• Ejuen Armstrong

Common Pitfalls for New Writers

I beta-read regularly for new writers and this is what I often find: when we first start out. we really fancy ourselves. Honestly, we've got the best idea in the world . . . no, no,really! We think it's never been done before; it's fabulous and unique. Ok, sometimes it really is. But that's rare. Generally what happens is we assume our story is pret-a-manger: ready to eat—or in this case, to read—from the very first draft.

When it comes to finding out about your writing skills, you need to be realistic about your first offerings. In my experience these are some of the most common mistakes new writers make:

1. Buy into the family/friend fan club

Your family tell you you can write. The younger you are, the more praise and adoration will be showered on your masterpiece. Not in anyway patronising or indulgent, oh no.

Here's the truth: you’re not going to get much truth from friends and family. They truly believe. They also truly lie. Yes, pedants,it's an oxymoron, but you get the gist. Stretch that imagination. If you're lucky, though, you might have a Special One among the clan. We all know 'em: their mouth has no cover. They don't know how to filter. Their top lip flaps permanently from verbal diarrhoea.

Usually, you'll want to stop up their gob with cement. Truthfully, though, now is not the time. This is their time to shine. Hold on to these rare gems. Let them point out the harsher truths about your writing and save yourself a bellyful of heartache down the line.

Usually you'll want to stop up their gob with cement. Now is not the time. This is their time to shine.

2. Believe someone will steal their idea

No, they really won't. Because we writers are far too in love with our own and think that your story is poo. So don't waste time hiding your masterpiece, or plotting how to ensure it doesn't get carted off by some talentless hack. Almost every story idea has been already written. Chances are if you think it's fantastic, it's already been done. And even in science fiction it's a race against time—no pun.

Who could ever accuse Morgan Robertson of plagiarism over The Titanic? No one.

3. Believe their plot is unique

Look, even so-called 'unprecedented' real-life disasters can't manage to be unique. Ever heard of, or read The Wreck of the Titan by Morgan Robertson? The similarities with the real RMS Titanic are endless. Here's a few, taken from Wikipedia:

  • Similar names of the ships.

Both were described as the largest craft afloat and the greatest of the works of men.

  • The Titan was 800 feet long, displacing 75,000 tons (up from 45,000 in the 1898 edition).

  • The Titanic was 882 feet long, displacing 46,000 tons.

  • Had triple screw (propeller)

Described as "unsinkable"

  • Shortage of lifeboats.

  • Struck an iceberg.

  • The Titan, moving at 25 knots, struck an iceberg on the starboard side on a night of April, in the North Atlantic, 400 nautical miles (740 km; 460 mi) from Newfoundland (Terranova).

  • The Titanic, moving at 22½ knots, struck an iceberg on the starboard side on the night of April 14, 1912, in the North Atlantic, 400 nautical miles (740 km; 460 mi) from Newfoundland (Terranova).

  • The Titan sank, and the majority of her 2,500 passengers and crew died; only 13 survived.

  • The Titanic sank, and 1,523 of her 2,200 passengers and crew died; 705 survived.

  • The Titan and Titanic both sank on a night in the month of April.

Who could accuse Morgan Robertson of plagiarism here? No one. That's because Robertson wrote his fictional tale The Wreck of the Titan fourteen years before the real-life tragedy of The Titanic.

4. Haven't checked for grammar and spelling

It's crucial to get your work checked by someone with a good grasp of the language. Here's why. Some of your readers will know how to form sentences. Some will be teachers, linguists, professors. Some will be fully paid-up members of the grammar police. And some are looking for one mistake: just one. It is their one true mission in life.

While you don't have to genuflect continuously to appease these Gods of Grammar, respect your product and give it the best look you can. Even as those 'brainless bastards' (your words, not mine) are dissing you, these readers are your eyes and ears. They are precious—as in The One Ring, not Drama Queen. They can provide great market research as well as being an excellent tool for improving your work. Cherish them.

Almost everyone misses the odd typo; it's not going to murder a good story. But take your time. Take a break; a long one. I don't mean just a three-hour lunch break, although that can help a little. I mean days, weeks, even months. Then look at your work again. Or use a professional.

However you do it, just get a fresh pair of eyes on your work, even if they're your own sometime later. You will be surprised, horrified, and if pre-published, elated by what you see.

Remember when it comes to money, millions usually go into making millions.

5. Expect to sell their finished story immediately

Most writers, being either naive or conceited egoists, expect that the world will love their debut novel: how can you not? It's so fantastic.

Oh, dear me, no.

You will have to showcase and plug to get sales of a certain level. If you're a shazy like me (shy-lazy), and all you want to do really is write just your way and show others the pitfalls (one of which is not writing just your way) it might be a little bit more easy, but not that much. Don't expect to sell and make millions unless you love putting yourself on Twitter and Instagramming yourself all over the place. Even then it's a hard slog. Remember, when it comes to money, millions usually go into making millions.

Don't have your character flying to an Australia where everyone speaks French—or worse, to a Caribbean where they all sound like black Americans from the USA's antebellum Deep South.

6. Fail to do any research

I wouldn't accuse all new writers of this; many do write from personal experience and that's the flip side of this point. However, some new writers just make it up as they go along. Yes, well, ok—but you know what I mean. It's fiction but it has to be grounded in reality. Don't have your character flying to an Australia where everyone speaks French—or worse, to a Caribbean where they all sound like black Americans from the US antebellum Deep South. "Yassa massa, dis po chile..." Nuh-uh.

Do your research and get it right so that you don't get laughed off the literary stage on your first performance.

7. Over-explain

"It was the day that Burt was arrested. But the truth is he wasn't the one who'd committed that dreadful crime of crucifying all those poor squirrels. And this was because ... the thing that really happened ... what no one knew ... huff puff ..."


You don't have to tell all. Let the reader do some of the work. Otherwise it's like sitting in the cinema for the long-awaited movie and having someone that's seen it already reel it out line by line for you. Remember, you're the writer. Think of how poets do it. Tantalising us with their crazy opaque verses until we're manifestly insane. "Oh, my mind eye must reach the method and—behold!—the emerald sky!"

On the rare occasion, the context is clear to see.

I, young in life, by seeming cruel fate

Was snatch’d from Afric’s fancy’d happy seat:

What pangs excruciating must molest,

What sorrows labour in my parent’s breast?

- Phyllis Wheatley

Even if you don't know who Phyllis Wheatley is, you only need pick out a few words to see this is about the theft of a child from her parents, presumably into slavery.

Or if you prefer, Phillip Larkin's more modern rendering of loss:

They fuck you up, your mum and dad. They may not mean to, but they do. They fill you with the faults they had And add some extra, just for you.

But generally speaking, most poets don't give us nuthin'. Not a clue. In the same way, you can copy a little bit of their style. Spin a little mystery and intrigue. So let your reader find their own way some of the time.

8. Fail to understand the process of becoming published

To make it short but not very sweet, familiarise yourself with these terms on the way to riches. Note this is after the editing, proof-reading, beta reader, 2nd, 3rd etc. draft and 'polished manuscript' stages.

  • Manuscript review

  • Formatting

  • Agent

  • Submissions

  • Publishers

  • Blurb

  • Slush pile

  • Marketing

  • Contract

I'm sorry to say, there are more; this is just an off-the-top of my head list.

But don't despair. Writing is a labour of love, and the key thing is to produce your own masterpiece. Don't worry about who's waiting to steal your ideas. Because, most of the time, they'll be looking at you as the big thief of their grand opus.

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