All good authors have a story to tell whether they’ve been at it for years or are new to the game, and like anything else in life, the more you write, the better writer you become. Writing is like a video game. It took me years of practice to save Ms. Pac-man and almost as long to learn how to write. There are a few literary geniuses out there who have a natural talent for writing and need little or no experience to pen the great American novel but they are the exception. Most nascent writers make the same mistakes over and over and only change with help from writing groups or editors.
With the glut of self-published books in the market today, both story and craft sorely lack the quality of a well-edited traditionally published book. Many mistakes are left in the finished self-published book and will forever embarrass the author in the future. Memo to yourself: Don’t publish anything without a good editor ripping it to pieces. It’s the only way you’ll learn how to write.
Here are five common mistakes I’ve seen in many of the manuscripts and debut novels I’ve read and reviewed:
1. Sentences starting with words ending in “ing”.
“Walking toward him, she touched his shoulder.”
So, what’s wrong with that sentence? A lot. If she’s walking toward him then she can’t touch his shoulder at the same time. Why not change it to, “She walked to him and touched his shoulder.”
Another example: “Unlocking the door, she walked out.” Change that to, “She unlocked the door, then walked out.”
Sentences with first words ending in “ing’ make the language seem too passive. The reader will say they’ve read a couple of chapters and just couldn’t get into it, but what they really mean is that the story moved along too slowly and they’re bored. Get rid of too many “ing” words at the beginning of your sentences. Now read your edited version out loud and you’ll see the improvement.
Okay, what is filtering? A simple example would be when the protagonist sees something pertinent to the story.
Filtering sentence: “He looked across the room and saw Mary’s ring on the dresser.” The author is telling the reader that the protagonist sees the ring. This isn’t necessary. The book is already in the protagonist’s point of view.
Write instead: “Mary’s ring was on the dresser.”
The reader knows the protagonist is looking at the ring so you don’t have to explain it to them. Stop doing that. Again, it slows the pace.
When your character has a thought it is appropriate to put the thoughts in italics but most editors will say that reflects an inexperienced author and should be avoided. Keep italicized thoughts to a minimum.
4. Exclamation points in dialogue
Exclamation points become a crutch for authors. If editors see them all over the book it tells them the author lacks the confidence to write dialogue expressing anger or excitement or loudness and so they have thrown in exclamation points instead of emotional dialogue. Avoid using them.
5. Too much use of the character’s name in both narrative and dialogue.
Say your character’s name is Wendy and your writing in third person, past tense P.O.V. Most new authors constantly use the character’s name throughout the book instead of an appropriate pronoun. A poorly written paragraph might read something like this:
It was time for Wendy to rethink the project. Wendy had always worked hard but this was too much. Wendy walked over to ask Paul a question. “Do you think I should get out, Paul?” Wendy said.
“I don’t know,” Paul said. “Maybe you should, Wendy.”
Okay. So like I said, too many names. It slows the pace. Here is a better way to write it:
It was time for Wendy to rethink the project. She had always worked hard but this was too much. She walked over to ask Paul a question.
“Do you think I should get out?”
“I don’t know. Maybe you should.”
I’ve made all these mistakes myself and have inadvertently left a few of them in my novels, Prodigious Savant and Deviant Acts, but I believe if you work at eliminating or reducing these and other similar mistakes in your writing, you should have a better chance of landing an agent and publisher.
J. J. White is an award winning novelist and short story writer who has been published in several anthologies and magazines including, Wordsmith, The Homestead Review, The Seven Hills Review, Bacopa Review, and The Grey Sparrow Journal. His story, The Adventures of the Nine Hole League, was recently published in The Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine, #13. He has won awards and honors from the Alabama Writers Conclave, Writers-Editors International, Maryland Writers Association, The Royal Palm Literary Awards, Professional Writers of Prescott, and Writer’s Digest.
His crime fiction book, Deviant Acts, was released by Black Opal books in November, and will be followed by his Historical Fiction book, Nisei, in 2016. He was recently nominated for the Pushcart Prize for his short piece, Tour Bus. He lives in Merritt Island, Florida with his understanding wife and editor, Pamela.