The 10 Signs of an Inexperienced Author

When I was first starting out as an author, I was amazed at how quickly other authors could tell that I was new. It was almost as if my manuscripts all had a bright yellow sticky note attached to the front, with ‘INEXPERIENCED’ written across it in bold, red ink.

But the truth is, it wasn’t just other authors. Nearly all readers could tell I was inexperienced by the time they’d finished my first chapter. More importantly, nearly all readers can tell if any author is inexperienced by the time they’ve finished your first chapter; they’ve developed a sense of what constitutes good and bad writing over a lifetime of reading novels, and as a result they can form judgments just as quickly as a professional critic. They usually can’t (or won’t) tell you exactly what’s wrong, but they still notice something amiss.

Below are ten signs that can tip a reader’s ‘new author’ sense and send them running. Please note that even the most experienced authors aren’t immune to these problems; the difference is in the degree and frequency of each mistake. If you catch them in your own work, dig them out with a trowel and show them no mercy:

  1. Rhetorical questions. This is one that I fell victim to until I read a book that used it way too much (ie: he looked down at my legs and smiled. Why did he smile?). As a rule, most rhetorical questions fall into one of two categories: questions that make your character seem stupid (because the audience can easily guess the answer), and questions that make no sense (because the audience has no clue what the answer could be). Neither of these are good.
  2. Second person. Most editors consider a perspective shift to be a perspective shift, no matter how seemingly benign. Switching to second person is the same as switching to first person in a third person novel, or vice versa. Take any ‘you’s and ‘your’s out of your narration.
  3. Endless simple (s->v->o) sentences. Example: ‘He jumped over the fence. He thought it was fun. He turned toward the farmhouse. He ran to the farmhouse.’ Need I say more?
  4. Focusing way too much on eyes. This is a major problem for new romance novelists. Three points on this issue: 1) it takes bionic vision to see the color of someone’s eyes from across a room, 2) most people’s eyes aren’t that interesting, and 3) a very small subset of the population fixates on the eye color of every single individual they meet. I’m pretty sure they’re called serial killers.
  5. Most, or all, characters are supermodel-level attractive. I don’t mean to say that you can’t have attractive characters, but for God’s sake, mention some flaws. Otherwise, it seems like the narrative equivalent of airbrushing.
  6. Unnatural dialogue. Unfortunately, dialogue is hard to teach. Some authors have a good ear for it, and others are best served by using as little as possible. What I can say is that you should—at the minimum—strive for correct diction. This means no hobos who talk like Harvard law professors, and no children with an adult’s vocabulary.
  7. The main character is too good to believe (either the center of everyone’s attention, or a Mary Sue). In no version of the world is every boy interested in a single girl (or vice versa), and some skills are too rare for everyone to have them without an explanation.
  8. Punctuation is either not fully utilized or misused. This sort of ties in with Sign #3; experienced authors have a larger toolkit when it comes to punctuation and grammar, and as such they tend to create more complex/interesting sentences.
  9. Cliché story. This should almost be Sign #1. If it’s been done before, put a new twist on it or don’t write it at all.
  10. The characters all seem like archetypes or caricatures. I’ve made this mistake too many times to count, and I’m convinced it comes from failing to determine a real-world connection for a character. If you can’t imagine them as one of your friends or relatives, it might be time to take a step back.

Whoa, it’s been a while since the last time I made a list… Hope this was helpful, interesting, or—dare I say?—both. If so, please like, subscribe, or leave a comment.

25 thoughts on “The 10 Signs of an Inexperienced Author

  1. Mhm, it’s a list that’s certainly open to interpretation… When it comes to fantasy I’ll admit that there’s a little more leeway in terms of character attractiveness, but I’m not sure that’s for the best. Personally, I’d still roll my eyes at a fantasy novel where every character was attractive; if anything, I expect certain aspects to be grittier, so that the fantasy world itself feels real.

  2. I am currently doing revisions and I found that I am guilty of more than one of your suggestions! I will definitely look over again with a fine tooth comb. Thanks, doll!
    *where can I find something of yours to read? Curious.

  3. Great post. Informative and fun!

    “narrative equivalent of airbrushing.” This is an excellent turn of phrase.

    I love: “A very small subset of the population fixates on the eye color of every single individual they meet. I’m pretty sure they’re called serial killers.” That made me laugh!

    Eyes are the window to the soul (who wrote that?). This is true. I guess that’s why writers (especially romance writers) emphasise them. But you’re right: nobody can ascertain the colour of someone’s eyes from across the room.

    I’ve been twice published by Hodder and am now going “indie”. I’ve been writing for two decades and I’ve learnt a helluva lot, but your post made me stop and think. I always describe the heroine’s/hero’s eyes. A writer, though, doesn’t have to say “he’s got blue eyes” or “she has green eyes.”

    E.g. This is a sentence from my latest book: “She remembered those eyes: grey, like calm water under ice. In fact, it was the calmness behind the intensity that made his gaze quite terrifying.”

    Admission: My one weakness is making a secondary character into a caricature. It’s lazy and unimaginative. Maybe it’s cos I’m concentrating too much on the main characters.
    (It doesn’t matter how many books you get published, you need to keep on honing your writing skills!)

    Give me a shout when your latest novel – “Auburn: Outcasts and Underdogs” – is launched.

  4. Fantastic blogg post, Valerie! As a reader, I can quickly tell whether someone’s work is going to be good for me. Usually it’s genre, then formality of the verbiage (is it really how that person would speak), and then as I read a chapter or two, if I start seeing the things you mentioned above. I want realistic scenarios, with realistic people speaking the way they would in real life, and realistic tracking of occurrences in the story. I have no problem with punctuation being used to make sure the reader is getting the point of the sentence, but if it’s simply not correct usage from understanding punctuation, that’s always a problem. I just saw that you followed me in Twitter and wanted to check you out before following back. I’ll be following back just as soon as I post this. Good post here… 🙂

    1. Thank you! I think that aspect (the realism) is the real snare with writing; the story can be fantastic and interesting, but within the story characters have to act fairly realistically. In my mind, it’s okay to have a dragon invade a middle school if that’s the book’s premise, but those middle schoolers had darn well react properly xD Thanks for the follow, and for sharing your thoughts on here!

  5. Interesting blog, Valerie! Thank you. Point of view shifts were a problem for me in the early years. They’re really tricky. A lot of editors miss them, even at the big publishing houses. Thank you, Amanda!

  6. Nice list. The problem are for me is the voice . The 4th is actually funny! Agree on flaws point as well.. all that perfectness makes me sick!

    Oh hey, I got that review out on my blog, I tried being as honest as possible, hope that’s fine 🙂

  7. This is a great list! I am working slowly, but surely towards the completion of my first novel. I am happy to say I think I avoided most of your no-nos, but I’ll have to revisit this to be sure when I start the revising process. The one thing I struggle most with is how to properly demonstrate the ongoing “snarky” dialog my main character (and ever-flawed heroine!) has running through her head when she is not at liberty to speak her mind. Any suggestions (in quotes, italicized?) would be greatly appreciated!

    1. Sorry for the late reply! Her inner dialogue would be in italics; that’s pretty much the standard for thoughts, although I’ve seen single quotes used rarely too 🙂 Hope that helps, and best of luck with your novel!

  8. This is so accurate. Most writers are avid readers, so you’d think we wouldn’t do these things, yet we all do at some point. I struggle with #10 because I don’t know very many interesting real-life people to pull from. As a reader/writer, I’m definitely an introvert which turns out to be a catch 22 for writing. Plenty of time and passion, not enough experiences.

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