Last week, I mentioned that I went to NAWGFest17, the great writers’ conference run by the National Association of Writers’ Groups. While there, I went to a series of workshops run by Cressida Downing, the Book Analyst. At the first workshop she went through five common mistakes that rookie writers make (with their fiction), which I thought I’d share with you here, as I, too, can own up to having made a couple of these.
I need to hold my hand up to this one. And I still do it now, although I do know to edit it out when I come across it now. Cressida said that rookie writers tell their readers what their characters are doing all of the time, walking them through scenes, including the really boring, mundane day-to-day activities. She squirted her usual pea-sized blob of toothpaste onto her toothbrush and spent the next two minutes brushing her teeth. Is this necessary? Do readers need to know about this? Do they care? It might be important, if the action is key to plot line (perhaps the toothpaste has been poisoned, or she has an aversion to cleaning her teeth, so this is really out of character. But if it isn’t, the reader really doesn’t give a toss, so delete it!
2. Gasping and blurting
Rookie writers often fell the need to use their thesaurus when it comes to dialogue tags. Instead of He said, they opt for He declared, or He bellowed, he screeched, he whispered, he pontificated, he … yet get the idea.
At the end of the day, the humble said often works well and readers tend not to notice it as much as a bellowed, pontificated etc, etc. One point Cressida made that really hit home to me was that good writing immerses the reader into the story. They should forget they are actually reading. Sometimes, all of these different dialogue tags can remind them that this is what they’re doing … especially if they read the dialogue and imagine it said one way, and then read the dialogue tag and learn it was spoken in a different manner. This jolts the reader from the story making them go back and re-read the dialogue in the manner that the tag suggests.
Action often works much better. Don’t tell the reader how the dialogue was spoken – show them through some action. If someone snaps at another character, have them do something that shows this anger/annoyance. “Stop that right now!” Charles thumped the dining table.
The point Cressida was making here is that readers like working things out. We don’t need to explain everything. Often, if we show the reader how our characters are re-acting, that will convey motivation, emotion or their thoughts. We can give them clues. A man who backs away from an approaching cat clearly doesn’t like cats. You don’t need to tell your readers this is why he’s doing it.
As an editor Cressida sometimes sees this, although it’s not something I’d considered. If you’re writing a novel don’t use it as a means of changing your readers’ opinion or beliefs on a subject close to your heart. Readers buy novels to be entertained, not to be preached at.
Of course, there is nothing stopping you having a character who has strong views and opinions on a similar topic. But that character will be exploring those issues with other characters in the book. They’re not their to primarily change the readers’ opinions.
5. JK Rowling does it!
I think we’ve all seen examples of an famous author who has broken the rules of writing somewhere along the way. But just because JK Rowling (or any other big name author) does it, that doesn’t mean that you can too. Break the writing rules when you understand them. Don’t break them just for the sake of breaking them. You should only break a rule because it works better for the story you are telling. Yes, I’ve seen novels written where the dialogue is not contained within speech marks. But that doesn’t give you the right to do it. I’ve seen novels where the viewpoint changes within the same paragraph. But that doesn’t give you the right to do it. So, stick to the rules, until you know why you need to break them.
So there you have it. Cressida’s five mistakes that rookie writers frequently make. And she should know, because as an editor whe sees many of them. For more advice from Cressida read her blog on the Writers’ and Artists’ website.