When beginning a novel, you are faced with a string of choices. Should you write in first person or third person? Present or past? Should you have multiple main characters or just one? What you decide in chapter one will (and should) affect every subsequent chapter after that. The following is a list of writing styles that, if chosen, can cause a lot of problems – especially for first time authors! None of these are mistakes so much as things that, if you don’t want to make extra work for yourself, you should avoid. That said, even if you decide you want to push your limits, as an old playwriting professor of mine used to say, “you should learn why the rules exist before you decide whether or not to break them.”
Problematic Style #1 – Writing Dialogue Without Quotes
This is a relatively new style that has become more and more popular as of late. Let me start by saying that some authors write wonderful dialogue without quotations! If done well, a reader might find his or herself questioning why most others bother to use them in the first place… Let me tell you exactly why: to prevent something that many editors refer to as “dialogue bleed.”
See this example:
Where are you going? a young woman asked.
Nowhere… To the bathroom… but though he said the words, every step took him closer to the kitchen.
Dialogue bleed happens when readers can’t distinguish dialogue from description. In the example, the description “but though he said the words…” could easily, at least initially, be confused with dialogue. The reader must use logical skills to understand the sentence, which takes them out of the moment. This might seem like a small mistake, but too many cases of this can be confusing or aggressively annoying! In the above example, this can be solved fairly simply through placing everything following “the bathroom” on the separate line, removing the “but” and capitalizing “though”… but not all cases are so easy to fix. It’s something that writers must constantly be on the lookout for when they choose to write without quotations. Also, it’s harder to avoid these kind of mistakes then you might think! Even one of my close personal friends, a wonderful writer in her own right, sometimes falls into this trap. Remember, no reader wants to solve a puzzle every time a character asks to borrow a Kleenex!
Note: If interested in this style, learn from a master at it. If searching for a book written in this style, try Cormac Mcarthy’s The Road.
Problematic Style #2 – Too Many Protagonists
This is a far less recent style, though it has seen a resurgence in the modern novel. There are places where several interwoven stories can be a delight to read, but switching between protagonists can be very jarring, and extremely limiting!
Let’s say you decide that you want about ten characters in your novel, each of them connected in some obscure way by various events. You have already limited your choices significantly. Think about it. If you have ten characters, and are going to be switching between them, you will most likely have to say goodbye to first person narrative. It is EXTREMELY CONFUSING to have ten characters who all refer to themselves as “I”. This is not to say that successful novels haven’t been written in this style; As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner did exactly this – but even there, he had certain limitations! To try and eliminate the confusion factor, Faulkner titled every chapter after a character’s name. If the chapter were from Cash’s perspective, the title would be “Cash”. Even having done this, the most common complaint about the book in goodreads and on Amazon, is that it is confusing!
So, let’s say you decide to save the readers the trouble and write in third person, as is most common in this style, and are such a brilliant writer that every character has a unique voice that simply cannot be confused in the minds of your readers. What other problems are born from this literary choice? The answer is shallow characters. When working to tie in this many characters, we are almost always left with a collection of shallow characters connected through events instead of by who they are as people. This is because it takes a considerable amount of effort to juggle all these story elements! You may think you have more than enough to write about with all ten of your characters, but inevitably, one of them will run into a plot wall, and you will be forced to drag them along through situations. When reading this kind of book, your readers are expecting a payoff. When your characters are loosely or inelegantly connected, it is almost impossible to hide it in good writing.
Note: If interested in this style, I would recommend watching the movie Crash. Here, the characters are connected by who they are as people, and not by forced plot devices. Whatever you do, don’t write in a style that doesn’t even bother trying to show character connection. David Mitchell might have been able to get away with it in Cloud Atlus, but readers are not typically so forgiving.
Problematic Style #3 – Leaving Your Editing Until The End
As a writer, you’ve probably heard the advice “just get it out on paper and edit it later.” I understand where this advice is coming from – so many beginning writers are so afraid of their work not being any good, that they scare themselves away from writing it. Even though I understand the reason for the advice, I must wholeheartedly disagree. If your manuscript will EVER reach its full potential, editing as you write is an absolute must. This is not to say that if you edit as you go along you won’t need an editor at the end of your project – you will – but your editing will be focused on taking your already solid manuscript to new levels instead of desperate slashes at clumsy sentences and incomprehensible characters. As the common southern (and not particularly PC ) expression goes, “you can’t polish a turd.”
What’s more, if you don’t edit as you go along, you will be too burnt out to edit it… I may get some naysayers here, but if you’ve never edited your own manuscript before, you can’t possibly understand how grueling it can be. You’re taking something that you’ve spent the last 3-36 months (or longer) on, and doing your absolute best to pretend that you’re seeing it for the first time. Even if your manuscript is a gorgeous literary diamond, the process will be grueling. If it’s not, you’ll take one look at it and give up – or you’ll hire somebody like me to fix it up for you. Believe me, with the amount of time it would take your editor, it wouldn’t be cheap.
So how do I edit as I go along?
Imagine I'm describing a boy playing in the sprinklers. My first sentence might be this:
"The boy splashed in the sprinklers, throwing water from his soaked hands into the sky."
If I like it, I keep it and move on, but more often than not I think something like "but I didn't describe what it was like for the boy, and human emotion is all that matters." So I change it.
"Surrounded by water, consumed by it, the boy smiled, casting misty rainbows into the sky."
Then I think "misty rainbows... meh." Also, I question the word order. Not only that, I question him casting it into the sky, because he's on a lawn and not in space. Even more than that, I've inadvertently left out the sprinklers!
So it becomes "Surrounded by water spit out in sprays from rusty sprinklers, the boy cast rainbows of mist into the air and smiled."
This leaves me with a pretty solid sentence, which I am more than happy with, so I go on to write the next sentence and do the same thing. A lot of people say you shouldn't edit as you go along - and I agree when it comes to chapter-by-chapter edits for the most part, but I think we get our strongest prose when we perfect along the way.
Final Note: Another problematic style is writing from a First Person Present perspective, but I’ll tackle that one next week.
Write the perfect sentence (or short paragraph)! Send it in if you'd like it and your name featured on this blog post.
Kennedy La Valle: "I'm too tired to pray for death anymore."
Um... Nice one Kennedy! Feel better!