Archive for the 'Common Mistakes of First Time Authors' Category

Mar 17 2010

Chapter Checklist

I provide advice about how to write novels, comic books and graphic novels. Most of my content applies to fiction-writing in general, but I also provide articles specifically about superhero stories.

Here are twenty sets of questions to help you check your writing.

1.  Is the story easy to read through? Will readers understand what is happening as they read through it for the first time?

2.  At the end of each chapter, does the audience want to keep reading? For example, perhaps you make an exciting revelation, leave a character in danger, leave a character on the verge of doing or learning something interesting, etc.

3.  Do the characters have high-stakes, urgent goals? If not, check the pacing.  When little is at stake, the plot tends to drag.

4. Does each paragraph develop a character or advance the plot? If not, rewrite or shorten or remove as necessary.  One common offender here is unnecessary dialogue, such as niceties.

5.  Does the plot challenge the protagonists? Is there doubt they will succeed?  If the plot is too easy, you could make the antagonists tougher, make side-characters less supportive of the protagonists, make the protagonists less powerful, etc.

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11 responses so far

Feb 14 2010

When the Villain Beats the Heroes, Don’t Just Let Them Go

If the heroes are defeated but the villain lets them walk away, the manuscript is probably dead on arrival.


If the characters can lose without anything bad happening to them, nothing’s at stake. Give your villain some chance of beating the hero once and for all, or there’s no point reading the story. If the closest your villain can come to victory is releasing the heroes with a stern warning, that’s just pathetic.


If you are absolutely sure that you want to release the heroes, please at least give the villain an adequate reason not to kill them or take them prisoner/hostage.  Here are some reasons that are probably NOT adequate.

  • “Next time I won’t go so easy on you!”  Don’t bother having a fight/confrontation unless something’s at stake.  Also, you and I both know that the heroes will beat the villain next time, so this is empty bluster. When the heroes lose, make sure that there are consequences. For example, in Star Wars, Luke lost a hand, Han got captured, and Obi-Wan died after losing various fights.
  • “You better join me next time, or else!”  Not too bright.  If the villain just defeated the heroes in combat, how useful could they possibly be to him?  Also, wouldn’t you rather have lieutenants that don’t have a history of trying to kill you?  Finally, if you really want to do this, please have the villain be more proactive than just letting the heroes walk away and think his offer over.  For example, have him poison a hero or take one hostage so that he can blackmail the others.
  • The villain’s only goal was to show off or make a meaningless statement. “Now you know my true power!”  Ick.  Again, make sure there is actually something at stake.   If the loss has no consequences, readers won’t care.
  • The villain is too nice and/or stupid to kill (or capture) the foes he has beaten in combat.   If so, he’s probably not much of an obstacle. Unless you’re writing a comedy of errors, please make your villain competent.  Beating a wuss isn’t very impressive!

Here are some reasons that might be sufficient.

  • The villain advances a major goal by releasing the hero/heroes. For example, the Joker infects Batman with the disease that is slowly killing the Joker, to force Batman to find a cure. Or maybe the defeated hero is some kind of Trojan horse.  For example, the antagonists in The Matrix inject a homing device into Neo so that he will lead them to the other protagonists.
  • The hero is saved by a plan he sets in motion. It’d probably be undramatic if the hero were saved by backup bursting through the wall at just the right moment.  (Guardian angels!)  But you could give the hero some role in saving himself.  For example, perhaps the hero knows he’s losing and has to survive until help can arrive.  Perhaps the act of calling for help is difficult and the hero has to figure out where he is before the cavalry can save him.  Don’t just make him (or her) a passive damsel in distress waiting around for a rescue.
  • The villain has a compelling reason to take the character(s) prisoner/hostage instead of killing them. Even though imprisoning heroes (particularly superheroes) has rarely accomplished anything, it makes more sense than just letting them go.  At the very least, this gives the villain a bargaining chip to deal with any remaining heroes. Or maybe one villain keeps the hero alive because it will help him in some antagonist-vs-antagonist conflict (hat-tip: Slick).
  • The villain tries to interrogate the hero. Perhaps the hero knows something which would help the villain defeat the other heroes.
  • The hero has previously done the villain a tremendous favor and the villain is more fair than murderous. A villain might intelligently choose to spare someone that previously spared him, for example. If the villain is known for honoring his debts, others will be more likely to offer him favors on credit. See also: the Lannisters in Game of Thrones.
  • Killing the hero in the near future will be less problematic than killing him now. For example, a villain might pass on an opportunity to kill someone publicly rather than waiting for the right moment where he could get away with it. A supervillain might pass on openly killing a hero because it might create fatal problems with either the hero’s teammates… or with the hero’s villains. For example, the Joker has vowed to kill anyone that killed Batman because Batman is more fun than anyone else he’s fought against, and the mobs might kill Batman’s killer because protection money tends to go to the scariest player (i.e. anyone that killed Batman). See also: Sid the Squid in The Man Who Killed Batman… Killing Batman never works out well for anybody but Batman.

54 responses so far

Jan 26 2010

A Vast List of Storytelling Blunders


–The protagonist(s) don’t have significant flaws.  (For more help on flaws, please see this and this).

–The names are goofy and/or wildly hard to pronounce. I’m looking at you, Anamamana’Qupy.  For more help, please see this.

–Characters act the way the author needs them to, not because they have a compelling motivation or logic. “Let’s split up to cover more ground!”  Please see #3 here.

–The main character(s) don’t make mistakes or face no consequences for them.  Guardian angels are a red flag here.

–The main characters don’t have setbacks. If the villain can’t beat the heroes once in a while, he will probably be pretty disappointing.  Also, if the villain defeats the heroes in combat, don’t just let them go.

–The main characters don’t have distinguishing traits.  If that’s a problem, please see this.

–The characters don’t have urgent goals.  Please see #3 here.

–The protagonist is hated by an antagonist for no discernible reason. Common offenders include teachers, bullies and adopted parents. If you go down this path, at least make them stylish. Thanks.

–The author focuses on visual details rather than establishing anything interesting about the character. In particular, eye color and hair color don’t say all that much about a character–I’d recommend focusing on these details instead.

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34 responses so far

Jan 21 2010

How Long Should Your Novel Manuscript Be Before You Submit It?

The shortest, most cheesy answer is “however long it takes to tell the story.”  Unfortunately, if it takes you hundreds of thousands of words to tell the story, getting it published it will be practically impossible.

According to Chuck Sambuchino, the most publisher-friendly length for an adult novel manuscript is between 80,000-100,000 words.  Science fiction and fantasy authors usually need a bit more space for worldbuilding, so he says the ideal range for them is between 100,000-115,000 words.  However, Chuck is sort of working for the Devil, so I’d feel bad if he were my only source for this post.

Colleen Lindsay, a literary agent at FinePrint, has similar guidelines: around 100K for epic fantasy or sci-fi, 80-90K for thrillers and 80-100K for crime fiction. Also, she’s not in league with Lucifer.

Both Chuck and Colleen emphasize that there are exceptions, like first-time novelists publishing 200,000 word behemoths.  But such exceptions are extremely rare. If you try going well above or below the usual range, your writing needs to be extraordinary. I would not recommend doing so unless you are absolutely sure that your story cannot work at a more conventional range.

UPDATE: If you’re writing for a younger audience (YA, middle grade, picture books, etc), please see this.

33 responses so far

Nov 24 2009

An easy mistake for prospective novelists and comic book writers…

Novelists, make sure that your synopsis covers the material in your sample chapters.  That might sound unnecessary– if they can read the chapters, why do they need the summary?  Because you don’t know that the editors will read the chapters first.  If the editor picks up the synopsis and it starts at chapter 4, you’ll force him out of his comfort zone.  Not a good plan. 

Comic book writers, some publishers (like Image) ask that you include sample pages illustrated when you submit your proposal.  If you include sample pages, make sure the script includes those pages even though the editor can SEE those pages. First, this keeps the editor from getting totally confused if he misplaces the sample pages. Second, it allows the editor figure out what you’re trying to accomplish with the sample pages.  For example, let’s say the backgrounds and side-characters look very boring in a particular sample.  If the editor didn’t have the script in front of him, he’d probably conclude that the colorist wasn’t very good.  But if the script says something like “Make sure that his office and coworkers look as drab as possible so that we’ll cheer for him to get a new job,” then it makes sense that the sample pages would have some drabness. If the editor knows that the drabness is intentional, then it’s a sign of the colorist’s ability to set the mood, NOT incompetence. If the editor knows what you’re trying to accomplish, it’s easier to tell whether you’ve succeeded.

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Sep 26 2009

Your Readers Are Not The Same As You!

One of the most common mental mistakes that plagues writers is the logical fallacy that if they do or prefer something, their target audience does too.  Not necessarily!  Here are a few ways in which readers tend to differ from authors.

1.  Readers are usually less patient than writers. As a result, they tend to get aggravated when the author doesn’t give them enough information.  (Rule of thumb: the readers are entitled to anything relevant that the POV knows).  Many writers like being cryptic because they think that hiding the POV’s information from the reader will create intrigue.  Most readers do not like reading cryptic works.

2.  Readers start at page 1 and typically will put down the book as soon as they are dissatisfied. Ahem–they aren’t patient.  This means that the quality of the opening few pages is absolutely critical to readers. In contrast, writers often phone in the beginning because they want to get to the “meat” of the story or whatever.  THAT IS A MISTAKE.  Most readers will not plod along in the hopes that the story will get interesting or clear.  They will put down the book unless it is interesting and clear from page one.

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13 responses so far

Apr 18 2009

How would you fix this book?

Today, I came across a self-published book called Superhumans.

Here’s what it says on the back-cover:

Seth, a college student, is accidentally exposed to an experiment that gives him incredible powers. When he and his friend, Chip, try to unravel its secrets, they discover a threat to the world unlike any other. And soon, Seth will find himself faced with one obstacle after another as he tries to live a normal life with the woman he lives and their daughter.

I’ve posted the first page below the jump.  If you’d like a writing exercise today, please rewrite the first two paragraphs of the chapter so that they’re interesting.

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20 responses so far

Apr 17 2009

Advice to Novelists: No Prequels

When you’re querying your book, please do not mention that you’re thinking about a prequel.  Mentioning a prequel suggests that you don’t really know when the story starts.  It also suggests that you might leave out crucial information so that you can use it for the prequel.  Finally, I’d regard it as a warning flag that the chronology of the series will be confusing and hard to follow.  Ick.  If you’d like to discuss a prequel with your publisher, please do so after the first book has sold well.

14 responses so far

Mar 18 2009

Beat a Professional Proofreader!

Hello.  I have an exciting new game for the grammatically inclined.  Compete with B. Mac in a proofreading contest.  Those that can score 80% as many points as BM will be eligible for a volunteer moderator position.  Those that score more points than B. Mac will also receive a free Superhero Nation t-shirt.  (I’m judging the contest, but I’ll be fair).  If you’d like to compete, please download the following document and email your completed version to superheronation-at-gmail-dot-com.  The contest ends on March 27!

60 responses so far

Feb 02 2009

Writing Advice of the Day: Don’t Chicken Out

  1. When it comes to developing your characters, be bold. In most cases, it’s safer and more effective to develop character traits clearly rather than take the traits halway.  For example, if the hero is definitely smart or cowardly or whatever, readers will definitely be on your page and it will be easier to use the character to drive the plot.  In contrast, if the hero is just kind of smart or whatever, it often feels like the author is making it up as he goes along.  For example, Dr. Impossible from Soon I Will Be Invincible is kind of the smartest man on Earth, except when he talks like he’s Napoleon Dynamite and inexplicably goes to a funeral attended by hundreds of superheroes.  Mohinder is kind of a scientific genius, except when he inexplicably decides to test his mutant serum on himself without doing any sort of testing first.
  2. Remove everything from your story you aren’t willing to stand by. For example, if you plan to reveal that the last 10 or 20 pages were just a dream or a hallucination, why bother wasting our time with them?  I recommend cutting those pages out, because otherwise readers will probably feel like you’re jerking them around.  I also recommend against having lines of dialogue that the character takes back shortly afterward (“when I said something nasty a line ago, I was just kidding!  Haha!”)  Again, if you aren’t willing to stand by the lines you’ve written, they will probably just confuse and/or annoy the audience.  If the character’s not actually nasty, for example, a line that could suggest he’s nasty is probably a red herring that should be removed.
  3. Actions should have consequences. One common problem, particularly with Mary Sue characters, is that the character’s actions rarely have negative consequences.

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Jan 22 2009

Death to Scrappy!

We’ve already done a general article on the dangers of using children as side-characters, but this article will discuss only the most dangerous kind of child character: The Scrappy.

Generally, a Scrappy is a character that is hated by readers, usually because he’s exaggeratedly inept in a way that is meant to be funny.  For example, instead of having a slight speech impediment, he’ll be Jar-Jar Binks.  Instead of being a bit younger than the other characters, he’ll be Scrappy Doo.  This character usually distracts from the more competent characters, often so much that he becomes a hate figure.

Here are some common misconceptions that lead authors to use Scrappies…

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36 responses so far

Dec 07 2008

Common Gun-Related Errors for Authors

This article lists a few tricky points related to writing about guns. I think its list is pretty good…

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12 responses so far

Nov 23 2008

Interactive Quiz: Is Your Hero a Homo Superior?

Homo superiors are characters that are just like humans, but better.  That usually makes them bland and two-dimensional, like Superman or Legolas.  This quiz will help you diagnose the problem and fix it.


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7 responses so far

Nov 22 2008

Is Your Hero a Chosen One?

A Chosen One is a hero that is passively chosen for greatness, like Eragon.  Readers typically prefer characters that make their own destiny.  This quiz will help you diagnose and fix the problem.

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51 responses so far

Nov 21 2008

Interactive Mary Sue Test

Mary Sues are characters that are overpowered and too perfect.  This test will help you diagnose and fix the problem.  It typically takes around ten minutes.

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150 responses so far

Nov 18 2008

Three urgent pieces of novel-writing advice

  • 52% of the readers that took our interactive writing quiz admitted that they describe what a character looks like by having him stare at his reflection in a mirror.  Please don’t!  It screams “amateur.”
  • 45% of readers admitted to using food-centric scenes (like dinners, Elven banquets, etc).  That’s not necessarily a problem, but please make sure that your eating scenes are more dramatic than “pass the biscuits.”  If the food is the most interesting element of the scene, the scene is almost certainly boring.  No one started reading your book to learn what foods your elves like to eat.
  • 55% of readers admitted to overusing obscenities.  As a rule of thumb, please don’t use more than one obscenity in a sentence.   Please also try to limit the number of obscenities on each page.   If you use too many obscenities, the piece will probably suffer (even if you’re writing about Marines).  See this for an example.

3 responses so far

Nov 17 2008

Common Problems with Third-Person Narration

We’ve already discussed why beginning writers tend to struggle with first-person narration, but third-person narration has its own share of problems.

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15 responses so far

Nov 13 2008

We’ve restructured our interactive quiz for authors

We shortened our interactive quiz to 40 questions and about 20-30 minutes.  If you’d like to get published, give it a try!

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Nov 12 2008

Manuscript Killers: Immortal Characters

When I’m reading a novel manuscript, immortal characters make me roll my eyes.   


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36 responses so far

Nov 05 2008

Why Secret Origins Are Usually Awful

Occasionally, an author will breathlessly offer some revelation about a character’s origin.  (Luke and Leia are siblings!  Sylar is actually a Petrelli! That mysterious old man is actually a god!)  Secret origin stories are rarely effective.  If you’re doing a secret origin, here are the biggest potential concerns.  If you can avoid these, I think the secret has promise.

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105 responses so far

Oct 24 2008

Quiz: Is Your Manuscript Dead on Arrival?

This quiz will help you diagnose some common manuscript problems. If you’re not sure why your answer was right or wrong, please see our explanations either by waiting until the end of the quiz or hitting “previous question” during the quiz.

Is Your Novel Manuscript Dead on Arrival? » Create A Quiz

If this quiz helped you, submit it to Stumble!

158 responses so far

Aug 27 2008

Your Title is Bad, But You Can Fix It (Part 7)

Cadet Davis reviews and revises the titles of 30 manuscripts submitted to a writing workshop. This will help you evaluate and improve your titles.

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20 responses so far

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.

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32 responses so far

Aug 05 2008

Manuscript Killers: Mary Sues

Mary Sues are characters that are overpowerful, self-insertions of the author. This article will help you identify and fix some of the biggest problems with Mary Sues.

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94 responses so far

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.

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16 responses so far

Jul 22 2008

Five More Mistakes of First-Time Authors (#36-40)

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

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11 responses so far

Jul 21 2008

Five More Mistakes of First-Time Authors (#31-35)

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

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2 responses so far

Jul 17 2008

Your Title is Bad, but You Can Fix It (Part 2)

Cadet Davis reviews and revises the titles of 30 manuscripts submitted to a writing workshop. This will help you evaluate and improve your titles.

Above Average

  1. The Merchant of Venison. This title does a remarkably good job of identifying the story as a Shakespeare parody. Also, it was the only title this week to get me to chuckle.
  2. Dogs in Clogs. This was a real head-scratcher and failed to foreshadow the plot in any meaningful way, but was invitingly weird.
  3. Creeping Death. It foreshadows the story and tone well. If I were rewriting it, I’d make it more subtle and less cliché.

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21 responses so far

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.

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24 responses so far

Jul 09 2008

Five More Mistakes of First-Time Authors (#21-25)

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.

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12 responses so far

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