Aug 01 2008

Five More Mistakes First-Time Novelists Make (#41-45)

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

41. Please make sure that all the characters in a scene play a distinct role. If you have many characters talking in a scene, do you need all of them? If two serve essentially the same role, probably not. For example, if you wanted to write a scene about a teen getting chewed out by his parents for underage drinking, it probably wouldn’t make sense to include both parents unless they each added something. For example, if one parent were more lenient than the other, then having both would allow the teen to play the two parents against each other, which could be dramatic.

Likewise, it’s very important to make sure that all of the characters in your book serve a distinct role. If you can merge two characters into one, it will probably tighten your manuscript and improve your characterization.

42. Don’t let your title misdirect readers. For example, don’t refer to another work in your title unless your story is actually related to that work.  If I were writing a story about lambs seeking refuge, calling it Asylum of the Lambs would be spectacularly ineffective. My title may be a witty play on “Silence of the Lambs,” but unless my story actually has something to do with crime or psychological drama or serial-killing, or a SOTL parody, I’ve completely mismarketed my book.

Symbolic language can also misdirect readers.  For example, if I were writing a story about a solitary guy, calling it Lone Wolf might convince some readers that it somehow includes a wolf. That may turn off your target audience (“good God, why would I want to read a talking animal story?”) Is there any way that a chunk of your audience might misunderstand a word or phrase you’ve used in your title?  If so, please revise it.

43. Please avoid flat protagonists. Readers are generally more interested by characters that grow and develop over the course of the story than by flat characters. I have no doubt that your action sequences are helluva interesting, but what do they show us about the characters? Flat characters usually lead to disappointing conclusions.

44. Try to keep your book consistent. Although your plot will undoubtedly grow and expand, it will jar readers if it changes in such a way that it appeals to a different audience. For example, if you’re writing a mostly light-hearted story, writing in a murder-rape sequence would be unwise. The people that want a light-hearted story are going to drop out, and anyone that actually wanted to read about a murder-rape wouldn’t have gotten past the first chapter.  Here are some ways your story might shift away from its starting audience…

1) Changing the genre. Please do not suddenly throw paranormal, mystical or magical elements into a mostly realistic story. I’ve also read a few fantasy manuscripts that suddenly swerved towards science fiction by introducing advanced technology or magic that looked a lot like advanced technology (magic… in space!)

2) Switching main characters. This suggests that the story’s substance and focus have changed dramatically. Be careful. Will the new character interest the same readers? Probably not.

3) Changing the mood or weirdness level. Some beginning authors let their writing grow too dark and/or weird.

4) Suddenly including the author’s political or religious beliefs. Books with a political or religious message can work (sometimes spectacularly) but usually only among a well-defined, pre-established audience. To successfully write such a book, you have to appeal to the audience from page 1.

45. Please avoid forms of the word “got” as much as possible. According to a friend in the publishing industry, words like “got” and “gotten” may trip up a publisher.  If you remove them, it will  probably enhance the rhythm and flow of your sentences.

This article was the ninth 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.

16 responses so far

16 Responses to “Five More Mistakes First-Time Novelists Make (#41-45)”

  1. Lieslon 16 Jul 2009 at 6:46 am

    #45 is it okay to use “got” in dialogue?

  2. Ragged Boyon 16 Jul 2009 at 6:55 am

    “#45 is it okay to use “got” in dialogue?”

    I think so, it’s a fairly common word in speech.

  3. B. Macon 16 Jul 2009 at 1:41 pm

    There are a few phrases that are awkward in fiction even though they are commonly used in real life. For example, “is going to” can almost always be replaced with something like “will.” Variations of “get” are not as easy to replace, but I’d recommend trying your best.

  4. Revengelon 28 Mar 2012 at 11:16 am

    On #45: I feel this touches on dialogue in general. If I as a writer am attempting to convey how an individual speaks should I stay away from quotes?

    Let me give an example here from a story I’m working on at the moment:

    Ryan removed his glasses to reveal a confuse look and a black eye. “What gives?”

    Lowering his voice LaGrange replied, “I figure that since you chose the mask name ‘Velcro Fly’ that I’d take the name of an actually *good* ZZ Top song.”

    “Nya, you’re just jealous, see? Besides it’s a play off the old Vaudeville. Like the human fly, see?”

    “Vaudeville,” the man replied with a smile. “Why, you are definitely an O’Brien.”

    “Hunh? Alright, I got to get some sleep. I’m kinda tired and all…”

    Oh and for the record Ryan does speak like an old gangster (Edward G. Morrow?) flick…and I added the asterisks to replace the italicized font.

    Just a thought & looking for a perspective…

  5. YoungAuthoron 28 Mar 2012 at 5:01 pm

    “Symbolic language can also misdirect readers. For example, if I were writing a story about a solitary guy, calling it Lone Wolf might convince some readers that it somehow includes a wolf.” I kinda disagree, at least with this example, only b/c lone wolf in a common term for a “loner”

    @Revengel- “Lowering his voice LaGrange replied, “I figure that since you chose the mask name ‘Velcro Fly’ that I’d take the name of an actually *good* ZZ Top song.”

    unless this is a comedy superhero story, Velcro fly wouldn’t be the best name. How could people take him seriously. btw’s cool username, i like it

  6. B. McKenzieon 28 Mar 2012 at 11:02 pm

    Revengel, I’m not sure I understand your question. “If I… am attempting to convey how an individual speaks should I stay away from quotes?” While you could show a character’s voice with selective paraphrasing from the narrator, quotes are entirely acceptable and will almost assuredly do most of the work when it comes to establishing a character’s voice.

    “…I got to get some sleep.” I think this could probably be rephrased in a shorter, smoother way. Some possibilities:
    “…I gotta sleep.”
    “…I need to sleep.”
    “…I need sleep.”

    For some reason, your idea of a hero named after a ZZ Top song brought to mind a superhero rocking a top hat, a tuxedo* and an aura of mystery and prestige. He is known only as S.D.M.

    *And pants, I hope.

  7. Revengelon 29 Mar 2012 at 8:53 am

    Thanks – that actually answers my question. 🙂

    With Ryan (who’s actually not a good guy at the moment) I want to portray the way he speaks accurately, even when he’s wrong grammatically. In this universe Ryan O’Brien is a bit of a joke – and the reader isn’t supposed to take him seriously.

    Since I already have other items during his conversation that establish his ‘voice’ it sounds like I can certainly afford to ‘clean him up’ a bit.

    @ YoungAuthor – Thanks! I’ve had this moniker since 1992-93. ^_^

    Another excerpt from the same conversation shows that this guy really isn’t a major player:


    “What happened to you? Did you get it?” There was a touch of urgency to his voice.

    “Well…LaGrange…lemme tell ya. I was about a block away from the Ballistics lab when I heard all the sirens, see? So I just sat tight! No way I’ma take on coppers, that’s not my scene, see? So when I heard the sirens I just stopped on the roof about a block away. I called the man inside to tell him where to leave it…maybe that was before or something…but anyway I gave him the message that I wasn’t going to hop in there straight, see?”

    LaGrange held up his hand. “Do you really think we should be talking about this here?”

    “Sure!” Ryan motioned around him. “Nobody cares about what we’re talking about, see? Coppers don’t come down here, and there’s nobody around who’s listening, see?”

    “You watched way too many gangster movies when your mother raised you.”

    Ryan shrugged his shoulders and continued with his story, speaking with a softer voice. “So anyways the shooting stopped and I think to myself that it’s time to get closer, ya know? You thought I was gonna say ‘see’ see?”

    LaGrange put his face in the palm of his hand but continued to listen. “You don’t understand this business, do you?”

    Undaunted Ryan continued. “So I zip out a line to swing back in that direction like Tarzan, and I was gonna swing around the back, but the long way. Just as I left the roof I looked down at the coppers and saw that broad.”

    “Broad? Really? Who talks like that?” LaGrange had a slight smile as he uncovered his face. “What ‘Broad’ did you see?”

    “That Koeing Broad! Man the [body] on that chick! She was kiss-facing some copper and man, I never wanted to be in a uniform ever, until then, see?” Ryan’s expression shifted towards the whimsical. “The pictures don’t do her justice. On a scale of one to ten she’s a twelve. I couldn’t even stop…”

    LaGrange interrupted. “Talking? I’m so surprised. Get on with it please…” Aggravation was in his voice.

    Undaunted Ryan shot back, “be patient will you? Ya asked, see?”

    “Alright, but there had better be a point to all this.”

    “So she’s kissing this copper, and I’m watching, see? Then I see the corner of the building pass right in front of me.” Ryan shook his head. “Suddenly I had an overpowering urge to take a nap.”

    “Wait…you mean the bruises..?” LaGrange began to chuckle. “You weren’t looking..!” Now he was laughing.

    “Yea, yuck it up uncle..!” Ryan wasn’t offended in the least and he even joined in with a slight guffaw. “But she’s that good lookin’. So I went smack…right into the building.”

    “So what happened? Did you fall?”

    “Nope. I was in my suit, see? The Velcro Fly suit, so I wake up stuck to the side of the building.”

    LaGrange laughed so hard that he fell out of his chair. A couple of people gave a slight glance to the two of them but otherwise did nothing.

    “So now you know where the bruises came from. It’s not like they show in the movies! That knocked me right the…”

    “Ok, ok…” LaGrange got back in his chair, dusting off the rear of his pants. “How long were you there?”

    “I don’t know…an hour or two? When I got up the coppers were gone but it was still dark. I just went to the back of the place and got this out of the utility box. Whatever you call that thing. Here. It’s yours.” He slid the attaché over to LaGrange.

    Now granted this is a rough draft but taking the points from above:

    – This is about the only time Velcro Fly has a speaking part in the book. He & LaGrange are background characters.

    – While this scene is intended to lighten the mood a bit it isn’t a huge departure from the norm of the story. After this portion of the conversation the mood shifts to a businesslike attitude.

    – I should clean up and/or eliminate large portions of this conversation and only mention the parts of the scene that are *vital* to the story per points #41 & #45?

    – By the way I did change the title of the book. In this scene the object that they exchange is now the title of the book where before I had a single word reference to a character in the story.

    Thanks all of you!

  8. Revengelon 29 Mar 2012 at 9:04 am


    Just saw that I have a review space – I’ll re-post over there. Sorry!

    And thank you very much!


  9. Ribkeon 11 Oct 2012 at 9:16 pm

    Oh, if only Katsura Hoshino (the creator of a manga called D.Greyman) had known about number 44… and about that “how to write male characters” thing… I mean, seriously! Are they guys or girls with XXS boobs?

    It’s not like she began like that. I mean, she started well; at first the characters just looked childish. Then they began looking more normal; and suddenly BAM!!! They all get “look and behave like a girl” fever. And it’s not even shounen-ai!

    I guess the stress finally got to her =(

  10. Nayanon 12 Oct 2012 at 6:29 am

    @B. Mac.
    You said ” it’s very important to make sure that all of the
    characters in your book serve a distinct role.”

    Now by ”distinct role” do you mean that every charcter should take part in the central plot? But I am writing my novel as the first part of a series. In this novel I am introducing some characters which will become very important in the sequel. For example a couple of classmates of the main character. Jacob Black was introduced in Twilight. But he became important only after New Moon.

  11. B. McKenzieon 12 Oct 2012 at 7:56 am

    “Now by ‘distinct role’ do you mean that every character should take part in the central plot?” A distinct role could be developing a major character, contributing to a conflict, advancing the central plot in some way, advancing a significant side plot in some way… any contribution to the story another character couldn’t make*. Whatever the character does, it should be proportionate to the space he/she receives.

    *If all of the roles Character A serves could be performed by Character B, it’d be worth considering removing character A and/or merging A into another character).

  12. Nayanon 12 Oct 2012 at 8:09 am

    In my novel the classmates ( 2 classmates) of the major character develops a side plot which tells how they become partners of the major character in crime fighting in the sequel. And there is one female character who will develop the romantic plot with the main character. All these side characters are distinct
    Does it sound okay?

  13. B. McKenzieon 12 Oct 2012 at 9:09 am

    “In my novel the classmates (2 classmates) of the major character develop a side plot which tells how they become partners of the major character in crime fighting in the sequel. And there is one female character who will develop the romantic plot with the main character. All these side characters are distinct.” I don’t have very much to go on here, but it sounds mostly okay so far. The only concern which springs to mind is that the two characters might feel like something of a distraction in the here and now. I’m not sure–I’d have to check out those scenes.

  14. Mightymayon 30 Dec 2014 at 1:28 am

    Not sure if I’ll get a reply seeing how the last comment was posted in 2012 and 2015 is almost upon us BUT…

    So if a story has two main characters and switched the POV between those two characters every chapter, is that alright?

    Both characters are friends and go off on their different storylines and goals and end up working together when the separate things they were working on became connected

  15. Redon 30 Dec 2014 at 2:01 pm

    I’m no pro but I don’t see a problem with two POVs as long as in some way they connect, story wise and writing style wise. Is this going to to be first or third person? Third person stories do it all the time and it’s easy to draw connections between the two. It’s harder in first person since unless the characters are telling the stories after it’s happened there may be some unintentional fourth wall breaking. Also how different are their stories and how long until they connect? If the stories seem to draw no connections or drag on too long readers lose interest, however being that their friends this won’t seem to be a problem.
    Hope that helped.

  16. Kivon 13 Mar 2018 at 2:48 pm

    41: Thanks for the tip, will revise…

    42: Seven Clockwork Angels, about seven magic steampunk cyborg ‘angels’.

    43: Liz sometimes worries me, but I’m working on it.

    44: Don’t think I’ve done any of this, but thanks for the warning.

    45: M’kay, duly noted.

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