Pub Rants

Beginning Writer Mistakes

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STATUS: Tonight I’ll be back in Denver and ready to start my week.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? SHAKE IT by Metro Station
(Can you tell I’ve been spending time with a 14 year old?)

Over the course of the year, I often participate in writer conference charity events where the prize is a read by yours truly. In other words, when I read for charity, Sara is not prescreening. Same with certain referrals sent my way.

Since the materials weren’t requested, I’m seeing sample pages from writers of various levels of ability, and with these unscreened pages, I see two very obvious beginning writer mistakes. Both of which could be easily fixed once the problem is pointed out and once the writer gets a little “formal” training regarding the writing process (either through a class or via a good critique group).

Here they are in case anyone reading this blog finds this remotely helpful.

1. The old adage still holds true. Show, don’t tell. In other words, newbie writers will often have a scene and then follow it with an explanation of the scene for the reader. Or, the newbie will simply explain what they want from the scene rather than write the scene well and let the scene speak for itself through character building, setting, and dialogue.

I will often see this in above average sample pages as well—in other words, writers are exhibiting a lot of expertise with a scene and then they can’t resist telling or offering an explanation! But as I mentioned, this is an easy aspect of writing to learn and fix.

2. Problems with dialogue. This issue exists on two levels. One, the newbie writer will include dialogue that doesn’t further the story, help the scene, or explore character. (in other words, the dialogue is pointless). Or two, the writer will have a bit of dialogue (and it can be well executed) and then there is a summary of what the reader should have gotten from the dialogue immediately thereafter.

These two issues will mark the writer as a newbie every time and with a little instructive teaching, can be tackled and resolved. As an agent, I don’t have time to go through and mark the manuscript to point this out. My assumption is that these key writing skills should be learned before querying the agent. It’s just a pass—sometimes with a comment referring to this but most often not.

33 Responses

  1. Aerin said:

    Kristen, could you or one of your readers point the way to a blog or somewhere that exhibits these two newbie mistakes? I like to think I know what you mean (god knows I’ve heard it enough) but it’s sometimes helpful to read an example of what not to do.

  2. Dan said:

    I agree with you, and as a newbie writer I grind and re-grind my pages trying to show as much as possible. I wonder if some established authors get away with too much telling. I think some do, or I wouldn’t be commenting. I listened to the first part of a book on tape by a well known, best selling novelist. I kept waiting for the conflict to begin, to watch as characters came to life before my ears. What I got instead was backstory until I was nauseated and telling, telling, telling! By the end of part one I was finished.

  3. Gabrielle said:

    Totally true. I’m reviewing a self-published book right now, and the writing is pretty awful, exhibiting both of those beginner’s sins. It’s kind of a shame, because the bare-bones plot is decent and some of her description is great. But the book would have been much better with a serious editor or co-writer.

  4. Julie Weathers said:


    First off, welcome home.

    Next, thank you.

    A while back I read some comments about writers wasting their time reading and writing blogs. While I could easily spend hours perusing blogs, I’ve culled my visits to a few where I always find interesting information. I hope I’ve gotten past that point in my writing, but I’m glad you mentioned this specifically.

    I cringe when I look back at the project I worked on some time back and wonder why on earth any agents requested partials. Heck, I cringe at what I write now at times, but picking up these pointers helps so much. I feel like it’s just putting another arrow in my quiver.

    Thank you.


  5. Lehcarjt said:

    On #1 (if anyone feels like offering thoughts), I get show-don’t-tell. However, I’m also a strong believer in the scene-sequel story structure as taught by Dwight Swain. It seems like Kristen is saying don’t do that. Stick with Scene-Scene.

    in other words, writers are exhibiting a lot of expertise with a scene and then they can’t resist telling or offering an explanation

    I suppose we don’t want to use our sequel to reiterate what just happened in the scene, but isn’t it a good place to add backstory, deepen motivation, show the characters reaction to the previous scene, and have them set new goals?

    Or is that exactly what she means by ‘telling and giving explanations?’

  6. Elissa M said:

    This is a very helpful post, as I’m sure many others will tell you. Of course, the real problem when you’re learning to write is you can’t honestly see your own mistakes. You know what you’re trying to say, you can’t see that what’s on the page isn’t what’s in your head. This is why I think a good critique group is a must for anyone wanting to improve their writing skills. It’s like the mirror in the dance school.

  7. shariwrites said:

    As a newer writer, I totally understand the problem with SDT. I have struggled with it, but only in certain circumstances. I do fine in scenes and descriptions. Where I struggle is with background kind of stuff. Like time passes but you don’t want to hear every little thing they did, but a general idea is important.

    Anyway, loved the post and will certainly look for those two elements to make sure I avoid them as much as possible.

  8. Jessica said:

    Wow, this is very helpful. I like doing straight-up dialogue but sometimes others will say “What’s she feeling, thinking, etc” so then I have to explain it more. I’m not sure if I’m correct in understanding the second part of your post. Are you saying that I don’t always have to show the reason behind the words?
    If so, awesome.
    And if I’m totally misunderstanding, lol, I’m a newbie.

  9. Chris said:

    That’s a heavy standard for dialogue; sometimes dialogue is to show virtuosity or scenery. Carver comes to mind.

  10. RK said:

    Welcome back!

    I’ve been re-reading past posts and getting ready to e-mail Sara to make sure you’re okay. Can you tell I need Pub Rants as much as my daily cup of morning coffee?

    Also, as a writer who benefited from your comments through an auction –Thank you for taking the time to do charity reads. Just getting a nudge in the right direction is wonderful. But getting the nudge wrapped in nice, constructive language –is priceless.

  11. Don said:

    Thanks a lot! My word count just dropped by 20%.

    Well, maybe not that bad, but I did quite a bit of hacking and whacking while editing this morning, getting rid of those “in case you missed it, here’s what I meant” descriptions.

    For some reason, this particular scene had quite a few…

  12. Joshua Skurtu said:

    I think another issue n00b writers have is formatting their manuscripts incorrectly. Personally, I can’t stand it when I read a manuscript in which the dialogue tags are all over the place. It seems some people just go and write without taking the time to look at a published novel as a guide. When I first started writing, I picked up a copy of The Elements of Style, and a book by Stephen King. Both of these helped guide me in formatting my first horrible manuscript, but it was horribly written, not formatted!

  13. Anonymous said:

    Do you leave comments on those manuscripts, or leave them twisting? You hint at it, but don’t let us know; how many of those manuscripts will you read in the course of charitable reads?

    It’s nice of you to volunteer time that way; if you are extending yourself that way, and see something good, will you show it to another agent who happens to be there doing the same thing?

  14. Miss Ive said:

    I am a newbie writer who happened to upload the first 30 pages of her manuscript to your site while you were away. I checked your site daily, anxiously awaiting your return. Each time the page loaded I reached into my wildest dreams and imagined a title that read, “Have just returned home to find ONE GOLDEN EGG uploaded to our site.” You can’t say I don’t have an imagination.

    And then, I found this!!! You can imagine how hard it’s been for me to talk myself out from under my desk and not become paranoid—something easier said than done for we neurotic, writing types.

    Seriously, love this blog. Thanks for the tips. Even if they weren’t directed at me . . . and breathe . . . one, two, three . . . breathe.

    J. Wright

  15. Julie Weathers said:

    I probably shouldn’t do this as it’s an excerpt from my WIP Paladin’s Pride and is definitely in progress, but I will anyway. Kristin, please don’t post it if it isn’t appropriate.

    “Sir, do you think it’s a good idea to smoke in here with these explosives?” (If I wanted to direct it I would say Gen was worried about him blowing the workshop up, but the question should be enough to the reader without me explaining it.)

    He continued to look out the door, seemingly lost in thought, the bowl of the pipe cradled in his hand. Saerowyn lifted the stem to his lips and inhaled deeply; then he closed his eyes and gapped his mouth open three times, forming three perfect smokes rings. He watched as they faded into nothingness. “Not, for the inexperienced,” he said at last. “So you better not start smoking.” He returned his attention to the scenery outside the shop, mostly to the man who leaned up against the tree very noticeably not watching the wizard. “Spies used to be better,” he sighed. “The ones today aren’t even mildly entertaining. Well, they are, but you have to do so much of the work yourself to make them so.” He turned to the workbench and studied her progress. “Fill that small measuring bowl with the powder and then pack it in one of the largest shoots I sealed the end on.” He then looked back at the young man who was now cleaning his fingernails with a dagger for the fifth time since he had meandered over to the tree.

    No need for me to explain he is teaching her how to make fireworks. It also shows he knows he’s being watched and he’s been playing this game a very long time. I also shouldn’t have to explain he’s not overly concerned about being spied on. He’s blowing smoke rings instead of fretting about the spy.

    If your actions or dialogue aren’t clear enough to convey your message, then you need to punch them up, not explain what you mean.

    Beth Shope at The Stone River has some excerpts from her WIP She is one of the best I have ever seen at description and showing instead of telling.

  16. jodi said:

    lol–I see a lot of “after” explaining and telling within a telling sentence that explains what the writer just…er, told. It happens all over the place. I think it’s something you consciously have to correct. In other words. It’s the way everyone rough-drafts, only some people consider roughs their finished copy.

    …uhm, and I think it’s rather unfair to assume your editor will correct your ms. Good stories may be good stories, but a firm grasp of mechanics is your best co-writer. Anyone can have an idea. It’s how you execute it that makes it a good read.

  17. Mike Harris-Stone said:

    A great book I’ve been reading which talks about this with lots of examples is “Self-Editing for Fiction Writers” by Renni Browne and Dave King. It covers lots of other issues as well. I was surprised by how helpful it is, given the title, on some basic areas of writing technique.

  18. CM said:

    I doubt that Kristin meant “don’t use sequels” as I see her clients using sequels–Sherry Thomas in Private Arrangements, for instance.

    But sequels are not recaps. Sequels capture moments of decision that change and direct the plot and set in motion the next scene. If your sequel does not end on a decision, you probably didn’t write a sequel.

  19. Julie Weathers said:

    Oops, I meant it really wasn’t appropriate to post an excerpt here, even if just meant to illustrate. Ah, well.

    *Waves at Lynne and her hunky hero.*

  20. Julie Weathers said:

    Thank you, Melanie and Aerin.

    I just wish I had deleted that widowed comma and semi colon. Sigh. It’s always a good idea to reread a section after you’ve been fiddling with it.

    I do think it’s imperative to find a trusted crit group. Scenes I think work well dissect down to the bones in the hands of good critters.

    They may still be good scenes, but strong critiques will show you how to take it apart and make it powerful. Good isn’t good enough.

    We get so close to our work we can’t see the things that are obvious to fresh eyes. Make it easy for an agent to say yes.

  21. Pema said:

    Thanks for the reminders, Kristen! This really is one of the most important rules in writing – if writing has rules at all. 😉

  22. Anonymous said:

    I know you have lots of comments already, but I just want to point out another solution.

    I used to be really bad about dialogue and then explanation of what should have been learned. Then, I entered journalism. My editor hated that I said something, and then said the same thing in a quote from a source. I soon learned how NOT to do this.

    I haven’t been back to fiction since then, but I think practice another form of writing (journalism) can be a way of learning how to write better fiction.


  23. Beth said:

    Julie, I thought the scene provided a helpful example. If Kristin didn’t want it here, she’d delete it, I’m sure.

    And (blushing madly), thanks for the plug.

  24. Reb said:

    Hmmm, your hair is peaking out from under your editor’s hat. Call me a glutton for punishment, but I’m reading blogs to try to find out if I think an agent might be a good match for me.

    So many of your writing tips sound like an editor taking a writer to the woodshed. Look, unless your writer is an artiste, a good red pen would fix much of what you’re talking about. No red pen will fix a stale voice, or dull characters. A great editor can fix meaningless dialogue, but no editor can fix a dull story.

    Your blog and web site have me interested but not sold. How’s that for an arrogant unpublished wannabe? One of your most appealing assets is that you will do senior editing for your clients. It also makes me hesitate.

    I never understood the power of an editor until I worked with one, but now I think having a good editor is more important to me than a good publisher. Still, should a writer’s agent be his editor? I don’t know. It would seem to take too much time away from your “agenting.”

    Of course if I didn’t find your rambles interesting, I wouldn’t be reading them at this insane time of the morning. I also appreciate the insight you offer into the business of being an agent. Still, it seems a crazy business model. How in the world did agents become the gatekeepers in this business?

    What I mean is that the last person you ever want to do product evaluations are your salesmen. I love salesmen, I made a lot of money as a salesman, but we are by nature optimist. We’re looking for the sizzle we can sell, even when we’re trying to be objective.

    Then there’s the volume of queries you seem to get. How can poor Sara deal with up to a hundred queries a day?

    Sigh, enough dark of morning musings, I need to go re-read my first 50 pages (how many times does this make?) to find the catalyst so I can write a good presentation paragraph… actually, I don’t care about writing a presentation paragraph, but it has to be decent or I’ll be accused of throwing my bet. Don’t ask, it’s an intermarriage bet using poor Sara as the arbiter.