As a future novelist, you naturally hope that your book will take the world by surprise. You know that publishers, agents and editors are constantly on the hunt for a new fresh voice, a gripping story told with emotion and authority, which stands out in the piles of scripts and takes them by storm.
And now it’s time for your script, because you’re finally done. Yes, if you ever get ready. You know that no novel is perfect, and that you cannot expect your own to be either.
So why wait?
Well, because your future publishers will get hundreds of first novel attempts. They have seen the same beginner mistakes more times than they can count. At best, these mistakes only lower the overall impression of your script, at worst it is a signal that guarantees it an easy trip to the trash, no matter how flawless it is otherwise.
As a writer, editor and writing coach at Ghostwriting Solution, I myself have evaluated hundreds of scripts from eager aspiring writers. Here are the seven mistakes I most often encounter – and some ways to avoid or repair them.
1. For a lot of people at the start
You love your characters and that’s okay, but remember that your readers are not doing it yet. The least successful of all the introductory chapters I have read are the ones that introduce the whole – or almost the whole – character gallery in the space of a few pages. It is as if the author is so anxious that I should meet them that I can hardly set foot inside the door before the whole family stands there.
It does not work; the reader cannot take in so much at once, let alone keep it. So take it easy – a confident writer knows that a solid opening scene is all that is needed to start the story.
If you have a whole bunch of characters that need attention, then do not ask who can I save for later, but who is absolutely necessary for my very first scenes?
It helps you focus on the plot.
Let’s say your novel begins with a medieval tournament. Perhaps you have felt compelled to introduce the king and queen where they sit in their places of honor, and also some of their closest ones – such as the king’s mistress who whispers something to the corrupt adviser about the king’s brother-in-law’s upcoming visit – after which you proceed to present the knights who rattle around on their horses, assisted by their nearest polar bears, who too will play an important role later, when it’s time to gather an army.
Readers are drowning.
Go straight to the point instead! Give them thundering hooves, the sound of steel against steel, the king’s shouting from the stands, and the somewhat unusual way in which the queen stiffens when she sees which of the knights is lying there motionless on the ground.
In other words: create engagement with the reader. Only then can you start introducing the side characters. Take your time and send them out one or two at a time. Sneak in the conversation between the king’s mistress and the adviser after readers have had a chance to make themselves a little at home in your world. Then they will prick up their ears. Then they are on your journey.
2. Too many turning points, too little story
Many aspiring writers, especially those who have done a lot of planning and solid groundwork, tend to present the story in a rather mechanical way.
I have actually come across sentences such as: “The reporter stumbled across sensitive information”, or “The police started looking for clues”. These are crucial points in the story, and really excellent ones, but they are not scenes – they are not even summaries of scenes.
There is nothing wrong with planning, but if you have a detailed synopsis, make sure you do not lean too heavily on it all the way from start to finish. Strive to turn every important point in your synopsis into a clear and compelling scene. Be open so that they can take unexpected turns.
Be specific: Who is the reporter? What does the sensitive information consist of? And most importantly for the plot and the commitment – how did he stumble across it?
Let’s say that the current reporter, Martin, has been demoted to write obituaries after an incident with the newspaper owner’s daughter. But instead of getting bitter and starting to neglect his degrading tasks, he decides to write the best damn obituary that the readers of the small local newspaper have ever seen. He happens to know that the old man Karl storm is in long-term care and only breathes thanks to life-sustaining machines, after a long and boring career as an insurance broker and chairman of the local chamber of commerce. Martin digs in the archives and decides to contact one of Karl storm’s old schoolmates.
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“I am writing an obituary of Mr. Karl storm.”
Is he dead? Then I guess you’re going to ask me about that horrible embarrassment in the 70’s.
“Yes, he is not really dead yet. But what kind of embarrassment? ”
“Uh… don’t care.”
Now Martin knows he has something to dig for. The story is on, and readers want to follow!
3. Too silly, nice, careful
This affects many who write their first novel. Here are the three most common ways it manifests – and the cures.
LAME QUICKNESS. Lame jokes can almost be likened to an epidemic in authors’ early novel attempts, especially in genre literature. I guess the writers think, Okay, characters in driven thrillers are cool, tough and smart, so then they have to talk that way too, right?
Yes, maybe, but when it does not work, it is better to skip the jokes altogether. A particularly common scene that seems to invite such a thing is when two policemen examine a dead body.
Police 1: “Looks like he’s going to be late for the banquet.”
Police 2: “He is the banquet – for the worms. Hehe. ”
It’s an art to write fun, and it takes a lot of work. Avoid the trap of starting from the most obvious, that is, the casual gallows humor in this case. Come up with an unexpected perspective that might tell something about the characters themselves. For example: What normal human being would really envy a corpse? Well, why not one of your cops?
Police 1: “Some people are lucky.”
Police 2: “What?”
Police 1: “That person never has to squeeze himself into a tuxedo again to stand and talk coldly at another deadly banquet.”
NEAT AND TENSE SPEECH. Dialogue is something many beginners struggle with and it can require a lot of practice to make it sound natural. A special challenge is to find a language that matches the age, background and profession of the different characters.
“That was extremely painful.”
“You’re definitely a little upset.”
“It was terribly difficult.”
This is perfectly okay if you describe a 90-year-old baroness on a coffee rope, or possibly a pretentious high school guy. But do not use language like this to create some charm in general. It’s not charming.
REDUNDANT ADJECTIVES. Something that you also see a lot of in beginner scripts is an overuse of descriptive and helping words.
He was a little angry.
It was a very bizarre situation.
The stem was red in color.
Was he angry? If so, then say so. If he was not angry, then what was he? Annoyed? Grumpy? Grumpy? Tell us! Or rather, show us: “The blood vessels in his forehead protruded in exactly the same way as the time Johnny vomited all over the back seat.”
Bizarre means “very strange”; therefore, “It was a bizarre situation” is enough. And readers know that red is a color; “The stump was red.”
Reading tips! A good opening is a powerful thing. Here are ten ways to steer your story to success.
Go through your script and clear!
4. For easy ways out
You probably know what I mean: A writer has done an excellent job of building suspense and putting things at stake, but loses control and betrays readers’ trust by taking a far too simple approach. Lifelines are stretched down from the sky in an unconvincing way, a benevolent millionaire appears out of nowhere to save the farm, by chance the police collide with the serial killer at their local pub – it’s full of unpublished novels.
The most infamous example of all is of course the dream sequence. That’s when you really made an effort to put your hero in the glue; the villains have captured him and chained him along with the young woman in need whom he has tried to save throughout the story, and now they have picked them up in a helicopter over the sea and pushed them out from a height of two thousand meters. Your readers turn the page, eager to know: How will he get out of this?
For your hero, of course, cannot die, it was the agreement you made with the readers when you made them engage in his fate from the beginning. They know he will somehow make it, but they read on to find out how.
And then he wakes up with a jerk.
No. If you do that, you leave the readers with nothing but a strong desire to pack your script in a helicopter, fly out over the sea and – yes, the rest you know.
If you have chosen such a simple emergency exit, or even come close to it, then you must correct it. The reason you ended up there was probably that you happened to sign up in a corner, and you can always go back and start again from a more reasonable starting point. But you can also see it as a challenge to really make it work:
SPEND MORE TIME ON THE PLOT. Sometimes a little more brainstorming can be all that is needed to turn the problem into an exciting solution. Think sideways, think out and in and up and down. Maybe the pilot in our example made a mistake – it is after all in the middle of the night – and instead of water, the couple crashes against the dense treetops on the legendary “trampoline trees” in Santa Monica.
EXPAND YOUR IMAGINATION AND strengthen the foundation. Perhaps the hero in our example has a pocket-sized parachute, the existence of which readers need to be prepared for earlier in the story where you give them a lesson in extremely compressible origami materials that can be activated by a Nano technological altimeter connected to an accelerometer that can be hidden in a dental filling. It must of course seem sensible in relation to other parameters in the story, but apart from that: Drive on!
5. For simple plot
Many novelists have started with short stories and then embarked on a longer format. It is a natural development, and since the short story form contains all the most important elements of fiction – cohesive plot, characters that are developed, well-thought-out environment and themes – it is an excellent training for the novel. But one thing that the novel does not prepare the novelist for is the complexity required in a long story. Therefore, one sees many first novel attempts which are in fact long short stories. There is not enough going on in parallel, there are too few levels in the plot and too few threads to follow to keep the reader’s interest up in the long run.
If you recognize yourself in this, you can try the following: Take two dramatic moments in your story that do not belong together, or two turning points, or maybe even two characters that do not belong together. Then try to come up with a link between them.
The different elements are welcome in completely different parts of the story, so that a person who appears at the beginning turns out to be secretly connected to someone who appears at the end. Experienced narrators across all genre boundaries (especially film scripts) rely on this technique to add complexity to the plot. With the right timing, magic can occur, and it’s a pretty simple way to make your story both smarter and more refined than you first thought possible.
6. For frugal tastes
Many less experienced writers who are anxious to keep up the pace of the story forget that the reader needs help to visualize what is happening. In addition, the writing schools’ perpetual nagging about “Show, don´t tell” seems to have scared many to describe anything at all, especially when it comes to characters and the environment.
Sure, you should not write the reader on the nose. And there are parties where it may be quite right to omit all types of descriptions. Some authors, for example, like to work with long dialogues that are just dialogue, no small things that happen between the lines, no description. It is stripped down and neat. But it usually needs to be combined with other short batches of descriptions that give life to the prose and anchor the reader in the scenes. After all, my general position is that what is worth mentioning is also worth describing. As a writer, you not only want to show your ability to describe a coherent chain of events, but also let your sensitive writer’s heart speak.
With this in mind:
DARE TO POST THE WORDS. Try not only to write “We drove two guys”, but “We drove two guys from the lecture who looked like potential serial killers”. The value of relatively long descriptions is that they draw your readers deeper into the scene. You like to worry about getting bored of them, but there is no danger as long as you do a good job, on the contrary. Too really dive into a description is one of the most fun things you can do as a writer, and the trick is to always have the attitude that you should discover, not inform. Then you do not write to tell the readers things that they can figure out on their own, but rather to explore and experience the scene with them.
LET THE CHARACTERS DESCRIBE. The best kind of description is the one that fulfills several purposes at the same time, for example to take the story forward while developing a character. When a character exclaims: “This Company is going to hell. It is run by a bunch of crappy little kids, “it says something about both the character and the creation company. Of course, not all of your characters will agree with the analysis, and this can be the basis for an exciting conflict.
7. For fast editing
It is not uncommon for aspiring writers to neglect important parts of the editing process in their eagerness to finish. Which is the same as letting clean rubbish pass. Sure, you have to drop your script at some point, perfectionism may well become an enemy as well, but the fact is that most early novel attempts suffer from the opposite problem. All experienced publishers will immediately notice if you have been careless and made no effort to make your novel as good as possible before submitting it. It may seem strange that they can know, but they can. And it does not give an ambitious impression.
Review your script again to make sure you are as complete as possible with your script. Start by printing it so that you have the latest version in a neat bundle in front of you. Then get a big pack of those narrow post it flags that are available to buy in different colors. Read your novel from start to finish and place a flag in the margin at every doubtful place. Set aside an entire day for this and do it with as little analytical thinking as possible. If a passage does not float, just put a flag and move forward – do not stop and try to solve the problem. If an important point or question comes up in your head, you can quickly write it down in the margin or in a notepad, but then continue reading. Read neither fast nor slow, but keep a steady pace.
Then focus on the dubious parties. You know those scenes that you feel vaguely uncomfortable with, that you avoided grabbing and as if hoping they would heal on their own. Start by asking yourself: Does this belong here? Sometimes it feels wrong because a passage does not fit in with the rest, even if it itself has a good flow. If so, try placing it elsewhere. If, on the other hand, it is a weak scene in itself, delete it and see how it works now. If you really cannot get your finger to press delete – cut it out and save it in a new document that can be a seed for new projects. After all, this is just your first novel.
And when in doubt: Pretend to be a strict publisher at a major book publisher and imagine what he would say. It can give you surprisingly good answers.