Updated: Oct 21, 2022
by Rosie Boom
Forewarned is forearmed. Set the cold steel of your blade against the throat of your enemies – bad dialogue, weak antagonists, bland characters – to name a few.
A practical session identifying some of the most common mistakes made by writers. And for each potential mistake, a down-to-earth, simple remedy.
Make your writing tighter, lighter and brighter.
Thanks to Bob Mayer for some of the ideas for this workshop.
A simple but obvious truth. Many writers become daunted, paralysed, by the prospect of the huge task that awaits them. We may toy with the thought, waiting for the ‘right time’.
Just do it! The great preacher Charles Spurgeon became frustrated listening to a group of clergymen talking and discussing and planning. He challenged them with the words, “Brethren, do something! Do something! Do something!”
For me, it was the day I woke up to the first day of the school holidays and said to myself, ‘I’m just going to start.’ That was all it took.
Don’t get all caught up about where to start or how to start – just start. You can go back later and edit and cut and paste. Just get the ink flowing. Today is the day!
James Herriot tells of ‘the books I almost never wrote.’ He used to tell his wife about all the things that had happened to him that day and would always end up by saying ‘I’ll put that in my book.’
There is no doubt this situation would have gone on for ever if my wife, at the end of one of my recitals, had not remarked, ‘Jim, you are never going to write a book.’ She said it kindly but, nevertheless, I was aghast.
“Whatever do you mean?” I said.
“Well,” she replied, “you have been talking about this book for twenty-five years. Remember we celebrated our silver wedding last week?”
I tried to point out that I was not an impulsive type and always liked to take time to think things over, but women can be very unreasonable. She smiled at me. “Don’t take it to heart, Jim. You are only one of thousands of people who think they are going to write a book, but never do it.”
“But I will, I will,” I protested indignantly.
She smiled again with a touch of sadness. “You must realise that it is impossible. Old vets of fifty don’t suddenly start writing books.”
That did it. I went straight out, bought a lot of paper and got down to the job.
And the world is glad he did!
Judy Christie: When I turned 50, I decided I’d procrastinated long enough.
I committed to write my first novel — you know the one, the story that’s wandered around in your mind for a decade or two. I gave myself a deadline. I blocked some spare (yeah, right) time on my calendar. I pulled out a few notes I’d jotted through the years.
What I didn’t know about writing a novel far outweighed what I did know. I wasn’t a scholar of the fine art of POV or pacing or tension on every page. I had no idea what head-hopping was, and I was clueless about word count.
But I had noticed bestselling authors had something in common. Despite differences in genre, style, voice, settings, or characters, they developed a writing habit. After years of procrastination and fear, that lesson helped me write my first novel and five since. When I flounder as a writer, it’s because I’m inconsistent with my daily writing discipline. When I produce my best stories, I rely on that basic lesson from the masters – words on the page. I’m almost embarrassed to admit that on my most rewarding and productive writing days, I use a kitchen timer, set for an hour at a time. I track how many hours I actually write — as opposed to time spent Tweeting, Facebooking or wandering around my friends’ blogs.
You’d think at age fifty-five I wouldn’t need such a trick, but, after all, it took me fifty years to write a novel. About a year ago, I started keeping a separate calendar to track my writing hours and my word count each day. While my ego finds that somewhat insulting, those strategies keep me on track when I’m tempted to fritter away my precious writing time. I find I have little tolerance for the zero-word days. For me, not writing has become harder than writing. Procrastination saps my energy and creativity. I say “no” to certain things to say “yes” to these stories I want to tell.
Whether you are twenty-five or fifty-five, a full-time best-selling author or a frazzled writer on the side, there’s apparently only way to be a successful writer: Sit down and write.
I could have left this to the very end but it begged to be mentioned here. Some of us find it easy to start a project but not so easy to finish. But for a work to be able to be used by God it needs to be finished, not sitting uncompleted in a folder on our laptop. This is especially difficult for those who are oozing creativity. Halfway through one project, they get another brilliant idea which just begs to be started. Soon the craftsman is trying to build a dozen masterpieces – to the detriment of all. Discipline those creative urges! Write the ideas down in a book so you don’t forget them and then finish the work at hand.
One of the best bits of advice my older brother gave was to always finish writing a song, even if I thought it wasn’t going to be a great one. He told me that if I did that, I would develop the habit of finishing, and perhaps amongst the very songs that I thought would be rejects, one might emerge as a real winner.
This habit is also vital when you begin writing to a deadline for a publisher. We must train ourselves to be finishers.
3. Be Willing to Learn.
Watch out for the ‘know-it-all syndrome. Bob Mayer reports that from the thousands of people who have sat in on his writing workshops 95% of them didn’t improve with the course. Why? He claims that many of them sign up for the course looking for validation rather than to learn. The others were open to some ‘fine-tuning’ rather than the major overhaul their manuscript needed.
We must be willing to learn. As writers, we must put in the hours, and the humility, to learn our craft. Listen. Ask questions. Think about what others tell you and their suggestions. Don’t discard their suggestions. At first look, they may appear to be totally wrong, but sometimes things look different after we have let them rest for a while.
Be open-minded about changing (or killing) your favourite character or scene.
My old pastor used to say, “All your life you should be a student and a teacher.”
Be humble. We all have blind spots with our writing. Listen to feedback, and make sure you don’t gather around yourself a doting audience who tell you what you desperately want to hear.
4. Don’t Forget the Reader
The ultimate consumer of any form of writing is the reader. We must work at getting what is in our hearts and heads into the hearts and heads of our reader. The key is making the reader care.
We must be careful that we don’t begin focusing on ourselves as we write and forget the reader. A great piece of advice I had from Elizabeth Sherrill (the ghost writer of The Hiding Place and other great books) was to put a photo of an age-appropriate person by my computer. That way, I can look into their face and remember just who I’m writing this book for. What age? What culture? What background?
It’s all too easy for us to drift into writing for a ten year old, forgetting that we began the book for a six year old. If we do this, we break communication. We must always think of our audience – what they are reading and what they want to read.
My office walls are covered with letters from my readers and they serve as a constant reminder. I also have letters that tell of the parts they found funny – this reminds me that my readers want to laugh.
5. Learn to Manage Our Time Correctly
I have often lamented to Chris that it seems like I’m trying to write a book without actually writing a book. In other words, I’m just not finding the time to do the actual physical writing. But a book won’t write itself.
Seize the day. Don’t wait for the perfect time to write. “He who watches the wind will not sow, and he who looks at the clouds will not reap.” Ecclesiastes 11:4 NASB
If you can only snatch half an hour before the baby wakes, snatch it. The ultimate dream is having a set time each day of uninterrupted solitude, but for many of us, that’s all it will ever be – a dream. Take whatever time you can and use it. I am now sitting in MacDonald’s every Wednesday night writing while the children are at youth group. Those evenings are a gift to this time-stressed writer.
Be willing to make a sacrifice. Deny yourself that TV programme each week, that extra hour of sleep, that hour of gardening. To be a writer you must make the time. No seminar will teach you the secret of how to write a book without writing a book.
6. Don’t Neglect the Masters.
Sit before the masters and study their works like art students sitting before a Rembrandt painting in the museum. We can learn so much from them.
Bob Mayer once set aside a week and read the 15 books on the New York Times best seller lists, regardless of the genre and whether he liked them or not, simply to learn.
Read current books. Ask yourself what structure they use, how they use dialogue, how much white space do they have.
Attend workshops and listen and learn.
Many courses are available online with seasoned and successful writers sharing their expertise. Make the most of it!
7. Don’t Ignore your Greatest Assett – Yourself.
Every publisher is looking for that unique something, that fresh idea, that original work. And there-in lies the great secret. Be original. Don’t write a re-hash of the latest vampire or Amish book. The most original work is exactly that – original. Look inside yourself and find your passion. Your own creativity. There is no-one else out there who is you. No-one else has had your experiences and lived your life.
The first thing I had to do in my writer’s course was write a detailed biography – what interests I have, what experiences I’ve had, my hobbies, my talents ….
From that well, my tutor told me, I would find the inspiration to write. How right he was!
Of course this is simply following the sage advice – Write what you know.
8. Define Your Work
Can you write down in one short sentence the guts of what your manuscript is about? That was the challenge levelled at myself and group of other novice writers at a writing course I attended. At the time I was writing Where Lions Roar at Night. I immediately wrote down ‘The Joy of Family.’
We need to know what we are writing. Without that clear destination, we will simply wander off course.
It’s like a flight path for an aeroplane. The pilot must lock the flight path into the controls; once they are entered, even when the winds buffet and the weather blows the plane off course, it will reach its destination. Apparently a plane is off course 95% of its flight, but keeps coming back on course, because it knows its destination.
9. Create an Inciting Incident
This is the event that upsets or changes your protagonist’s world. The rest of the story relates attempts to restore the natural order. Most people are forced into change. Readers know this. They need to understand what kicks off the story. It might be a plane crash, a move to the country, a discovery of betrayal. This event will be what gives your story credibility.
10. Use a light hand
A common (and all-too-obvious) fault of novice writers is the tendency to make sure the readers have got it – whether it’s a joke, or an emotion. We don’t have to tell them to laugh.
The reader gets it the first time, yet many of us don’t understand this. Don’t pound things home. Use a light touch. Trust your readers. (This may mean we can’t use the many exclamation marks that we would like to use!)
Watch out for repetition. Don’t beat your readers to death with it.
Remember that an understated character can hold huge appeal. Less is more.
If as writers we become heavy-handed, our characters can often end up over-reacting and thus lose their credibility.
11. Watch out for Cliches
Cliches are boring and about as fun to read as the instruction manual of our vacuum cleaner. Writing is supposed to be a creative process, and there’s nothing creative in rehashing some trite phrase that is so old it was probably used by my great-grandmother.
Spend some time looking up clichés on the internet. Then try replacing them with something original and fresh.
Some examples to avoid
1. Avoid it like the plague 2. Dead as a doornail 3. Fresh as a daisy 4. If only walls could talk 5. The pot calling the kettle black 6. Think outside the box 7. Thick as thieves 8. But at the end of the day 9. Plenty of fish in the sea 10. It hit me like a brick
12. Avoid Bad Dialogue Tags
Said is a word that is noted but not noticed. Our eyes flick across said; we know who is speaking and yet it doesn’t jar us.
There is a place for muttered, grunted, snarled, snapped, but use them sparingly and wisely. If said will suffice, use it.
Add the dialogue tag to the first sentence of a paragraph of dialogue. Don’t make them wait till the very end before they even know who’s speaking.
Other ways of showing who is speaking is to show action and separate it from the dialogue with a period.
EG: Jake tossed the ball on the grass. “I’m sick of this game.”
N.B. You cannot smile, frown or sigh a line of speech.
13. Learn to Handle Point of View Correctly.
A disoriented reader is an unhappy reader. If you swap from camera to camera in a movie it’s called a ‘cut’. In a story, the end of a scene marks any change in POV. Don’t change half way through. Readers must know from whose point of view they are viewing the scene.
This is a huge topic and one that we should all be studying and reading about. Study good books, looking at how they use POV.
14. Use Conflict.
We have recently been watching All Creatures Great and Small on DVD and one of the highlights in each episode is the conflict between Siegfried and Little Brother (Tristan). Without it the story would have far less appeal. Tension between characters results in the reader caring.
Every scene of a novel and every short story must have drama, and drama revolves around conflict. And conflict revolves around differing motivations in characters.
Conflict doesn’t have to be violent or overly significant. It can be as simple as Mum feeling annoyed when Dad snoops around the kitchen lifting pot lids and sniffing.
Develop layers of conflict in your story.
Make your conflict believable. The conflict must be inherent in your characters, not just created by situations.
15. The Importance of Character.
What is it that drives a successful movie/story? Plot of character?
We need to focus on character. What makes our protagonist/antagonist unique?
Study Dickens. His characters are clearly defined. E.G. Mr Smallweed in Bleak House – “Shake me up, Judy!”
Quirks, unusual traits draw the reader in. E.G. The man at the dump who always sniffs six times before he speaks. Mannerisms are wonderful for setting characters apart. The man who is always clicking his knuckles; the child who stutters; the woman with the Cockney accent.
One writer suggests highlighting your different characters in different colours and then going through and reading all the words of that one character in one sitting, checking for consistency.
We must make sure our different characters are exactly that – different. If they all sound the same, the story will be boring and confusing. They must be distinct.
16. Create the Right Number of Characters
We’ve probably all read books that had so many characters in them that we gave up trying to sort out just who was who.
If we introduce too many characters, we will spread the reader too thin and diminish his ability to empathise with any of them.
Don’t name your minor characters if they only appear once or twice. Instead describe them by their roles. Otherwise the reader may be expecting more from them and end up confused and perhaps disappointed when they never feature again.
Keep the focus on your protagonist and antagonist. And make sure your reader can keep track of all the named characters.
If you have a number of characters to name, use names that begin with different letters. This will minimize any confusion.
17. Utilize the Blind Spots
Each of our characters will have a key trait. With that comes a need, a flaw, a blind spot. Something that they don’t recognise as a weakness. For example, a girl might be decisive – with that trait she has a need to always be in charge, and her flaw or blind spot could be that she’s impetuous or bossy.
Or someone may be a very loyal character; her need is to feel trusted. The corresponding flaw may be that she’s gullible.
Using All Creatures Great and Small as an example, Siegfried is a dynamic, explosive, strong character. His flaw is that he is only too ready to accuse others of a mis-doing, and yet is totally blind to the fact that he does exactly the same thing. As my kids say, “He’s such a hypocrite!” These blind spots make for real characters.
18. Set the Scene
The reader must be able to feel, smell, see the scene. Don’t presume they can read what’s in your head. They don’t know what you’re thinking, what you’re seeing. We must get down in words everything that we already know in our own minds.
When we begin a new scene we must orient our reader to several things:
Who is in the scene? What characters are on stage?
Where is the scene? If it’s a familiar scene, let them know if anything has changed. If it’s a new scene, give them a feel for it.
Acquaint them to the time in relation to the previous scene. Is it the same day? A month later? Is it evening now? Is the weather the same as it was previously?
What POV is the reader seeing this scene from?
19. Be Careful of Flash Backs and Memories
Time is linear and moves forward. When you use a flash back or a memory, you upset the natural order of things. It slows the forward movement of the story down. Most of the time, the reader wants to know what is going to happen, not what already happened.
Only use flash backs and memories if they are essential to understanding the present story. And always use clear transitions so the reader knows exactly when they entering and leaving a flash back or memory.
NB A flash back relates what actually happened; a memory is what someone remembers happening, and will be tainted by everything that has happened since the event and by their own emotions.
20. Beware of Falling in Love with Your Own Writing
There will always be parts of our manuscript that we especially love. We become emotionally attached to a particular chapter, scene or character. Perhaps even a single sentence.
We must however be prepared to kill our darlings. Gulp.
We need to ask ourselves, “Is this scene necessary? Does it support the overall work?”
We must be ruthless.
Elizabeth Sherrill likened the craft of writing to a sculpture. We start with a huge block of marble, but we must then chisel and chip away until much of that marble lies on the floor. Only then will the sculpture truly take form.
21. Use Good Basic Formatting
When editors or agents see a manuscript that isn’t double-spaced and contains numerous spelling errors, they will assume straight away that the author hasn’t bothered to do the basic groundwork needed. These simple mistakes weed out 50% of all submissions.
Don’t send in an article that is 200 words over the requested word count.
Spell the editor’s name correctly.
Follow all their guidelines religiously.
22. Learn the Business Side
If only I had someone to do the promotion, the net-working, the marketing, the boring financial side of things – imagine how much writing I’d get done! I wish. But no, we must all learn to manage the business side of things. We must learn how to keep our websites up-to-date, our blogs fresh, our newspaper articles concise and effective.
We must make the phone calls, send the emails, do the research. Don’t fall into the trap of sitting around waiting for some fairy to come in and do it all for you.
Even if you land a publishing contract, you will be expected to help with promotion etc. In fact publishers are now expecting much more involvement from their authors than was ever required in times gone by. You may discover to your horror that you are the only PR department your book has.
23. Show, don’t Tell
This has become such a catch phrase I’m almost afraid to use it. But it’s vital we master the art of using action to illustrate dramatic moments and infuse our stories with tension and emotion. Actions speak louder than words. Don’t tell your reader that Jack was sad. Show them.
Again, read the books of the masters and see how they do it. Look specifically for it.
24. Let Your Protagonist Grow
Watch out that you don’t create a stagnant protagonist. Our protagonist must be a different person at the end of our book than he/she was at the start. She needs to have undergone all sorts of challenges and experiences that made her grow and change. She must make hard decisions that will turn her life around. And then in a final scene she must defeat the antagonist because of all she has experienced. If she hadn’t been through all the challenges and made those hard decisions, she wouldn’t have triumphed in the final climactic scene. If we fail to do this, we have created a stagnant protagonist.
25. Don’t Quit!
We have probably all been tempted at times to give up. Perhaps we’ve just received our 99th rejection slip. It feels ghastly and we wonder if anyone will ever want to read what we have poured our heart and soul into. Well, they never will if we quit.
Edison said that 90% of his patents were inventions that other people had begun and then given up on in frustration and disappointment.
Get rid of the mind-set of overnight success. Be prepared to plod away at it. Bit by bit, word by word, line by line, we will get there.
“And let us not lose heart in doing good, for in due time we shall reap if we do not grow weary.” Galatians 6:9 NASB