Traditional Publishing

A Few Amateur Goofs to Avoid

By G. Miki Hayden
Instructor at Writer's Digest University online and private writing coach – Tuesday September 1, 2020

Your novel won’t be rejected just because the red flag is raised that you’re an amateur; however, the clues that you don’t know the rules of the road won’t endear you to agents, and unless the writing is otherwise good and the concept extraordinary, you may not be invited to join the agency gang. Have a read below to find out what errors to watch for.

1. Forget the prologue. Oh, yes, you might want to start the story with an out-of-sequence bang. So, fine, do just that, but be sure the setup is absolutely necessary, and make the preliminary piece short and explosive. And for goodness sake, don’t call it a prologue. Make that opening the first scene in chapter one, or don’t call it anything. Simply use a date or location as a title. Common wisdom these days says that readers don’t like prologues—don’t trust them, and won’t read them. OK. Bow to the ones you want as your audience: no prologue.

2. Don't rush through the scenes, but let each have full impact—on the first draft. You're going to edit later on. Give yourself enough material to think about and work with. But also be aware that what you’re writing must have impact and not be too worked over. Write the scene, and say what you need to say, advance the ideas you need to advance, and drop in whatever information—and then move on to the next scene. (Don’t be boring.)

3. Don’t cram all the information you have into the start—and don’t begin with all 10 of your characters. While you want to open quickly with a strong setup, you don’t want to confuse your readers. Don’t give the entire background of the story right away. Introduce us to the backstory and the characters little by little. When you finally do arrive at the prior happenings—now that readers know the protagonist and a little of the events—let what happened earlier be a surprise so startling that the agent, editor, and eventual readers gasp in astonishment. Who did what with whom? Oh my goodness.

4. Unless you really are writing a comic story, don’t try to be witty all the time. Let readers take the story seriously. The seriousness of the tone will make the novel more meaningful. (And will sell for more than a tale filled with constant sarcasm.)

5. Don’t tell us again. While you can remind readers on page 120 of some small fact that you first mentioned on page 10, don’t hit us over the head with what you’ve already told readers a couple of times. Readers will remember, even if they put the book down for a few days.

6. Build layers into your story. Don’t treat readers as if they were stupid. Give them some ideas to puzzle over—character weirdness and motivation (why did he?...) Even though you might, indeed, reveal the secret to the motivation later on, you can be subtle. You don’t have to be obvious or shine a light above each sophisticated tell you think so clever.

7. The biggest amateur goofs are in the writing itself. Agents can tell if you’re an amateur if your word use is wrong in various respects—for instance if you say, “I’m going to lay down” when you mean, “I’m going to lie down.”

8. Ratchet up the level of your wording. While you definitely don’t want to use the most difficult words you can drag out of the thesaurus, you also want to choose a word that has a bit of substance or punch. Moreover, don’t start sentences with an undefined “it” as the subject, and don’t make phrases such as “there was” and “there were” your subject and verb. Also “get” and its forms are overused, weak words. Write, “he returned” for “he went back” unless you need “he went back” to vary the wording. And please do vary the wording. Watch for repeats, and change one of the instances of the repeated word or phrase.

8. Punctuate correctly. Punctuation has rules. Find out what they are and follow them—if you can. For some reason, punctuation seems as complex as nuclear physics to many would-be writers, though the science of punctuation isn’t all that demanding. Still, punctuation can also be an art that sometimes requires deep consideration to apply. Start with the science, and then you’ll have the underpinning for the more artistic choices. (A $2 download for US punctuation, )

Character Creation
Another area in which lack of skill will show up is in the depiction of your characters. That’s a part of the writer’s job requiring observation in the real world and is the backbone of the writer’s actual task. A would-be author who doesn’t know the vagaries and variations of humanity will be hard put to create characters that intrigue or enlighten. You will need not only to study psychology but to study humans as they pass by. Add some years to your scrutiny in order to deepen and mellow what you think you know.

9. As you write, you want to make your characters consistent. You can make notes somewhere—I like pen and paper because I don’t need to leave my file to jot down a remark in another file. Then, as you’re writing the story, you can refer to your list and see if you’ve recalled that Jane used to live in San Francisco and has a dog named Darryl. Moreover, you can see if you’ve addressed issues or resolved inconsistencies.

10. While new writers may fill in the profiles suggested here and there to create characters—and you can do that, no problem—most more-practiced authors don’t seem to need such exercises. You can try writing without being prodded by questions such as, Where did your character go to school? What is her biggest disappointment? I think if you create a character in that way, you might wind up with someone on the page who doesn’t have a lot of authenticity. Let your characters be who they are, people with flaws, like the rest of us, and mostly good intentions—or not—depending on what you’re trying to develop. But write them on the page as you imagine them, and see how they relate to the other characters and how their environment brings out their personalities. You know people and can mix and match for innovation’s sake.

If you become stuck, you might try writing a journal entry from the character’s point of view. You might spend your day asking, how would my protagonist, John, react to that?

My best advice is to write and let the writing of your people—and everything else, really—flow.

About the Author

Writing the MysteryThe Naked WriterG. Miki Hayden is the author of the comprehensive writing style guide, The Naked Writer, and the award-winning guide for mystery writers, Writing the Mystery: A Start-to-Finish Guide for Both Novice and Professional, both of which are available now from JP&A Dyson.

"Whatever your habitual errors are, punctuation, writing style, or even not understanding what the agents/editors are looking for, if you'd like to correct your flaws, take a class with me at Writer's Digest: Or for some less-expensive guidance, you might want to download The Naked Writer for your Kindle at Amazon. Yes, I work with clients privately. Find me on Facebook."

G. Miki Hayden always has a new class starting at Writer's Digest. The feedback she gives is personal, thorough, and actionable.