Sunday, 18 February 2018

The Magic Ingredients of a Novel – Part 2


Part 1 of the magic ingredients of a novel looked at things like plot, subplots, themes, conflict, emotion and characterisation – all common elements that are vital to any good story. 
This second part will look at six more crucial elements that authors should ensure are present within their novels if they want to impress agents and publishers and get that all-important acceptance – Viewpoint, Motivation, Setting, Background, Tone, Mood & Atmosphere and Foreshadowing.
Viewpoint
Viewpoint may not seem significant, but if it’s not consistent and done correctly, then it becomes a major issue.  Do you tell the story from a third person’s perspective, or first person?
Third person multiple is the most common, and is probably the best medium to work with, especially for a first time novel. The right viewpoint for the right story means the difference between producing the strongest effect for your writing rather the weakest, because if you choose the wrong viewpoint, and you’re not confident with it, the story will fail. 
That happens with first person because writers don’t understand how complicated it can be to master. This is why it’s generally wise for new writers to gain some experience with it before embarking on a full length first person novel. That’s why most stories benefit third person, and can be more effective. 
First person is very limited, so it works very well for short stories, and less so for longer stories. Third person is all encompassing and easy to work with. So viewpoint is something the writer needs to carefully consider – and get right.
Motivation
No character does something without a reason behind it. Everything they do is fuelled by motivation, so it’s fine having a story with great characters, but unless they have a reason to be in the story, what are they doing there?
The protagonist and antagonist will cross paths during the story, and they will need reasons for doing so.  The hero will also be motivated by something, and that something will push him to reach his goal. The same goes for the villain – the need for something and the determination to achieve it. Motivation forms an undercurrent to the main plot, which means characters do what they do because they’re motivated by needs, desires and emotions. 
They all want something.
Setting
Every great story needs a great setting. Sometimes writers forget to inform the reader of the setting or they assume the reader will know or guess, but it’s important from the outset that the reader understands where the story takes place. It may seem a minor thing, but the more information the reader has, the better able they are to immerse themselves with the story.
Tell the reader where the action takes place, and when. They need it in order to imagine themselves within the story.
Background
Every story must have a background. It may not seem essential, but again, the more information you give the reader, the better the story.
It’s not just the story that has a background, but the main characters will also have backgrounds; all of them full to bursting with information to layer the story. Background details help make a story remarkable rather than flat, dull and boring.
Tone, Mood & Atmosphere
This tri-formation of elements happens in and around each other, which is why they are often grouped together. Where one appears, the others usually follow.
The tone of the story adds texture, it tells the reader just what sort of story they can expect, whether that is something romantic, something dark, something funny or something scary, etc. Mood is what the writer brings to the story – a certain attitude that pulls the plot into focus and involves the reader on an emotional level. Mood and atmosphere go hand in hand, because where there is mood, there is also atmosphere. Without these elements, it would be hard to elevate the emotions within the story.
Imagine a horror story without mood, tone or atmosphere. It would be totally ineffective. The same is true for any type of genre, which is why it’s important that writers ensure there’s plenty of all three.
Set the tone, create mood and provide plenty of atmosphere.
Foreshadowing
This is something that many writers don’t use, not necessarily because they don’t know how to, but because they forget to include it. That’s because it’s seen as a non-essential thing by many, but if the writer wants to impress an agent or publisher, then a little foreshadowing helps. 
It’s rather like the brushstrokes to a painting. The more colour there is, the more detail can be seen, and writing is all about giving the reader not just a story, but a multidimensional, 360o , full colour, high definition story that actually feels real. They want to be a part of it.
Foreshadowing is art form. It’s the subtle hints, the cryptic morsels of information, the poetic lure of what is yet to come, all delivered with imagery and they help enhance a story.  Common foreshadowers are storms in the distance to show something tumultuous will happen, or cold wintry weather to foreshadow a death or a loss. Colours can be symbolic because they invoke emotional responses. Animals can foreshadow – think of a crow and what that might mean. In fact, anything can help to foreshadow events. It just takes a little thought.
Remember, the more brushstrokes, the better the picture.

Next week: The Magic Ingredients of a Novel – Part 3

Sunday, 11 February 2018

The Magic Ingredients of a Novel – Part 1


It’s hard to define what makes any novel work. It’s quite  a subjective subject – what one person likes is what another person doesn’t, and what works for one agent/publisher may not work for another. Most often it’s down to the content of a novel that really counts.
Writers can help their odds of an acceptance from agents and publishers by incorporating most of the “magic ingredients” that are found within a wide spectrum of successful novels, the kind of things we know have been tried and tested and we know they work. The more components you use, the better the chance of catching the agent or publisher’s eye and the stronger your story will be.
So let’s start from the beginning, and look at the most important elements that agents and publishers are looking for. These are the things you’ll need to incorporate for a well written piece of fiction.
Magic Ingredient Checklist

  • Story/Plot
  • Subplots
  • Themes
  • Conflict
  • Emotion
  • Characterisation
  • Viewpoint
  • Motivation
  • Setting
  • Background
  • Tone, mood & atmosphere
  • Foreshadowing
  • Symbolism
  • Simile & metaphor
  • Description, dialogue & narrative
  • Indirect exposition
  • Immediacy
  • Flashbacks
  • Pace
  • Grammar & Spelling
  • Style & Voice

It’s quite a list of things to use, and the good news is that most writers instinctively incorporate most of these. But at least a comprehensive list like this can help ensure that most – if not all – of these magical ingredients are included.
The Story
A tight, believable story is essential. Without it, you won’t be able to fully support your characters or anything else that happens within the novel.
The story needs to be watertight. You may think your story is as good as it can be, but editors and readers have a knack of finding plot flaws. So it pays to know your story inside out and back to front.
Writing by the seat of your pants won’t work, because everything that is generated from the first sentence of the first paragraph of your first chapter has a direct bearing on the last sentence of the last paragraph of your last chapter and all that happens in between is interconnected. Then they realise nothing much is cohesive and they have to do double the amount of work because they have to go back and rewrite all the stuff they missed out, all the stuff that doesn’t work or doesn’t make sense and they will have to close gaping plot holes.
The way to avoid this is to plan the story and chapters and know what will happen in the story before you actually write it. Set the foundations of your framework first, otherwise the story will fail.
Subplots
Every story needs a subplot. These separate, individual plot strands help support the main plot. They give the reader more insight into the story and characters and provide much deeper layers. This provides a much more enjoyable experience for the reader because they become involved in these small side stories that run parallel to the main story.
Subplots engage the reader, they help give more information about the main story, and they help move the story along.
Themes
Stories without themes can be flat and uninteresting. Themes add colour, depth and layers to a story. They underpin everything and they act as a bonding agent to bring all those elements together. A theme is the intrinsic message you want to convey – love, kindness, coming of age, betrayal, forgiveness etc.
Themes also evoke emotional responses within your readers. They will empathise and understand what loss means, they will know the pain of betrayal, and they will connect with the primitive urge for revenge and so on. So, without any themes, your story won’t mean much.
Conflict
This is a vital magic ingredient, and so much has been written about it that it needs little explanation, except to say that a story can’t exist without it.
Conflict creates tension and emotion and emotion creates immediacy, because every reader can identify with conflict and the emotions it creates, since conflict can appear in all manner of ways, in all manner of situations.   
The thing about conflict is that it doesn’t have to represent war or fighting or being murderous. It can be an internal force, not just an external one. How often have we fought with our own emotions and decisions?  How often have we wanted to do something, but we held back? This is internal conflict.
So conflict isn’t necessarily about aggression. Sometimes conflict takes place in the mind, within us. Without any conflict, there is no story.
Emotion
This is also a vital ingredient and no story would be worth much without it. Leave out the emotion in a story and you leave out an essential life force. Emotion is what moves your reader and makes them involved in your story.
We’ve all encountered a raft of emotions in our lives; some good, some bad, and so we can relate to the characters within a story that are experiencing the same kind of thing. Your readers need to feel the sadness, the tension, the horror, the happiness and the pain. Emotion brings your reader closer to the characters and story.
Just about every situation in life contains emotion, so there is no excuse not to use it.
Characterisation
If you don’t get the characterisation right, then the story won’t be as strong as you think it might be.
It’s essential you know your characters inside out, that they develop and grow with the story and become real enough to leap from the page. Don’t let the story down with badly thought out, cardboard characters. Worse still, don’t create stereotypes or caricatures. This isn’t the nineteenth century. Times have moved on.
Your story is being told through your characters – what they do and how they react. They need to feel real, with real emotions and needs. They need to be ordinary people caught up in extraordinary circumstances for the readers to connect with them and empathise with them.
Neglect characterisation and your story will fail.
Next week: The Magic Ingredients of a Novel – Part 2

Sunday, 4 February 2018

Dealing with Rejection – Part 3


In Parts 1 and 2, we looked at the reasons why work might be rejected and what to do if you receive one.  In this last part, we’ll look at ways to avoid rejection and improve your chances of an acceptance.
As writers, we can help ourselves in the submission process. If we don’t, then we only have ourselves to blame when things don’t go our way.
There are a number of things you can do to help your chances of acceptance. By far the best way is to write a solid, quality novel that really engages the agent/publisher and it makes them sit up and take notice.
Incredible Storytelling
The ability to tell an exciting, coherent story that is well written and researched is rare. A lot of writers don’t take the time to learn the craft of fiction writing, and become pugnacious when they receive rejection after rejection because their work isn’t up to scratch. The ability to write doesn’t happen overnight. It takes years. The sooner writers understand this, the better.
If you write a novel that has all the right ingredients – it captures their imagination, it’s well written with faultless grammar and spelling, has plenty of characterisation, pace, action and a believable story, then it’s a huge positive, because it shows them how capable you are at constructing a story.
Failure to Follow Submission Guidelines
Submitting to literary agents can be a time-consuming business. That’s because every agent has their own submission guidelines. These can be found on their websites, and one of the best ways to avoid rejection is to stick to these submission guidelines to the letter.
Your ability to pay attention is being tested, so it pays to read the guidelines carefully and understand exactly what they want, because the submission package differs from agent to agent.
So, if the agent requires a cover letter, the first three chapters and a synopsis, all done in 12pt Times New Roman and double line spacing, submit exactly that. If they want a letter, a one page synopsis and the first four chapters, in 11pt Arial and single line spacing, then do exactly as they ask.
Always carefully read what they require. Don’t deviate from these requirements. If you do, then you’re showing them that you can’t even follow simple instructions or pay attention to the little things. And it’s the little things in creative writing that really do matter, the very things they are looking for.
This process may mean you have to tailor your letter, sample chapters and synopsis countless times, but unfortunately is has to be done.
Write an Amazing Cover Letter
One of the things writers hate most, apart from writing a synopsis, is writing the cover or query letter. That’s because it’s hard to encapsulate your entire 95,000 novel into one paragraph. And there are hundreds, if not thousands, of web pages telling writers how to do it, leaving the writer thoroughly confused. And how to you capture the right detail and make it amazing?
There is no magic formula. That’s because it’s so subjective – what works for one agent might not work for another. One cover letter might look terrible, yet works, while another might look great and yet doesn’t work. It is so difficult to get it just right. (This will be covered in a future article).
That said, there is every chance the letter will work if writers stick to what’s important: the sales pitch.  And that is all the letter is about. It’s a pitch.
You have around three of four paragraphs to make an impression. That means there isn’t room for your life story or how brilliant an author (you think) you are. The agent wants to know A) what the story is called and how many words, B) what the story is about, who the protagonist is and what happens, C) a little something about you and D) a courteous sign off.
Do not tell them how fantastic your book is. Don’t compare yourself with famous authors and don’t go into huge detail. The letter should be concise, informative and stylistic enough to entice the agent or publisher, to give them that twinkle that your manuscript is worth the time and effort to read.
How you write the letter should be indicative of the writer you are. A rubbish, poorly-written letter means they may be dealing with a poorly written novel. A well-constructed, thought out letter may tell the agent there is huge potential.
And it goes without saying – always carefully read exactly what the agent/publisher wants in the submission package. Don’t rush the process. Take your time to get it right.
Tell a well written story, follow the guidelines and ensure you have a solid covering letter. These three factors should be the difference between outright rejection to a positive maybe, or even an acceptance. It’s a slow, time consuming process, so it requires patience and determination. Just remember that a rejection isn’t personal. It’s business.

Next week: The magic ingredients of a novel.

Sunday, 28 January 2018

Dealing With Rejections – Part 2


Last week we looked at the types of rejection and understanding what a rejection really means as opposed to what writers interpret them to mean. In this second part we’ll look at what to do if you receive a rejection – whether that’s the first one or the hundredth one – and how to deal with it positively.
So, if you’ve received a rejection, the first emotion you’ll encounter is...rejection. Emotional rejection, that is; the idea that you as a writer must be rubbish and your work must be rubbish and no one wants you. And it feels like a punch to the guts. But this isn’t the case, as we’ve looked at in Part 1. This emotional response is normal, because we feel hurt, but it’s how we deal with it that helps us to remain confident and focused.
Rejection = Improvement
Writers rarely realise that rejections are actually a good thing. Why? Because with the rejection there may be a few brief notes from the agent or publisher to say why the manuscript failed. This is a positive thing.
No manuscript is perfect. No story is perfect. You may think you have a perfect story and manuscript, but in reality you don’t. No author is a genius, so always be realistic when assessing your own skill and talent. So when an agent or publisher picks up on some areas that need attention or development, it means you have the opportunity to improve. To become better.
Look at the rejection as a way of encouraging yourself to improve and become a better writer. Rejection is all about improvement. This means that when someone points out your dialogue structures need attention, then work hard and make them better. If your characterisations aren’t up to scratch, work to make sure they are. If the agent says your writing is sloppy, then look at why and go and study some books and come back with stronger writing. Improvement is all about knowing what your strong and weak areas are and working to make them both better, all the time.
Embracing Humility
The second most common reaction is a knee-jerk response of indignation – “How dare they reject my amazing manuscript. Don’t they understand talent when they see it?”
We all think we have the most amazing story ever written until we receive that first rejection and everything comes down to Earth with a bump. That’s because we should understand we’re not the world’s greatest novelist – not yet anyway – and that writing is a constant learning curve. We’re always learning. So rather than feel indignant, re-read the agent/publisher’s words and look at it objectively. Try to understand why your work was rejected. It’s not a negative – it’s a positive, as long as you keep your ego out of it.
Remain Patient
Don’t rush anything - spend some time reading the same genre books, study the craft further and practice on those weak areas.  It’s all too easy to rush your manuscript out to another half a dozen agents/publishers in the belief that they will love your manuscript and the other agents have no idea what they’re talking about...except they do know what they’re talking about, because they’ve been doing it longer than you’ve been writing.
Instead, take stock and give yourself a break, then come back to the manuscript and go over it again and work on the areas that need improvement. Take on board the comments you receive.  Take the time to work on it, and your determination.
Read More
While you take the time out, why not read books similar to yours in style or genre? Sometimes just reading other books gives us a much needed injection of encouragement and inspiration – how do they grab you, what is it about them that works and keeps you reading? The more you read, the more you will understand writing, and you will improve because of this.
Share Rejection Stories
A problem shared and all that.  This works for rejections, too.  So if you belong to a writer’s group, an online network or similar, then talk about and share your rejection stories. Talking unburdens us, and we need to realise that we’re not the only one in the world that’s been rejected. Others have gone through it, and they can help you to take encouragement from it.
Keep Writing
Being rejected doesn’t mean we stop. Far from it. It means we keep going.  Because what we learn now will help us improve for the next novel, short story or poem.
Remember that rejection isn’t a death sentence on your writing. It’s an opportunity to improve and become a better writer. Rejection should be the foundation on which you build the strongest, most amazing story you’ve ever written.
In Part 3 we’ll look at ways of avoiding being rejected, the kind of things a writer can do to help themselves.
Next week: Dealing With Rejections – Part 3

Sunday, 21 January 2018

Dealing With Rejections – Part 1


For those who still wish to pursue the traditional publishing route, rather than self-publishing, then rejections are something of a rite of passage; something we all experience at some point in our writing careers and something we all have to get over.
Many writers dread it. Some fear it. Some, on the other hand, take it in their stride. We all react differently to it because it’s seen not just as a rejection of the work, but a rejection of you as a person. But that’s not actually true.
The one thing that agents and publishers will say is that it’s nothing personal. And it really isn’t. A rejected book is not a rejection of you – the agent or publisher doesn’t even know you. Rejections happen for all manner of reasons.
It could be that some agents and publishers are not looking for new authors. Sometimes it’s down to the writer not submitting to the right agent or publisher for his or her genre, for instance a science fiction story won’t warrant interest from an agent who deals with horror or thriller genres. It might also be down to the fact that agents/publishers have been flooded with the same genres. Think of the gamut of stories they would have received on the back of the success of Fifty Shades of Grey. Rejections can also happen because the story isn’t quite marketable. It might be because it doesn’t fit what they want.
There will, of course, be rejections because the writer hasn’t quite got it right. Most often they tell you what’s wrong and will politely point out the mistakes so that the writer can work on those weak areas. Maybe there wasn’t enough pace. Maybe the characters needed work. Maybe the story needed some more depth. In other words, improve on some of the areas and try again. On occasion the rejection will be because the writer just hasn’t taken the time or effort to produce a professional manuscript.
There is no doubt that rejection – when it happens – will feel personal and writers will feel discouraged and disappointed and the ego won’t like it. It’s seen as a huge negative force. ‘I’ve received a rejection, therefore I must be rubbish!”. But this thought process is quite normal because of our sensitivity to our writing and how we see our own talent, which is why rejections do hurt. But it’s how we deal with them that makes all the difference.
Understanding Rejection
The best way to deal with rejection is to understand why they cause such negative feelings and leave some writers wounded. The psychology behind it is a lot simpler than the complex reactions that rejections cause. That’s because no one likes criticism, and criticism fuels self-doubt. It’s this self-doubt that causes the negative feelings the moment we see the word ‘rejection’.
Writers are exceptionally good self-criticism. We are our own worst critics and often we let self-doubt dominate, which pushes us into further doubt of our own abilities and as a consequence we lose confidence. This is very true if the writer happens to be a perfectionist, too – that self-doubt turns can turn into self-persecution, which is never good.
If, as writers, we look at rejection not as a personal attack of our talent or hard work, but rather a dismissal at that time for the reasons given by the agent or publisher, then we can control the self-doubt associated with the negativity.
Traditional publishing is hard to break into. Rejections will happen regularly, which is why it’s important that writers persevere and keep trying. If being a writer is in your blood, then you will never give up trying.
How Rejection Can Help
Rejection is a positive rather than a negative. That might sound crazy, but think of all the best selling authors over the last 100 years who were rejected countless times, continuously, until that one break. They didn’t give up – they turned the negative into positive by working harder to improve their writing, to become persistent, and determined to succeed.
Rejection can help you improve as a writer. It should push you to learn, it should make you understand yourself as a writer and where your limitations may lie; where the weak areas lurk and where strong areas can dominate. We never get better if we don’t have the humility to learn from our mistakes. So in a way, rejection is a positive force that fires up that determination and strengthens the desire to succeed.
It pushes us. It makes us stronger. Rejections always pave the way towards success.
In Part 2, we’ll look at what to do if you receive a rejection and how to manage them.


Next week: Dealing With Rejections – Part 2.

Sunday, 7 January 2018

More Common Writing Mistakes


Following on from last time with the most common writing mistakes that writers fall foul, here are a few more that are common among writers, especially those new to writing:
Lack of conflict
Lots of writers don’t pay attention to this. In every story there must be conflict. That conflict comes in many ways – from other characters, from outside influences or it comes from within the main character. These incidents and obstacles all demand reaction and resolution, and often escalate towards the denouement, so without all this, the story will fall flat.
Think of it this way – your main character needs purpose, which means there is a story, but people (and other things) get in the way of that and often cause problems. And with problems there is often some kind of conflict. The main character has to overcome all this to get to the end of the story.
The outcome of all this? The conflict advances the story.
Run-on sentences/Comma splices
Everyone does it, no matter their experience, and often writers don’t know what run on sentences or comma splices are.
A run-on sentence contains two or more independent clauses. An independent clause is a group of words that contains a subject and a verb that can stand alone as a sentence which is not connected by punctuation – a co-ordinating conjunction (and, but, or etc.). So, in effect, the sentences simply ‘run on’ to each other without the correct punctuation, for example:
John knew the risk in the back of his mind but time was running out he knew the danger.
In this example, each independent clause is not separated with punctuation, so they run on. With the correct co-ordination conjunction added and punctuation, the sentence then becomes grammatically correct:
John knew the risk in the back of his mind, but time was running out and he knew the danger.
Comma splices are really no different, because when you join two independent clauses with a comma, but leave out the conjunction, you create a poorly structured sentence, like this:
John grabbed the glass, he guzzled the cold drink.
‘John grabbed the glass’ is an independent clause. ‘He guzzled the cold drink’ is also an independent clause. These two sentences are ‘spliced’ together with the comma. To correct this, the correct conjunction should be added, for example:
John grabbed the glass and guzzled the cold drink.
Writers use the comma splice all the time without even realising it. It really is that common. It takes practice to spot them, but eventually writers will get used to identifying them and will avoid using them.
Bad Dialogue
Bad dialogue is often found with new writers who haven’t yet got to grips with it or how it’s formatted. Fortunately that eventually comes with experience.
Dialogue is one of the most effective ways to deliver information to the reader in terms of what is happening in the story - it moves the story along while at the same time it reveals characterisation.
Readers want realistic but dynamic dialogue. Each character should have a distinct voice that matches his/her character. Readers don’t want mundane stuff that has no bearing on the story, like conversations about the weather or popping to get groceries. And they don’t want to listen to wooden, clichéd conversation either.
If you listen to real conversations, they are often brief in structure. Someone says something no more than a sentence or two long, then the other person speaks, then back to the other person. This is why writers avoid long conversations that interrupt the action too much. It’s all about pace. Mingle the pace of dialogue – some brief, a smattering of slightly longer, and brief again.
Readers want the tension and mood from dialogue, but most of all, they want emotion. Keep it varied, keep it pertinent to the story and always move the story forward.
Clichés
New writers overuse clichés and hackneyed phrases. But that’s normal for those new to story writing. Everything improves with experience.
Clichés creep in when the writer doesn’t use new ways of describing things. Often they pick something that is familiar, such as ‘as quick as a flash’, ‘he was as fit as a fiddle’ or ‘it was gut wrenching’. When these phrases were first used, they were obviously not clichés. They were new and fresh. But the more phrases and words get used, the more stale they become.
So to avoid them, writers need to come up with new, fresh and dynamic phrases and descriptions; the kind of things we haven’t heard before. It’s the kind of thing that will make your work stand out above others.
Editing As You Go
The raw draft is the bare bones of any novel and writers just need to get it written, however, many writers can’t resist the temptation to go back and edit what they’ve done before they continue writing. While this may seem absolutely fine, the advice is to leave editing for when the raw draft is written. And there is a very good reason why. If you're constantly self-editing as you go, you will impede the process, you’ll create further problems down the line and eventually the writing will grind to a halt.
You can’t edit something that has yet to be written. In other words, if you tweak around with chapter 14, but this will have a direct bearing on a plot revelation in chapter 32, then you will have impeded the process. The plot changes as we write, it grows with the story, we add sub-plots and more themes and so on, but none of this is possible if you edit as you go, because things will be missed or you won’t spot stuff. This is why it’s so important to write the bare bones and then do a read through and do the first full edit.
Next week: Dealing with rejections

 

Sunday, 17 December 2017

Avoid Top 5 Writing Mistakes - Make Your Writing Better


As another writing year draws to a close, it’s worth looking at the basic errors all writers make at some point, so that you ensure they don’t reoccur in your own writing. Learning about the most common ones will help you avoid them in future and thus make your writing better.
The ones I’ve listed are very common mistakes that all writers have made during their writing. There are, of course, dozens and dozens more well-known writing mistakes – and certainly more complicated ones – but as an editor, the following five are the most common that I encounter:
Lack of Planning
One of the biggest mistakes to make is to not do any planning at all, especially if you’re embarking on something as complicated as a novel. No rule exists that writers must plan, but it’s a simple fact that even a small amount of planning – some characterisation, plot points and perhaps some themes etc. – will result in a better story than one thrown together without any real thought.
Editors know when a writer hasn’t done any planning. The story is often incoherent, it rambles, there’s little pace, there’s weak characterisation, no meaningful plot points, it sags in the middle or the story stutters because the writer ran out of ideas and often the plot is peppered with too many mistakes. To an editor it stands out like the proverbial sore thumb. A well-structured novel has had some kind of planning. Any writer that argues until they are blue in the face that they’ve written a great story without any planning isn’t being entirely truthful - it never works.
Even established writers who call themselves ‘pantsters’ do actually plan to a degree. They’d write some pretty crappy stories otherwise.
Incorrect Verb forms
This is about knowing the difference between past, present and progressive tenses.
Most writers use past tense, but by doing so they rely heavily on the progressive tense- denoted by the use of the verb ‘to be’, and used in conjunction with the present participle, the narrative becomes clogged with words ending with ‘ing’, for  example:
He sat at the table, drinking his beer and dealing the cards to himself, thinking about what would happen in the morning...
The narrative relies too much on the ‘ing’ constructions (or gerund constructions), which leaves the whole structure weak. Keep narrative strong by controlling the use of progressive tense, for example:
He sat at the table, drank his beer and dealt the cards to himself. He thought about what would happen in the morning...
The example shows a much stronger narrative which keeps to the past tense. There are occasions when the progressive is needed, but writers need to learn to spot where they are required, as opposed to when they’re not.
Use of Was
Without doubt the single most reason for telling rather than showing. ‘Was’ renders the narrative passive, but it also strangles any chance of being descriptive. Writers – new authors especially – rely too much on this innocent looking little word.
Jenny was by the door when David approached. It was still raining, but that didn’t matter. He was home at last, after almost two years away.
She was smiling and almost crying, knowing that there was every chance he’d never make it home...
There are five instances of ‘was’. There are also several instances of unnecessary gerunds. Without ‘was’, the narrative can breathe. It can show the reader, not tell them, for instance:
Jenny stood by the door when David approached. It rained fine silver threads, but that didn’t matter. He had made it home at last, after almost two years away.
She smiled; tears brimmed. She knew that there remained a real, dreadful chance he’d never make it home...
The example no longer tells the reader. It shows more descriptive words. That’s because it’s not being stifled by ‘was’ every few words. It’s more expressive and it’s stronger by comparison. Not only have that, but the gerunds – ‘ing’ words – have also vanished.
If you want better, stronger writing, cut down on the use of ‘was’.
Hanging Participles
The hanging particle is the most common cause of bad sentence structuring and misplaced ambiguity. Editors don’t like them much, and for good reason. Writers liberally pepper their writing with these horrible constructions, by mixing the arrangement of words (participles should describe an action performed by the subject of the sentence), to leave the participle hanging.
Pulling back the curtains, she saw the sun.
She either pulled back the curtains or she saw the sun. The participle at the beginning of the sentence is hanging from the subject.
The correct version would be: She pulled back the curtains and saw the sun. Here’s another example of the participle incorrectly placed to leave it hanging:
Flicking on the kettle, she opened the mail.
Again, by arranging the words correctly within the sentence, the construction becomes instantly better:
She flicked on the kettle and opened the mail.
And lastly, here’s an example that shows the ambiguous nature of hanging participles:
Opening the car door, the hazy light smiled.
The ambiguity here is that light – smiling or otherwise – can’t open a door. These constructions are the worst, yet writers don’t realise how bad the sentence structures really are. The correct version is:
He opened the car door and that the hazy light smiled.
If you dangle your participles, you make the narrative look amateurish, it weakens the structure and you’re in danger of creating ambiguity, the kind that will have the reader sniggering.
But famous writers use them...right? They do, unfortunately, and they ought to know better. But that’s a reflection of poor editing as well as bad writing. Being a famous writer does not make them immune to writing crap.
If you want to make your writing better, don’t dangle your participles.
Wrong POV
First person or third person?
Very often, writers choose first person POV without understanding just how complicated it can be, especially for a full length novel. They also choose it because it’s popular with certain genres, but first person doesn’t suit all. And it’s not until it’s too late that the writer realises they’ve made a mistake. That’s because first person is so restrictive and complicated.
Third person is the best POV to gain writing experience. It’s not restrictive, it allows multiple viewpoints, more tension, atmosphere and emotion, but most of all, the writer can exploit conflict in unprecedented ways.
If new to writing, avoid first person until you’ve gained some experience. Practically every writer thinks they understand it. But they truly don’t.
Once you’ve gained some writing experience using third person, then practice with first person. That way, tenses won’t prove as daunting.
So there are the most common writing mistakes that editors will immediately spot. But there are some others, such as run on sentences, bad dialogue, editing while writing, lack of conflict or pace, hackneyed phrases and so on.  But if you get these basic five right, you’ll find your writing will become so much better and tighter, and the overall quality will improve dramatically.
Thanks to everybody for stopping by throughout the year to read some of the articles and hopefully become better writers.
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to everyone.
AllWrite will return in the New Year.