As some of you may know, I offer manuscript critique services to people who may not have found their writing circles and don’t have someone(s) to beta read their projects. Having written my fair share of books, been through the editing
wringer process many, many times, beta read for some amazing writers, I feel like I’m in a place where I can give good, objective advice on fiction projects.
Now, it doesn’t matter what genre, or what age a writer is, it seems like most new writers make a lot of the same mistakes. Yes, I know, in fiction there are no mistakes! But, really, there are still grammar rules and there are things you can do to break the magic a story can weave and take your reader out of the moment.
1- It’s okay for characters to just say things. I know repetition feels terrible, and it often is, if you have a tick (a word or phrase) you just love and you keep using it over and over, it stands out and bugs the hell out of readers. So, new writers will often think the same of dialogue tags. They’ll see the words says or said all over the book and panic. Suddenly the characters are “exclaiming” “declaring” or “crying/cried” rather than just “Jane said” or “John says.” Everything just becomes so melodramatic but not compelling.
Writers, yes, you can vary your tags, if someone really is screaming and it’s appropriate for them to scream, or if there’s another good reason to switch it up, then by all means do. But don’t do it all the damn time. And if you end a sentence with a question mark, the correct tag is “asks/asked.”
2- Telling instead of showing. I know this one can be hard. You need to move things along, sometimes things aren’t important enough for details, you’ve already gone over this in detail but Character A needs to tell Character B so, yeah, hurry up. So it’s hard to know when it’s okay to tell versus show.
The three things I just said are good examples of when to go ahead and tell, for example, “John wanted to know what happened yesterday, so I told him about the fight I had with Tom.” We’ve seen the fight with Tom, we don’t need a replay. When should you show? When the fight happened. If it’s important enough to bring up, let’s see it.
Another bad tell versus show? “Jake was a scary man.” Now, okay, you can write that line, but then back it up. I’m not going to be scared of Jake just because the narrator says so. “Jake was a scary man. He was a man you didn’t cross. His heart was a black as the boots he wore when he crushed Mike’s head.” I mean, something. Build it, give it backstory, draw us into the fear of the other characters.
3- All your characters are the same person. If all your characters think the same, react in the same way, have the same motivations and backstories, that will be one boring book. Yes, we keep circles of friends who have things in common with us, maybe there are things that we would say/react in the same exact way, but not everything.
Supporting characters need to be their own people. They need their own personalities, their own motivations. They can’t always agree with the other characters. If they’re in your book, they need to be interesting enough not to all be killed off in the first act.
4- Writing what you don’t know. So, the old adage is, “write what you know.” Now, obviously that could lead to some really boring books too and we’d probably miss out on some awesome Fantasy Fiction if everyone stuck to this rule. But for me, this rule means, if there’s something you want to write or add into your books, you need to know it inside and out and if you don’t, fix it. I know I have researched for hours for one line in a 300+ page book. I know every Scribe on here has done the exact same thing.
It feels insane when you’re doing it, but if you want that line, if you want that character to sound like they know what they’re talking about, you need that research. What I live by: If I want readers to believe my fiction, then my non-fiction has to be correct. And if you’re not willing to become as close to an expert as possible on something, then why is it in your book?
5- Older writers want their stories to be set in the days of their youth, and yet it’s current day. Honestly, I get it, okay? When I watch Stranger Things my nostalgia is strong! I lived outside when I was that age, my bike was my world. I had to be in by dark. If my mom wanted me home earlier, she had a whistle she blew, if I was too far to hear it, I got in trouble. No, she wasn’t panicked, calling the cops, she was waiting at the door, foot tapping because her first thought was that I went too far of my own accord. And she was totally right.
But kids these days don’t do any of this. If I set a book in 2017 with 10-13 year old kids, it would look nothing like my childhood. Kids have smart phones and their parents take them everywhere. If you want a book to be like it was in the good old days, then set the book in the good old days. Do not have anachronisms sprinkled throughout. So many things in books can be solved with cellphones these days, you want to fix that but keep it current? Smash the phone. Lose the signal. Or, even more realistic? Have the battery ticking down from 5%–oof, that’s some real tension there!
There are more things, but these are the most common that I see. Try to be aware of these things. Best thing to do is write your first draft, just get it on paper, don’t stress about any of these things or anything else. But! On your second pass, on the third? Look for this stuff. Correct it. Make it stronger. Then read it again, look for bigger things, like plot holes or dropped plot threads. But that’s for another post.