7 Common Mistakes Authors Make

7 Common Mistakes Authors Make

Alternate title: why I stopped reading three books. I usually finish every novel I read, so this was surprising to me; to put a book down unfinished felt oddly satisfying, but also bothered me a little. The following list is my explanation/justification for my actions.

  1. Too much exposition. This happens a lot in fantasy novels. We get that the world is amazing, interesting, and unique—but readers would rather not spend the first twenty percent of a novel being spoon-fed every detail about it.
  2. Trying too hard to make a character likeable. This comes in one of two forms: explicitly attributing a character positive attributes (“she was the nicest girl ever to come out of Compton”) or crafting situations that have no purpose other than showing how nice the character is. I’m not sure which one’s more yak-worthy.
  3. Not worrying about likeability. The flipside of #2, when readers can’t really get behind a character after several chapters—or worse, start rooting for them to fail—they close the novel. There are certain works that do well with characters readers are supposed to hate, but it’s very much a roll of the dice.
  4. Deliberately withholding information, for the sake of suspense. Won’t mention the exact novel, but the author had someone hit her character with a car to prevent him from revealing the great secret of the series—at the end of the novel. This was a horrible “ending,” and had the opposite effect from what the author intended. Instead of reading on to figure out the secret, I went on Wikipedia, and burned the book (okay, it was an eBook, and I’m generally against destroying the written word, but I deleted it maliciously—so that’s kinda the same, right?)
  5. Stilted prose. This is the simple point on the list. If readers can’t follow the story, and keep getting jolted out of it by grammar errors or awkward word choices, they won’t continue.
  6. Cliché story. Fortunately, these novels are usually easy to spot from the blurb. Some authors will even go so far as to describe their novel as “a modernization” of another story, or “x meets y”. In a world where those stories already exist, it’s hard to explain why readers would read derivative works. Caveat: several readers do (Divergent, anyone?), and this is more of a personal peeve.
  7. Boring characters. Most readers don’t get invested in stories where every character could be one of their neighbors; we crave the interesting, and exciting. Give readers an old man with a missing eye, an orphan whose adoptive parents hate him, and a clever Headmaster who made some mistakes in his younger days—oh, damn, I’ve just described Harry Potter.

I hope you found this list interesting, and if not—well, at least I got to vent. Do you agree with the list? Disagree? Think I make way too many lists? I’d love to hear your opinion in the comments.

31 thoughts on “7 Common Mistakes Authors Make

  1. I feel like I don’t really mind when a character has scenes that show them as really likable or really bad. What gets under my skin isn’t these but when they are perfect characters that never have anything backfire on them. I’ve met some actual Pollyanna and evil force people in real life and they do exist but they make mistakes. It’s authors forgetting to make characters human (even if they aren’t humans) that gets to me most.

    1. Interesting. For my own taste, I don’t like moral extremes (especially when the author twists the story for no other reason than to show that a character is a certain way), and I quite agree that perfect characters are boring.

      1. I’m just really use to extreme people I guess. At least, people that put up the front of being really good or really bad. I don’t think that they actually are, or have to be in fiction, but I think any trope is worth a poke. I think part of what makes extremes a turn off for readers isn’t their goodness or evilness sometimes but the fact that its really easy to write them all the same. Aka a really good character would never kill, a really bad one would never have a soft spot or think they were a hero etc.

      2. I think you’ve hit the nail on the head here. When a character becomes an archetype, or so predictable–because they’re unabashedly “good” or “evil”–I just can’t continue reading.

  2. “Too much exposition” is an easy trap to fall into. I actually completed a draft for a historical fiction novel and I found myself doing a lot of that in the early versions of the manuscript. The genre called for so much research that it was hard to sift through the info that is necessary to the reader, and I realized I was dumping all of it on the page. I had to scale back a lot. Then, I had to figure out how to deliver the important information without “narrating” too much. Great post!

    1. Thanks 🙂 I did the same thing in my research for Torn. I think it’s hard not to: you get all this really cool information, and as you say, sifting through to the important bits becomes difficult.

    1. Very true (although in the case of #5 that’s almost paradoxical). I bet we could think of several books that are very popular despite rather major flaws.

  3. #4 is a very good point I can agree with. I’m not sure what book you’re describing, but it’s a horrible way to lead into the next book. I wouldn’t stick around waiting for the sequel’s release. This horrible act is performed on television audiences a lot. But at least you only have to wait a week for the next episode. Book readers get more time to stew on a bad stopping point.

    I can also strongly agree with #1. An overabundance of scenic description clogs our attention span and doesn’t provide the excitement we all crave. This brings to mind an author I read religiously when I was in elementary school. His series is an amazing read, but as a child, I found myself skipping many of the pages in each book. I’d estimate about one hundred pages of each book were dedicated to description of food. Luckily though, the rest of each book was filled with brilliant characters and action sequences.

    Great article!

    1. Cant name individual names, sorry. I just feel like I wouldn’t be fair. But you described the feeling perfectly. I kept expecting a “to be continued…” or something, after the end. Of course, the series was made into a tv show, so maybe that gimmick helped the process.

      Glad you liked the post 🙂

  4. I agree with this list, especially number six. Cliche stories are boring to read because they are predictable. Why would I want to read a book that’s already been written by someone else, with nothing new? The trick of writing well is taking old ideas and adding something new to take away the mistake of writing in a predictable or cliched manner.

    1. Exactly. And if the author can’t be bothered to come up with enough new ideas to differentiate their story, I have a hard time talking myself into reading it.

    2. I didn’t want to name names either. Though I’d definitely recommend the author’s work to anyone who enjoys the fantasy genre. I might not even mind the overindulgence in food talks if I reread the books now. I was quite young then.

  5. As both a reader and writer of fantasy, I completely agree with number 1. That’s one of the reasons I tend to begin my stories by jumping right in. Besides, the books I write get long enough without expounding on a world that I would rather only help my readers see, not tell them exactly what they should be picturing when it’s not necessary.

      1. The key is to give clues throughout the story rather than clumping it all in one place. I get bored easily, so I tend to be one of those people who skip entire sections.

      2. Oh, see, I’ve always been the kind of reader who plows through, but when I came across the novel that inspired #1, I just couldn’t do it. Skipping might have been a better solution.

  6. 1.) Sometimes I don’t mind a lot of exposition or description if well-written, but lots of fantasy writers have a tendency to just pile on heaps of information about minute things about their special world they constructed. This problem turns me away from a lot of fantasy novels as a result.

    1. Don’t give up on us completely. We’re not all like that. Maybe go for more young adult fantasy? I think the tendency to expound heavily on the world is less prevalent in young adult genres simply because they’re writing to a group that might be more easily bored. If that makes any sense.

      1. If I remember correctly, the first chapter of Game of Thrones is terrible. Actually, the first few chapters. Not just in terms of exposition, but in terms of subject matter.

        I’m in a similar boat. I read the first Game of Thrones novel, and every book in the Eragon series (although the ending for Inheritance was somewhat underwhelming).

      2. To be honest, I sometimes have trouble reading sequels one right after the other, so I never actually finished the second in the Eragon series. No matter how much I may have liked the first book (and I really enjoyed Eragon), I just sometimes have a hard time getting into the next book if I try to read them one after the other. I had similar trouble with the series that begins with His Majesty’s Dragon (a wonderfully-done historical fantasy that I would definitely recommend), but I came back to the series later, and it was certainly worth it.

  7. Thanks Valerie for your insights. I have been writing short stories and loathe to start a novel as I was worried people would become bored or characters would be unbelievable. I read a lot of novels (that is probably an understatement)..lol. Your comments on this blog are spot on. p.s. I love lists too

    1. Thanks so much for the kind words! I’m glad I could help someone out! As for your novel, the worst you can do is fail miserably, haha. I know that sounds scary, but… If you write a bad first novel, no one else has to see it. It can just be practice 🙂 So get started (well, if you’d like)!

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