Writing a book is an exciting and challenging time, but it’s a task that shouldn’t be taken lightly, especially if you’re planning on publishing it. Since art is subjective, it can be difficult to know what feedback is legitimate and what’s someone’s opinion. So how do you know if your book is any good?
As a professional ghostwriter (where many of my clients hire me to simply rewrite a poorly written book) and editor (where I’ve done everything from developmental editing to proofreading), I’ve seen many stories, some written marvellously by writers with years of experience, and some that are barely coherent and written by someone who didn’t know what they were doing (most of these people cheerfully admit that though they have an idea, they need help executing it. That’s where I come in).
So what are some common mistakes people make when writing their first book? While it’s very unlikely that your first ever story will be a masterpiece, it’s still a step into your writing career. Here are seven mistakes I often see in people’s work and how to avoid them.
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1. Starting Too Big… and Getting Stuck
Many people dream of writing the next epic series, and get so tangled in their own worlds and details they end up getting stuck halfway through. It’s best to start with short stories and work your way up when you have better understanding of outlines, details, and how to iron out important details to ensure you end up with a complete and coherent novel.
Though no one will stop you if you want to dive straight into your seven-part high fantasy you’ve had in your head for years and will be your life’s work, keep in mind it won’t be easy. That’s like an aspiring movie director trying to make a full-length feature movie instead of starting with video clips, or a chef who tries to make a three-course gourmet meal when they can barely make toast.
What to do instead
Start with short stories. Flash fiction is a great way to practice telling a story without getting carried away with too many details. Fan-fiction is an excellent way to practice. Pick your favourite book, film, or video game and write a couple of hundred words about it. Write a little every day, and your craft will improve.
2. Insufficient Planning
“But I’m a pantser!” you might say. “I make it up as I go along!”
Successful pantsers (people who just start writing and get ideas as they go) are often seasoned writers who have at least some idea of where their story is going. Adequate planning, whether you’re writing a series or a standalone book, is essential if you’re hoping to have a solid work at the end. Not planning leads to missed details, inconsistencies, and plot devices.
What to Do Instead
Writing an outline, especially if your story is longer, is essential to building the foundation for a good book. All your details are in one place, you can navigate it easily, and it’ll ensure you won’t have any inconsistencies.
3. Having Plot Devices
A plot device is a conveniently placed item or detail that moves the story along. Need to kill off a character in a bee farm? Have them be miraculously allergic to bee stings. Need the character to go face off her crazy ex? Suddenly, she has a gun. Plot devices are boring and readers hate them. They’re the lazy way out.
What to Do Instead
If there’s going to be an item or detail that’s important later, simply mention it earlier. The character almost died of a bee sting reaction when they were a kid. The woman facing her ex had a gun in her house’s safe her father gifted to her when she turned eighteen and went off to live in the dangerous city. Mentioning things earlier gives your reader that “Aha!” moment when the item comes to use. As Anton Chekhov said, “If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise, don’t put it there.”
4. Insignificant Details
Following on from Anton Chekhov, every element in your story must contribute to the story as a whole. If there are details to your world that you’ve thrown in simply because you liked the idea, but they’re not significant, it’ll be pointless. This is especially true if that detail is never mentioned again.
For example, you might have a character who wears a ring. You go into considerable detail about this ring in chapter 2, where she got it, how it’s got her name engraved. Then the ring is never mentioned again. What was the point in telling us about it?
What to Do Instead
Adding cool little details to your world, whether it’s based on a real place or a completely new universe, is great to draw your readers in. Know what readers will want to know and what was a one-off idea that you won’t use again. A huge part of self-editing is trimming the fat, so don’t be afraid to delete things you know won’t be needed.
5. Forgetting to Describe Characters… Ever
Some writers get so caught up in the action they forget to tell us what their characters look like. You could go through the whole story and never mention a character’s age, hair colour, skin colour, or body type. You might be able to see the characters in your mind, but don’t leave readers behind.
What to Do Instead
There’s no need to go for a paragraph of every single feature, though. One or two sentences is fine, and remind readers throughout the book with small details. “Her green eyes widened,” “he ran his fingers through her long, red curls.”
Another amateur move is to write a huge paragraph about the character the first time the reader encounters them, then never talking about their appearance again. Readers simply won’t remember the long black hair, scar on his face from a bar fight when he was seventeen, six-foot-two, always wears chainmail and a perpetual frown until these details are sprinkled throughout the story when relevant.
Have the firelight reflecting off his scar in Chapter 8, his black hair swinging when he fights, his almond-shaped eyes narrowing in anger in Chapter 11. You get the idea.
6. Character Inconsistency
Characters are a fundamental part of your story. Don’t fall into the trap of having your characters behave the way they need to in order to move the story along. Memorable characters are the ones that make us think, “Yeah, that’s exactly what they’d do.”
What to Do Instead
Ideally, you’ll have notes on each character, their looks, personalities, and backgrounds so you’ll know exactly how they’ll react in situations. An important aspect is keeping these characters consistent. Of course, natural growth is important, but having characters react or behave completely differently to how you’d expect can really jolt you from the story.
7. Switching POV Mid-Scene
POV means point of view, and refers to whose eyes we’re seeing the story through. If the story is written in the first person (for example, “I laughed” not “He laughed), it’s easy to keep it consistent. However, many writers, often unintenionally, switch points of view mid-scene.
For example, say that three characters are fighting a monster. Let’s call them Daniel, Josie, and Liv. The POV character (who, ideally, is the POV character throughout the story) is Daniel. We feel his pain, smell his fear, and hear his opinons.
If this suddenly switches to Josie or Liv, this is a POV switch. Never do this! In Harry Potter, the entire story (except with scenes where he wasn’t there) was written from Harry’s perspective. We saw expressions and heard the dialogue from Ron, Hermione, and other characters, but we never got inside their heads.
What To Do Instead
Choose your main character and stick to them. Some books have two or more main characters; that’s completely fine. What you need here is a scene break or a new chapter to start seeing the world from another character’s eyes. Scenes can be broken up by a # sign or, more commonly, three asteriks (* * *). Just don’t do it mid-scene.
8. Bad Grammar, Spelling, and Lack of Paragraphs
Not everyone is good with languages, and grammar and spelling can be a pain. But now we have Grammarly, Microsoft Word’s check feature, and many other autocorrect features. Also, please learn how to use paragraphs properly! Otherwise it’s a nightmare for your editor. Writing free-fall without stopping to worry about paragraphs, scene breaks, page breaks, or even simple punctuation may sound romantic and quirky, but it’s a nightmare for your editor.
Nothing says clueless and unprofessional like a wall of text without following the proper structural rules.
What to Do Instead – Grammar, Spelling, and Punctuation
Though automatic spellcheckers are useful, they won’t catch everything. Try reading your manuscript aloud (it’s easier to detect clumsy wording or typos that way) and always, always, ALWAYS get someone to proofread before you even start to think about publishing.
What do Do Instead – Formatting
There are hundreds of resources online on how to format your manuscript. If you read a lot (as all writers should), chances are you should know about scene breaks and some basic rules about when to start a new line. Here are some guidelines:
- Dialogue Dos and Don’ts by DailyWritingTips
- Formatting 101 by Marly Spearson
- A Guide on Paragraphs by Purdue Online Writing Lab