Monday, August 1, 2011

Avoiding the common first-novel mistakes

Today's post is a summary of two posts on 5 Creative Flaws That Will Expose Your Lack of Storytelling Experience, and 5 More Mistakes That Will Expose You As a Rookie

Don't want the agent you're querying to know that this is your first novel?  Then don't tell.  I don't mean just skipping the line in your query letter, either - I mean don't make the mistakes that most debut authors make.

I'm taking the top 5 tips from Storyfix's two articles and sharing them with you.  If you want the whole list, then check out the articles!  These are things that most new writers do.  There are a few of which I used to be guilty (although I would like to believe I've broken myself of the habits over the years.)  Chances are, you're as guilty as I once was of at least one of these.  So read the list of newbie tell-tales, and break yourself of these habits before you begin making them!

1.  Downtime
Scene one.  Action!  Mark and Stacy have a shootout.  Then Stacy goes home, showers the blood off, spends a chapter reflecting about her life, and eats a 3-course dinner.  Finally, scene two  - the next actual installment of the plot - occurs the next morning.

Skip the downtime!  If it's not driving the plot, throw it out or paraphrase it in as few sentences as possible.  "After a shower, a little self-pity fest, and a three-course dinner to unwind, Stacy was ready to face Mark again.  She loaded her gun and stuck it under the pillow, wearing PJs suitable for waking up to an ambush."  There you go.  No need to waste space on unimportant details.  You can always post them online later as extras for fans visiting the website, if you'd like, but don't put them in the book.

2.  Over-description (especially of food)
Sure, the food is great.  Sure, it's historically accurate, and things the reader would never even think about eating.  But it's not important.  Like downtime: just skip it!  Throw in a word about the food over dinner conversation:  "Stacy glared at Mark over a leg of braised lamb.  He grinned back as he poured a little too much gravy over his fried eyeballs.  'Is something wrong, love?' he asked."  And now ignore the food for the rest of the story.  If it's not important to the plot, it's not worth spending words on.

3.  Using a nonstandard font 
Use Courier, Courier New, or New Times Roman.  That's what your agent will want.  That's what your publisher will want.

4.  Not switching paragraphs in dialogue
When you switch speakers, switch paragraphs.

"You're a special flower," Mark told her, reaching over to tweak her nose.

"Screw you," Stacy snapped, intercepting his fingers with a stab of her steak knife.

"I'm starting to think that might be a good idea," Mark whispered from beside her, well out of range of the knife.

She shuddered.  "This is getting weird."  And strangely interesting, too, but she wasn't about to admit that.

5.  Crazy names
Xanphilios and Xanatha are walking through the park... Or was that Xanathan and Xakraphos?  Don't start names with the same letter unless they're drastically different.  You could have a Lou and a Lauralyn in a story together, but not a Louis and a Larry.  Yes, it's tempting to not pay attention.  But if your reader can't keep your characters straight, then they won't get your story.

I wanted historically accurate names for my Bronze Age romance; I purposely chose the shortest, most easily pronounced names I could find, and then promptly gave every character with an unusual name a short-and-sweet nickname.  Why?  Because to a reader, "Xanphilios" turns into "X(reallylongsomething)."  If your characters must have an unusual name, keep it short.  "Xan" would be an acceptable nickname - mention the full name once, and then never use it again.  Because, really, your reader will only pronounce the name once, anyway.  And that's why it's also important not to start names with similar letters.

Some of my historically-accurate character names, and their nicknames:
Zoi -"Zoi"
Adela - "Adela"
Minos - "Minos"
Lygos* - "Lygos"
Vassilios -"Vassil"
Iasonas** - "Iason"

*Lygos is not historically accurate.  The accurate version, "Lykourgos," was too long for a main character, and I'd run out of relatively short names, so I simplified.
**Interesting factoid: I was a precursor to J.  So Iason is an old-fashioned version of Jason

Like all writing rules, these aren't set in stone.  Maybe there's a legitimate reason to describe the food - is it symbolic?  Is it used as a direct insult to your character?  Or maybe your 'downtime' isn't actually downtime, but rather a setup.  While Stacy's cooking dinner, there's some strange noises coming from the other room that she thinks is her cat.  Perhaps you've only got one character in your story whose name begins with an "N," so you're okay with him being known as "N(morethantwosyllablessoIwon'treadit.)" 

But there's a reason these are suggestions - take them to heart as much as you can.  Your story should never tell your agent that you're a new writer.  The choice to tell is yours, and if you're a good enough writer, you'll have to say it before they know it.

What other mistakes do you frequently see from debut authors?


  1. I really like this post. It's very helpful. I especially like the name Xanatha. ;-)

  2. Glad you found it helpful, Piper! Thanks for reading. :) I learned a couple of new things from the articles, myself. Can't wait to see if Xanatha appears in a novel one day... ;)

  3. Great posts going on here! I'm glad I decided to follow you. Good luck on your novel...

  4. If you're looking for ancient historical names, SCA sources are great for filtering through other information and collecting tons and tons of names. The Academy of St. Gabriel in a group which overlaps with the SCA and is devoted purely to collecting and documenting names.

  5. I'm glad you're enjoying the posts, Marne Ann! Thank you! :)

    And Lady Arite - That's a great idea! Thanks!