Having been an editor and writer for many years, I often get a new writer asking if I will take a look at their work. I don't mind: we all started somewhere. I always feel that a beginning writer who is asking for help is a beginning writer willing to learn, and likely to improve. It's the ones who never ask for honest feedback - hungry only for empty nonspecific praise - that worry me, because they are more interested in being told they are good than in putting in the work and determination to really become good.
I always try to point out the things that a new writer is doing right. Knowing what you are doing right is as important as knowing what you are doing wrong. And it's the knowledge that you do some things well that keeps you striving for a better manuscript.
That being said, I do find that there are common areas where many beginning writers make mistakes. These problems are for the most part easy to fix, easy to learn, but they make an enormous difference in the overall quality of your writing. The bottom line for me, both as an editor and as a writer, is how hard does the reader have to work? Reading should never be a chore; the darkest novel should be an enjoyable journey for the reader. Habits that get in the way of that happening are the habits that I encourage a new writer to break.
1 - Write a good opening. There are many reasons for this, but the biggest are these: a good opening will grab the reader and hold him/her, and a good opening will grab a prospective publisher.
Editors at publishing houses who sort through new submissions will literally read your first paragraph - if you're lucky your first page - and make the decision whether to toss it. I can't stress enough how important your opening lines and paragraph are. And well it should be, because readers won't read past a boring opening, as they stand in the grocery store browsing books, or sit at the computer reading Amazon samples. If the reader is bored by the beginning, the book does not sell. Period.
But how to do it? Well, the opening sentence or two should say something surprising, something unpredictable, something unusual. Which of these books would you like to read? :
A. On a sunny Wednesday, Henry got into the car to go to the mall. He needed to shop for some new jeans.
B. As Henry pulled into the parking lot of the mall, he swallowed his terror: walking into crowds was never something he could do without rising nausea.
In example A, Henry is doing something we all do. No surprise, nothing. Boring. We know nothing about him but his name. There is nothing to compel us to keep reading; no foreshadowing, no hint of a good story to come. We have two sentences, but have said little to nothing. In example B, we have hinted at a story - and we have already begun to develop Henry's character. We know that he is terrified of crowds, and why? We know that he has decided that he either must go anyway, or he feels forced to go by someone or something else, and why? The reader is already asking to know more.
I have heard it said that a good story should never be written starting at the beginning, but somewhere after the action begins - somewhere after the start. I like that, although the beginning writer can get tangled in flashbacks, and that is another can of worms.
2 - Incorporate description into the narrative, and don't overdo it. When I see this done badly, I can nearly hear the prose screaming "Amateur!" Never stop the story to describe a character. A description should never read as an aside to the audience/reader. It should flow naturally as part of the narrative. Let's look at our example B above. I could describe Henry this way:
As Henry pulled into the parking lot of the mall, he swallowed his
terror: walking into crowds was never something he could do without
rising nausea. He was dressed like a geek, and had thick glasses and an outdated haircut that he got at a barbershop. He had a plaid shirt.
Now that offers a little description, yes. But the problem is that it breaks the flow - and thus breaks the reader's concentration and enjoyment. Rather, we need to make that description a part of the story. At this point, we already know that something is frightening Henry. His paranoia and fear is something ongoing, every time he walks into a crowd. That is a lot of information for a first paragraph. I would recommend to a writer that we leave it at that for now. In a later paragraph we can work in some more description if the writer feels it is warranted.
Let me say here that many good characters are never physically described in any real detail. It just isn't necessary. Some writers openly state that they like to allow the reader to form his or her own picture, and not let narrative interfere with that too much. But let's say that you just really want that plaid shirt and those glasses to be part of Henry. How to do it?
We could simply say: As Henry pulled into the parking lot of the mall, he swallowed his
terror: walking into crowds was never something he could do without
rising nausea. He nervously pushed his glasses up on his nose, wishing he didn't wear them: they were thick and made him look like a geek.
Here, the description is not offered as an aside, but rather as part of Henry's thinking about himself - it remains a part of the narrative. Plus, we have the added benefit of adding another character trait: he is nervous about his appearance.
As far as the shirt goes, it could be added later as part of the observation of another character regarding Henry's looks. Or, we could say something like Henry stopped inside the automatic doors to push the tails of his red plaid shirt into his trousers. Again, the description is offered as part of the narrative.
3 - Keep dialogue realistic. Obey this important rule to prevent your readers pausing to giggle, or worse, roll their eyes. Listen to the way people speak: Too often a beginning writer will have Character A saying this, then Character B saying that. Both speak in complete sentences. But in real life, Character A has gotten half a statement out and pauses for breath as Character B jumps in with another half-sentence. People struggle to be understood, search for words, misspeak. They speak in thoughts, half-thoughts, rarely in complex complete sentences.
I can't recommend highly enough that you read dialogue out loud as you write it. Read at the pace people speak, and think about how it sounds. If it doesn't have the rhythm of a real conversation, change it.
Another related element in writing good dialogue is that you want to write it using words and expressions that are realistic. First, consider the age, social class, even occupation and education level of your characters. Would a college professor be using a lot of slang that is popular in the local high school? Would a teen be speaking like a 30-year-old white-collar professional? What era is your story told in? I recently read a novel set in the 19th century where someone said, "man". I was waiting for "dude". It was awful. A character in 1890 does not describe someone as "hot", unless they have had too much sun. Watch that your characters use expressions of their own time - doing so adds believability, and also adds a touch of authenticity!
A word about slang: One of my pet peeves is having teens with dialogue that is peppered with slang popular ten or twenty years ago. If you are going to use slang with young people - even with people in their thirties - make sure it is current. And know that even then, you may be dating your manuscript: what makes it sound cool now ("cool" being timeless by the way, haha) may sound silly and dated to the reader who picks it up ten years from now. Sometimes using as little slang as possible is wisest.
Watch the melodrama. "Oh, Henry!! I love you!" will have many readers throwing the book across the room. As in real life, when it comes to words, sometimes less is more - much more. Show with action what you leave out in words.
4 - It may be boring, but basic writing and language elements are important. Spelling errors, misuse of words, awkward sentences and bad paragraph structure, all turn a good story into a bad reading experience. Have you ever read a book where there were so many sentences that made no immediate sense - and you were so often reading and re-reading them to make sense of it all - that you wanted to give up? Your reader does not want to have that experience.
Sentences: Make certain that your sentences are clear. Make certain that they are not so long that they are difficult to understand. If they are, make periods of some of those commas.
Commas: And speaking of commas, don't overuse them. If you have more than five, you have two sentences, or what needs to be broken up into two sentences! Learn to use a dash - it can often take the place of a comma in a sentence, eliminating too many commas in one sentence. Learn the difference between using a comma and using a semicolon. Semicolons are wonderful tools - they allow you to build nuance into your sentence meaning. Learn to use them. Learn to use colons too. They will add richness to your prose.
Paragraphs: Don't divide prose into paragraphs based on what it looks like. Paragraph divisions have nothing to do with appearance on a page: they have to do with change in subject/meaning. Learn how to construct paragraphs and break them properly.
Am I being too picky? I don't think so. These tiny tools allow the prose to flow, make the reader comfortable, and therefore increase reader comprehension, enjoyment - and thus the quality of your book.
I don't have to say that you should watch spelling and grammar, right? And let me say here that we ALL have flaws in this area. The best editor does! Know your weak words and points of grammar. Look it up if in doubt. Every single time if necessary. Don't rely on the editor to clean up your mess of a manuscript. It just makes them angry. Most editors - all of the good ones in fact - will send it right back to you, if you're lucky and they don't just toss it.
Invest in a good dictionary (collegiate level), a thesaurus (to provide alternate words if you tend to overuse certain words - as we all do), and a good style manual. The best of these for a general fiction/non-fiction writer are either The Chicago Manual of Style or The Gregg Reference Manual (of Style). These will contain fine points of grammar and usage of particular words.
5 - Don't stress over details. Don't sweat the small stuff. And you know what they say about the small stuff, right? In the case of writing, there is no room for perfectionism when writing a first draft. If you are a perfectionist, don't use it as an excuse to avoid writing that next chapter. Put the big boy/girl panties on and get rid of that attitude. The idea is to get the words down on the paper. Period. Only then will you really have something to work with later. Let me repeat: there is absolutely no room for perfectionism when you begin to write. It will kill your energy, your enthusiasm, and any fire the prose might have contained.
Worse, perfectionism by definition kills creativity. Perfectionism is really the stubborn determination to keep your thinking inside the box. But real quality writing/story-telling requires that you train your mind to think outside all boxes.
When you feel at your worst, write anyway. Getting anything down on paper is productive: not only does it give you words with which to play later, but at a subconscious level it forces your brain to keep learning to write. I don't personally believe in "writer's block". I have written for twenty-five years under deadlines: I didn't have the luxury to be whining on about writer's block. You either put your nose to the grindstone or you don't. Some days are better than others. To pretend that you are such the tortured artist that you are mysteriously "blocked" is pretentious and a cop-out, and it won't help you get a manuscript written. Learn that the worst days can be made productive because you can learn to value the bad prose that comes out of you, as well as the great. Many times, something you don't like that ends up stuck away in a file can come out later, undergo some work with new enthusiasm, and be dropped into a manuscript where it fits nicely. There is no wasted time if you are writing.
BONUS! #6 - The biggest mistake a beginner makes? Talking about it! When you talk too much about your story, you lose the desire to tell it on paper - because it has already been told. Keep your mouth shut, and keep the fire burning. If people ask, tell them frankly that you don't want to talk about it too much, you'd rather write it.
People will always ask, "What is it about?" Prepare yourself ahead of time to answer. Make it short, sweet and uninformative. "It's a mystery/thriller." "It's a love story." That's all you need - and probably all the inquirer wants. People don't want a synopsis, no matter how tempted you are to give them one. Keep the frustration to tell them all bottled up and use that frustration to fuel your fingers on the keyboard. Your prose will be better for it!
I hope I have given you food for thought, and some new enthusiasm! Sticking to these basic rules will allow you to come up with a decent first draft of your manuscript. The relief and sense of accomplishment that you will feel when you see that you have 80-100,000 words - a full novel length - is so enormous and encouraging that you will be more than ready to start refining your work into a final draft!