So, this is the story of my life.
The Five Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes
I have run my course, Writers Write, for 10 years. I have learned so much from teaching novelists to dream their books into life. After seeing more than 130 graduates published, I have identified these as being the most common mistakes made by debut writers.
- Beginner writers all want to write their life story in the form of a novel. Almost every writer who comes through the school thinks they have a life story so compelling that an editor won’t be able to resist it. Starting a query letter with, ‘This novel is based on my life,’ means the dreaded slush pile! Even if your mother sold you to gypsies to feed her heroin habit, or your father let his father molest you, your story is not unique. I promise you they’ve heard it all. See a therapist. Then write a novel. Or write a memoir. But learn how to do it so that it is not an indulgence. Chris van Wyk’s Shirley, Goodness & Mercy, Alexandra Fuller’s Don’t Let’s Go To The Dogs Tonight and Peter Godwin’s Mukiwa are good examples of memoirs.
- Beginners have no antagonist. If you develop well-constructed protagonists and antagonists, who SPEAK and ARGUE and FIGHT, you will be able to write a book. How can you write a novel, which is generally 360 pages long, without a villain? Who will your hero fight to achieve his goal? The other characters – love interests and friends - are not important for the plot. They are important to show a protagonist’s life, goals, motivations, and feelings without you telling your reader what they are.
- Beginner writers have no plot. Beginner writers either stop at about 20 000 words or carry on until they reach 120 000 or more! Most novels are 80 000 words. Either way, these writers don’t have a plot. Most first time authors ramble on philosophically until they have told the story. They are writing an essay, not a novel. This is called telling. Never tell.
- Beginners do not have enough dialogue. In modern fiction you have to show. The narrator style of writing has all but disappeared. One way to get around this problem is to use dialogue. Modern novels contain 60-70% dialogue. I suggest that writers make friends with this writing tool.
- Beginner writers hang on to an idea for a novel that is no longer popular. All writers have a story from long ago, mostly high school, which they won’t let go. I ask these writers to go to their nearest good bookshop and look at the new releases. I tell them to do some research on Amazon. Would their book fit in either of these places? Family sagas written by authors like Barbara Taylor Bradford in the 1980s do not sell now. Nor do cosy mysteries a la Agatha Christie, or historical adventures like those written by Wilbur Smith – unless you are Wilbur Smith. These writers need to let go, do some research and write fiction that readers want to read, and that publishers will buy.
Why I believe in Writers Write
I have watched people struggle as they decide whether or not they need to attend a writing course. After many rejections and lots of reflection, they join.
Writing teachers and mentors, and writing courses, have been popular for longer than most people know.
- Frank McCourt (Angela’s Ashes) lectures creative writing, as do Wally Lamb (She’s Come Undone) and Janet Fitch (White Oleander). South African writers like Andre Brink and J.M. Coetzee have lectured creative writing.
- When I interviewed Marina Lewycka (A Short History of Tractors in the Ukranian) she revealed that a writing course was her secret to becoming published. Charlaine Harris was discovered on a writing course.
- Writing support groups have also helped many writers. Consider Gertrude Stein, who sacrificed much of her own career to mentor the likes of F Scott Fitzgerald, T S Eliot, Ezra Pound, James Joyce and Ernest Hemingway.
Don’t ever be afraid to learn. The most successful novelists have always looked for help when they’ve needed it.
I hope this helps.
From Writers Write
Jon Stewart, explaining to young people why books are awesome.