3 Amateur Fiction Writer Mistakes (and How to Fix Them)

When I’m reading submissions for After Happy Hour, I try not to make any judgments about the writer. We read things anonymously for a reason. We don’t want anything to sway our decisions except the work itself.

That said, I am still human, and humans are adept at noticing patterns. There are some things writers do that give me the impression they haven’t been writing fiction for very long. Usually, when I see their bio after we’ve made our decision on the piece, I find that I’m right.

The good news is, most of these beginners’ mistakes are easy to fix once you know to look for them. Here are three I see the most often, why they’re a problem, and what you should do if you find them in your stories.

1. Driver’s license detail character descriptions.

I read a self-published book recently where every time a new character was introduced, it went something like:

“Joe was a muscular man with short brown hair and brown eyes, standing six foot three and weighing 215 pounds…”

The book overall looked very well-designed and was pretty well-written, too, but this was one of the few details that jumped out and screamed “this book is self-published”—because no editor worth their salt would have let this fly.

Why is this wrong?

There are two reasons. For one, this makes the reader very aware they’re reading a book. When you see someone in real life, you don’t immediately know their exact height and weight—you might note if they’re particularly tall or short, but not down to an inch-level specificity. And while you might note their height, there are usually other details that stand out more.

And that’s the second reason this approach is a problem: these simply aren’t very interesting details. Especially in short fiction, the best descriptions give the reader a full sense of the character in as little space as possible. You do that by highlighting their most distinctive attributes. There are lots of people who have the same height and weight, so this doesn’t give the reader much insight into this specific character.

What to do instead

Replace these driver’s license details with more unique, telling details. If the story is written in 1st person point-of-view, or a close 3rd person, think about what details the narrator would notice and what conclusions they might draw from them. For instance, if you’re writing a mystery and your narrator is a private detective, they’d likely have a keen observational eye—they might pick up on things like a cut on the character’s hand, or a nervous tick they have when they’re talking, and deduce other insights from these details.

Using this approach, you build the character being described and the narrator at the same time, and that kind of efficiency of language gives fiction a lot of energy and forward momentum.

2. Using perfect grammar in dialogue.

The goal of dialogue is to make the reader hear the line as though the character is actually saying it. This means you want to replicate their direct speech on the page, as clearly and accurately as possible—and the grammar rules you learned in school often aren’t accurate to how real people speak.

In real-life conversations, most people break rules that would get them a red mark on an English paper. If your dialogue sounds like it belongs in a 5-paragraph essay, this is likely a problem. New fiction writers often have this problem because it’s their first experience writing in a more conversational voice and they’re defaulting to the only style they know, which is for more academic contexts.

Why is this wrong?

Dialogue that’s grammatically perfect often sounds wooden and inauthentic. The main issue is that it creates a disconnect between the character you’ve built and their voice. Dialogue is an excellent tool for characterization, and it’s not just about what the character says. How they talk tells readers a lot about them, too—or at least it should. If the character is very formal and highly educated, then they may speak in perfect grammar. Most of the time, though, this kind of tone feels at odds with other details of the character that have been established, which makes both the character and the broader story read as less real.

What to do instead

Read through all the dialogue in the story aloud. This is a good idea to do with an entire story, honestly, but at the very least you should do this with lines the characters actually speak.

Think about the character’s identity as you do this. What region are they from? What is their overall personality? If they’re, say, an English professor, then it might make sense for them to sound a bit more polished. Most of the time, though, you’re going to want to work in more casual speaking patterns.

Now, one last note I’ll make here: this doesn’t mean you want to go too far the other way and write all your dialogue in full dialect. Dialect can read as awkward and inauthentic as perfect grammar, and can be difficult for readers to understand, besides.

For those who don’t know the term, writing in dialect is when you alter the spelling of words to convey a specific accent or manner of speaking. Doing dialect well is a skill, and even in deft hands it’s a tool that should be wielded thoughtfully and carefully.

There is a middle ground between these two extremes, and that’s where most strong dialogue writers fall. My advice to hit this sweet spot:

3. Starting the story with scene-setting or summary.

Great writers know how to pull the reader in from the very first sentence. Part of this is in the strength of their language and voice, but it’s also about knowing the right moment to enter a story.

Newer writers usually aren’t as adept at finding this right entry point. They’ll often spend the beginning paragraphs or pages establishing the setting, characters, and backstory. This is all stuff it’s good to set up for the reader—but great writers do this while they’re establishing conflict, building the narrative arc, and moving the plot forward.

Why is this wrong?

The main thing the beginning of a story needs to accomplish is to give readers a reason to keep reading. Descriptions of the setting or accounts of past events might be enjoyable to read, but they don’t answer the reader’s question of why they should keep turning the page.

Scenes that develop a character or relationships are a bit more on the fence—these can be effective beginnings, but often because they introduce a key point of tension or conflict that will drive the story to come. Character development in a vacuum usually still falls flat as an opening because it doesn’t pull the reader forward and make them want to know what happens next.

What to do instead

Find the point in your story where the central narrative or emotional arc really starts, and make that the beginning of your story. If the reader needs additional background information, you can weave it in as flashbacks, into dialogue, or into narrative asides. Similarly, you can integrate descriptions of the world and development of the characters into scenes that move the plot, establish conflict, or otherwise push the story forward. This will make the story feel more cohesive, along with giving it better pacing and helping you immerse the reader from the very beginning.

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