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Newbie Author Mistakes

As I work my way through a stack of entries for a writing contest, I keep noticing basic errors that label that author as a newbie. The same mistakes over and over can bring a halt to your success as an author and cause your entry to be tossed aside. Learn the basics of story craft and learn what particular newbies mistakes you might be making. Story craft is a continuous learning process, and for newbie writers, it’s the hardest work you’ll ever do. Here is a list of the ones I see the most:

Point of View – POV

This is a biggey. I am of the old school theory, as a student of NYT Bestselling author of 50+ books Jodi Thomas, who says to never shift POV within the same chapter. If you do, include a double-double space. I am seeing multiple points of view, sometimes as many as three(!), in one paragraph. My head is spinning.

Remember, your POV character has a camera on their head. They cannot know the emotions or internal thoughts of another character. They cannot know what’s in the next room unless he or she opens the door and looks. When you “head-hop” from one POV character to another, it’s very confusing for readers.

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Cardboard Characters

Are your main characters like cardboard; stiff, emotionless, without personality? They have names and faces, but they only reveal themselves on the surface and nothing more. The solution: dig deeper into your character’s motivation.

Basic story structure applies; what is your character’s goal? Who is the protagonist? Who is the antagonist? How does your main character grow and change from beginning to end? If you don’t follow these basic guidelines, you’re just writing a series of events that mean nothing. Your character is just going through the motion.

As an author, you must torture your characters. It is impossible to reveal deep character feelings and personalities without applying deep, intense conflict. The ways in which they react to that pressure will reveal their inner motivation and that’s what makes it interesting. Decide what your character wants and do everything you can to keep them from achieving that goal. It’s the basic bones of storytelling: goal – conflict – reaction – dilemma – decision.

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Cliché is a worn-out and overused expression to convey a popular thought or idea. Oh boy, is this way over done, particularly in the western genre. Sometimes that country twang and phraseology does not ring true when it’s overused. Go ahead and write the cliché phrase that comes to mind and then change it up. Do not settle for the first thing that comes to your mind; that’s just being lazy. Make it your own.

Read Your Work Out Loud

If I’m stuck on a chapter and it’s not flowing well, I’ll read it out loud. I also read the entire story out loud from beginning to end during the final revision process, after input from beta readers and after I get line edits back from the editor. Yes, I know that you’ve read it a gazillion time already. You’ll get a sense of how the story flows from chapter to chapter. I also recommend playing it back via Microsoft Word. Listening to dialogue as you read it out loud will help conversations ring true.

Detailed Narrative

“Linda found her purse and found for her key fob. She walked to the front door, opened it, and stepped outside. Turning to lock the door behind her, she then walked down the steps and along the sidewalk to her car.”

Readers are smart. They can figure out that Linda must have opened her front door and walked to her car. Describing every little detail creates an on-the-nose narrative that has literally been described to death. Plus it’s boring. You have to trust your readers; they will ‘get it’.

Show me! Stop telling me.

Stop telling me, show me with descriptive phrases and active verbs. Use at least two of the five senses in every descriptive scene. Draw your reader in and hold them there in the story.

Example of tell: Lola was furious. She stormed out of the room.

Example of Show: “That’s it!” Lola shouted fury clouding her eyes. She stood and shoved her chair back so fast that it toppled to the floor and hit the tile with a sharp crack. The door slammed shut behind her, the echo filling the sudden silence in the room yet her floral perfume still lingered.

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Writing Exercise

You will need a printed copy of your manuscript or a used paperback book and several colored highlighters. To learn internalization, highlight the internal dialogue in a different color for each POV character. Mark POV shifts. Is there a new chapter for each new POV character change? In another color, highlight action text. Are you providing too much detail? Using a different color for each character, highlight that character’s dialogue. Is your story dialogue heavy, or do you include a few action tags to keep the action moving along? I like to do this exercise using one of my favorite authors’ books. The visual exercise will teach you a lot about story structure and pacing.

Happy writing!

Natalie Bright is an author, blogger, speaker, and writing instructor. The WILD COW RANCH series is six books from CKN/Wolfpack Publishing is written with co-author Denise F. McAllister and is available in eBook, print or audio. KEEP ‘EM FULL AND KEEP ‘EM ROLLIN‘ features authentic recipes from the cattle trail along with ranch photography and history of the great cattle driving era. Look for END OF TRAIL EATS coming early spring 2024 about the food and history of Cowtowns.