Oops! Hold on. You’re Newbie is Showing.

Baby Spawn….budding novelist.

Get it? You’re newbie is showing? Ah we are talking about the deeper stuff today 😀 .

Writing seems like it just shouldn’t be that hard, and yet? It’s deceptive. Seasoned storytellers make it look easy, and that does us no favors. Sort of like when I was four years old and, high off an episode of Wonder Woman, went flying out the back door and got the bright idea to do a handspring just like–OH SWEET EIGHT POUND SIX OUNCE BABY JESUS THAT HURT.

Many of us who eventually decide to become novelists did so because we grew up loving books. Then, probably just as many of us, thought we could also do that seamless triple front handspring (write a full length novel) with zero professional training, no practice and no falls.

Yeah about that.

After years of writing and working as an editor I’ve gotten better at articulating what differentiates the newbie writer from the pro, so I figured I would put together a checklist of some of the bigger offenders to help.

I’d love to say I’ve grown beyond ever making these oopses, and for the most part I have. But it took seventeen years of practice and I still have to make sure every now and again, that my newbie isn’t showing.

Beware of Low-Hanging Fruit

Many new writers will default to tropes and cliches and not-so-subtle ways of coaching a reader she is supposed to care. Every editor has their bugaboos. My mentor and friend Les Edgerton’s peeve is the single tear coursing down the cheek. Les is all, “What the hell is that? Does the character have a clogged tear duct or something?” Yeah Les is blunt and ruthless and that’s why he is damn good at teaching writing. He whipped my @$$ into shape.

***Grab his book Hooked. It is seriously one of the single best writing resources ever penned.

My peeve is when any character “weeps bitterly.”

See, instead of the writer actually developing character, she just inserts great weeping and gnashing of teeth—the shill (melodrama) for the gold (authentic drama). Making readers care is an art and is some seriously hard work, so coaching readers to care is lazy/newbie writing.

Another variety of low-hanging fruit is with description. My latest pet peeve is “emerald eyes.” In fact just any precious or semi-precious stone is going to make my left emerald eye twitch.

Not there there is anything inherently wrong with aquamarine, emerald, sapphire or ruby eyes (okay maybe ruby is interesting). Just that it is all too…easy. It doesn’t really take a wordsmith to come up with the jewel of “emerald eyes.”

Good description is more than just the physical makeup of another character. It is telling of who that character is (the person being described) and even more importantly? It is telling of the character who is doing the describing. Description, what that character notices and how she notices, tells a lot about that character’s paradigm (how she sees the world).

The example I love using the most is from Jessica Knoll’s brilliant book Luckiest Girl AliveTif-Ani (protagonist and anti-hero) is meeting her fiance at a bar where they are having drinks with his client and the client’s wife. Here is how Tif-Ani describes Whitney the wife.

The client and his wife, body mean with Equinox muscles, cheery blonde hair swept away from her face in a ninety-dollar blowout. I always eye the wife first; I like to know what I’m up against. She was wearing the typical Kate uniform: white jeans, nude wedges, and a silky sleeveless top. Hot pink, I’m sure she spent a few minutes debating it—was she tan enough, maybe the navy silky sleeveless top instead, can’t go wrong with navy—and over her shoulder, a cognac Prada the exact same shade as her shoes more age revealing than the skin starting to pucker in her neck. (Page 82)

Not only does this description tell us a lot about Whitney (she is fit, wealthy and older) but it also gives is an in depth view into Tif-Ani. How she sees the wife is extremely telling. She notices all the ways Whitney might be competition—she is fit with great hair and expensive clothes—but also shows us Tif-Ani is extremely insecure.

She spots the chinks, how Whitney’s neck is already aging. She also projects her insecurities onto Whitney and is likely correct. Whitney knew to wear NUDE wedges and a COGNAC purse because to matchy-matchy the two is what “old women” did. Tif-Ani knows the designer brands like Prada but also ties Equinox (a luxury fitness center) into her perception as well.

This is far more revealing than, “She was stunning and fit with long blonde hair and expensive clothes and emerald eyes.” This description digs deep and gets to the marrow of storytelling, harnesses the essence of WHO Tif-Ani is and shows us her paradigm.

She is guided (or rather misguided) by status and achievement. Since Tif-Ani’s arc is to realize her worldview is flawed what we will eventually see his how her descriptions (impressions) of others shift as the plot problem forces her to face what she has become and change.


Another way we can see if our newbie is showing is to pay attention to pacing. Often, when reading the work of emerging writers, it feels a lot like being stuck in a car with a teenager learning to drive a stick shift. With each “scene”, there isn’t a hook and then a steady build of pressure until some form of release. That is because, in actuality, there IS no scene…just filler.

See, a scene has very specific anatomy; it is a microcosm of plot. There is the hook, the problem, then rising tension, then then resolution (win, lose, draw). The character has a goal…but then. But since a lot of new writers don’t yet understand what a scene is and how it works, what they have is fluff.

Since there is no goal, there can be no setback. No setback? The writer is manufacturing drama, since drama is not happening organically.

What then manifests is usually one of two things. Either the reader will feel like a Fly on the Wall of NOTHING HAPPENING (lots of description), or the characters will seem like they need Xanax. Their emotions will be all over instead of inevitable, and there is a LOT of overkill.

For instance, maybe the writer is trying to create a strong badass heroine but instead? The character is really just kind of a bitch. She’s getting bent out of shape way too easily and thus quickly becomes unlikable.

I did this back in my first “novel.” It was like I could sense something needed to happen and so I just tossed in some kind of a ridiculous misunderstanding or fight. My protagonist didn’t need Xanax, she needed a frigging exorcism.

That is what I like to call Soap Opera Writing. See in soap operas, there is no overall plot, only “bad things happening” and thus a lot of new writing resembles Days of Our Lives. Lots of overacting and overreacting.

If the character is breaking down in sobs every three pages? It’s tedious. Same with physiology. We get so much heart pounding, and pulse racing, and blood hammering that we wonder how the hell the character didn’t suffer cardiac arrest two pages in.

Did I Mention Filler?

Again, this is often a result of a writer being weak at structure. If a writer doesn’t get the anatomy of a scene, odds are, they’re weak at how to structure the overall plot, too. This is why agents often only need a few pages of writing to know everything they need to.

Description can be filler. Lots of describing every detail of the room. Describing the weather. Description, though, should always be serving the plot and doing more than taking up space.

With every scene, first check and make sure it is a scene. What is the goal? If there are just pages with two characters talking about a third? Or rehashing stuff we already went through? CUT. Sure, all this fluff maybe helps us make a word count goal, but that’s all. It isn’t serving the story.

Even I have to go through my own work and look for this stuff. If a “scene” seems to be falling flat, I ask What does she want? Then What stands in the way? Since I tend to have a comedic writing style, I can often drift off into very funny dialogue that is highly entertaining on the surface….but is doing nothing to propel the plot.

Ah damn…CUT.

If you need help, that is what I am here for. I have a SUPER AWESOME DEAL to help you whip that WIP into fighting form! I put together a Book Bootcamp (3 craft classes—6+ hours of instruction with MOI—for $99 & RECORDINGS included in the purchase price) as well at a Book Bootcamp GOLD (also 3 craft classes for the price of two PLUS three hours with ME one-on-one plotting your novel OR repairing the plot for your novel). So make sure to check those out below along with all kinds of new classes!

Also before we go, check out the new classes below (including a two-week workshop on Deep POV by powerhouse editor Lisa Hall-Wilson). W.A.N.A. is also offering two NEW classes for romance authors, one on how to write shifters and the other on how to write great historical romance without needing a PhD in History.

Make sure you check out the newsletter class with Jack Patterson. He’s sold almost a quarter million books, so probably someone to listen to. Just sayin’…

What are your thoughts?

I LOVE hearing from you guys!

****The site is new, and I am sorry you have to enter your information all over again to comment, but I am still working out the kinks. Also your comment won’t appear until I approve it, so don’t fret if it doesn’t appear right away.

Also know I love suggestions! After almost 1,100 blog posts? I dig inspiration. So what would you like me to blog about?

Talk to me!

And to prove it and show my love, for the month of APRIL, 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. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly.

I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).


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  1. Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhh, that title made me weep bitterly, a single tear coursing down from my now-clogged tear duck.

    Is a great post, though, and I like the way you lay out the problems in a solvable manner. I look back on my own journey as a writer, and find that some of my own best lessons have come from taking a moment to see how the cleverer, smarter, better-trained, or just more brilliant writers out there have solved the same problems. Because, you know, I’ve found in my own teaching that I can dispense true wisdom like “Description … should always be serving the plot” (or a much less interesting Info Tech version of that, anyway, given my own teaching field) and yet people don’t get it till they’ve brought down their own network at 8 am on a Monday morning and every.single.manager in the place is breathing down their neck *ahem*.

    So, anyway — yes, thank you for an easily digested and concisely worded commentary on some very important writing points.

    1. It would have been better if it had come from your emerald eye with the clogged tear duct, though.

      1. Perfect!

  2. Glad I found your post!

  3. Kristen, I glean something important from every one of your blogs (okay, sometimes I just laugh myself silly!). This one made me want to take one of your classes. Thing is, I’m writing a middle-grade novel. I mean, same problems, though gemstone eyes never an issue. That ok?

    1. LOL. Well even middle grade needs solid plot, characters etc. so I think you’d get a lot out of a class, but I am a wee biased 😀 . Yeah the gemstone eyes seem to appear more in romance, but low-hanging fruit abounds in all genres if we aren’t careful.

      1. All this talk of low-hanging fruit. Romance writers, I swear…. 🙂

  4. I see so much of my first novel (which is tucked away somewhere in the dark where it hopefully died a slow death) in this list. I even thought I was being clever by describing the love interest’s eyes as peridot. It’s not emerald!

    A single tear is a cliche, but it’s not the physical impossibility people make it out to be. It can happen if someone’s only a little sad because all things are not equal in the two halves of our body. One side will always be dominant. Still, it’s a description that’s as irritating to read as “her smile didn’t reach her eyes.” Maybe it was a great line in the first five published books that used it; after that… find a new way to express that she wasn’t as happy as she appeared.

    1. Um…one of my characters, a televion reporter, has jade-colored eyes which, on down the line, match those of her biological father whom she–oops!– just happens to bump into at a funeral looking for the widow of the deceased because her name happens to be the same as that of a 1950s screen star who really turns out to be the reporter’s biological mother.

        • Marcia Smart on March 13, 2018 at 10:48 am
        • Reply

        Drats! My character uses a disguise wearing contact lenses that turn her eyes a fake-colored Emerald green. Does that count? haha!

  5. I think the individual scene is where I have to watch myself. I’m good with overall plot. It’s the individual steps that get it there where I have to be careful. I do love a pretty scene…

  6. But…but…my newbie is lacy with incredible Victoria Secret style, so that means it’s cool to let it show. 🙂
    Thanks for the reminder about the scene setup, hook, goal, conflict, resolution, each one it’s own mini-story. I tend to forget this the deeper in I go.

  7. I’m still not sure if you meant “Your” in your post title or not. 🙂

    Otherwise, I’m still chuckling at the clogged tear duct stuff, and your usual delightful snark throughout. Keep it comin’!

    1. It was a joke ?

      1. Good recovery, Kristen…

        1. Agreed.

  8. I’m currently preliminary judging entries for a writing contest. You’ve described my pain perfectly.

  9. Seriously, though, the “one tear dunning down the cheek” trope may be traced back to that famous 1970s anti-littering PSA starring Iron Eyes Cody:

  10. After reading these posts, I usually feel refueled with fresh perspective- but this morning I cried (I realize that everyone is joking about the whole one tear thing, but my tears were the real deal and it wasn’t just one). I’m so frustrated and tired and scared that no matter how many hours I spend writing daily, I’ll still end up with crap writing. Of course, I know I’m learning and growing. Yes, I know about persistence and not giving up. I’m just scared that I may look back and laugh at myself for all the work and hope I put in and that it was all for nothing. Maybe I just need more coffee.

    1. If you want to feel better I can send you chapters of my first “novels”. Its a PROCESS and hard training…just like those handsprings ?

    2. : )

    3. Vanessa, hang in there. We all sucked when we started (some of us still suck)… even Stephen King sucked once, which was nice to know since he’s my word hero.

      Keep writing…

      Too much description annoys me. I have put books down because if I am still reading about what the bedroom looks like two to three pages in, I am not interested.

      Kristen, another great post.

  11. I really enjoy all your posts, and this one is no exception. Very good information, and I appreciate that you’re sharing it. I had to laugh (in embarrassment) at the emerald eyes, because yeah…I’ve gone there. All the jewel-tone eye colors have appeared at some point in my first drafts. It’s difficult to avoid cliches sometimes, because the number of descriptive words are finite, and in my genre there are a LOT of descriptions (and a huge number of books published daily!). At some point, if you try to be too different, using words to describe something, say “green eyes” as anything other than emerald or another recognizable color, most readers aren’t going to be able to visualize them (or even know what you’re talking about). What is your recommendation for describing the eye color without confusing readers or devolving into purple prose?

    I also liked the example you gave for good description, but I wanted to know if you find first-person POV easier to write that kind of description, because I do. First person POV is very natural for me, probably because I’m used to mentally narrating my life that way. 😉 I’m funnier and more clever with descriptions whenever I write in first-person POV. The problem is that I don’t want to write first-person, because I don’t particularly like reading that POV. Do you have any recommendations for books that use third person but have good, fresh ways of describing someone while saying a lot about the person doing the describing? There are so many craft books out there that I often feel overwhelmed choosing which ones I need.

    Last sorta question/comment: The example you gave for description includes some pop culture references and ideas-like matching shoes and purse-that I didn’t get. I’ve never heard of Equinox, and didn’t know what it was (I thought it might be like Hydroxycut or something). I know Prada is expensive, but don’t regularly browse their catalog so I can’t picture it. Also, I had no idea that matching shoes and purse were an “older” thing. I guess my actual question relates to the earlier one, where I wonder: how do you use fresh, unique, non-cliched description without confusing some of your “less sophisticated” readers? Also, how do you avoid dating your books by including references to current culture and trends to describe characters and places? (Okay, that was two questions. Oops. 😉 )

    1. Do a crap ton of reading and watch how good writers do it. Stephen King does an amazing job at rich character description and he writes in third. And this book dropped brands I had to look up, but because I knew the context of the story, I was smart enough to fill in the blanks. Y’all are getting one tiny paragraph almost 90 pages into the book so you aren’t grounded in story. We don’t need to spoon feed readers. If they don’t get a brand name, they have google. Also, I didn’t know about the matching the purse and shoes, but the character in this book is a fashion editor so the way she says it makes it so (and part of the character’s paradigm). In HER world, matching shoes and bags=OLD. That help?

    • Cynthia Mahoney/Claire O'Sullivan on April 14, 2017 at 12:40 pm
    • Reply

    Good comment, out loud laugh, and realization of how many words I can ditch in my MS. That’s out there. Already.

    My protag is also her own antag a recovering thief…(then there’s a subplot), is pursued by a detective, who happens to be in love with her. His concern spills over on the phone to a partner who doesn’t know her. She says, ‘Be the witness for me.’ (the night before the MC has a 9-1-1; in coffee speak that’s six shots of espresso with double chocolate (Great for someone who can tolerate coffee). He does launch into a normal witness description, a paragraph that describes her — in his eyes. Chocolate-colored eyes (pause, the partner asks what kind of chocolate, or espresso?) ‘Don’t even get me started on espresso.’ He tells partner more than she’s asking. She stops him. Asks, ‘What’s her bra size?’ LOL. Indignant and clueless, he says ‘How inappropriate.’ Oh, I hope that doesn’t have to go…

  12. I love your blogs. You make me look at my WIP with fresh insight. To rework & perfect. I have gem coloured eyes in my novel, yikes!
    I add a lot of personality traits with minor description, I want the reader to picture them as a whole. As always, thanks.

    • Emily on April 14, 2017 at 1:31 pm
    • Reply

    I always enjoy your blog posts. You get right to the point and drive it home with humor. Love it!

  13. Love your blog.

  14. Love your blog. I’m either reminded of stuff I know, or horrified and guilty of something I didn’t know. Thanks for the help.

    • Scott Petty on April 14, 2017 at 3:42 pm
    • Reply

    Oh, em, gee I wish I could make the Bootcamp GOLD. Hopefully you’ll have it again soon!
    Time to run some scene diagnostics on meh WIP! Loving the insight.

      • Holly on April 16, 2017 at 10:44 am
      • Reply

      Are the classes live or can they be self-paced? I have a young adult child with a chronic condition that can’t attend college or hold a job but she wants to be a writer and create graphic novels. She needs classes she can work on at her own pace. Could this work? If not, what is the best solution you can think of for someone often unable to make deadlines or appointments? Best books?

      1. Both. You can attend live, but the recordings are also included so you can re-watch as many times as you need and whatever pace suits your needs best. That is the reason I include the recordings for free. Not everyone can make a schedule, especially since a lot of students are in other countries like Europe, Australia and New Zealand. I hope you will join us!

  15. Most of the time, I breathe a sigh of relief. Although on this one, a salty tear burned down my cheek, so I’ll have to go back and rewrite a paragraph.

  16. Ah yes, I see this a lot even in some published work. Not that being published makes it okay, mind you!

    I purchased Les’s book. Perhaps it can help me clean up my writing.

    Still a noob, and been a noob so long if it were a person it could vote.

  17. Gulp…..immediately deleted the single tear…and will never use it again. Love your articles! You get straight to the core of all the things we shouldn’t be doing!

  18. I don’t like the tear the falls to the floor. I just want them to wipe their face!

    I know I have a bit of description. My house is haunted, so I’m not sure how to get around that. I spread it around, but there is more upfront.

  19. As usual, an informative, helpful, and entertaining post, Kristen. Had a few moments of guilt while reading… Stuff to work on!

    • Lance on April 15, 2017 at 12:49 pm
    • Reply

    Hi Kristen you’re the best blogger ever I love you will you marry me.


    Lance in GA

    1. Ok BIG points for greatest blog compliment EVER…but Hubby frowns on me marrying other men 😀 .

  20. As always, I’m snorting at inappropriate times in your blogs, but the cackles just can’t be held back!
    You hit my guiding word right off: wordsmith… Have I just puked out a bunch of crap-words that fit my personal b.s.? Or have I crafted, word-by-word, material that will shove my story forward while the reader gets excited and hollers yeeeeeeeeehaaaaw! (or whatever bellow fits the culture)
    Filler, to me, is the hard one…as it’s so easy to slip into that voice/personality…and it can also go hand-in-hand with one of my pet peeves: author assumption of knowledge.
    Thanks for sharing what you know with everyone who doesn’t know it – yet.

    • Les Edgerton on April 16, 2017 at 6:10 am
    • Reply

    Awwwww,Kristen… thank you so much for the shout-out. Every time you do that, my book moves rapidly off the shelves–you have tremendous clout! Just have to say, my other pet peeve is someone “thinking to themselves,” as in: I wonder why she’s getting up, Mary thought to herself. Unless it’s a sci-fi novel where people have the power to read thoughts, who else does one think to? Aaaaarrrrrrgggggghhhhhhh! Okay. There. I spit it out and feel much better… Again, thank you! BTW, I’ll be in San Antonio for 8 days for WRW in May–any chance you’ll be in town so I can buy you a brew?

    1. I’m not going to that con 🙁 . I miss you so maybe we need to compare schedules and see if we can cross paths. Maybe I can come by your neck of the woods ((HUGS)). And that book SHOULD fly off the shelves. I recommend it all the time. Best damn writing book out there. Sure yanked a knot in my tail, LOL.

    • Jan Sikes on April 16, 2017 at 2:01 pm
    • Reply

    Kristen, you make me question every piece of writing I’ve ever done…and that’s a good thing! Thanks for the brutal honesty of your post! I’ve pinned it for future reference.

  21. As always, Kirsten, very helpful and informative, although my heart sunk as I read your ‘newbie showings’. Writing is indeed so hard, isn’t it? (I am seriously thinking of signing up for a Boot Camp soon, when I have some money to pay you.

  22. Kristen,
    Your posts have this wonderful way of making absolute sense of the jungle that is the writer’s life, and for that THANK YOU!

    • Debra Spearman on April 18, 2017 at 9:35 am
    • Reply

    My position as a newbie is almost a cliche in itself – a retired English teacher who always wanted to write rather than just teach writing and reading and now has the time! I thought I knew so much until I tried to do it for myself. I have learned a lot about writing from your post and the books that you recommend. I have finished and revised more than once a middle-grade novel that is before the editorial board of a small publisher. Just waiting to hear – “with bated breath!” But I can see from your posts and craft books like Hooked other ways it could be improved. Have started on novel number two. Can I break out of my cliche? I hope so with help like you give. Thinks so much.

  23. I know that I am always later with comments to the blog. I typically sneak in a read a work, but print it out to ensure they don’t see me on computer doing personal stuff. Liked this one!

    • Denise McGee on April 21, 2017 at 9:03 am
    • Reply

    Another wonderful post, Kristen!

    Hooked was the very first craft book I read. I love that it’s still relevant.

  1. […] our prose shine. Larry Brooks discusses the common mistake of overwriting, Kristen Lamb examines 3 newbie mistakes, Jami Gold shows is how to fix bad writing habits, Melissa Donovan explains how to use the […]

  2. […] Oops! Hold on. You’re Newbie is Showing. […]

  3. […] via Oops! Hold on. You’re Newbie is Showing. — Kristen Lamb […]

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