Read a variety of books and genres, those written by those more skilled than yourself as well as those less skilled. You can learn something from both. Sometimes the glaring errors of most amateur writers call attention to some silly thing you do yourself, but have been blind to. It also allows you to see how far you’ve progressed. To paraphrase a favorite quote, “No book is ever wasted. You can always serve as a bad example.”
However, it’s important to read well-written stories as well. A steady diet of poorly written stories may help you identify pitfalls so you can eliminate them, but that alone won’t make you a better writer. If anything, it will make you a frustrated reader. Nothing takes the joy out of a good story faster than when it’s poorly written.
Believe it or not, you can pick up a certain amount of writing skill by osmosis, simply by repeatedly exposing your brain and subconscious to strong writing. However, a well-written story that flows well sucks you in, but you probably would have a hard time explaining why it worked. It’s a lot easier to see something that doesn’t work when you trip over it. But you’d be surprised how you can assimilate those skills.
As with so many things, variety is the spice of life.
You want your dialog to sound convincing. Think about how people actually talk. One thing most of us use on a regular basis is contractions. Not using them can make it sound stilted. For example, would you say “I am going to the store. Would you like to go along?” or “I’m going to the store. Want to go along?”
Saying it aloud helps. We don’t always pronounce all the letters in a word, either. Back to the previous example, how many would actually say, “I’m goin’ to the store. Wanna go along?” Using an apostrophe to indicate missing letters shows it’s not a misspelling.
If one or more characters have an accent, be sure to reflect that phonetically as well, even if your spell-checker gags a bit. This is another way to differentiate between speakers, if your characters have distinctive speech styles.
In long conversations, remind the reader who’s speaking from time to time. It annoys readers when they have to go back and figure it out. This is even more frustrating when you’re reading an ebook since flipping back is not as easy as with a print book. This is another thing that throws a reader out of the story, which IMHO is the #1 faux pas.
This is not to say that you should say “he said” or “she said” with every line of dialog. When there is a clear flow to the conversation such that it’s obvious who is saying what, then there’s little need for it. However, I’ve seen a page or two of dialog that wasn’t attributed and left me entirely lost.
Using a variety of synonyms for “said” such as stated, commented, noted, and so forth, or answered or replied, helps break the monotony. Another trick is to occasionally insert the person’s name into the dialog itself. If you say “Listen, John, I told you that before” it’s clear that John isn’t the speaker. You can also break it up with some action, such as saying “John rolled his eyes”, again indicating who’s doing what.
As you’ve probably figured out if you read these on a regular basis, one of my pet peeves is homonyms. This is one way to separate the amateur writers from the pros. It’s your job to know the difference between they’re, there, and their; your, you’re, and yore; flare and flair; bare and bear; alter and altar; hanger and hangar, just to name a few.
Words are a writer’s tools of the trade. Your vocabulary should be broad and expanding all the time. The other day I was in a group setting where I threw out what to me was a simple word, counter-intuitive. I was a bit surprised when someone was impressed. I just shrugged and said as a writer it was my job to know the right word for a given situation.
If you’re dyslexic, I’m sure this is a considerable challenge. I don’t know how I keep them separated. I do know that sometimes when I’m writing my first draft that I get the wrong word, but I definitely keep an eye out when I start editing. Don’t ever underestimate how smart and/or observant your readers might be. Messing such things up can often be all the justification an astute reader needs to give you a poor review.
Feed your inner editor by reading others’ work with a critical eye. Often what jumps out is something you do as well. I have had many an “Aha!” moment tripping over something awkward in a story, then realizing I was guilty of the same thing.
I admit that always reading in critique mode has a downside, but when you’re an editor at heart, you can’t help it. I know something is well written when I don’t keep stumbling over things that throw me out of the story. I can’t always tell you what they did right, but I definitely know it worked.
Thus, you can learn a lot from less skilled writers. There are so many typical mistakes such as overuse of adverbs and prepositional phrases, awkward dialog, clumsy flashback transitions, viewpoint swaps, and so forth. When ever something jolts you out of the story, take a few moments to identify exactly why.
On the other hand, reading well-written stories has a more subtle effect. You can become a better writer by osmosis when you familiarize your brain and subconscious with strong writing.
If you’re writing a series, refresh your memory of previous events by rereading the book’s predecessors. You’ll be surprised at the new ideas that come your way! I did this when I was writing the final volume to my Star Trails Tetralogy. It had been a while since I’d written the others, so I decided to read them to get myself into the flow to assure continuity, consistency in details, and so forth.
It was so worth it! I found an amazing number of little details to tie into the conclusion. At the time, they were just part of that particular episode, but when they fit future events, it was tremendous fun to find them.
Tying story arcs together in small ways feels good as an author and pleases your loyal readers as well. They’ll appreciate the reminders and when you tie everything together it leaves them more satisfied. It also brands you as a skilled, meticulous, and clever author. Life is full of interesting details, coincidences, and serendipity. Your stories should be as well.
Watch for mixed metaphors! “Her eyes flew across the room” is a classic example. If this doesn’t conjure up eyeballs springing from someone’s head and soaring across the room, like often seen in cartoons, I don’t know what does. While the reader is likely to know what you mean and may not even catch it, this is one of the things a pro will avoid. Metaphors are great, but need to be constructed with care.
This confusion can also happen with misplaced prepositional phrases. Make sure they’re in the most logical order or they can have a similar effect. I know that my thought process as an author is often not linear, which can cause this to happen. I get quite a few laughs when I start editing.
What works for me is to make sure related phrases are kept close to whatever they describe. If it relates to the character, then make sure it is next to the subject, not trailing along at the end of the sentence. This also serves as another indictment on prepositional phrases, which generally should be used judiciously and avoided when another literary vehicle will do the job more effectively.
If your novel becomes a series, bear in mind that not all readers will start with book one. Describe your characters again and recap key plot elements. Loyal readers will appreciate the refresher.
Probably the biggest author faux pas is leaving a reader feeling lost, which also tends to throw them out of the story. If they have to stop and backtrack (which is especially difficult and annoying when you’re reading an ebook), it may be because they forgot or it could be you didn’t state it clearly enough. If a reader starts with book two or three of a series, this is especially likely to happen if you don’t do an instant replay of key events in a previous book.
Even those who have read the stories in sequence can use a refresher. It’s highly unlikely that you are the only author they read. Thus, they have probably read other stories between them, especially if a span of time elapsed before the next book was released. They will likewise be more comfortable with the story with a few reminders.
The usual convention is to start your story with the main character. That way, your reader immediately knows who the story is about. Prologues are the only exception. If something occurs before the main story begins that involves another person, often a prologue functions well to present that information.
Sometimes another character comes along who is so strong, that he or she takes over the story. It’s okay to have several strong characters in a story, but who does it really belong to? This is not always easily answered. Sometimes two characters come together who have separate story arcs. I don’t have all the answers to that situation and am dealing with just that in my current WIP.
However, if someone else clearly takes over, leaving your original main character/protagonist in the dust, then it’s time to reconsider who your protagonist really is. If it changes dramatically, you may have to go back to Chapter One and introduce that person first.
Main characters in complex stories with well-developed plots are not always that easy to identify. How often has your favorite character in a book been someone other than the protagonist? Side and back stories are always an option with these folks as well.
I know I nag a lot about what the author’s job entails. If you’re fortunate enough to have a conventional publisher who provides a cadre of competent editors, then you may have the luxury of simply putting your story down for them to clean up, much as your mother may have done your laundry or cleaned up your room when you were a child.
However, if you’re an independent author, you need to be aware that proper grammar, word usage, punctuation, and so forth is YOUR JOB. Even if you hire an editor, unless you understand there are several types of editors, your work may not be at its best when it goes to press.
One thing that occurs frequently is misuse of homonyms. These are words that sound the same, yet have entirely different meanings. You can find a great list of common offenders as well as words that are often confused on Grammarly here.
Some of my pet peeves are shutter (those louvered, wooden panels you see on windows) versus shudder, which is to shake or tremble; Hanger (what you put your clothes on in the closet) versus hangar, (a building for aircraft storage); their (possessive pronouns for they) versus there (place) versus they’re (contraction for they are); lead (a type of metal or the graphite in a pencil) versus led (past of the verb to lead); whose (possessive pronoun) versus who’s (contraction for who is).
Check out the list on Grammarly. If those terms aren’t firmly implanted in your brain, bookmark the page for future reference.