It's a widely accepted belief, in the writing community, that an aspiring author's first book will be absolute crap. Sure, there are exceptions to this rule, but they're rare. Most authors who succeed in finding publication have at least one novel in the drawer already.
This would suggest that, for all our pretenses to the contrary, writing is a matter of skill as much as it is art and inspiration. If we accept that much, then there are two important corollaries:
- Writing should get better with time (i.e. practice)
- A writer's current efforts should reflect how much time he/she has practiced
Writing Experience Tells in the ProseIt's no accident that most literary agents want part of your novel (often the first few pages or chapters) along with the query letter. The letter itself is a test of writing, but so is the prose. Good, clear, professional-grade writing stands out. When a writer has years of practice under the belt, the prose tends to be clean. It flows well. It's easy to read. And it introduces information at a reasonable pace.
Unfortunately, the writing samples from less-practiced authors are also easy to identify. Anyone who's been part of a writer's group or pitching contest knows what I'm talking about. I'm happy to forgive a couple of small mistakes in a writing sample. We all have different styles and editorial quirks. Yet when someone's writing isn't quite there yet, there are often some obvious signs.
Rookie Writing MistakesI thought I'd share some of the more prevalent issues I've come across from new writers. These are my opinions, of course, but they also reflect the common complaints from agents and editors.
1. ClichésOne of the most obvious issues with under-developed writing is the use of clichés. These over-used phrases or situations are like writing crutches: new writers use them to support their prose, rather than finding a more creative way to go. There are many clichés that agents and editors often see in the first chapter, but the most glaring ones are books that open with:
- A character waking up in the morning (and possibly having breakfast).
- Kids playing in in a field and find something (anything!)
- The main character looks at a reflective surface and describes himself/herself
Are these valid pieces of writing? Sure. But they're so over-used and repeated in books that we're all sick of them.
2. Typos, spelling errors, or grammar problems.
Most agents won't reject a query letter for a single typo, but two or three starts to really count against you. They wonder, if this is the shape of the opening pages, where the author probably spent the most time, how much editing will be required for the rest of the book?
In my current novel I've made two "polishing" passes where I look for little mistakes, and correct them. I was all but certain the book was near-flawless, until my wife started reading it. She's not even to chapter ten, and already found three or four things I needed to fix. Mistakes happen, but that's what spell check and proofreading and critique partners are for. When you let a bunch of them slip by, you leave the impression that you're rushed (best case) or simply don't know better (worst case).
3. Info-dumpsHere's an issue that plagues much of fantasy and sci-fi, but can happen in other genres, too. It's called an info-dump: a long stretch of background information or backstory dumped on the reader very early on in the story. Look, of course you're building a fictional world and need to convey all kinds of facts to the reader. But the info-dump is the easy way out, and it shows. It slows down the pace of the story, lets the tension out, and often convinces the reader to go to another book.
Even worse is when info-dumps are provided by a know-it-all character ("As you know, Sam, that old wizard has been meddling in the Shire for a long time..."). Yech. This, again, is the mark of inexperience: seasoned authors learn how to weave backstory in with the action and dialogue, without simply dropping a pile in the reader's lap.
4. Age category, word count, or genre incompatibilityAn important part of authorship is knowing some things about the business of publishing. Some of the issues that come up in query letters and writing contests:
- Using the wrong genre (or something that's not a genre) to describe the book.
- Classifying the book as multiple age categories, like "My book is an MG/YA..." There can be only one!
- A word count outside of the acceptable range for the book's category and genre. Literary Rejections has a nice article on acceptable word counts.
Another common but harder-to-fix issue: a book that's intended for one age category but reads like another. For example, a book pitched as MG but written at a college reading level.
What Have I Missed?
What are some other rookie writing mistakes that you've seen (or committed)? Please leave us a comment and share them.
Caitlin: I think the most common mistake I see in newbie writers is too much telling. I actually think it's okay, and even necessary, to "tell" sometimes. For example, I have no problem with lines like this, "Jake met Jane three years ago outside of a rodeo. She was trying to cheer up a kid who had puked cotton candy all over his seersucker shorts. She hollered at Jake and told him to make himself useful." Yeah, it's quickly "telling" us how they met, but it also has details and it's "showing" us some stuff too.
But no one enjoys reading a book that has lines like, "Jake wanted Jane a lot but he didn't think he deserved her because he was too shy. He had always been shy. He didn't think he'd ever date a girl like Jane." Show us he wants her! Show us he's shy! Show us he thinks him being shy is a defect/makes him unworthy! Too much telling gets boring very quickly. But, honestly, a lot of the fun of writing is learning how to "show" instead. :)
Lisa: What I see too often is loose writing. Sentences that could be cut in half or deleted altogether. Paragraphs that take six sentences explaining something that could be explained in two sentences. Those paragraphs actually look like explaining, and explanations are boring. When loose writing is involved, it's often about overwriting and telling as well. For instance: Tight writing - Charlotte scowled at the guy waggling his eyebrows. Nope, she wasn't having none of that. Too friendly for her to trust him. "Go away."
Loose writing - Charlotte doesn't trust a lot of people, especially when they're too nice. She doesn't trust nice. She thinks they're fake, so she keeps her distance. Obviously, she has been burned too many times. The guy waggles his eyebrows at her, and she scowls at him. "Go away."
My favorite things to growl at an unedited novel: "Get to the point!" or "Oh, my God, I get it. Move on already."
And then I realize I'm being a grouch and make up my mind to be helpful instead. :)
Karlie: Starting either way too soon or way too late in the character's life. I mean, if thirty-year-old Peter had a traumatic third grade experience, that won't have a lot of bearing on the present. And I don't really want to know it if it doesn't further the story.
On the other end of the scale, if we jump right into an intense scene, I'm not as invested in the outcome, because I don't care about Peter yet.
It's hard to balance the two of these - dropping tantalizing bits of Peter's shady past throughout the narrative, at exactly the right moments, yet giving them out early enough to make us care. Even for seasoned authors it's a hard line to walk, and I haven't figured it out completely yet. I'm sure Lisa will tell you that. :)
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