Seven Deadly Sins of Newbie Writers

When I first blogged about the eight mistakes of newbie writers, I knew I couldn’t cover the whole subject in a few hundred words. Since then, fellow author Keith Dixon and other colleagues have pointed out several more pitfalls that would-be novelists really should avoid. That made it high time for this follow-up.

1 Beginning before the beginning

Many novice writers launch their story with a wordy description of the main character, or a biography beginning with that person’s existence long before the action in the book – sometimes even back to their birth.  The danger is that, unless you’re Dostoevsky, readers will ditch your prose in favour of a novel where something is actually happening.

bookshop

2 Using complicated variations of ‘he said’/’she said’

You might think ‘he said’ and ‘she said’ are too dull to bear repetition, but the truth is that these basic dialogue tags tend to melt into the background, and readers barely notice them. On the other hand, they’ll certainly notice (and not in a good way) a regurgitated thesaurus such as this.

OK,” he agreed.

“That’s settled then,” she responded. “We’ll hit the road first thing.”

“Not first thing,” he protested.

“And what’s wrong with an early start?” she remonstrated.

“I wanted a lie-in,” he whined.

“Lazy sod!” she admonished.

“Not as lazy as you,” he muttered.

“I bloody heard that!” she expostulated.

3 Using too many adverbs

How many is too many? It’s a matter of opinion, but I’d say most adverbs are unnecessary, as here.

Shan’t!” the toddler said petulantly.

If you find you use a lot of adverbs, work on livelier and more concise ways to convey what you mean.

4 Letting characters prattle on

Once you’ve got an ear for dialogue, it’s tempting to fill acres of space with it, to the detriment of action, pace, conflict, and plot. Remember that every scene has to move the story on, so don’t get side-tracked.

notebooks and pen

5 Giving overly precise accounts of what characters are doing

Moving people in and out of rooms is a real problem for some would-be authors, as one of my fictional characters, a journalist called Harriet, discovers when she sets out to write a novel.

Suzi pulled the dress down over her distended belly and they all went into the living room.

Whether they walked or sashayed, they surely couldn’t all go through the door at the same time. The setting was only a 1930s semi, not a stately home.  And what were they going to do once they got to the living room?

Suzi sat herself by the window where she could enjoy the last rays of the sun and spy on her mysterious neighbour at the same time.

That was all very well, but if Harriet didn’t mention Theo, Martha, and Greg, wouldn’t the reader wonder whether they were all still standing around like lemons, while Suzi was the only one sitting down?

Theo and Martha shared the sofa, while Greg leant against the wall and puffed on his cigarette as if there was no such thing as a smoking ban.

The guy was a dick to smoke when there was a pregnant woman in the room. Harriet scratched her head. Fiction was ridiculously involved.

6 Using the passive voice

When the children had been tucked up in bed, the laundry done, and the dustbins put out, Trevor stretched out on the sofa and allowed himself to be lulled to sleep.

Yep, the reader might doze off too. Active verbs are far more compelling, and often shorter and more precise to boot. The passive voice has its uses, as in scientific papers (This formula is considered an acceptable way of estimating a child’s weight). It’s a turnoff in fiction, though, as with everything, there are exceptions.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.

7 Overusing semicolons

By this I mean using lots of them; you know, just because you can.

I believe there is a special place in hell for this sin. Semicolons are for connecting two independent clauses, each of which could stand grammatically on its own. It follows that you could, of course, use a full stop instead. Like this one.

Do let me know if you have any other Don’ts for new writers. Meanwhile, happy writing.

pencils in sixties mug

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You may also like:

How to Write a Book Review

What You Can Learn on a Creative Writing Course

 

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CPR: Why You Should Jump on a Stranger’s Chest

We’ve all seen spectacular examples of CPR (cardio-pulmonary resuscitation), especially on TV, where it leads to equally spectacular results: the previously pulseless patient sits up and tucks into pizza while vowing undying love for his family.

CPR ventilating with bag

In real life, the story is different. Outside Casualty, Grey’s Anatomy, and other small screen dramas, CPR is far less successful. Cardiac arrest in hospital has a survival rate of around 35%. Out in the big wide world, survival is more like 8%. This UK figure is especially dismal when compared with other western countries.

I learned all this and more at a CPR refresher course this week, courtesy of the Hospital of St John and St Elizabeth in North London. Tutor Philip Howarth is a brilliant mimic as well as a gifted teacher, and he was assisted by his fellow resuscitation officer Christilene Kiewiets. I can’t actually think of a more worthwhile way to spend a rainy Wednesday afternoon.

CPR manequin

We went through various scenarios of increasing complexity, but the principles are simple and they’re things everyone should know.

In a cardiac arrest, the heart stops pumping. This deprives the body of vital oxygen.

After five minutes without treatment, this damages the most important organ in the body (that’s the brain, in case you wondered).

CPR buys time. After a cardiac arrest, it can keep life going for up to 20 minutes (possibly even longer). That means time for paramedics to get there.

But CPR needs to start as soon as possible, ideally within two minutes.

Classic CPR uses chest compression and rescue breaths (in a ratio of 30:2 for adults). But hands-only CPR is a useful alternative. (Chest compressions make the lungs move, so they deliver some ‘breaths’. And people are more likely to give CPR to strangers if they can avoid mouth-to-mouth.)

Chest compressions should be fast and deep. A rate of 100-120 compressions a minute (two per second) is better than the old advice to keep time with the BeeGees’ Stayin’ Alive. ‘Deep’ usually means to a third of the depth of the chest. It’s tiring, and it can be noisy. The sound of ribs cracking is par for the course.

AED

Defibrillators can make all the difference to the outcome. In the UK there’s an increasing number of public-access defibrillators in airports, stations, and the like. The best bit is that these automated defibrillators are very easy to use, with voice prompts that are simpler and far more reliable than sat nav.

The most important thing of all?

Have a go. If someone has a cardiac arrest and you stand idly by, that person is dead. So there’s nothing to lose.

If you’re wondering about the best place to cash in your chips, a Las Vegas casino is probably the safest location of all in which to suffer an out-of-hospital cardiac arrest. Security guards trained in CPR and the prompt use of defibrillators can achieve impressive results.

FreeImages.com/Bob Townsend

Photo credit Bob Townsend

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The free app Lifesaver is a live-action movie you play like a game. It’s a great way to learn how to save someone’s life.

The British Heart Foundation runs HeartStart training courses around the UK.

First aid courses for the public offered by other charities such as the British Red Cross also include CPR.

Some ambulance instructors also teach the public. Get in touch with the Community Defibrillator Officer or the ambulance training school nearest you for more details.

The latest Resuscitation Council UK guidelines can be found here.

Here’s an easy tweet:

CPR: Why You Should Jump on a Stranger’s Chest http://wp.me/p3uiuG-1qC via @DrCarolCooper #CPR #cardiacarrest