I just finished reading this really great book called How Not to Write a Novel. It's written by two authors (Sandra Newman and Howard Mittelmark) who have the experience to tell you exactly what you're doing wrong. This book is a must for anyone who dabbles in writing, no matter the genre. As I went through the book, I was happy to note that most of the stuff didn't apply to me (at least I hope not...maybe I'm just too blind to realize it and that is my fault) but there were a lot of things I took away from it. The only thing I wished there was more of was the section on writing query letters. I feel that is my downfall. They should write a follow-up book on How Not to Write a Query Letter. I'm sure there's something like that out there though.
Here are some things I found useful.
- Lose the background stories showing your character at 5, 10, 15 and then at the age they'll be for the rest of the novel. Start off in the present in the midst of the action. - This is one of my biggest problems in writing and probably the thing that struck me as the most important/relevant to me in the book. I always start off with the main character being born or showing events in their childhood but I can never get everything to flow together right so I end up working and reworking those scenes and I am never happy. I think I'll take this advice to heart and give it a shot.
- Don't let a character observe themselves in a mirror or photograph to describe what they look like. Also avoid terms like 'pretty' and 'averaged size' and 'nice body'. It's all too vague and everyone has a different idea of what that means.
- Avoid fight scenes at any point in the book in which the bad guy falls in a heap at the first blow from the protagonist. - I don't think I do this in any of my books but I'll double check just to be safe!
- Very rarely use exclamation marks and if you do, only use it in dialogue that shows someone is shouting. - I tend to not put exclamation in my narrative voice but I might use them a little bit too much in speech. I'll make sure they're reserved for shouting.
- When describing a room or place, don't just give a bland inventory. Make sure you point out a few things that make that particular room belong to a specific person.
- Don't be afraid of using "said." - I do use said a lot but I do have a phobia of the same word being used too many times in a row. I don't use ridiculous phrasings to replace it, just an occasional "cried", "shouted", etc.
- Read your dialogue out loud to make sure it sounds like something someone would say.
Check out How Not to Write a Novel for lots of great other tips and some fantastic (aka horrible) examples to go along with it!