I’ve been editing and reviewing books professionally for a few years now and I can now recognise within the first few pages whether a book is going to be good or not. This doesn’t always mean a book with spelling and grammar errors or unnecessarily long paragraphs. Those are all things that can be fixed during editing. But I do frequently review a book and know that not even the best editor could have made it good or successful. One of my Creative Writing tutors had a nice metaphor for this – You can polish a turd as much as you want but it won’t stop being a turd.
Take for example a book I edited last month for a successful businessman. The book was well structured, had a friendly and conversational tone, and the author clearly knew what he was talking about. I’ve even been using some of the business lessons in his book for my own business. But by the gods, could this man waffle on! Maybe that’s a common thing with business people. The other editors and I had to change almost every other sentence to make the book readable and I had to cut close to 4,000 words of unnecessary padding, sometimes whole paragraphs at a time. But I can still tell that despite the problems it had at the editing stage, the book will still sell well when it is published because of the most important part – the content. If a book has great content then all you need is some editing to polish it.
Sadly, many of the books I see are lacking that crucial element. It is sad when I can recognise the germ of a good idea that would’ve made a great book if it had been written correctly but the author either didn’t have the skills to pull it off or just didn’t care enough to try. Here are some of the most frequent red flags I see so that you can avoid them in your own books:
- Stories that go nowhere.
In the book I mentioned above, the author used many of his real life stories to back up his points, which were effective as they gave his book a more personal touch. The trouble with many inspirational memoirs I read is that the stories aren’t structured and any point they are trying to give is unclear. They go on, blend into each other, or just peter out completely.
Similarly, authors often just stop the story completely to go on a long off topic tangent about how they feel about something. These are often hard hitting portrayals of important real life issues, but they don’t belong in the book that the author is writing. If you want to make a point about these issues, then you have to do it in a way that doesn’t take the reader completely out of the story.
- Archetypical characters.
Christopher Vogler in his book The Writer’s Journey (a great writing book, by the way) listed the archetypical characters that make up almost every story; the hero, the herald, the wise old mentor, etc. But these are just the base that make up characters, they also need motivation, traits, backstory, and numerous other things to make up a whole person.
Unfortunately, many authors never go beyond the archetypical stage and just have their stories played out by characters who could be replaced by planks of wood. The women like to drink wine and bitch about their husbands. The men like to go down the pub and say sexist things about their wives. No variation in between, except for the nice, hunky guy who the woman is obviously supposed to have an affair with. Nobody wants to read a story if they aren’t invested in the characters and they won’t be invested unless the characters have something interesting and original about them.
- Standard plots.
Not only do bad authors use building block characters, they also use bog standard stories. It is true that all stories are essentially variations of the same basic plots; the quest, the love triangle, rags to riches, etc. But each author approaches these plots in a new way and tries to give it their own unique spin. For instance, the ‘overcoming the dark lord’ plot in Harry Potter is nothing new, but it works because of the engaging characters and unique setting. Lazy authors don’t bother with this and just stick to ‘good versus evil’ or ‘rescue the princess’ or one of the other stories you’ve heard a thousand times before.
- Magic power for every problem.
Another crucial detail missing from bad novels is peril. Even when we know that everything will work out fine in the end, we expect to be taken on a roller coaster ride of emotion until we get there and have our expectations questioned a few times along the way. Bad novelists overpower their main heroes and give them an automatic solution to every problem. A wizard always has the right spell or the warrior can defeat any foe. If the characters aren’t challenged even remotely then the novel is boring and there’s no point to reading it.
- Dialogue dumps.
This is how dialogue works in normal books:
“I just upgraded my Windows 98 computer to Windows 10.” Said Brad.
“But how?” Russ spluttered his chocolate milk. “Everyone knows that’s impossible.”
“I’m just that good.” Brad replied with a coy smile.
This is how dialogue works in a bad book:
I asked her ‘which boy are you going to pick? We have to solve this love triangle somehow’. She paced the floor and said ‘I don’t know. If only I could be with both of them at once. Is that weird?” And I said ‘No’ and then ‘But you have to pick soon because we have to save the world.’ That’s when the wolverines came.
Which one is easier to read?
- Mundane opening.
A novel’s opening is considered the most important part of the entire book and thus the part which the author should focus on the most, and there’s a good reason. Aside from the blurb, it is the first piece of the book that anyone will see, be it a reader or a publisher. A weak opening will make them put your book down and pick up the next one.
It is best not to open your book with something completely mundane – a character waking up and going about their morning routine, the drive home from work, or a lengthy description of the weather while the main character moans that ‘life just isn’t fair!’. These may seem like ideal ways to describe your character’s life, but readers don’t really care about what cereal they have for breakfast, they really want to get to the action.
If you have noticed any of these errors in your own writing, don’t despair just yet. You still have time to fix them and improve your craft before you publish your story. Don’t try to put your book out until you have ironed out these issues, otherwise what could have potentially been a great book will fade into obscurity.