Have you ever wondered about what makes a good novel good? And, even more importantly, what makes a bad novel bad?
Here are some of the objective shortcomings that can make a novel bad, as I have witnessed in more than half a century of novel writing, editing, observing, studying, critiquing, teaching, and book doctoring. Oh, yeah. And raising registered Hereford cattle on a ranch in rural Wisconsin. Or doesn't that count?
- A weak storyline. If you don't have a plot of universal appeal, you don't have a good novel. In short, a successful book must resonate with the reader, or it will fail miserably both in the marketplace and in the forum of public opinion.
- Beginning the book with the first and last names of the protagonist. I mean, can you be a bit more obvious in trying to cram as much information into the first few sentences as possible? And, while we're on the Q&A thing, can you tell me why an author would do that other than for lack of experience and/or talent? Numerous writers apparently don't understand that a character's name is relatively unimportant to the reader until there's a legitimate reason for knowing it. The one exception to the rule? Nope. Can't think of a single thing.
- Laying out the entire plot in the first few sentences. You'd be amazed (and just a little disheartened) at how many writers are in such a hurry to snag the reader's attention—and have such a strong opinion of the value of their storyline—that they can't wait to clue the reader in as soon as inhumanly possible. And I don't use that word lightly. It's a literary sin against all human intellect everywhere for a writer to take his reader's intelligence for granted to that degree.
- Beginning a story with a long, bloated, flowery narrative passage. Sure, I understand that a writer wants to wow his reader with his intellectual and literary prowess. But, doing so before even snagging the reader, hooking him and dragging him into the story is a dead giveaway: This writer is a horrendous bore. Psst! Hey, do you want to know the best opening line of any novel ever? "Dead!" Do you want to know the second-best opener: "Call me Ishmael." And the third: You decide.
- Long, interminable paragraphs. Again, if you're going to use them, do so with discretion. And, don't do so until you're sure the reader is committed. Writing long, rambling grafs (look it up) can work for an experienced writer who knows exactly what he's doing (and knows he's running a risk in doing so, anyway). It never works for novices or poor writers. Speaking of which:
- Poor writing, poor punctuation, and improper syntax. Again, experienced writers can deliberately stretch the limits of the rules, knowing when and how to break them in certain instances and when and how not to. Novices don't understand the rules well enough in the first place to know how to break them to best effect.
- Poor grammatical construction. I see even published authors, including some who take great pride in the number of books they've published over the years, who fail this more times than imaginable. Some of these grammatical wash-outs go so far as to advise others on how to write better! Shameful. If you don't know the basic rules of grammar, you should probably give up on becoming a novelist and take up another form of writing. Like copywriting. Or underwriting. Probably, in the end, you'll make more money anyway. I think you get my point.
- Overdone alliteration. A little is good; a lot can be deadly. Not knowing when to use it (often at the expense of precise meanings) is an excellent way to signal your novel as one everybody should put on his bucket list—not to read! If you don't believe me, wait until you see substantive sustainability slip sideways into action.
- Faulty logic. More than anything else, bad novels are the result of writers who don't think things through logically and then don't review and question their assumptions every step of the way. Writing isn't a "throw it down and walk away" procedure. It's bitter, hard, grueling, grinding job upon which only those authors intent upon and skilled in producing outstanding literature should embark. Follow that?
- Extensive use of cliches. "Extensive" use? Yes. All writers use cliches occasionally. At times, there are no suitable alternatives, and that's fine. But there are many appropriate alternatives from which to choose throughout a hundred-thousand-word novel. Tons of them. Often, the overuse of cliches is a sign that the author is too lazy to think and write creatively. And, that always leads to a disastrous finished product.
- Use of mixed metaphors. This frequently occurs when a writer chooses the wrong word, such as: "The parched surface of the land flowed like a river through his brain." Which is it, a desert or an ocean? You can't have both in the same metaphor.
- Overuse of the passive voice. How many times does Mrs. Lemke have to drill this into your primordial brain? Passive voice: Weak writing. Active voice: Strong writing. Why go out of your way to make your writing weaker than it already is? God only knows we writers have a tough enough time making our novels work without shooting ourselves in the foot on every other page. Does this mean you should never use passive voice? Of course not. There are times when doing so is a must. But, every time you do, a little flag in the back of your head should shoot up, and you should go back to see if you can write the same thing more effectively.
- Saying it instead of showing it. I know, I know. You're sick of the phrase. But do you really know what it means? And, is your work so powerful that you don't need to keep this rule constantly in mind? Take this, for example: The sun that rose in the east just that very morning set again in the west in the late afternoon, causing John to squint and shade his eyes in order to see. Now, take this example: John peered through the haze.
- Wordiness. You know what I mean. Wordiness is saying in twenty words or less what could be said equally well (and often more dynamically) in two or three. Here's an example: The man reached out and grabbed John's wrist, which he held tightly, squeezing it so that John couldn't get away. Contrast that with this: He clasped John's wrist. 'Nuff said.
- Using quotation attributes unnecessarily. One of the key giveaways to a writer's inexperience or ineptness (the two aren't always interchangeable), this is a killer trap into which even skilled authors often fall. Especially when only two people are in a scene, you have to identify the speaker only at the beginning. Here's an example of a poorly written exchange: "I think you should go," Mike said. / "What do you mean?" John asked. / "I mean, I think you've overstayed your welcome," Mike said. / "And that's all there is to it?" John asked. Now, think about that for a moment or two. If Mike is the first to speak, and John is the only other person in the scene, why bother identifying each speaker once you lay the groundwork? Doing so only slows the narrative down and frustrates the reader. And if there's one thing a writer doesn't need, it's a frustrated reader!
- Weak imagery. Imagery makes not only the world go 'round but also the novel fly to new heights. Words by themselves convey nothing. Imagery conveys everything. Do you doubt me? Try this on for size. John looked everywhere for a pen to warn his girlfriend about the trouble ahead. Now, compare that to this: His search for a pen might well have been for the Holy Grail; his girlfriend was heading down a dead end path--Cleopatra surrounded by a sea of asps. One sentence uses only words to convey a meaning, and it does. The other sentence uses imagery to stir the reader's imagination. Imagery gives a reader something to which to compare what he reads. It deepens his understanding of a situation, of its gravity, of its import and its nature. It opens for the reader a broad, new world within the shallower world of literature. Imagery creates successful novels. Words don't.
- Everything else.
Seriously, we could go on for dozens of pages—there are that many things that set an excellent novel apart from a bad one, a good writer from a failure. But these are a few of the objective shortcomings that many bad novels share. These are the weaknesses to which many writers succumb as they struggle toward literary greatness. Watch out for these gremlins popping up in the next novel you pick up to read. Or write.
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D. J. Herda is author of the new ebook series of writing advice, About Writing Right, available at amazon and at fine booksellers everywhere.