriter. In my short stories, for example, I usually end up cutting a ton of the first draft during edits. I love writing descriptions – they really flesh out a story and can make the prose sound much more beautiful.
In my novels, though, especially the earlier ones, I tended to be more sparse. I got so excited to get the story down on the page that I often only wrote what was immediately happening and didn’t include many background details. Those, however, are very important if you want to make your world seem real and unique.
Of course, you don’t have to describe every leaf on every single tree. But it helps a lot to know a few details about the places characters are in. That way, you can give the reader a better sense of the surroundings, and you can show more of your main character’s personality, since how a character describes things reflects their interests and experiences, and what sticks out to them.
An especially useful tip here is to add one unusual detail to a scene – that does a lot to make the story feel more unique and real. For example, if you’re writing a contemporary novel and are describing the protagonist’s desk, don’t just say there is a lamp and a few textbooks on it. Everyone’s desk has that. Instead, you could say something like, “Her deck of tarot cards lay scattered across the hastily scrawled pages of last night’s homework.” That makes the setting seem way more fleshed out, and also tells us way more about the character than just saying that there were a lamp and textbooks: This is probably someone rather messy, someone who doesn’t care too much about school, someone who has an affinity for the occult. Obviously, you can’t start sprouting random details everywhere, but if you do this every once in a while, it can do wonders to create a vivid, atmospheric setting.
And, my second tip: Don’t rush the writing process. I know you’re excited about your story, but take the time to enjoy the scene you’re writing at the moment rather than thinking about how cool it will be to have the finished book in your hands. Trust me, it will show how much love went into writing a scene. And if you don’t invest the time during the writing process, you’ll have a hell of a lot more to do during editing, since adding details later usually also ends up creating inconsistencies. If you flesh out everything the first time around, chances are that you’ll also get to know your world much better, and the entire flow of the book will be much more organic. At least, that’s how it is for me. Feel free to take this tip with caution – not everyone’s writing process is the same, and some people might find it hard to get any details down on a page if they don’t already have the bare bones of a draft to work with.
#10 The voices of the two POVs are too similar
I tried so hard to avoid this problem while writing Delta because it always annoys me when this happens in books. I wrote the two POVs separately – I started with Joanne’s and added Zoe’s later. I made sure that Zoe had more sentence’s starting with “But” and “And”. Had her use “real” and “sure” instead of “surely” and “really”. Her sentences tended to be shorter.
Still, I doubt you’ll notice a big difference. It doesn’t only come down to sentence structure – though that should also play a role – but the character’s different personalities and interests should also shine through in the way they narrate their part of the story. I didn’t explore those nearly enough, which brings us back to some of my earlier points, namely knowing my characters better and including more detail.
I’ll leave it at that for now. Obviously, there is a lot more I could talk about, like me drawing a ton on what I’d read rather than including my personal touch, and things that concern the actual writing. However, I think that the points I mentioned here are the really big picture ones that should look out for and that should also be the first ones you tackle during editing. Polishing can come later!
Anyway, I hope you got something out of this! I know this is a much longer post than usual, so if you’re reading this, thanks for making it to the end! Also, let me know if you found this helpful and would like more writing advice posts in the future. I’m totally down for doing this again (Maybe something on how to make sure your prose sounds tight and polished?), but I don’t want to bore you, either…
One thought on “Why Writing Takes Practice: Reviewing One of My Early Novels”