5 Common Writing Hazards

I hope everyone had a FABULOUS CHRISTMAS HOLIDAY!!! AND YES I HAVE HAD A LOT OF SUGAR! Fortunately, though, I also had a good week of rest. Thanks for letting me take last week off, though I did miss you guys a lot. Okay I do need to be honest. After hubby took away my Internet, I had about three days of DTs—night sweats, uncontrollable twitching and rapid heartbeat. Fortunately, I had a Smart phone taped to the back of one of the toilets, and, if I did this yoga stance that looked like Triangle pose and Half-Moon pose had a deformed baby, I could get enough bars to approve comments.

So thank you for your patience. *hugs* Happy to be back!

Before we start talking about writing, there are still some slots left for my on-line Blogging to Build Your Author Brand Class. It is only $4o for TWO months and I help you harvest your imagination and background for blog content that will use your creativity…not shove you into a straight-jacket. The only reason I am mentioning this is that there are only 100 slots and they are almost all gone.

Sign up here. Give it as a Christmas gift to yourself to help improve your odds of success in the new year.

We authors MUST have a solid platform. It is just a requirement of the 21st century author. Few social media tools are as powerful as the blog…when done properly. Launching a blog without the proper preparation is a formula to end up curled in fetal position clutching a bottle of scotch. Ask me how I know.

We need to blog, but we also need time left over to write more brilliant books. I’m not here to turn you guys into marketing gurus…I am here to help you use that same imagination you use to create entirely new worlds and utilize it to build your platform so your excellent stories can sell themselves.

Okay, enough of that.

Today, we are going to focus on some common writing errors that seem to plague virtually all new writers. I generally like blogging about the larger issues, namely structure, because that is the killer. If the story’s plot is fatally flawed there’s little hope of connecting with a reader. If we need a Dungeon Master Guide and a team of sherpas to navigate our story’s plot, then finding an agent is the least of our worries. So plot matters, but, to be blunt, there other rookie mistakes that can land us in a slush pile before an agent (or reader) even gets far enough to notice a problem with plot.

So today I am putting on my editor’s hat and going to give you a peek into what agents and editors (and even readers) see in those first five pages that can make us lose interest.

If Your Novel has More Characters than the Cast of Ben Hur, You Might Need Revision

Whenever the author takes the time to name a character, that is a subtle clue to the reader that this is a major character and we need to pay attention. Think Hollywood and movies. If the credits roll and there is a named character in the credits, then we can rest assured this character had a speaking part. Many characters in our novels will be what Bob Mayer calls “spear carriers.” Spear carriers do not need names.

I did not know this, years ago, and I felt the need to name the pizza guy, the florist, the baker and the candlestick maker. Do NOT do this. When we name characters, it is telling our readers to care. Sort of like animals. Only name them if you plan on getting attached.

We do not have to know intimate life details about the waitress, the taxi driver or even the funeral director. Unless the character serves a role—protagonist, antagonist, allies, mentor, love interest, minions, etc.—you really don’t need to give them a name. They are props, not people.

And maybe your book has a large cast; that is okay. Don’t feel the need to introduce them all at once. If I have to keep up with 10 names on the first page, it’s confusing, ergo annoying. Readers (and agents) will feel the same way.

If Your Novel Dumps the Reader Right into Major Action, You Might Need Revision

Oh, there is no newbie blunder I didn’t make.

Angelique leaned out over the yawning chasm below, and yelled to Drake. She needed her twist-ties and fuzzy pink pipe cleaners if she ever was going to diffuse the bomb in time. Blood ran down her face as she reached out for Gregor’s hand. They only had minutes before Sondra would be back and then it would all be over for Fifi, Gerturde and Muffin.

Okay, I just smashed two into one. Your first question might be, Who the hell are these people? And likely your second question is Why do I care?

Thing is, you don’t care. You aren’t the writer who knows these characters and is vested. We have discussed before how Normal World plays a vital role in narrative structure. As an editor, if I see the main character sobbing at a funeral or a hospital or hanging over a shark tank by page three, that is a big red flag the writer doesn’t understand narrative structure.

Thing is, maybe you do. But, if we are new and unknown and querying agents, these guys get a lot of submissions. And, if our first five pages shout that we don’t understand narrative structure, our pages are likely to end up in the slush pile. When we are new, we get less leeway about trying to reinvent narrative structure, and the thing is, three-act structure has worked since Aristotle came up with it. There are better uses of time than us trying to totally remake dramatic structure.

It’s like the wheel. Round. It rolls. The wheel works. Don’t mess with the wheel. Don’t mess with narrative structure.

Some other picky no-nos… .

Painful and Alien Movement of Body Parts

Her eyes flew to the other end of the restaurant.

 His head followed her across the room.

All I have to say is… “Ouch.”

Make sure your character keeps all body parts attached. Her gaze can follow a person and so can her stare, but if her eyes follow…the carpet gets them fuzzy with dust bunnies and then they don’t slide back in her sockets as easily.

Too much Physiology…

Her heart pounded. Her heart hammered. Her pulse beat in her head. Her breath came in choking sobs.

After a page of this? I need a nap. After two pages? I need a drink. We can only take so much heart pounding, thrumming, hammering before we just get worn out.  That and I read a lot of entries where the character has her heart hammering so much, I am waiting for her to slip into cardiac arrest at any moment. Ease up on the physiology. Less is often more.

Adverbs are Evil…

Most of the time, adverbs are a no-no. Find a stronger verb instead of dressing up a weaker choice.

She stood quickly from her chair.

She bolted from her chair.

Also be careful of redundant adverbs.

She whispered quietly…

Um, duh. The verb whisper already tells me the volume level.

She can, however, whisper conspiratorially. Why? Because the adverb isn’t denoting something inherent in the verb. To whisper, by definition is to be quiet BUT not necessarily to conspire. The adverb conspiratorially indicates a certain quality to the whisper.

I will do more of these in the future, but the points I mentioned today are very common errors. Many editors and agents will look for these oopses to narrow down the stack of who to read. These are also habits that can frustrate readers should the book make it to publication. I know some of you are thinking of self-publishing and that is certainly a viable path these days. But, if we have 42 characters by page five? We are likely going to frustrate a reader.

Avoiding these pitfalls will make for far smoother, cleaner writing.

Some books to help you clean up your prose and become a master at your craft? Story Engineering by Larry Brooks is a MUST HAVE in your library. Another MUST HAVE reference?  102 solutions to Common Writing Mistakes by NY Times Best-Selling Author Bob Mayer. And I LOVE ANYTHING written by James Scott Bell, but my favorite is probably Plot & Structure. So if you got some gift cards for Christmas, start with these. You will thank me later.

What are some troubles you guys have? Maybe some questions you want me to address? Throw them up here. Takes a load off my brain so I don’t have to think this stuff up all by myself. Any tips, suggestions, books you recommend we read? Did this blog help you? Confuse you?

I love hearing from you.

And to prove it and show my love, for the month of December, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. If you leave a comment, and link back to my blog, and mention my book We Are Not Alone in your blog…you get your name in the hat THREE times. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly.

I will pick a winner every week for a critique of your first five pages. At the end of December I will pick a winner for the grand prize. A free critique from me on the first 15 pages of your novel. Good luck!

I also hope you pick up copies of my best-selling books We Are Not Alone–The Writer’s Guide to Social Media and Are You There, Blog? It’s Me, Writer . Both books are ON SALE for $4.99!!!! And both are recommended by the hottest agents and biggest authors in th biz. My methods teach you how to make building your author platform FUN. Build a platform and still have time left to write great books!


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  1. Every time I read your tips I decide I must have made every single one of the mistakes you list. I’ll have to keep this list in mind while I edit. Thanks so much.

    You asked what we need help with and my answer right now is how to keep writing a blog when I feel like no one is really interested in what I have to say. I read Are You There, Blog? and found it very helpful, but I am still getting stuck when I try to write things that will draw and interest the potential audience for my novel.

    1. First off. I made all the mistakes too. That’s why my writing is funny. Humor comes from pain and I totally feel your pain.

      As far as the blog, you need my workshop. The book is helpful but it can’t hold a candle to what I will do with you once you are in my clutches…um, class. There are a handful of slots left and I STRONGLY recommend you snag one. Last time they all filled up and people had to be put on a waiting list.

  2. Always enjoy reading your blogs, Kristen, especially when they remind me how far I have come. That’s a great feeling. Thanks.

  3. I laughed out loud at “When we name characters, it is telling our readers to care. Sort of like animals. Only name them if you plan on getting attached.” It’s so true. I’m great with animals, but I have a real talent for killing plants, so if I really want to be sure a plant survives in my house, I name it. Now every time I look at Sophie (my current living plant), she’s going to remind me not to name a character unless I want the reader to feel attached to them.

  4. Last week I reread The 25th Hour by David Benioff. It was written right after 9/11. If you are unfamiliar, it’s about a convicted drug dealer spending his last 24 hours of freedom in New York. He’s shady. His friends are shady. His girlfriend is bad news. His dad is even morally ambigious. Yet, by introducing the drug dealer and his mobster ties, skuzzy friends, and weird family through normal everyday ocurrences, you care about everyone.

    Based on the advice you gave me on my story, I wrote a 15 page intrduction to my main character, and her surroundings. It even looks better on the legal pad.

    THis is all terrific advice.

    THank you

  5. I’m editing for a friend, and have brought up a couple of these issues to her, as well.

    In fact, I’ve had a number of editing sessions recently with things like ‘You’re headhopping!’ ‘What is that character doing?’ ‘Why all the flashbacks?!’ I totally get the ‘I need a drink’ after two pages of some of these mistakes.

    I’ve learned a lot from you in the last year or so, and I got to say, it’s definitely sinking in!

  6. Kristen, I SO recognize myself in the “cast of thousands” thing! :-)) Thanks for the heads-up!

  7. Thanks for the reminders, Kristen. I always seem to need them. I’m interested in hearing your opinion on multiple POV and maybe another blog on 1st person vs. third person.

    Oh, yes. I love the use of flashbacks when it’s done well. I especially loved the way it added to the story in the baseball movie – Was the name of it Moneyball – Brad Pitt? I’d like to see you address flashbacks or maybe I’ve missed a post of yours.

    Thanks for the wonderful posts.

    1. Too many POVs can dilute the story. We can’t intimately care about too many people, so we need to strive to keep focus. High fantasy often gets away with more POVs, but High Fantasy also can run 120-150,000 words. It goes with the genre and fans generally expect long, thick books. I.e LOTR or Game of Thrones. In other genres? Not so much and when traditionally publishing word count becomes a sticking point.

      Flashbacks are generally the tool of the newbie writer or the writer who hasn’t taken time to understand the backstory before progressing. Flashbacks should be limited because they jar the reader out of the narrative flow by disrupting the time flow. It is wise to always be moving forward. When we take time to step back to another time to “explain” we take away from the forward flow of the conflict. Each time we do this, the reader need to reorient. Do this too much and we can piss off and frustrate the reader. Also, many writers feel the need to explain everything. Why? Some things are better left to the imagination. The Force was better before it was explained.

      We need to remember that movies are a different medium. Tools used in movies don’t necessarily translate well to the written word.

    • Lanette Kauten on December 26, 2011 at 2:49 pm
    • Reply

    Thanks for the good advice, and I’ll certainly look into the books you suggested.

    1. Oops! I forgot to leave my website to show I linked back to your blog.

  8. Many of these writing errors apply to nonfiction too!! Especially adverb overload. 🙂

  9. Hi Kristen, I know what you mean about switching off. A day after you say you’re having a break, you start twitching, the you see something you want to share lol. Hope you had a great Christmas, I’m looking forward to your blogging course and I’m really enjoying reading Plot and Structure, it’s the best book on craft I’ve read. I love the bullet points and the examples. Cheers!

  10. I had to laugh out loud at the “Painful and Alien Movement of Body Parts”. This is so true!

    I’d also like to hear more on better writing of POV’s, 1st person vs 3rd person, and good ways to incorporate just the right amount of backstory.

    Also, I’d love to link back to your blog, if I knew how. Do I need to paste your link? Or just use it in a blog post?

    1. Just include a trackback. You would type the name of this blog in a new post, then highlight then hit the little icon that looks like a chain link. A pop up menu should appear and then you paste the location of this blog. That’s the http:// thingy you see at the top of your page. Then save and the name of my blog should glow blue, which means you have successfully given me a trackback.

      I’ll blog on that since there seems to be interest.

      1. Thanks, Kristen. I followed your directions and it is done!

        • lynnkelleyauthor on December 26, 2011 at 7:21 pm
        • Reply

        I would love it if you blog on this, Kristen. Thanks!

      2. Kristen, I did all of that on my blog, and it worked, but at the top of your comments it only shows that there is one trackback, and it’s not mine. I wonder if others have done the same thing with posting a link to this blog on theirs, but it not showing on your blog as a trackback.

        1. If you just let me know I’ll trust you. And I did see some of them were linking to my web page, so I see the notifications there.

  11. This is very helpful… I am about to revise my NaNo NaNo project in January and I think I may need to stretch my first chapter a little.

    Thank you… 😀

  12. Made all these mistakes. Probably still do. That’s why I have beta readers and proofreaders I can trust to be tough and honest. I have read a lot of self-pubbed in the last several weeks, and I’ve seen all these problems, and more. Yes, we all need to read and write, but we also need to learn about writing well. Great post – shared all over the darn place.

  13. Great points, Kristen, and I think like a lot of writers I know I’ve made the same type of blunders. My critique partners will tell you, I’m an adverb slayer. However, when I do point out that there are too many adverbs, some will tell me that a certain best selling series, which as been made into movies that are raking in millions, has an adverb on practically every page. How does one respond to this?

    1. Well, as I pointed out. Not all adverbs are bad, just redundant ones. It is a common misperception that all adverbs should be stricken. I would just point out that when you use redundant adverbs, you are, in effect treating the reader as if she is too dumb to “get it,” that the verb alone wasn’t enough. If someone writes that a character whispered, we get that it was quiet. We don’t need coaching…really.

      1. I agree, Kristen, and usually slay the “whispering quietly” or “yelled loudly” adverbs, however, I have seen best selling novels do this and having eyes pop out, roam around, etc. LOL It does give me a smile when I read it, though.

        Love all your tips!

        Happy New Year.

        1. When we hit it big, we earn the right to get some slack. Until then. We must bring our A-game. NYTBSAs that have to turn out a book a year get some leeway. They don’t have six years to write the perfect book. So long as they remain great storytellers, readers will forgive some adverbs and roaming body parts :D.

  14. Great list, Kristen. Count me as one who has made many of those same mistakes.

    I would also add said-bookisms (words used to replace said) to your revision list.

    ‘They drive me crazy,” she hissed.

    “Because they stand out like a sore thumb,” he growled.

    Much like your “Painful and Alien Movement of Body Parts” said-bookisms are nearly impossible feats. Try hissing or growling either of those two lines of dialog.

    1. Lynette, you hit on one of my big pet peeves. I prefer “said” over hissing, clucking, squeaking and I read a book over Christmas that had the heroine, chirping almost through the whole book. LOL

    2. Good point Lynette, and my personal favorite is ‘he roared’. Lions roar, humans don’t. Yet, it is a staple bookism of the thriller genre.

  15. My glob and I have our pencils sharp and ready for class on January 3rd.

    David Walker kindly nudged me toward WWBC, as did a recent column of yours on the deadly impact dealt to creativity by over-editing. My inner editor (Gracie) calls you names I can not post online.

    I have your books. I had intended to read and implement all sage counsel before the Bayard/Lamb 2012 Presidential Campaign makes a whistle stop at my place on January 9th. YIKES! It didn’t happen. Gracie applied for and got a position micro-managing holiday preparation and decorating.

    2012–the year of first draft writing, glob to blog, and Warrior Writers Boot Camp! Hope to meet you in Ft Worth one of these Saturdays.

  16. Can’t wait to get to it again in 2012 again. Ready for my Death Star Updates. Have a happy New Year, Kristen. My hubby demanded I take some time away from the bloggie, so I organized #HanukkahHooplah which has been running all week, helping other bloggers to get some traffic.

    Thank goodness he didn’t forbid me from tweeting. 🙂

  17. As usual, your humor cracks me up. This post helped me. I’m diving into my first fiction project and I need all the help you can give:)

  18. These reminders are always good, and every once in a while I catch my character’s eyes doing painful things. 🙂

  19. Another thing to watch out for is overuse of auxiliary verbs. The main thing my editors have me do is what I call the great WAS, WERE, HAD, and THAT hunts. None of these on the list apply to me, fortunately. Or at least no one has called me on it if they do. My biggest problem seems to be not writing enough, expecting the reader to infer more from my subtle hints than they probably will.

    1. Marc, that’s the main thing I struggle with the most, as well. When I read, I gloss over what I consider to be extraneous ramblings by the author, whether it be scene setting beyond a sentence or two or philisophical ruminations that seem to drag on too long. My impatience is reflected in my writing, which equals books that are too short. Since most amatuer writers have the opposite problem, there are plenty of advice out there on “killing babies” (editing out precious but extra prose), but I haven’t come across anything on how to richly plump up your book for those of us who write sparse.

      1. Thanks for the blog post idea!

        1. You’re welcome. I’ll be looking up your blog for the topic.

  20. Thanks, Kristen, for the helpful information. As a yet unpublished author, this year I have tried to learn as much as I can about the fine art of writing well and it is posts like this one that helps me to continue to improve what I write.

  21. Got a ton of words and when I get bored my main character runs into another person that makes his life miserable. Do I need to rewrite? You bet your life I do and will. Thanks for the guideposts.

  22. I, too, laughed at you floating body parts. Fabulous imagery & follow up. New follower.

  23. Glad to have you back! I love your positive energy!

  24. From the alien body parts roaming the room to the quiet whispers, a good article. I signed up for your class “Becoming a Brand” and came across this article while reading more about you. I had a blog due today and hadn’t come up with an idea yet. Roaming body parts triggered a fond memory of my former critique partner, the late author Barbara Karmazin. Called Chainsaw (with affection) by her critique buddies, she always seemed to catch us letting body parts wander the room. I provided a trackback link to this article from mine, which is linked to my name.

    Thanks for the excellent article.

  25. Yay! You’re back. So glad you got to have a relaxing week off and spend some time with your family. I’m also super glad you’re back in the blogosphere giving us great advice.

    Pink fuzzy pipe cleaners? Dang. Guess I’ll have to take that part out of my novel.

    Every time I read one of your posts, I do so hoping it will be the time I can say, aha! I didn’t do any of that, but I have yet to have my aha! moment with your posts. Double dang.

  26. ‘I don’t lnow where to begin.’ Oh my gosh, how many times have I uttered that to myself. The answer I evenually found out was; ‘just begin! It only hurts for a little while. I posess two of your books; ‘We Are Not Alone- The Writers Guide to Social; Media’ and ‘Are You There’ It’s Me Writer’
    You’ve heard it many times;They turned my writing world topsy turvey. My friiends are waiting for me to recover. They thought my fiction novel was fininished. Hope to see you on the written page, Buck de Boey Author Extroidinaire.

  27. Merry Christmas, Kristin. Welcome back.

    • EllieAnn on December 27, 2011 at 2:29 pm
    • Reply

    Such a smart list, totally agree. The thing is, I know this and I still make these mistakes! I catch a lot of them, but some of these slip through. Hopefully in five years I’ll catch even more. =)

  28. Missed your blog over the holiday. Getting ready for blog class–even wrote a post on my blog to high five you.

  29. I breathed a big sigh of relief – managed to dodge all of those bullets. This time. 🙂 Though for years I always started with action, since it was the “recommended” way to hook the reader in oh so many writing books I’ve read. Your post on giving the reader Normal World made so much sense to me, and I was doing that – in Chapter 2. Now it’s front and center, and my story is that much better for it.
    And the whole “her eyes flew across the room” deal – I always cringe in pain when I read that type of description. Ouch indeed. Thank you for another great post!

  30. I read all the time about, “plop your characters right into the action,” or “open your book right at the life-changing event.” And yet, when I do that, it feels so forced and unnatural. So I just keep banging my head against the wall trying to come up with the happy medium and when I think I’ve achieved that, I still hear one or other of those two things.

    It makes my head spin! And my characters very angry.

    1. I think I need to write a blog to help you guys understand the in medius res. Stay tuned ;).

    2. The action can be anything. To me it’s just showing them doing something, not necessarily life-changing, but a verb of some active kind. Since we don’t know the characters, I would show them doing something the reader can relate to, with a bit of strangeness about it. For example (I’m making this one up):

      “Indiana Jones stared at his map, its several parts acquired from several places, at ruinously high cost each time.”

      1. I would agree except that the action that feels right with the story (to me and my crit partners) never seems to be the action the acquiring editors look for. I had a conversation with one who said the opening was good, but the life changing event didn’t happen until the end of the second page so rewrite, rewrite, rewrite. Except who cares about the character when the life changing event happens if the reader knows absolutely nothing about them, like Kristen said? I don’t. I don’t want to read about someone hanging from a bush trying to keep their feet out of the crocodile’s mouth if I don’t know them. Maybe they need to get eaten, but how do I know?

        1. Have you read “Hooked” by Les Edgerton? It might help you. Beginnings are tough to nail for sure.

          1. Not yet, but it should be here by Thursday. And thank you!

    • C.San Filipe on December 28, 2011 at 11:04 am
    • Reply

    I’m new to writing. I seem to keep saying that everywhere I go. I might be the one who needs a drink. This was great and really helped me. Since I don’t know what I’m doing and stumbling around in the dark. I’ve found writing the great American Novel, not so great. But I’m learning.

  31. Hi, Kristen!

    I downloaded & read both of your great books on the Nook during my Christmas break. They were excellent, and I want to thank you for the recommendation to use social media primarily as a tool to edify and encourage other. Thinking of my blog (www.nicole-mcinnes.blogspot.com), Twitter and Facebook in these terms has, for me, really diminished the awkward “ookiness” factor of social media and building a platform. What a gift!

    Best, Nicole

    • Monique on December 28, 2011 at 12:14 pm
    • Reply

    Another great post, Kristen. I’m glad your back. I am just getting ready to edit my manuscript and will surely include these on my list of things to watch out for.

  32. Just signed up for your January workshop, Kristen! Looking forward to it! I got an ipad for Christmas so I’ll be looking on how to download your books to it.

  33. Once again, excellent advice! Kristen, I always find a nugget of wisdom when I visit your site.

  34. My biggest problems are continuity and word count. I have always struggled to extend stories and provide believable dialogue to help move a story forward. Short stories tend to be kind of monologues, and longer pieces fragment and become disjointed.

    So many problems, I will read and improve this year.


    1. Watch movies to improve your dialogue. Also if you aren’t plotting properly ahead of time, it can leave you straining for filler because you really aren’t sure where you are going. Get Larry Brook’s Story Engineering and Save the Cat. Good references that should help.

      1. Thanks Kirsten,

        I will look at the book. I think I need to write out the plot ideas more fully. That way I may find the direction I need.

        Here’s hoping


  35. Awesome advice. Thanks Kristen!

    • Jo Stray on January 1, 2012 at 8:25 am
    • Reply

    Kristen, someone told me to visit your blog to see an example of humorous writing. I may have to start writing blogs in my next role so wanted to examine those written by the experts!

    I actually laughed out loud at this blog! Hysterical! The bit that particularly made me guffaw was ‘Painful and Alien Movement of Body Parts’ – it conjured up brilliant visions!

    I’ll keep reading your blogs to pick up excellent tips. Thanks Kristen.

    1. Thanks. So happy people think I’m funny. Makes all the years of being shoved in lockers worthwhile :D.

    • Amanda on January 13, 2012 at 6:51 pm
    • Reply

    This article was very helpful. Especially the ‘thousand caracters’ bit; not that I have a thousand characters (only an even dozen) lol with only 6 of them being the main cast & the rest being important background characters (I’m also making a note not to name any others) but escentially the problem I’m having is all subtextual. I’ve got ummm 5 I think… plots going on at once & I was wondering if you could do a blog on what to look out for, or how to steer properly when you’ve got one main plot & 4 subplots going on. 🙂 thx muchly

  1. […] fellow writers, check this out 5 Common Writing Hazards.  Handy […]

  2. […] Lamb’s 5 Common Writing Hazards is a great reminder of errors that writers can slip up on.  Like “adverbs are […]

  3. […] 5 Common Writing Hazards from Kristen Lamb. Great list! […]

  4. […] 5 Common Writing Hazards from Kristen Lamb […]

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