A while ago when I solicited advice on what topics to cover in my blogs, someone asked me to cover common mistakes I see authors making in their first pages, so here is my rough list.
One quick note before I start the list, just to give you an idea of my mindset going into a manuscript. When I read a submission, I don’t ask myself: “Is this a good book?” or “Is this person a good writer?” I ask: “Am I interested in reading more?” There’s no such thing as an objectively good book, because reading is a subjective experience, so I don’t attempt to judge what’s “good.” All I’m looking for is a desire to read more. If I don’t feel compelled to read more, I stop reading.
So without further ado, here are the most common reasons I stop reading:
No Sense of POV
There’s a description of a place or thing or situation, but no sense of who’s telling the story. Sometimes I can’t even tell if the book is written in 1st or 3rd person until a couple paragraphs down. Readers connect to characters. We’re human so it’s through other humans (characters) that we become anchored in a story, so when there’s no sense of who’s telling the story, what their perspective is and how that perspective acts as a filter for the description of a place/thing/situation, then there’s nothing for me to latch onto, there’s nothing to compel me to keep reading.
Voice Doesn’t Feel Natural
In this case, the book has a POV, it just doesn’t feel like a real person. Voice is a hard thing to pin down, but the best way that I can describe it is the sense that I am being told a story by a person with a distinct point of view. If that voice doesn’t feel natural, or it feels distant, then I won’t connect to it. Two things that can prevent a voice from feeling natural are over-narrating and over-thesaurusing.
Over-narrating is mixing explanatory language into narration. Here’s an example, “As he crept forward, he began to consider the possibility that there was no one in the car.” Not a bad sentence you might say. But what if it was phrased like this: “He inched forward, light as a tightrope walker. The windows of the Subaru remained dark and motionless. What if there was no one in the car?” When you compare the two, the second description puts you more firmly in the physicality of the scene, while the first one feels distant and cerebral, because it’s over-narrated.
Over-thesaurusing is basically what it sounds like. It’s when the writing is so full of big, arcane words that it doesn’t feel natural. For the most part, you want to use language that people would commonly use in dialogue, even during narration, because it keeps the voice relatable and realistic. I’ve had authors respond to this advice with: “But I do have a really good vocabulary, and I actually use these words in real life.” That’s great, but to most people convoluted locutions pejorate an otherwise superlative tome. (Try saying that 10 times fast!)
Sometimes I’ll see submissions that open with an unknown narrator waxing on about an abstract concept, like time or love. Assuming it says something fresh and unique, this is not a bad opening if it’s limited to a few sentences, but when it goes on for a quarter of a page or more, it begins to get boring. I want to have a sense of who the characters are and see some action to propel the plot into motion, and these kinds of openings lack both of those things.
Too Much Action
By this I mean, opening with an action sequence without any grounding in the characters. Yes, you want to have some action in your opening, but you also want the reader to connect to your character and to understand what’s going on. When these kinds of openings go south is when the author withholds too much information about what’s going on. I think they’re withholding the information in order to intrigue the reader, and this is effective for a short while, but if the information is withheld for too long, the reader will lose interest.
Here’s a common example: A girl is being chased. We don’t know who/what is chasing her (is it a family member, the mafia, a four-foot tall boa constrictor she just released from a laboratory that experiments on animals, etc.), we don’t know why she’s being chased (did she steal something from the drug store, is trying to escape a monster, etc.), we don’t know what world this takes place in (is it a dystopian world with an oppressive government she’s fighting against, is it 400 B.C. Rome, is it present-day Alabama, etc.), and we don’t know who she is. How long can descriptions of her running, hearing footsteps echoing behind her, and turning down dark alleys be intriguing enough to hook a reader’s interest? I’d say maybe six sentences, maybe less, depending on the writing. After that, you need to bring in more details of where she is, why she’s being chased, who/what’s chasing her and who she is. Though ideally you’d be able to bring these things in from the beginning.
Too Much Dialogue
Dialogue is a form of action, so I’ll often see books that open with it. The problem comes when it’s just dialogue, with no internal narration to give me an idea of who the characters are and the world they inhabit. While dialogue can show me both of those things, it can’t do it quickly or effectively enough on its own. So my suggestion if you want to open with dialogue is to just use one or two lines of it, and then add some internal narration that shows me who the characters are and what’s going on in the scene.
Nothing New Under the Sun
There are no unusual descriptions/phrases/images/ideas that take me to a new level of understanding. This is probably the hardest thing to pinpoint. When I read a submission, I’m hoping to be surprised. I’m hoping to see something described in a way I’ve never seen before, or to have an idea expressed in a way I’ve never thought of before.
Part of this is that real people are complex and unique, and when you have a character that perceives something in a new way, it makes me feel like the character is a real person, which takes me out of myself and into the character’s head.
The more obvious reason is that there are already so many books out on the market, and every time you send out a query, you’re making a case that despite all the books already available, the agent/editor should take a chance on you and your book. And if you don’t give the reader something new, your case won’t be very strong.
Here’s an example of a description that won’t grab my interest: describing a wolf as “lupine.” Lupine means wolf-like, so this is basically saying: the wolf is like a wolf. If you described a sparrow as lupine, I’d be intrigued, because I’d be thinking “how can a tiny little bird be wolf-like?” (Of course, you’d need to be able to explain this. Maybe you could describe the bird’s feathers as sticking up like fur, a certain fierceness in the sparrow’s eyes and posture, etc.)
Other descriptions that won’t catch my eye: majestic mountains, a glowing moon, fierce waves, a blinding sun. These aren’t tautologies the way lupine = wolf, but they are adjectives that are commonly used with those nouns, so they don’t show me something new. If I saw mountains described as wimpy, I might be intrigued. It’s not necessarily about describing something the opposite way it’s commonly described, it’s about describing it in a way that it isn’t commonly described, which then tells me something about the protagonist and how he/she views the world.
And this doesn’t just apply to how you use adjectives to describe nouns, it can and should be a new way of thinking about description period.
The old adage of “show, don’t tell” is one I urge writers to really internalize. Telling writing explains to the reader who the characters are and what they feel, which doesn’t actually put the reader in the character’s head space. Showing writing, on the other hand, allows the reader to see/smell/touch/taste/hear what the character is seeing/smelling/touching/tasting/hearing. With telling writing, the reader stays outside of the character. With showing writing, the reader becomes the character.
Here’s an example of telling writing: “He felt scared and alone.” Do you feel scared and alone when you read that? Probably not. Because you don’t know what scared and alone means for that character, you don’t know what it feels like for that character.
An info dump is a form of telling writing, but more specifically it’s telling the reader a bunch of information in one place, as opposed to weaving it into the story through the action. For example, sometimes I’ll see this in a dialogue: “As you know, we’re stuck on this planet until someone rescues us.” A better way to show this bit of information is for the characters to talk about where they found food, if the radio to ground control is working, what’s weird about the planet, etc.
Sometimes it’s information the reader doesn’t need to know at this stage of the game, such as what a character looks like. The only time when it’s important to know what a character looks like is when it influences the plot in some way. For example, if it’s about a girl who’s bullied for being plus size, then it’s important to know that she’s plus size. But I still don’t need to know whether her hair is brown or blond, because it doesn’t affect the story in any way.
There are certain openings agents have seen so many times that they’ve become cliché. They include opening with the main character dreaming and/or waking up, using the character looking in the mirror as an opportunity to info dump what they look like, opening with a prologue of a killer stalking his prey (typically a man stalking a woman). If it’s been done a million times before, don’t do it.