My Top Five Mistakes as a New Novelist

Here’s a brief history of how I decided to become a writer:

I was in college and, forced to declare a major, I decided to go with Mass Communications.  It seemed to be a nice umbrella of a major, with lots of post-graduation options. Plus, I liked to talk.

Somewhere between English I and a charcoal sketching elective I regret taking, I landed a movie review show that aired on a channel with a decimal point in it. My co-host was named Kevin.  Together, we spouted off opinions about movies we were barely old enough to see.  Kevin loved the limelight.  He was a dance major that somehow missed his calling to television and in his opinion, stand-up comedy.  I, on the other hand, loved movies but didn’t get a kick out of talking about them in front of a camera with an angry, glowing red eye/dot on top of it.

However, this show somehow convinced my advisor that I should be in broadcast journalism and from then on, I had an emphasis within my major. For a whole semester.  Ironically, it was a movie that undeclared me from journalism.

In my Intro to Broadcasting class, the professor showed Broadcast News.  A classic for sure.  One of the best movies I’d ever seen.  And also a clear sign for me to get out of Dodge.  I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that broadcasting was not my calling.

As I thought about what I wanted for my future—my cup of tea, so to speak—I realized that what I really wanted was a cup of coffee.  Yes, that’s exactly the kind of lifestyle I longed for.  Cups of coffee consumed leisurely in a place where I could relax, think, and daydream.

So I decided to change my major to criminal justice so I could join the FBI.

This is where you’ll understand that a divine God was constantly intervening in my life.  Because as quickly as I headed to the dean’s office to make what would surely be the worst decision of my life, I was intercepted by my English professor, Dr. Phelps, who wanted to talk to me.

“I think,” he said, “you have a future as a writer.”

He was the first person who had said such a thing. A real writer? Me?  I’d never considered that I could do something like that. Sure, I liked to write stories, but I’d never thought beyond it being a hobby. And so began my formal education, under a Mass Comm degree, in screenwriting.

My last semester at the university, Dr. Phelps suggested that I had probably taken as many screenwriting courses as possible, and wondered if I wanted to work a semester on fiction.

“No,” I declared. “I don’t want to write fiction. Not interested.”

But he insisted, said it would be good for me.  I sighed. It was either that or Charcoal Drawing II, so it made the decision easier.

It was in this single semester of writing that I learned the vast differences between screenwriting and fiction.  It felt like I was starting completely over in my writing education.  And by the look on Dr. Phelps’ face when he read my first chapter, I apparently had.

So today I’m going to share with you the top five mistakes I made early on in my career as a novelist.  I had way more than five, but this is a blog post not a dissertation, so I have to keep it brief.

Maybe understanding these will help save you from some painful editorial notes down the road. Don’t worry—I’ve always had to learn the hard way. If I can spare you the horror of the bloody red pen, I’m happy to do it!

Don’t describe the wallpaper.

If you’ve done any study of writing fiction, you’ve undoubtedly heard, “don’t describe the wallpaper” as a warning to avoid bad, overly boring and clichéd description that nobody cares about.  Well, leave it to me to pull off a double cliché.

I remember sitting in Dr. Phelps’ office watching him read my first chapter.  That man had mastered the fine art of no expression, and I couldn’t tell what he was thinking.  Finally, he set the pages down.

“Well,” he said, “you’ve actually described the wallpaper.”

“Uh huh,” I said.  He’d instructed me when we began that while screenwriting was short on description, fiction thrived on it.

“I mean, you literally described the wallpaper in the room.” He glanced down at the paper. “For two pages.”

To be fair to me, I also described the wall.  But that was my first introduction to the idea that description in fiction is an exercise in self-control.  It’s amazing when you close your eyes and imagine a place how much detail you can see.  But detail, I learned, has to mean something.

A common mistake new fiction writers make is that they don’t discern which details matter.  Describing wallpaper isn’t a bad choice, but it’s how you describe it, and more importantly, why, that matters.  If the purple flowers on the wall evoke an important feeling or memory from your character, then it’s worth the effort to describe it.

Details, for the sake of painting a picture, are never enough in fiction. My rule of thumb is this: every device, whether it be dialogue or description, plot or characterization, must work double time for you. That means that description must do more than describe.  It must add to character or plot or something else.

A high word count means your writing needs to improve. 

I’ve been so lucky to have great editors over the years.  They’ve been compassionate, supportive and encouraging, and that was especially true for my first novel, Ghostwriter.  My first editorial call went wonderfully, with much discussion about how much they liked what I had turned in. I was feeling good. Too good to understand there was another half of a discussion coming.

“And one last thing,” Dave said as we were winding down.  “We need to talk about your word count.”

“Uh huh?”  This didn’t raise the slightest bit of alarm in me.  I know better now.

“Well, we noticed that the draft you turned in is 187,000 words.”

“Yes,” I said.  It was a complex novel with three stories woven into one.  Seemed reasonable.

“As you might have seen in your contract, your novel can’t go over 120,000 words.”

My mind flashed to what I remembered about my contract.  Due date.  Pay out schedule. That was about it.

I felt the slow burn of reality as I understood I was about to have to cut 67,000 words out of my novel.  Eventually, with the help of what was surely the entire editorial team and the literary equivalent of a backhoe, I managed to get it down to 137,000 words. Everyone was so exhausted they called it good.

But there is a reason why most novels run between 80,000-120,000 words. It’s a formula that has proven to be dependable over the years. When you get into high word counts, you’re either channeling George R. R. Martin or you’re overwriting.

The more novels I wrote, the shorter they got, and that’s because I became a better self-editor.  I learned to write tighter, and that made my novels read faster.  If you’re overshooting a reasonable word count for your genre, get the pen out.  It’s time to cut.  And before you look at story, look at sentences and paragraphs.  Your story might be fine—it may be your sentences that are taking up all that space.

But here’s a bonus tip:  If you feel your writing is tight but your word count is still elevated, then implement this rule: Get in late; get out early.  It’s a technique used by screenwriters but it works well in fiction, too.  It means take a look at each passage and see if you can get into the moment any later than you started.  And also see if you can get out of it any earlier.  Trimming the beginnings and ends of scenes can save you a lot of time—and words.

Put down the thesaurus.  Now.

One of the worst things a novelist or any other kind of writer can do is become dependent on a thesaurus.  Trying to improve a sentence by finding a replacement word will almost always make your writing weaker.  Why?  Because writing is not just about word choice, it’s about creating imagery.  A different word won’t always paint a better picture.  Feeling like your sentence isn’t saying all it should?  Whip out a metaphor or simile instead of googling synonyms. Create a clever turn of phrase.  Do almost anything rather than swap one word for another, especially if you’ve had to google it.  Glossier words that you wouldn’t have known existed had you not looked them up won’t add anything to your story.  And your readers are going to have to stop and google that word because they won’t know it either.

As Stephen King puts it, “Any word you have to hunt for in a thesaurus is the wrong word. There are no exceptions to this rule.”

What your character looks like is the least of your concerns.

In the early days of creating stories, I would cut out pictures of people from magazines so that I would have a solid visual idea of what I wanted my characters to look like.  Then I would try to find clever ways of inserting their description into the story.  Below are some examples of how to do it really poorly.  Mine weren’t this bad, I tell myself.

“Debbie, your brown, shoulder length hair looks so nice today.”

Rob gazed at himself in the mirror, noticing his toned arms, soft blue eyes and the attractive curve of his jawline.

What your character looks like will hardly matter to your reader at the end of the day.  How your character looks at life is much more interesting.  And if you want to get really intriguing and have the best of both worlds, explore how your character’s looks influence how your character sees the world.  If you insist on having character description, at least make it interesting:

Jacie fingered her hair, the same color as her mom’s, the same color as dirt, as lifeless as both.

The novel is lived from the inside out.  Let us experience the story through them rather than as an outside observer simply watching them.

Don’t create a character you would hang out with.

I have a friend. We’ll call her Laura.  And friend might be too generous of a word.  Laura is the kind of person who I want to stand near during a party, but don’t want to be associated with in case things go south.  And things can go south really quickly with Laura.  Laura’s filter works about as well as water on a grease fire.  Her mouth is constantly getting her in trouble. So while I don’t want to be caught in a dust up, I like being in a room to watch it happen, because Laura has a really bad habit of throwing caution to hurricane force winds.

We need more Lauras.  Maybe not in life but definitely in stories.  The safe, reserved, predictable character better have a heck of a plot to ride on or a book can get boring pretty fast.  The best books have great plots and even better characters.  And when someone picks up a novel, they don’t want to read about themselves. They want to read about the person they can’t stop watching, maybe even the person they want to be—like never backing down from a fight.  Like saying out loud that thing that should be kept in the head.  Like walking toward danger.

Make sure your plot isn’t doing all the heavy lifting.  Your character has to carry his or her weight too.  And it’s pretty easy to accomplish.  Just make them do everything you wouldn’t.

I never did join the FBI.  But I had a brush with them back in 1995.  My place of employment, a church, was right next to the Murrah Building, which was bombed on April 19th.  I’ll fondly remember First United Methodist for many reasons, not the least of which was that it gave me my first office.  It was a broom closet. For real.  But it was mine.

After the bombing, the church sustained heavy damage and became the morgue and a crime scene. It would be weeks before we were allowed back in to collect our belongings. But once allowed, I hurried up the steps to the second floor in order to collect my most valuable item there—a novel I’d been working on for months, left in my computer on a floppy disk.

To my horror…it was gone.

Weeks were spent trying to contact the FBI (in the middle of a major investigation) to see if someone might’ve taken the disk, but to no avail. It was gone.

So I started over.  That book would later become my second published novel, Troubled Waters.

But somewhere, I’m pretty sure there’s an FBI agent moonlighting as a novelist.

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  1. Your words came at the stroke of midnight for me. I’m doing formatting to send my first manuscript to a waiting agent. I think I’ll go over it one more time. Thanks!

  2. I’m just a writer-wannabe and am now going to be late for my appointment because I couldn’t stop reading your blog! What a well-written article! And great tips too!