I don’t know if it’s still common, but it used to be an oft-professed desire to write a book. How hard can it be? After all, you can read and write, and that’s all it takes, right? To get started, that is really all you need. Eventually you will turn out forty to a hundred thousand words if you just start cracking. The problem is, you don’t want to write A book, because your one book will suck. So if you want to write a good book, write that first book, chuck it, write a different one, chuck it and repeat. Eventually you will hone the secondary skills required. That of characterization, exposition, description and dialog. These all feed into storytelling. This, of course, assumed that you are writing fiction. Fiction is easier, you don’t actually have to know anything, you just have to string together an entertaining yarn.
It turns out that a lot of those people who were expressing an interest in writing a book were not interested in the act of writing. What they wanted was to have written a book. Whether it is for the bragging rights or the passive income doesn’t matter, because they will never write a book. It’s simply because the amount of time it takes to sit down and puts tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of words down on paper is a barrier to entry all its own. If you do not enjoy the act of writing for the sake of writing, the probability of finishing the volume drops to minute. In my case, I started writing stories back in high school. These stories were crap, but I wrote them to entertain myself. I needed to provide my own fiction, because the literature being foisted upon us public school students was specifically selected to make the students hate books.
The first obstacle is scene flow. A novice writer will often have a vivid picture in their head, but the words on the page do not convey all of it. They will also know where everyone is going next but frequently fail to chain the scenes together in a manner that someone not privy to the contents of the author’s head could follow. It becomes a nightmare if they try their hand at non-linear storytelling, as you combine the problems above with a format that is inherently harder to follow. The pieces of the scene should be laid out in order and strung together in a coherent pattern. It seems obvious, but early on this requires a conscious effort. The frequent counterpoint to disjointed scenery is the ‘and then’ syndrome. Where a character does something, and then something else and then a third thing. A list of actions and events with no color or engagement. While it can be followed, it ends up boring.
The second obstacle is description. The mistakes often fall into two categories – over-describing and under-describing. Under-describing is often from the same problem as the issues with flow. The picture is complete in their head, and they don’t fully put it on paper. If it’s not on the page, you don’t get credit for it. The opposite end of the spectrum would be trying to get every detail of the picture down on the paper, even when it doesn’t contribute to the reader’s understanding. This can come out spontaneously, or as an over-correction to a novice who had previously been bitten by not describing enough. Finding the balance is infuriating and ironically difficult to describe. Because there is no one good amount of description. Some things don’t need to be covered, while plot- and character-relevant components should be given sufficient attention.
After the first two, novice authors become more individualistic in their flaws. Some are terrible at developing characters. Others can’t create a plot to save their stories. I have always been the latter. One of my early books started from a seed of “Twenty-five pages of nothing.” The characters were alive, the dialog entertaining, and the scenes well-set. The problem was, nothing happened. It was just a couple days in the life of a nineteenth century gentleman. Strangely, people were still entertained. My solution to break out of that rut was to focus on what I was good at. I let the characters run loose and develop the plot from their interactions. This required knowing them as people and understanding their motivations. It also tends to meander and generate a lot of banter. I’ve had to trim down otherwise entertaining banter for the sake of scene flow because it got in the way.
For people who can write plots but not character… I got nothing.
I never had that problem and have no advice beyond this – write more. Like all skills, storytelling and characterization improves the more it gets practiced. So the more works you churn out, the more you will learn from you mistakes. There is a point of diminishing returns, obviously, and there will be works that are not as good as those that preceded them. That is just how it goes. But it is a craft you can practice as long as your brain functions.
I should probably address bragging and passive income. I do have passive income from my books. Last month it was $25. Most writers have to write as a sideline to a day job or other means of support. The sort of people whose writing generates sufficient passive income to live on are household names. Then there’s the matter of bragging rights. When I meet someone, I tend to say I work in IT. I’ll still talk about my writing with anyone who asks, but I’m usually not the first to bring it up. A lot of these people think they’ll go to cocktail parties and tell the local cosmos “I’m the author of…” But these people won’t ever be in that situation. They’re not the sort who’d spend their Sunday night tapping out 3,100 words in their active work, then turn around and write a thousand word article on writing for their local Libertarian preserve.