Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Rookie Mistakes

Thirteen years ago my first novel was being prepared for publication and came back from my wonderful editor covered in red lines and comments. I don't think a single sentence escaped her correction. I was a little downhearted, naturally, but Val (my editor) explained that this is normal, and in fact I have since learned that lots of red is a sign of a good editor, not a bad manuscript.

I've been reminded of this because I recently read a book for review which was excellent but fell foul of two of the most basic errors writers must learn to avoid as they hone their craft. I hope the author won't mind my using her book as an example as I go over these, but I will refrain from identifying the book itself just in case.

The most common mistake I made appeared regularly on that first manuscript as just three letters. POV. Getting the Point of View wrong is rookie writer mistake no. 1. Each scene can only be viewed from the perspective of one character. If you want to switch to another character, you need to have a clear chapter or scene division.

The book I mentioned was an example of just why this was so important. The main protagonist is a teenage girl with some strange supernatural power, but at the beginning of the book we don't yet know what it is. The book is written in the first person from the perspective of this girl. A few pages in a police officer visits her at home, and the narrator details exactly what he is thinking as he approaches her home and sees her. At this point I thought, "Aha! I've figured out her power! She can read minds!" It was several chapters later that I realised that I was wrong. Her ability was something quite different, and the fact that we see what is going on in the officer's mind was a POV error on the part of the author.

Your narrator cannot know what other people are thinking or experiencing, because in life we can't flit from head to head either. At the beginning of each scene you need to figure out whose perspective it is told from, and stick to just what that person can know or guess at. If you've got a first person narrator then nothing which doesn't happen in the presence of the narrator can be included in the book.

The second rookie mistake in this book was in the dialogue. We know that writing dialogue in the form of "he said", "she said" is quite dull, and it helps to introduce alternative verbs such as "he shouted" and "she retorted". It can be even more effective to leave out the attribution altogether, but if this is done then clues need to be put in once in a while to clarify who is speaking. One way of doing this is to have characters occasionally call each other by name as they speak.

The book I reviewed had a whole chapter of dialogue between the protagonist's parents in her absence (which shouldn't have been in the book at all - see POV) in which they used each other's name every single time they spoke. Paragraph after paragraph of "Alan" and "Julia" which made the whole exchange bizzarely stilted, not least because they are husband and wife and thus you'd think the odd "darling" or "honey" might have crept in. (I almost never call my husband by his name unless I'm trying to get his attention in a crowded room.) Similarly, they spoke eloquently and articulately whereas in real life people rarely do. Next time you're part of a conversation, imagine each line written down. You'll find lots of "erms" and unfinished sentences, repetition, and missed words. Rookie mistake number 2 is to write dialogue so that it sounds good and advances the story, but lose out on realism by doing so.

I'm trying hard (probably failing) not to sound like a pretentious twerp right now. I'm only on my seventh novel, so I have a lot to learn about my craft still, and I'm still making mistakes. But I hope I can help any would-be writers to avoid just a little of the editor's red pen by keeping close tabs on the point of view, and ensuring that dialogue is realistic.

What rookie mistakes did you make?


  1. Excellent points! And even experienced writers sometimes make little POV "skids"--say, we're in the heroine's POV and write something like "Her eyes filled with anger." Whoa . . . we're in her head; we shouldn't be seeing her from the OUTSIDE.

    One minor, respectful disagreement--generally speaking, I think "he said" (or no tag at all, as you mentioned) are the preferred dialogue tags. An occasional "he retorted" is fine, but too man non-said verbs can quickly become distracting, whereas "said" is basically invisible, as long as you vary the rhythm of the sentences. And I agree with being careful not to overuse names--it does make things sound stilted, since we don't talk that way.

    1. Oops, that should say "too many."

    2. I was going to write the same thing as Stephanie! I recently finished reading “On Writing” by Stephen King in which he said that simple, “he said,” and “she said,” are appropriate. He said that the reader should be able to infer the tone from the dialogue itself, and that writing something like, “he hissed,” or “she groaned,” is “telling” and a sign of weak writing.

      I don’t know that I always agree, but it is something to think about, I guess. :-)

  2. You're only on your seventh novel ... and that's where I fell in love with you! ha. :) I'm just now revising my third novel. Rookie mistakes? Punctuation, overuse of subordinate clauses, overuse of common words (look, sit, turn) ... *sigh* I'd better get back to my own revisions!



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