Thanks to Elaine for asking this question:
What are the common pitfalls and egregious errors of beginning fiction writers? The teacher in me can’t help rephrasing more gently. When you write a short story or a novel for the first time you might want to avoid:
1. Beginning on the road. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read stories that begin with someone returning home for Thanksgiving / a funeral / a wedding. Or a couple driving cross country, or a hitchhiker standing by the side of the road and a manic trucker picking up the guy and then the two driving for many hours.
2. Beginning with the death of a child, after which the family is changed forever. It’s not a bad idea, just a common one.
3. Telling the ending first, and then backtracking to explain. Again, this is not a bad idea, and it works beautifully when it’s done well. Howard Norman is a master. It’s hard to pull off, however, because you are satisfying the reader’s curiosity on the first page and very possibly ruining that reader’s appetite–serving just desserts before the meal. Don’t knock a linear narrative til you’ve tried it. As my students can attest, writing events in order, with a beginning, middle and end is actually quite satisfying and surprisingly challenging.
4. Plunging in without knowing your characters. This is how you get stock descriptions and wooden dialog. You haven’t worked out what your characters look like or how they talk or who they are. Don’t fill your book with strangers.
5. Churning out page after page simply because you don’t want to give up. If you don’t love your material but you force yourself to keep writing anyway, you end up with two problems. First, your readers can tell that you don’t love your material and they won’t love it either. It’s amazing how readers can tell. You must believe in your story for that story to work. The other thing that will happen if you keep writing without love or conviction is that you will start to hate writing.
Force your imagination long enough and it will shut down altogether. For this reason, I’d say persistence is overrated when it comes to art. Never never never give up is a great motto for athletes training or scientists repeating experiments or generals fighting wars, but giving up is essential for artists who are uninspired. They SHOULD give up working so hard and start playing again. Writers should have the humility and the flexibility to shift to Plan B or Plan C or something totally off the wall–Plan X. Don’t stick with an idea for better or for worse. A lot of bad writing comes from the for worse part of the equation. Trust that you might come up with something better. Take a sabbatical from yourself and do other things. Then, when you least expect it–when you’re calm and happy again . . . well you know those people who found love when they weren’t looking, or conceived a baby after they gave up. Ideas are like that too. They come along when you stop working so hard. And sometimes even then, they don’t come along–but you’re happier, you’re more accepting. You’re willing to consider alternatives–travel? volunteer work? translation? non-fiction? a new day job? And now suddenly you have material. You have something new you want to say. You can’t wait to start writing . . . so return to point one. Don’t start on the road.