Outside of creative writing courses taught by published authors with a proven track record, it’s hard for new novelists to get good advice about their writing from a reputable source. At Curtis Brown Creative, though, we are lucky to work with lots of brilliant and experienced tutors on our novel-writing courses, all of whom are successful authors in their own right (or is that write?). They have read lots of applicants’ and students’ writing, and can tell the good from the bad just by reading a first page. Here are some of the common writing mistakes they suggest you avoid.
Catherine Johnson: ‘What I want when reading new work is the feeling that the writer totally knows the character and the world. I want writing that is dramatic and exciting, I want to be completely swept away by the story, to believe that the protagonist’s world is real and that the stakes are high. I’m happy for work to pose questions, but not so many that I stop reading, or that I’m pulled up short by them.
‘The one thing that’s a total turn-off is passive characters: characters that move through the world but do nothing and affect nothing; characters who observe the story rather than live in it. Your protagonist should always be the most engaging, interesting character, not the quirky best friend, not the putative love interest and – especially with children’s and YA writing – parents, teachers or any wise and lovable adult.
‘In YA and children’s writing our readers want the young protagonist to win out without the help of any benevolent adult. And so do I.’
Erin Kelly: ‘In my literary Room 101 are submissions that flit constantly in and out of different tenses. I don’t mean stories that use past and present tenses to tell a then-and-now story: I mean stuff like this: “I knelt at the foot of his grave: I’m crying so hard right now. The tears fell thick and fast. They splash on the newly-dug earth.”
‘It’s making my eyes itch even typing that, but it’s surprisingly common. Usually it’s a hangover from when a writer has begun a novel in one tense, then realised it would be more powerful in another, and until someone invents a Ctrl+Alt function to shift tenses, it’s easy to miss the odd word when redrafting.
‘But surprisingly frequently the writer hasn’t even noticed they’re doing it. They’re shocked when I point it out, and might even say that it doesn’t matter. It might be a small adjustment you’re asking of the reader, but why throw this particular obstacle in their path? It looks sloppy and uncontrolled. Hopping constantly between the present and the past when you’re describing the same scene, on the same page, can make an otherwise sound novel feel like a leaky boat.
‘Writing in more than one tense is of course a useful tool; I’ve used it to differentiate between narratives in different timelines, and Sarah Waters switches tenses to signal a new narrator in Fingersmith, for example. But it’s most effective when done clearly, and purposefully.’
Lisa O’Donnell: ‘Every year Curtis Brown Creative get wonderful submissions from writers from all over the world, but the work that speaks to me most are the stories that are quite literally off the page with strong characters, which in turn complement strong storylines. I like nice prose. Who doesn’t? What I hate however is only that. Honey prose. Prose you could pour over a pancake, but what’s it for exactly and what’s it doing for your novel? I also get bored of eloquent chunks of description that don’t tell me anything except how nice a forest is or drags me up a mountaintop or has me walking on sandy beach in Malibu for 1,000 words. Mostly because living in a world dominated by the screen has destroyed the need for description in the contemporary reader because we’ve seen everything; we know what a beach looks like, we know the joy of a mountaintop and we’ve walked through a forest, so what’s your lengthy description for? Let me tell you what it should be for. It should be telling me who your character is because the only purpose of description is to tell the reader about the person doing the describing and if it’s not doing that then it’s a waste of space. I don’t have preferred genres and I have worked with writers on children’s stories, non-fiction, crime, literary, chick lit and horror. My influences are wide and ranging. I think confident writing shows, so whatever you submit make sure you believe in your story because if you don’t then I won’t either.’
Christopher Wakling: ‘The only thing wrong with the following opening to a novel is that it includes a dramatic happening. Less of that would have been better. More weather would have been good, too. Plus more musing. Musing about weather. No, musing about the right weather for beginning a novel. With a hangover. A hangover endured while carefully describing passionate sex. How did we miss such opportunities?’
THE VILLAGE OF CHALICES: A TRILLAGY
Chapter 1, Book 1, Prologue, Introduction
Lulapeth left the village and stares unblinkingly through the leafy clearing, somewhere she could hear the faint cry of a bird’s almost inaudible tooting. Her ears were feeling very inquisitive that morning and possibly a little bit curious. Was it because she had been shunned by the great Elder of the Village who had refused to give to her the note that had supposed to have been given to her by her now dead father that she had never met, her mind thought, reflecting on it’s memories? Maybe not, but possibly so. He was called Hegwind because that was his village name. Lulapeth’s own lips gave a puckered frown. The owl was hovering at the edge of the centre of the clearing now. It looked like it had something to tell her from the village, and opened its beak to tell it to her as if to speak.
Suddenly, however, an arrow shot it.
‘Toot’ It said.
It fell through the air onto the ground like a dropped slightly opened laptop computer. In its paws its dying grip held a shred of something that looked like it was probably very important ancient village scroll with her fathers handwriting on its surface. Lulapeth felt the shock shiver across her spine down to her woven boots on her feet. Although the owl and the scroll were approximately about fifteen and half metres away from her eyes Lulapeth definitely thinks she could probably make out these words:
Dear Lulapeth, my most beloved daughter who I shall never see, By the time you get this via my owl, I will have gone forth from this earthen realm into another realm. But first heed these words: do not trust the villagers from the village of Eastlewickthorpe. There crops are as blighted as their immoral blighted lying souls are blighted. They also had shot an owl in the past and may threaten to shoot my owl too with an arrow. If they do try do not try to read this note until after you are sure that they haven’t tried. They could well be behind you right now as you are reading this with their bows aimed at the back of your very own precious head.
Lulapeth turned as an arrow shoots her in the precious head like Cupid’s tainted ammunition. She passed into that other realm. Again, the glade was silent once more. THE END (of the start).
We hope that helped!
For an in-depth course as part of a group of 15 (in which students are selected on the basis of their submission) with a great tutor and participation from our literary agents, apply for:
Six-Month Novel-Writing Course in London with Christopher Wakling (deadline for applications is Sunday 21 January).
Six-Month Online Novel-Writing Course with Lisa O’Donnell (deadline for applications is Sunday 28 January).
For a dedicated online course for those writing for young adults or children as part of a group of 15 (in which students are selected on the basis of their submission), with a top children’s author, apply for:
Writing YA and Children’s Fiction with Catherine Johnson (deadline for applications is Sunday 4 February).
We are also offering three low-cost ‘foundation’ online courses, featuring tuition from CBC director Anna Davis:
Starting to Write Your Novel (deadline for enrolment is midnight on Mon 15 January).
Write to the End of Your Novel (deadline for enrolment is midnight on Mon 22 January).
Edit & Pitch Your Novel (deadline for enrolment is midnight on Mon 29 January).