As a writing coach and book editor, I’ve seen too many novelists, with the very first line they write, destroy their chances of ever getting published.
A good novel will grab the reader’s attention with its first words, create characters the reader wants to know, create a situation the character must resolve, create suspense, create rising tension, and create a powerful resolution to the story.
Think of the novel as pure story, like those tales you heard around a campfire, from your grandfather, or from ancient fables and mythology. Its purpose is first to entertain, then to enlighten.
I see these seven common mistakes in almost every first novel or short story I read. I will not publish, edit or even read very far in novels with such errors. Neither will any other agent, editor or publisher.
Too Much Back Story
Many beginners think that the reader has to know every juicy detail about the character’s past. Not true! Your job as a novelist is to keep the reader reading. You do that by withholding information, not overwhelming us with it. If you break the action every few minutes with back story, you will turn off your audience. Work in the back story where needed but don’t stop the action to do so.
Many beginning writers use dialogue to convey information. They think that if the characters are talking about what happened, it will keep the reader interested. In fiction, dialogue’s purpose is to build characters. Most new writers forget to make the characters talk in different ways, using different words, sentence constructions, and speech patterns.
Ping Pong Dialogue
A very common mistake is to write direct dialogue, in which each character responds with a clear, exact answer to the other’s statement or question. Example: “Did you see Gladys last night?” “Yes, I did.” “What did she say?” “She said to tell you hello.”
This kind of dialogue will bore your reader. Instead, use indirect dialogue in which there are no or very few direct answers. Example: “Did you see Gladys last night?” “Why do you ask?” “I thought you liked her.” “What ever gave you that impression?” “You know very well what gave me that impression!”
Telling Us About the Character
Many writers present an elaborate description of the character, down to how long their fingernails are, what they eat for breakfast, and whether they blink their eyes too often. We get lists of traits, descriptions of clothing, the way they walk, and so forth. Show us the character by putting him or her into a situation and watching what happens. True depth of character comes out when the character has to make difficult choices.
No Clear Point of View
A lot of authors jump from character to character, sometimes in the same paragraph. They step inside characters and give us their private thoughts, then jump to another character and do the same. This confuses the reader because it is not clear who the actual main character is.
In first person, we can only ever be in one person’s point of view. In third person, we can be in just one person’s point of view or several people’s point of view but not at the same time. In the omniscient point of view we can be in everyone’s point of view. The latter is very difficult to pull off correctly and is best left to very experienced writers.
Nothing Actually Happens
The first chapter is where we set the scene, introduce the main character, show the main character’s life as it is now, and show the incident that changes everything. If you use it for back story, descriptions, and scene setting, you will bore the reader. Most importantly, something must happen by the end of that chapter.
Introducing 15 Characters on the First Page
In this case, we get a bunch of names and titles as people keep showing up. We never actually meet any of them. They are confusing ciphers who immediately get mixed up by the reader. Stick with one or two powerful characters in the beginning and make sure the reader gets to know them very well.
You can learn how to avoid such mistakes by going to writer’s conferences, reading excellent writers, and using an experienced writing coach during the early stages of the writing process.
Lee Pound is a writing coach and consultant, book editor and publisher, and seminar producer. He is the author or co-author of eight books, including two novels. To learn more about how to write novels and non-fiction, get a free copy of my e-book 57 Steps to Better Writing and a free subscription to my Vibrant Communication Tips newsletter at http://www.freewritingbook.com