I'm sure some of you will find it difficult to believe it’s necessary to state a few of the “No-no’s” below, but in the course of judging over 400 contest entries for chapters of the Romance Writers of America and perusing my editing work for Best Foot Forward, I’ve encountered some noteworthy errors. Some of the “DO NOTs” are general essentials. Others are based on actual errors I’ve seen in contests or in my editing work. They are all things you really do not want to do. I hope the list below will help newbies avoid some of the pitfalls of learning the craft of writing fiction.
1. DO NOT try to write a romance until you’ve read extensively in the sub-genre of romance you want to write. That doesn’t mean you have to write exactly to formula, but understanding the tone of a line, or the feel of a publishing house, is essential to creating a saleable book.
2. DO NOT try to get by with an inadequate word processing program. (MS Word and Word Perfect are the two giants of the industry.) And no matter what word processing program you use, you need to have a 2003 or later copy of MS Word for editing purposes. Word’s Track Changes is a fabulous editing tool used by almost every publishing house, and even a died-in-the-wool Word Perfect lover like me has to admit it!
3. DO NOT use the formatting you used for college term papers. Use semi-colons and colons on rare occasions, preferably not at all. They are considered “academic.” Use automatic, not manual tab stops. And if you’re still writing in Courier at 25 lines per page, using underlines instead of italics, and a double hyphen for a dash, you are in danger of being considered obsolete before you’re ever published. (For further details, please see my recent blog: Formatting Manuscripts for the 21st Century.)
4. DO NOT throw in everything but the kitchen sink. Do not overload your story with three different sub-plots at the same time. Leave that for when you’ve become rich and famous and know how to handle it. Advice to beginners: keep it simple.
5. Similarly, DO NOT write down the thoughts of each and every person in a scene. Even multi-published authors avoid all but the occasional “head hop.” Look at a scene through one person’s eyes at a time, usually those of the hero or heroine. Put your readers inside their heads. Let them see what the hero/heroine sees, hear what they hear, feel what they feel. Readers want to empathize with their h/h, feel their joy and sorrow, root for them to come out on top. To do that, you have to concentrate only on their point of view. “Side trips” detract from the story.
Note: if you must change Point of View within a scene, try to do it near the middle, giving the other main character almost equal time. (This is not a general “rule,” merely a suggestion recorded here because it is one of the rules of a major e-publishing house.)
6. To elaborate on Number 1 above, DO NOT obscure your narration, introspection, dialogue, etc., in a waterfall of words. Keep focused. Readers do not want to know every last thing in your mind, in your research, in your characters’ lives. Write rich, not long. Write with color, but with clarity, not convolution.
7. Conversely, DO NOT settle for “bare bones.” If you are the opposite of the author who drowns his/her story in a waterfall of words, one of those who rushes the story ahead so fast you end up with little more than an outline, STOP, take a deep breath; then go back and add the color (descriptions, settings, emotions, complexities of character, the “well-turned” phrases you missed the first time around.
8. DO NOT use clichés or other overworked expressions (example: "Bloody hell!"). Avoid anachronisms like the plague. (Anachronisms are those “out of era” zingers, such as having a zipper in a dress in 1802 or using 21st century slang in the early 19th c.)
9. DO NOT throw in a dialogue tag every time someone speaks. (A “tag” is: he/she said, asked, exclaimed, snapped, growled, etc.) If you have established who is speaking earlier in the paragraph, a tag isn’t necessary and just adds clutter. However, if the tag is needed for the rhythm of the sentence, then by all means use it. But do not feel you have to attribute every last quote. For example:
Jed sat on the edge of his desk and tried to stare her down. “You’re kidding, right?”
10. Conversely, DO NOT throw in half a page or more of dialogue with no tags at all. This leads to readers tearing their hair, going back to the top, counting down “He - She,” trying to figure out who said what. Just don’t do it!
11. DO NOT use full sentences as dialogue tags. This is an absolute no-no for all authors, and yet it keeps cropping up.
Right: “Come on,” she cried as she ran down the hill.”
Wrong: “Come on,” Mary ran down the hill before the others.
12. DO NOT put the words of more than one speaker in the same paragraph; i.e., start a new paragraph each time the speaker changes. Do not put the words of two different speakers in the same paragraph.
13. DO NOT write a Third Person story without the hero’s point of view (in romance, writing without the heroine’s POV is unlikely). And I mean, right from the beginning. Do not write three or four chapters without allowing the hero to have his say. Romance readers really love their heros. Ignore the hero’s POV at your peril. If you’re writing Women’s Fiction, okay, but not Romance. The hero and heroine don’t have to meet in the first chapter (except in short Category romance), but you need to introduce your hero early. (This is another rule you can bend when you’re rich and famous, but not as a beginner.)
14. DO NOT turn an Exciting Plot into a Boring Book. Easier said than done, right? Here are a few things that might help.
a. DO NOT dwell on a lot of details that are irrelevant to the action. Focus on the story, on the emotions of your main characters, on the important secondary characters, on the characters’ interactions with each other and with the essentials of the plot. Every bit of narration and dialogue should move the story forward. Do not, for example, dwell on someone’s medical history, their extended social background, their great vacation last year - unless those things are important to the plot.
b. DO NOT fall into the trap of “Tell” instead of “Show.” If you play narrator, standing outside the story and “telling” readers what is happening, you’ve struck out. As mentioned in #5 above, let your two main characters (and sometimes the villain) “show” the story through their personal thoughts, dialogue, feelings, and actions.
c. For a lot more on this subject, please see EDIT THE BLASTED BOOK, Parts 1 & 2. Also, my 2011 blogs, entitled Writing 101.
15. And lastly, DO NOT be so arrogant (or sensitive) about your work that you can’t accept criticism. (Yes, some will be wrong, but keep listening, you still might learn something.) Most importantly, learning to take criticism without freaking out is essential to success. Remember, if you give your editor too hard a time, it could be Bye-bye Career.
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As with all my Writing and Editing blogs, the above list only scratches the surface, but I hope some of you will find it helpful.
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Grace, who writes as Blair Bancroft