I could go on for quite some time on this topic, but I’ll spare you (for the most part) and cover some of the top ones that I see daily as an editor.
- Passive Voice: Passive voice simply means that the subject of the sentence isn’t clear. It looks like this: The door was broken.
Cool, but by who? An easy trick is to avoid this is if you can add “by a zombie” and the sentence still makes sense, then you need to revise it and make it active voice. Which would look like: She kicked the door off its hinges as she made her way through the creaky, old house.
Now I know who did it, and as a bonus I also get an image. Anything that you can do to keep your reader in the present moment and focused on your characters is going to make your story keep the reader engaged. Don’t give them any reason to put your book down. We want them to stay up all night reading your awesome story, and a great way to do that is to not use passive voice or passive verbs.
2. Passive Verbs: These are your was/were sentences. It looks like this: He was sitting. They were walking by the river.
Why it’s a problem? Because it’s boring. Remember your lovely reader actually turned Netflix off to read your book! Give them a story that they can’t forget by doing your best to choose verbs that leap off the page.
If we revise “He was sitting,” it might look something like this “He slouched down further in his chair, praying that his boss didn’t notice him. The last thing he needed was another tardy mark.”
We can feel him inching down to avoid his boss, and that makes us care enough to keep reading and find out if the boss notices our poor character.
There is an awesome book that you can read about the most common mistakes that we editors see. It’s called: How Not to Write a Novel: 200 Classic Mistakes and How to Avoid Them by Howard Mittlemark and Sandra Newman. It’s funny and informative. Check it out.
3. Repetition: Unless you are a poet, keep your repetition to a minimum. Both your word choices and your sentence patterns. If your character always saunters and never jogs or pads through the kitchen, then your reader is going to get annoyed.
It’s an easy fix. Hop on the internet, or pick up a hard copy if that’s more your speed, and look up a thesaurus. Make sure that you take into account that each word has a connotation (what we think/feel when we hear the word) along with a definition (what the word means). A word’s connotation changes over time, so take care to use words that invoke the right emotion for the scene.
If you always write long, complex sentences your story pacing will crawl and your readers will drop like flies. If you always write super short sentences, it will be hard to carry heavy emotions and your character will feel two dimensional. Vary your sentence lengths based on what you want the reader to know and how quickly they need to know it. As a general guide mix long and short sentences. If you want the pacing to pick up, shorten your sentences. If you want us to slow down and savor something or think through something lengthen your sentences.
4. A Boring Character: Characters that feel fake, that have predictable storylines, and characters that are too good/bad are all boring. Think about the people in your own life. Why do you like them? Why do you dislike them? Your characters need the same things to make them believable. Make your story about someone that grabs a reader’s attention from the first page. Don’t be afraid to put your main character in harms way, or in loads of tough situation. Drag them through the mud, then toss some rocks in that mud puddle and drag them through it again. Beat them up. Show me how they change because of it. It will make them a better character, and you a better writer because you have to get them back on the path towards their goal. Not all your characters have to be complex, but your main cast certainly should be. You main character’s goal should fuel the story. Your major secondary characters should not exist solely because your main character needs them to populate the book and fawn over them. Your secondary characters should have goals of their own. Bonus points if those goals go against the main character’s at some point. Make a character arc sketch for each of your main cast members. Think about their motivation, what they want, why they want it, and how they get it/don’t get it and what that means for them by the end of the story.
5. The infamous info dump: Please stop info dumping. It’s bad for your reader’s health. It’s bad for your story’s health. Let’s start a movement to kill info dumps :).
It can be quite tricky to know what to share and when, so let’s talk about it.
The first chapter is your chance to win or lose a reader. Your second and third chapters are your chance to establish where/when/why we are. Keep it simple. Treat it like a first date. I want to know that your character has complex emotional trauma, but I don’t need the full story on page 1. What I need on page one is a reason to turn the page. I need some awesome word magic to suck me into this story, otherwise I’ve got 3 seasons of Kim’s Convenience to binge on Netflix.
When we enter a part of the book where we meet the villain or we need a better understanding of something so that the scene makes sense, don’t go crazy. Keep it simple. Remember your reader is after the action. They want to know what happens next. If you bog them down with a Charles Dickens-like explanation they lose interest in the character’s plight. This is a great question to bounce it off a couple of beta readers so that you can gauge if you’ve got the right balance (Keep in mind how often your beta reader reads in the genre that you are writing. If they are better versed in your genre, they will have certain expectations for explanations and will be to give you a better sense of if you are doing well or not).
There’s a really neat book that talks about the science behind a reader’s mind. So if that’s your cup of tea, check out Wired for Story by Lisa Cron. This book talks more about what engages and disengages a readers mind.
6. Tell, tell, tell and no show: You keep telling me that your character is angry, but nothing about their actions or their dialogue is convincing me that this is the case. Don’t tell me he’s angry. Show me he’s angry. It looks like this:
Tell: “Thanks.” He said angrily as he hung up the phone.
Show: “Thanks,” Paul sighed as he chucked the phone across the room. He took two big handfuls of Doritos from the open bag beside him, and stuffed them into his mouth. He chomped on them as he replayed all the things he wished that he would have said to her.
As always, happy writing friends.