Aug 08 2008

Five More Mistakes First-Time Novelists Make (#46-50)

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

46. Ambiguous endings are perilous and should not be undertaken lightly. After your audience has read 300 pages, they will feel they deserve to know whether the hero has succeeded or failed. If you’d like to write an ambiguous ending, prepare to explain the decision to your editor. Will your reasoning sound remotely like “I couldn’t come up with anything better”?


If you’d like an ending more complicated than the hero accomplishing his goal and living happily ever after, please consider an ending that suggests the hero’s starting quest is not as important as the one he picks up along the way.  For example, Casino Royale leads viewers to believe that the main plot is whether James Bond can stop a terrorist financier or not. [spoiler] But it’s actually a red herring. Even though James Bond stops the terrorist financier, he fails to save the only woman he’s ever loved. What does it say about Bond if he can finish the job his boss gives him but not the one that matters? [end spoiler]


47. Exhaustively mapping out your plot is probably not necessary unless you want to use a twist ending. A good twist is almost never a last-minute addition by the author. Pulling off a twist requires methodical preparation and careful attention to details. Consequently, it will probably be easiest to write a twist if you still have a substantial chunk of the story (perhaps 25%) left to go. Alternatively, you could write the story and then retroactively add the twist, but you would probably give yourself away by failing to edit every relevant detail. For example, in Casino Royale, a government accountant refuses to give Bond the money he needs to buy back into a poker tournament. [spoiler] But we later learn the accountant was attempting to steal the prize money all along when Bond won. So she had absolutely no reason to refuse Bond. [end spoiler] The more surprising your twist ending is, the more you will have to work to remove continuity errors.


48. Please do not include a copyright notice with your manuscript. It is not legally necessary and will suggest that you are a paranoid amateur. If you are dealing with a remotely professional publisher, you are in more danger from falling coconuts than plagiarist editors. If a publisher liked your work, they would publish it; there is no reason to steal it. If they did steal it, you could prove your authorship with your notes, drafts and previous submissions.


(However, if anyone produces artwork for your website, you may wish to include a copyright notice or the artist’s signature. Your artist will appreciate that).

49. You can break any “rule” of writing, but you may have defend your decision to a publisher. Try to justify yourself in terms of the benefits your choice would add to the reading experience. What will your readers think?  Will they feel that they’re getting a story that really clicks or will they just scratch their heads?

50. Writers make mistakes. Lots of them. If you expect a magically smooth path from here to Authorial Greatness, I invite you to play the Superhero Nation drinking game by reading a chapter and taking a sip whenever I disregard my own writing guidelines. Like writing, this game is not for the faint of heart.


I will leave you with this: writing is like trying to beat a hole in a wall with your head. It is painful, daunting and you will never know if you are one more head-bang from glory.

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

32 responses so far

32 Responses to “Five More Mistakes First-Time Novelists Make (#46-50)”

  1. ashon 09 Jul 2009 at 7:45 pm

    Wow! I’m glad I found this site!

  2. B. Macon 09 Jul 2009 at 8:22 pm


  3. KrazEon 11 Jul 2009 at 8:49 pm

    I found this site a couple of days ago. Since then, I have been stuffed with so much info that I will most likely forget everything in two weeks. Even so, I am in love with this site.

    Sucking up is not my reason for commenting, though… 😉

    I need some novel advice.

    My novel is about adolescent Charles, a 14-year old trapped in a middle-class life. All is average until he gets a major life changer…a girlfriend! Yet, with great women comes great responsibility…

    What will help me write this?

  4. Marissaon 11 Jul 2009 at 9:26 pm

    It sounds like a parody, the way you described it using the theme quote from Spiderman.

    What’s the genre? Is it just romance? Are there superpowers involved? (Though you didn’t mention any, it’s always safer to ask, around here.)

  5. KrazEon 12 Jul 2009 at 10:26 am

    It’s a romantic comedy. I was planning on parodying spiderman via the spiderbite in the first chapter. Other than that I wasn’t planning any superhero references.

  6. Daweyon 13 Jul 2009 at 2:38 pm

    Thank god for you. I was paranoid for ages that my book sucked, but I’ve been re-assured. And, this’ll be great advice to make another book.

  7. HUsheron 24 Jul 2009 at 5:42 am

    … ooh. You’re a bad person B.Mac.

    *Snatches up a bottle of whisky and a shot glass and then pulls up the first chapter*

    Just kidding. But I do have a spectacular urge to play that game now.

    Love this site. 47 actually reminded me that I probably *should* exhaustively plan out part three because of the twist at the ending. Many thanks.

  8. Swapnil Siddharthon 02 Oct 2009 at 12:42 am

    This site is very good. It’s extremely helpful for a beginner fiction writer, like me.

    thank you for all the tips !

  9. Merideson 14 Oct 2009 at 10:25 am

    Found this site through Great reference- thanks so much!

  10. Amoniteon 07 Apr 2010 at 9:59 pm

    After reading through all these, I would like to comment that many of them do not apply well to manga. (At least, shojo manga targeted to girls, which is the majority of what I read..)

    While there is much to be said for having developed characters, manga seems to be one of those literary forms where Mary Sue-ism is encouraged for a protagonist (so long as she grows), and strange eye and hair colors are used often as a symbolic form to convey character information. (It does help that the artwork accompanies the text.)

    Eating and drinking scenes are very common, as how a character eats their food or shops at a market often establishes the character into a basic character type when the reader meets him. Further character development is established as the story goes on, but in a medium that has very little text space to convey information, eating is one of the classic ways to show if the character is a slob or prim and proper. Beyond that, food is also used in many plots to show trying to win affection, looking out for others, or for comedic purposes.

    It is the same with waking up. Many wonder animes and manga start with a character waking up.

    Not revealing the premise is also a secret of anime and manga – but it must be used wisely. Episode 2 of Seraphim Call is perhaps my favorite use of this (as well as a fine example of how to write a show about someone’s ‘daily routine’)

    Any of the things you spoke of would be bad if done incorrectly. Yet I have also seen them done very well, although usually in mediums that combined art. Even in print, however, over-powerful characters with shallow development can stand out. (As I read recently, someone pointed out that Wolverine’s character development can be summed up as a ‘cranky Canadian with a murky past.’ Yet he is an enjoyable character because he is the ‘best at what he does’. (Not counting the later X-Men movies.) So how does a character with shallow character development and overpowered skills become so popular, if by your standards both of these are bad?)

    I would propose that readers are willing to forgive a great deal of super-powers in their hero so long as it makes sense in the context of the story – and if they have something to latch onto within the character. (Indeed, often it is the anti-heroes and villains which are the more popular, for we sympathize with their failings and their inner thoughts more than we can grasp at the heroes virtue.)

    Fairytales are classic examples of Mary-Sues who defy all odds and persecution to meet their prince charming. Today there may be a hundred versions of any given fairytale, each with much more character development and depth and far more exciting to read – but which version is remembered by the masses? The version where Cinderella is a mad-scientist and trades the king a pound of fish for the hand of the prince, or the version where she is the abused stepdaughter whose fairy god-mother turns a pumkin into a carraige?

    While a character might be complex and deep, it is important to keep the more basic traits in mind as well. Cinderella, perhaps the biggest Mary Sue there ever was, resonates with the reader because she is poor. She has dreams and longings. She suffered loss, and all that was rightfully hers was taken away. While some Cinderella versions try to downplay the Mary Sue and add complications and depth (The very well written ‘Ella Enchanted’ – not the movie), others play up the Mary Sue and keep the very basics that made her a beloved character. (‘Ever After’)

    Again, it is not that many of these things you warn against (except perhaps, grammar errors), are mistakes. They are mistakes if done incorrectly. As most – shifts in timeline or POV, are hard to pull off even for seasoned writers, then it is true that every aspect must be treated carefully and it might be better to ask if the fancy extras are truly essential.

    Yet I have read pieces where the picking up of a cup, the glance from a window, the touch of a hand, or who ordered what drink was significant. It is good to beware the mundane if it merely is the mundane, but if the mundane reflects the deeper reality of the piece, then it is no longer mundane but essential.

  11. B. Macon 07 Apr 2010 at 10:17 pm

    “After reading through all these, I would like to comment that many of them do not apply well to manga.” A point well-taken, but please note that the title of the series is “Mistakes of First-Time Novelists.” 😉

  12. Delores Quadeon 23 Jan 2011 at 12:14 am

    I just wanted to give a note of thanks for this thorough guideline of common mistakes. I have learned a great deal and have high regards for this website, its articles, and specifically, B. Mac.

    I’ll be sure to reference you on my website.

    Thanks again.

  13. B. Macon 23 Jan 2011 at 5:03 am

    Thanks, Delores! *blushes*

  14. EvilpixieAon 17 May 2011 at 11:19 am

    I am so glad I found this site! It is packed full of good little hints like this that make my fingers itch to get writing! Thank you so much!

  15. B. Macon 17 May 2011 at 7:22 pm


  16. Allyon 28 Feb 2012 at 2:27 pm

    Thank you so much for making this site with all of this useful information! Best website ever! 🙂

  17. Revengelon 28 Mar 2012 at 11:19 am

    I totally agree with Ally.

    Thank you very much!

  18. Ash:)on 22 Jul 2013 at 6:37 pm

    I somehow randomly ended up on this website…and WOW I LOVE IT

  19. Coldmoon1on 13 Dec 2013 at 10:04 am

    ThAnx I just don’t know how to not make my character a Mary Sue . Help?

  20. Coldmoon1on 13 Dec 2013 at 10:04 am

    Btw took the test

  21. Mynaon 13 Dec 2013 at 1:22 pm

    What is your character like? The test isn’t the best way to determine whether or not your character is a Sue, as it can rely on more arbitrary things like how many powers a character has or a tragic backstory, which doesn’t automatically make them a sue.

    I think in general the two major reasons characters turn into sues is that
    1. They have no flaws. And I don’t mean flaws like “being too nice,” but actual, real personality flaws like being too stubborn or too reckless which can get them into trouble.
    2. There are no consequences to their actions. When they screw up, no one cares, nothing bad happens, and the character gets home free. This makes it seem like the characters are immune to problems, which makes for a pretty dull story.

    I think if you avoid those two main issues your char is not likely to be a sue, but I’d need more details to know for sure.

  22. deeon 09 Jun 2014 at 9:52 pm

    I flippin love this cite!!!

  23. lisa1968mon 03 Jul 2014 at 10:53 am

    I enjoyed each and every one of them! I thought I was going to pass..but NO! 🙂

    I’m writing a HUGE CYOA/interactive fiction. Your advice made me think and laugh! Most of all because I hate saying SHE SAID HE SAID!

    “Ok, ok, ok!” she sighed loudly.

    🙂 Had to get it out! Love the illustrations, too!

    Thanks for the reminders and a few new “no no’s”.

    Lisa Toney
    The Xan Dimensions

  24. B. McKenzieon 03 Jul 2014 at 4:40 pm

    “I’m writing a HUGE CYOA/interactive fiction.” Having never seen the acronym CYOA before, I was not aware that it stood for Choose Your Own Adventure. I initially guessed “Cover Your Own Ass” or (wishful thinking) “Cover Your Organization’s Assassins,” either of which would be the sort of interaction I’d pay to read about. 🙂

  25. Catherineon 07 Jul 2014 at 7:59 am

    This series of articles is a lifesaver! I don’t know what I would’ve done without it.

  26. Edenon 02 Mar 2015 at 4:58 am

    Just got done reading all of the articles in the series. Good advice that’s nice to have in one place. Thank you for taking the time to make them available.

    Possibly addressed by someone else, I think in Casino Royal the point in not giving Bond more money on the bankers part was that it would have damaged her cover to back him after he lost so dramatically and though she was part of sabotaging the game it was under duress. She didn’t want to do any of it herself and took advantage of the fact the villain was winning and could bleed the other players instead. Getting Bond out at that point would have fulfilled her obligation and protected him.

    In my opinion her story-line was strong enough to be its own novel but hit far harder because it was only seen in the moments where it intersected with Bonds. I think that tends to be a missing element in a lot of works. Instead of a full fledged subplot which might distract or annoy it exists in its own space outside of the main characters field of view but running parallel to the plot. At the end the truth devastates him because it was right there and he was blind to it until it was too late and the audience got to share that gut punch moment.

    Even when its not used for a twist its still a good venue for non main character growth. A sidekick become a medic after feeling helpless to do more than just an initial rescue for instance. No training montage but the way he uses his personal time changes and his ability to help the injured grows, possibly with an accompanying philosophical shift in conversations. Beats a magical/high-tech healing device being spammed only to break or vanish when plot convenient. A person has limitations and moral quandaries that are relate-able. I know its a pretty basic part of story telling to include it but that level of subtly can be missing. My own writing suffers for a lack of it in early drafts much of the time so I end up condensing things quite a bit in the rewrites.

  27. Kenton 20 Apr 2015 at 3:31 pm

    Thank you for taking the time to put this together! Even though you wrote the text years ago, I was still able to find your words today and make use of them. As a young Norwegian who’s coming up on four year in the states, I have developed a love for the English language and would certainly like to write something other than short stories one day; assuming I will be able to further improve my English grammar and short stories.

  28. Jean Gutierrezon 05 Oct 2015 at 8:09 am

    Thank you so much for these wonderful tips!
    I took notes of everything and, hopefully, I’ll be able to apply them when/if I write a book.

    I’m planning on starting my first book. But, I don’t know.. I haven’t even finished half of the plot. Hell, I don’t even know if I’m really gonna do this!

    However, now that I’ve read this article, it gives me at least some sort of comfort that when/if I start writing, your tips will have my back.

    Again, thank you!

    Please count on me that I won’t ever use flashbacks or flash forwards. As a reader, I’ve always despised those two because they always mess up the image of the story I have carefully built in my mind. So yeah….

    Any words of encouragement as I prepare to sail the dangerous waters of writing?
    (੭ु ´͈꒳​`͈)੭ु⁾⁾

  29. Vixis Shiar'Deluson 16 Nov 2015 at 4:29 pm

    So in the ending of my series, the villains plan works to near perfection, and he has almost everything he wants. In his mind, he does have everything he wants. He is in control of both humanity and other invading forces, and no one suspects a thing. He even thinks that all of the main characters are dead…and most are. Except for one of them. The character that survived is also one that doesn’t want to be a hero, that doesn’t want the responsibility of stopping the villain even though he is the only person who knows the villains real identity. The story ends with the hero going back to the US, where the villain is. It doesn’t say what he does, or if he stops them, but he goes there.

    Is that too vague, or do you think it gets everything across fairly well? At some point, I may make a follow on book or series that deals with the repercussions of that and other actions, but that is where the series ends for now. Does it seem like it would be satisfying, or would it piss off readers?

  30. B. McKenzieon 16 Nov 2015 at 6:34 pm

    “At some point, I may make a follow on book or series that deals with the repercussions of that and other actions, but that is where the series ends for now. Does it seem like it would be satisfying, or would it piss off readers?” *IF* readers actually like the surviving hero, this may be workable. If readers find themselves wishing that the last survivor had been any one of the more interested heroes, I’d recommend going back to the drawing board.

    Re: resolution… At a glance, I think you shouldn’t have any problems on vagueness/lack of resolution. The survivor choosing to continue the fight (which will probably be clear from the main character returning to the U.S., even if you don’t specify why he’s come back. Also, if you’re really concerned about readers misinterpreting his state of mind and/or goals, you can definitely pull in details to suggest that his trip is more related to the recent global conquest and not leisure (e.g. the preparation he makes for a safe/secret trip, the equipment he brings, any loose ends he wraps up, etc).

    PS: If you haven’t already watched 12 Monkeys, I’d recommend doing so. It is a crazy good time travel movie that succeeds despite offering considerably less resolution than what you’re working with. (SPOILER: After the main characters have failed to stop a bioterrorist from getting on a plane that will spread a humanity-eradicating disease around the world, one airplane passenger tells the bioterrorist “I’m in insurance,” and it’s unclear whether she’s 1) an insurance policy in case the heroes failed to stop the bioterrorist from getting on the plane, 2) an insurance policy in case the heroes DID stop the bioterrorist from getting on the plane, or 3) a character that just happens to become a major leader of the survivors after the plague devastates humanity but doesn’t know any of that now.

  31. Vixis Shiar'Deluson 17 Nov 2015 at 11:46 am

    I love both the movie and show form of 12 Monkeys, so recommendation noted and sent back in the time stream.

    I’m making a strong effort to ensure that all of the characters are at least interesting, if not amazing. I can post character summaries somewhere on here if that helps, or email them or whatnot. I actually have paragraph long plot synopses for each of the three books if that helps at all.

    The vagueness actually comes from two things, and may change your opinion on how it would carry forward.

    1.) If you read the post on the Villain thread, you know that the ultimate goal of the bad guy is actually not that horrible. His methods are not the best (i.e. instigating an attack on one of humanities last cities to gain control of its leader), but the end state is a good one (stopping the invasion and forcing both humanity and the Novae to live together in a form of peace).

    2.) The surviving character, Wilbur, has lost just about everything. All the people he loves are dead, if he goes back to the remaining areas of New Haven, Jaizon will find some way to brand him the bad guy. He doesn’t really see any point in going on. The only reason he does at this point is because he knows he is the only surviving person that knows who and what Jaizon really is. He doesn’t know exactly what he’s going to do, but he wants to both stop Jaizon and keep the peace.

    To do anything, he’d have to tread very carefully, and he may not be up to that. He could just as easily decide to just let Jaizon win. That is why it would be a vague ending. And if the series were to continue the way I want, I’d have one of a few things happen.

    A.) Wilbur, realizing that Jaizon’s ruthlessness will lead him down a path similar to those Jaizon despised, decides to spread discord and malcontent against him using various minor things that Jaizon messes up on, eventually leading to rally’s and protests. At some point, Jaizon decides that enough is enough, and he attempts to find and stop whoever is causing the ruckus himself…and is quite surprised to find Wilbur still alive.

    B.) Instead of killing him, Jaizon imparts part of his consciousness into Wilbur, allowing him to be controlled remotely. He then makes Wilbur his personal…cleaner (Wills ability to sap energy and life force makes him perfect for it anyways). To help in this, Jaizon also finds a woman that looks like Wilbur’s dead sister, and holds her hostage (Wilbur does not know, though this would come up later. This also helps make his mind weak enough for Jaizon to partially possess).

    C.) Before their HQ was attacked, Wilbur shared with the protestors parts of the truth of the matter, but not in its entirety. Most of the members were taken or killed in Jaizons assault, but two survivors, a human and a novae, escaped. They began searching for the truth, and end up forming an active rebel group. The story kind of goes from there, in a revolutionary arc. Later on, Wilbur ends up breaking through the mind control placed on him (when he discovers that the sister was a fake), and nearly kills Jaizon before escaping. He assists in their antics, and they manage to keep the peace while also stopping Jaizon.

  32. Kivon 13 Mar 2018 at 2:58 pm

    46: Um, well, they destroy the Clockworks and the Clockwork Maker, do I’m pretty sure it isn’t too ambiguous.

    47: Okay, don’t think I’m guilty of this.

    48: Good point. Never tried to get published before, didn’t know this.

    49: I can’t think of any rules that I’m breaking, but duly noted.

    50: Ain’t that the truth.

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