Please (Please) Avoid These Common Writing Mistakes
by Erin Brown
After almost a decade in New York publishing houses, and now as a freelance editor, I keep seeing the same writing, ahem, “issues” cropping up again and again. Now you’re probably thinking, “But I knoooooooooow all of these. Duh.” Well, maybe not “duh” as that saying went out in 1987. However, the fact remains that I see these concerns over and over and over, in manuscript after manuscript, which leads me to believe that these lessons have not been imbedded into every first-time author’s brain. So let’s review so that you can save your revision time and energy for more important things, like fixing “it’s” versus “its.”
**Note: in the following examples you will see that I spent a large part of my holidays visiting relatives in small town Texas. A pattern is not difficult to surmise.
Telling Versus Showing: Anyone can tell the reader about a person and a scene. The key is to show the reader, using your skills as a writer. Don’t tell the reader that your character, Agnes Bertha Gottenblaum, is down on her luck and a bit depressed (I choose this name because I would be quite despondent if my parents bestowed this moniker on me.). Booooooring. Don’t just tell us she’s depressed and down on her luck. Show us—there she is now, poor Agnes Bertha sitting on the mildewed couch in her double-wide, her fingers stained orange from the Cheetos, the salted tracks of her tears staining her sweatshirt that features an airbrush of a wee kitten dangling by its paws from a branch and the saying “Hang in there, baby.” The phone handset is dusty from lack of use. Jerry Springer rages in the background. Ramen Noodles crunch under her feet as she waddles across the rug to answer the doorbell, excitement on her face at the prospect of a visitor, someone who cares. But alas, it is only the grungy neighbor boy, who points and laughs as she opens the door. You get the over-the-top picture. This shows us Agnes’s life and state of mind much better than the line, “Agnes Bertha Gottenblaum was depressed.”
Point of View: Many first-time authors just love to “head jump” and give multiple points of view within a scene. This is not a good thing unless you are an established author who has the skill and cojones to do it well. Stick to one point of view per scene, if not for the entire book. POV switches are disconcerting for the reader and are very annoying to editors and agents. So fix it now. There is no need for the following:
Jim Bob gazed at Cindy Lou across the table at Denny’s. She was more beautiful than ever—her white blond hair was teased higher than he’d ever seen it and her eye shadow was bluer than the new paint job on his Ford F150. Dayum, she was a sight for sore eyes.
Cindy Lou wondered why Jim Bob was staring at her like some sort of maniac. Do I have something in my teeth? Is my hair falling? Oh lord, what if he wants someone else to ride shotgun in his truck?
Jim Bob felt his stomach rumble and remembered that he hadn’t eaten since last night. The congealed nacho cheese had not agreed with him. Cindy Lou knew in her heart that Jim Bob loved her more than his favorite bowling alley nachos, but what if that smirk on his face meant he had found another lady friend and he was fixin’ to give her the old heave ho? How dare he? I’m no ho!
Stick to either Jim Bob or Cindy Lou’s point of view only.
Bland Dialogue: Nothing will make an editor or a reader fall asleep more quickly than this cardinal sin. Remember that dialogue is not just a vehicle to get across plot points. Give it some oomph. Which of the following is more exciting for the reader and gives a more unique character voice?
“Cletus, can you please change the oil in the car? I am sick of telling you,” Cheryl Lynn said to her husband, looking exasperated.
“Dawggonnit, Cletus, if you do not high tail it out here this instant and get under the hood of this sorry excuse for a vehicle, I will personally see to it that more than one dipstick around here is covered in black sludge.” To emphasize her kind request, Cheryl Lynn gave her husband the “I sure do mean business, mister” look that stops every man south of the Mason-Dixie in his tracks.
No “Hook”: How many times have I read a solid, well-written novel that I simply cannot sell to my higher ups because it doesn’t stand out from hundreds of others on the shelves? It’s very frustrating. The author is a very good writer and there’s nothing wrong with the book, per se. But there’s nothing new or different about the plot or characters.
It’s almost impossible to sell another FBI agent seeks killer or middle-aged woman unlucky in love finds the man of her dreams book unless there is something that sets it apart from the rest. Is the FBI agent a hermaphrodite? A former dairy farmer? Does he find the serial killer by clues left in discarded cheese wrappers and yogurt ingredients? Does the lovelorn woman have a voice and personality that can sass the bark off a tree (yes, I made this phrase up)? Does the man she sets her sights on have a strange quirk such as a penchant for telling the future by whittling tree branches into scenes depicting imminent danger? There must be something unique that sets your book apart—a “hook”—whether it’s the writing, the setting, the unique plot, or a fabulous main character. This takes it beyond the “been there, done that” novel and makes it saleable.
So, these are just a few tips from someone who’s seen it all. I’m sure you’ve heard them before, but it’s always good to have a refresher course. Fix these issues, and you’ll have a much better chance of catching that agent or editor’s eye. And, most importantly, never name a child Cletus.
Erin Brown worked as an editor in New York City for over eight years. She recently left Manhattan to start her own freelance editorial business. To learn more about Erin, visit her website at www.erinedits.com