Beginning novelists are like Tolstoy’s happy families. They tend to be remarkably alike. Certain mistakes are common to almost all beginners. These things aren’t necessarily wrong, but they are difficult to do well—and get in the way of smooth storytelling
They also make it easy for professionals—and a lot of readers—to spot the unseasoned newbie.
When I worked as an editor, I ran into the same problems in nearly every new novelist’s work—the very things I did when I was starting out.
I think some of the patterns come from imitating the classics. In the days of Dickens and Tolstoy, novels were written to be savored on long winter nights or languid summer days when there was a lot of time to be filled. Detailed descriptions took readers out of their mundane lives and off to exotic lands or into the homes of the very rich and very poor where they wouldn’t be invited otherwise.
Books were expensive, so people wanted them to last as long as possible. They didn’t mind flipping back and forth to find out if Razumihin, Dmitri Prokofitch, and Vrazumihin were in fact, all the same person. They were okay with immersing themselves in long descriptions and philosophical digressions before they found out what happened to Little Nell. The alternative was probably staring at the fire or listening to Aunt Lavinia snore.
But in the electronic age…not so much. Your readers have the world’s libraries at their fingertips, and if you bore them or confuse them for even a minute, they’re already clicking away to buy the next shiny 99c book.
Whether you’re querying agents and editors or you’re planning to self-publish, you need to write for the contemporary reader. And that means “leaving out the parts that readers skip” as Elmore Leonard said.
Agents and readers aren’t going to want to wade through a practice novel. They want polished work. All beginners make mistakes. Falling down and making a mess is part of any learning process. But you don’t have to display the mess to the world. Unfortunately easy electronic self-publishing tempts us to do just that.
But don’t. As I said two weeks ago, it takes the same amount of time to learn to write as it did before the electronic age.
Here are some tell-tale signs that a writer is still in the learning phase of a career.
I’m not saying these things are “wrong”. They’re just overdone or tough for a beginner to do well.
1) Show-offy prose
Those long, gorgeous descriptions that got so much praise from your high school English teacher and your critique group can unfortunately be a turn-off for the paying customer who’s digging around for some kind of narrative thread or reason to care.
People read novels to be entertained, not to fulfill the needs of the novelist. If you’re writing because you crave admiration, you’re in the wrong business. The reader’s right to a story—not the novelist’s ego—has to come first.
If there’s no story, no amount of verbal curleques will keep the reader interested. Give us story first, and then add embellishments. But not too many.
Also, even though it may be really fun to start every chapter with a Latin epigraph from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, unless it’s really important to the plot, this will probably annoy rather than impress readers.
Ditto oblique references to Joyce’s Ulysses or anything by Marcel Proust. People want to be entertained, not take a World Lit quiz. (And yes, I went there myself. Originally, every chapter title of The Gatsby Game was a quote from F. Scott Fitzgerald. Nobody cared.)
Point of view is one of the toughest things for a new writer to master. Omniscient point of view is the hardest to do well, because it leads to confusion for the reader.
But a lot of beginners write in omniscient because they haven’t mastered the art of showing multiple characters’ actions through the eyes of the protagonist.
But be aware that third-person-limited narration (when you’re only privy to the thoughts and feelings of the protagonist) is the norm in modern fiction (with first person a close second in YA.) If you use anything else, your writing skills need to be superb or you’ll leave the reader confused and annoyed.
And you’ll red-flag yourself as a beginner.
3) Episodic storytelling
I think nearly every writer’s first novel has this problem. Mine sure did.
I could never end it, because it didn’t actually have a single plot. It was a series of related episodes, like a TV series—the old fashioned kind that didn’t have a season story arc.
Critique groups often don’t catch this problem, if each episode has a nice dramatic arc of its own.
Every piece of narrative has to start with an inciting incident that triggers ALL the action in the story, until it reaches a satisfying resolution at the end. It’s called a story arc.
If you don’t have a story arc, you don’t have a novel. You have a series of linked stories or vignettes. But novel readers want one big question to propel them through the story and keep them turning the pages.
The writer who blogs as Mooderino has a great post on why we want to avoid episodic narrative, even though it worked with some classics like Alice in Wonderland.
4) Info-dumps and “As you Know Bob” conversation
When the first five pages of a book are used for exposition—telling us the names of characters, what they look like, what they do for a living, and details of their backstories—before we get into a scene, you know you’re not dealing with a professional.
Exposition (background information) needs to be filtered in slowly while we’re immersed in scenes that have action and conflict. This takes skill. The kind that comes with lots of practice.
Another big clue is info-dumping in conversation, often called “as-you-know-Bob”:
“As you know, Bob, we’re here investigating the murder of Mrs. Gilhooley, the 60-year-old librarian at Springfield High School, who may have been poisoned by one Ambrose Wiley, an itinerant preacher who brought her a Diet Dr. Pepper on August third….”
Thing is, Bob knows why he’s there. He’s a forensics expert, not an Alzheimer’s patient. Putting this stuff in dialogue insults the reader’s intelligence, since nobody would say this stuff in real life. (In spite of the fact you hear an awful lot of it on those CSI TV shows.)
5) Mundane dialogue and transitional scenes that don’t further the action.
All that “hello-how-are-you-fine-and-you-nice-weather” dialogue may be realistic, but it’s also snoozifying.
Readers don’t care about “realism” if it doesn’t further the plot. As James Patterson, the bestselling author in the world says, “realism is overrated.” Readers want “just the good parts.”
That also means skipping the trip from the police station to the crime scene and the lunch breaks when nothing happens except the MC doing some heavy musing and doughnut chomping.
Ditto the endless meetings or arguments where people come to decisions after tedious deliberation. Those are an exception to the rule of “show don’t tell.” Let us know the outcome, not the snoozerific details.
Just make a break in the page and plunge us into the next scene.
6) Tom Swifties and too many dialogue tags
The writer who strains to avoid the word “said” can rapidly slide into bad pun territory, as in the archetypal example from the old “Tom Swift” boys’ books: “‘We must run,’ exclaimed Tom swiftly.”
They were turned into a silly game in the 1960s, promoted by Time Magazine, which invited the public to submit outrageous Tom Swifties like:
“Careful with that chainsaw,” Tom said offhandedly.
“I might as well be dead,” Tom croaked.
So we don’t want to go there by accident. Bad dialogue tags may have crept into your consciousness at an early age from those Tom Swift, Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys books. The books were great fun—I adored them myself—but they were written by a stable of underpaid hacks and although the characters are classic, the prose is not.
“Said” is invisible to the reader. Almost any other dialogue tag draws attention to itself.
Very often the tag can be eliminated entirely. This allows your characters to speak and THEN act, rather than doing the two simultaneously.
Not so swift:
“We must run,” exclaimed Tom swiftly.
Better, but awkward.”We must run!” said Tom, sprinting ahead.”Best:
“We must run!” Tom sprinted ahead.
7) Mary Sues
A Mary Sue is a character who’s a stand-in for the writer’s idealized self, which makes the story a wish-fulfillment fantasy for the author, but a snooze for the reader.
Mary Sue is beautiful. Everybody loves her. She always saves the day. She has no faults. Except she’s boring and completely unbelievable. For more on this, check out the post on Mary Sue and her little friends I wrote last month.
8) Imprecise word usage and incorrect spelling and grammar
Unfortunately, agents and the buying public aren’t your third grade teacher; they won’t give you a gold star just to boost your self-esteem.
Spelling and grammar count. Words are your tools.
If you don’t know the difference between lie and lay or aesthetic and ascetic and you like to sprinkle apostrophes willy-nilly amongst the letters, make sure you find somebody who’s got that stuff under control before you self-publish or send off your ms. to an agent.
Nobody is going to “give you a break” because it’s your first novel. Practice novels belong in a drawer, not the marketplace. If people are spending their money and time on your book, they deserve to have a professional product.
Electronic grammar checks can only do so much. And they’re often wrong. Buy a grammar book. Take an online course. Not everybody was a good student in elementary school, but you’ll need to brush up on your skills if this is going to be your profession. Even a good editor can’t do everything.
9) Clichéd openings
People who read a lot (like agents and editors) have seen some things so often they immediately get turned off. Even if it’s a perfectly good idea. The problem comes when a whole bunch of people have had the same good idea before you.
The most common is the “alarm clock” opening—your protagonist waking up—the favorite cliché of all beginning storytellers, whether short story, novel, or script. There’s a hilarious video on this from the comedians at Script Cops They say, “78 % of all student films start with an alarm clock going off.”
Here are some other openers too many writers have done already:
- Weather reports: it’s fine to give us a sketch of the setting, but not more than a sentence or two.
- Trains, planes and automobiles: if your character is en route and musing about where he’s been and where he’s going, you’re not into your story yet. Jump ahead to where the story really starts.
- Funerals: a huge number of manuscripts—especially memoirs—start with the protagonist in a state of bereavement. If you use this opening, make sure you’ve got a fresh take.
- Dreams: we’re plunged into the middle of a rip-roaring scene, only to find out on page five that it’s only a dream. Readers feel cheated.
- “If only I’d known…” or “If I hadn’t been…” starting with the conditional perfect seems so clever—I used to love this one—but unfortunately a lot of other writers do too.
- Personal introductions: starting with “my name is…” has been overdone, especially in YA.
- Group activities: don’t overwhelm your reader with too many characters right off the bat.
- Internal monologue: don’t muse. Bring in backstory later.
- The protagonist looking in the mirror describing herself: In fact, you don’t need as much physical description of the characters as you think. Just give us one or two strong characteristics that set them apart. Let the reader’s imagination fill in the blanks.
- Too much action: Yes, the experts keep telling us to start with a bang. But if too much banging is going on before we get to know the characters, readers won’t care.
If you use one of these openers in an especially clever and original way, you may get away with it. But be aware they are red flags, and many people won’t go on to find out what a great story you have to tell.
For more on this, Jami Gold has a great post this week on how to avoid cliches in your opener.
There’s a reason agents and publishers are wary of long books. New writers tend to take 100 words to say what seasoned writers can say in 10. If your prose is weighty with adjectives and adverbs or clogged with details and repetitive scenes, you’ll turn off readers as well.
Remember a novel is a kind of contract between writer and reader. If you are writing to fulfill your own needs, not those of the reader, you’re breaking that contract. They’ll feel cheated. And they will probably let you know.
If you’re still doing any of these things, RELAX! Enjoy writing for its own sake a while longer. Read more books on craft. Build inventory. You really do need at least two manuscripts in the hopper before you launch your career.And hey, you don’t have to become a marketer just yet. Isn’t that good news?
For more on this, Sarah Allen has a great post this week on Top 7 Mistakes that Make Your Writing Look Unprofessional.
How about you, scriveners? What mistakes did you make when you were starting out? As a reader, what amateurish red flags make you start to feel nervous about buying a book?
posted by Anne R. Allen (@annerallen) September 21, 2014