I live in a very tiny but blessed minority. For some reason, known only to God, I get to work from home and do what I love most: work with words. Over the last few years, I’ve worked more with novel writing than with anything else, and I’ve seen a lot of common mistakes. Here are a few of the most common ones, along with solutions.
1. The Info Dump
Often insecure authors feel they need to dump a lot of back story at a novel’s beginning before readers will “get” the main story. It’s logical thinking: “Before you get this, you need to understand this.” But the problem is, they tend to give the info dump in the first five pages or so, those precious pages acquisition editors look at first. (Check out The First Five Pages by Noah Lukeman.)
While back story is often important for character and plot building, so much outright “telling” freezes the real-time story in its tracks. And beginnings should be active—they need to move. The solution? Subtly and cleverly slip in little details here and there while showing the real-time story. And while I’m talking about telling . . .
2. Telling Instead of Showing in Prose
“Marsha was furious.” “Ted was discouraged.” The solution? Instead of telling the reader that Marsha was furious, consider showing this emotion. Does Marsha stomp her foot? Does she clench fists? Does her whole body shake with rage? Show this.
3. Telling Instead of Showing in Dialogue
“I”m simply not going to do it,” Veronica hissed.
“Why, oh why, did I ever trust her?” Frank said dejectedly.
In good fiction technique, the speech tag should be a simple “said” 99 percent of the time. Avoid speech tags like “intoned,” “remonstrated,” “exclaimed,” and “hissed” like the plague. Also avoid attaching adverbs ending in “ly” to speech tags.
The solution? If you seek to convey an attitude, the words themselves in dialogue should communicate it. Frank’s words already communicate dejection. If you need more, add a line of action. Maybe Frank throws up his hands, then he talks. Then let go and give readers the courtesy of seeing it for themselves.
4. A Lack of Contractions in Dialogue
“Lisa, I do not want you to leave me!”
This problem may be a throwback to those high school English days, when teachers deducted points for the use of contractions in term papers. But contractions are effective at conveying realistic speech. The solution? You want dialogue to sound natural? Use contractions.
5. Too Many Speech Tags in Dialogue
“John, are you okay?” Annie asked.
“Of course I’m all right,” John said. “What a silly question.”
“But your arm,” Annie said. “I thought maybe you…well, the way you’re holding it…I guess I thought—”
“You thought I’d broken it,” John said.
“Well…yes,” Annie said.
Especially when only two characters are talking, readers should be able to keep track of speaker ID with ease. In those situations, speech tags are rarely, if ever, needed. In fact, doing away with tags entirely, unless they are absolutely necessary, is a great strategy. Instead of using a speech tag, insert an action beat (a burst of action) before a line of dialogue that identifies the speaker and lends opportunities to deepen character chemistry, conflict, and emotions.
Annie bit her lip. “John, are you okay?”
“Of course I’m all right. What a silly question.”
She reached toward his shoulder—toward the torn shirt, the ugly gash—but something held her back. “But your arm. I thought maybe you…well, the way you’re holding it…I guess I thought—”
“You thought I’d broken it.”
The tenderness in his eyes forced her to look away. “Well…yes.”
Do you see the difference? The solution? Trade in empty speech tags for emotion-infused writing that can do so much more. Pretend you’re being charged for every word. Use only the words that make the biggest investment.
6. Too Much Description
Nature had come into her own again and, little by little, in her stealthy, insidious way had encroached upon the drive with long, tenacious fingers. The woods, always a menace even in the past, had triumphed in the end. They crowded, dark and uncontrolled, to the borders of the drive. The beeches with white, naked limbs leant close to one another, their branches intermingled in a strange embrace, making a vault above my head like the archway of a church. And there were other trees as well, trees that I did not recognise, squat oaks and tortured elms that straggled cheek by jowl with the beeches, and had thrust themselves out of the quiet earth, along with monster shrubs and plants, none of which I remembered.
Though this is beautiful writing, fashions come and go, even in fiction. Readers once liked flowery description like this excerpt from the opening page of Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier. Some readers still love this style of endless description, but most are not so patient.
The solution? Readers are looking for action. From the first page. From the first paragraph. From the first word. Go easy on the description. Use it like seasoning in a good meal. A little bit goes a long way.
7. Head Hopping
One important rule of good novel technique is to restrict each scene to one character’s point of view (POV). This strategy puts the reader in the character’s skin for a more immersive experience. Few things are more distracting than being in Frank’s head for the first paragraph and then being suddenly yanked into Susan’s head two paragraphs later.
The solution? Don’t send readers to the chiropractor. Shift POV only at the beginning of a new scene or chapter.
8. A Slow Beginning
Good novels, even those not considered suspense, should begin with a clear dramatic hook, a story problem big enough to entangle the main character and promise struggle from the opening pages to the ending’s resolution. Sometimes beginning writers spend too many opening pages or chapters showing normal life and wait too long to start the story.
The solution? Create tension with the first word.
9. Long Speeches
Sometimes beginning novelists have characters talk too long without seemingly pausing for a breath. In one novel I edited, the main character described a crime scene in a 235-word-long paragraph. No action beats. No questions or remarks from listeners. It simply didn’t seem realistic.
On another note, a 235-word-long paragraph is too long anyhow. Beginning novelists tend to write long, voluminous paragraphs that remind me of classic novelist Henry James, who was famous in his day but is very difficult to read. “Difficult to read” is the kiss of death in publishing.
The solution? Keep paragraphs short and eliminate character speeches.
10. A Novel Lacking Overall Direction
Successful novels must present several important ingredients: a beginning bang, characters readers care about, a big problem that needs fixing, a conflict-riddled struggle to do the necessary fixing, the successful repair, and a contented sigh.
Beginning novelists often fail to do the necessary prethinking to make these ingredients work together. They think they can just plunk into the chair and start writing—and a wonderful novel will magically appear. Some seasoned authors may write this way, but most of us can’t, and it shows.
The solution? Characters need incremental goals that complement the story. Dramatic hooks need to be plentiful, particularly at the ends of scenes and chapters. Scenes needs to lead to new struggles and then to new goals and new struggles. Some have likened this technique to how a skater moves across the ice. Push—glide. Push—glide.
There you have it: the ten most common mistakes I’ve seen in novel editing. I am by no means an expert in all things pertaining to novel writing. I’m learning just as my many clients are. I’m hopefully past many of the basics by now, but a refresher is always helpful.
Fiction writing is like the Christian life. Nobody ever completely “arrives.” We are all learners and hopefully will remain learners in the pursuit of crafting novels readers can hardly wait to get their hands on.
What about you? If you are a learning novel writer, what areas of the craft do you struggle with most? I’ll go first. I struggle with overwriting and with seeing the best plot direction during the first draft.
- Tenth Plague Endorsement from Novelist Rick Barry
- Read an Excerpt from The Tenth Plague