I don't like articles that tell you how to write, generally, because writing isn't a 'by numbers' skill, at which you can succeed if you follow the 'rules'. However, I have noticed some areas which let down so many debut novels, and I am sure I was guilty of some of them, too, so I thought I'd write this in the hope that it will help a few new writers.
This is when you're reading a scene from Howard's point of view, talking about his thoughts and feelings as he walked into the room, etc, and then the narrative suddenly changes to how Jemima is feeling, instead.
Part of the skill of structuring your story is in choosing whose POV (point of view) to write from. Once you've made your decision, hopping into another head half way through a scene, because you want the reader to know that Jemima was no more happy about the situation than Howard, doesn't work; sorry, it's not that easy! It's confusing for the reader. A solution would be to write how Jemima appears to feel, from Howard's POV, or, better still, make her mood apparent by her actions and dialogue. If you want to change POV, it's best to at least some indication of POV change; a gap between paragraphs, asterisks, etc.
New writers who have been on creative writing courses will sometimes insist that they are using the 'omniscient narrator', but you need to know what you're doing, not dot from one to the other at random, otherwise it just seems messy. It takes a skilled writer to pull it off, and I see complaints from other reviewers about it all the time.
The Difference in 'Voice'
Many of my books are written from multiple first person POVs. This was not a popular structure when I first started to write, but now it's becoming fashionable, I notice, in traditionally published books, with the result that more debut authors are giving it a go. Alas, I've found that some writers don't understand the necessity to make a change in each character's 'voice', with Rosemary's section using the same language, rhythm and mood as Jemima's. I've read male characters to whom the female writer has attributed typically feminine thought processes, women written by male writers who are men in all but name, and books in which all characters share the same attitudes and even the same dialogue 'tics'.
Thus, the writer is actually writing as him/herself, not the character(s).
When you begin to write as Jemima after being Rosemary for the last chapter, you have to become her, so you know what she would say, what she would think. In my WIP, for instance, Gabriel is derogatory about others and makes jokes; Phoebe is unhappy and finds communication difficult; she 'talks' in short, flat sentences. Lisa is a working class girl who became a wife and mother at seventeen, Megan comes from an affluent background and is well read; they do not assess situations in the same way and use different descriptive words, etc, etc, etc. Think character, character, all the time; it can't just be used as an easy way to provide more information for the reader. If it doesn't come naturally to you, you might be better writing from all one POV; it's not always an easy structure master.
I can't emphasise this enough: do your research before you start writing historical fiction, and that doesn't mean reading a few internet articles. I love histfic but there are few things more likely to make me abandon a book than a character wearing an item of clothing that wasn't in fashion until 100 years later, drinking a cup of coffee before it was introduced into the country, or using a figure of speech that a person of that particular era and social class wouldn't have used. Obviously you get a bit of leeway when writing from, for instance, the 12th century, because we wouldn't be able to understand a word if the dialogue was written as they really spoke, but it still needs to be believable. Writing historical fiction is a minefield (my planned 14th century novel is 3rd on my 'to-write' list - nail biting stuff), but it has to be right.
The spelling of an actor's name, the location of a hotel, the date a film came out - it's what Google is for! If you're having your characters relax at home with a DVD in 1993, make sure DVD players were available in 1993. Check your own facts, don't rely on an editor to do it or hope that nobody will notice. If you don't, you can guarantee that someone will point out your error in a review, and the same goes for historical research, above.
There's always some smart-arse who will let you know that Sophie couldn't have been watching Sex and the City in 1998, because it wasn't on British television until 1999. Yes, I corrected that error just in time!
Cut the cliches
'getting up at the crack of dawn', 'dancing the night away', 'beat a hasty retreat' ~ etc, etc, etc. Hackneyed phrases, all of them. You're a writer. Find your own way of phrasing it.
Contemporary should really mean contemporary
....today's twenty year olds do not live their lives in the way you did thirty years ago. Even if you don't use the internet much, know nothing about modern music, or hate all this stupid 'Lol' and 'OMG' stuff, your 2015 eighteen year old character will not agree with you. Most people under 40 use the internet constantly, as a normal part of their daily life. I've read contemporary crime novels in which the plots would have fallen apart if they were written realistically.
On the other hand, if you're writing a teenager, don't go overboard with teen slang. Most of them talk fairly normally, much of the time, and use 'in' terminology on social media sites far more than they do in everyday speech. Going mad with phrases you've looked up on some website can look as though you're trying too hard ~ and it's very easy to get it hopelessly wrong.
Publishing too soon
Some writers simply don't redraft enough. It's not enough just to think of a great plot, plan it out and write it down, then do a couple of read-throughs, altering a few bits here and there. Rewrite, rewrite, rewrite, then leave it alone for a couple of weeks and rewrite some more. Make every sentence as tight, as well phrased as you possibly can. Accept that some parts you've written may need taking out, no matter how good they are, if, for instance, they are superfluous to the plot. One of the main things that often makes me knock off a star when reviewing is simply that a book needs a couple more drafts to tidy up. I know it's the done thing to moan about editing, but you should learn to love making your book as good as it possibly can be. And don't forget the proofreading, by someone who knows what they're doing, not one of these cowboys who do it on the cheap - it's a false economy. There's a good article about this HERE
Even if you're writing fantasy, the actions of your characters still have to be feasible within that fiction ~ a common mistake is to make them act out of character in order to push the plot along to where you want it to be. This screams 'amateur'; I've read whole books based around an unfeasible premise. And don't try too hard; it's not necessary to add in an army of Columbian drug lords, a conspiracy that could bring down the government, and an erotic scene if you're not comfortable writing them. You don't have to do a Dan Brown or E L James to write a good book that people will want to read.
Too much domestic/mundane detail
The reader doesn't need to know that Jemima got up, put on her dressing gown, cleaned her teeth, went downstairs, put the kettle on, made a cup of coffee, sat down, drank it, made some toast, ate it, then heard the phone ring. Neither do they need to hear Howard say "Hi, how are you this morning?", or Jemima answering, "Not so bad, how are Marjorie and the kids?" Or, indeed, Howard answering that Marjorie is feeling a bit under the weather, before he finally gets to tell Jemima the point of that part of the story, ie, that he's just discovered his brother is having a sex change. I bet you were as bored reading that as I have been reading similar in some novels.
A sentence to summarise the scene would be enough, or even cut the whole passage and have it start with Howard's speech. "Jem. You're not going to believe this. Ron's decided he wants to become Rhonda."
Oh, we've all done this one: giving background information by way of dialogue. It's dreadful if done badly, and so, so hard to do it subtly enough. Here's a ludicrously bad example:
"How are you, Jemima?" asked Howard
"Oh, not so bad. Life's been much calmer since Reginald started his new job at a Bridges & Houseman, Architects, and we moved out to Sussex."
"I'm so pleased for you," said Howard. "Marjorie still can't believe her mother left us the farm in her will, and I told you that her brother, Leopold, used his connections to get Marjorie an exhibition at a new gallery in Sloane Square, didn't I?"
"Oh yes, that's the one where Gilbert, used to work, isn't it? You remember Gilbert, our next door neighbour?"
You get the picture. Dialogue is for realism, character illustration, plot development, suspense, humour - just about everything except supplying the reader with chunks of information. Find another way of doing it!
Not sorting out common errors
.... and, sadly, some proofreaders don't sort them out, either. Here my three (un)favourite offenders:
- Using 'I' when it should be 'me' - this is so common. I've written an article about how to make sure you get it right, HERE.
- WAS SAT: "Claire was sat at the table eating her breakfast". Wrong, wrong, wrong. Should be "Claire sat at the table" or "Claire was sitting at the table", depending on the rest of the passage. Ditto 'was stood'.
- Apostrophes ~ you'd think everyone would get them right all the time by now, wouldn't you? But these are errors I see over and over again: 1970's. CD's. DVD's. Yo-yo's. Mini's. These are just plurals and, thus, do not need apostrophes.
I hope this has been of help to some people!