This past weekend, I did a presentation for my local writers group about common writing mistakes I see as an editor, and since it ended up being a rather long presentation, I thought I’d put my notes into blog post form in case this might be helpful for anyone else. JSYK, this is just a quick overview of these issues. I could go on at length about any one of them. So, if you have questions, please pop them in the comment section, and I’ll do my best to answer them.
The Info Dump
An info dump can appear anywhere in a story, but in client edits, I usually see it in the beginning of the book. However, this advice stands no matter where the dump occurs.
Often, our first impulse, as writers, is to spread a thick layer of backstory so the reader knows everything they need to know to understand what our characters are about to experience. And we mistakenly feel that they need to know all of this stuff before the action ever starts.
I’m going to need you to immediately squelch the impulse to info dump. Put it in a burlap sack with some old bricks and broken cement chucks, tie the bag shut, and toss it in the river.
In case you’re wondering what might qualify as an info dump, let’s look at some backstory info for our protagonist, Tabby. We might think that the reader needs to immediately know:
- Tabby’s grieving her sister who went missing a year ago
- Her parents’ marriage is falling apart
- Her mom is an alcoholic
- Her therapist is full of empty platitudes
- She’s always felt inferior to her missing sister
- Her parents believe that her sister is dead
- Tabby doesn’t think she is and wants to search for her
All of those elements are important to the story and to Tabby. And those things do need to work their way into the narrative, but it doesn’t need to happen in a giant avalanche of information.
When a reader is confronted with giant swaths of backstory and story setup, there are no questions to ask. There’s nothing to be curious about. There’s nothing that’s going to want to make them turn the page.
You want to slowly sprinkle those bits of backstory in as the plot unfolds. It’s the difference between gently seasoning your soup and tasting it as it’s cooking, and upending an entire one-pound box of coarse sea salt into the crockpot before you even put the lentils and beans in.
Starting the Story in the Right Place
Starting the story in the right place is closely related to the info dump beginning. The narrative typically takes too much time getting to the action.
When clients are having difficulty narrowing down where to begin the story, I ask them to write a bit about what their character’s “normal” life is like. Then, I ask them what’s about to change and what the impetus for that change is.
Either shortly before that moment of change or right at that moment of change is almost always the best place to begin the story.
Chapter Hooks or the Lack There Of
If you take nothing else from this presentation, please take this. Learn how to nail both your beginning and ending chapter hooks.
If you’re unfamiliar with the term, a chapter hook (either at the beginning of the chapter or the end) is that line that makes the reader want to keep reading.
As a writer, one of your goals should be to end each chapter with varying degrees of “Oh, shit. Now what?!” so the reader tells themselves that they’re just going to read the next paragraph to make sure everything is okay, and then they’ll go to sleep.
But they end up reading the entire next chapter instead and, before they know it, it’s stupid o’clock in the morning, and they need to be at work in four hours. And if they put your book down to sleep, it’s only because they have a modicum of self-preservation, and they plan to read the rest on their breaks and any time their boss’s back is turned.
You don’t ever want to make it easy for them to put your book down. Which is why I would caution you to avoid ending a chapter with your POV character falling asleep. I’m talking about a normal going to bed moment—not falling asleep at the wheel of a city bus or in the middle of a performance review with their boss. (Actually, I’d totally turn the page to see what happened there.)
Your hook doesn’t always need to be a crisis sort of situation, but there should be enough uncertainty surrounding that action, thought, or bit of dialogue that even if the reader has an iron will, they still want to turn the page, even if they’re capable of not caving to the desire.
As you’re beginning your chapters and, especially as you’re ending them, ask yourself if this is a line that would encourage you to screw over your chance of getting a good night’s sleep and being a functional human being the next day. If you’re just kind of meh about it, make a note and come back to it in edits to shore it up.
You guys…I have sooooooo many feelings about dialogue. If you’ve been reading the blog for a while, you may remember the five-part post I did on writing natural-sounding dialogue. If you missed it, and you’d like to read the whole thing, click on Writing-Related Stuff and look for The 10 Dialogue Commandments.
But, right now, I’m just going to hammer on a couple things that crop up the most in client edits, rather than all ten dialogue commandments.
Lack of contractions
Lack of contractions in dialogue is a huge problem—particularly in contemporary stories. Human beings are inherently lazy—this applies to our speech, too. We all use contractions in our daily conversations, it makes sense that our characters do, too. When they don’t, their words and their delivery comes across as stilted or robotic. If you’re not already using contractions in your dialogue, please take a moment to read that dialogue aloud, and you’ll see what I mean.
I’m guessing you either sound like you’re a low-budget AI, or an invading alien species that’s trying to blend in with the human population.
There’s a caveat to this rule. If your character is trying to make a point, it’s fine not to use the contraction to drive that point home.
For example: “I will not go to a Nickelback concert with you.” Or “I would rather chew broken glass wrapped in tin foil than watch a single episode of Naruto.”
Normally, you’d use I won’t or I’d rather. But since you’re trying to stress the severity of the reaction, it’s fine to skip the contraction. But I’d recommend doing it only when it really matters—when the characters’ reaction warrants skipping it.
(The contraction rule goes for the narrative prose, too, BTW.)
TV Script Dialogue
TV Script Dialogue is what I call it when characters are constantly using each other’s names in their conversation.
I think that script writers do it because their goal is to get viewers engaged with and hooked on the show. And they know that if someone’s stumbling in on a show after the fourth or fifth episode, they’re less likely to continue watching, because they won’t know who any of the characters are. Now, say you’re flipping through the channels and you happen across Lucifer. In each scene, the main characters refer to either the other character’s name or their occupation or relationship. This works as shorthand to catch the viewer up on who’s who.
For instance, Chloe constantly uses the names “Trixie”, “Dan”, “Linda”, “Ella”, and “Lucifer” (who are her daughter, her ex, Lucifer’s therapist, a forensic scientist she works with, and, of course, the devil) in conversation with them in each scene they appear in.
For Lucifer’s part, he’s constantly referring to Chloe as “detective” to Amandiel as “brother”, to his therapist as “doctor”, to Chloe’s ex as “detective douche”, Chloe’s child as “urchin, spawn, or child”, to the forensic scientist as “Ms. Lopez”, and to his bodyguard as “Maze”.
All television shows do this, though, some are more subtle about it. And once you see it, you can’t unsee it. So…you know…you’re welcome.
The problem with this is that it’s annoying as hell. Especially, when you’re reading and characters continually using each other’s names or nicknames or terms of endearment in conversation. It doesn’t sound natural.
People typically only use one another’s names in conversation if they’re A.) trying to make a point. Or, B.) trying to get someone’s attention.
This name technique isn’t as prevalent in movies. I assume that’s because once you’ve made it to the theatre and the film’s begun, it’s unlikely that you’ll forget who’s who.
Think of your characters’ conversations more like a movie script than a TV script. They know who they’re speaking to. And unless your reader is having issues with short-term memory formation, they know, too. So, the constant name usage can make readers stabby. And no one wants stabby readers.
Related to this is, Letting Your Dialogue Speak for Itself.
Some common writing advice is to use words other than said in dialogue tags so the conversational exchange doesn’t get monotonous. That’s decent advice, but at the same time, it’s really not.
First off, you don’t always need dialogue tags. Action tags often work better because they typically work to show the reader what’s happening in the scene.
Second, too often those replacement tags, like exclaimed, lamented, sneered, deadpanned, joked, teased, etc. are telling the reader how to interpret the dialogue.
If you feel that your dialogue needs that kind explanatory tag, it’s not strong enough to be in the story. Dialogue needs to be strong enough to stand on its own. It needs to be effective enough that the reader can infer tone. Thy don’t need to be told how to interpret it.
When those kinds of tags are utilized, it shows the reader that you don’t trust that the dialogue stands on its own, and you don’t trust that the reader is smart enough to figure it out. No one wants to be condescended to or spoon fed.
Avoid Name Dropping
By this, I don’t mean mentioning Beyoncé or Manolo Blahnik shoes.
Don’t have one character think of or mention another previously unknown (to the reader) character without giving a least a phase of explanation as to who that person is.
Sure, you might go into to detail two paragraphs down but, by then, it’s already too late. The reader has already been pulled from the narrative flow wondering who Barbara is. Or why the protagonist is flipping out over seeing the name Brad on his caller ID.
You don’t want to do anything that yanks the reader from the narrative flow.
Head hopping is when the reader is bounced from once characters thoughts and feelings to another. I’ve seen it happen every few paragraphs and I’ve seen it happen every few lines. This greatly hinders the readers ability to emotionally connect with your characters because they’re not really with them long enough to get attached to them.
Another head hopping no-no is to bounce into characters’ heads who the reader may never see again. The restaurant server, the Lyft driver, the weird dude on the subway, the protagonist’s dog walker, the chemistry teacher. It’s not their book. We don’t need to be in their heads. At all.
If there’s something that one of those people might be thinking that’s crucial to the plot, it needs to come out in action and/or dialogue. Not by dipping into their head.
A good rule of thumb to avoid head hopping is to stick with one narrative POV per scene or chapter.
Head Hopping adjacent is Too Many Points of Views
You might be wondering how many is too many. That varies by genre.
Is it a romance between two people? More than two is too many.
Is it a thriller, fantasy, sci-fi, lit fic, mystery? You can have more than two, but each POV you allow into a story needs to have its own character arc that the plot of the book depends on. If the POV doesn’t meet that criteria, that’s not a character, that’s a plot device. And plot devices have no business having a narrative POV.
Which brings us to our next mistake, Character as Plot Device
One of my proudest parenting moments was when my daughter was watching some anime, and I heard her yell, “That’s not a character, that’s a freaking plot device!” from the next room.
Being my child she, of course, didn’t say freaking, but this post is taken from my presentation which was given in a family restaurant. So…
Anyway, some characters are literally plot devices—like the aforementioned Lyft driver and weird dude on the subway—and that’s cool.
One issue is when a character is introduced as if the character is this really big deal, like a close friend or relative, and the main character thinks about how important this person is to him, but the person is literally in the story to give the protagonist a ride to the 7-11 across town because he needs to meet someone there who has information for him about a murder, and he can’t ask anyone else to drive him because then they’ll know he’s getting involved in something that he shouldn’t.
Another issue is when a POV character is used as an information delivery system. That character exists in the story to give the reader information about things happening in a place where the heroine isn’t. Now, it’s one thing if that character has discernable goals and motivations of their own—if they’ve got their own development arc that contributes to the plot. If they don’t, that’s not a character, that’s a plot device. And plot devices don’t get to have their own POVs.
If you have that going on in your book, your job is to find a way to deliver that info to the reader in a different way or by developing that plot device into a full-fledged character with their own story goals, motivations and conflicts.
If you’re writing a multiple POV book, it can sometimes be a struggle to figure out whose POV the scene should be told from.
Nine times out of ten, it should be told from the character who has the most to lose at that specific time in the story—the character who has the most at stake.
Who has the most to lose physically, financially, emotionally (emotionally is the most important one here)? That’s almost always the POV you’re going to want to use because that POV is what the reader is going to respond most strongly to.
Speaking of emotional responses, I want to talk about the Use of Filter Words for a sec.
When you can avoid words like feel/felt/feeling, hear/hearing/heard, watched/watching, see/seen/saw, know/knowing/knew, thought/think all act as filter words. They filter the action in the sentence through the character’s awareness and only then does it come to the reader.
When filter words and phrases are used, it pulls the POV from deep to shallow.
For example: Julia heard the crunch of metal on metal and slammed on her brakes.
Okay, so, the reader knows that Julia heard something and reacted to it.
Compare that with: Metal screeched and buckled, the noise so startling and jarring, Julia gasped and slammed on her brakes.
The second example is more immediate—more immersive—I hope. Also, it’s a bonus illustration for telling vs. showing.
When filter words are used, they distance the reader from the action of the story and sometimes the heart of the character. When there’s distance, readers have a hard time connecting emotionally. And when they don’t connect emotionally, they don’t care about the characters like we want them to. When readers don’t care, they stop reading the book and are highly unlikely to pick up the next one. It’s the horrible writer version of If You Give a Mouse a Cookie.
Sentence Fragments vs. Incomplete Sentences
Both a sentence fragment and an incomplete sentence are incomplete sentences.
The difference is, the sentence fragment conveys a complete thought. The sentence fragment doesn’t.
This is an incomplete sentence: With his hair sticking up and out at odd angles, brown wingtip shoes that matched his velvet pants.
This is a sentence fragment: Hair sticking up at odd angles, brown wingtip shoes and matching velvet pants.
For a sentence fragment to work, it typically needs to be paired with a line or two that sets it up.
Mira peered out the peephole. The blind date her neighbor had sent over had arrived, and he definitely looked like someone Gretchen would try to set her up with. Hair sticking up at odd angles, brown wingtip shoes and matching velvet pants.
This fragment works because there are no extraneous verbs floating around, and the rest of the paragraph sets up and supports the fragment.
There are a number of things that fall into this category.
Like trying to cram too many things into one character. Like…the hero who’s a billionaire, ex-SEAL, rock star, vampire, motor cycle club member.
This happens more often than one would hope.
Then there’s trying to shove actions in where they don’t belong. This speaks to character consistency and motivation.
Let’s say that you’ve established a character who’s smart and cautious. She’s timid and plays it safe, doesn’t take chances, and despite the fact that she’s had ample opportunity during the story to try new things, but she’s opted not to.
Now, you’re coming up on the climax of the story, and your plot outline says that she needs to be in the graveyard when it occurs. So, suddenly, your heretofore cautious heroine (without any real motivation or explanation for her change in outlook) suddenly becomes too stupid to live. She goes to that graveyard full of vampires who want to eat her face for the flimsiest of excuses. Like, she’s pissed at her BFF, the vampire slayer, because her BFF thinks she’s too cautious when prior to this moment, she was fine being cautious. If this is something that *just* occurs to her, that’s not motivation. That’s just shoehorning your character into your plot in a way that’s not working.
Another form of shoehorning is trying to include elements simply because they’re currently popular in fiction, but they don’t really fit the story. They don’t move the story forward or fit the characters at all.
An example of this would be two characters who are in the midst of a sex scene. Neither one of these people has shown any interest in anything kinky, but BAM suddenly one of them decides to spank the other one with a hairbrush or I don’t know, some other household implement and the partner is inexplicably totally into it.
In fiction, this is a little condition I call Sudden Onset BDSM.
In real life, this is assault.
So, as you’re writing, make sure that all of the elements you include make sense for your characters. And if they don’t, find a way to motivate them so they do.
This is honestly a topic that needs its own entire presentation because there’s so much to unpack. One of the biggest mistakes I see is Lack of Conflict (and conflict that’s resolved too quickly)
Uncomfortable things need to happen in the story. Things that are uncomfortable for your characters and your readers. When there’s no discomfort, there’s no growth. When there’s no conflict, there’s really no plot. Only conflict is interesting.
It doesn’t all have to be huge and life threatening, but it needs to matter to your characters. If it matters to your characters, it’ll matter to your readers. There need to be consequences and stakes.
Often writers will give their characters a little bit of discomfort and then resolve it almost immediately. Unfortunately, that makes your story tension go up and down instead of continuing to climb and tighten to the inevitable climax of the book.
I have some words of wisdom my dear friend, Alex Kourvo, told me a million years ago, and I’d like to share it with you.
It doesn’t matter how much you love your characters, you still have to grab them by the back of the head and shove them face-first into an emotional meat grinder and make their lives complete and total hell.
Then, when it’s really bad, you need to make it worse.
Conflict is crucial.
I have a couple more technical type mistakes I’d like to mention.
Know when to use you and I vs. you and me.
This is one of those things that is constantly misused, mostly because a lot of people think that using me sounds wrong, and often childish or uneducated. Here’s a trick that my 10th grade English teacher taught me, because this was one of his biggest pet peeves.
Use “I” if you’re the subject of the sentence. Use “me” if you’re the object.
Here are some examples:
The teacher gave Sally and me good grades. This is correct usage. You can tell because if you swapped out “I” for “me” and took Sally out of the equation, you’d have The teacher gave I good grades. And if the teacher is giving me good grades for this kind of sentence construction, the teacher and I have bigger problems than using “me” and “I” correctly.
The trick is to remove the other person from the sentence. If “I” still works, you’re golden. If not, switch to “me”. And when you do, you can thank Mr. Gossett, like I do.
Here are some other examples:
“Siobhan and I had some whiskey.” (Siobhan and I is the compound subject of the sentence, so I is correct.)
“Tristan and I talk regularly.” (Same deal. Tristan and I is the compound subject of the sentence.)
“I’d prefer this stay between you and me.” (I’d is the subject here. You and me is the compound direct object in this one.)
“There’s only room here for you and me.” (Again, you and me is the compound direct object, here.)
“Libby and I know each other quite well, don’t we?” (Here, Libby and I is the compound subject, again.)
Know your homophones. For instance, peak, peek, and pique all sound the same, but they all mean very different things. It’s important to get the right one. The wrong one will toss most readers out of the narrative flow. There are far, far too many to list, but here’s a website that did the work for both of us.
Know when and where to use an apostrophe. An apostrophe indicates the possessive form of a word, not the plural form.
There’s a sign I see every year, starting around the beginning of Lent: All you can eat fish fry’s every Friday evening.
No…just no. It’s fish fries.
Fish fry’s indicates a possessive. It means that something belongs to the fish fry. What is it? The fish fry’s excessive use of vegetable oil? The fish fry’s extra-large napkin order? The fish fry’s pungent odor that clings to the hair and clothing of everyone present? What?
It’s not book’s, rug’s, fan’s, machine’s, or dresser’s. It’s books, rugs, fans, machines, and dressers. Unless something specifically belongs to any of these things, you don’t use an apostrophe.
And if you’re sending out holiday cards or invitations to an entire family, they don’t go to the Jones’s, the De La Rosa’s, the St. James’s, the Jarman’s, the Norris’s, the Cease’s, the Bartz’s, the Trout’s, or the Green’s. They go to the Joneses, the De La Rosas, the St. Jameses, the Jarmans, the Norrises, the Ceases, the Bartzes, the Trouts, and the Greens.
And, yes, if you see corrected sale and/or produce signs at the Meijer on Alpine, that was probably me. Or possibly my daughter.
Vary Your Sentence Structure and Length
It’s easy to fall into a rhythm while writing. He did this. She punched that. This happened and, as a result, a sinkhole opened in Jacksonville and led straight to hell. Rinse, repeat.
The problem is, we tend to fall into narrative patterns that are comfortable for us. As a result, the writing can become stale or even sing-songy—even when the plot and characters are solid.
You don’t need to worry so much about this during your first draft. Just get the story out. But definitely pay attention to this during your editing process. Make sure that you’re not starting all of your sentences the same way. Make sure they’re of varying length.
Look at each paragraph. How many similarly formed sentences do you see? Read them aloud. Does it sound monotonous or sing-songy? If so, change it up! Surprise yourself and your readers.
If you’re having trouble varying your structure, pick up a favorite book, open it to anywhere and take a hard look at the different types of sentences the author uses. How many start with gerund phrases. How many start with “I” or the character’s name/pronoun. How many are true compound sentences.
It’s better to do this with a favorite book since you’ll already be familiar with the storyline.
Do Your Research
If you’re not an expert on what you’re writing about, do your due diligence and research it. If you can, find an expert who’s willing to read those sections and give you feedback, or who will answer questions for you. If you’re writing a character who is of a different race, gender identity, or sexual orientation than you, find yourself a sensitivity reader who’s willing to give you feedback on your work.
Thesaurus Misuse and Abuse
I’m all about avoiding word reps. They’re annoying to read and when you start noticing a lot of them in the prose, it begins to feel like the author is either lazy or dumbing down the narrative. Now, I’m sure you’re reading this and thinking, well the thesaurus is the best friend of people who hate word reps.
It is…and it isn’t. You have to be careful when you’re choosing synonyms that you have the right one in the right form. Often times, I’ll be reading, and a fairly mundane word will just stop me dead in the middle of a sentence because it reads as so out of place that it jolted me from the story. When you’re searching for synonyms, the thing to keep in mind is that words have nuances. And you need to make sure that those nuances apply to your sentence.
Here’s an example:
Let’s say you write the sentence: He made a good point.
But then you realized that you just used the word “made” three lines above. So you get out your handy dandy thesaurus and you look for synonyms for made.
And you write this: He contrived a good point.
No. No, he didn’t. That’s not how contrived works. Just because contrived is listed as a synonym for made doesn’t make those two words interchangeable. Be aware of the word’s nuances before you haphazardly try to swap it out.
Welp, that’s it for now. I hope you found it helpful.