I believe in paying it forward, so sometimes I take a look at amateur manuscripts. I imagine I'll keep doing it until some ballsack Balzac sues me for having a character named Tom when they also had a character named Tom.
It's amazing how many of the same mistakes you see over and over again. Different authors, same flaws.
Anyway, here's a list of errors I (and some editors I know) see over, and over, and over again, ad desperandum. Plus a few that maybe just bug me. Feel free to add your own in comments...
- Head-hopping: I'm a fundamentalist bible-thumper when it comes to picking a point of view for a scene or a chapter and sticking to it. So many people send me stuff that seems to be in one character's point-of-view, then another character will have a brief thought about the first character, then we go right back to the first.
[Sidebar: Dragon Strike will mark the first time since the Lara Croft media novel that I've written from more than one POV in a novel (I don't count my little VE scene setters or the opening paragraphs of Thunderbolt)]
That, or it's written in a nebulous 3rd person omniscient that flirts with locking down into a POV but never quite gets there. Boy is that frustrating. Let me feel, hear, smell, and taste what your characters are experiencing, please! Sensory detail is one of the best ways to draw a reader into the world.
- Logorrhea: Having something between two and a dozen words pull the weight of one. I can't tell you how often I read stuff like "Thinking back on her past, she remembered her childhood of twenty years ago, when as a six-year-old..."
- The Joker: Smiling, and its evil cousin, the grin. I've read entire chapters where characters do nothing but smile and grin at each other, as though they're living in the Treehouse of Horror Simpson's vignette where Bart has mental powers like the kid in the Twilight Zone episode "It's a Good Life" and everyone has to keep on a happy face.
- Marcia! Marcia! Marcia! - characters who always have their emotions dialed up to "11." They laugh "uproariously" at stuff that's worth a mild snigger, fight to keep from screaming when they're third in line at the ATM, agonize over whether to have the vinegarette or ranch. Can we save the "I'll never be hungry again!" fist-shaking for something more important that a checkout line, please?
- Non-comedy of manners: Commonplaces substituted for dialog. Polite interchanges, greetings, exchanges of compliments, goodbyes (unless it's the villain saying goodbye to James Bond as he's strapped under the laser) -- usually these can be discarded. Now sometimes you can get some characterization out of it, as with Leeland Gaunt's charm and elaborate pleasantries to his customers in King's Needful Things, but if you've already got King's chops you're probably only reading this blog to snicker at me.
Then there's #5's corollary, meaningless action. Mystery Science Theater is fond of making fun of directors who always show their actors pulling into a driveway, parking their car, getting out of the car, going to the door...same thing appears in flabby writing. Unless there's something interesting going on in the character's head, or there's a zombie apocalypse raging on in the street and the character is too hung-over to notice (stole that from Shaun of the Dead), or we know there's a crazed killer waiting inside the now lightbulb-free house, don't weigh me down with this.
- Waking-up scenes: Please limit them to one per novel. And books that begin with someone waking up, well, I no longer just put them down--I hurl them and try for distance.
- Go to sleep, sheeple! Long, rambling political digressions are almost guaranteed to anesthetize your audience unless they agree with you jot and tittle. College students and guys who've put their twenty or thirty in in the service seem to love writing these. Your thoughts on Big Oil or the pinkos running the network news are spoiling your tight little thriller, bud. Save it for Daily Kos and talk radio. By the time your novel is published, we might be arguing over President Chelsea.
- Pain don't hurt: Flat descriptions about someone's emotional state bring tears from editors, not readers. Now, don't look to me for fixes on this, I'm not the best with emotion, but I do know you can't just say "His accusation made her feel bad." Describe the feeling bad through images or actions. Did her face heat up with shame, or did it cause ice to form in her gut, or did she flee to the bathroom and sob into her scarf?
- Weasel words: Adverbs and quantifiers need to to be kept on a three-inch leash. I was always doing this; if I couldn't think of anything else I called an object "large." Freudian much? Watch for "almost" especially. I hate reading about what almost happened. It's better to write positively -- i.e. talk about what did happen. "He almost screamed" doesn't tell me what he did do. Did he choke back a scream, bite it off, or did the scream come out as manic laughter?
- Beaming in: I get confused when characters, gear, and important features suddenly appear mid-scene. It's one thing for Sam Spade to reach into his bottom desk drawer and pull out a cached bottle of whiskey, you're showing where the object came from. It's quite another for you to suddenly mention that there was a German bayonet war trophy in plain view atop the filing cabinet in the middle of a fist fight.
- So that's why you wrote this: I've read stories where the most precise language and evocative imagery is saved for the all-important pudenda-shaving scene as the heroine gets ready to go to the library. I'm not knocking your kink, I'm just wondering why so much word-weight is put into a personal hygiene choice in a story about tracking down Shoggoths.
- Don't open the airlock! Another thing that bugs me is a scene that seems to take place in a vacuum. No sense of time, place, no indication that anyone has a history or is concerned with anything other than what's on the protagonist's mind that very second. Please, establish a time and place, even if it's just "midnight at the oasis," before or as you start the action! And remember, everyone in the story has problems of their own.
- Mary Sues: I rarely come across these, but I thought I should add them to the list just in case. I think word has gotten out. We probably have fanfiction sites and editorial blogs to thank for that. But if you don't know what a "Mary Sue" is, you can educate yourself here.
I'm not against wish-fulfillment in writing, a lot of story magic is fueled by "wouldn't it be cool if..." You just don't want to make it easy for your characters.
- Strange days. Stranger names: I get sf/fantasy stories about orc-tribes where there's Bolk, Gurg, and Fred. Which would be funny, I suppose, if it wasn't a straight-faced quest fantasy. A name from our time can carry lots of associations with it, so don't go calling your dark elf capital city San Diego or putting your ranger hero in lederhosen.
Also, chances are they don't celebrate Christmas on Planet Mongo.
- In taberna quando sumus: - it's often because we're too hidebound to think of anywhere else for the action to take place but a bar or inn. Tavern scenes aren't one of my bugbears, but my friend Howard who edits Black Gate says that he sees entirely too many from amateur fantasists. Liven things up by having people meet and talk business at sporting events, religious rites or festivals, public baths, market days, weddings, theatricals, readings of edicts, auctions. . .
- Plot on rails: Too often amateur writing sets up what the protagonist has to accomplish at the beginning of the story and sticks to that right to the end. That may work for some shorts, but in a novel you want events to move the goalposts. It allows the character to discover what she or the world really needs, rather than what was thought at the beginning. Remember, Frodo didn't set out from Bag End thinking he'd have to go to Mount Doom, he was just trying to get the ring out of the Shire and meet Gandalf. A story is not a baseball game, objectives and rewards can change with the character and situation. Go watch Run Lola Run if you don't believe me.
- It's not an essay: There's no need to elaborate on what an action or a scene means. This is a story, not English homework, and if you're doing something experimental and meta, send it to someone smarter than me. Having the author's analysis intrude like the Voice of God takes all the fun out of me figuring things out for myself.
- More is Less: Quality, not quantity. A single arresting image can be more horrifying than a page full of splatter. This also goes for heroics, landscaping, and descriptions of boobs.
- Catalog Copy: Don't weigh me down with laundry lists of clothing and so much description I feel like a police sketch artist. Use language that allows me to summon an image from my own experiences. For more on this, consult King's On Writing, book two chapter 6.
- The Bare Minimum: Double space in twelve point font. Learn how to use paragraphs on your word processor, don't just tab over until you start a new paragraph (you hear me, Rhona?). Put your name and contact info on the friggin' thing. And stop obsessing over copyright. If you were good enough that people wanted to steal your prose, you'd have sold it by now.