I recently had the opportunity to do some contest judging for an unpublished author contest. And many of the entries had the same types of problems, so thought I’d share some of my general opinions here.
Now I’m no expert, and not an editor. But I am a reader and know what I like and what I don’t and I’ve been writing long enough after 40 something books to know what the common mistakes are.
The mistake I saw the most in these entries was lack of pacing. Lack of decent pacing will kill a book. Don’t bore your readers with long, drawn out exposition, or info dumping at the front of the book. Readers don’t need the entire backstory of your characters as a prologue or in the first chapter. Don’t treat your readers like they’re stupid. We don’t need to know every finite detail of your characters’ and story’s history in the first chapter. We can figure it out if you string us along giving us juicy tidbits along the way. We’re smart. Honest. And if you share small pieces of your characters as we move along, it intrigues us and makes us want to read more. If you dump their entire life history in a prologue or first chapter, the mystery is gone and we just don’t care anymore. You might as well just post a sign in your first chapter saying EVERYTHING YOU NEED TO KNOW IS RIGHT HERE–NO NEED TO READ FURTHER. Truly, you don’t want to do that.
Another mistake I found in many of the entries was overly describing…everything, from turn by turn street directions(omg it was like reading GPS directions. *yawn*) to every piece of furniture in a room to the dreaded travelogue. Honestly? We don’t care. Orient us to time and place so we have a good idea of where we are then move the hell on. I don’t care what kind of brocade draperies are in the living room or whether that’s a Queen Anne chair. I don’t care how much research you did into the culture/history/climate/sociology of the country/city/state/town you set your story in, use only what’s absolutely necessary to give the reader a feel for the area, then leave the rest out. If I want to read history, I’ll buy a nonfiction book. If it’s necessary to the storyline, then weave it in there in bits and pieces and make it relevant–don’t dump it into one spot like a truck full of garbage, because it stinks.
Typos and lousy punctuation and horrible grammar, oh my! If you’re going to submit an entry into a contest that you want to be judged as good enough to be presented to an editor or an agent, you’d better know the basics of story construction. And that means basic grammar, sentence and paragraph structure, how to construct dialogue with quotation marks and dialogue tags and action tags. And if you don’t know these basics then you aren’t ready yet.
Characterization – A story is nothing without its characters. Characters have to come to life on the page. Just having them talk to each other but not really say anything of value, have them move about the page in mundane fashion but with no purpose means you’ve failed to breathe life into your characters. If after three chapters we don’t know who these people are, or worse, we don’t care, then you’re in trouble. Characters who are flat and lifeless won’t engage the reader and won’t compel them to read further. The emotion in your story comes from the characters. Make them three dimensional. Give them a background, a history. Give them flaws and goals to achieve and have them interact with each other. Make them real people with real problems, and have your dialogue reflect that reality. Something should always be at stake with your characters, and each scene should be filled with tension or secrets or desires or needs–something that compels the reader to root for these characters, to wish for them to succeed in their goals. Otherwise reading about them will be as boring as watching paint dry. And I hate watching paint dry.