Jun 28 2008

Five More Mistakes of First-Time Novelists (#11-15)

This short article will help beginning novelists avoid another five common mistakes that might cause a publisher to throw out a manuscript.


You can see the first two articles in this series here and here.
 

11. Failing to name the main character (or waiting too long to do so) is usually a mistake. It will probably annoy readers and cause a publisher to reject the manuscript. Failing to name the main character forces the author to use goofy and circuitous writing to somehow avoid naming the character (perhaps as “the detective” or, worse, “the hero”).  Failing to name the character also surrenders a great opportunity to build the character with a strong name. It also deprives the audience of an easy way to mentally refer to the character.

 
12. If your premise is unusual, reveal it upfront rather than trying to “surprise” readers with it later. Why wait 10 pages to tell us that the main character is a cat or a street-lamp?  If your premise is interesting, there are readers that will appreciate the book for what it is.  The best way to attract those readers is to tell them what your book is about.  If you try to use your premise as a “surprise,” your audience will be comprised of readers that had no idea what they were getting into and probably won’t appreciate that you misled them.  Holding back the premise almost always results in failure.  One sign that you need to be more upfront about your premise is that your story hides information from the audience that the point-of-view character has, such as which species he belongs to.  As a rule, the audience is entitled to everything relevant that the POV character knows.
 
13. Be careful with characters from traditional fantasy races, particularly elves and dragons. Elves and dragons are usually not really characters but instead collections of clichés.For example, elves are typically nature-loving, elegant, magical, perhaps obnoxiously arrogant and not much more.  If you plan to use one of these cliché races, I highly recommend giving them a few unexpected character traits and creative negative aspects.  Also, try to explore the reasoning behind some of the cliches you plan to use. Why do dragons like hording gold? Why are elves more nature-attuned than, say, dwarves or humans? Try to delve into their mindset beyond the cliches.  What do dragons do for fun? Etc.
 
14. Don’t focus on irrelevant visual details. For example, many authors will describe the color of a character’s eyes and hair.That’s usually a mistake, because eye-color doesn’t suggest anything interesting about a character.  It doesn’t matter if a character’s eyes are green rather than blue.  In contrast, a relevant detail will show us something interesting about the character.  A character with rough and sunworn skin is substantially different than someone with soft and milky skin.

The most effective visual details usually suggest something about the character’s lifestyle and personal choices.For example, does he wear his hair in a shaggy mop or does he have a Marine-style buzzcut?Either one of those would tell us more about the character than what color his hair is.  Is he wearing the same Rush t-shirt he rolled out of bed in or has he had his outfit planned since last Tuesday?  Etc.

 
15. Please, please do not give aliens “exotic” names like Qwe’rty-Uiop. Unpronounceable strings of letters are not exotic; they are completely unacceptable. A better way to create exotic-sounding alien names is by taking familiar sounds and then stringing them together.For example, Brad and Darian are familiar to your readers, and together they make Bradarian.If that’s not alien enough, you could cut off a few letters to make Bradar.  Likewise, Tim and Milly could make Timilly or Timil.  Alternatively, you could add some letters, so that Tim and Milly would make Intimilly.
This article was the third part of a series. If you’d like to read about how to avoid other common writing mistakes, you’ll find the links just below.

34 responses so far

34 Responses to “Five More Mistakes of First-Time Novelists (#11-15)”

  1. The ReTARDISed Whovianon 20 Nov 2008 at 12:56 am

    These lists are really helpful. Do you think you’ll be adding any more soon?

    11. Isaac is named in the third paragraph. But I’m a little concerned. Does this line seem annoying? “I’m Isaac, your typical dork. You know, the guy you never notice until class speeches or he makes a fool of himself”.

    It’s just for him to introduce himself, but he often breaks the fourth wall throughout the book to comment on something, so it’s not the only line addressed to the reader.

    14. It’s rare that I mention that type of thing.

  2. B. Macon 20 Nov 2008 at 2:23 am

    Regarding Isaac’s self-introduction… Personally, I’m not feeling it, but I think that your audience will find it more amenable. I’m not too familiar with young adult novels, but the narrator of each Animorphs book tended to introduce himself in a very intrusive way. As far as I know, young readers are not very put off by that.

    Also, I’m open to the idea of adding more, but I just need to think of another 5 recurring problems.

  3. Davidon 10 Jan 2009 at 5:20 pm

    Hey, going on your part about being careful with characters from traditional fantasy races, particularly elves and dragons.

    In my fifth story, I’m using Banshees. I did some research on them and I used some parts of the myths and what I’ve done is this.

    Banshees live for 800 to 900 years. Female banshees are born with black hair and when they mature at 400 to 450 years there hair turns blond. It’d be the reverse for males.

    A full grown Banshee’s scream can shred concrete and burst eardrums.

    Banshees rule over the otherworld with the Knight’s heart, a jewel that allows them to summon the headless horseman, the greatest swordsman in the otherworld.

    Banshees are ok in general, but they have bad blood with Angels and think themselves superior to Sirens. They’re a bit more agile and stronger than humans and a few use magic.


    How’s that? Do you think it’s feasible for a story?

  4. B. Macon 10 Jan 2009 at 9:16 pm

    I think that your banshees would fit in smoothly in a story like Hellboy or maybe something like Zantanna, but I don’t think that they’d fit in your story as well. Your characters are more technological than magical, for one. The story may feel “weird” because it starts with a mostly sci-fi premise and shifts to elements that are fantasy (like banshees).

    Also, some of the details about banshees might be a bit too insignificant to tell readers about. For example, the differences between male and female banshees. Why does it matter how old they live or how long it takes them to mature? Why does the color of their hair matter? I don’t think those details will interest readers enough to bother with.

  5. Davidon 11 Jan 2009 at 6:26 am

    Well, I also tried a story with a haunted hotel. The team and others were killed one by one by different means, but I couldn’t think of a full plot. Any ideas?

    Another plot I have is Lady Evil Hand returns (I sent you the second story a while back, dunno if you remember). Anyways, she unleashes a deadly virus that quickly sweeps across the city and she demands a huge sum of money for the cure. Due to there genetic makeup, only Silence and D are immune to it. Chain and Solar come down sick.

    I think this would be great for character development for both D and Silence. Silence can really develop her fighting style and such.

  6. Lieslon 16 Jul 2009 at 6:32 am

    #14 You are right but isn’t it okay to describe hair colour to help the reader to picture the character? I know eye colour isn’t exactly important but is it okay to include it anyway?

    #15 What is your opinion on using made up names, even ones that are probably easy to pronounce? Is it generally better to use real names? Are there advantages to making up names?

    Thank you so much for your articles they’re helpful and interesting!

  7. Ragged Boyon 16 Jul 2009 at 6:42 am

    Addressing #14: I think there’s a trick you can use instead of just blatant saying the hair color. They giving a detail about the hair that suggests something about the character’s personality or lifestyle and fitting the color subtlely into that. For example, “James threw the same shirt he had on yesterday and didn’t bother to comb his shaggy, dark brown hair.” I got the color across, but more important I told you something about the character, he’s a bit of a slob.

    Addressing #15: Oh, you didn’t have to take it so literally. 😉 You can used exotic names, but make sure they’re not overly exotic and just plain weird. I liked B. Mac’s advice to combine common names to make exotic names, that’s how I name one of my characters. Alternatively, if the name isn’t too over the top I think it’s okay to use. Go for it!

  8. Ragged Boyon 16 Jul 2009 at 6:53 am

    Addressing David.

    “Another plot I have is Lady Evil Hand returns (I sent you the second story a while back, dunno if you remember). Anyways, she unleashes a deadly virus that quickly sweeps across the city and she demands a huge sum of money for the cure. Due to there genetic makeup, only Silence and D are immune to it. Chain and Solar come down sick.”

    I think this plot is a bit overwrought and banal. I think something fresher would be much more interesting. Maybe Lady Evil Hand (I thought you changed her name) gets infected herself and needs something special (that only the city can offer) for the cure. That’s not much better, but it’s just a suggestion. I also think that the motive of getting money is pretty dry and two-dimensional for villains.

    “I think this would be great for character development for both D and Silence. Silence can really develop her fighting style and such.”

    If this would be the second story arc they’re in I would that the characters are already fully developed. I can see her developing her fighting style, but personality-wise you should be done developing her by this point.

  9. KitKaton 18 Jul 2009 at 3:20 pm

    I somewhat agree with your input on not putting in eye color or hair unless it’s important to their lifestyle, but I also disagree. It can be important to making your character realistic by mentioning their eye color. If you wanted your character to stand out as much as possible you could make their hair be black with red tips and eyes be a slight violet or a forest green. These details aren’t all that important but it still develops the character and makes the character seem like an actual person. I feel like a lot of books say things like “he is tall with spiky sandy-blonde hair, deep hazel eyes, and tan skin.” That gives a lot of detail, which is good, but I feel like that could describe a lot of people. I feel that the characters that are important or even have powers and that sort of thing should have unique features.

    I definitely agree with #13. If you think about Twilight, there are vampires but they are different than the traditional vampire most people know. These vampires did have pale, cold skin and drank blood but that was pretty much where the similarities stopped. Sun didn’t hurt them but it would give away who they are (their skin sparkled in the sun). If you use elves or fairies or mermaids or whatever it is, try to make it original. You might have a few similar characteristics, but make it your own.

  10. B. Macon 20 Jul 2009 at 6:00 am

    Quoting Liesl: “You are right but isn’t it okay to describe hair colour to help the reader to picture the character? I know eye colour isn’t exactly important but is it okay to include it anyway?”

    I think hair color is less distracting than eye color. Not a huge problem, particularly if it’s been worked in smoothly. However, it’s really hard to work in eye color, particularly at the beginning. Eye color will really zoom in the reader’s mental camera. It usually isn’t appropriate to mention eye color unless the scene needs us to zoom in. For example, maybe we’re in a really intimate scene or two conflicting characters are RIGHT in each other’s faces. When two lovers are gazing longingly at each other, then it makes sense to mention eye color. When someone meets someone else for the first time, it will almost certainly feel weird to mention it.

  11. esnippleeon 29 Jun 2010 at 3:44 pm

    11. named in the first sentence.
    12. why would i do that? i havnt.
    13. not done before! unless ungreat minds think alike.
    14. i described him by lumping on adjectives to when part of him is doing something: is that okay?
    15. mine are made up but easy to pronounce, like “haki” and “dakin”

  12. Amyon 18 Jul 2010 at 6:41 pm

    “Why do dragons like hording gold?”

    in myth and folk narratives, serpents (dragons are serpents) are often depicted as keepers of a treasure. if anyone is interested in sources (I hope I have something in english), I can mail it.

  13. Wingson 18 Jul 2010 at 7:06 pm

    Actually, I read somewhere that because the sole weakness of dragons was the fact that their stomachs bear no armor, so they collected gold and jewels to use as a sort of armor. Or, y’know, maybe they’re like me and like shiny things.

    – Wings

  14. B. Macon 18 Jul 2010 at 7:57 pm

    “I read somewhere that because the sole weakness of dragons was the fact that their stomachs bear no armor, so they collected gold and jewels to use as a sort of armor.” I think that the gold-as-armor was mentioned in The Hobbit, although I’m not sure it was a conscious choice for Smaug.

    I don’t think gold would add much protection, either. It’s extremely malleable (the most malleable metal), it’s soft, it bends like crazy, etc. I’m not sure about jewels, but it seems sort of counterintuitive to me that jewels would be more protective than hard plates.

  15. ShardReaperon 19 Jul 2010 at 3:43 pm

    @Wings: if that were true, how would they manage to get it on them after they morphed it into something wearable?

  16. Wingson 19 Jul 2010 at 6:20 pm

    Although I barely remember reading The Hobbit, they merely pressed the objects onto their flesh. You know, like sticking a penny on your forehead, but more so.

    – Wings

  17. Gianaon 04 Nov 2010 at 6:10 pm

    I have to disagree with nº 14. It really annoys me when I spend 10 pages imagining a certain character is blond, and the author suddenly reveals he has black hair. Same goes with eyecolor and other physical attributes you might think are irrelevant. They don’t need to tell it right away, but not mentioning it at all or taking 50 chapters to do so just pisses me off.

  18. Crystalon 28 Apr 2011 at 5:35 pm

    Wow. I was reading over another story that I wrote a while back, and I realized that I had waited until Chapter 7 to reveal that all of the characters had special powers, and that they were at a special school to learn how to control their gifts. Up until then, you just think that they were at a boarding school, doing ordinary stuff.
    Actually, this happened in most of the stories that I wrote. If I hadn’t found this site, I might still be writing like that!

  19. Rachelon 08 Aug 2012 at 8:26 pm

    Would it be okay to describe eye color if that is one of their most striking features??
    For example,
    “For the first time I looked into his eyes, and I had to stifle a gasp. They were a brilliant ice-blue, dazzling and beautiful. And they were filled with genuine concern.”

    Personally I like character descriptions, as long as they are not thrown at you all at once, but like Giana said, I like to imagine the characters in my mind, and it gets annoying if you have no idea what they look like, or if you do have a mental picture and when the author finally decides to describe them they look nothing like what you had pictured in your head.

    But otherwise this article was really helpful! Thanks;D

  20. Edgukatoron 08 Aug 2012 at 8:58 pm

    I don’t think it’s a hard and fast rule, but B. Mac’s point (he’ll tell me if I’m wrong) is that quite often colour is used instead of more relevant detail, and in your sentence here you include at least two details that move beyond the colour itself – your narrator’s emotional reaction (“dazzling and beautiful”) and an emotive trait (“filled with geniune concern”).

    In this case, “ice-blue” conveys less information than the rest of the sentence.

    Having said that, I would suggest to be aware of cliches. Blue eyes are an overused as a trope (see: http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/IcyBlueEyes), and the idea of connecting blue eyes to purity is also a cliche (see: http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/InnocentBlueEyes)…

  21. Rachelon 08 Aug 2012 at 10:13 pm

    Hmmm, I see your point. This definitely helped me to delete any unneeded descriptions.

    But how could I further describe a character’s appearance without being cliche, and also without adding irrelevant details? In other words, can you somehow sneak in hair color or other details so that readers can more easily picture the character in their minds?

    This is the first time I’ve ever really put some thought into any of my story ideas, and I know I have so much to learn and that I shouldn’t expect too much from my first attempt at writing a book, but I would really like to become a better writer and there really is no other way to do that but to, duh, write. So thank you for helping me work out some flaws I haven’t even considered before.

    Any other tips would be helpful.

  22. Edgukatoron 08 Aug 2012 at 11:08 pm

    The point the article makes is what does this information reveal about the character / plot / setting…

    Consider:

    – She had blond hair.

    – Her hair was messy and unkempt.

    – She tied her hair back with a elastic, day-glow yellow, hair tie.

    Of these three descriptions, ‘blond’ tells us absolutely nothing beyond what our own prejudices might reveal, and even these may send mixed signals due different prejudices.

    (An extreme, and controversial example might be a neo-nazi using this description, expecting the reader to share his misguided understanding of racial purity, but his readers associate ‘blond’ with a legion of ‘ditzy blond’ stereotypes… it’s an extreme example, but you get the point: my associations of colours can vary a lot from yours)

    From the second example, the ‘messy and unkempt hair’ indicates something about the character. More information might undermine what we think it reveals (we thought she was someone who didn’t pay much attention to her appearance, but we find out that instead she had just got back from the hospital where she spent all night nursing her deathly ill father), but it gives us information to start creating an understanding of the character. She didn’t choose what colour hair she had: that was genetic, but she did have at least some control over how she brushes her hair.

    The third example may signal prejudices as well, but colour in this case may be associated with a deliberate choice. Now what that choice means may vary as well, depending on the context, and I may wish to clarify that for my audience. If this story is set in the late 80’s, I may wish to say instead “She tied her hair back with a elastic, day-glow yellow hair tie, as was fashionable with many girls her age”. Whereas, if you want to make a point about her thriftiness, you might instead add “She tied her hair back with a elastic, day-glow yellow hair tie; the type you get a dozen for a dollar at the local big box retailers”.

    The key is always do you have a reason to include that detail. What is telling the audience about my characters?

  23. B. McKenzieon 08 Aug 2012 at 11:47 pm

    “But how could I further describe a character’s appearance without being cliche, and also without adding irrelevant details? In other words, can you somehow sneak in hair color or other details so that readers can more easily picture the character in their minds.” I’d recommend checking out #2 here for advice about how to use colors to create an emotional impression. Contrasting opinion here.

  24. Aj of Earthon 09 Aug 2012 at 7:03 am

    @ #13

    …I always figured dragons sleep on gold because they’re (often) cold-blooded and gold is such an excellent conductor of heat. Similar to why cats, being warm-blooded, like to sleep on paper (excellent insulator).

    just my $0.02 though…

    @ #14

    It’s definitely a challenge to fit those sort of specifics into the narrative in relevant ways. Details like eye and hair color might not be as initially important as other information when first developing a character on the page, true, but they still help the reader create a more solid visual picture of who they’re reading. The trick is doing it in unobtrusive ways that don’t read like a demographic dossier.
    Consequently, using too many broad-strokes with physical description, ignoring “irrelevant” details, might backfire in that the reader can tell you everything about the charater’s personality, but not what they actually look like. It’s crucial I think to strike that balance between seeing and knowing the character on the page.

    Tricky, tricky, tricky….

  25. Rachelon 09 Aug 2012 at 9:04 am

    Thanks again! I love this site because it’s not just some ‘do-this, don’t do that’ sort of thing, you actually explain why to do this, and why not to do that, and what you can do to improve. I always learn something new from every article I read. Keep up the good work!!

  26. Ribkeon 11 Oct 2012 at 5:29 pm

    Not naming a character can work in social critisisms.

    There was this book I read once, long ago, about a little girl that was abandoned in the streets of Brazil. They never named her but her character still had an impact (enough that the book was translated in many languages and I think it even won a prize; as I said, it was long ago).

  27. A. Maloneon 05 Dec 2012 at 9:32 pm

    By the time I finish getting rid of all the cliches and obvious signs I’m an amateur they’ll be nothing left 🙁 Professionals were amateurs once!

  28. B. McKenzieon 06 Dec 2012 at 1:02 am

    “By the time I finish getting rid of all the cliches and obvious signs I’m an amateur there’ll be nothing left.” Keep practicing.

    “Professionals were amateurs once!” Yes, but most professional writers take years of practice to get good enough to make the leap from amateur to published. The average novelist takes 10 years to get his/her first novel published. My nonfiction book took 3, I think.

  29. Hazzieon 28 Feb 2013 at 11:02 am

    I’m fairly new to the writing business and have only been developing my story for three months but I was planning to begin my novel where there’s a boy running down a corridor and where was he going and what was he running from, then the main character wakes up in the woods surrounded by wolves. He has a connection to this boy and keeps having visions of him. It’s not known what his name is until two people find him and recuse him. Is this a no no?

  30. B. McKenzieon 28 Feb 2013 at 5:23 pm

    “It’s not known what his name is until two people find him and rescue him. Is this a no no?” Unless there’s a good reason to withhold the information from readers (e.g. if the character does not know his name, in a case like amnesia), I’d recommend being true to the point-of-view’s perspective. I think readers and editors are generally entitled to know anything relevant the POV character knows and I think that they would notice if the character’s name was omitted. In addition to maintaining a more coherent narrative/POV, it will give your readers something to refer to the character instead of just impersonal pronouns like “the boy.”

  31. FireGodon 24 Mar 2014 at 6:56 pm

    So, in my book(s) I’ve got a whole bunch of wyverns and dragons that make an appearance, but they’re not the real, mythical kind. They’ve been created by a bunch of guys who have the ability to manipulate living matter. The wyverns are little more than beasts, but the dragons have been developed with a human intelligence, although they truly believe that they’re real, centuries old dragons. Do you reckon I’d get away with that one?

  32. B. McKenzieon 25 Mar 2014 at 12:15 pm

    “The dragons have been developed with a human intelligence, although they truly believe that they’re real, centuries old dragons. Do you reckon I’d get away with that one?” I don’t think it would be a problem.

  33. saithorthepyroon 03 Oct 2015 at 1:01 pm

    I’d actually like some advice on #13. My story is going to have elves, but these elves aren’t much different than humans except for superior abilities in magic and arrogance. The main thing I’m doing is that they are going to be the villians, as they believe themselves to be the superior race in every way, and see humanity and the other races in the series as people who can at best obtain second-class citizenship. They believe that since they have greater powers, it’s their right to have control. Does that sound okay, or do I need to polish it some more? If so, any advice on how?

  34. Vixis Shiar'Deluson 16 Nov 2015 at 3:55 pm

    So my alien race is called Novae, pronounced No-vay. If that isn’t simple enough, most people generally just call them Stillborn. They kinda use it as a de-humanizing name. Essentially it makes it easier to want to or to kill them or hate them, since they’re calling them something people hate, or that they find sad. Stillborn was first used almost literally in the US when babies began dying, only to come back to life…different, hours later. Thus they were stillborn that were still born.

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