If you’re writing for your own pleasure, you can write whatever you want. Break all the rules. There’s nothing wrong with writing and publishing because you want to write and be published. But if you’re writing to be read, there are some things that make you look like an author noob big time. Please do not include these 7 newbie author mistakes in your novel:
1. Using Too Many Names for One Character
I know, I know. When you’re writing, it can feel like you’re using a character’s name so many times that it must be getting obnoxious. It probably isn’t. What is obnoxious is needing five pages to understand that “Sarah,” “Mrs. Jones,” “the schoolteacher,” “Harry’s wife,” “the blonde,” and “the thin woman” are all the same person. If the only reason you’re calling the character something else is that using her name feels redundant, it’s probably not helping anything. We’re used to referring to people with just their names and pronouns, so that will work just as well in writing as it does in conversation.
2. Confusing Flashbacks
It’s so frustrating to be reading an interesting book only to be interrupted with an entire scene that doesn’t make sense. You don’t know who this is or when it’s happening, and it seems like it’s contradicting things you already knew — then you get to the end of the scene, and it turns out that it’s a flashback. It’s even worse when the character wakes up, and it was all a dream. Why did I try to understand this whole scene anyway? (I’ll get to dreams in a minute.)
Flashbacks are very difficult to use elegantly, and a lot of authors depend on them too much. A whole lot of flashbacks makes the timeline hard to follow. I’m a huge advocate for telling readers information as they need it. That’s when they’ll understand it and remember it the best. Use flashbacks sparingly and delicately.
Once, I had a dream that I was hanging from a chandelier and all of my friends were beating me with sticks. Then someone crashed through the window, and someone else started dancing the hula. You know how much that dream affected my life? Not at all. Most of the time, the dreams that fictional characters have don’t change their lives, either. Only include dreams if they’re important to the plot, such as if the character is remembering things from his amnesia, has PTSD, or is realizing he’s a seer. No one should be asking themselves “Why am I reading this?”
4. Unnatural Dialogue
People don’t usually tell each other things that are generally known or totally obvious. Sometimes book characters do. Here’s a bizarre conversation between two aliens that I’m making up just now:
“As you know, Bob, the sky is green. So even though Larry is blue, he isn’t hard to see against the sky.”
“No kidding, George. I see the green sky every day, and I know that Larry is blue. Why are you insulting my intelligence?”
Usually writers try to include facts in their dialogue as a way of showing instead of telling. When characters tell each other things they already know for no other reason than relaying facts to the reader, it’s still just thinly disguised telling. Worse yet, it makes the conversation seemed stilted and unnatural, like bad actors reading from a script. Characters should talk about facts like they already know them. It’s hard to define how to use natural-sounding dialogue to reveal new information, but a good editor can make that easier.
Honestly, if I open a book and see a prologue, I’m going to put it down. Most of the time a book starts with a prologue, I won’t be able to make it through the book. Here’s why: Authors love prologues, but readers don’t. A prologue is a sign to me that the author is writing for her own enjoyment, not for her readers’. I know this is a hotly debated topic among authors, but hear me out.
A prologue is a scene the author likes, but it isn’t important enough to include in the story. When someone picks up a book, he wants to get into the story. He’s not going to be interested in reading unimportant bonus scenes until he’s already fallen in love with the story. Now he has to decide whether he’ll read the prologue in case there is something he needs to know or if he’ll skip to the actual story. To make things worse, most prologues are from a different time or point of view, so he might not understand what happened in the prologue until much later in the story.
If the prologue contains important information, you should be able to include that information where it’s important in the story. If you want to use a prologue anyway, consider the Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets: The first chapter is similar to a prologue, but it (1) introduces the main character and (2) is at a clearly defined time and place. J. K. Rowling didn’t start with an entire chapter full of confusing events and characters that she didn’t explain until much later in the novel, and it was important enough to include as the first chapter. It was actually a part of the story. Another effective alternative I’ve seen is to include what would be a prologue as an epilogue or bonus chapter at the end of the book, where readers who don’t want to leave the great story they just read can get a little more where it makes sense to them.
6. Hallmark Movie Openings
I bet you’ve seen a movie that starts like this: The camera pans around and shows gorgeous scenery. It zooms in on birds and butterflies. It moves to a busy street. Then you start to hear the main character’s voice describing her life in a poetic way, usually something to the effect of “I was just a normal girl, and then everything changed.” Then finally you see the main character turning off her alarm and getting ready to go to work or school. Sound familiar? That’s because countless movies open that way. It’s a particular favorite of Hallmark movies.
If your story starts with a long monologue, a description of the character or the setting, someone waking up, or someone going about his or her normal life, it’s probably cliché. All clichés are shortcuts where you should write something fresh and creative instead. Clichés can be creative if you put a twist on it or use it for an unusual purpose, though. Think the beginning of Groundhog Day: Showing Phil waking up meant the movie could show us the sameness of waking up on Groundhog Day over and over. Another thing to think about is how long it takes until the story actually starts; if your novel opens in any of those ways, it could be a long time before anything actually happens in the story.
7. Too Much Description
We hear the “show, don’t tell” advice so often, but it’s often misunderstood. I recently saw a post from a fairly well-known author who thought “showing” meant taking three paragraphs describing falling leaves instead of “telling” that it’s autumn. That’s not what it means at all. Most of the time, “show, don’t tell” is best applied to emotions. There are actually many times when you shouldn’t show too much.
If you’re writing a great story, do not interrupt it with a paragraph (or paragraphs) of description about the way the setting or the character looks. We really don’t need to know. The reader can imagine that on her own. For instance, the only thing we know from Jane Austen about how Elizabeth Bennet looked is that she had “fine eyes.” In fact, I think one of the most fun parts about discussing books with other people is comparing how we thought the characters should look. Most masters of the writing craft let their readers’ imaginations run freely. That’s much better than interrupting a good story with too much description.
Do you agree with my list? What do you think makes an author look like a noob?