I was recently asked to read and review a novel by an amateur American science fiction writer. The book had been self-published, was riddled with serious grammatical errors and was clearly not ready to published. By the end of the third chapter, I’d had enough. After long deliberation, I decided not to review the book, as I neither wanted to endorse it nor insult the author. Instead, I thought it would be a good idea to share some of the mistakes made by Author X, so as to help other writers avoid making the same mistakes.
1. Know the Correct Way to Structure Dialogue
This is basic stuff, and getting it wrong will make you look like a real numpty. Poorly structured dialogue can also cause serious confusion for your readers, making them lose interest pretty quickly.
Each time a character begins to speak, you should always start with a new line and an indentation. This way, we know exactly who is speaking. It’s like a close-up shot in the movies, switching between two character’s faces. ‘Reaction shots’ deserve a new line too. Basically, if it’s a different person, it’s a different subject matter, so it needs a new paragraph. You also need to throw in the odd ‘John said’, ‘Tom said’ (or a descriptive equivalent), just to help the reader keep track.
Failure to follow this elementary rule can ruin an entire scene and may cause your readers’ eyes to bleed.
At least once in his book, Author X also separated a line of dialogue from its attributive ‘he said’ by starting a new line. This is another big mistake. They clearly belong together.
“Give me a pound and I’ll let you touch my boob.”
2. Watch Out for Tense Errors
Tense errors are very easy to make, and very easy for the reader to spot. They leap off the page like the angry word-gorillas of my imagination, and can ruin the ‘flow’ of entire sentences.
A tense error is when the writer switches tense part way through a sentence; from past tense to present tense, for example.
John handed over his pocket-money and proceeds to poke Brenda in the nipple.
We all make these mistakes from time to time but, like the word-gorillas, its important to put them down before they can get a firm hold of your nostril hair.
3. Don’t Open with a Space Battle
Epic battle sequences work great in TV-land, but they are very difficult to pull off in literature. With an audio-visual medium, drama can easily be created using music, special effects and Sean Bean. In literature, however, the drama comes from a different place and must be built over time. If readers don’t know what the battle is about, who is fighting and what’s at stake, chances are they’re not going to care who wins.
4. Young and Successful Characters are Very Annoying
If your protagonist is 25 years old, he’s unlikely to have risen to the rank of Admiral. Career advancement usually goes hand in hand with hair loss, cardiovascular problems and erectile dysfunction (all caused by work stress). If a character has both a trendy hair cut and his own space ship, people will feel the natural urge to punch him in the face. Some may call this jealousy; I call it the balancing force of the universe at work.
Take Star Trek’s Captain Picard as an example of what an authoritative character should be like. No hair + years of experience = respect and adoration.
Now look at Picard’s annoying underling, Wesley Crusher. Wesley has had all the breaks. He’s too young to drive an enormous starship, but he’s really clever (and his mum is shagging the Captain), so he gets an automatic promotion. Spoilt brat + stupid pyjamas = punch in the face.
Characters like this are often referred to as Mary Sue (or Marty Stu).
5. Don’t Go Overboard on the Acknowledgements and Dedications
Keep it short and sweet. This kind of ‘fluff’ just keeps readers from the all important content.
Author X included a list of authors who inspired him. While there’s nothing especially wrong with this, it can cause readers to prejudge your work (especially if you cite Steven King as inspiration for a science fiction novel). What this essentially says is “check it out, I’ve done read some books!”
6. One Epilogue is More Than Enough
I’m not sure what Author X is doing here. I didn’t read to the end of the book, so I can’t really criticize, but seven epilogues seems a little excessive to me. Prologues and epilogues can sometimes be useful, but should be kept as short as possible. Readers might question their relevance to the main plot and decide to ignore them.
7. Hire a professional Editor to Check Your Work
I really can’t stress this final point enough. Even the best writers need to have their work checked over by somebody else. Grammatical errors, spelling mistakes and glaring plot holes can turn a reader right off, and they aren’t always easy to spot in your own work.
When editing your own novel, there’s a good chance you will be focusing on the larger, structural issues. This makes it harder to spot the tiny chinks that others will see. A second set of eyes is sometimes needed to spot the glaringly obvious.
It might also be that you don’t know as much about the English language as you think, and need a professional to iron out the creases. This is nothing to be ashamed of, it’s part of the process. Most books will go through several phases of editing and proof reading before they hit the shelves.
The problem is that professional editors can be very expensive to hire, and so the writer on a budget will immediately remove this service from his/her list of priorities. However, editing is the most important thing you can do when preparing your manuscript for publishing, more so than fancy cover-art and promotional bookmarks.