The 5 Most Common Problems First Time Writers Share

by Amanda Patterson

I have run my creative writing course, Writers Write for four years.

I have learned so much from teaching novelists to dream their books into life.

I have watched people struggle as they decide whether or not they need to attend a writing course.

After many rejections and lots of reflection, they join.

Writing teachers and mentors, and writing courses, have been popular for longer than most people know.

Frank McCourt Angela’s Ashes lectures creative writing, as do Wally Lamb She’s Come Undone and Janet Fitch White Oleander.

Consider the Bloomsbury Set. Gertrude Stein sacrificed much of her own career to mentor the likes of F Scott Fitzgerald, T S Eliot, Ezra Pound, James Joyce and Ernest Hemingway, whom she once told to start again – and this time, “Concentrate.”

Writers like Andre Brink and J M Coetzee have lectured the art of creative writing at UCT. Authors, like Diane Awerbuck Gardening at Night and Susan Mann One Tongue Singing, have graduated from this programme.

Don’t ever be afraid to learn. The most successful novelists have always looked for help when they’ve needed it.

After seeing 36 graduates published, I have settled on these five as being the most common problems.

5 Most Common Problems First Time Writers Share

  • First time writers all want to write their life story in the form of a novel
  • Beginners have no antagonist
  • First time writers have no plot
  • Beginners do not have enough dialogue
  • First time writers hang on to an idea for a novel that is no longer popular

1. Almost every writer who comes through the school thinks they have a life story so compelling that an editor in London or New York is waiting to publish it. Starting a query letter with, “This novel is based on my life,” means the dreaded slush pile. Why you feel so compelled to hang on to your life story? Tell it to a therapist. Then write a novel. Or write a memoir. But learn how to do it so that it is not an indulgence. Chris van Wyk’s, Shirley, Goodness & Mercy, Alexandra Fuller’s, Don’t Let’s do to the Dogs Tonight and Mukiwa by Peter Godwin are good examples of memoirs.

2. If you develop well constructed protagonists and antagonists, who SPEAK and ARGUE and FIGHT, you will be able to write fiction. How can you write a book, which is generally 360 pages long, without a villain? Who will your hero fight to achieve his goal? The other characters – love interests and friends, are not important for the plot. They are important to show a protagonist’s life, goals, motivations and feelings without you telling your reader what they are.

3. Beginner writers either stop at about 20 000 words or carry on until they reach 120 000 or more. Most novels are 80 000 words. Either way, these first time writers don’t have a plot. Most first time authors ramble on philosophically until they have told the story. They are writing an essay, not a novel. This is called telling. Never tell.

4. In modern fiction you have to show. The narrator style of writing has all but disappeared. One way to get around this problem is to use dialogue. Modern novels contain 50 – 70% dialogue. I suggest that writers make friends with this writing tool.

5. All writers have a story from long ago, mostly high school, which they hang onto. I ask these writers to go to their nearest good bookshop and look at the new releases. I tell them to log onto Amazon or Barnes & Noble. Would their book fit in either of these places? Family sagas written by authors like Barbara Taylor Bradford in the 1980’s do not sell now. Nor do cosy mysteries a la Agatha Christie, or historical adventures like those written by Wilbur Smith – unless you are Wilbur Smith. These first time writers need to let go, do some research and write fiction that publishers will buy.

Of course there is more to writing a successful story than these five points. My course, Writers Write, teaches the rest. It covers plotting techniques, character development, writing believable dialogue, viewpoint, readability statistics, scene and sequel, pacing, chapter structure etc.

The next courses begin in Johannesburg on Saturday 12 July 2008 (four consecutive Saturday mornings) & Tuesday 15 July 2008 (Tuesday & Thursday morning sessions for four consecutive weeks)

For more information, contact Wiida 0117064021 or mail


2 Responses

  1. Great points. I write for film, not so much for print, but nonetheless the lessons are definitely applicable.

    I remember the first screenplay I wrote was based on portions of my own life. Care to guess how well that one went over?

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