What Beginning Writers Misunderstand about Storytelling

Between this blog and the website for SouthWest Writers, I’ve conducted over a hundred interviews in the last few years. The answers I enjoy most involve the writing process, how authors deal with world building and series writing, and what makes their characters likeable.

Authors who have spent dozens of years in the writing trenches, and know enough to teach others, are the ones I wish I could spend hours picking their brains—or attached by umbilical, coaxing the writing life from them (in a gentle, non-vampire way).

One of my favorite questions to ask these experts is: What do many beginning writers misunderstand about telling a story? Here are the best answers to that question from seven authors who often share their writing expertise online, in classroom environments, and/or at conferences.

Michael Backus is an author and creative writing instructor whose fiction and nonfiction have appeared in numerous print and online publications:

Beginning writers don’t understand how labor intensive a good piece of writing is. Everyone writes differently but most of us do literally dozens of revisions of a piece of writing before we’re done. The other thing I see regularly is confusion over the difference between real life and life in fiction. In fiction, there’s a reason for everything that happens. Like Chekhov’s famous “gun on the mantelpiece” advice—if you create a detail in the beginning of a story, that detail has to play a part somewhere in the story. And beginning writers often struggle with cause and effect, the idea that if something happens in a story (the effect), we need to understand the cause. Things in life often just happen. Things in a story never can. There has to be a reason, and there has to be connection between the major elements of a story.

Sarah Baker writes mystery as S.H. Baker, romance as Sarah Storme, and erotica as Lydia Parks. She has 20 novels, numerous novellas and short stories, and three audiobooks available:

I think many writers who are just starting out do the same things I did: they don’t start in the middle of action, and they feel the need to tell the reader all the backstory. I had the opportunity to work as an acquiring editor at a small press for a short time, and I learned just how quickly you have to grab the editor’s attention. And if you can’t grab an editor’s attention, you won’t be able to grab a reader’s, either. Jumping into a story mid-stride isn’t natural. It takes practice, but it’s very important to do.

Joseph Badal, best-selling and award-winning thriller author, has published dozens of articles and short stories as well as 13 novels split between three series and three standalones:

The biggest failing I see among beginning writers is that they believe all that is necessary to be published and to be successful is to tell a good story. A good story is the minimum requirement for success. But beyond that, the writer must learn that writing is a craft and that honing that craft is a continual process. I had to learn this the hard way. Today, after I finish the first draft of a manuscript, I spend months editing that manuscript (usually 6-8 edits). In the editing process, I challenge the necessity and appropriateness of every word, and make adjustments accordingly. This is a time-consuming, arduous process, but once finished, it adds to the satisfaction of writing.

Melody Groves is a novelist and nonfiction writer whose freelance articles can be found in publications such as American Cowboy, Wild West, True West, and New Mexico Magazine:

[Beginning writers need to understand] that they’re TELLING a story, not educating nor preaching. If a reader learns something, fine. But our job is to spin a tale, put readers in a different place and time from their own. Entertain them. We are entertainers, storytellers, not priests or professors.

As a conference speaker, founder of Fiction University, and an author of fiction and nonfiction, Janice Hardy is one of the busiest writing professionals in the industry:

[A story is] about interesting people solving interesting problems in interesting ways. I’ve read (and written, let’s be honest) plenty of novels that essentially describe how a character does X. There’s never a sense of them figuring things out or solving a problem. It’s “Here’s how the hero kills the evil wizard” not “Here’s how the hero learns to overcome her fears and triumphs over the evil wizard by becoming better in some way.”

Jack Woodville London is a former U.S. Army officer and courtroom lawyer turned award-winning author. He has published nonfiction articles and reference books, as well as short stories and historical novels:

When readers pick up a book they look for three things: what is the story about, who are the characters, and where do I come in? Telling a story is a contract between the storyteller and the audience. The reader has to become invested in the story for it to succeed. To invest readers, the story must be something they can see themselves being a part of. The story must make the reader expect the conflict to come out a certain way and continue reading until the conflict does come out, although not necessarily as expected. The story doesn’t get better with clever phrases and lots of adjectives.

Don Morgan is a versatile author of 13 published novels written under several pen names. As Don Travis, he’s released five mysteries through Dreamspinner Press:

What I find to be the most common misconception for beginners is assuming that the incidents (real or imagined) they choose to put down on paper are as fascinating to others as they are to themselves. While that may or may not be true, it is the manner of the telling that determines whether or not the writing is truly interesting. It’s a simple concept, but so many of us (even experienced writers) have to relearn this each time we sit down at our desk.

What else do you think beginning writers misunderstand about telling stories?


Speculative Fiction Writer

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Posted in Writing Advice
4 comments on “What Beginning Writers Misunderstand about Storytelling
  1. The mistakes I see from new writers at Writers Village University include writing stilted dialogue. They should listen to people talking around them. They use contractions. They use partial sentences. They punctuate their words with expressions and body language.

  2. Interesting perspectives, Kathy. I particularly liked Janice Hardy’s example, which illustrates the point beautifully. Lots to ponder here!

    • KL Wagoner says:

      It’s interesting that each of these authors highlight something different that beginning writers need to work on. And, of course, Janice Hardy always has something to say worth listening to. Thanks for stopping by!

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