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Ten Common Mistakes of Beginners
by Rita Herron
Not Enough Conflict
Conflict is the story! The conflict must be a real problem worthy enough to sustain the story. If two people argue, there is definitely a conflict between them, but if the argument can be settled with a simple chat or some minor action, it isn't strong enough to sustain an entire book. The hero and heroine should both have internal conflict (reasons) that neither one can be with the other. This internal conflict drives the characters to behave the way they do, to make the choices they make, and is often a result of things that have happened to them in the past which have hurt or affected them. The internal conflict enables the reader to see the character's vulnerabilities.
Your story will move faster and be more interesting if you add external conflict as well. The external conflict revolves around the situation that physically brings the characters together during the story and is interrelated to the plot. Use your external plot to make things happen with your characters that will play off their internal conflicts (their vulnerabilities and fears.)
A Convoluted Plot
Make sure your plot makes sense. If you have to constantly invent ways to get your characters' together or if your plot is so far out that no one will believe it, then your plotline is probably too convoluted.
Category editors push putting "hooks" in the stories to make them salable, but sometimes writers try to cram all the elements in one story and wind up with too many elements. Utilize one or two of the hooks, then focus on the building relationship and romance between the characters.
We want our characters to be larger than life, but also real people, not stereotypes. Use vivid descriptions and backstories to make your characters come alive, and avoid the trite and over-used (dumb-blonde, fat cop, etc.) Also, make sure your characters use logic and common sense in the story. Each character should have strengths as well as flaws. Those flaws help us to see the character's vulnerabilities which in turn makes us more sympathetic toward the character. A character that is too good is boring! A character that doesn't seem to have a brain in her head won't win our sympathy any more than a bully. And my pet peeve -- heroes and heroines who are depressed and feel sorry for themselves because they have no self-esteem are not heroic.
Also, watch for the dumb heroine (you know the one who goes into the dark alley alone at night!) If she's going into that dark alley, make sure she has sufficient motivation to do so (she has to go to save her child). Also make sure she is aware of the dangers and has something to use for protection, even if it is her stiletto heels.
Your first line, paragraph and chapter should hook the reader into the story by showing us the character's conflict. Drop the character into a situation where they are immediately faced with conflict. Save the boring back story and weave it in as you go.
Too Much Narrative
SDT - Show, Don't Tell -- Just as you want to start with a hook, you want to skip the long passages of narrative and descriptions. Immediately put your character into a conflicting or problematic situation, then show his reactions instead of just telling us, and let us learn about the character through his dialogue and actions.
Not Enough Dialogue (Or stilted dialogue)
By placing your character in a situation where he interacts and showing what he does, how he handles the situation, how he changes, or by using dialogue to reveal parts of his character, your character will come alive. Showing through dialogue also breaks up the page and long bouts of narrative (it also makes the page visually more appealing.) We learn about characters through the things they say, the way they say it, their speech patterns and cadence, and also the things they don't say. Internal monologue (thoughts)can also be very revealing - does the character say one thing but think another? Be sure to use the dialogue to further your story or characterization - try to avoid it for introductions or just chitchat, but make the dialogue count.
To avoid stilted, unnatural sounding dialogue, watch TV or movies and listen to people talk. Most people use contractions when they speak, not formal sentences. Also, avoid having all your characters sound alike. Change their tones, inflections, speech patterns and cadence, etc. so they sound like individuals. For instance, a history professor would definitely sound different than a two-year-old.
Head Hopping - the POV switch
Point of view refers to the character who is telling the story (whose head are we in?) In a short story, the reader needs to identify with one main character and his or her problems. To make that identification possible, the author must keep the point of view fixed (stay in one character's head). Shifting the POV from one character to another can dilute the impact (can be done more effectively in a novel) and is best handled by changing points of view with a scene change. For a romance novel, write one scene in the hero's point of view, then switch to the heroine's.
Most fiction is written in third person point of view (sometimes in first person.) Remember that when you're in one person's point of view, he/she can only know what the other person is thinking or feeling by guessing it from the person's actions, gestures, or by their dialogue. Avoid using the third person omnipotent POV (the author's POV.) This type of POV puts the reader at a distance and makes it hard for the reader to really feel what the character is feeling.
Make sure your resolution ties up all the questions and problems in the story. Romance readers want a happy ending, but they do want it to be realistic enough to be believable. At the point of crisis, both characters should have to face their internal conflicts and overcome them by being willing to give up something for the other person.
Both should experience some kind of character growth which enables them to overcome their differences and build a life together.
No Character Growth
Since each character comes to the story with his/her own problems, each should grow or learn something during the story. For ex., through the heroine's love, the sinister bachelor-for-life should lose some of his cynicism. Or the woman who can no longer trust a man must take a chance and trust the hero. The jerk at the beginning of the book shouldn't be a jerk at the end (unless he's the villain!)
Be sure to study the market you're interested in writing for so you can target your manuscript correctly. In order to learn the markets and differences in the publishing lines, read several books from each category line or genre you're interested in, so you can learn the differences. Study category books and note the elements and story-lines category houses want, and find out how single-titles books differ. Also, network with other writers, attend conferences and workshops, and get the tip sheets from publishing houses. You don't want to send that inspirational story to Harlequin Blaze, a sexy line, or that romantic suspense to a comedy line!
Rita Herron is the author of over thirty books. Her newest romantic suspense is Last Kiss Goodbye. She enjoys spinning spine-tingling romantic suspense tales filled with murder, mayhem, and spicy romance as well as sexy romantic comedies. She currently writes for HQN, Harlequin Intrigue, Harlequin American, Dorchester and has recently sold a southern short story to Belle Books. Visit Rita's website at www.ritaherron.com