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By Jeanne Marie Leach


The next few errors commonly made by beginning writers need little explanation, and don’t merit an entire blog. Poor things. So, I grouped them together so they wouldn’t get lonely.

Don’t allow tense changes in the book. For example, if the book began in first person past tense (I looked back), don’t change it to present tense (She looks back) in the middle of the book.

I edited a book four years ago where the author wanted everything in the main heroine’s POV to be in first person present tense, and all other characters in third person past tense. He loved it, but it annoyed me, and I didn’t think it worked well for this book. In fact, the gentleman still hasn’t found anyone willing to publish his book.

Some authors think they are being clever, and you may actually find some books on the shelves that employ that technique, but I contend that only a successful author could get away with this. It all has to do with writing your book in the tense that best reflects the feel of the story.

Keep sentences and paragraphs at moderate lengths. Break up sentences that run on for more than three lines (this is my own gage, and not a hard rule). In the ACFW, we’ve been taught for years that short, choppy sentences heighten the intensity of the scene, so if someone is being chased, write ‘em short and you’ll have the reader sitting on the edge of their seats.

However, a year ago, I heard Angela Hunt speak and she said that when used sparingly, extra long sentences can actually heighten tension.

Here are examples of both of these techniques.

  • Example 1: Jane slowly walked down the long, dark hallway, looking through each door and wondering where that noise she’d heard had come from, and knowing a thief was on the loose in the neighborhood and that his usual mode of operation is to take advantage of a home while the owners were out, her heart pounded heavy in her chest.
  • Example 2: Jane crept down the long, dark hallway. She peeked through each door. Where had that noise come from? Her heart pounded heavy in her chest. Had anyone been there while she and Marsha went shopping? Was someone there now?

Which of these two books would you like to read? The one you choose is the technique you need to employ in your own book. Just remember, though, that often by the time a reader gets to the end of a long, run-on sentence, they’ve forgotten what happened in the first part of it.

Don’t allow sentences that require too many phrases set off by commas. If you find yourself with this kind of sentence, rewrite it.

  • Example: My mother, who had always explained things to me well, suddenly ran to the cupboard, took out a serving spoon, and flung it at me, apparently in an attempt to get me to use the correct spoon.

Each comma causes the reader to pause a moment. Too many sentence like this can break up the natural flow of the book.

  • Example rewrite: My mother had always explained things to me well. This time she ran to the cupboard and took out a serving spoon. As she flung it at me, I realized this was an attempt to get me to use the correct utensil.

This brings up another point. I’ve run across writers who like to use serial commas to excess.

  • Example: John ran outside to his car, opened the door, scooted into the seat, closed the door, started the ignition, backed out of the driveway, and drove off down the street.

Most of this is mundane and boring to the reader. Cut out unnecessary steps whenever possible.

  • Example rewrite: John ran outside to his car, started the ignition and drove off down the street.

The reader KNOWS he’d have to open the door and sit inside and then close the door, so it’s not necessary to tell them this.

Consistency in character traits and scene props. Make sure that if you need a horse in a certain scene that the animal has always been there. He can’t just suddenly appear, leaving the reader wondering where he has been all this time.

The same goes for character traits. If a character is strong enough to be a hit-man, he certainly wouldn’t cry if he made a mistake and shot the wrong person. He might freak out, but he won’t cry.

 Avoid “info dumps”. Some writers want to show off how much research they’ve done, or they have an agenda and want to “teach” the reader some idea, such as the validity of creationism. The author will put all sorts of dry information in large amounts of narrative.

I once read a gentleman’s manuscript where all of a sudden in the middle of the book he decided to give the reader a history lesson about the Cherokee Nation. This was a work of fiction, and this “lesson” went on for close to eight pages. Not one of the book’s characters appeared in this section. This chapter was there for the sole purpose of the author showing the readers just how much he knew about the Cherokees. Guess what I did? I skimmed right over those pages and picked up the story on the other side.

This type of “information dump” will bore the readers and is not necessary. Many times, a large amount of the research you do to write your book will never end up in the story. It was only necessary get the flavor of the era or setting.

Just give the reader the story and use a bibliography at the end of the book to let them know where they can get more information about the Cherokee Nation, but don’t force a lesson on them.