Thursday, March 12, 2009

Beginner (Writer) Mistakes

As writers, we always hear about all the "beginner mistakes" that just scream wannabe to agents and publishers. We vow that that won't be us. Like using the word "that" all the time (yes, I've already used it 3 times in actual context). Then there's:
  • being wordy
  • telling instead of showing
  • using passive voice
  • using too many adverbs
  • using weak words (like 'weak')
  • using cliches (Mike actually caught me trying to get away with "running in circles at the end of her rope"!!! Gasp! 2 cliches for the price of 1. Does that mean it's not a cliche anymore, like a double negative?)
  • too many flashbacks/dream sequences/etc
There are countless others. So why is it that we keep making these mistakes when there are so many resources out there telling us NOT to? We're smart people. We read voraciously. We can even follow directions. So WHY do we keep doing these things, even when we vow not to and have plenty of examples of what we SHOULD do?

I got to thinking about this yesterday when I was editing a fantasy short story I wrote some time ago with the intent of making it available as a free read on my blog here. Some of it was actually pretty well done. In fact, I think my setting and description were better back then than they are now. Now if I tack a color descriptor onto an item, I'm feeling proud of myself. But some of the other aspects... ick. Now I know why I didn't win those contests years ago with this little gem of writing. :) 

My main problems hit beginner mistake #1 in the list - being too wordy - with shout-outs from a few others in the list. I might have stumbled on my personal hang-up with this. I think part of the problem is that as new writers, we try to invoke the feelings and images that were in our heads as we read other published works. So we write all of it in. We throw adjectives & adverbs everywhere, hit readers over the head with our characters' emotions, and state what the characters' intents are right before they actually act on them (so the reader essentially gets told what's going to happen and then gets to see it happen instead of just seeing it). It's because we remember how vivid other author's stories were in our minds, and we think that writing it all out is how that happens.

But it's not. Those emotions and images were bolstered by our own imaginations as we were reading. We've got a picture in our heads of this really tall, solidly built guy who blocks out the sun, dwarfs our 5'3" stature and makes us feel like a pygmy. It's not because the author wrote out: "He was very tall and had broad shoulders that stretched the limits of his shirt. He was so big that everyone around him felt tiny." Now, first of all, that was a horrible example of telling instead of showing. 'Very', 'big', and 'tall' are also weak words. But we got those images in our head of this guy because the author said something simple or descriptive like: "I looked up. And up. And up. When did they build a skyscraper here that looked like a man?"

I think that new writers don't know HOW other authors evoke those mental images when we first start writing. We're confusing the effect with the cause.

What do you guys think? Sound reasonable? What other beginner mistakes did I forget to mention, or as a reader, what things do authors do in their stories that annoy you? Post in comments!

Happy Thursday!
(Happy Thursday = A new episode of Bones will actually be on instead of American Idol. Finally.)

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