With those stories in mind (the ones I've read by others, and the ones I wrote myself), I came up with a list of five mistakes that beginning writers can fall prey to. I really have young writers in mind, like eight to thirteen years old, because that's the age I started and that's when a lot of writers start. But older writers who are just starting out have a lot of these problems too (only they've probably read all sorts of writing manuals giving them advice, so the problems will manifest in more "writerly" ways).
Keep in mind this is just my opinion. The best writing advice for anyone is to write as much as you can and to read as much as you can, because you'll naturally get better that way. Still, it doesn't hurt to realize that some of the things you do in your writing are super annoying. Such as these:
1. No paragraph breaks
Oh. My. God. If I can think of one thing that stands out to me when I look at amateur writing, it's the lack of paragraph breaks. No one, absolutely no one, wants to read a story that is one giant uninterrupted block of words. It looks intimidating and there's no flow. Compare (and I'm stealing these (and paraphrasing also) from the first Harry Potter):
There was so much to learn that even people like Ron didn't have much of a head start. Friday was an important day for Harry and Ron. They finally managed to find their way down to the Great Hall. "What have we got today?" Harry asked Ron as he poured sugar onto his porridge. "Double Potions with the Slytherins," said Ron. "Snape's Head of Slytherin House. They say he always favors them." "Wish McGonagall favored us," said Harry. Professor McGonagall...UGH that is annoying to read. Versus:
There was so much to learn that even people like Ron didn't have that much of a head start.
Friday was an important day for Harry and Ron. They finally managed to find their way down to the Great Hall for breakfast without getting lost once.
"What have we got today?" Harry asked Ron as he poured sugar onto his porridge.
"Double Potions with the Slytherins," said Ron. "Snape's Head of Slytherin House. They say he always favors them."
"Wish McGonagall favored us," said Harry.Wow. That is much better. You know when a new idea, or something exciting, is coming up, because there's a new line for it, instead of it getting lost in a muddle of words. You can follow the flow of a conversation, because each time a new character speaks, they get a new line. If you go to the first example, Harry's and Ron's lines flow into each other so you can't keep track of who's saying what. That isn't so much of a problem in the second example.
A good way to remember when to indent for new paragraphs is by remembering TiPToP. You start a new line every time there's a change in Time, Place, Topic, or Person speaking.
2. Everyone is the same character
A lot of more experienced writers (read: me, because I suck at writing) struggle with this problem as well. The problem is this: you know that everyone in the world is a unique person, who has had a unique childhood, a unique life story, and unique ideas in their unique head. Then why do all your characters react the same way to everything? Think about it. If you were to take four of your major characters, throw them into a bank that's being robbed, and they all did the exact same thing in that scenario (instead of one hiding, one standing up to the robber, one yelling for help, etc.), then those aren't four different characters- that's one character who has four different names.
This might not be so obvious when you think about your story. You might think, "uh, obviously my characters are different! One of them is girly and blonde, one of them is an exciting superhero- they're totally different!" But those are surface differences, not deep differences. Your characters need to each be complicated and deep in unique and different ways, and you need to show these differences. They can't all talk the same way, think the same way, express their emotions the same way, have the same interests, have the same opinions about stuff in the plot, react the same way to stuff ("they all gasped"). Otherwise why do you even have different characters?
Usually, the root behind this problem is that you haven't come across too many types of people in your life, or if you have, you haven't really looked too deeply into their lives. The fact is that there are so many different types of people in the world. And that's a good thing! It makes your story richer. That's why you need more than one character- so that they all work together to create your story. If they're all thinking the same way, then they can't work together to solve problems- they might as well just work alone.
The way to fix this is to first understand your characters in a complex way. There are plenty of character questionnaires online to help with that. Give them all different life stories, different motives, and different ways of behaving. Second, you need to make all these differences obvious in the plot. When you write a conversation, it needs to be obvious who is speaking, even if you don't write their name- that's how differently they all speak. Some of them will react emotionally to something that another one doesn't care about at all. Some will never go over to the dark side; some will be tempted by the dark side- and when that character goes over to the dark side, the reader needs to feel a little bit, "I knew it!" Because their character gave off the impression, the whole book, of being kind of dark-side-y. It's a difficult thing to do, without outright saying stuff like, "KRISTY IS THE POPULAR ONE. LACY WILL BECOME EVIL." But the more you practice, the better you'll get.
3. Villains of Pure Evil
You wouldn't start an army to kill babies, would you? No, you'd never even think of it. And neither would almost anyone you know. That's why, when you imagine the head of the baby-killing army, you imagine a Villain of Pure Evil. No regular human would do such evil things- no, only an Evil Villain would do such a thing. Someone who struts about his office twirling his evil mustache, plotting more terrible deeds.
The thing is, Villains of Pure Evil are really boring to read. And very unrealistic, especially if they're humans. If there's no reason behind their actions besides "they're just evil," then the hero has nothing they can manipulate to get them to stop. The villain is also a dull character, since they have no background, no interests, no emotions. And it's pretty hard to believe the story, since nobody in the history of ever has done bad things "because they're evil." They've done it for power, for revenge, because they truly believed they were right, for love, out of fear. Those motives are realistic and are much more interesting.
Also, a common thing I see in stories about middle and high school is the bully who picks on the main character for no good reason. She's just a mean girl who specifically targets your main character with no explanation. You can't have your villain hate on the main character just because you need the audience to feel sorry for the main character. There has to be a reason behind it, otherwise it feels unrealistic.
4. Way Too Much Description
Let's say I told you to imagine a beautiful, wintry forest. You can picture it, right? In all its detail- the glittering icicles, the pure white snow, the bare black branches, the bright blue sky. But I didn't need to say all that stuff about the icicles and snow, they were already in your head. In the same way, your readers will be able to picture the things in your book, without you needing to go on for too long to describe them.
Too much description weighs down your writing, and takes away from the action. Readers want to read a story, not a beautiful image, no matter how beautiful that image is. Describing scenery (or a character's appearance, or whatever) is a way to make the readers put down your book and walk away, which you never want them to do.
Generally, a quick one- or two-sentence description will suffice for just about anything. The times when you need more are:
-when you describe something unusual that the reader could not picture on their own (for example, you say it's a beautiful wintry forest, but turns out that forest has purple trees)
-when you need to include a detail that will be important later (that forest has a couple of red cardinals in the trees- who are actually magical spies)
-when it's something major in the book that will feature a lot (your main character, a major setting). Be careful with these, though- you don't want to put too much information in one spot.
Times you should definitely NOT use heavy description would be any action scenes or important plot moments, and the beginning, when you need to grab the reader's attention.
Don't get me wrong- beautiful description has its place. I'm reading a book that has a scene with two pages of pure description, and it works. But it's because the scene is a magical party scene that is very important to the plot. The book talks a lot about how great these magic parties are, and once we get to it, the description is important to suck us in and make us feel as though we ourselves are attending this party. In addition, it never lingers too long on any one detail of the party- it moves quickly from one to the next. If you must describe, try to do that.
I get it. You need to explain a huge amount of information in a short time. Whether it's how your character came to be a spy, or what exactly this dragon-hunting school is all about. And if your reader doesn't know it, they're going to be confused. But as I said in the last section, readers read a book for the story, and if the story isn't moving along, they get bored and stop reading. So if they come across a big chunk of information, it's going to bore them.
But you still need to get this information across! How can you do that? Well, there are a couple of ways, and there are probably tons of blogs on the Internet that have better ideas than I do, but here are a few:
- Drop the information over the course of the first few scenes. The main character comes across their dragon-hunting teacher, who gives them a reminder about their homework. They see a sign at the front of the school and spend two or three sentences thinking about the history of it, giving your reader vital information. Their friend makes a comment about the war. This handful of clues will be enough. Your readers are smart, they can piece together the clues to figure out what's going on.
- Dialogue! If your main character doesn't even know what's going on yet, they'll probably find out by someone telling them. A great example of this is when Hagrid tells Harry he's a wizard. A conversation is a way to keep the story moving while giving the reader (and your character) important information. But you have to be careful- they can't just be sitting there, one person talking and the other person listening. The conversation has to go back and forth- questions, emotions, opinions, arguments. Stuff has to happen- maybe they're walking through the woods or through a city during this, or doing some important work. Keep the story moving.
- Make it a story within a story. If the information you need to portray can be portrayed in a fun storytelling form, do it that way. Have the character write a diary entry where they remember the story of how they got to Fairyland. Start the story off with a mini-story about the history of the magical wars before you get into the real story. This sort of thing is generally discouraged in the publishing world, but if you can pull it off, it's a good way to get information across without boring your reader.
Also, I apologize if this came off as condescending. I just want to give some tips and advice I've learned while writing, not suggest that everyone else is a bad writer or anything like that.
Thanks for reading! Come back on Saturday for my second new-experience post!