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Top Six Novel Writing Mistakes

by James Thayer

I run a freelance editing service (www.thayerediting.com), and I teach novel writing at the University of Washington extension school.  Editing and teaching, I see six prospect-killing mistakes time and time again, errors so profound that once spotted an agent or editor will know thereís no point reading farther. 

1.   Beginning a scene too early, ending it too late:  Writers often begin the scene during uninteresting preliminary matters, instead of at the core of the scene.  And then the writers continue on after the crux of the scene has ended. 

Begin the scene as late as possible in the chronology, and end it as early as possible.  Hereís an example: a scene should begin not as the character gets out of the taxi, but five minutes later, after he has paid the cab driver, and after he has taken the elevator to the tenth floor, and after he has said hello to a lady carrying a shopping bag.  The scene should begin when he opens the door to find the body.  The scene should end as the character picks up the telephone to call the police, not as he talks over the phone to the desk sergeant, not as he goes to the cabinet for a shot of whiskey to calm his nerves, not as he sits down on the chair near the sofa to wonder what it all means. 

Itís helpful to think of a scene as a row of dominoes laid on their ends.  The row has ten dominoes.  If you push one over, they will all fall in sequence, each knocking the next down.  A scenario begins at the first domino, and ends at the last.  But you donít need all the dominoes.  The first two dominoes and the last two dominoes can almost always be removed from the scene.  They are the set-up and the wind-down. 


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Many new writers use these events to set up a scene: driving somewhere, walking somewhere, waking up and getting ready for the day, putting on or removing clothing, and making dinner.  Most often, you can skip these and get right to the sceneís heart.  Instead of driving somewhere, begin the scene as the character arrives.  Instead of documenting the character getting ready for the day, begin the scene when the event occurs that she was getting ready for.  Instead of writing about the preparation for the event, write about the event. 

The same is true regarding the wind-down.  After the character has purchased the illegal weapon, thereís usually no point following the character as he drives home.

2. Too much back-story.  Back-story is an event that occurred before the beginning of the novel.  Back-story is history.  If a novel begins on Tuesday, March 1, anything that happened before that day is back-story.

An author should be wary of back-story because it stops the storyís forward momentum, and it is almost always more interesting to the author than to the reader. Sometimes back-story is necessary. It should not appear near the beginning of a novel. Get the story going before giving out back-story, then make the back-story short. When two pages of back-story appear on pages two and three of a novelóand I see this all the time--an agent reads no farther.

Why are writers tempted to bog down their novels with back-story?  Because the writer has done a lot of thinking about this character, and itís fun to invent a background.  Once it has been invented, the back-story becomes inordinately important in the writerís mind.  But readers want to look forward to see what happens next, not backward to see what happened earlier. 

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