Four Common Mistakes By Unpublished Writers

As a general rule, I do not read manuscripts from unpublished writers. It’s always a bad idea for writers to do that. No one wants to deal with a plagiarism lawsuit at a future point in time.

The other problem I have with it is that I’m a nice person. I don’t like giving a writer his or her first critique. They hurt. I know, I’ve been there. You’ve spent years writing in secret, stealing time to spin your tales and put them to paper. When you’ve shown them to people, your friends and family have raved over how good you are. English teachers raved over them. You think you’re ready to be published. You’re not.

It’s incredibly rare to find an untrained author who has never had a critique nor studied the craft to come out of the gate with a brilliant masterwork. Sorry. If you’ve never had a critique by an industry professional, your manuscript contains the following problems:

  • POV shifts within the scene
  • Passive voice
  • Telling rather than showing the action
  • Excessive and unnecessary dialog tags

There are more, but these are the top four and that’s enough to start with. I know this, because I was once a writer taking the first steps from hobby fiction spinner to novelist. When your manuscript hits the slush pile with these no-nos on the first page, you’ll never make it past the reader because he or she will never read past the first few pages. Publishing houses hire readers whose sole job is to sort through the slush pile for these red flags.

POV Shifts
Also called “Hopping Heads” it’s the most defended newbie marker. Good prose starts with a POV (Point of View) character who provides the perspective through which the scene is filtered. Nothing can happen out of sight or hearing of this character. Once this character is identified, you cannot jump into another character’s head within the same scene.

“But…but…” I can hear you now. Stop it. You sound like a motorboat.

POV is so important in some genres and sub-genres that it’s become trope. Traditional Gothic Romance is told through the eyes of one character, the heroine, in first person. Hard-boiled detective fiction is also traditionally first person, told from the perspective of the detective. When writing in third person, pick a character and let that character tell the story. If you must add other POV characters, keep them to a minimum. No more than two or three max for longer, more epic stories with complex plot lines. If the action in a scene leaves the presence of your POV character, the scene ends. Break it and start a new scene with a new POV character or rewrite it from the POV of the character who actually follows the action.

A good example of this was THE GREAT GATSBY. Nothing happened outside of Nick’s presence. He was the narrator who observed and participated in Gatsby’s pursuit of Daisy. Anything that happened outside his presence had to be related to him in one manner or another by another character. He observed actions that didn’t make sense to him at the time, but made sense as the story unfolded.

Why is it such a hard and fast rule? Simple. Good fiction evokes emotion in the reader. My nine-year-old son read THE OAK INSIDE THE ACORN by Max Lucado. When he finished, his eyes filled with tears and he threw his arms around me and sobbed. Emotional response. Good prose. One POV.

By hopping heads, you rob your reader of the opportunity to identify with your character within the scene. When you read, you slip into that character’s skin and you experience that character’s world. The reader gets an insight into a personality often unlike their own through the internal monologue and the character’s voice. It’s also jarring to settle into one character’s perspective only to find yourself across the room in another’s.

Passive Voice
Simply put, passive voice uses passive verb forms or “to be” verb forms. “She was singing” as opposed to “She sang.” The “to be” form of the verb separates the reader from the action. The active verb form makes the reader a participant in the action. If you use passive verbs, do it deliberately to serve the telling of the story, for pacing, or to emotionally detach the reader from the action.

That isn’t to say that you can never use am, is, are, was, were. You can. Just make sure when you use them, you’re doing so for a reason and not because you don’t know better. Editors can tell the difference.

This goes hand in hand with

Telling Rather Than Showing The Action
This is trickier to explain. Don’t tell me the character “looked angry” or “was angry” or did anything “angrily.” Show me the emotion. Don’t name it. If you do it right, I’ll recognize the emotion by the character’s action, tone, word use, facial expressions, and body language. Telling me that Donald Duck got angry and yelled isn’t as funny as showing me how Donald sputtered, turned red and jumped up and down, screaming incoherently, with his fists clenched, while gesticulating wildly.

Telling, rather than showing, insulates the reader from the action, events, and emotions in the scene. It has its uses, but should be employed purposefully and sparingly.

Excessive And Unnecessary Dialog Tags
This is such a pet peeve of so many editors of my acquaintance that one has gone so far as to write numerous blog posts on the topic. Just bringing it up will send her off on a diatribe.

Dialog tags are used to identify the speaker. The most common and least distracting is “said.” It’s quite acceptable to name the character and follow it with “said.” When you get creative and follow a question mark with “asked,” or an exclamation point with “exclaimed” or “explained” or “surmised” or any of the myriad others that newbie writers use, you start distracting your reader. It’s self-explanatory that a question was asked or an interjection has been…well…interjected!

If you must get creative, use action to identify your speaker rather than increasingly pompous dialog tags.

Caroline lifted the calling card from the tray. Her eyes narrowed as she studied the curlicues swirling across the white paper. Her lips tightened. How dare he?

“Mother, Charles has come to beg forgiveness for his behavior last night.”

Her mother didn’t look up from her needlework. “Shall I refuse him?”

See? Who needs dialog tags?

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18 thoughts on “Four Common Mistakes By Unpublished Writers

    1. I’m guilty of all four of these in my first draft. That’s where they belong. Those issues should all be exorcised from the final draft by the time you submit it for critique or publication. These errors make it hard for readers to see whether you can tell a decent story or not.

  1. Pingback: Common mistakes new writers make (link) | Laurel's Writing Desk

  2. Great advice for starters. May I add a lack of white space? It seems many who are new haven’t figured out how to truly utilize paragraph structure–and space exposition so that it never bogs down the action. (Or blackens half a page.)

    1. That is a definite newbie marker. That’s why I think in-person critique groups are great. It helps to read your work aloud and see where you take natural pauses. There should be a rhythm and a music to good writing.

  3. My early stuff is downright painful to read. My very earliest attempt is written in pencil in a Lisa Frank notebook. It’s so bad that dreadful, horrible and terrible aren’t descriptive enough.

    But now I’m semi-finalling in contests and getting requests from agents.

  4. Great Post. I would enjoy further explanation on the use of dialogue tags with more than two people in a scene. Would you recommend an action tag to accompany each person? Love the School Rock Rocks Videos! I had not heard that version of Mr. Morton before. 🙂

    1. Thank you, Killion. The Skee-Lo version of Mr. Morton came from an anniversary tribute that was released several years back. I liked it much better than the original and that’s unusual for me.

      The example I used above is taking dialog tags to the extreme opposite direction. I did this to show how unnecessary they can be. The tell-tale sign of an inexperienced writer is the excessive use of increasingly more creative dialog tags, particularly with adverbs.

      Of course use them when needed, but keep it simple. Look for ways to couch dialog within action when you can. The key is to keep your dialog tags as unobtrusive as possible. You want them to identify your speaker without distracting your reader.

      When I write dialog with three or more characters, I try to stick to using said, especially in my first draft. I may use an adverb after said as a place marker to let me know what emotion I need to fill in around this dialog when I block the action, and I use the term blocking in the theatrical sense of mapping out how the characters move within the scene. Occasionally, I’ll leave the adverb in place rather than go into greater depth because it suits the pacing, the rhythm or the flow of the scene.

      Here are two scenes from my upcoming release HERO’S END with three characters. The pacing and rhythm are very different in each of the two scenes. One is more relaxed, the other is in the heat of an action scene and the pacing is faster.

      See if you can follow what I’ve done with dialog tags, action tags and couching the dialog within action. Yes, I’ve gotten creative and added an adverb or two, but when I’ve deviated from said, it’s usually to indicate an action or difference in tone that wouldn’t be readily apparent from the dialog or the surrounding action. I apologize for the roughness of the two scenes. The edit on the manuscript isn’t complete yet.

      I hope this answers your question.

      ***

      Bo grinned and shook her head.

      “Chase is a good man,” she said. “He’s got more nobility in him than most I’ve met. If anyone wants to say anything against him, they have to deal with me.”

      Gena’s eyes twinkled with amusement. “Then why haven’t you contracted with him?”

      Bo chuckled. “Because his brother is just about more than I can handle, thank you very much.”

      “Blade Devon.” Tese sighed. “Now there’s a man.”

      Gena bristled. “What are you talking about? You haven’t met him yet, either.”

      “I’ve seen his holofeatures,” Tese said defensively. “I’m sure that gorgeous body isn’t all special effects and holocam angles.” Reaching forward, she tapped Bo’s shoulder again. “Come on… dish on him. Is he as gorgeous in real life as he is in holofeatures?”

      With a laugh, Bo cut her speed and adjusted her approach. “No, Tese,” she said. “He’s short, fat and bald.”

      “I’ll bet his feet stink, too,” Gena said.

      Tese leaned back in a huff and folded her arms across her chest. “Oh, you two are awful.”

      ***

      Grumbling, Royce yielded the pilot’s chair to his brother. Bhruic buckled in quickly. While Royce buckled himself into the co-pilot’s seat, Bhruic’s hands flew across the control panel with a sureness very like Bo’s. Turning back towards the city, he sent Sundance into a stomach churning series of maneuvers, rolls, and erratic dips and turns. Blade gripped his armrest tightly and silently prayed.

      “Who the hell are these guys?” Bhruic growled.

      “I know,” Royce said. “They’re good. It’s like they’ve got a Barron Clan pilot.”

      Bhruic snorted.

      “They might,” Blade said.

      Bhruic guided the ship lower to the ground and flew between two tall buildings. Blade held his breath until they broke through the other side. The city flew past them in a blur as Sundance wove in and out among buildings and towers, dodging power lines, relay stations and air traffic.

      “Highly unlikely,” Bhruic said.

      “It makes sense,” Blade went on. “Someone close to you has been trying to kill you for a long time.”

      Bhruic lifted his chin and studied the terrain. “Tell me something I don’t know.”

      “Stealing your stasis pod had to be an inside job.”

      “Hah! Did you see that, Royce?”

      Royce nodded. “Yeah, I did,” he said. “If that’s who I think it is, you can’t kill him.”

      “See what?”

      “Hang on, kid.” Royce grinned over his shoulder. “It’s about to get interesting.”

  5. Thank you JC for sharing some examples here to better explain this concept. I followed the ladies dialogue without stopping, but with the gents,I did stop to try and figure out who said,

    “Stealing your stasis pod had to be an inside job.”

    “Hah! Did you see that, Royce?”

    I think from the flow Blade says the first line and Bhruic says the second. I’m not sure who asks, “See what?” – but that may also be because I do not have full context of these characters yet. I might understand the reference to “kid” from a previous term of endearment.

    I appreciate the description of blocking the scene in the theatre sense. That truly helps picture the scene in my mind and how the characters are not stick people.

    Thank you for the additional explanations 🙂

    1. You followed the second example better than you thought. Blade said “See what?”

      You are correct, within the context of the overall book, it’s easier because you know where the characters are coming from, their speech patterns, and their interpersonal relationships.

      The most important thing is to practice with them and get reliable feedback on your efforts. Thanks for stopping by!

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