Wednesday, February 1, 2012

7 Common Mistakes Teen Writers Make Part 1


Today Gina Conroy is here to talk about 7 Common Mistakes Teen Writers (and new writers) make. She's giving away a 10 page critique to one lucky commenter. To get entered to win, leave a comment saying what common mistake resonated most with you (or what mistake you used to make, but you now know better). If you comment today and tomorrow (Gina will be back for part two in her series) you'll be entered twice.

Gina Conroy used to think she knew where her life was headed; now she's leaning on the Lord to show her the way.  She is the founder of Writer...Interrupted where she mentors busy writers and tries to keep things in perspective, knowing God's timing is perfect, even if she doesn't agree with it! ;)

Gina loves words and the power of story. As a teen writer she honed her writing through journaling and writing for her high school news paper. In college, she followed the journalism path and became news editor of her college paper. After college, she found her true love in novel writing, but still wrote for magazines and papers to pay the bills. Decades later she is represented by Chip MacGregor of MacGregor Literary, and her first novella, Buried Deception, in the Cherry Blossom Capers Collection, released from Barbour Publishing January 2012. Gina is a creative writing teacher and mentor to writers of all ages and  loves to connect with readers. When she isn’t writing, teaching, or driving kids around, you can find her on Facebook and Twitter.

From Gina: Maybe you’re like me when I was a teen writer. I wrote my heart out, not giving any attention to the “rules” of writing. After all, I got straight A’s in my English classes and my teachers all loved my stories. And to be quite honest, I didn’t know there were any “rules” to writing a book. I figured you just started at the beginning and kept going until the end.

But it wasn’t until I finished my first novel as an adult and wanted to submit it to an editor that I realized there were a million things I didn’t know about writing a novel. So I joined a critique group and learned the “craft,” then decided it was time I helped others.

After mentoring adults, then teaching 3rd -5th graders how to craft a novel, I realized I could take what I’ve learned and teach it to teens in a way they could grasp. Using the same techniques I used as a novelist, I broke down the ideas into easy to understand language and watched my teen students soak in the information. Their ideas and imaginations were engaging, and many were already good writers, but they were making the same mistakes I made when I first started writing. It was my hope to make them great writers by teaching them what I had learned as a new writer.

One thing I learned about teaching teens and mentoring new adult writers is that a new writer is a new writer, no matter what their age. And many of the mistakes older new writers make are the same ones teen writers make. If you master the 7 common mistakes teen writers make, you’ll be well on your way to crafting the best novel you possibly can.

Too Much Backstory

Everyone falls in love with their characters and their entire history. We want everyone to know everything about them so they can fall in love with them too. But what teen writers don’t realize is that you don’t have to tell a character’s entire history or backstory for the reader to be interested in your character. In fact, the less you tell up front, the more intrigued your reader will be about your character and the motivation behind their actions.

If you have a bunch of backstory, that’s okay. In fact, writers sometimes have to get to know their characters really well before than can tell their story. If you don’t know your character’s story you can start by journaling about their life. Just let the words flow.

But once you know their story, ask yourself “What is the most important thing about my character the reader needs to know NOW to understand my character’s action?” Include that piece of information and then later look for ways to weave in your character’s history instead of explaining it all at once in narrative.

How do you do that?


You can show your character’s history through her present actions. Did something happen in her past to make her angry or cynical? Did something happen to cause her to have a bad relationship with a friend or family member? Resist the Urge to explain (RUE) why a character is acting the way she’s acting and just show it. Then as the story progresses you can drop little nuggets of information, one liners, or subtle comments through dialogue or internal thought to give the reader a HINT at her backstory. If you drop all the information about your character up front, the mystery and intrigue will be gone, and your reader will be bored and not want to turn the page.

Not Starting in the Middle of the Action

This mistake goes along with too much backstory. Teen writers often feel the need to explain or show all the actions that lead up to the important action that starts the book, but it’s much more interesting to drop the reader in during the action! If your story is about high school bullying, it’s not necessary to show the reader everything that happens before your main character gets to school. Just drop your reader into the scene where the action is starting…when the bully is getting in the face of the main character or maybe is doing the bullying herself!

Head Hopping and Wrong Use of POV

Many teen writers like to get inside of every character’s head in their story, but this can be confusing to the reader. The basic rule is to tell the story through the eyes of one character during a certain scene or chapter. The character whose eyes you see through is called the POV character and when you write action or description, you only write what that character sees and feels. Think of it like looking through a camera lens. Whatever your character sees through the lens is what you have them see. That means they can’t see when someone sneaks up behind them, BUT they may be able to hear footsteps or smell a distinct odor as the person approaches. This also applies to emotions. You can’t know what every character thinks or feels. Just the thoughts and feelings of your POV character.

The exception to this rule is when you end a scene or chapter and start a new scene or chapter, then you can choose a different POV to tell the story. But I don’t recommend this unless you’re writing a romance or thriller which needs the POV change. Staying in one POV may seem more difficult, but the challenge will make you a better writer and it will help solidify that deep POV connection with the reader.

Come back tomorrow for the rest of the 7 Common Mistakes Teen Writers Make!

I’m giving away ONE first chapter critique up to 10 pages (a $20 value!) to commenters on this post. For a second chance to win, come back for part 2 of 7 Common Mistakes Teen Writers Make. I’m in the process of crafting an ebook for teen writers outlining the 7 mistakes and everything you need to know to structure a novel. If you would like to know when the ebook will be made available, please leave your email and if you tell me you found me on this blog, you will get a 10% discount!

52 comments:

  1. When I first started writing, two out of three sentences were backstory. Thankfully, my creative writing teacher trained it out of me, but for a long time I definitely struggled with that!
    Thanks for a great post, Stephanie and Gina!
    Sarah F.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. You're welcome, Sarah! We all tend to write a bunch of backstory in the beginning. Even seasoned authors!

      Delete
  2. I think I still struggle very much with Backstory. I go from one extreme to the other; I either put in too much backstory or I weed it all out and have zero backstory, nothing, zip...zilch. My character's a stretched mess. I'm getting better at balancing them out though, so hopefully with time it will get better.

    I also struggle with Head Hopping. Not with my current WIP, but definitely in my first attempt at writing. I think I'm reining in my urge to hop heads and I'm sticking to one POV easier as my writing progresses.

    Thank you so much! :D I love this blog <3

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I think backstory is where we fall in love with our characters and when we're in "love" we want to know everything about that someone AND we want everyone else to know about that someone as well. It's hard finding the balance, but the more you write the easier it will be!

      Delete
  3. I cut the first three chapters of my book in order to get to the action, but my brother told me I should have more mellow conflict at first, so now I'm stuck. Any thoughts?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hmmm, without seeing it, it's hard to say. I think it comes down to story structure (tomorrow's post) and the type of conflict (tomorrow's post as well!) Without going into too much detail your story should start showing your character's everyday life, with a glimpse of her fears and dreams in the first couple of chapters. There can be conflict in that, and yes, mellow conflict in the beginning can set your character up for bigger conflict, but it would also depend on what genre it is. Come back tomorrow and enter for an extra chance to win a first chapter critique!

      Delete
  4. I think I struggle with trying to tell everything at once. I want the reader to know everything I know about the character so they can better understand the MC's emotions, actions, thoughts, etc.

    Thank you for the interview and giveaway!! It is really appreciated. But please do not enter me in the contest.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. We all struggle with that to some extent. But when you start the editing process, ask yourself "Does the reader NEED to know this now?" Everyone likes a little mystery and instead of giving your reader everything up front, think of it like letting them discover things for themselves.

      Delete
  5. I struggle a lot with showing emotion and attitude through my MC actions instead of always her thinking about "what happened three years ago" I am actually really good and not doing back story when I write. This is a shocking thing to me and my writing friend because one of my personally flaws is that I can NOT summarize. I just tell tell and tell.
    Alyson

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That's when you have to Resist the Urge to explain! Instead, ask yourself...what can my character do to show her emotions. You might not know until you start to edit, but if you look for the RUEs, then you can easily plug in action and emotion!

      Delete
  6. Welcome, Gina!!!

    Gosh, I envy those of you who get to work with people who know what they're doing. :D
    In the first draft of my book, I had all of the above problems. It was in third person, and I thought I needed an equal spread of everyones' POVs. I also had about twenty full pages out of about a hundred that was backstory. Oh, and don't even get me started on not coming in on the action. I still need to work on that a little.

    However, I have learned a lot from you guys on GTW, and I'm currently on my fifth rewrite of my WIP. It's exponentially better than the first, and even the third. Here's hoping it's the last!! :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks, Becki! Good for you for sticking with it! We all have to learn by doing and you're well on your way!

      Delete
    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

      Delete
  7. RUE is where I have had trouble. Although I'm afraid that I'm swinging to the other extreme now! I tend to not explain enough. Any tips on knowing when explanation is necessary and when to resist the urge?

    Jordan

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. This is a tricky one and the only way to know is to keep writing and then editing. Resist the urge to explain if you can show it instead. Usually when writing the first draft, don't worry about explaining too much. Just go ahead and do it. Then on the second and third pass, keep asking "does the reader "get it" or am I beating them over the head with the same information." If you see yourself saying the same thing in every chapter, then that's over kill. If you explained it in chapter 1 or 2, just move on with the story. The reader will remember! Hope that helps!

      Delete
  8. Head hopping, oh what joy. I've done that many a times. Sometimes it worked,but mostly it didn't. I'm working on making it a point to stay with one POV now, especially now that I've switched to short stories.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes, staying to one POV is the best way to conquer the POV monster.

      Delete
  9. When I did the first three drafts of my story, I ended up having a prologue longer than most of the chapters. I later realized almost all of that backstory was unneeded and I now have a very short prologue.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes, prologues are often an excuse to sneak backstory in whether we realize it or not.

      Delete
  10. In my current work I am struggling with revealing too much backstory...I can see parts of the novel where I'm going to have to go back and cut out, because the information was forced and unnessecary.

    Thanks for posting!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. You're welcome, Olivia! You're on the right track!

      Delete
  11. Thanks so much for sharing! I'm working on my third book right now and RUE is definitly a struggle for me :) I'm also falling in love with character journaling, this is such a great way to express your character's background without boring your readers. Great tips!Can't wait to read more

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. RUE, is a struggle for me too! Thanks!

      Delete
  12. There are so many helpful tidbits on this post, Gina! I especially liked the analogy you used for POV. The camera lens... so perfect.

    The thing I struggle with is putting my main character in the middle of the action. I sometimes get too worried that I'm going to confuse my reader if I just plop my MC right in the middle of the action, but I'm starting to realize that that isn't such a bad thing. A slightly confused reader=intrigued reader. Now I just need to find the balance! :)

    Thanks for doing this post! Can't wait for part two!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Glad it clicking for you. The more you do it the easier it will be!

      Delete
  13. My WIP which I am resisting to edit until I finish has started off with a ton of backstory and dumping. At the time, which was probably two yrs ago, I thought it was a 'prologue'. Now I realize that it was a completely incorrect use of the word and basically just an excuse to dump random information and history. So I'm going to have to completely rework all that, but the bright side is that it helped me get to understand my MC and her family a lot!! :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes, Jaedyn! Sometimes we need to write out the backstory to get to know our characters, but we don't have to keep it for the reader to read.

      Delete
  14. I'm jumping on the Backstory bandwagon! Me, too. Whew. It feels good to get that off my chest. *chuckle*

    And I loved reading Becki's comment. I'm on my eighth revision of my first novel, girl, and it's so much better because of what I've learned here, I don't even recognize it sometimes! I'm so thankful for GTW! :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. You guys are really lucky to have a place like this to learn the craft. Wish I had a place like this when I was a teen!

      Delete
  15. Mine is DEFINITELY not starting in the action. I usually have at least a chapter of build up before my stories see any action. Thanks for the tip :)!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. You're welcome, Bex. It just takes practice and the good thing is you can always delete up to the action! ;)

      Delete
  16. I feel as if i've followed all of these rules, yet I still struggle for representation (i'm only 17 by the way, ha ha).

    I feel as if another thing that should be looked at is how you create your character. Some people create these characters that only live through description, and other people have characters that are shown only through their actions. Some people go back and forth, which I feel is the happy medium.

    lolz, that's just my random thought, i'm not even sure if I make sense :P

    I would love to get the chance to have 10 pages critiqued!! ^_^

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes, there is a balance. The key is whatever you decide to use, make it work for the moment...the scene. And just don't try and say the same thing 3 different ways like I tend to do. Through actions, dialogue and internal thought! Talk about beating your reader over the head! :0

      Delete
  17. Man, one of my biggest pet peeves is when a published (and sometimes popular!) author breaks these rules. I'm like, "Really? I can follow the rules, so why can't you?" I've never been tempted to use multiple POV in the form of head hopping, but I have been tempted to switch POV to include the reader in on certain events. Never considered it seriously on my main projects, though. Backstory, though, is another story. I don't think I've ever had a narrator/main character with a huge backstory, but some of my secondary characters do. I try to avoid info dumps, though. :)

    I would love to win a ten page critique! :D And I am eager for part two of this post!!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. My pet peeve is when authors use SAID when an actor beat would be better. But I think that's covered in tomorrow's post!

      Delete
  18. I'd have to say I've broken all of these laws every once and a while (and that's before the second half of the seven most common mistakes). ;)

    My biggest mistake is head-hopping. A few months ago, I didn't even know it existed! I used to think that there were only three forms of narration, first, second, and third and in the third you could describe every character's emotions, thoughts, and make each and every character the star. Needless to say, my drafts from a few years ago were pretty messed up. I've never really had a problem with back story or info dumping, though (I consider that a major feat and complement to my childish noveling skills). I am exactly like you were (writing to my heart's content and assuming I was doing it right because I got all A's in English).

    Cherry Blossom Capers looks really interesting (I know you're not supposed judge a book by its cover, but it has a pretty awesome cover). I also look forward to the release of your ebook! (Which I'm sooo buying).

    Thank you for offering your expertise and critique. :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks Caroline, I think Cherry Blossom Capers cover is pretty awesome myself and I'm not partial to covers with people on them! I'm currently fine tuning the ebook, but I'm also considering an online class!! I will keep everyone here posted on the progress.

      Delete
  19. Thank you for the great post Gina. I can definitely relate to not starting in the middle of the action, especially when it comes to individual scenes - the 'arrive late, leave early' strategy. As I'm writing my WIP I haven't been dividing it into chapters because while I'm not sure where I need and want chapters to start and end. As such, at the moment, all the scenes are connected to each other, with at least a paragraph between each of them explaining what happened in between, instead of just jumping straight into the scene. I'm hoping that when I edit and add chapters to my WIP that I will be able to cut a lot of this out.

    Thanks again.!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. oh, there's a strategy to creating scenes as well and that will be covered in my ebook! I just learned it a couple of years ago!

      Delete
  20. Thanks for these tips! My writing teacher/mentor Mr. Schwabauer has advised against these mistakes as well, and it's neat seeing other published authors agreeing.

    Chazak,
    - Hannah Mills

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. You're lucky to have a writing mentor like Mr. Schwabuer. Soak up all he has to offer!

      Delete
  21. What an awesome prize! I think what I used to struggle with most is the whole 'middle of the action' thing. I definitely had stuff in my writing that wasn't needed and boring.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. The only way we learn is by doing...writing. Keep at it, it will get easier!

      Delete
  22. FYI The Writer...Interupted link isn't working.

    ReplyDelete
  23. Not Starting in the Middle of the Action. That was me. Yup. So, totally, absolutely, definitely, positively me. Ick.

    Also head-hopping, although I think I may have pulled that one off the second time around. Thankfully I just trashed the first try.

    Oh, and I would *love* that ten-page critique...

    ReplyDelete
  24. Many of these, I've heard about in books on writing, but it can still be easy sometimes to write slow parts, instead of keeping the action going.

    ReplyDelete
  25. I do all of these, but not as much as I used to...

    The cover art on your book is gorgeous, by the way.

    ReplyDelete
  26. Actually, one of my biggest problems is one that isn't mentioned here. I never have enough backstory. Mostly that's a problem cause by the fact that I never take the time to work the characters out properly. Though this time around I'm trying to work out these characters. I want to know what important evens have happened to them, what their dreams are, their hopes, their fears. Already I'm seeing them come alive and I've only just started!

    ReplyDelete
  27. Not starting in the middle of the action is a big problem for me. I always have to have a lead-up. Then I end up ditching that draft and starting from scratch because it was soooooo boring.

    Thanks so much for doing that!

    ReplyDelete
  28. The cause of all these mistakes is not understanding story structure - the elements, the order, the whys and so on. Suggest you all read http://www.clickok.co.uk/index4.html

    ReplyDelete
  29. "Carrie" was the winner of the 10-page critique. Congratulations!

    And thank you, Gina, for being with us and offering such a great prize!

    ReplyDelete

Home