I’ve done a lot of beta-reading in my day, and I find that my critique points often align along the same sort of issues. I thought it might be helpful to type up a list for anyone who is just starting out writing–I know a lot of people are using their self-isolation time to start a new WIP for Camp NaNoWriMo, for example. 😉 As always with these sort of posts, I’m not claiming I’m some genius master writer, but I do firmly stand by this list.
Sin #1: Being Too Mysterious
It’s happened more than a couple times that my very first, page one comment on a manuscript is that the author is trying to be too mysterious in the first couple paragraphs. In the first few pages, it is courteous to readers to clearly introduce your MC’s name, age, and identity. When authors dangle tidbits of information and invite readers to piece the puzzle together, it makes readers work too hard, rather than being able to sit back and enjoy the story–and that often means readers will stop reading and pick up a different book. These slow, spoon-fed introductions always makes me think of some cheesy anime character intro where they make their grand entrance to the show in silhouette.
The man walked into the bar and sat down with a weary sigh. “What’ll it be?” asked the man behind the bar, his voice a low growl. Green eyes glinted. The monk laughed. This was going to be an interesting night.
Okay, so here is the information we aren’t privy to in the above paragraph (not taken from a beta manuscript, just a few lines I made up that are representative of many past beta reads). There are no names, and the only physicality we’re given could belong to either man… or the monk… or a third party observer! Also, who is the monk? Is it the guy who just came into the bar or somebody else? Just how many people are in this scene anyway???
And take a look at the oh-so-mysterious line “Green eyes glinted.” Short sentences of physicality have started to drive me absolutely bananas recently–I think I’ve seen too many of them in books by authors like Sarah J. Maas, and they just… aren’t working for me anymore. Authors normally throw them in to establish a lyrical, poetic, or moody feel, but they read as lazy writing to me at this point.
Most crucially in the above few lines, the POV feels shaky; most readers will make the assumption that we are in the head of the first man, not the bartender, but that is not necessarily the case. This leads into the next sin…
Sin #2: Head-Hopping
Head-hopping is when authors change POVs within a scene. Unless you are some master literary craftsman who understands how to do this, stick with one POV in each scene, lest your readers become disoriented.
Wow, thought Paul, she’s super hot. He couldn’t tear his eyes away from her.
Emma blushed, noticing his gaze. Hey, good-lookin’. What she wouldn’t do for a man in uniform.
Okay, before our two characters above start getting it on, we have to fix an enormous problem; first we’re in Paul’s head, then we’re suddenly hearing Emma’s thoughts. That’s going to give your readers serious whiplash, and it will introduce major confusion throughout the manuscript. If you are using 3rd POV, you can only have your POV character think and react to information that they know.
And to help ground your readers if you’re switching POV from chapter to chapter, always use the POV character’s name in the first sentence–and ideally, make their name the first word.
Sin #3: Noticeable Dialogue Tags
There are a scant few dialogue tags I use on the regular in my writing. Here they are:
Of course I’ll throw in a “murmured,” “growled,” or “spat” every once in a while, but generally, “said” and “asked” will do me–and my favorite scenario is when I don’t have to use dialogue tags at all and just let the dialogue sit by itself. 🙂
Here’s some dialogue from my current WIP, with extra dialogue tags thrown in.
“I’m going to pop by the liquor store, then we’re having a night in at your place. Any booze requests?” she inquired.
I thought for a second. “Just rum for me,” I sighed. “But get yourself whatever you want.”
“You getting sick?” she asked me. She knew me too well.
“Bit of a sore throat,” I told her. “That’s all.”
Okay, so this snippet is a telephone conversation between the MC and her best friend. Notice how every line includes some sort of dialogue tag (“inquired,” “sighed,” “asked,” “told”). Most of these aren’t necessary. For example, a question mark indicates a question (duh), so generally speaking there is no need to use “asked” or “inquired.” Our MC is telling her best friend what she wants to get from the liquor store, so “told” is also repetitive. As for “sighed,” it adds a bit of color, but not enough to make it necessary here. Some people would keep it, but I’d personally get rid of it.
My rule of thumb is to nix any dialogue tag that is not pulling its weight. One little thing to note, though, is that dialogue tags can do a lot for a sentence in terms of rhythm; sometimes it’s nice to break up sentences with a “said/asked,” just to keep things flowing nicely. But don’t worry about that if you’re a beginning writer–just take a good, hard look at all your dialogue tags and ditch the ones that are useless.
This is the way I wrote the text originally:
“I’m going to pop by the liquor store, then we’re having a night in at your place. Any booze requests?”
I thought for a second. “Just rum for me. But get yourself whatever you want.”
“You getting sick?” She knew me too well.
“Bit of a sore throat. That’s all.”
I can understand that to some people the above might read a bit sparse–that’s a personal preference thing. My point is that many newbie writers employ dialogue tags for every bit of dialogue, and this can quickly bog down your characters’ conversations and annoy your readers.
Sin #4: Using Telling Words to Show
“Show, don’t tell”–we’ve all heard it, but it’s often tough for writers to understand what that means. I could write a whole ‘nother post about “show, don’t tell” (and when you actually should tell), but I’ll save that for a different time. What I really want to talk about here is when writers think they’re showing, but they’re not.
Here’s an example:
He heard a braying voice from the other room.
She saw sparks fly from the machine.
Notice how “he heard” and “she saw” introduce distance into the sentence? It filters all action through the character’s senses. If you have centered your readers in a POV, we understand intuitively that a braying voice is something the character is hearing and that sparks are something the character is seeing. In the above example, these sentences tell, rather than show.
So get your character out of the sentence and let the action flow, rather than telling us what’s going on. Here are the sentences fixed up:
A voice brayed from the other room. / There came a braying voice from the other room.
Sparks flew from the machine.
Notice how much more actioney the above sentences feel? That’s because we’re suddenly not limited by having everything focus on the MC. Yes, we should be in their head, but not to the point where every single sentence tugs us back to the character.
I really hope the above tips are useful if you’re a writer just starting out! However, my biggest recommendation for avoiding these sins and developing your fictional voice is to read good books by competent writers. I’m going to be frank here: there are a lot of authors out there who are extremely successful commercially–but they don’t necessarily have the strongest chops when it comes to narrative voice. You should make it your mission to read authors who are good at their craft and pay attention to what they’re doing, maybe by even typing one of their chapters into a Word document so that you’re forced to pay attention to their stylistic choices. Here are a few of my absolute favorite authors when it comes to narrative voice:
- Charlaine Harris (read for character description and voicey 1st POV)
- Derek Milman (read for dialogue and voicey 1st POV)
- Eloisa James (read for dialogue and character dynamics)
- On a quick note, James very occasionally head-hops, but she does it as a master writer should: with purposeful subtlety that hopefully won’t annoy the average reader.
- Kristen Britain (read for her wide range of emotion and sentence simplicity)
- Maureen Johnson (read for voicey 1st and 3rd POV)
Can you think of any other “writing sins”? Who are your favorite authors to read for their narrative voice? Leave a comment down below!
6 thoughts on “Four Sins of a Newbie Writer”
“Green eyes glinted” I love it! 😀 And yes, I too was wondering, Who the heck is the monk?
Yet that kind of very “tight” writing is the kind that many agents seem to ask for. I guess it can work a little better in genres where the surroundings are already familiar to the reader, such as crime books or psychological thrillers set in modern times. But for SFF, where we are doing so much world building, we definitely need to orient the reader as fast as possible so that the action makes sense. I once read some writer who said, “Your characters can be in the dark, but your reader never should be.” I’ve taken that to heart.
It does worry me, because it means there is a lot of “telling” (well done, I hope), in the opening chapters of my novels … which are the chapters that we send as samples.
#3 … Stephen King really hates the dialogue tags too. He says just use “said.” 😉
#2 … Head hopping. Tricky. My epics call for a lot of different perspectives. In my first one, I used first person but made it clear through chapter headings who was narrating each section. (I had characters that didn’t speak each other’s language, and we needed both perspectives.) In my second one, I tried out omniscient narrator, which I know is supposed to be a big no-no. We’ll see. My model for that was Anthony Trollope, whose novels depend so much on misunderstandings that he not only uses an omniscient narrator, but even head-hops (very elegantly) in some key scenes. I love Trollope.
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I wouldn’t be that concerned about too much “telling” in the first couple chapters. I think telling is underrated, tbh–you just have to do it the right way. There can be something really powerful about conveying key information to readers simply.
Yeah, I know that’s one of King’s writing tips. I think a lot of his advice is too extreme (I’ll fight for adverbs!!), but I do agree with him for the most part on dialogue tags. Best case scenario in my mind is for the dialogue tags to all go unnoticed by the reader.
Writing with an omniscient voice scares me, just from a technical perspective lol. But of course it can be done well by a skillful writer. What I really mean here is that most writers starting out have a tough time even identifying what head-hopping is. “You have to know the rules to break them,” etc.
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Love all these tips; they’re very real and common occurrences! 🙌💛
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I hope they’re helpful to you!
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Amazing tips… Thanks for this post!
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Glad you liked it!