Don’t make these fiction-writing mistakes

The book I’m reading right now demonstrates everything novelists should NOT do. How I wish we were reading this in my critique group so we could help the author make it better. But it’s too late. She has already published it. I’m not going to even hint at the name of the author or the title of her book. I had read another of her books previously, and it had some of the same problems, but they weren’t so blatant.

If this book is so bad, why am I still reading it? Well, I kind of want to know what’s going to happen. Also, after the heavy books I’ve read recently, it’s easy on the brain.

What is the author doing wrong? Sigh. So many things that Theresa, Angelique, Bill, “Tough Shit” Dorothy and I would tear apart in our group.

Let’s start with the little things. When you’re writing dialogue, and the next line is someone else speaking or doing something, you start a new paragraph. Always. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gotten tripped up in this book, thinking one character is doing or saying something and it turns out to be the other.

You need to spell everything right and use correct grammar. That should be obvious, but I have found errors in almost every book I have read lately.

We have more than little nits to pick here. We have big bugaboos.

First, the characters. They are all cliches, people I have seen in countless books and movies before. We’ve got two brothers, one good, one evil, an Irish maid who is all “sure and begorra,” and young women who are prissy and helpless to the point I want to slap them. Yes, this takes place in the 1800s, but still, when our lead character bursts into tears or gets faint at a harsh word or the sight of a bare leg, Lord have mercy. I want to see real people who are so distinct I feel as if I know them. These people are just cardboard cutouts to me.

Our lead characters are not supposed to be helpless victims. I can’t get behind a woman who gets the vapors all the time and makes stupid decisions, ones that she wouldn’t make if she had a speck of common sense. We need heroes with some guts.

We also need to be realistic. People rarely meet and decide two weeks later that they’re ready to get married. The process of falling in love and being sure you want to be together for life takes longer; it’s more complicated than a few walks through the garden exchanging pleasantries.

Second, the author’s research appears shallow and obvious. I can just see how she looked up the era’s popular songs and books and plopped them into her story. Then she read a piece on a major event occurring at that time and happened to have her characters involved. You CAN use real events. It can be very effective, but here, it’s just obviously stuck in. Immerse yourself in your setting so thoroughly that the writing becomes natural and your readers feel as if they’re really there without having to force the connection.

Third, the book suffers from inconsistencies. If you say A at the beginning of the chapter, you need to stick with A or guide us into B. If your heroine was outside talking to someone a second ago, how can she be inside cooking dinner now unless you take us there? The readers can’t see what’s in your head unless you write it out for them.

Years ago, at a conference where I gave a talk on print-on-demand publishing, a famous agent told me he believes that authors who rush to self-publish their work often fail to do the last big revision, to give it the final polish that would come via the editor when you work with a traditional publishing house. It’s almost there, he said. If only they would give it a little more time. I think he’s right in many cases.

If you are going to publish your own work, that’s fine. I’ve done it several times. But hire a professional editor or at least run it through a critique group that can help you see the problems that you can’t see by yourself. Don’t hurry into print without being sure it’s as good as you can possibly make it. Don’t make the reader roll her eyes as she reads words that aren’t quite ready for prime time.

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