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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.