It’s hard to believe that I’ve been professionally writing for fifteen years now and writing novels for five years. Time really does fly when you find your purpose in life! But that’s not what I’m going to be writing about today. In this blog post, I want to share with you the five writing mistakes that I made in 2021 during the writing of my fourth book. These ‘mistakes’ are based on feedback from my literary agent who has read hundreds of manuscripts, knows the market and understands what readers are looking for. In other words, she knows what she’s talking about.
My hope for you is that you can avoid these same mistakes, because if there’s one lesson I’ve learned during my writing career is that if you’re willing to listen to the (right) feedback and strive to improve your writing, you will succeed.
One of my secrets to success is to learn from those who have walked the path before me or have lots of experience in the industry and receiving and implementing professional feedback from a literary agent is one of the best ways (if not the most nerve-wracking) to improve your book. Even today with three books published, I never miss the opportunity to take a writing class from a successful author and I’m always reading and listening to inspiring books and podcasts that can help me improve my craft. I want to learn from their mistakes early so I don’t make them myself.
As Tony Robbins says, ‘If you want to be successful, find someone who has achieved the results you want and copy what they do and you’ll achieve the same results.’ (I think it goes without saying that I’m not talking about plagiarism here!)
And while avoiding the mistakes I’m sharing with you today isn’t going to make you an overnight bestseller, it will help you write a better book.
So whether you’re writing a novel or nonfiction, about to start your book or already finished a first draft, you’re going to find these mistakes useful because you can either avoid them or edit them using my suggestions below.
Mistake 1: Not enough scene-setting
Ultimately, readers want to be transported to a different world so taking the time to introduce place in your book is critical. My agent felt that there wasn’t enough scene-setting in my manuscript and that there needed to be more escapism. There are a number of ways I addressed this including:
Focusing on detail: Rather than broad descriptions of the character’s surroundings, I thought about what small details the character might notice in their environment.
Establish time: my book is set in 2019 so I looked at how I could make this more apparent to the reader a lot earlier in the book. (Remember the days when people used to hug and shake hands?)
Convey emotion: what is the mood of your setting? Using symbolism can be a great way to convey this.
Mistake 2: Subpar dialogue
If there’s one area that I’ve always struggled with, it’s dialogue! With so many characters, there was a lot of a dialogue and some of it just didn’t come up to par. Here are a few of the things I did to improve it:
Reviewing character voice: Making sure each character’s voice comes across distinctly by focusing on word choice. Would the character say: ‘I’m not sure about that’, or would they say: ‘Dunno’?
Removing the unnecessary: Any dialogue that doesn’t take the story forward has been removed. This included editing greetings and small talk that reduced impact.
Body language and expression: What is the character doing with his/her body during dialogue? There was a lot of opportunity in my work to develop more rounded characters. For this, I went back to my character profile sheets and nailed down even more details.
Mistake 3: Lack of depth regarding themes
Some of the best books I’ve ever read are the ones that have an element of simplicity where the author has taken just one or two themes but explored them with depth. I was guilty of including lots of themes but only touching the surface so I reviewed them and only concentrated on the ones most relevant to the narrative. I also chose the ones that were most universal and delved into them more deeply by:
Focusing on the internal struggle of the characters.
Enhancing the conflict between characters. This is often where themes reveal themselves the most.
Reviewing key scenes in the book and asking myself if they built on the story’s themes. If they didn’t, I removed them.
Mistake 4: Writing what you haven’t experienced
One of my characters has Polish heritage. I’m not Polish but I do have family members who are. I interviewed them and did as much research as I could but ultimately, it wasn’t working. I had my reservations about this element of the character from the beginning but pushed on anyway! As a result, this character needs a lot of revising. Two lessons I learnt from this:
Write about what you know and have experienced
Always trust your instincts
Mistake 5: Telling instead of showing
Show, don’t tell is practically a writing law - a golden rule. And I broke it. Not a lot but enough for it to bring down the quality of my work. Really, I should know better (I blame Covid!) but we all make mistakes and it just proves that even seasoned writers need to go back to basics sometimes. To address this, I looked at all the areas where exposition was used rather than sensory details and action and re-wrote it. As Chekhov said: Don’t tell me the moon is shining. Show me the glint of light on broken glass.
My hope for you is that you can learn from these mistakes and avoid them but if you don't or make a few of your own, do keep on writing because ultimately, the act of doing it is the best teacher of all.
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