4 Common Mistakes Even the Pros Makes
For every twenty-five books I read, I usually discover one that has that special something. The kind of book that I can’t stop thinking about, and takes me three days to recover from because my mind is still living in its beautiful world and adventuring with its characters.
When I don’t like a book, I still try to stick it out so I can learn from it. I want to know what I didn’t like about it and what might have fixed the problems in the novel. Even crumby books can teach us how NOT to tell stories!
Yesterday, while rocking in my favorite chair by our picture window, I remembered my first four manuscripts (before my most recent one). As the Brits might say, they were, “all rot!” I never attempted to publish these manuscripts and knew pretty much the entire time how bad they were. But each process taught me so much that eventually in Novel No. 5, I had a fair understanding of story structure and how to develop layered characters.
I refer to these first four novels as my ‘education in how not to write a novel.’
The following are four common mistakes that I see too frequently in published and unpublished works (of myself and others) and how they can be avoided!
Mistake No. 1: The Exciting Irrelevant Hook
“Hook your readers!” said every writing instructor ever. Yes, hooks ARE important, but hooking readers simply for the purpose of hooking them is a bad move. Beginning with a gripping hook that had nothing to do with the story is nothing but a cheap gimmick.
Example: A story begins with Peter Jones saving a cat from a burning building. This scene is epic, hooking, and it shows that Peter is daring, but it has little to do with the rest of the story which is about a road trip that Peter goes on to find his long-lost dad.
Actually, all of my favorite books begin simply, no frills, no power-punching action, but their unique stories and cast of characters keep me turning the pages.
Mistake No. 2: The Broken Record Narrative
Readers are excellent at identifying themes, conflict, and symbolism. Half the fun of reading a book is unearthing the subtext and hidden symbolism. Readers shouldn’t need the story’s hidden truths and conflict spelled out to them.
I recently read an adult historical fiction novel by a big name author (I won't name names) where the protagonist kept reiterating facts about the conflict and her own emotional state that I already knew. I felt like the author was trying to dumb things down and I found this rather irritating. I also began to doubt the relevance of what I was reading and felt that the book could have been pared down by at least 10K words without any loss to the story.
I wrote a post about it here.
Mistake No. 3: Whiplash Scenes
When a reader should be drawn deeper into the story’s rising action and the story decides to hit the breaks. This will create reader distrust and cause them to doubt where the story is going. Rising action should rise a little more in each scene.
Example: Freddie’s girlfriend Cindy is hiking with her sister in the mountains. Cindy is standing on a cliff overlooking the scenery when the ground beneath her feet begins to break away, she screams and falls. The next scene opens with Freddie and best friend George play video games. Freddie doesn’t know that Cindy is in trouble and he and George are bragging about whose girlfriend is cooler as they obliterate aliens on the TV screen.
The scene just switched from an intense scene to a rather mundane one. Readers will likely be tempted to skim this gaming scene and get to the part where Freddie hears about Cindy’s accident or the scene switches back to Cindy hanging onto the side of a cliff while her sister tries desperately to get help. If Freddie and George’s gaming scene is important (oh, please, I hope not!) it should happen before Cindy’s perilous fall. Don’t let the action flatten—keep it moving forward and upward!
Mistake No. 4: Trying too Hard to Impress
When readers open a novel, they aren’t asking to be impressed with the author’s vocabulary and research, they are asking to be taken on an authentic journey.
This is something I see in my critique group manuscripts and my own drafts! We find these super lyrical sounding metaphors and we put them in our manuscript because they are ‘oh so lovely.’ And there is no point to them except to stroke our own egos. We forget that the purpose of a metaphor is not to impress, it is to conjure a picture in a reader's mind that wouldn’t be there otherwise. That’s it! If the metaphor doesn’t do that, then no matter how pretty it is, it needs to go.
Recently my book club read an adult mystery novel. The author chose an eleven-year-old girl as his sleuth and main character. I was excited about this precocious protagonist, but as I read I realized there was a problem. The eleven-year-old was too intelligent, her thinking and descriptions too mature, and therefore, she was completely unbelievable. I mean, she could have shown Sherlock Holmes a thing or two about detective work!
Because the main character was unbelievable, I was constantly thinking about how she was just that—make-believe. The author presence manipulating this character was tangible on every page. I was aware of his brilliance, not hers. My book club agreed that this didn’t serve the story well and was extremely irritating.
Have you read any books that started out interesting and then betrayed you? Anything you would add to the list of common mistakes in novels? Let me know in the comments below! I’d love to hear from you!
Stay tuned for a special guest interview on the blog next week!