Writing Fiction: 2 Beginner Mistakes You Can Avoid

You’re writing fiction.

Unfortunately however, the wonderful story and plot in your head never makes it to the page. Wince.

That’s OK. When you start out writing fiction—writing anything—you know what you want to say. You need to find the words to say it. But things get lost in translation.

In fiction, getting the story in your head onto the page is always hard. When you’re just starting out, it’s especially challenging, because fiction is all about emotion. When you’re fumbling for words, the emotion gets lost.

Therefore, take heart. Forgive yourself for your “mistakes.” Beyond forgiveness, you need to actively welcome mistakes. You can’t learn without making mistakes, so mistakes are a good thing, always.

Let’s look at two “beginner mistakes” below.

Writing fiction: everything is fixable because everything is a process

When I’m coaching writing students, many students struggle with writing rubbish and being good with that.

I know it’s hard to believe. Believe it anyway. My goal is to teach that everything in fiction is fixable because it’s a process.

You have to write it down in order to fix it.

The process goes something like this:

  • The idea. Let’s say you’re writing a scene in which you need a character to fire another character. The idea, in your imagination, is exciting, because the person doing the firing doesn’t want to do it. She hates confrontation.
  • You write the scene. But when you read it, there’s no emotional fireworks. The scene is flat. The characters might as well be talking about the weather.

STOP! Don’t delete the scene and don’t despair.

You’ve had a good writing session: you wrote the scene. Now you can fix it.

To repeat: when you’re writing fiction, everything can be fixed, BUT you need something to fix. So write. Then fix it.

With that in mind, let’s look at the “mistakes.”

Mistake 1. Giving readers too much (boring) information

Skip the boring bits when you’re writing, especially in dialogue.

Writing rules to live by; from Elmore Leonard’s rules for writers:

“Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.”

That means:

  • Avoid backstory (what happened before your story begins); and
  • Avoid explanations.

Just tell the story. Readers are smart. They’ll work out what’s happening in your story without your explanations and waffling. Moreover, they want to work things out. The story is yours; the imagination belongs to each reader.

Big tip: dialogue can be dangerous; new authors tend to write boring dialogue; they want to make it “realistic”. But dialogue is NOT conversation, as in real life.

Great advice from Janet Fitch’s 10 rules for writers:

“Dialogue (is) part of an ongoing world, not just voices in a dark room. Never say the obvious. Skip the meet and greet.”

Before you write any scene, think about the scene. What does each character in the scene want? What’s he trying to hide? Then get to the point in the conversation. Skip the real-life, conventional chat: “how wonderful to see you, how’s blah, blah, blah..”

Write Janet Fitch’s words: “never say the obvious” onto a sticky note and stick it onto your computer monitor.

Mistake 2. Explaining everything (stop doing that)

Readers are smart. They want to think for themselves, so good fiction depends on narrative drive.

What’s narrative drive?

Narrative drive is unanswered questions which make your story involving, and which keep readers reading.

For example, in the TV series Hostages, the main character is a surgeon who’s about to operate on the Israeli prime minister. Terrorists seize the family in their home: the surgeon’s told that she must murder the prime minister when she operates on him, or her family will die.

Viewers have lots of questions, starting with: what will the surgeon do? That’s narrative drive: unanswered questions.

You MUST have unanswered questions to keep readers reading. Therefore, to keep readers reading, you MUST avoid explanations and hide things from readers.

To provide your readers with unanswered questions for which they want answers, something must be at stake in your novel. Hostages has huge stakes: lots of people face death; this means lots of unanswered questions.

Every novel which sells has high stakes. Not necessarily life or death stakes, but high stakes, nevertheless.

(If you doubt this, look at any fiction bestseller list on Amazon and read the blurbs. Any unanswered questions? High stakes? Spoiler alert: of course.)

Before you start writing, think about the stakes for your main character. What can you do to raise the stakes? Make a list.

Writing fiction step by step: write it, then fix it

That’s one secret to writing fiction: writing rubbish and being good with that.

Writing fiction is a process. You can’t transfer your ideas and emotions onto the page without translating them into words. That’s challenging. Choose any words, then fix them later.

To your surprise, the words on the page will eventually create a better experience for the reader than your original conception. You wrote it, then fixed it.

Keep writing. 🙂


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