In the time that I have been critiquing manuscripts, I have seen the same mistakes made over and over by different writers. Here are the top ten:
1. Too many viewpoints cluttering the book
Your main character is a vehicle responsible for carrying your reader through your book. When you "head-hop", you force your reader to get out of one vehicle and into another, and another, and another. If you can imagine having to change cars or trains on a journey, you will understand that this practice makes it difficult for your reader to become completely comfortable and settle into the book. Readers begin to identify with a main viewpoint character. They may even feel able to sink into this character's persona and experience a little of what that character is experiencing. Every viewpoint shift breaks this bond the reader is developing. Bear this in mind when you choose the character(s) who will be given the weighty task of being the reader's eyes, ears, and feelings. Is this character worthy, strong enough, likeable enough? Does this character know enough, or, if not, is this the character who is best placed to find out what is going on?
2. Not making use of characters' relationships, emotions, thoughts, and reactions
Readers identify most deeply with a character when she exhibits emotions and thoughts that seem familiar on some level. Relationships are a key part of how humans behave and have a major influence on our feelings. Remember that it is never solely the character's own traits that cause a reader to like or dislike the character; rather it is the reactions of other characters that influence the reader's perspective of the character. Show how your characters feel about each other. Don't leave your viewpoint character impassively standing by while the news is delivered of the death of a loved one.
3. Including action or description that has no bearing on the plot or characterisation
Everything in your novel must either serve to move the plot or subplots along or to develop characterisation. If it has no point in your story, delete it.
4. Including too many unnecessary minor characters
Your reader has a limited capacity for keeping track of which character is which. Keep minor characters to a minimum, and combine characters where possible to avoid introducing new names that the reader must remember. Don't give a minor character a name if they will not appear in your story again.
5. Introducing the wrong character at the start of the book
Your main character should always be the first character introduced. Readers expect this, and immediately (subconsciously) begin to step into the vehicle that has pulled up first. In business parlance, this first introduction is valuable real estate. Don't waste it on the wrong character, and never throw it away on a minor character.
6. Making your main character unlikeable
Your main character can be a rogue. He can be the villain or antihero of the piece. He can even be evil. But he must have some quality that your reader finds likeable, or your reader won't get in that vehicle.
7. Using "talking heads" dialogue
It is very tiring and boring for a reader to read dialogue that is thrown back and forth between two characters without any action or description to help anchor it. Imagine two actors dressed in black on a blacked-out stage, simply talking at each other. There is no context. Slipping actions into the dialogue tags can give your reader clues as to mood, reaction, and relationship, while description helps your reader to imagine your characters better.
8. Not making use of "showing" technique
"Show, don't tell" is often a difficult piece of advice to grasp. By showing some aspect of your story or character, you are handing over some control to the reader, which, in turn, gives the reader ownership of his experience of your book. Let go of the need to make the reader see things your way. If it scares you, you're doing it right.
9. Leaving gaps in time in which plot and characters cease to exist
Your story must take over the characters' lives for the duration of the plot. If your character has time to read a novel, pop over to a friend's for a long chat, have her hair done, catch a full eight hours sleep, and then make pancakes for breakfast, because your story skips to "The next day", there is something wrong with your timeline. Unless the friend or hairdresser has information that relates crucially to the plot, your character shouldn't have time to brush her teeth, let alone be given several hours or days of free time where the plot ceases to matter. What would you be doing in the middle of a murder investigation, space invasion, or heartbreaking love affair?
10. Not allowing the main character to solve challenges using his own skills
An important point to remember is that the main character should grow or change in some way over the course of the story. This means that allowing someone else to rescue your main character at the highpoint of your story reduces your character to a passive observer. It's also extremely disappointing to your reader. Get your character into as much trouble as you can, and then let him get himself out of it (while getting something out of it for himself).
This article was first published on BellaOnline in September 2008. © Elsa Neal