Writing Mistakes – Page 2 – Andy Peloquin

Andy Peloquin

I am an artist – words are my palette

Category: Writing Mistakes (Page 2 of 3)

Writing Mistakes: Not Doing Enough Research

They say to “write what you know”, but when it comes to writing fiction, what you know simply isn’t enough!

When I write, I like to sort of write from the gut. I put down on paper whatever comes into my head, and the stories that come out are–in my humble opinion–pretty epic. When it comes to world-building, I just sort of “wing it”. Sadly, that often lets me down.

See, my area of expertise is in the creation of story lines and plots, but it’s often the little details that trip me up. Here are a few things that have given me pause in my last book:

  • What sanitation system does the city use?
  • What type of armor is easy to move in, but offers good protection as well as silence?
  • Will iron break when hitting another piece of iron?
  • If merchants rule a city, what type of armed forces would they hire to serve as city guards?

All of these things are pretty small, but if I didn’t find out the answers to these questions, I could end up writing a world that was COMPLETELY unbelievable.

When it comes to writing, one of the worst mistakes you can make it not doing enough research. Gardeners and architects alike, take heed: research will save your life!

Fight scenes can often be pretty tough for people to write, particularly if they are trying to write believable scenes (Matrix mixed with comic book-style fights just don’t really work). I’ve had to turn to an expert for help, a friend who actually competes in Long Sword tournaments around the world. Combining that with my experience in martial arts helps me to write believable fight scenes.

Of course, there are so many things that I have to research for the rest of the story. And that’s where the “work” part of being a writer comes into play. If you want to write a believable story that people can identify with, you need to do your research to ensure that you are getting the facts right!

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Writing Mistakes: Modeling All Your Characters Only After Yourself

We’ve all heard the old adage “write what you know”. This could mean many things, such as writing on topics that you are familiar with, sticking with genres in which you excel, etc.

One way I like to interpret it is “give your characters the same problems you have”. Many of us tend to write ourselves into our characters, giving them the same general flaws, weaknesses, strengths, and aptitudes that we have–or would like to have. We model our characters on ourselves in one way or another.

However, this could actually be a mistake in the long run.

Imagine if you read a dozen books written by the same author, all with characters that are somewhat similar to the author. This will likely mean that the dozen books will all have characters that share some similarities, and the books will be populated with supporting characters that are pretty much all the same.

Of course, this is painting with a pretty broad brush, but the point I’m trying to make is this: don’t always make your characters like yourself.

It’s hard to write characters with whom you have NOTHING in common. If you read over your current WIP, no doubt you’ll see a character or two that you find little to identify with. As you read, you’ll likely notice that your portrayal of these characters is weaker than the rest of your characters. This is because you have no way to get inside the mind of a person who has NOTHING in common with you.

However, becoming a skilled writer is about stretching your limits and pushing beyond what you think you can do. These “not-you” characters may be weak now, but eventually you will become adept at writing people with whom you have nothing in common.

They will be the characters that will not only make your work better, but they will help you to identify with the people in your life that are completely out of your scope of understanding. The more you write them, the more you will be able to put yourself in the minds of people that are nothing like you. It will not only make you a better writer, but a better, more easily relatable PERSON as well!

Writing Mistakes: Focusing Too Much on Plot

A good plot is very important in a novel. Without plot, your character/s would simply sit around thinking and talking all day long.

A book without a plot would be kind of like your life on the weekend: you sit on your couch, playing video games, shopping at the mall, or doing whatever relaxing activities you do. Not much of a story there.

A story needs a plot, something to keep the characters moving, the suspense growing, and the challenges coming.

However, plot alone won’t make your story good, which is what brings us to this week’s episode of Writing Mistakes. This week, the mistake I want to highlight is focusing TOO MUCH on the plot.

I have no problem using myself as a dandy bad example, so I don’t mind saying that In the Days: A Tale of the Forgotten Continent was a highly plot-driven story. It’s all about the epic adventure on which the characters embark, and the truth is that the plot is fun, enjoyable, and action-packed.

But someone told me something interesting the other day. They said, “I loved the story, but I felt no identification to the characters.” I read back over some of the book, and I realized something: there is almost no depth to the characters.

The main characters are all likeable, relatable people, but the story is fairly shallow when it comes to actual personalities, struggles, and so on. Sure, there’s the development of the main character, Deucalion, as he is marked by the God, has to fight the bad guys, and discover who is trying to kill the Empress, but not much more.

Let my mistake be a lesson to you, and make your characters the highlight of the story!

A good plot is important, but a good character is a MUST. Your novel shouldn’t be driven by the story, by what’s happening around your character, but your character needs to be the driving force of the story.

Your character should struggle, he/she should fail and fall and make mistakes, and they should face the same crap that people in real life face. It doesn’t matter what genre you are writing, as there are everyday problems that you can translate into steampunk, science fiction, or fantasy easily.

Make your heroes flawed, your villains heroic, and add depth to your characters. Your writing should be all about helping your readers to identify with the characters, not just fascinated by the story. If you can combine a good plot with great characters, you are GUARANTEED success in your writing!

 

Writing Mistakes: Sticking Too Closely to a Story

I’m the kind of guy that likes to draw up an outline of a story BEFORE I start writing it. It helps me to know more or less where the story is going, and it gives me a sort of peace of mind. I don’t need EVERYTHING to be written out, but I do need some sort of structure to follow.

Could that be a mistake? Perhaps not always, but I know that there are times when following the structure I have laid out has made my writing worse.

You see, a story starts out as an idea, but that idea changes over time. For example, when I first started writing The Last Bucelarii, it was originally going to be a story of assassins, thieves, and all. By the time I finished Book 1: Blade of the Destroyer, the story had morphed into–SPOILER ALERT–demon hunting. I had no idea who the bad guys were going to be, but all I had was a rough outline of what I wanted.

A story may start out as an idea, but it is a living thing that morphs and grows. It may go in directions that you are not expecting, and it may take you places that will shock you! If you aren’t willing to bend and change with the cruel muse of inspiration, you may end up telling the wrong story.

Your story will grow and change as you do, and you may find out that your story is going somewhere you are not expecting. Not all writers want to go down the rabbit hole to see where their story is leading, but I find that my stories come out too rigid and inflexible if I don’t adjust to the changes in the story as they come.

You can NEVER predict all of the things that will change in your writing as you go. The character you never expected to die will suddenly be killed off, while the direction you hadn’t expected to go all of a sudden becomes the central theme of your story.

DO NOT be so inflexible and rigid that you only follow the structure of your story as you have laid it out. Be prepared to make changes, both to the layout of the story and the central story line itself. You never know where you’ll end up, but chances are good that it will be MUCH better than your structure would ever have been!

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Writing Mistakes: Writing a Safe Story

How many times have you looked at your story and thought, “No, I can’t do that! It’s just too (violent, sadistic, painful, depressing, etc.)”? Hopefully, A LOT!

New writers tend to have the same problem: their first story is often fairly flat and dull. Oh sure, the story may be great and the characters supremely witty, but there’s something lacking. It’s exactly what happened with In the Days, and I think I’ve discovered the problem…

The problem: it was just too safe.

A safe story is one that doesn’t really push the conventions of society. It tells a story that EVERYONE can read and enjoy, and which won’t make people uncomfortable. Writers put out these stories in the hope that they will find lots of people who just want a good read.

But, the truth is that these stories fall flat. There are many stories that are MUCH better than yours, with better plot twists and turns. The only thing that is going to make your story stand out from the rest is when you add your own unique emotions and feelings.

Safe stories are ones with little emotional investment. That doesn’t mean that you don’t love the story, but it means that you have invested very little of your emotions in them. There is very little depth, very little about the story that actually speaks to you, resonates within you. Your story lacks the raw honesty that makes for an amazing tale.

Even if your story is a simple one–think of two people meeting and falling in love–you can add emotional twists and turns that make it a story that many people can relate to. Falling in love is such a complex animal that it’s easy to turn your story into one that has real emotional depth. Instead of playing it safe, push the limits of both your emotions and your creativity.

Don’t be afraid to put something in a story just because it feels “edgy”. Don’t put something in your story just BECAUSE it’s edgy either. Put the story down on paper, and then start putting in all the depth that makes it a really good read. For your story to be a success, there has to be a connection with the reader. Readers don’t connect with plot twists and turns–they connect with emotions, sensations, feelings!

Writing Mistakes: Trying too Hard

I know that I’ve tried very hard to make my writing good, often to the point where it becomes bad in an effort to avoid silly mistakes.

For example, I’ve been trying to avoid the word “that” in my writing, as that’s supposed to be a weak word. However, in my efforts to cut out the word, I often end up with grammatically ponderous sentences–sentences which could easily be shortened and streamlined just by adding the word “that” in the right place.

I’ve read books where the author has tried just a bit too hard to be funny. To some authors–like Terry Pratchett or Glen Cooke–humor comes naturally. For other authors, the humor comes across as almost a bit forced. The “humorous” dialogue is either unrealistic, choppy, or the jokes are a bit too “clever” that you just don’t understand what the speaker is hinting at or alluding to.

Other writers make the mistake of trying to be too eloquent or fancy in their writing. If you don’t have both a dictionary AND a thesaurus handy, you will never understand what they’re trying to say. I’ve seen the eloquent writing of masters like Dickens or Bronte, and then I look at the simplicity of my own writing. There are maybe 10 words in there that readers would need to look up in a thesaurus or dictionary, but other than that, it’s just basic English. Instead of trying to force eloquence–which would probably make my writing come off boring and incomprehensible–I keep it simple.

Here’s a free piece of advice: don’t impress the readers with your WRITING, but with the story itself.

You don’t want readers to look at what you wrote and think about the quality of the writing, as that will distract them from what you want to say. In fact, you want the writing to fade into the background, and simply have it as the vehicle to tell the story you want to tell.

The whole point of writing is to communicate, and you don’t want readers to get so hooked on the method of communication that they fail to receive the message. It’s like calling from a broken telephone with a shaky signal–the person on the other end will know you’re trying to communicate, they just won’t understand what you’re trying to say.

Write in your own way, but don’t try too hard to make your writing something it’s not. Play to your strengths, and let your writing paint the picture that you want it to. The words should fade into the background as your reader builds that mental image in his or her head.

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Writing Mistakes: Commas

Commas can be a real b***h!

It’s rare to find a writer who can use commas perfectly. Truth be told, commas are much harder to use than almost any other punctuation. It’s hard to know when to use a comma instead of a hyphen, a colon, or a semi-colon.

Here’s everything you need to know about commas (taken from The Writing Center, courtesy of the University of Wisconsin)…

We use commas to signal nonrestrictive or nonessential material, to prevent confusion, and to indicate relationships among ideas and sentence parts.

GOOD Example:

When choosing a ballroom dancing partner, it’s wise to find one who has both a left and right foot.

The party people, who were all drunk, threw themselves into the Jell-O filled limousine.

Overdoing it with commas makes a sentence REALLY hard to read.

BAD Example:

Bob, Jane, and Mary, three friends from, Harvard, enjoyed an afternoon of, flaying.

The name, “Wilhelmina,” is one of the most beautiful names, in German cuisine.

 

Commas are used to join two dependent clauses.

GOOD Example:

While I prefer to eat applesauce, Bob prefers the tails of small rodents for dinner.

Commas do not join two independent thoughts.

BAD Example:

Mary and Paul decided to visit the morgue, Bob had a laugh at John’s expense.

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Here are a few more rules of comma use (courtesy of Purdue University)

Use commas to separate independent clauses when they are joined by any of these seven coordinating conjunctions: and, but, for, or, nor, so, yet.

Use commas after introductory a) clauses, b) phrases, or c) words that come before the main clause.

Use a pair of commas in the middle of a sentence to set off clauses, phrases, and words that are not essential to the meaning of the sentence. Use one comma before to indicate the beginning of the pause and one at the end to indicate the end of the pause.

Do not use commas to set off essential elements of the sentence, such as clauses beginning with that (relative clauses). That clauses after nouns are always essential. That clauses following a verb expressing mental action are always essential

Use commas to separate three or more words, phrases, or clauses written in a series.

Use commas to separate two or more coordinate adjectives that describe the same noun. Be sure never to add an extra comma between the final adjective and the noun itself or to use commas with non-coordinate adjectives.

Use a comma near the end of a sentence to separate contrasted coordinate elements or to indicate a distinct pause or shift.

Use commas to set off phrases at the end of the sentence that refer to the beginning or middle of the sentence. Such phrases are free modifiers that can be placed anywhere in the sentence without causing confusion. (If the placement of the modifier causes confusion, then it is not “free” and must remain “bound” to the word it modifies.)

Use commas to set off all geographical names, items in dates (except the month and day), addresses (except the street number and name), and titles in names.

Use a comma to shift between the main discourse and a quotation.

Use commas wherever necessary to prevent possible confusion or misreading.

(Source: Purdue University)

 

Use these comma rules to NEVER make a comma mistake again. Or, at the very least, try to reduce those errors!

Writing Mistakes: Overcomplicated Writing

There’s something writers need to realize: writing in a complicated, elaborate style DOESN’T make your work any better. In fact, it may actually make it worse!

If you’ve read any Charles Dickens–which, as a writer, I certainly hope you have–you know just how complicated writing can get. That man uses ALL of the metaphors, similes, adjectives, adverbs, and other writing devices that he can. Just look at the way he opens A Tale of Two Cities:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

That single paragraph sets to the tone for the entire book, and you’ll find that his writing gets more complex as he goes.

Now, you may be thinking, “But it’s such great writing. Surely I can imitate it by writing complicated as well!”

If you’re Charles Dickens, you can get away with a lot. If, however, you are not–and I can assure you that you are not–overcomplicating your writing can actually make it MORE difficult to read.

I’ve found that I’m pretty guilty of doing this in some of my writing. For example, here’s a short passage from Book 2 of the Last Bucelarii series I’m in the middle of writing:

The creature lived. Shattered and broken, perhaps, yet alive. Its heart beat, a weak thing struggling to pump the blood not yet spilled onto the ground around the creature’s body. The mind, unthinking, acted, struggling to move. Instinct alone kept it from dying, though barely. Death’s laughter mocked the dying thing, but the broken figure refused to yield. Sheer tenacity clung to life, refusing to take a final breath.

A friend of mine, when he read it, told me “It’s good, but I’d remove some of the extra modifiers.”

“But I added those modifiers to add gravitas and seriousness,” I protested.

“Nah,” he replied, “it interrupts the flow and makes it hard to read.”

Darn it! What I thought I was doing right by making the writing a bit more complex, others see as overdone or wordy.

A word of advice from a fellow writer and reader: keep it simple. Dickens had his time and place, but that was long ago. The average reader now wants to read something he/she can understand. Keep your writing simple–not by dumbing it down, but by avoiding overworidiness and overcomplicated writing. Simple is always easier to read.

Writing Mistakes: Insufficient Description

This is a mistake that I made a lot when writing In the Days: A Tale of the Forgotten Continent for the first time, and it’s one that I hope never to make again.

Have you ever noticed how some books suck you into the rich, detailed world, feeding you images of everything around the character as he/she moves? You get all the sights, sounds, and smells, and the book is a much more complete experience because of it!

And then there are writers who fail to give you all of the details of what’s going on around the characters. You get a small glimpse of the city/terrain in which they find themselves, but there is little detail added as scenes change. It forces readers to use their imagination to fill in the details, and the book is just a little poorer because of the lack of imagery.

As a writer, your job is to help people see the world that you have constructed in your head. You want them to be transported to this world with you–whether that world is Middle Earth, your own fictional continent/planet, or downtown New York City. You have to feed them details of what the world is like in order to give them an idea what they should be picturing in their head.

Here’s an example of what I consider to be sufficient description:

Business was booming at The Iron Arms tonight, though every night found the tavern full to bursting. Thanks to its proximity to the docks, the alehouse saw a steady stream of day laborers, roughnecks, and roustabouts hoping to quench their thirst at the end of a long day.

Drunken tradesmen and merchants filled the tables, while tired dockhands nursed tankards overflowing with frothy ale. The smell of sawdust and stale sweat hung heavy in the air, and peanut shells mixed in with the wood shavings on the floor. The sounds of clinking glasses, shouting patrons, and loud conversations filled the air.

Barmaids wended their way through the bar patrons, delivering drinks with a hearty laugh and a hard slap to roving hands. Their bodices looked too tight, but the men filling the bar approved of the scanty outfits. Indeed, the wenches found themselves fending off advances from all sides, though occasionally one would hustle up the creaking stairs with a customer for extra special customer attention.

(excerpt from The Last Bucelarii, Book 1: Blade of the Destroyer)

It gives you an idea of what the place looks, smells, and sounds like, and it helps to set the tone for the ambience (the presence of roughnecks, the loudness of the bar, the customers leering at the wenches, etc.).

Writers, fill in the details! Don’t leave us readers hanging in a colorless, odorless, soundless void where our imagination is forced to fill in the details, but feed those details to us. It makes for a much better read!

Writing Mistakes: Wordiness

Writers, keep this one piece of advice in mind:

“Never say in 10 words what you can say with 3.”

One mistake I find myself making A LOT is being too wordy. I like to think that adding an extra word or two helps to add something to the sentence, something like gravitas, weight, an extra punch.

See what I did there? I made that sentence far longer than it needed to be to prove a point.

To be a good writer, it’s time to cut your writing way back! You need to start looking for concise ways to get your point across, as that will make your work much, much better.

Think about this line:

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”

Short, pithy, and properly Dickensian. In that line, it basically sets the tone for the entire book. It tells you everything you need to know about the setup for the story, and it’s just 12 words!

According to some experts, as many as 50% of writers make this mistake. Some writers could stand to lose a few thousand words, while others would do well to trim it down by ten, twenty, or even thirty-thousand words. Talk about editing with a brutal pen!

When you write, try to say as much as you can in as few words as possible. Keep your paragraphs short, your dialogue snappy, and your descriptions on track. Don’t meander and give your readers too many details, but just give them enough to keep them hooked.

Once the writing is done, go back over it and start looking for words to cut out. If they’re extraneous, cut them. If you can say with one word what you currently say with three, cut them. If they don’t add to the book in some way, cut them.

Stephen King likes to trim his books down by at least 10% in the second draft. That’s a serious reduction in word count, but it works to make his prose so much better.

Remember: sloppy, wordy prose can sometimes come across as sloppy thinking. Trim down your writing, and your readers will thank you for it!

 

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