OLD POST ALERT! This is an older post and although you might find some useful tips, any technical or publishing information is likely to be out of date. Please click on Start Here on the menu bar above to find links to my most useful articles, videos and podcast. Thanks and happy writing! – Joanna Penn
However many books on writing we read, and however many novels we have consumed in our genre, there are still things that we get wrong as new novelists.
I know I fall into these traps. I also reviewed a friend's manuscript the other day and found myself telling him exactly the same things. So I thought you might like to add your thoughts as well since we can all learn from each other. Please do leave a comment below with your top mistakes of new fiction writers.
This is not an exhaustive list, but just some obvious things that, if fixed, may transform your manuscript. Aspects may also vary by genre.
(1) Show, don't tell.
Now I know why editors and publishers say this over and over again. It really stands out in a manuscript when you read with a fresh eye. If the Nazis are marching into a French village, don't report the event in third person. Instead, relate the event from the point of view of a character in the crowd. Make it personal and show their reaction to the event by their behavior. Deep, interior monologues can be replaced with characters doing something or saying something.
(2) Consistent Point of View (POV)
I don't think I really ‘got' point of view until I paid for my first professional edit. I jumped into the heads of the different characters within one scene which can be confusing for readers. Yes, some writers do it but it's best to get POV sorted before you start playing around.
POV is also easier if you think in terms of writing scenes. Each scene has a setting, something happens to advance the plot or reveal character, and there is a point of view. Who is telling the story? Then be consistent within the scene, or if you change heads, then only do it once. There's no exact science to this, but there are some conventions that make it easier for the reader.
(3) Deliver on the promise you make the reader.
If there is a murder at the beginning, then we need to know who did it by the end. No matter if it is a massive 7 part series. The story arc in the one book needs to be complete. This is one of the reasons I personally don't like serial books. I like my story to be encompassed in one book. I want the payoff of a good ending.
There needs to be coherence around theme, character arc, plot as well as delivering to the promise of the genre you advertise the book as. I'm writing action-adventure thriller, so I can't spend half the book in one room pondering the world as a literary fiction author could. If you're writing romance, there needs to be a happy ending. (Although apparently, a love story can have an unhappy ending in the vein of Nicholas Sparks!)
(4) Overuse of first names in dialogue
This jumps off the page as the sign of an amateur, and I am absolutely guilty as charged in my first novel. Read your dialogue out loud – with another person. Someone has commented on the blog before about reading it aloud to a recorder and then playing it back again. This is all time-consuming though. I notice this in a lot of indie books.
(5) Overuse of exclamation marks
Yes, this can be fixed by a proof-reader/ copy-editor, but sometimes the text needs to be rewritten as well as the excess punctuation removed. It's trying too hard to communicate emotion to the reader, without showing it in the action or behavior of the character.
Tips on usage from The Perfect Write.
“Some experts feel that exclamation points are the sign of a lazy writer, or worse–an amateur. Whether the rationale for either opinion is sound or not, there are well-grounded reasons for both.”
Conclusion: we can all improve.
One of the marvelous things about being a writer is how we can keep improving. Every word we write can be a step towards improvement. The editing process is all about improvement, about making the book the best it can be. Get people reading your work and critiquing it. We have to keep learning and this is the only way.