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Common Mistakes First-Time Novelists Make

1. The Slow Start - Many novices start out with too much background information and then slog along before they pick up speed. You want to grab the reader with a compelling scene and then add the back story later. Today's impatient reader won't wait till page fifty for things to start moving.

2. The Sagging Midsection - Some writers work hard on their beginnings and endings but their "middles" are too heavy. When you have told your story, go back and see if you can cinch in the belt around its midsection. Prune every unnecessary scene; if a scene doesn't add something new about your main characters or advance the plot, get rid of it!

3. Uneven Pacing - Perhaps the biggest challenge for the fiction writer is to create enough tension to keep readers turning pages, while supplying enough breathing space for them to relax a little now and then. Too much tension makes readers anxious and they close the book. Not enough tension and they fall asleep. How tightly do you string the invisible line between a conflict and its resolution to create just the right amount of tension? There's no formula; ultimately, writers have to depend on honest feedback from a caring critique group or professional editor—or both—to strike that magical balance.

4. The "Too Nice" Protagonist - Some writers create good guys who're so good no one can relate to them. For your hero or heroine to be believable, he or she will have to have some character flaws. No one is perfect, so give your protagonist a bad habit or two.This is especially true in the character-driven novel.

5. The Loathsome Antagonist - I often see novels in which the villain is so malevolent he comes across as a caricature. If you aren't writing black comedy and intentionally exaggerating your bad guy, give him a sympathetic trait or two. Maybe he takes in stray animals, or always remembers his grandmother's birthday.

6. Stilted Dialogue - First-time novelists who've never had practice writing dialogue sometimes have trouble making their characters sound natural. I suggest to clients that they read their dialogue out loud, preferably into a tape recorder. When they hear it played back they know immediately if it doesn't sound believable; that means going back to the drawing board and reworking it so that it does.

7. All Characters Speak Alike - Make sure your characters don't sound the same. Often an inexperienced writer's characters all speak the way he (the writer) speaks. As your characters come alive in your imagination, try to "hear" them talking. Each will have unique phrases and ways of expressing himself or herself. Here's a trick: When your novel is written, sit down and go through the entire manuscript reading the dialogue of one character at a time, all the way through. If there are inconsistencies, they will pop out at you.

8. Too Much Detail - Readers' tastes differ in this regard, but judging from what's popular on the market now my guess is that most readers want less detail than more. Have you pulled out a Dickens' novel lately and tried to read it? You probably felt bogged down in detail. Here's what I see frequently: pointless details, things the reader could fill in on his own. So when you have a scene in which a character is preparing soup, avoid "She opened the drawer, took out a spoon, walked over to the stove, turned on the burner... " You get the picture!

9. Too Much Research - This problem piggybacks on #8 above, but its origin is different. In this case the writer has done lots of research and wants to use it. For example, let's say the novel is set during the French Revolution. We are reading along, getting caught up in the colorful characters, when suddenly we get a history lecture on the number of serfs in a certain province in 1789, the number who were landowners, on and on. After two or three pages of this, we have either forgotten about the characters, or we are yawning and flipping ahead to get back to them. If you do intensive research to background your fiction, don't feel as though you have to use all of it; pepper it in for flavor and save the leftovers for other projects. (This same principle applies with scenery and local color. If you travel to Brazil to soak up the atmosphere for your action-adventure, make sure your story doesn't end up sounding like Fodor's Brazil!)

10. Too Many Viewpoints (aka "Whose head are we in anyway?") - Not too long ago writers' handbooks said, "Stick to the same point of view throughout your novel." That is no longer the case. Today, respected authors change point of view, and readers have no problem with it. The literary critics don't squawk either. But beginners sometimes change viewpoints willy-nilly, often within the same scene, which can be confusing—even jarring—to the reader. It's best to remain with the same point of view throughout a scene. (One expert recommends changing POV only between chapters.)



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