Whether you’re just starting your book or are some ways into it already, you undoubtedly want to make sure that you’re free of as many writing mistakes as possible.
I’m not talking specifically about grammar errors here, but the bigger issues – the things that can make a literary agent stop reading a manuscript and toss into the big ugly NOPE pile.
In fact, a lot of the information in this post comes directly from the blog posts of various literary agents, specifying the things that turn them off when reading a submission.
Because writing and personal tastes in books are so totally subjective, even if you avoid all these common writing mistakes, it doesn’t guarantee a literary agent will request a partial or a full. But avoiding them will certainly increase your chances.
Avoiding these writing mistakes will also help you connect better and leave a lasting impression with your readers.
Without further ado, I present to you The Top 10 Writing Mistakes to Avoid.
#10 Starting Your Story the Wrong Way
Figuring out how to start a story can be mind-numbingly irritating. Naturally, you might be inclined to have your story start at the most logical spot – the beginning. In other words, starting with some backstory or your protagonist waking up to a fresh new day.
These are exactly the ways to get your manuscript tossed aside. According to Kristin Nelson and Angie Hodapp from Nelson Literary Agency, it’s imperative you avoid the 4 R’s when beginning your story:
These are signs you’re beginning your story with backstory or exposition, which may seem exciting to you, but not to the reader. It’s important to grab your readers attention within the first short bit.
Literary agent, Carly Watters, seconds this, and also adds that to make an enticing start to your story, imply that your character has a secret. Something needs to happen to make the readers care.
“Your book should start at the most interesting point in your character’s life.” – Carly Watters
Finally, have you ever wondered why agents might stop reading your manuscript submission? When I attended Toronto Writing Workshop in August, 2016, writers were invited to submit the first page of their manuscript, to be read and dissected by a panel of literary agents. The agents would raise their hands when something was said that would make them stop reading. Some of these stop points included:
- Too much description
- Cliches and unbelievability
- Stories starting with characters waking up
- Telling and not showing
In short, pay attention to the beginning of your story and don’t make any of these writing mistakes. The success of your book might depend on it.
Here’s another similar article by H.G. Bleackley, back from 2013.
#9 Too Much Backstory Too Soon
This was briefly discussed in the previous point but let’s talk about it in more detail.
When you’re planning your novel you’ve probably developed a good clear vision of the world it takes place in. You’re eager to share that world with your audience and all of the wonder it contains. I certainly was when I started writing Elementalists.
Unfortunately, a lot of backstory and exposition being piled on too quickly can ruin an otherwise delicious story. Imagine backstory being like candy sprinkles you put onto a donut or a cake. Sprinkled on little by little they can make a tasty and colourful addition, but if you dump all of them at once it’s going to crush the pastry and turn it into mush.
Cynthia VanRooy from Foremost Press suggests to start by presenting your reader with the culminating action that is the result of your book’s backstory. By doing this, you can easily build curiosity by making readers wonder – “what led up to this point?”
How many TV show episodes have you seen that begin with a bizarre action sequence, and then follow up with “72 hours ago…” It’s almost like the entire episode that follows is the backstory.
This is also the same technique many marketers use to sell a product. They present you with an astounding fact or result, and then offer you the backstory as to how they achieved it.
- Martin lost 50 pounds in just one month – find out how he did it…
- I grew my email subscriber list by 50,000 users just by using this one technique…
- One year ago she was homeless, now she’s driving a BMW…
Curiosity is your friend. Giving everything at once isn’t.
#8 Not Knowing Your Subject (non-fiction)
Non-fiction is a whole other ballpark.
Sure, there are similarities between writing fiction and non-fiction. A non-fiction book can contain anecdotes, stories, metaphors and dialogue – just like fiction, but non-fiction’s also based in fact. While a fiction author has the fallback of being able to say, “It’s made up,” a non-fiction author is held to a higher standard.
According to literary agent, Rachelle Gardner, non-fiction authors can increase their chances of getting published by having experience or credentials in their niche. In addition, non-fiction authors should have a great fresh concept, or at the very least, a fresh new take on an interesting concept.
Let’s use myself as an example. Technically I could be considered a non-fiction author with all of the information I post here on Writing a Book Café. My credentials are that I have planned, written, edited and am currently going through the publishing process of writing a book. This very website can be considered my marketing. These are all of the things I am helping my readers do with their own work.
As for the second part, I’m presenting my readers with a fresh take of blending writing with marketing (my two specialities). There are already plenty of websites out there by very talented people which provide fantastic information on individual components of writing a book. Finding one that takes you through the entire process, with a special focus on marketing, is more difficult. This is my fresh take.
#7 Having the Wrong Word Count
Just some “light” reading.
Out of all the items on this list, this is the one that hits the closest to home for me.
Word counts are both subjective and objective. While there are generally accepted ranges for different types of books, what you can get away with also depends on who you are as an author (ie. your credentials), as well as who you are querying.
If you are querying agents as a debut author with no previous writing credits, you are best off sticking to the suggested guidelines. Again, these will vary, but BookEnds Literary Agency published an article with widely accepted ranges.
- 80,000 – 100,000 words is acceptable in most cases.
- Mystery novels are a bit shorter at 70,000 – 90,000 words
- Adult fantasy can go up to 120,000 but young adult fantasy is best kept in the 80,000 – 100,000 range
Again, these are SUBJECTIVE but especially if you’re a first-time author, why hurt your chances by going over or under?
Story time – oh boy.
When I started querying Elementalists: The Fires of Canicus, my young adult fantasy novel, it was 144,000 words long. Yikes!
Yeah, that didn’t fly. I’d be surprised if agents even read my pages after they saw that word count in the query letter.
After many, many revisions and believing it was totally impossible, I got it down to 99,000. If I can do it – so can you.
By the way, the reason we go by word count and not page count is because page count is not reliable. Font sizes, page margins, choice of word processing software and so forth can vary page counts drastically. That being said, try to stick with the following:
- Use 1″ margins all around
- Double space your work
- Use a standard font like Times New Roman or Arial
- Use 12pt font
Lastly, in case you’re curious, here are some word counts of famous books. You’ll notice there are exceptions to the rules of word counts, but they are called exceptions for a reason. Don’t hurt your chances of finding a publisher by trying to be one.
#6 Bland Characters
This should really be #1 on this list of writing mistakes for me. It’s what turns me off the most about any story I try to get into, whether it’s a book, TV show or a movie.
Bland characters are one of the most deadly writing mistakes any writer can make, especially when it’s your protagonist or lead supporting characters.
Consider any extremely popular book or show. The lead characters almost always have eccentric personalities to some capacity. The inherently likeable ones always have flaws and the unlikable ones always have redeeming qualities. Then there are characters like Walter White from Breaking Bad who are covered in so much grey goo you don’t know how to pin them down as good guys or bad guys. Consider the following examples:
- Michael Scott from The Office is extremely awkward and often hard to watch, but he always wanted the best for his employees.
- Sherlock Holmes from Sherlock is arrogant and extremely clever. Just when you think he doesn’t care – he surprises you.
- Charlie Pace from Lost was passionate and trying. His flaw was his dependency on drugs.
I’ve highlighted in bold the most obvious traits that jump to the front of my mind when I think of these characters. Picture your own leads in your story: can you think of bold traits for them? If you can’t then it might mean you haven’t developed them enough yet.
The opposite of a bland character is a dynamic character. This post from NY Book Editors offers a few excellent suggestions on how to create dynamic characters. Give them backstories, enemies, flaws, preferences. Be creative about it. One of my secondary characters has prosopagnosia, (ie. face-blindness), which isn’t inherently important to the story, but has been memorable amongst my beta readers.
Freelance fiction editor, Jodie Renner, hits the nail perfectly when she says to not make your main character too good to be true.
“To avoid flat, superficial characters, you need to create an interesting backstory for each of them, including their secret fears, insecurities, and desires, as well as their strengths and triumphs in life.” – Jodie Renner
On a personal note from yours truly, no matter how interesting your characters are, please make their motivations and what they believe in grounded in reality, even if their world is inherently fantastical. Do not get me started on an hour long rant on the issues I have with characters on both The Flash and Once Upon a Time.
One final point worth mentioning, think about rule #6 on Pixar’s 22 Rules of Storytelling.
#5 Deus Ex Machina
Ah, deus ex machina, not to be confused with the video-game series Deus Ex, is among this list of writing mistakes for good reason.
Deus ex machina is when a random event, person, act of god, or anything inexplicable happens to save a character from a hopeless situation. It’s the pure dividing line between suspense and composure. It’s the reason why you rarely feel any sense of worry when the star of an action movie has a gun pointed at his or her head. Even if the situation seems hopeless, you know the hero’s long-forgotten ally that supposedly abandoned them in the last scene had a change of heart and is probably lurking in the shadows with a sniper rifle.
“True, it was noble of that animal to hurl himself in the path of that torpedo. He gave his life for ours.” – Batman. (Editor’s Note: I can’t make this stuff up. Click the image).
On the other hand, when there is no deus ex machina present, you feel the suspense at every turn. Think Game of Thrones. If a character you like is in danger then you better be scared. That is truly a world without deus ex machina, proven by the fact that main characters die off all the time.
Having said this, there are two series that jump to mind for being extremely successful, while they are often the worst offenders of deus ex machina. I am of course talking about Doctor Who and MacGyver. Don’t get me wrong – I love Doctor Who, but that Sonic Screwdriver really is the answer to just about every problem. And you can literally use “MacGyver” as a verb when you solve a problem in an unconventional way.
Are you uncertain if you have deus ex machina in your story? Author Jennifer Ellis sets out three conditions that must be met for it to be present:
- The unexpected development which occurs must also be a solution.
- The solved problem must have been a hopeless situation.
- The unexpected development must have never been foreshadowed.
The third point is extremely important to take note of. If you can foreshadow a solution before it happens, then you can avoid deus ex machina. This advice saved me in two key points when writing Elementalists: The Fires of Canicus.
Can you ever include deus ex machina and make it work? As mentioned, Doctor Who and MacGyver both already have. Chip MacGregor, literary agent, says that you can too (under certain conditions anyway).
“If a theme of your novel is that life is unexpected, or that people have no control over the events of their lives, then you might be able to get away with a brand new character or a random car accident saving the day at the last minute.” – Chip MacGregor
Ultimately, however, you’re better off avoiding writing mistakes such as deus ex machina in the first place.
#4 Not Enough Conflict
Conflict is the cornerstone of any story and not having enough of it means your book is more a description of events than anything else.
Brian A. Klems, online editor of Writer’s Digest, posted a terrific article with some great points on this subject. You want to ensure that your characters are not perfectly happy with their ordinary lives. It’s difficult for a reader to relate to something so perfect when let’s face it, most of us have problems with our own lives. We want to read about someone we can feel sympathy for.
The second point Klems makes is that fear should be present throughout your story. It doesn’t have to be fear of death, it can be more subtle. Fear can stem from heartbreak, from exposure, from failure to letting others down and so much more.
“Once the story is underway, scenes where fear isn’t present in some form mean the stakes are not high enough or the characters aren’t acting the way they should in the face of death.” – Brian A. Klems
Your story does not have to spell out the main threat right from chapter one, but it can hint at it. Alternatively, you can give the reader insight into the psyche of the main character. What is he or she afraid of? What is your character’s main flaw?
Non-fiction authors can have conflict in their books too. In fact, conflict is usually the premise of any non-fiction book. For example, in The 4 Hour Work Week by Tim Ferris, conflict (or the antagonist) is working an unfulfilling career you don’t enjoy for the rest of your life.
#3 Dull Dialogue
Ensuring your characters are having interesting conversations is no small task, and having exciting dialogue stems from creating interesting, three-dimensional characters.
In The Ultimate Guide for Writing Dialogue in Your Novel, we explore several ways you can accomplish this. I won’t go into extreme detail here as you can head on over and check out that post, so just to briefly reiterate, here is how you can write interesting characters and dialogue:
- Think about book or TV characters you already like and figure it out what it is you like about them. Incorporate traits into your own characters.
- Give your characters opinions and make them stick to them.
- Be descriptive in your writing. To quote Russian playwright, Anton Chekhov:
“Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” – Anton Chekhov
- Read your dialogue out loud and listen to whether or not it sounds natural. Or use a program like Natural Readers to read it out loud for you.
Avoiding common writing mistakes like dull dialogue is, fortunately, one of those things that you can always come back to and make better when you’re editing.
#2 The Pacing Is Off
Pacing can be really difficult to get right as a new writer and is amongst the most common writing mistakes for good reason.
As a newer writer, it isn’t uncommon to feel like you have to explain all of the transitions that take your characters from one scene or location to the next. This is a problem not only because it creates dull and unnecessarily long scenes, but it also jacks up your word count tremendously. There’s a good reason why my story was upwards of 150,000 words after I completed my first draft. Fortunately, good editing can solve all of these problems, good self-editing that is.
Pacing is the speed at which your book progresses. Can you chronicle your events in a smooth and logical sequence? If so, that’s good.
Do things seem messy and out of order? Does it feel as if events are being forced into play for no good reason? If the answer is ‘yes’ then you might have a problem with your pacing.
Courtney Carpenter from Writer’s Digest published an article about how writers can keep their stories moving at the right pace.
Cliff-hangers are one good way to add suspense into your story as it builds curiosity and leaves the reader wondering what’s about to happen next. Adding short scenes is another good way to give the reader something to digest quickly.
Action sequences are best written using short sentences and paragraphs to emphasize that events are transpiring quickly.
Pacing is important in non-fiction too. Pay attention to the way sentences and paragraphs are structured on this website. I often write in short, jumpy sentences, even though articles can be lengthy. It helps the reader progress without feeling bogged down. This is also why I intersperse paragraphs with headlines, bullet points and images.
We like bite-sized content. Blame information overload for that.
#1 Too Many Tropes and Cliches
Last on this list of writing mistakes we have tropes and cliches.
Have you ever been watching a TV show or movie and rolled your eyes because it was so blatantly obvious what was about to happen next? Of course, you have. Whenever I watch a movie with my dad I ask have to ask him to not spoil it for me because even though we’re both watching it for the first time, he’s often able to guess with 90% accuracy what’s about to happen.
Paranormal author, Jami Gold, offers a few suggestions on how to avoid cliches at the start of your book. Don’t start your story with your hero looking into a mirror and reflecting upon themselves (or use it as an excuse to describe them physically). Putting your character into a life or death scenario isn’t going to have the effect you intend because your reader doesn’t know the character yet and won’t care. Also, avoid prologues and offering a false start where the ‘main’ character dies. It leaves the reader feeling robbed and swindled.
The ending of your story is important too. Story endings where everyone gets to live happily ever after are best kept in fairy tales.
Films that avoid writing mistakes of tropes and cliches do tend to leave more of a lasting impression. I’m willing to bet you still remember the ending to Titanic and Inception more than RoboCop or whatever the last Transformers movie was.
Allison VanNest from The Write Life recommends to not only avoid the ‘happily ever after’ cliche, but also one where the hero wakes up from a dream or reflects upon their life through an internal monologue after defeating the villain. Also, don’t force an unlikely romance at the last second – it’s unrealistic.
Writing Without Mistakes
Now that you’ve had time to go through this list of the top 10 writing mistakes to avoid, hopefully, you can complete your first draft with minimal revisions!
Have you had an experience with any of these writing mistakes in your book? Please leave a comment and share.
Do you have any other writing mistakes you would like to help other readers avoid? Let me know in the comments as well.