by Carolyn Haley
Novice authors, despite the uniqueness of their backgrounds and visions, share certain writing characteristics. For instance, almost all the first novels I see contain a beginning, a middle, and an end, with some form of plot and character change. These basics seem to come by instinct, probably because novel writers tend to be novel readers and absorb the essence of story structure from reading polished examples. Whereas some beginners invest in learning storycraft, others express themselves first and analyze later, discovering from beta readers or editors where they need to refine their skills. Even so, their drafts emerge with the core elements in place.
Many novice authors reveal in their “finished” manuscripts that they have a lot yet to learn about narrative technique. But there’s nothing worrisome about that. It’s natural during the creation phase for people to write for themselves, often composing by ear until the text sounds good, without considering how it might read to someone else. Sometimes they’ll go the other way and overthink things, being too conscious of “writing a book,” and writing so stiffly and formally that their style interferes with telling the story. Later, when self-editing, they are too close to the work to recognize potential problems for readers. Because the author reads what the author expects, the story’s flaws often don’t show up until someone else reads the manuscript. (See also the following An American Editor essays: The WYSIWYG Conundrum: The Solid Cloud; Two Books Every Author (& Editor & Publisher) Should Read!, and The Commandments: Thou Shall Use a Professional Editor for additional perspectives.)
A baker’s dozen
The twelve most common beginner-novelist craft problems I see are listed below (see “The Top Twelve”). A thirteenth stands out from the rest and deserves special mention: the failure to write chronologically. By this I do not mean sequence in time, but rather sequence of stimulation–response in a character’s mind and behavior. Writing expert Dwight V. Swain calls this a motivation–reaction unit: a “cause and effect applied to people. Cause becomes motivating stimulus…effect, character reaction.”
Motivation–reaction units form the steps that compel a reader through a story. The units build each scene and relationship, advancing plot and suspense. The idea seems obvious, yet I often see reaction happening before the action that triggers it, such as Jane screaming before John enters the room wielding a knife. Incomplete motivation–reaction units also manifest in dialogue, with unresponded-to declarations, suggestions, or invitations, and in scenes, where something starts without finishing, either described or implied. The effect resembles missing punctuation, the way unclosed parentheses and quotation marks or dropped periods at ends of sentences leaves thoughts dangling and readers confused.
Swain describes the motivation–reaction unit and associated building blocks in his masterwork, Techniques of the Selling Writer. It is the best resource for storycraft I have seen, and I recommend it to all fiction writers and editors.
The top twelve
Just about every beginner’s novel contains one or more of the following flubs and follies. The list does not include typos or errors in spelling or punctuation, because those are universal. Most writers recognize they’re not perfect and willingly accept tidying-up editing. Where they tend to be blind to their own work is in the more advanced or subtle elements of storycraft and style.
Here are the dozen, in no particular order:
- Tense misuse. The narrative flip-flops between present and past tense, or incorrectly uses a tense, especially past perfect (e.g., The hiking group grew to ten by the time it left the lodge vs. The hiking group had grown to ten by the time it left the lodge).
- Author intrusion. The narrative voice breaks because the author has inserted a personal opinion without channeling it through a character’s perspective, or has characters give information through dialogue that real people wouldn’t speak naturally. The latter has been dubbed the “As you know, Bob” syndrome, referring to conversations like, “As you know, Bob, we were born two years apart in Milwaukee and went to the same school.”
- Passive sentence construction. Mainly overusing the verb “to be.” For instance, It was a sunny day and there were birds singing in the trees can be revised to use verbs that make the sentence more vivid: Sunshine poured from the sky and birds twittered in the trees.
- Verisimilitude glitches. Situations that are implausible or impossible, such as travel between places that should take hours but in the story take minutes; small-ammo firearms making huge-ammo firearms noises; characters seeing perfectly in the dark. (For more on this, see my An American Editor essay, Thinking Fiction: Verisimilitude.)
- Dialogue tags. Identifying who is speaking and how. Some authors name every speaker every time, always using he said and she said and starting a new paragraph for every line of speech. Others drop tags altogether and let the reader guess who is talking. Others seek alternatives to he said/she said, such as he coughed or she sighed, while some use adverbs to set the mood (he said laughingly or she said angrily). Whichever tag style the author favors can be overused to the point of irritating the reader.
- Attribute tags. Character identifiers that help readers keep track of people and places. Some authors don’t give visual cues in their narratives, relying totally on readers remembering who’s who by the characters’ names. This is problematic on its own; doubly so when characters are similarly named: Alice, Amy, Adam are hard on the reader’s eye, and hard on comprehension if the reader is not informed that one A-character has red hair, another is an old woman with a limp, a third is a man with a mustache.
- False suspense. Withholding information in the belief it creates curiosity and intrigue. That can be true for plot, but it backfires in scene setting or story setup. Suspense should make readers turn the page wanting to know what’s going to happen next, not force them to scratch their heads wondering what’s going on.
- Choreography missteps. A variant of false suspense; that is, placing characters in a scene then forgetting to account for their movements. For instance, someone who walks in may never walk out, or leaves the scene while readers think he’s still a player and expect him to do something.
- Pronoun confusion. Another variation of who’s-doing-what. They watched the monitors for hours. They were new and reliable, but some of them were older and temperamental so they had to be careful. Which “they” pertains to the watchers and which to the machines?
- Clunky sentence structure. Some authors write too uniformly: John drove down the street. He turned into his driveway. He got out of the car. Others are so precise and grammatically correct that their sentences meander on and lose focus, or sound dated to the modern ear. First-time novelists who come to fiction writing from a nonfiction or academic background often eschew contractions, making for stilted-sounding dialogue (“I am going to the store, where she is working today from nine a.m. to five p.m.” vs. “I’m going to the store — she’s working nine to five today”).
- Info dump. Commonly happens in the first chapter as backstory leading up to the current story, but it can occur anywhere. The symptom is too much information being provided that either breaks story flow or isn’t needed to advance plot or character development, inviting readers to skip ahead. Sometimes the information is extraneous and can be cut; more often it just needs to be divvied up and spread through the narrative.
- Assumptions and allusions. Authors might assume that every reader will know what they’re talking about, whether it’s a classical or biblical reference, or names of modern products and entertainers, or terms and mores of a particular time. If narrative context doesn’t make the reference clear, then readers’ attention will be broken by the effort of wondering, or backing up to see if they understood things right.
In many cases, writing flubs can be fixed with simple revisions at the line editing or copyediting stage. Comprehensive problems should be addressed at the developmental level, or at least in a non-editing manuscript critique. Whether the editor or author performs the suggested revisions depends on the situation and scope of work. Authors in general are open to content changes if they are accompanied by comments explaining the change, or suggesting ways to make the change. Earnest novices who want to improve their skills study edits closely and learn from every revision.
All authors receive edits better if they’re conveyed in a mix of craft language and gentle terms like flubs, tweaks, and bloopers. Authors are as much works-in-process as their novels; even the most seasoned pros acknowledge that they never stop learning. Editors who define problems and demonstrate solutions make the editing process an informative team effort instead of an expert-to-dummy intimidating experience. New authors especially appreciate knowing that their inadequacies are commonly shared, and they just need tools and techniques to master. For many of them, an edited manuscript is the only instruction they get on how to craft a novel. Just like in the movie Field of Dreams — “if you build it, he will come” — give novice authors knowledge and respect, and their books will grow and bloom.
Carolyn Haley lives and breathes novels. Although specializing in fiction, she edits across the publishing spectrum — fiction and nonfiction, corporate and indie — and is the author of two novels and a nonfiction book. She has been editing professionally since 1977, and has had her own editorial services company, DocuMania, since 2005. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or through her websites, DocuMania and New Ways to See the World. Carolyn also blogs at Adventures in Zone 3 and reviews at New York Journal of Books.