andrew noakes freelance historical fiction editor

The top five writing errors you don’t know you’re making

Everyone makes mistakes, even seasoned and successful authors. Normally, you don’t know you’re making them until someone else – someone not quite so close to your manuscript – points out the glaringly obvious.

So, to help you get a head start, here are the five most common errors I see in the novels I edit – errors that you might be making yourself without even knowing it. I've also created a crib sheet with some top tips on how to tackle them.

1) Introducing the story question too late

Your story question is the fundamental question that your reader wants to know the answer to as they read your novel. It’s the main reason they keep turning the page. In a historical romance, for example, it could be whether the two main characters will get together. In a historical mystery, it could be whether the murderer will be discovered.

The problem is that, in their first few chapters, historical fiction authors often get preoccupied with introducing their setting at the expense of introducing the story question. By the time they’ve introduced it, some readers may have already become fed up with the listlessness of the novel and moved onto something else.

2) An episodic structure

This is when a novel has multiple different stories, usually starting one after the other. For example, imagine if the story question in Pride and Prejudice (whether Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Darcy will end up together) was actually resolved at the 25 percent mark, and then the story switches to Elizabeth’s father being murdered and the search for the culprit. But then imagine that gets resolved at the 50 percent mark and the story switches again to Mr Darcy trying to foil a plot to steal his wealth. Finally, at 75 percent, the story switches to Mr Darcy joining the army and playing a critical role in defeating Napoleon.

This might sound a bit ridiculous, but the point is this – switching focus like this makes for an extremely disruptive reading experience. Your reader will feel constantly frustrated as they keep having to invest and re-invest in different storylines. Eventually, they’ll wonder what the point of the story is in the first place.

3) Too much history, not enough story

You’ve spent months meticulously researching your period. You’ve read book after book, diaries, letters, newspaper reports. You know the events and characters inside out. So, naturally, you want to share all of this with your reader!

Except, the problem is, some historical fiction novels end up reading more like history books than fictional stories. The facts and little details start to take over, drowning out the plot and the characters.

This is a big mistake. Yes, your reader will find it impressive at first. But, after a while, they’ll get bored and move on.

That said, including historical detail is vital for building a historically authentic story world – something that historical fiction readers care passionately about. The trick is learning how to include the details without getting in the way of the story.

4) Stilted dialogue

Stilted dialogue is very common, particularly in historical fiction novels where authors tend to make their dialogue more formal in an attempt to create a sense of authenticity. Take these (made up) lines:

“I remember when we used to ride together on your father’s estate, Anatol.”
“Yes, Nikolai, I also remember that. It was a good time in our friendship.”
“I wish our friendship could be good now, just like it was then, Anatol.”
“Yes, Nikolai, I would like that too.”

Ouch. Ok – it’s an exaggerated example. But the point is that stilted, wooden dialogue will make your reader cringe. It’ll take them out of the story because no one really speaks like that. Your dialogue has to reflect the flow of real, natural speech if your reader is going to believe it.

5) Incomplete resolution

The resolution can make or break a story. It’s the last thing your reader will remember when they leave you a review, and, for many, it’s what gives your story – and their reading experience – its purpose.

Unfortunately, I often come across incomplete resolutions. And why are they incomplete? Usually because a major element of the story has been left unresolved. Perhaps the hints of romance between two characters never went anywhere. Or maybe the antagonist escaped at the end, leaving the protagonist without the justice they had craved throughout the novel.

Often, incomplete resolutions occur because the author is writing a series and they want to leave room for storylines to develop in later books. To achieve this, they artificially cut a resolution short or leave out crucial parts because they want to come back to them later. Unfortunately, if it’s not done right, the result is a whole bunch of alienated readers.

There are ways to leave room for storylines to re-emerge in later books without undermining the strength of your resolution. If you want to know how, get the crib sheet below.

Want to avoid the errors above?

Get your free crib sheet for top tips on how to tackle them

Andrew Noakes

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Andrew is a specialist historical fiction editor based in London, UK.