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Tighten Up for the New Year: Avoid These Common Writing Mistakes

Jen here:

This is not a post about cats. Well, maybe it is. A little. I don’t know about you but I’ve never seen a cat with six-pack abs. Every cat I know has a soft, flabby belly. We had a cat growing up that we called Flabby Tabby.

How does that relate to writing? I’ve been judging a lot of contests, published and unpublished, for many years. And I find the same types of problems crop up over and over. A lot of flabby bellies in writing, if you will. So let’s discuss them here so you can look for them in your own writing and weed them out, whether you want to enter a contest or not.

Point of View
As I said in my earlier post here on deep POV, most people don’t realize how powerful it is. When we are truly inside your character’s skin and brain, and not just watching him or her, we develop that deep emotional connection that makes for a great reading experience. If readers love your characters, they’ll follow them anywhere, even through a bad plot.

Do Double Duty
Another big mistake I see in contests is that writers fail to make every action, thought, and word do more than just convey one piece of information. Use each as an opportunity to show emotion or convey something to us about your character’s personality.

For example, a character simply crossing the room to pick up her phone can tell us a lot. Don’t just tell us she went over and got her phone. Did she stalk? Did she drag her feet? Did she nearly skip? See how each one shows us her mood as well as showing us what she’s doing? And for the phone call. Do her actions convey dread? Excitement? Anger? Make each bit do double and triple duty and you won’t have the dreaded flab that must be cut.

Cut the Flab
When we read about what your character is doing (or has done) we expect it to mean something. If you tell us she went to the grocery story before going home, there should be a reason I need to know that. Did someone see here there? Did she need to avoid someone so she forgot the milk? Did that errand delay her arrival at home so she missed being there when the burglar broke in?

Just as your words need to do double duty, so do any actions that either appear on stage or are summarized in narrative. Keep asking yourself why we need to know this. And, what else can this action tell us?

Where to Begin
One of the most frequent errors I see is that writers don’t know where to start their story. See my post here about first impressions. That also applies to scenes. I often see scenes that flounder a bit in their beginning, giving us too much info about how we got here.

Readers don’t need a lot of set up. Regardless if you’re a plotter or a seat-of-your-pants writer, you need to know what you want to accomplish in each scene. Scenes can take place close together or farther apart in time, but they should only contain actions that move your story forward.

If you’re writing a romance and the hero and heroine haven’t spoken in two weeks, you don’t need to spend a lot of time in your next scene explaining what they’ve been doing or why (unless it directly relates to the plot or subplot). You can easily say something like, “After not hearing from John for two weeks Jane was surprised to see his number pop up on her phone.”

You could change “surprised” to something that might more closely convey her feelings, like annoyed, irritated, elated, angry, miffed. But we don’t need a long explanation, just jump into the action. When in doubt, start with the action and add any explanation or transition later if you really need to.

When It’s Over, It’s Over
And then when the purpose of the scene is over, end it. It’s much better to leave your readers wanting more than to linger too long in the scene. Think about the purpose (or better, purposes) of each scene. How does it move the plot forward? How does it deepen characterization? What questions does it raise that will keep the reader turning pages? When that’s done, your scene is done.

The problem is that, as writers, we love our characters. They live in our heads; they are our friends. We want to hang out with them and spend time with them. And that’s fine, but do it elsewhere if it’s making your story flabby.

Use these tips to tighten up your writing, whether it’s for a contest or not. And your scenes won’t look as flabby as a cat’s belly.

Jennifer and the other Pencildancers have just released Worthy to Write: Blank Page Tying Your Stomach in Knots? 30 Prayers to Tackle That Fear. Jennifer's latest books~ Protective Custody: A cop burned by love falls for a key witness in a crime implicating the town’s rich and powerful.  Coming Home A strong- willed young woman must discover her brother’s killer before she’s the next victim. The prequelBe Mine, is also available. Can a simple thank you note turn into something more? Get the first chapter of Coming Home and Protective Custody at www.JenniferVanderklipp.com

10 Glaring Mistakes Beginning Writers Make

Watch for these 10 Glaring Beginner Mistakes
Diana here:

Excited about writing that first big novel? Or second or third? The truth is writing is great, but you must continue to learn the craft or your work won’t get better.

And better is what you want, right?

In my side job, I get to read a lot of first-time author’s books. In them, I find glaring beginner mistakes that pop up over and over.

Dialogue riddled with unnecessary he said, she said dialogue tags
 Once you have your point of view character established in each scene you can almost always leave them out. Instead, have your characters do something that works within that scene.

Not using contractions
Using can not, will not, should not all make the book longer but not in a good way. It slows the pacing of the book and tires the reader.

Using knee-jerk words
When writing a historical look up your words on Etymology.com and see when they first came into use. You don’t want to use a 21st century word in the 18th century.

Sentence length is the same throughout the scene
Vary the number of words, break up long sentences into shorter ones to increase the pacing for the reader. The shorter the sentence, the more tension you create.

Shifting Timelines
When you edit or when plotting, make sure events are happening in the correct order.

Using adverbs to start a sentence
Actually, really, usually, suddenly are all words that take away from the power of story.

Sentence order or action order confuses the reader
Walk through the order in your mind, don’t have your character do something like this: Dexter tossed his keys on the bed as soon as he closed the door behind him. Instead: Dexter closed the door and then tossed his keys onto the bed.

Using thought and wonder
Change those moments into direct thought. Instead of: Dexter wondered if he had practice tonight. Try this: Dexter checked his phone, no messages, did he have practice tonight?

Not ending on a hook
This is a hard skill to learn, and I’m still working on it. Don’t end a chapter by resolving the biggest issue in the scene, drag it out and make the reader keep going.The master of this in our group is Liz Tolsma, get her books and see how she ends chapters making you stay up all night to finish her book.

Shifting point of view within one scene
Just don’t. It marks you as a beginner. It’s not easy to stick to one point of view at a time, but it can be done with a little thought. Have your secondary character reacting outwardly will let the reader know what he/she might be thinking.

Read through your work and see if you spot some of these, then fix them.

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Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas

Jen here: My best Christmas memory doesn’t have much to do with writing or editing. But it has a lot to do with a few people who reached out to a struggling single mom and her two kids to make Christmas special and to show them the love of Jesus. And it is that mom and her struggles that I keep in mind when I’m writing, hoping that my words carry her away for just a few minutes—because that’s all she has for herself—to a place where she can join someone else’s world and forget about hers for a moment. Here’s her story.  It had been a hard year. She had told the kids not to expect much for Christmas. She hadn’t been getting any child support. One of her clients and gone under and hadn’t paid her. A significant amount of money that was not only supposed to go towards Christmas, but December and January bills as well. She could get her kids one gift each and the bills still wouldn’t be paid.

She got a call from the church secretary saying someone wanted to adopt a family for Christmas and would they be willing to be adopted. She was a bit surprised because she hadn’t shared much of her story with anyone, but a few people knew they’d had a hard year. So she agreed, but she didn’t tell the kids. She didn’t want to get their hopes up in case it fell through.

The church secretary called back a couple weeks later to ask when she wanted to pick up the gifts. There were eight boxes.

“Oh, that’s nice,” she thought. “The kids will get four presents each. That’s really sweet.”

“Eight boxes two feet by two feet,” the secretary continued. “The pile is up to my shoulders. Plus they’re bringing you food for Christmas dinner.”

She was so stunned she couldn’t speak.

She finally told her kids that someone had adopted them for Christmas and that they were going to pick up the gifts at church. When they walked into the room, Sissy’s face lit up. “Mom, this is exactly what we prayed for! God took care of us!”

The mom started to cry.

It took two trips with a hand truck plus several more trips carrying food and their little Jetta was overflowing. Food sat on the back window and under the kids’ feet. They couldn’t have gotten one more thing in that car.

When they unloaded the presents and put them around the tree, they had to be stuffed into every nook and cranny. She’d never seen so many presents in all her life.What was amazing was how much time and thought was put into the gifts. It wasn’t just a matter of spending money. Clearly whoever bought the gifts knew her kids enough to know their tastes. Plus, there were homemade cookies and hand-knitted afghans for each of them. They even got gifts for the mom.

We always hear how it’s more blessed to give than receive. But in Blue Like Jazz, Donald Miller makes the observation that it can be hard to receive because it implies need, and we don’t like to be needy people. We like to be the ones who have the surplus to give from. It’s hard to accept other people’s help. But the Bible says to tell of the Lord’s wonders and faithfulness. Psalm 78:4 says, “We will not hide these truths from our children but will tell the next generation about the glorious deeds of the Lord. We will tell of his power and the mighty miracles he did.”

Because bottom line, this is about God and His faithfulness. He provided. Not just for their needs, like He’s promised to do. But for some of their wants as well. And abundantly. What a wonderful lesson for those children.

And me too. Because I was that mom.

It’s humbling to receive generosity, even when you need it. I’d like to think that with every book I write, I’m giving a little bit of that back to every mom out there who is where I was, to anyone alone and struggling and hurting. Especially this time of year.Take a moment to give someone a hug, a plate of cookies, a warm drink. Look around to see if you can meet a need. Or accept a bit of generosity. Take a sacred pause in the middle of this busy season to give, to receive, to bless, and be blessed.

I don’t know who adopted us for Christmas. I do know they will be rewarded in heaven, but I also hope they’ll get some little reward here on earth too. 

Jennifer and the other Pencildancers have just released Worthy to Write: Blank Page Tying Your Stomach in Knots? 30 Prayers to Tackle That Fear. Jennifer's latest books~ Protective Custody: A cop burned by love falls for a key witness in a crime implicating the town’s rich and powerful.  Coming Home A strong- willed young woman must discover her brother’s killer before she’s the next victim. The prequelBe Mine, is also available. Can a simple thank you note turn into something more? Get the first chapter of Coming Home and Protective Custody at www.JenniferVanderklipp.com