Avoiding First-Timer Pitfalls

From a Writers’ Workshop at an Illinois Writers’ Conference

This workshop is about your responsibility as an author to your customers, the people who pay money in exchange for a few hours of what they hope will be great reading. That’s the author’s main responsibility–to write a book so good people won’t be able to resist it, so compelling they keep turning the pages, so exciting they have to tell their friends about it. When that happens, they’ll remember you as an author they’re going to look for next time they want a good book.

There are certain things great writers do to ensure this, and I want to share some of them with new authors just starting out, and possibly point out a few nagging trouble spots and their solutions for more experienced authors. Rather than just giving you a laundry list of do’s and don’ts, I want to try and help you understand why these things are so important, because I know only too well that a lot of what stumps us, when we’re learning about these trouble spots, is why. What are they really saying? How do I fix it?

I always seem to hit on editing and grammar when I do any workshop. I’m a certified pain in the butt about it, just ask my crit partners. But it’s so important I can’t leave it out.

Good grammar isn’t only spelling it right, it’s knowing tense, point of view, where to place your commas, fast, snappy dialogue, and tight writing–which means cutting out every single word that doesn’t absolutely have to be there no matter how worried you may be about word count.

It’s been my experience that the words are out there, and they will come to you when you need them, if you have something to say. For that reason, you should never be so worried about word count that you allow yourself to write or leave in scenes that don’t advance your story, as well as overdescription or overexplaining through either dialogue or narrative.
This is a learned process, to be able to ruthlessly cut a paragraph or even a chapter when you’re afraid you won’t have enough pages, but you must do it or your reader will know. You owe it to your readers to cut anything that doesn’t have to be there, because this is what creates a fast moving book, which readers love.

Never underestimate those readers. By and large, the American reading public is pretty sharp no matter what their actual reading grade level is, and they always know, even if they don’t know why, when an author has padded her book.

You can buy books on good grammar and writing and spend a few weeks or even a few months learning. That one step will save you years of frustration while you wonder why you’re still not getting published, when in fact 99% of the time those hard-to-pin-down technicals are the reason why. It’s almost never the story premise or the style, but rather, those oddball technical grammatical booboos that baffle us all until we learn them.

Adult readers are not going to put up with cartoon characters. This means characters who have all bad or all good characteristics, and as a result are not realistic. There’s good and bad in everyone. You need to show both sides. That’s basically what is really meant by “showing a character’s vulnerabilities”. The most beloved characters over time have always been the ones who were vulnerable in some way.

Even your worst villain has some good points. Bring them out, it will make him seem more realistic, it’ll round out his character, and will give your readers a jolt, a little shock–which is what they want–when they realize that the very same man who just dropped a thousand dollars in the collection plate at church was also, at that moment, plotting the vicious murder of his brother-in-law. It’s that type of plotting and characterization that made Mario Puzo, the author of The Godfather books, so famous.

Readers also dislike plot coincidences or contrivances. Most readers see right through that, if it even gets past an editor–which is rare–and they will not be as hot to read your next book as they might have been. This is why so many times category romance editors reject manuscripts using the expression “too contrived.”

A contrivance happens when someone the author thinks is needed to explain something in the plot, or cause something in the plot to happen, magically appears in the scene at exactly the right moment without a darned good reason why she’s there, other than to perform that one task. Don’t allow yourself to take the easy way out like that. Don’t try to manipulate your plot, it won’t work.

You can’t logically force any character to do something that would be unnatural for them–unless you do it on purpose, but you don’t want to force it. If you force it, thinking nobody will notice, they’ll notice. Think about it long and hard, and then rework that incident in some other way so that it happens naturally and logically.

The same thing applies to mistaken identity. Make sure, if your heroine doesn’t recognize someone she was close to in the past, that there’s a very good reason why she no longer knows how he looks, and make sure you explain that reason to your reader before she “doesn’t recognize him”. Otherwise, your heroine comes off as either not very observant, or not very smart, and because of that, your heroine will be perceived as weak and your book will be rejected, or at the very least, sent back to the drawing board. Save yourself some time here, and realize you can’t put anything over on a good editor when you’re just starting out. Don’t even try it, because there’s too much money riding on every book that goes out of any publishing house, and they can’t take that chance.

If there’s any one thing I can tell you about any heroine’s characterization, it’s this: Make sure she does not come off as weak or simple. She should have her vulnerabilities, but at all times she should be savvy and strong and intelligent. The Dagwood and Blondie days are way, way long gone, so don’t ever let your heroine in any genre come off as, well, not quite bright.

Avoid long-winded narrative passages, most of which can and should be turned into dialogue. Yes, it’s hard, rewriting narrative into dialogue, but take a look at any long narrative passages in your book and see if you can’t turn it into dialogue somewhere else in the book. Most of the time, if you really work at it, you can. I’ve had to do it dozens of times. Keep in mind, your job as an author is to not bore people with long winded exposition, no matter how brilliant your exposition is.

There are exceptions to this, of course. Cold Mountain seemed like one long exposition, and yet, was published as the work of a new literary genius. If you’re lucky and talented enough to have written a book like that, don’t worry, it will be recognized as the work of a literary genius soon enough. Some agent will see it and pull in a million dollar advance for you. But meantime, while you’re waiting for that magic moment, your job is to entertain your reader at all times. That’s what novel writing is. You’re entertaining the masses.

In order to really entertain them, remember: Your readers are looking for excitement and conflict that does not usually come to them in their own daily lives, and in fact, except for maybe sexual excitement, which is a whole ‘nother workshop, most of us don’t want much excitement and conflict in our own lives.

This is exactly why you DO need strong protagonists who generate plenty of conflict, because it’s exciting. That’s what your reader wants–strong characters with different goals, which provide plenty of conflict and excite the reader because it takes her out of her own life.

The things we don’t want in our own lives are the very things we do want in our books and movies, because they provide safe excitement. We want to create anxiety, suspense, tension, and conflict in our books for the same reason people slow down to gawk at a highway accident. Because it’s not us. It’s them.

Let me clarify something that baffles most beginning romance writers, because they hear this word from editors so much and rarely understand what it means at first. The word “conflict”. What the heck do those editors mean when they say “conflict”? What are they talking about? Well, they mean internal conflict.

Internal conflict is always something in the characters’ past lives, old baggage that they’ve brought into a new relationship, which causes them both to react in ways to certain things that nobody, not even the characters themselves, can understand. It’s also the same thing that drives both of their goals.

They both internally want something. It may make sense and it may not, but the thing that drives what they want is always internal. So you need to start with different or opposing outward, or known, goals, as well as a different set of internal conflicts. This diversity will create sizzling electricity, some good, some bad, between the lead characters, and it will keep the reader on the edge of her seat while she reads on to find out how they resolve those opposing conflicts.

A simplified example:
A man has been doing some carpentry work in a bar. When he’s finished, before he goes home he sits down at the bar to have a cold beer. He normally doesn’t drink and it hits him pretty fast. A female glassware sales rep comes in strictly on business. She has no idea he doesn’t normally drink, but she sees he’s half in the bag. He doesn’t know she grew up in an alcoholic family. They’re instantly attracted to each other. The blaze simmers, invisible sparks fly.

He hits on her. They’re both aware they’ve just met in a bar and are aware of the negative connotations. She’s reluctant, but she can’t resist him any more than he can resist her. However, when he asks for her phone number, although she’s attracted to him, she won’t give it to him. She leaves.

He finds out from the bar owner where she works, sends her flowers and calls her. She still refuses to go out with him. He can’t understand why. But eventually, since he’s persistent and charming, he talks her into meeting him at a restaurant for dinner.

At dinner, he finds out while they’re talking that she was only there to sell glassware. She finds out he was only there doing carpentry work. He tells her he doesn’t normally drink. But still, she saw him drinking, and she saw the effect it had on him.

Do you think for one minute that even though she’s gone through years of therapy because of her parents–which she doesn’t tell him, she never tells that to anyone–do you really think she’s not going to be watching him every minute of every day they’re together to see whether he really is only a light social drinker or not?

Of course she is. She’s been traumatized all through her childhood, and try though she may, she still hasn’t been able to put it in the past, where it belongs.

And that’s not all that’s happening. He has his baggage, too. She’s a single mother with one son. He was raised alone by his mother also and because of years of living with his mother’s wild spending sprees, which often left them not enough to live on and he often went hungry, he’s very, very careful with his money and expects everyone else to be as careful as he is.

But–she’s been saving for years to buy a new car. She shows up with a Porsche, which she paid cash for, on the night she was supposed to take him out for his birthday, and tells him they have to put his birthday off until the weekend.

So what does he see? Without realizing it, his inner mind sees his mother on all the birthdays when he didn’t get a present because of her financial instability. And he sees the new Porsche sitting out in his driveway. And once again it’s his birthday, he’s eight years old, and he gets no present.

He has no idea that she’s finally decided maybe he’s not Jack the Ripper and has arranged a wonderful party for him on Saturday night. She doesn’t know about his mother, so to her it’s no big deal. However, although he may not realize this, it is a very big deal to him.
That’s inner conflict, which both of them have. This can and will cause problems until they finally get to the bottom of her distrust and she’s able to feel good about this relationship, and until he gets over thinking all women are like his mother. Events from the past color our present, we can’t get away from it.

External conflict is anything caused by external forces. Former spouses, relatives, a car breakdown, a robbery, a deadly snowstorm, or tornado, a home on fire, a broken ankle caused by a rock in a pathway, a dog bite no matter whose dog it is. Those are all external conflicts, and that’s almost never what your editor is asking for when she says “conflict”.
When editors tell you that you need more conflict, they’re referring to internal conflict, the kind nobody can predict or control until they finally realize what it is and what’s causing it, and even then can’t stop the negative reaction it’s caused without a lot of soul-searching and anguish. For this reason, anyone writing a romance or any other genre needs to know her characters inside and out, and needs to know their background, because that’s where you, as the author, will find your characters’ internal conflict.

You must have a sympathetic central character. That’s another one I wondered about for a long time. What the heck were they talking about when they said “sympathetic characters”? I eventually realized it doesn’t mean someone the reader has to feel sorry for. It means, simply put, someone the reader wants to identify with and feels good about having in her home.

No rational editor will ever buy a book without at least one person the reader can identify with and root for as that person tries to achieve whatever it is she wants. If you have an unlikable lead character, she might be fascinating and true to life as you see it. You admit she’s not nice, you know everyone who reads it will see she’s not nice, but you feel she’s realistic and don’t want to change her.

That’s a mistake. You’ve got to make the reader like her, because who wants an unlikable person, to win? Who wants to identify with her? Who wants to invite her into their home?

Not your average reader.

No matter how true to life your lead character is, the reader wants to like her because the reader wants to identify with her. She wants to sink into that book for a while with someone she truly likes. She opens your book wanting to like your lead character.

It’s the same social phenomenon as giving a speech. Your audience wants to like you, they want you to do well, and they’re going to quietly root for you even when you stumble. Same thing with your lead character. She’s going to stumble, but because your reader likes her, your reader will forgive her and root for her anyhow.

That’s only human nature, and because it is human nature, you want to portray your lead characters in such a way that readers will like them and want them to win, but at the same time you still have to give them internal conflict that may well cause them to lose, because that creates excitement.

Sounds hard? It is. But you must work at doing that, because you owe it to your readers, who need and very much want someone to like and root for. That’s what ‘sympathetic character’ means. It has nothing to do with always feeling sorry for her. It has everything to do with making the reader like her enough to keep on reading so they’ll find out what happens to her.

When writing a scene, any scene, give your lead character a conflicting relationship with at least one other person in that scene. Let something be going on that she doesn’t like, even if it’s only in her thoughts. That provides excitement in the reader’s mind. You can do this even while leading up to a love scene, believe it or not, and sometimes even during it.

Think about it. You have two people about to make love. What are they each looking for? Is he looking for a one night stand, while she has marriage and kids on her mind? Do they have opposing goals, which would rivet the reader because she senses trouble ahead, or are they both just head over heels in love and only want to have sex and there’s nothing else on their minds? How boring is that? If you’re writing erotica, even then, really good erotica novels–and there are plenty of them–have a believable, compelling story. If not, face it, it’s porn.

So, your characters are in love. So they want to go to bed. So there’s nothing else on their minds or going on in their lives except sex. So they go to bed and do it. Well, if that’s all they want, who cares? You might as well end the book right there.

Isn’t it a lot better to have at least one of them not sure, or have something else really serious on their minds, or have one of them begin to have a change of heart immediately following The Big One? Their own internal conflict will provide this for you. It will ring true to the reader, and it will have the reader wondering what they’re going to do about this new and unexpected development. It will keep her reading.

The only exception to this would be a love scene at the absolute end of the book, and even then, if they’re going to be portrayed as real people, afterward, they’re still going to have something to say besides, “Wow, that was good.”

Well-rounded characters will always have something interesting to say to each other after sex, even if it’s the very last scene in the book, which should leave your reader wanting more, and wondering what’s going to happen to those people now. Whatever the reader thinks that might be, will be what makes her look for your next book.

Here’s something else to watch for. When writing any scene in your book, make sure your point of view character in that scene is the one who’s going to be the most emotionally involved and affected by the scene. That will affect and involve the reader’s emotions, which is what you always want because it’s going to give the reader a good ride.

If any scene is shown through the eyes of a character who really doesn’t care, or isn’t emotionally involved, your reader’s not going to care or be emotionally involved either, so why have the scene? Cut it! The emotional involvement in your characters’ lives is of paramount importance. Pick the character who is most affected by what’s going on and let that person carry the scene.

When writing an action scene, or one of great drama, keep your writing tight. Shorten your sentences as you go along to heighten the drama. And make sure that everything in that scene forwards the main plot. If it doesn’t, no matter how much you love the sentence or paragraph or scene, cut it! Copy-paste it into another document called ‘Brilliant Scenes’ or something like that, and use it in another book, but don’t put it in this one if it doesn’t move your main plot forward in some important way.

An action scene is not the time for heavy description or flashbacks. Done right, flashbacks can be very effective, but you shouldn’t use more then a few in any one book unless it’s a book written in flashbacks. This is especially important to remember when you’re in the middle of a fast action scene, because plopped into a fast moving scene, a flashback will stop action dead in its tracks while you yank your reader back in time to meander around somewhere.

Your reader doesn’t want to meander, she wants to get on with the action. She wants to see what’s happening here and now.

You can get by with maybe a sentence or two if you have a protagonist who is emotionally stressed by something in his past that the action unexpectedly shoots into his mind. Keep that kind of thing short though, otherwise it will slow down the main action too much. You don’t want to irritate your reader because if you do, there goes the book, straight out the window. So be sparing with flashbacks.

Cut every word in an action scene that doesn’t pertain to exactly what’s going on right at that very second. Show the action through the point of view person’s eyes so that the reader can see and feel it. Otherwise, you wind up telling, not showing. When anyone says you’re telling, not showing, that’s exactly where you need to look–at whose point of view is driving the scene, because too often new writers tell the reader what’s in the scene instead of showing it from the viewpoint person’s eyes and mind.

As you can see from what I just said, understanding point of view is vitally important. Point of view means that every single sentence in your book is seen, or heard, or felt, or smelled, or remembered by someone, and that someone, whoever it may be in any given scene, is your viewpoint character. Every word or thought or description has to come through that person’s mind and eyes, because psychologically, that causes the reader to sink into that point of view and identify with that character, thus giving the reader an engrossing reading experience–which is what you want.

Your scene is not about the countryside, unless it affects your point of view person. It’s not about the weather, unless it affects your point of view person. It’s not about a stolen locket, unless it affects your point of view person.

Any narrative in any scene in your book has to come straight from the head of your point of view person. Get into his head and let the reader see and feel what he sees and feels and thinks and smells and hears, and not one syllable more.

Always, always think of your narrative as your viewpoint person thinking what you’re trying to describe; it’ll make it much easier for you to understand point of view, because that’s what it is. It’s whichever character is driving the current scene. Not you, your character. So narrative thoughts in that scene have to coincide with how your character thinks and sees things and the language used has to coincide with his own background.

For instance, if Orphan Annie watches a Broadway play, the narrative thoughts describing that play and that theater are going to be totally different than if Hannibal Lector watches the same play. Think about it. Annie looks around, sees all the beautiful colors, thinking how lovely it all is and how the sun’s going to come out tomorrow.

But good ol’ Hannibal looks around trying to decide which person in the audience might provide the most juicy and tasty dinner. The language used in that scene’s narrative will be completely different, thoughts phrased differently, the descriptions and narrative different and believable because you’re staying in character even in narrative passages.

That is point of view.

Try to think of it this way: It’s them, not me. It’s not how I’d say it. It’s how they’d say it.
If it’s a guy, leave off the fluffy phrases. Depict it, whatever it is, the way he’d think it, not the way you’d think it. Reality in a book depends on the wuthor knowing the viewpoint character well. Get that firmly set in your mind and you’re halfway home. Your narrative will make sense to anyone who reads it as long as it only comes from the viewpoint person.

This is because if you describe anything, in any scene, in any way, other than the way your viewpoint character would describe it, you immediately take the reader out of the viewpoint character’s head. Your reader will know it doesn’t feel not right, even if he doesn’t know why. But he’ll feel it.

About chapter endings. Does your chapter ending leave your reader hanging, dying to get into the next chapter so she can find out what happens right away? Well, guess what. Don’t tell her. One of the best ways to create excitement and anticipation and maybe even fear in a reader, is to keep from her whatever it is that she wants to know badly, right here, right now, and immediately switch to another character at another location and make the reader go into that scene.

Oh, she wants to know in the worst way whether John’s going to propose to Marsha, now that they’re on that Caribbean cruise and the moon’s full, and the air is warm, and the drinks are potent. Don’t let him do it, not quite yet.

Your reader wants to find out exactly where the diamond necklace is hidden, because Jake is heading downstairs to get his rifle this minute, ready to maybe shoot the reader’s favorite character. Don’t tell the reader where it is. Not quite yet. Play with your readers, dangle them, have fun with them. You owe that to them and you’ll have a blast writing it.

If you’re writing a first person novel and your protagonist is running for his life, but he’s not sure who he’s running from, only that he’s in great danger, you can’t tell the reader because the protagonist, your viewpoint character in that scene, doesn’t know.

No matter which person you’re writing in, always make an effort to create and keep up the pace of suspense, because that’s what your reader wants. Your reader wants to be titillated and anxious, so make it happen. Don’t let the reader have what she most wants when she first wants it. Wait until the very last possible moment in your book and you’ll have a happy new fan.

Here’s one of my personal favorites. Your characters are in the middle of a serious conversation about a third person, whom the reader may already know. The first two people are talking about what they think that third person would never, ever do.

Open your very next scene with that third person doing exactly what the first two thought he wouldn’t. That one’s fun, I like it, and readers like it because it surprises them. They want to be surprised. They want to be kept off-balance.

How do we avoid clichés, that dreaded word that shows up in so many revision requests. Well, that’s not easy, but your job is to spend the extra time, weed out all those common phrases and think up a new way to say it, because clichés are flat out boring, and they’re lazy writing. That’s what I said. Lazy writing.

“Dead as a doorknob.” “Flat as a pancake.” “Hard as a rock.” It takes a lot of effort to avoid those phrases like that, which come to us right off as we’re writing, because they’re so familiar and we’re so used to saying them. But we have to avoid them in our writing. It’s part of our job.

Go over every simile and metaphor in your book, one by one. Is it familiar, or is it original? If it feels familiar and comfortable, it can’t be original. Deal with this problem right away, rework all of those boring phrases before you send your manuscript out, otherwise you’ll get it back. It’s all a matter of the author’s attitude. Authors who take the extra time to do this continually sell books. Authors who don’t.well.

Building characters: We all notice people who stand out in a crowd, whether by the way they look, or the way they sound. Those are the kind of characters you want for your books. Characters who make your reader want to know why they look or sound or feel the way they do, why they’re so happy about something, or why they give the impression they’re torn or haunted by something. That “something” is caused by what the character wants, so again, your job is to know exactly what he wants, and why.

On that note, let me add something here. When you’re writing mainstream, your character has to want something very big. Al Zuckerman called it “stake” in a workshop I attended a few years back. What’s at stake?

In Tom Clancy books there’s always something huge at stake, something that could literally affect the world. In Grisham or Patterson novels, the stake may be a tad smaller, but it’s still large enough to carry a mainstream novel, along with several subplots.

So what’s at stake in your novel will determine a lot about your character, because the two go hand in hand. Think about Jack Ryan, Clancy’s main character. Now there’s a fictional character with so much integrity, so much personal strength, so much moxie and intelligence that he would be strong enough to save the world from chaos. How many other fictional characters would be that strong? Not many, but you’ve got to try.

If you want to know your lead character before you start your book and your main goal is to progressively get him into more and more trouble as he goes about getting what he wants, here’s something on characterization to think about.

Agent and author Alice Orr taught a class I attended about getting into the head of your character. She had her students sit down and write their lead character’s life all the way up from childhood, using first person, present tense, as though the student were walking through that person’s life, talking about it as the life progressed, using the terms and language the character would have used at the age any incident happened.

That’s a grossly oversimplified explanation of her class, but it’s really getting into the heads of your leads. I highly recommend her technique as an aid to discovering not only why your character wants what he wants, but also what his hidden agendas are, what emotional baggage he’s carrying from the past into the present.

Try doing that for all of your lead characters, including your antagonist. You’ll wind up with a highly detailed characterization sheet, and you probably will spend a day or two with each one. It’s well worth the time, because that preliminary work will show up all through your novel, or novels if you’re writing a series.

That’s building characters, and it’s the quickest way to get to know them well so that the things they do and think, and the way they see things, will make sense. Physical description has little to do with this type of character analysis. Building characters has everything to do with knowing what’s inside.

Dialogue: Choppy, stiff dialogue is one of the things most writers struggle with early on in their careers, because they have a grammar book in their hands and they’re trying to stick to correct grammar. Well, guess what. There’s nothing grammatically correct about most dialogue, unless you’re an English professor at Harvard trying to impress the folks on Parents’ Day.

If you’re working your way through stiff, wooden dialogue, pitch the grammar book, and think about how the character himself would say whatever it is. But one caution here: Learn basic grammar rules first so you’ll know how to break them when you write your dialogue as well as narrative. Repeat that to yourself because it’s crucial to understand it. You can save yourself years of rejections and heartache if you know the basics first.

You need to be aware of your character, who he is, and know his background as well as his age and education when you begin his dialogue. The tendency of a new author is to put words into the character’s mouth that the author would think or say, which typically results in a rejection because the editor doesn’t like the character. That’s almost always because the author has lost sight of the character’s point of view and continually puts her own way of speaking into her character’s words, then tries to somehow fix it, which is impossible because it was wrong to begin with.

Dialogue can’t ring true no matter what the author does until the author lets go of the words and thoughts and lets the characters themselves speak or think them the way they normally would.

In narrative, make sure you say and describe everything the way your character would say or think it; missing words, fragmented thoughts, whatever it is that the character does, or is, that makes him stand out. His spoken and inner thoughts, in other words, your narrative, are all part of what makes him unique, and it’s important to understand this.

It’s not enough to say to a struggling author, “Give them different speech patterns”. What we’ve been talking about here is why they would all have different speech patterns in some way. The “why” is, because we all have different backgrounds, and their own unique point of view should show up in their speech, and their thoughts, at all times.

Keep yourself out of it, let your characters say or think whatever it is the way they would logically do, given their individuality.

What I’ve tried to do here is give you some insight into the reasons for all the rules you’ll keep running up against as you learn how to put a book together. There are many more things to learn, but these I’ve given you here are basic and important.

I hope I’ve been able to show you why they’re important, because the pitfalls I’ve just described are the main ones that will cause a novel to be rejected. Nobody wants that, and the easiest way to prevent a lot of it is to understand these things and work at them continually until they’re second nature to you.
They won’t all come at once, but they will come if you work at it and you’ll find yourself sailing along with strong, realistic dialogue, solid plots, and believable characters before you know it.

Best of luck to you on your journey. It’s not easy, but it is fun. 😉

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