Jul 10 2008

Five More Mistakes of First-Time Authors (#26-30)

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

You can read the first three articles in this series here, here and here.

26. Don’t let your chapters end with a whimper. Each chapter should present at least one reason why we should keep reading. Will readers feel they’re on the verge of learning something interesting about someone? Will readers think something exciting is about to happen? Is someone in peril? Note: even if something interesting is around the corner, readers will drop out unless they know that. Give us enough to pique our interest!

27. Stream of consciousness narrations are extremely hard to sell. Fragmented thoughts are confusing and not very fun to read through. When a reader is confused, anger is rarely far behind… To help readers, I recommend avoiding verb-less sentences, particularly in any scene where you’ve removed the verbs to show how disorientated the character is.

Some authors are very attached to stream of consciousness. “It worked for James Joyce,” they usually say. Unfortunately, James Joyce’s success doesn’t seem very applicable to a little-known author trying to publish a SOC novel.  First, you probably don’t have James Joyce’s talent, authorial credibility or reputation.  Second, if James Joyce were getting started today, he probably couldn’t sell Ulysses or his more convoluted works to a large audience.

28. Don’t predicate your book on the assumption that readers will finish the book. “My book might confuse readers at the beginning, but it’ll make sense when they get to the end.” Wrong! If readers don’t understand your book as they are reading it, they will not keep going.

Most overly cryptic stories try to redeem themselves with a “surprise” ending like “Haha! It turns out all the characters in this story were squirrels, wasn’t that witty?” Hiding something like that will confuse us so much that even simple questions about the story will make our heads hurt (why are they spending so much time in a tree? Are they kids in a treehouse?). Having to puzzle through basic aspects of your story’s plot is not “intriguing.”  It’s painful. The first Harry Potter book twisted readers far more effectively. The book strongly suggested that [spoiler] Snape was trying to kill Harry because he was nearby when Harry got cursed. At the book’s end, however, the author revealed that the characters misunderstood why Snape was nearby. Snape knew that someone else was trying to kill Harry and he took it upon himself to make sure Harry didn’t get killed. [/spoiler]. Even though readers didn’t know the real reason Snape was nearby, they had a reason that was entirely plausible. Conversely, if your readers don’t have at least some way of understanding the story (even a flawed one), they are going to be confused as hell.

29. Don’t make unnecessary chronological shifts. The most simple and reader-friendly way to tell a story is by telling us what happens first and proceeding in chronological order. However, beginning authors sometimes overwhelm readers with flashbacks and sometimes even flash-forwards. If you want to use a flashback, it’s probably a better idea to tweak the story a bit so that you tell it in chronological order. If you’re dead-set on using a flashback, make sure that it will be easy for readers to figure out which scenes are happening in which order. Cuing readers by telling us when each scene is happening may help.

UPDATE: An e-mailer asks “and what about flash-forwards, when you move forward and then return?” Flash-forwards are like nuclear weapons: dangerous and unforgiving. If you are an unseasoned author, I’d recommend avoiding them.  Virtually only Vonnegut has ever been able to make them work.

30. Motivate your characters. When you’re writing a horror scene, you might decide that you really need something to happen.  John needs to check out what just screamed in the basement, so the monster will kill him.  From your perspective, it wouldn’t be much of a horror scene if John didn’t get devoured.  But that’s the writer’s motivation for having John go down there. Why would John want to? It’s really important to make sure that the characters have their own reasons for going through with their part of the plot.  Otherwise, the characters will feel two-dimensional and the plot will seem shoddy.

Here are a few questions you can ask to test how strong a character’s motivations are. Why is he doing the actions you portrayed in the scene? Are the character’s actions and motivations consistent with how you’ve portrayed him in previous chapters? Does the character do anything in this scene that he had the ability to do earlier in the book? Why is he doing it now instead of earlier (or later)? Are these actions consistent with his level of intelligence? Does he have more intelligent alternatives? If you want him to do something stupid, please explain that with some in-story reasoning.

This article was the sixth part of a series. If you’d like to read about how to avoid other common writing mistakes, please read the other articles.

24 responses so far

24 Responses to “Five More Mistakes of First-Time Authors (#26-30)”

  1. notsohottopicon 24 May 2009 at 10:01 pm

    I actually disagree with 26. In Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown, every chapter ended with a cliffhanger. Let’s say, like this for example:

    Marty Stu: Holy buckets! I think I just solved the riddle!

    Mary Sue: Quick, Marty! What is the answer?

    Marty Stu: The answer is…

    And then the chapter ends, but the next chapter leads to a rather unsatisfying result. Which is why Robert Langdon *ahem* I mean Dan Brown needs to stop writing with the same formula for every single damn chapter.

    Also, a lot of those points are doable, if the author is experienced. Chuck Palanuik for 28., see Fight Club, and Ken Kesey for 27., One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Then again, the main character of OFOtCN is a paranoid schizo, it’s kind of a given…

    So to add to 27., provide a character to explain certain ideas that you want to convey clearly to the reader the most basic sense. The narration style might throw people off instead of interest them, so allieviate the problem with said advice.

  2. NewAgeZombion 11 Oct 2009 at 12:21 pm

    Relating to #29, there’s a couple of things I’d like to know. First of all, when it comes to ways to avoid a flashback, is using the first chapter for the time the flashback would have consumed and then skipping some time advisable? I’ve seen it done, but I’m not sure how it would look to a publisher. I already have plans for a prologue, so it would be an actual chapter. Also, if I do end up using a flashback, what would be a good way to distinguish it from the normal timestream? Italics, perhaps?

  3. B. Macon 11 Oct 2009 at 12:35 pm

    One good way would be to make it the prologue. Let’s say your book happens in 2009 and the flashback happens in 1985.

    If the chronology goes like this, I suspect that readers will feel disoriented.
    Prologue: 2009
    Chapter 1: 1985
    Chapter 2: 2009

    It might be a bit smoother to use the prologue as the flashback because I think it will be easier for a reader to understand the passage of time.

    Either way, I would consider starting each chapter with the year if you feel that it would otherwise be difficult for a casual reader to keep track of what is happening when. (Yours might be the 25th manuscript the publisher’s assistant is reading on Friday– you can’t count on anything more than a casual reading).

  4. NewAgeZombion 11 Oct 2009 at 5:04 pm

    Actually, the prologue occurs even earlier than the flashback. The prologue is in 2012 (yeeah… I’m playing on the apocalypse thing) and the flashback is in 2016, and the main story is later in the same year. So, it would actually be more out of order if I did it the way you just suggested. In addition, I’ve read enough to know that I should put a year at the beginning of a time-skip, or in this case, year and possibly month.

    Also, I hate to rain on your flash-forward parade, but I know of an author who managed it exceptionally. Markus Zusak wrote a best seller that included a flash-forward (maybe more than one, it’s been a while since I’ve read it); The Book Theif.

    However, this is not to say that anyone should attempt it! Listen to B. Mac, guys!

  5. B. Macon 11 Oct 2009 at 5:39 pm

    I’m pretty sure there was a flash-forward at the beginning of The Bone People, too. It was trippy as hell. Then again, TBP may have been subject to somewhat different publication standards because it was meant for high school classrooms rather than voluntary entertainment. (I gear my advice towards superhero stories, which are almost purely meant as entertainment rather than school assignments).

    Do you remember whether it worked well in The Book Thief? I’m always interested to see how authors manage to avoid (or not avoid) the common pitfalls of unusual approaches.

  6. NewAgeZombion 12 Oct 2009 at 1:20 pm

    It seemed to work well to me. In addition, the flash-forward was more towards the middle of the book. Zusak refered to a phrase that was already being used frequently in the book to add a sense of belonging, the contents fit well with the POV and it still left you guessing about what happened. Flash-forward was used in a way that made you want to keep reading so you could find out what was really happening there.

  7. esnippleeon 29 Jun 2010 at 8:40 pm

    26. i’ll be careful
    27. i dont use it
    28. come on… i get it already…
    29. if its a flashback, i’m telling it twice. once is earlier in the book. and i probobally won’t flashback… …now a flashback is looking more and more attractive.
    30. i’ll be careful.

  8. James (Daniel)on 14 Dec 2010 at 11:35 am


  9. B. Macon 14 Dec 2010 at 3:32 pm

    I’m sorry, but the ban is still active, Daniel James… Good luck finding elsewhere the writing advice you’re looking for. (Not just because, well, you’re banned here, but also because I specialize in a different niche than you’re looking for).

  10. Chihuahua0on 22 Dec 2010 at 12:59 pm

    First time here. I realized I don’t need to join to post comments.

    About Number 29, what happens if I want to write both the origin story and the superhero in action at the same time, but going back and forth? I want to start in media res, and I don’t want to bore the reader with fifty pages of origin and agnst before we even see the hero in action. Sometimes going out of order is better for the story for the sake of pace and excitment.

  11. B. Macon 23 Dec 2010 at 12:02 am

    Hello, Chihuahua!

    There have been a few superhero novels that have started with the superhero in the middle of his superpowered life, and then circled back to describe the origin story (either as a flashback or recounting it in the “now” of the story).

    One minor tradeoff with starting with the character as a superhero and then moving backwards to cover the origin is that I think it tends to downplay the origin and what the character was like before he got superpowers. That isn’t necessarily a problem, but if you were thinking about spending 50 pages covering what happens before the character develops his powers, a flashback might not do it justice.

  12. Nicholas Caseon 13 Feb 2011 at 1:35 pm

    Wait a sec, I wanna test something.

    I hope it worked!

  13. Dreameron 10 Nov 2011 at 9:40 am

    Does the rule about flashbacks also pertain to dreams? and what if the dream really is a flashback, but the character doesn’t know it because she had her memories altered?

  14. Wingson 10 Nov 2011 at 10:39 am

    Amnesiac dreaming about their past, you mean?

    That could be difficult. It’s a bit of a copout in fiction – means there’s nothing to discover, and for less competent authors it’s merely a way to say things outright instead of weaving them in properly. These kinds of dreams are often unreasonably lucid too – though I guess it could work if it was appropriately garbled, as dreams often are, with only a few bits of clarity. I mean, when was the last time anyone had a dream that they remembered completely when they woke up? It happens, yes, but 90% of the time people forget their dreams.

    Effectively, you’re attempting to blend a flashback with a symbolic dream, and it’s probably not going to work out – neither are good on their own, and mixing them won’t change that. In short, I’d advise against it.

    – Wings

  15. Dreameron 11 Nov 2011 at 6:34 am

    What’s a symbolic dream?

  16. Wingson 11 Nov 2011 at 4:13 pm

    It’s a dream which clarifies a plot point or is used to show future events (or present events in the case of multiple plotlines). Like a prophecy, but even more annoying. For instance, Bella Swan in Twilight has numerous symbolic dreams, to the point where she never has to find anything out on her own because the dreams spell out everything (ex: dreamed Jacob was a werewolf…in Twilight, before the werewolves even entered the story). It’s a cheap foreshadowing substitute. Should be avoided.

    – Wings

  17. Infernoxon 17 Oct 2012 at 12:32 pm

    Why was Daniel banned? I only ask so that I can avoid doing what he did.

  18. B. McKenzieon 17 Oct 2012 at 3:55 pm

    We’ve had 20,000 commenters and have only banned ~10 (usually because they offered more jackassery and/or self-regard than competence and/or helpfulness). If you’ve never been banned by a website before, I can pretty much guarantee that you’ll be one of the 99.95% of SN commenters that do not get banned.

  19. YellowJujuon 17 Oct 2012 at 4:11 pm

    Was deadmanshand banned?

  20. B. McKenzieon 17 Oct 2012 at 5:53 pm


  21. Amber Don 15 Nov 2013 at 8:38 pm

    Couldn’t flashbacks be handled with a noticebley different text reserved for flashbacks?

  22. Amber Don 15 Nov 2013 at 9:07 pm

    I appreciate that I don’t have to sign up / register to this sign to coment however because of this I am confused on how you can actually ban someone

  23. B. McKenzieon 16 Nov 2013 at 12:10 am

    “I am confused on how you an actually ban someone.” It doesn’t matter whether someone is registered or not… Either way, a banned person spends maybe 30 minutes leaving comments before figuring out that the comments are invisible to everyone else. 😛

  24. Kivon 13 Mar 2018 at 2:34 pm

    26: Duly noted, will attempt.

    27: Also duly noted.

    28: Don’t think this applies…

    29: Unlike some other notable amnesiacs, Liz never remembers ANYTHING. So no flashbacks. Everything’s in chrono order.

    30: I think I’m good here… Most of my books are run on the characters rather than plot – the majority of things are a consequence of their doing, but there are some things that just happen. Ora getting kidnapped, for example.

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