I've been thinking of some of the (many) mistakes I made when I was starting out as a writer, and thought it would be worth gathering them together. It’s not exhaustive, I’ve made plenty more mistakes since then. And while I’ve picked out some of the difficulties, I think some of the answers may be the subject of later postings. I hope you find these helpful.
1. Not having your own voice
A very young version of myself believed that there were only a finite number of songs and we needed to wait for a song to “come round again” (sometimes this feels true!) I also believed that there was pretty much only one right way to write narrative voice. My early writing mimicked other authors’ styles, from Stephen King’s asides in parentheses
(breaking midway through paragraphs)
to the pretentious language at the end of C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, if it was already published, then it was how a book was supposed to be written.
When we learn language, it develops by copying sounds, tones, then words and phrases, but eventually (and with unconscious practice) we develop our own mannerisms and speech idiosyncrasies that make our voice uniquely ours. We may cultivate or suppress an accent or regional dialect and, in the same way, we cultivate our writers’ voice. That also goes for vocabulary. Of course, use the right words, and use the words that your character would know, but your reader doesn’t want to be running for a thesaurus for every other word. Also, make sure that YOU know what each word means. Don’t just use a thesaurus to sound clever, because that plan quickly runs aground if you don’t truly understand the word you’re using.
Our writing voice is what sets us apart from other writers. Think about who you want to be telling the story, and have the narrator (even an omniscient narrator) speak in that voice. Don’t copy. Speak in your own voice.
2. Not knowing the rules before you break them
“Rules are made to be broken”. This isn’t necessarily true in society, but it’s definitely true in writing. If you are writing in the same rhythm, it can become staccato, like someone constantly hammering a nail into the wall. “Form” has its place, of course. “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day” has the same rhythm and metre as “I have outwalked the furthest city light.” But when you vary the pace of the story, you catch your reader off-guard. It’s like walking up a flight of uneven stairs. You really have to watch where you’re going because the architect has made it hard for you.
Likewise, there seems to be a disregard to grammar. This isn’t just a problem that’s developed with texting: like many people of my generation, I was hardly taught any grammar at school, and when we got to the compulsory module at university, most people complained that it was too hard. Again, knowing how grammar works, means that you can deliberately abuse the rules to great effect (like messing with punctuation: Grammar is the difference between knowing your shit and knowing you’re shit.)
But if you think that the rules of grammar don’t matter, then “mistakes” rather than “deliberate violations of the rules” may make your writing feel unstructured.
3. Writing your own life
Writers are told to write what they know. This is true to a greater extent. Stories I wrote when I was in my twenties don't have the depth of experience for the work that I do in my forties. I've also had the benefit of a university education system, met some fascinating people enjoyed some travels and read a great deal.
But there's a difference between writing what you've experienced (or spent many long months researching) and writing your own life. Unless you've lived in the wild, or witnessed some amazing event, travelled the world or socialised with the rich and shameless, then there probably isn't much of a story, and even if you've done all these things, then be honest and call it a biography or a docu-drama. (And, of course, if you have done some great things then ignore this post and go out and write your own life, or even get someone else to do it.)
Of course, by our own experiences are going to inform your characters. As much as he denies it, I feel that Some of Tolkien's scenes in Lord of the Rings were informed by his experiences in the First World War (the Dead Marshes, for example), or does the Fellowship really represent his closest school friends. But would Harry Potter have worked if Jo Rowling had written about a single mother in Edinburgh?
Stories have a beginning, a middle and an end, and all the threads should be wrapped up nicely. Real life doesn't do that. There are always unanswered questions. And what makes sense to you, will not necessarily make sense to your reader.
Invariably, you'll want to include certain events or mannerisms that you recognise, but, again, be very careful about that: when your friends and family read your novels, they may recognise some events drawn from reality and then draw conclusions based on the other events.
Equally, if you are writing the story for yourself, then you’re likely to include "in-jokes" that only you and readers within your close circle of friends and family will understand. It may be hilarious to you if you include a reference to the time when cousin Jeremy fell into the sea, or phrases that you use, but once your work circulates beyond your immediate "fans", the references will be lost.
There is something to be said about writing a story that interests you. One of the reasons why I started writing was because it seemed that no one was writing stories I wanted to read. But you have to maintain the interest in that story for yourself when you’re writing, that's fine as it will maintain your interest in the narrative. That interest is crucial, especially in the long, dark night where, starving in your garret, you wonder why you chose to write your novel rather than dedicating your time to getting a job or spending time with your family, or even acquiring a family ...
4. Having too many characters
Greek plays only had three characters on stage at any one time. It meant that everyone on stage earned their place and no one was pushed into the wings. One writer told me that her novel had a cast of thousands. This is really problematic. Let's say you have a hundred characters and a novel that is a thousand pages long. It means you're only giving ten pages to each character. And if you have all of them in the same room at the same time, how will the reader differentiate between them? Think of Oin, and Gloin and Ori and Dori and Bifur and Bombur and Bofur - for the most part these characters exist as an amorphous mass who don't contribute to the plot. Only three major characters stand out in The Hobbit "fellowship" - Gandalf, Thorin and Bilbo - the equivalent of the three "Greek" characters. Each character has got to earn their place. (A Song of Ice and Fire may be the exception to this, but the series already runs to more than 4000 pages, and A Dance with Dragons had 31 viewpoint characters. These are exceptions to the rule).
One note about characters. For the most part your cast should support or hinder the protagonist. But most of them should have some degree of backstory, which would justify why they are acting in a certain way. Hopefully this will lead to the reader having some empathy with the characters - they'll then enjoy the characters' successes and empathise with their pain. But don't give the characters' back story the moment before they die. Readers soon get wise to this. Also be very careful how you name them. It is good to give them names that MEAN something, but not to the extent that it becomes a lazy shorthand. Many of Charles Dickens' characters have "Platonic" names which might reveal something about their character, whether this is an obscure verb (to "datch", for example) or onomatopoeia, such as Pumblechook, or, my favourites, the two educators called Gradgrinder and M’chokumchild (Here, Dickens is being ironic). Cersei in A Game of Thrones is named after the witch in Homer's Odyssey. I think that works, but calling a character Judas might suggest something of his character. In Stephen King's Dreamcatcher, the main characters are called Underhill (from Lord of the Rings) and Kurtz (from Heart of Darkness). Someone described this as characterisation "with the labels" still attached. Staying with King, in the Dark Tower, he has a character named Mordred. This name is SO infused with mythology that it would be very difficult for him to be anything other than the betrayer. (He is not quite so one-dimensional in Malory's Morte DArthur.)
5. Too much story
When I started my first novel, I was influenced by some epic stories, including classical literature such as The Odyssey as well as James Clavell's Shogun, the Arthurian Cycle, Frank Herbert's Dune stories, the fantasy and horror genre (particularly Tolkien, Terry Brooks, Raymond Feist, Michael Moorcock) and the Bible. Mix these together with the films that I was watching at the time. Bits of these found their way into my stories (including my interpretation of the imagery of the Book of Revelation). I believed that I had to cram ALL of my ideas into one story. The result was around 1000 pages of stories that were a pot pourri of genres, with a dozen main characters and the rest of the characters who didn't earn their place. It is true that stories can be complex, with many twists and turns that the reader does not see coming, but it doesn't have to contain the entire sum of human knowledge. Leave that to Milton, to Dante, to Virgil and to Aristotle.
The aptly-named Christopher Booker describes the "Seven basic plots" which form the foundation of all stories. (Before Booker published his study, I used to sit in a room with other writers and we would debate what these seven plots were). I disagree with Booker in some respects - comedy and tragedy are, I feel, too generic, and it misses out mistaken identity. But the plot of Jaws is essentially the same as the plot of Beowulf which can be seen as a metaphor for drug addiction, recuperating after an operation or escaping from an abusive relationship, and these can be summarised as Overcoming the Monster. This can be summarised as "Something is threatening to subdue an individual or a community. The protagonist eventually defeats this threat". That's the basic plot. How you tell the story and the characters that you populate it with is what's beguiling.
When I submitted an 180,000 word novel to an agent, I was told that the best length of a novel – especially for someone new to the market – was 80,000-100,000 words (around 300 pages). With our modern way of life, people generally don’t have the commitment or the attention span to read epics.
6. Not reading
Quite simply, if you are not reading, you are not preparing yourself to write. That’s the fundamental message of the creative writing degree I teach on.
I can understand established authors not wanting to read within a genre, because they want to avoid cross contamination. But every author needs to read. Novels. Short stories. Newspaper articles. Biography. Poetry. Even post it notes! (Emails and texts don’t count) How you tell your story may be influenced by many different types of writing. Read to analyse, to emulate. And to inspire your own work: what about those seven basic plots I mentioned above that may inspire scenes in your writing? I went into the Treasures of Oxford museum recently, and saw a manuscript of the Chanson de Roland - where Roland, grasping his sword Durendal, refuses to blow the horn which may call for reinforcements but which might light lead them into a trap. Or the bestiaries – descriptions of the monstrous in the lands beyond Jerusalem. Or the Book of Psalms which is over 1000 years old. These parts just scratch the surface. This is the book, not the reading. Any one of them could contribute to a story. AND what about things I've read recently ... the story of a drug dealing vagrant who seems to be in tune with mythology; or a man trying to outsmart a terrorist before succumbing to cancer ...
Of course, we are inspired by everything around us, but good writing comes from reading. Recognising what makes good writing. Recognising bad writing. Looking at tone. The email that I would send to a friend would be very different to the letter I would write to my grandmother. The post-it note I leave on my door or as a note in a book would be very different to the letter I might write to my MP.
Read classic writing. What has given it its status? What do literary scholars consider to be good writing? See if your favourite author has a list of their favourite writers. Have a look at them: who’s there? Charles Dickens; William Shakespeare; Dostoyevsky; Chinua Achebe; Jorge Luis Borges; Umberto Eco; Tolkien? Or a whole load of writers who you’ve never heard of? Why are your favourites reading them? Also, read out of your comfort zone. Go to your library and read writers you’ve never heard of. If you don’t like them, fine. (But ask yourself why – if you can work out how one author makes you want to sit up all night to finish reading their novel, and what another one hasn’t done which has made you want to put them down, ask yourself how you can apply that in your own work, then in a better place to be published).
7. Not taking Criticism/Listening to BAD criticism
I tell my creative writing students that the only difference between me and them is that I have had people telling me I have been doing it wrong for longer. There can be some really good criticism in these classes (I didn’t like this part, have you considered …) These groups are generally really supportive. They are made up of students who want to succeed, and they want others to succeed. Then you get others – not many – who, for whatever reason, think they can write their assignment in class and neither take on board any criticism (including from me), nor edit it in any way. I don’t know why they felt that way, whether they felt more superior to everyone in the class and didn’t need their criticism, or maybe they think thought they are too good to take on board any criticism. Honestly, though, many of them need to listen to what makes good writing and what doesn’t and then work to improve where they sit on that scale, otherwise they’ll remain unpublished for a long time.
On the other hand, there will always be those who want to belittle your work, both professionally or personally. I’ve had my fair share of negative criticism. The best advice is not to engage with the critic – definitely don’t answer! But sometimes, when you talk about a story with someone, they can kill it dead with a few words: “Really? That’s such a cliché…”; “Wow, but Tolkien said it so much better”. “Instead of having your heroine as the vulnerable female, why not instead make her a weasel?” I once belonged to a writers group that seemed to be about people sitting in a circle and telling each other stories, rather than working to get published. And I can remember some of them sniggering behind their hands because my idea of genre writing – and my immature writing style (I was just starting) – didn’t really conform to what group was used to. How many times did I hear “I wouldn’t normally read this sort of thing…”?
Of course, we recognise that some stories really will go nowhere and sometimes telling the author that is a necessary cruelty. As an author I can only recommend that you get a good support group around you, one that has your best interests at heart. Honest, constructive criticism.
8. Not Writing/stalling
This one I can truly understand. I clung onto my PhD for as long as I could. I think that as long as I had it in my hands, I still had control of it. It meant that no one could fail it. And I remember sitting down with one of the professors over coffee and he asked if the marking team might at the very least be given the option to pass it. I don’t remember what it was that finally pushed me over the edge, but it was probably my Dad who asked me what advice I would be giving to my students. (Most likely “Get the bugger in”).
The first line is the most difficult. It’s said that authors go to great lengths to avoid writing: cleaning ovens, polishing blades of grass, rearranging the sponge collection, placing the pennies in the penny jar in date order… My advice on getting round this is to write a patchwork of the first scene: some notes, some descriptions, some sections of dialogue. That way, you can allow your story to pick up momentum, and come back to the start when you’re ready.
I have found that the initial motivation wears thin at chapters three, seven and ten. Quite simply, like a marathon, these are some of the psychological pain barriers to overcome. But again, write summaries – anything you can – to get through these.
The other end of the scale is when you have too much to write, but your body refuses to let you function without any sleep. All I can suggest is using a voice recorder and covering as much information as you can before you finally drop.
9. Fan Fiction
Technically, there's nothing wrong with this. The internet, in particular, is a forum where authors can publish stories about their favourite characters and worlds. There are fan sites where this is encouraged.
But some authors consider this to be "lazy" writing which requires limited imagination. This is, of course, no difference between this and creating stories with Star Wars figures and models, but those were normally restricted to the bedroom or the garden, not to any wider circulation. As we grew older, our role-playing games were likely derivative of the works of Tolkien or Lovecraft. As well as a potential infringement of copyright, there are other legal difficulties. Marion Zimmer Bradley used to encourage such fan fiction, and would read it too, only to find that the fan had written a piece of their own fiction which had striking similarities to Bradley's own work in progress. Bradley was accused of stealing the fan's work, and the following lawsuit meant that she couldn't publish her own novel, despite trying to come to an agreement with the author of the fan fiction.
This said, fan fiction is a way of cutting your teeth. (David Eddings said “Write a million words, throw them away, now you’re ready to start writing).
10. Not finishing
The biggest mistake of all. If you don’t finish, then you don’t have a product to submit, or even to print out and keep in a file on your shelf.
It’s hard work and sometimes you’ll have to drag yourself through all this. It can feel like eating ground up glass. You have to get through to the end. Then, once you have finished a first draft, read it aloud. See how it sounds and where you get bored. You can edit it, cut out superfluous bits, add sections so that your foreshadowing is clearer. It will probably need a fair bit of time refining later, but well done on getting to the end.