From Rick:

Continuing our series on problems writers encounter, I want to mention the most common mistakes I see among new writers in particular. We’ve covered some of these before, but I thought it would be helpful to see them all together so that when you’re writing or editing your work you’ll be on the lookout for them. I’ll list them in no particular order.

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VERB TENSE ERRORS: I did a whole series on verb tenses, a 5-part series. In the blog’s Categories on the left, you’ll find “Verb Tenses.” That will bring up the series. The main issue I see with beginners is the failure to stick to the chosen tense (present or past) throughout the story.

A less noticeable error is the failure to pay attention to the tense of events in the past of the story’s main time frame. For some reason, writers don’t always understand the past perfect. Consider the following sentences:

CORRECT: Carl thought that John would arrive soon.

INCORRECT: Carl thought that John would arrive sooner than he did.

This is incorrect because Carl’s thoughts occurred prior to John’s arrival, and it’s clear in the sentence that John finally arrived.

CORRECT: Carl had thought that John would arrive sooner than he did.

INCORRECT: Carl was watching out the window for some time before John finally arrived.

Same issue here. If we had said: “Carl was watching out the window when John arrived.” then the simple past tense would be correct. The “watching” is ongoing and in the same time frame as John’s arrival. But that’s not what the INCORRECT sentence is saying. It says that Carl’s action is separate from that of John’s arrival. In other words, it happened prior to John’s arrival. Hence, we use past perfect.

CORRECT: Carl had been watching out the window for some time before John finally arrived.

I won’t belabor this further here. Read the articles. As a writer, you must be aware of when events are happening and use the verb tenses appropriately.

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OVERUSE OF DIRECT CHARACTER THOUGHTS

I see quite a few new writers using direct thoughts for their characters. Here’s the post on character thoughts and how to use and format them. Since direct thoughts are often (should be?) placed in italics, using them frequently results in a lot of italicized type in your story. Italics are harder on the eye, and for that reason, it’s good advice to keep them to a minimum.

CHARACTER THOUGHTS

Many instructors recommend using INDIRECT thoughts instead of direct ones. My practice is to keep direct thought to occasional phrases or single sentences, such as when I want the character to swear or express himself to himself just short of speaking out loud. If you think of direct thoughts as talking to yourself, then perhaps you’ll be less tempted to use them in your writing.

Further, most of the time indirect thoughts lead to a smoother prose because direct thoughts represent a slight interruption in the story while the character pauses to express himself.

Therefore, minimize your use of italics and make your writing smoother by employing indirect thoughts.

Do NOT use “he thought” to call attention to thoughts. Most of the time, if you do your job as a writer, it will be completely obvious to the reader which are thoughts are which are not. And if you need to use “he thought” as a clarifying tag, NEVER use “he thought to himself” unless he’s telepathic and you’re clarifying who he’s thinking to. However, it’s okay to say in dialog “I thought to myself” when expressing to someone else what you did.

Here’s a passage from my “More Than Magick” using direct thoughts. Following the same passage (as I originally wrote it) without the unnecessary direct thoughts. I think you’ll agree that it’s a smoother read.

WITH DIRECT THOUGHTS:

Trax leaned against the brick sidewall of the bakeshop and chewed a stick of dried meat while he surveyed the morning streets of Jocathan for the promise of funds. Nistenna sure gave me a nice present for my sixteenth birthday last night, he thought. I’m a man now. She deserves something nice for doing that.

Before that, over supper, Mylane had once again pressed him to select a legitimate trade. He’d already decided on that. Even though the Thieves’ Guild wasn’t officially recognized in Jocathan, it operated much as the others did, except that its apprentices didn’t openly boast or announce themselves. Of course, Mylane won’t let me apprentice there, but then she’s not my legal guardian. I’m sixteen and I can apply for membership on my own, right after I finish this little job. They’ll put me through some sort of test, but I’m the best young thief in Jocathan. That won’t be a problem.

*****

WITH INDIRECT THOUGHTS:

Trax leaned against the brick sidewall of the bakeshop and chewed a stick of dried meat while he surveyed the morning streets of Jocathan for the promise of funds. The girl—her name was Nistenna—who had made him a man last night on his sixteenth birthday, deserved something very nice.

Before that, over supper, Mylane had once again pressed him to select a legitimate trade. He’d already decided on that. Even though the Thieves’ Guild wasn’t officially recognized in Jocathan, it operated much as the others did, except that its apprentices didn’t openly boast or announce themselves. Of course, Mylane wouldn’t let him apprentice there, but then she wasn’t his legal guardian. At sixteen he could apply for membership, which he planned to do after he finished this little job. He knew they’d put him through some sort of test. The best young thief in Jocathan didn’t see that as a problem.

*****

These two passages accomplish the same thing in slightly different ways, but they are not equivalent. In the first, we’re taken into the character’s head via his thoughts. Some might say that’s better because we’re being shown Trax’s thoughts directly. In one way, that’s correct, but in another it yields weaker writing because the reader is effectively being bounced in and out of Trax’s head rather than being kept in one place and one perspective.

Both passages SHOW what’s happening. In the first, we’re being allowed to read Trax’s mind. While that’s fine occasionally, it gets distracting if overdone. And, honestly, why do we need to see his thoughts directly? We’re getting a close perspective, and furthermore, it’s a consistent one, not a bounce-around one.

Again, don’t misunderstand. Direct thoughts have their place, but much of the time you’re better off with indirect thoughts and avoiding too much use of italics.

One final point here is that it’s not absolutely necessary to use italics—and some writers don’t—but if you don’t use them for thoughts, then you’re usually forced to use “thought” tags to ensure the reader knows they’re thoughts. And that’s just as distracting as too many dialog tags when they’re not needed.

This brings me to the next point.

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OVERUSE OF DIALOG TAGS

The purpose of dialog tags is to let the reader know who is talking. However, when you only have two people speaking, you usually don’t need a tag for every line of dialog. Sometimes you can mention the speaker performing an action before he speaks. In that case, the reader knows he’s talking. I’ve seen writers add a dialog tag anyway, unnecessarily.

Be careful that you don’t do too much back-and-forth dialog without a tag or clue occasionally. That last thing you want is for your reader to have to go back and count dialog lines to figure out who just spoke. It is possible to write an entire story without any tags whatsoever (I’ve done it). Good writing means know when tags are needed as much as knowing when they aren’t. Don’t overdo, but make sure your reader is with you.

And remember these two guidelines, which are not hard rules and which do have exceptions:

(1) Generally start a new paragraph when the speaker changes!

(2) Don’t separate the action and dialog of one speaker in two paragraphs. If the character does something then speaks right after, keep the dialog with the action.

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I’ll finish up with these major problems next time, then I’ll move on to some less common problems.

–Rick