Monday, June 18, 2012

The Three Biggest Mistakes Fiction Writers Make

I don't usually host guests on Mondays, but this was too good an opportunity to pass up. Bonnie Hearn Hill and Christopher Poe are  multi-published authors who have teamed up on Digital Ink: Writing Killer Fiction in the Ebook Age. To tell you about it, they've created a hybrid interview/conversation thing that's pretty entertaining in its own right. Kinda makes you want to check out their book, you know?

Bonnie: Thanks, Liv, for inviting Chris and me to hang out with you today. As you know, in the digital age, anyone can get published, but that doesn’t mean anyone can sell.

Chris: That’s for sure. I can’t tell you how happy I am that my first novel didn’t find a home. Yes, it was futuristic, but it was really a thinly veiled story of my early, desperate years.

Bonnie: Same here, Chris. Mine was set in the rock radio world where I started as a copywriter. Seven hundred forty-nine pages of people getting killed and having sex. I blush just thinking about it.

Chris: We both made the same mistakes everyone else did, and that’s what we want to talk about today. Bonnie has been an editor and writing instructor since 1990, and she has been a judge for almost every major writing contest. Since we have been working as co-authors, we have spoken at numerous conferences and reviewed all kinds of manuscripts. Believe me, regardless of how much experience any author has, we all face the same challenges and make the same mistakes.

Bonnie: The first one and the most important is character. If you don’t have character, you don’t have plot. You don’t have anything but an un-hatched idea. You have to know your protagonist better than you know your best friend. This person who drives your book must be both proactive and sympathetic. That mean you need to know the hole in that character’s life, something that probably began in childhood.

Chris: You have to do the same work on your antagonist—be his/her therapist. People don’t get up in the morning thinking, “I’m a rotten SOB, and I am gonna ruin someone’s day.” The good have flaws, and the bad have reasons. In order to find your antagonist’s reasons, you will have to go back to that person’s childhood as well.

Bonnie: That was the problem with my first book. The villain was evil.

Chris: Mine was evil and crazy. It’s embarrassing to admit, but I know other writers do the same thing.

Bonnie: The next area many writers bypass is the hook. Remember, the reader can preview before hitting that “buy” link. If your first chapter is backstory and the character thinking about her life, Robinson Crusoe style, you aren’t going to make the sale.

Chris: What about a fist in the face? That’s not any more effective than the Robinson Crusoe Syndrome. A hook has to surprise you, engage you, and pull you in. It can’t be all backstory, and it most definitely can’t be all action.

Bonnie: So true. Most beginning writers want one or the other—the fist in the face or the long, soul-killing back story.

Chris: Which leads us to an easy one. This should be easy, but apparently it’s not. And that is the basics of punctuation and grammar.

Bonnie: Many writers mess up on this one. They use both said and says as dialogue tags. They write present tense when the book is begging to be written in past tense. They don’t know the difference between lie and lay, sit and set. They have no idea how long a book should be. One college administrator sent me a draining manuscript of 100,000 words. Once I slogged through it, I realized it was only one-third of his novel. That’s right. Three-hundred thousand words of pure hubris.

Chris: I remember that one. Here’s a bonus glitch that’s connected to that. It’s basing a book too much on your own life, with a fictional you as the protagonist. I actually thought my own life was intriguing enough to turn into fiction.

Bonnie: My mistake as well. But first novels are as much about healing as anything else. Agree?

Chris: As I said, I’m glad—so glad—it wasn’t published. So here we have the three biggest mistakes writers make. Protagonists and antagonists who are not fully developed. Lack of attention to a hook.

Bonnie: And finally, the one glitch it’s so easy to fix—improper format.

Chris: And the bonus glitch of not trying to write yourself in as the protagonist.

Bonnie: We’re eager to hear your questions, and we’ll be picking a post we love to send a free book to one of you.

Bonnie Hearn Hill and Christopher Allan Poe are the authors of DIGITAL INK: WRITING KILLER FICTION IN THE E-BOOK AGE. Bonnie is the author of six novels from MIRA Books, young adult novels, and numerous nonfiction. Chris, a Los Angeles-based touring musician, is the author of THE PORTAL and a member of the International Thriller Writers Debut Author Program.


  1. Great interview! Being a debut author myself, I was so surprised at all the mistakes I made. I had a hard time with my first chapter. I didn't want to give away too much, but I didn't want it to be bare bones either. I have a question - should an author automatically describe every character detail (physical traits)? I like to leave certain things to the imagination, but I've heard this is not the way to go.

  2. Great tips, though I'm chagrined to say I've failed at all of them! In medias res (literally) seems do the trick for me.

  3. Hi, Leslie,
    In our book, we warn against information-dump descriptions. You are in a character's head--just the way you are in your own head in real life. You notice only what the character would.
    Hope this helps.

    Excellent advice. It does the trick for me too, but only after I have created a living, breathing character.
    Thanks for your comments.

  4. I have thought before about making a sci-fi book based on my (work) life as a cook, but I dont think a space station mega-restaurant would be very good. Maybe if I add ninjas. Ninjas make everything better. Especially Viking Ninja Space Pirates. To be honest, my life definitely isnt interesting enough to make into a fiction story. It's not even interesting enough for real life. The only thing I've ever had published was based on my views of the world from a metaphysical standpoint. But, somehow, I don't think faeries would stand up against vampires in the literary world. Maybe if I add Ninjas...

  5. All great points. I especially liked this line: "The good have flaws, and the bad have reasons." Such a succinct way to sum up the protagonist's and antagonist's driving forces.

  6. Great interview and all great points! If everyone would follow your advice we'd all be better off.

    I do have a question, though. What about memoirs that have been fictionalized? Are those okay?

  7. Great interview! Thanks for sharing!

  8. Cheryl:
    I'm not sure what you mean by okay. Do you mean are they not following the rules of fiction? Or are you talking about people who write a "memoir" that is untrue?

  9. Sorry I wasn't clear. That's the first rule of writing: be clear!

    You said in the interview that you shouldn't use yourself as the protagonist. But, obviously, in a memoir you are the protagonist. I've seen books called "fictional memoirs," and memoirs where the author admits to have taken quite a bit of license with the materials.

  10. I would say the part I struggle with most would be the first chapter and finding just the right hook to grab the readers interested.
    Great interview, thanks for the advice!

  11. Good points, all! I think editing is a huuuuuuge deal. My mind boggles when writers say they don't have the money to hire an editor. Sell plasma if you have to! No one is close enough to their work to see all their mistakes. :)

  12. Great blog and yes it is true. I cannot tell you how many times I've mention this to my critique partners. Don't start with a back story, which prologues are mostly, leave this for later in the book where it's going to pack some emotional punch. Here, it's just a load of info dump. I don't see what drives your antagonist to this, he has no rhyme or reason, in another words, what does he want? Other than kill your hero, but why? Recently, I noticed a trend in writing in first person narrative and present tense. I think it's the popularity of Hunger Games that caused this. Just because it worked for some, doesn't mean everyone can pull that off. Also, writing for mainstream, I can't tell you how many stories I've critiqued on vampires, demons, faeries ... they are starting to blend. Maybe a fresh take on these subjects would make them stand out.

  13. We need to pick a winner for the free book. Chris, I'll let you do that.

  14. This is a great interview by two great writer's writers. Get their easy-to-read book and get editing.

    Bonnie is a teacher extraordinaire who has shared this book chapter by chapter with her students.

    Writing a novel can feel daunting. But she and Chris show how mistakes don't have to stop the process.