Author of Time Rep and Note To Self

The top ten mistakes in writing

Okay, it’s been a while since I’ve had a list on this website – the trusty stalwart for any blog entry, since everyone loves a good list, don’t they? But what should the list be? How about the top ten best things to do lists about? No, that’s stupid. Or what about the top one best book about time travel? No, too easy… Maybe I should do the top three worst introductions to a blog – although without putting much thought into it, I think this paragraph would probably take the top spot.  

No, I think I’m going to list my top ten mistakes that authors make when writing. And by that, I don’t mean grammatical stuff like starting a sentence with “and” (which is fine, by the way) – I mean things that annoy me when I’m reading a book. Please bear in mind that this is purely based on my own observations – I’m sure there are far better authorities on the matter, but these are the ones I tend to pick up on, in no particular order:

10) The narrative spells everything out for the reader

There are many examples of this, and it’s usually because the author is worried that the reader doesn’t understand what is going on, or how a character feels in a particular situation. One example might be where a guy breaks down in tears, only for the text to then explain that he was upset. Or where characters stop in the middle of the story to ask each other questions to summarise what is going on in the story. Back to the Future Part 2 is a good example of this – about halfway though, the momentum of the film is put on hold for five minute to allow Doc Brown to explain the situation to Marty (and by extension the audience), even going so far as having him draw a diagram on a whiteboard of the space time continuum to avoid any confusion. Not necessary.

9) Characters look ‘confused’, ‘nervous’, ‘angry’, ‘happy’ etc.

Characters should not look ‘angry’, They should grit their teeth and start shaking, their fist clenched. They should not look ‘happy’ either – they should smile broadly, their eyes twinkling with energy. Many authors fall into the trap of describing how someone looks by describing how they feel, rather than just how they look.

8) Over-writing

Sometimes a writer will go over and over and over and over a section of their book until they feel it is right – I did this with the first chapter of Time Rep, and looking back I think it’s the weakest chapter in the whole story. When you start going over something again and again, the writing loses its freshness, and you begin to tweak it to the point where it is no longer anything creative – the text takes on a strangely functional quality. Don’t get me wrong – looking back over your work and editing it is important, but there comes a point where you just have to leave something alone and move on.

7) The plot does not pass the Bechdel test

What do you mean you’ve never heard of the Bechdel test? 70% of fiction (especially films) fail to pass it, and it tends to be a sign that a story is not representing women in a realistic way. But what is it? Well, in real life, there are roughly them same number of women in the world as men, and when they talk to each other (which women tend to do quite a bit), the topic of conversation isn’t always about a man. However, if fiction was truly representative of real life, the world would be 90% male, and if women ever talked to each other, most of the time they would only talk to each other about men. So there are three stages to the Bechdel test: 1) Does the story have more than two named female characters in it? 2) Do they ever talk to each other? 3) If they do, do they ever talk to each other about something other than a man? Take your favourite book and put it to the test – the chances are, it will fail. And in case you’re interested, Time Rep fails the Bechdel test, and Note to Self passes.

6) Character dialogue isn’t what like how people talk like

There are two parts to this – the first is where characters speak unrealistically (see my post on writing dialogue for more on this), and the second is where they talk in situations where there is no way they would be talking to each other. For instance, if a man and a woman who like the look of each other are sitting next to each other in the middle of a plane crash, they would not be chatting each other up – they would be pooing their pants.

5) Too much description

This one all comes down to an author’s individual style – sometimes pages and pages of description can still be a light, entertaining read. Other times, a short piece of description can seem heavy and really hard work to read. For me, I think the thing that differentiates a book from most other mediums is the fact that so much can be left up to the reader’s imagination. Find the balance that works for you and stick to it.

4) The author displays too much attachment to a particular idea or scene

One of the best pieces of advice I ever heard about writing was that you must be prepared to cut your favourite scene or idea. In Note to Self, there were two ideas I absolutely loved, but both of them never made the final draft because they were simply too difficult to incorporate into the story without having a detrimental affect to the rest of the book. If this is true of an amazing idea you’ve got about your own story, then ditch the idea.

3) Unnecessarily long words

Bad writing is using long words when short ones will do.

2) Lack of emotional engagement with main characters

With many books these days its all plot, plot, plot. And plot is fine, but for the reader to care about the outcome of a plot, they have to care about the affect it will have on the main characters. So make us care about them!

1) Crap ending

 I read the whole thing for this?

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