Having a hard time getting your story to the level that you want it to be at? Struggling to sell it or to get positive feedback? As writers, we often feel too strongly about some things and not strongly enough about others, so a fair amount of errors can be grouped under ‘over doing it’ or ‘ under doing it’.
Here are some of the common mistakes that writers make:
Over doing it:
Drama, drama, drama:
One of the keys to good fiction is keeping your characters believable. Having your characters react with a violent whirlwind of emotions to every event in your plot will be overkill. Frantic panic over missing a bus, violent outrage over being short-changed or a suicidal rant over spilt milk may have their place in some stories, but not in most. Having your characters react as normal people do will be enough for your readers.
In the beginning…
Going into long drawn-out descriptions of place and time can be difficult not to do, especially when your story is set in the past or the future. A story set in the year 2245 doesn’t need a summary of the world’s political history or your character’s ancestry. The same goes for one set in 1036 BC. A few simple bits of information, a date and some differing aspects mentioned are enough to get the reader’s mind going. Think about it, what type of world comes to mind when imagine the year 13 BC?
If you read through your work, especially if it is a longer piece, you may find that you have repeated yourself. A character’s wants, needs and motivations do not need to be retold every time they come into play. The time and setting do not need to be described and explained over again. Think of a story that you’ve read, how much of what you imagine is told to you? One or two descriptions may work fine, unless something changes in them.
We all love a memorable character now and then, one who is unique and flamboyant; who goes against the norm, but not all your characters can be this way. A reader often enjoys a story because they relate to the characters, and they relate to the characters because they find similarities between themselves and the character. Let’s face it, most of us are pretty ordinary, so when we read about a multi-billionaire losing his or her fortune, are we as sympathetic towards them as we would be towards a hardworking, average person like ourselves losing every cent?
While obscure details can sometimes be useful for adding depth to your descriptions, if they are irrelevant they will do more harm than good. Describing a character’s socks can be informative if it relates to the story (especially if the character is describing their own socks – it says a lot), describing them for the sake of filling up the pages wastes time, space and can bore, if not confuse, your reader.
We all fall into this trap every now and then, and perhaps we can be forgiven for doing so once or twice. More than that becomes embarrassing. The golden sunset, the dead of night, the racing heartbeat, all of these sound familiar for a very good reason: they’ve not only been used before, but they’ve been used too often! Make friends with your thesaurus, it’s more useful than you’d think.
Under doing it:
You won’t have much of a story if nothing happens. Starting off the action is as important as keeping it going, so make sure to pace your story well and to keep your characters on their toes. Also remember that things should happen for a reason, your character shouldn’t just up and join the circus without purpose or motivation.
Forgetting about your other characters
While a plot tends to centre on the protagonist, don’t neglect your other characters in terms of growth and change. New writers tend to focus too much on the protagonist and how they are affected by events, but how do these events affect your antagonist and secondary characters? How do changes in your protagonist influence the other characters and vice versa?
Lights, camera, action!
In an effort to tell the story as well as possible, we can lapse into a factual, lecturing tone where we describe events instead of writing them. Remember to set the scene, the mood, the emotions that are involved in your incidents so that they seem more real and less like a chapter from a textbook. It might help to think of your scene as part of a film: what you would blend into a film scene can be added into your written scene.
Too set in your ways?
It’s not often in life that people experience something and come through unscathed. Be it based on love, horror, drama, fear or action, any major incident will shape and change part of us. We grow and learn every step if the way, and so too should your characters. The ebb and flow of your plot should shape your characters like sand on a beach, gently or violently, but always constantly.
What is the point of your story? What is the meaning or message behind it? Are you telling a story for the sake of telling it, or is there something in it that the reader will take away with them once they have read your work? If there is, and there probably should be, then make sure this comes out subtly in your work.
Not enough planning
Before you sit down and start to write your story, do some planning. Work out the smaller details such as character motivations, plot structure and even do a little technical research before you begin. You may have the beginning and the end in mind, but what happens in between? Having a map makes a journey easier to complete, and every story you write is a journey of its own.
I’m looking to begin a writing critique service for aspiring authors. If you have a short story, poem or novel chapter that you would like to receive feedback on, please contact me at multi_verse at live dot com. There is currently no fee involved. I am testing my methods and ask only for your feedback and constructive criticism of my critique of your work.
Please limit your submission to 3000 words and enter “Critique Request” in the subject line of your e-mail.
Where do ideas come from? This question haunts every writer at some stage or another in their career, and never so intensely as when they can’t think of anything to write! People often say that ideas are everywhere, which is great when you’ve got some, but when you don’t, that answer only compounds your frustration.
Horror writers face an even more difficult task. Not only do we need inspiration for ideas, but we need those ideas to contain a seed of a fear that we can nourish and grow. Here is a list of some places where you can find ideas, but remember, it’s not what you read or hear, rather it’s case of how you receive the information and use it to your advantage.
Pick up a newspaper, turn on the TV or go online. The news is a great place for finding our genre specific ideas. I’m not talking about front page headlines but those little articles nestled away in the middle. They seem a little bizarre, a little off kilter, and sometimes we wonder how they even ended up making the news, but if you sit down and think about it, there’s a story waiting in the wings. Ask yourself what made the publisher decide to place that article, and you’ll realize that it has more to do with the bizarre, macabre or downright strange aspects of the story than it has to do with its value as an informative news article. Everyone loves a little snippet of mystery now and then.
For example, I once read an article about a 71-year-old woman who went a bit nuts and started smashing her car into others. Seems straightforward enough: she must be senile. Then I started thinking about what could really have taken place, and some interesting plot ideas came to mind. Find the article at:
If you listen with your writers’ ear, you’ll hear a tale or two worth writing about. We often write off gossip and urban legends as not worth listening to, but who knows where those stories can take you? That friend of yours who told you a story about his cousin who had an uncle who knew a guy who found a woman dead in her apartment and her cats and been eating her body to stay alive may be doing more than trying to gross you out. He could be giving you the basis of for a great story. How did she die? Who was she? And what was with all those cats?
To some of you it will be odd to think that as a writer I have started carrying a camera around. To others it will make perfect sense. You never know what you’ll see when you leave your house, and having a camera to snap a quick scene will help you savor that information for later. Take a look at the picture above: it seems a little arbitrary, but if you take a closer look you’ll see the back of an ambulance, a couple of men standing by a lake looking bewildered. What’s going on that picture? A body found, a person lost or drowned? Perhaps they were called out to a scene or saw something from a distance but when they got there whatever they saw had gone. The options are many and intriguing.
If you don’t have a camera, then keep your eye open for pictures in magazines, books or online. If something catches your eye, then save it. You never know where your imagination will take you when let it.
Apart from being an amusing game to play, it’s a great resource for ideas. You could be at work, at school, in the shower or in a restaurant, any place at all will do. The trick is to ask yourself ‘what if…’ You’re driving in your car, it’s late at night and the road is quiet. What if you: hit someone (or something), see a body in the road, a shadow in your rearview mirror, bright lights in the sky or feel a hand grip your shoulder even though you’re alone in the car? What if your car breaks down, you get a flat tire, your phone rings, your vision starts to blur? The options are endless. Let your imagination run wild and see where it takes you…
The truth is: ideas are everywhere. They lurk inside everyday events, they’re rustling between the lines of news reports and they blatantly strut around in broad daylight. It’s up to you as a writer to take a different look at your surroundings and find the fear that’s nestled in the familiar settings around you.
How well do you know your characters? Are they just there to advance your plot, or do they have a history, a meaning, a purpose? Getting to know your characters will help you to add depth and motivation to your characters. Writing a back story for your character will allow you to get to know some vital information about who they are, where there come from and thus why they do what they do.
Here are some exercises to help you get better acquainted with your characters:
Many people advise you to create a past for your character, but I suggest that you take it a step further and imagine that you are in an interview with them. Ask them where they came from, where were they born, what were there parents like, how did they do at school, etc. As you’re picturing the interview, think of how they are dressed, what they look like and how they act. By imagining their response you’ll gain information from both what they say and how they say it.
What’s in their…
Take an object such as a car, or a handbag, or a place such as their bedroom or office. What’s in it? If your character works in an office, then what does it look like? Is the room spotlessly tidy, organized chaos, or a just a mess? Are there old coffee cups lying around, or perhaps a bottle of gin hidden in the filing cabinet? What do they keep in their desk? Only work related items or perhaps a listening device to record conversations with clients? The tiniest detail can tell you volumes about their personality.
Design a CV or résumé for your character. What information would they put on it? Would they give references and contact numbers, or would they lie about their education and working experience? Is it handwritten, one page or ten pages? Do they make it look professional, or cover it with flamboyant borders and bright colors? Each option that your character chooses will reveal information to you much as a normal résumé will reveal information to a potential employer.
You don’t need to incorporate every aspect of your character’s back story into your plot. That much information would end up confusing and boring your reader. These exercises are designed to help you understand why your characters do what they do. Getting to know your characters is like getting to know a real person. Once you get to know bits of information about where they come from and how they got here, then you can begin to understand what drives them to do what they do and act the way they act. Understanding where your characters come from will increase your ability to explain to the reader what motivates and drives the characters, which in turn gives your readers a better ability to relate to your characters.
Names are an important aspect of any character. They help us point out our characters as individuals, give them life and, if we so dream, make them memorable . We can use names to our advantage as they can convey ideas or meanings and, while there are never ‘bad’ names, there are poorly suited ones. The most common mistake in naming a character is choosing a name for the sake of it and not thinking about the consequences, meanings or associations.
Having Ben, Ken, Jen and Len all in one story leaves the reader confused and bored. Make sure that there are variations in your choice of names, not just in sound but in syllables. There are thousands of names to choose from, so don’t settle for the easiest or most common.
When it comes to writing horror, we are bound to come across an evil mastermind or two, and when we do, we hate to find them called ‘Doctor Doom’ or ‘The Evil One’ or even those delightful characters who are known by such painful titles as ‘The One Without a Name” or the “The One We Cannot Name”. Give your mad scientist or crazed biologist a believable name, something that makes them seem a little more real and thus a little more disconcerting for your reader.
This applies to our everyday, ‘normal’ characters as well. John Smith and Jane Doe…? Well, they speak for themselves. Put some effort into finding a decent name and surname. When creating a character, write a back story that mentions their parents and ask yourself what this character’s parents would have named them. Those who raise us play a part in shaping our personality. Think of Johnny Cash’s song ‘A Boy Named Sue’.
When it comes to monsters and creatures, creepies and crawlies, think outside the box. Instead of ‘the blob’, look up the translation in another language, it will mean the same thing but add a little air of mystery for those not in the know.
Changing the spelling of a name can work for or against you. If you change the spelling and manage to keep the right pronunciation, then this can add to your character’s unique identity. However, changing the spelling too much can leave the name open to mispronunciation which can affect the way your reader interprets it.
It is inevitable that great names in history come with certain connotations. Let’s take a prime example: Adolph Hitler. Already thoughts and ideas have come into your mind, most of them presumably negative. Be careful if you take inspiration from the names historical figures, both good and bad, as these will lead the reader to draw conclusions about your characters that have no place in your story. On the other hand, choosing a well-known name can enhance the image of your character, providing that he or she fits the general image.
A little research can go a long way towards authenticity. The popularity of names fluctuates year by year, and names that were common in the 1920’s were not as common in the 1980’s. If your character is 80 years old, do a quick search on the Internet and see what names were common back then. Little aspects such as these can add extra credibility and authenticity to you story.
Don’t be afraid to abbreviate your character’s name, or use their surname as their predominant form of reference. We all give nicknames, drop or add part of a name or (casually or formally) drop the first name completely in everyday life, so there’s no reason why your characters shouldn’t either. A nickname says a lot about the character who has it, and the one who gives it.
So what happens when you can’t find a name that seems right for your character? Don’t settle for just anything, do some looking around: names are everywhere. So where are some good places to find them?
– Fictional name generators (many are available if you do a quick Internet search)
– Baby name websites (these are useful and some offer statistics about popularity, origins and meaning)
– Watch movie credits
– Open a phone book.
– Take inspiration from history (Salem Witch Trials? Titanic?)
Never underestimate the power of a name. We can’t help but associate meanings and ideas to certain names and while we are not always conscious of this, we do it nonetheless. Giving a little extra thought when it comes to naming your characters means that you give your writing that little extra edge.
As writers we sometimes neglect our senses. We spend countless hours absorbed in the two-dimensional worlds of pen and paper, keyboard and monitor, often to the point that we forget the different sensations that the world holds. Our five senses help us to function in the world, but some take precedence over others. Sight and sound are our predominant means of experiencing the world around us, and so we transfer these onto our characters. But what of taste, touch and smell?
The feel of soft velvet, the taste of your favorite chocolate or the smell of a new car, all of these invoke different emotions in different people. As do the taste of rancid orange juice, the smell of a burst drain pipe and the feel or centipede crawling up your leg.They trigger thoughts, memories, emotions and reactions.
Think of fear.
It is strong, primal emotion that affects our bodies as much as our minds. When someone is afraid, their hearts begin to race, they sweat, their hands tremble, they struggle to swallow and breathe. If we step it up a notch, take it to the level of terror, then what happens? On an emotional level they feel helpless, impotent, angry, confused or even a strong sense of disorientation and dissociation from events. On the physical side, their mouth dries up, leaving a metallic or bitter taste, they perspire, they can feel their bowels loosen and smell the warm pee that’s soaking their underwear. Let’s face it, fear isn’t pretty. Don’t be afraid to mention the gritty, unpleasant details when your character has to deal with it.
From a different perspective, consider what your character is confronted with, what is causing them to be terrified. As a writer, you’ll have the image in your mind: a rotting corpse, a Lovecraftian being with flailing tentacles, a crazed killer or a child’s toy wielding a blood smeared knife. Whatever it may be, you can be certain that if that situation were real, smells, tastes and textures would flood the scene. Give your reader a whiff of the decomposing corpse, a taste of blood or make them feel the tightness in their chest as your character struggles to breathe.
Not all senses that invoke fear need to be ‘bad’. That charming little girl next door who has just dismembered your character’s cat could smell of baby powder and candyfloss. The familiar touch of a husband’s caress feels great for his wife, until she discovers the truth about him (serial killer? pedophile? victim of the body snatchers?). The first bite into a fresh apple, the sweet and tart flavors mingling on their tongue, mixing in their mouth as the chew and swallow, only to see half a worm wiggling at the core? The horror of a scene can be intensified by contrasting the every day, familiar and enjoyable with the true nature of the situation.
So go on, give your reader the full sensory experience…