The Worst Mistake a Novelist Can Make



Broken shoes

I’ve read all kinds of books and blog posts that tell me how to be a better writer.

Show, don’t tell.

Cut out adverbs.

Don’t give too much backstory. But give enough so the reader isn’t confused.

The list goes on and on.

But none of those are what I would call fatal mistakes. None of them are enough (by themselves) to ruin a novel.

And all of them can be fixed.

There is one mistake that just can’t be repaired. Like a broken pair of shoes, there’s not much that can be done.

And that’s to tell a bad story. One that’s dull, trite or otherwise not worth listening to.

I’ll give a few examples.

Famous Short Story

O Henry was one of the greatest short story writers. Some of his stories have become classics.

One of these is “The Last Leaf.”

This story is two young starving artists in New York City who share a small apartment. One of the girls, Joanna, comes down with pneumonia. In the days before penicillin, this disease was often fatal.

Sue, the other artist, watched Joanna lose interest in life and slowly lose strength. The doctor gave her little chance to live, unless she decides she has something to live for.

Joanna spends her days lying in bed, counting the leaves on the vine that grew on the wall of the building next to theirs. She’s decided that when that last leaf falls from the vine, she’ll die.

Sue is frantic and unable to convince Joanna this is crazy. She shares this with another artist in their building. He also ridicules the notion.

A storm blows up that night. In the morning, Joanna demands that Sue opens the curtains so she can see that the last leaf has fallen.

To their surprise, one leaf still clings to the vine. It stubbornly hangs on through that day and the next. Joanna realizes she’s been foolish and begins to want to live again.

Then they hear the news that their downstairs neighbor has taken ill with pneumonia and died. It seems he was out in the storm a few days earlier and painted a leaf on the wall, so that Joanna wouldn’t give up on life.

“The Last Leaf” is a touching story of love and sacrifice. But there’s a problem.

If it was raining so hard that the artist who painted the last leaf was soaked through to the skin, how did he manage to get any paint on the wall at all, without it being washed away?

Kind of a major flaw in the plot.

But the story endures, because it is a great story. By the time a reader gets to the end and learns the truth of the leaf on the wall, he is so caught up in the characters and what will happen, he’s not thinking about wet paint in a rainstorm.

Young Adult Paranormal Romance Series

Paranormal romance

A few years ago, I stumbled on the first book in a young adult paranormal series. I was so taken with the story, I ended up buying all seven.

And since then, I’ve read all seven—three times.

In spite of the fact that I find many of the main characters tiresome and annoying. Somehow, I can get beyond their personalities and actually care what happens to them.

And I’m a little sorry to get to the end of the series and I have to leave their world.

The writer in me also picked up on the clichés (eyes bright with unshed tears). I also started to get the idea that the author of this series didn’t know what “unshed” means. She referred “unshed sounds” in the ears, and used the word in another rather bizarre way.

But none of this mattered to the romantic teenager who still lives in my mind. Because the series told a great story.

So what’s my point?

Many people don’t publish their novels because they don’t think they’ve mastered every aspect of the craft of writing. While I would never encourage someone to rush to publish or to skip editing and proofreading, there comes a time to finish the work.

The flaws in character and plot won’t sink a great story. Concentrate on constructing a great story. Do your best with the rest. Any other mistakes you make will most likely be overlooked for the sake of your enthralling, captivating story.

Go ahead. Take a deep breath, and publish.

 



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