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    Eight Common Mistakes by Beginning Fiction Writers

    There are certain things that nearly all beginning writers do. It's almost a right of passage, to have them picked up and commented on. So to save yourself from possible embarrassment, try to avoid doing the following things. 1. Underusing the word "said". It's almost as if we're scared that 'said' is too boring. So we use 'demanded', 'insisted', 'commented'. Anything but 'said'. The problem is that dialogue tags are supposed to be nearly invisible. The dialogue itself should be the focus, not the words following it. So 'said' is actually great, because it blends into the background, lets the reader know who said what without being too intrusive. That said, you can use the other tags, just don't overuse them. And be aware that at the end of the day, your dialogue should be so good that the manner it was said in is obvious and so you don't have to inform the reader that she commented or he sighed the words.

    2. Using too many big words. Maybe it's because we want to be clever, or we want to sound literary, or maybe because we heard it on the telly last night and thought it sounded great, but we can get carried away with using huge words that don't actually do the story justice. Example: He appropriated the funds. What about 'He took the funds'? It says the same thing and you know every reader will understand the sentence, whereas you can't say the same about the first example. Of course, there are times when using a larger word is more appropriate: a doctor would comment about a patient's distended abdomen, not their swollen tummy. But as the old saying goes: Why use a ten dollar word when a one dollar word will do?

    3. Changing tense. One day, I went to the store and while I was there, I see Janice and I call her over and ask her how she's doing but she ignored me and moved quickly away. The easiest tense to write is in past tense so you might be best off sticking with that. If you're going to right in present or future or perfect tenses, then you'll need to practice and read work written in this tense to ensure you don't end up slipping into another tense in the middle of a sentence.

    4. Head hopping. This is writing as if you are writing the movie you see playing in your head. You can see how every character is feeling, what they are thinking, and so you tell the reader. Problem is, the reader starts off seeing things from Jane's perspective, then suddenly from John's, then over to Adam's and then to Penny's, all within the one paragraph. They aren't sure who to pay attention to, who's important and who isn't and so they lose interest. Accepted practice is to keep to one person's perspective (the point of view) for a scene, although the genre of romance will accept going from the heroine to the hero or vice versa. But you need to give the reader time to be with a character, to get to know them and feel for them. It's this sort of relationship that will make a reader continue to read your story. If you are going to change the perspective, for the sake of your reader, you need to make clear to them when they are getting into another character's mindset.

    5. Infodumping. This tends to be particularly bad in Science Fiction and Fantasy, because so much time is spent world building. You've got the entire history of the world in your head, all your character's backstories and you want to get it out. So you start writing and before long, you've written five pages explaining society's views of men and women. Problem is, it's dead boring and since there's been no action, there's been no reason for anyone to read on. Think about how much your reader needs to know for that particular scene and let them know that and nothing more. As the story moves on, they will learn more about the society and it will be part of the action, so they'll see the purpose to that information and take it in.

    6. Authorial intrusion. You've probably seen it: you're reading along and suddenly, there's a smart comment about one of the characters. Problem is, it doesn't fit the point of view. Worst still, it doesn't matter. The author has jumped in and made their own little comment about the story. It's jarring and takes the reader's attention away from the story, which is your number one priority. So don't intrude.

    7. Character Lecturing. "Why did that happen, Jack?" "Well, as you know, Sam, last year we went down to the deep, dark cave." Makes you cringe, doesn't it? Would you tell your partner the story of when you met? No, so why have one character tell another something they already know? It's important that your character's dialogue is as realistic as possible. So if one character doesn't know and needs the information, you've got the perfect opportunity to also inform the reader. But if both characters are well aware of the situation, why would they take the time to explain it to each other? If they are discussing the steps to take, certainly but otherwise, it's a pointless conversation.

    8. Not answering the question. Every story poses a question at the beginning of it. Short stories generally only pose one question. Novels can have one major questions and lots of minor ones that pop up during the book. The Lord of the Rings, for example, poses the question: Will the ring be destroyed or will Sauron get it back? And the question gets answered. But imagine if Frodo had never made it, the ring had fallen into a crack and Sauron hadn't gotten it either. Great. We've gone through a couple of thousand pages to find we're going to have to wait another few hundred years for the ring to resurface and go through all this again. When you finish your story, make sure you go back, figure out what the question posed at the beginning of the story was and make sure you've answered it.

    It might sound a lot to get through, but once you start thinking about each one, you'll realise it's really quite simple. In fact, these ideas make writing easier rather than more complicated. And you can rest easy knowing that you have automatically improved your writing.

    Copyright © 2003 Nicole Murphy

    Nicole Murphy is a writer and copy editor. She can help you develop your writing skills by copyediting and critiquing your work. Try a free trial at http://www.yourbestwork.com.

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