It's always hard to talk about our mistakes because we often try to appear authoritative and knowledgeable. Hey, I'm a published author! I know everything!
Well, I don't. And I wasn't born a published author either (and I admit, it's just another job; being published doesn't make me a better person or writer than the guy next door). What I do have is experience, and that includes mistakes I've made, and may continue to make.
That puts me in a position to mentor a newbie writer when I see them making similar mistakes. I've walked that road before, and if I can help someone avoid some of the potholes and mud puddles, why not? On the other hand, maybe I should just let them bump around, as I did -- what's a better way to learn than to fall and scrape a knee or two?
That said, here are some of the newbie mistakes that hopefully will be helpful.
Tell, not show:
This is a big one. We writers have a tendency of telling too much, because we're in a weird position of being the storyteller, and the default mode of storytelling is "tell": Once upon a time, a beautiful princess lives in a remote castle, waiting for a handsome prince to come save her. OK, fine. It gets the story out, but it's all tell. We're telling the readers the princess is beautiful, and the prince is handsome, and the castle is remote. And what does the readers get out of it? Information. That's all. There is no sensory details, no involvement. The readers are constantly reminded that they're reading, or being told a story. They don't get to EXPERIENCE it. There are no visceral input and reaction. Instead, why not show them?
This one is a bit harder to define and understand, but you know it when you read it. This is particularly true for first-person narration and with characters who are more passive and introspective. They think a lot. They feel a lot. There's nothing wrong with thoughts and feelings, but drama is about action. There's nothing more boring than thoughts and feelings that don't result in action. Plus the same thoughts and feelings would become tiresome very quickly. Worse, if the author insists on commentating on the character's thoughts and feelings, it becomes really tedious. Instead, externalize the thoughts and feelings by action, and let the readers decide -- they are smart enough to figure out the emotional and mental states of the character by its behaviors.
This is a term I coined a few years ago. It means the urge and need for a writer to tell everything. Every single detail, ranging from "he pushed the door open, walked to the cabinet, opened the door, pulled out a cup, poured some water in it..." (stage directions) to over-explaining everything as if the readers are dumb. That includes backstories, thoughts and feelings, and stating the obvious: "He clenched his fists and pounded on the desk. He must be very angry." Duh! Don't do that. Cut unnecessary details, redundancy, and repetition that doesn't add anything. Don't treat your readers as stupid asses. Trust their intelligence. And it makes the reading experience so much better for them anyway.
I've seen this happening to many new writers. A new and exciting idea comes along and they feel like they need to start on it immediately. It's even more prevalent when the WIP they've been working on has hit a rough spot, such as the mid-book blues. They start to lose interest, and the new shiny idea becomes more and more alluring. So they drop the WIP and start on a new project. Or they try to write two or three or four projects at the same time. The result is most often "a whole lot of beginnings but nothing is ever finished." My suggestion: FINISH. THE. BOOK. No matter what you do, once you start something, make it your goal to finish it. I don't care what you need to do -- wear your underwear on your head or dance in the rain -- you've got to finish what you started. If you're the type who gets distracted by new projects all the time, resist the urge to even start. Jot down the ideas instead; notepads are cheap. But finish the book!
Ouch, I did that a lot. I still do it now. Finding the right beginning has always been a bit difficult for me, because I write character-driven stories, so "character development" becomes natural in my process, and more often than not, I tend to write pages and pages of character backgrounds, or they're going through their ordinary worlds before the inciting incident happens. With The Pacific Between, I actually cut 7 chapters from the manuscript and wove the rest with the other chapters. A common advice is "cut the first 3 chapters and start your story with Chapter 4." While that may be an exaggeration, it's not without merits. Many writers start their stories too soon, believing they either must reveal a lot of character backgrounds (how else are we going to know who they are?), or they don't quite know where the inciting incident is. They often start too soon instead of too late.
My advice is to start the story as close to the major event that propels the main plot forward, or in the middle of it (in media res), and then you can move backward if you need. Or just write, then by all means cut the first three chapters and see how that works.
In my current WIP, I actually added an extra chapter (I resisted from calling it a prologue) that starts the plot with a scene that is in the middle of the story. It's a "jump-forward" and it can be very effective. By using this technique, you set up a hook immediately and then you can have a bit of breathing room in the first few chapters. That doesn't give you the right to write crappy first chapters, though, but it works better when you need a bit more ramp-up time instead of plunging the characters in the inciting incident.
The point is, whatever you do, you want to start the story as close to the central conflict as possible. It may not be the real thing, but you don't want to wait 50 pages before you get there either.
(end Part 1)