Writing Fiction: 6 Common Mistakes To Avoid (Fix Them)

Readers want what they want, so when you’re writing fiction, it’s easy to make mistakes which annoy readers. That said, don’t despair. You can fix most mistakes easily.

Writing fiction: the biggest mistake

Before we look at common errors, let’s look at the biggest one: failing to capitalize on success.

Sadly this is horribly common. One of my students wrote a novel which sold hundreds of copies every month—she lucked into the domestic thriller genre before the wild success of Gone Girl years ago.

Normally, you’d follow up a success by writing a series, but domestic thrillers are standalones. She could nevertheless have followed up her success, by:

  • Sticking with a good thing and writing more domestic thrillers; or
  • Spinning off the female detective in her novel.

When we chatted, she’d come close to giving up on fiction, but now she’s writing the character spin-off, and she’ll do well.

Let’s look at other common mistakes—especially constant explaining.

1. Too much detail. Please stop explaining

Just as explanations can be annoying in everyday life, they’re annoying in fiction. As we said in this article on beginners’ mistakes when writing fiction:

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

As the saying goes: never complain, never explain.

What’s “complaining” in fiction? Whining characters, and characters who spend too much time thinking, so that they fail to take action.

2. Distractions: homophones and common grammatical errors

In writing, if you don’t have clarity, you have nothing. Mistakes such as homophones distract. They bump readers right out of your fiction.

Common mistakes with homophones (sound-alike words) include:

  • Loose and lose: “he’s got a loose screw. We think he’s about to lose his mind.”
  • Passed and past: “time passed slowly. He thought about his past experiences on recon missions.”

Grammar checkers will fix most boo boos, but not all. Keep a list of mistakes you make. There’s no shame in it; everyone has blind spots.

3. Aping real life: fiction isn’t “real”

Many first novels are autobiographical, or have autobiographical elements. It’s hard to avoid this when you begin your career—you’re too close to your own story to be aware of it.

Give yourself permission to be outrageous. Tell lies with abandon. Fiction is entertainment. Reality is often boring, but your writing mustn’t be boring, ever.

Of course you can base fiction on real people and events, as Hilary Mantel did so wonderfully with Thomas Cromwell. However, your imagination rules in fiction. So if you’re using real people, such as historical characters, give your imagination free rein.

4. Plot is what your characters do: action is everything

Here’s an insight on plot and character from novelist Elizabeth George:

“… if you don’t understand that story is character and not just idea, you will not be able to breathe life into even the most intriguing flash of inspiration.”

Your characters drive the plot, so when you’re plotting, characters come first.

5. Ouch… Characters who don’t fit their genre

When readers read a genre, they have expectations. When you go against those expectations, you alienate them.

For example, in most sub-genres of romance fiction (there are many), cheats can’t be primary characters. Of course you can have cheats, but when you create one, be aware that you’re now writing in another genre; often women’s fiction.

Another example, in detective fiction and thrillers: sleuths who couldn’t detect their way out of a room with a single door. This usually goes along with a “mystery”, which isn’t, because readers can pick the murderer instantly.

Readers read romance for the hearts and flowers, and in a mystery, they want to be mystified.

6. “It’s a wonderful world…” (Not in fiction)

As the saying goes, if the characters are having fun (unless it’s humor), the reader isn’t.

Fiction is trouble.

Make trouble. Yes, it’s uncomfortable, because you get fond of your characters, but it’s necessary.

Writing fiction? Focus on entertainment

You must entertain, as we’ve said.

In summary:

  • Avoid details and explanations, such as backstory;
  • Remember fiction isn’t reality;
  • Action, always;
  • Make trouble on every page.

And of course, have fun. 🙂

Want to sell more fiction? Try serials