Here are some common problems I find in published and unpublished work, by writers at all levels, and do my best to avoid in my own writing.
1. Insufficient description of time and place.
You may be striving for an opening with more literary style and intrigue than a date stamp like “Cape Cod, Summer, 1970,” but there is something to be said for clarity. Writers are taught to use description of action, characters and environment to create mood and a visceral sense of place. The reader is given descriptive hints about where and when the action occurs, and reads along with these images in mind. Maybe it doesn’t matter exactly where, or exactly when, and generalities will do. It’s simply New England, or the Atlantic shore, “back in the day” or late twentieth century. These are sufficient for many a novel, and indeed may be preferable, offering flexibility for each reader to fill in imagery from their own experience and better relate to the story. Still, at some point, we want to be assured that we have picked up on such clues as are offered correctly or at least well enough. Otherwise our thoughts will stop going eagerly forward with the story and drift back in perplexity as to what we may have missed.
Authors, figure out what you must hold back for plot purposes, and then don’t be too cryptic about everything else. If it is a specific place, be specific; if it is a specific time, be specific. Set the stage, raise the curtain, and focus the lights so the reader has in mind exactly what your story requires.
2. Lack of clarity and consistency about how much time is passing.
In writing a novel I try to treat time in the same way I treat geography: I can take the long view or the close view, describe a sweeping panorama in a general way, zoom in to describe a town or a river, zoom in even closer to capture a particular place in explicit detail. Time: The sweep of history, and era or decade, a generation or lifespan must be painted in broad strokes. A year, a week, the span of a vacation or a semester, require a different level of description. Then there are the actions of a character in the course of a day; and more detailed still, the actions within a single encounter or brief episode – what we call the blow-by-blow description. And we can zoom in closer – that is, stretch time – even more to see inside someone’s mind and the many thoughts and feelings that fly by in just seconds.
The pitfall is trying to alternate incompatible views. For example: The reader has a ringside seat to a major altercation; verbal barbs are flying fast and furious, and it seems like fists might start flying at any moment. In the midst of this, our protagonist is reminded of a schoolyard incident and has a long, philosophical reminiscence during which the reader is left to either forget the present argument entirely or wonder if our hero has already been knocked senseless. If the schoolyard brawl has to be brought up in the context of the living room quarrel, tell some things about it earlier on, so the stage will be set in advance and only the significant nugget has to be described, preferably at the same energetic pace as the primary scene.
3. Repeatedly setting the place and passage of time by describing meals.
It’s true, I live my life meal to meal. But if you ask me what I did today, I will not tell you I ate breakfast, lunch and supper and what I had for each. Fictional characters eat, but their meals can be an intrusion on the action. The fact is, eating is not that interesting. I like to read stuff or do puzzles when I eat. A novelist looking over my shoulder might smell the green chile and the coffee, hear the rustle of papers and all that, but nothing really interesting is going on with me while I eat breakfast.
Writer guides and workshops wax eloquent about touch, smell, taste – the art of describing visceral things in a way that transfers sensations to the reader and makes the scene come alive. Too many authors, especially beginning and genre authors, use meals to carry that entire sensory load. The action zooms here and zooms there, back-stories are breathlessly summarized, and characters yak at each other within poorly portrayed, indefinite zones. And then they eat, and everything is laboriously described: the wrought iron outdoor table that needed to be steadied with a matchbook under one leg; the bitter arugula with sweet balsamic dressing that has stained our heroine’s white blouse (possibly providing an opening for the history of the white blouse itself); each sip of water; who put the lemon wedge in whole, who squeezed in the juice, and who put the nasty thing to the side…
If your characters need to eat, say they ate; if they need to talk over a meal, let them talk. The attention you as author give to the food should not be more than the attention they as characters give to the food. Example: If A. is picking at her salad thoughtfully while listening to B. say something important, then we may assume that A. is not consciously cataloging the greens on her plate. The author is advised not to do so either just to get feel-taste-smell points.
4. Using specialized language to set the place and time frame without adequately defining the terms.
Readers like to learn things from fiction, to read about places and eras in history, or faraway places and unusual lifestyles in recent times. Authors like to demonstrate their expertise with their material by employing the specialized vocabulary of their subject. The pitfall is in assuming the reader will already know those terms or, if they don’t, trouble to look them up. More likely, we will lose interest and stop reading. The whole point is to paint a picture for the reader, to show the reader something new, to unscroll a movie in the mind’s eye. If your term is obscure, don’t just toss it in. Find a way to define and describe what that word refers to early on, then reinforce and remind with pieces of that description whenever the term comes up after a long lapse. In between, it can do a lot of heavy lifting for you and save you much verbiage; but if you use a foreign or specialized word or phrase without adequately conveying its meaning, it’s useless. You may sound smart, but the reader’s not getting it.
If you have gone so deep into another world – whether historically accurate or invented – that defining/describing everything over and over is going to be a drag for you and your reader, you can provide a glossary in the back of the book. I do not like to see a glossary or cast of characters in the front of the book. Encountering those before I have even started reading suggests that the author lacked confidence that I would be able to follow the tale and gave up on trying to write it in such a way that I can hope to do so. Lists in the back of the book more often feel helpful, not like a cop-out. A map or genealogical chart in front, middle or back may be welcome, but never assume you can insert one in lieu of thoroughly writing your story.
Those are my top four. While I gather some more, get back to work on your book!