By Brooke Thompson
We all want to believe our writing is perfect–that our stories are well-crafted, have interesting premises, and have relatable characters. However, inexperience or a lack of feedback can really hinder an author’s potential.
While we’ll not always have an editor on hand to tell us what to fix, it is important to keep in mind the mistakes authors often (yes, even the best-selling ones) make in order to avoid copying their bad habits.
As an aspiring author myself, I have read a lot of young adult (or YA) books to figure out what authors have done right versus what they have done wrong. The following list is a short compilation of five common mistakes authors make when writing a YA novel.
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Mistakes Authors Make When Writing
1. Switching Perspectives
I once saw writing advice that suggested if you are stuck on a chapter, to switch to a different perspective. I found this advice problematic because I felt like it could lead to lazy writing.
What’s sad about this advice is how often I find authors making this mistake when writing their YA novels.
There will be pre-established perspectives in the books, but randomly in the middle of the chapter of one of these character’s perspectives, or even in the next chapter, there will be a scene that is told through a completely different character’s view.
While this is fine, it’s annoying when there are main perspectives and one character perspective that never shows up again.
I see this mistake whenever the author did not give the reader any information on a particular subject, so they will shoehorn a scene with a random character that “fixes” the issue. While this tactic may “fix” the problem, employing this strategy comes off as lazy.
As a writer, if you need to give the reader pertinent information, make them discover it alongside the main characters. Don’t give readers a random scene with the villain or a side character telling us what is going on.
If you really feel like that scene is integral to the story, perhaps have your main characters stumble upon the conversation or action that particular character is doing. That way, you are still in the main character’s perspective yet you aren’t breaking the story’s narrative flow.
However, there are two loopholes to the rule. The first one is employing a difference of perspective in the prologue or epilogue. That way, it doesn’t disrupt the main narrative.
Or you could have an omniscient narrator–one who knows the thoughts, feelings, and locations of all the characters in the books. That way, the author’s voice remains consistent and the reader is not thinking, “Where did this character come from? Why are they here?”
2. Telling, Instead of Showing
One of the biggest mistakes authors make when writing a YA novel is telling their reader information.
Since you are writing a YA novel and not a young children’s book, do not tell your reader information. Show them what is going on through descriptions and actions, instead of simply telling your reader. Telling your reader what is happening will make your story sound boring and your writing will come off as lazy.
However, if you show the reader what is going on in a scene, it provides clues to your character and their environment. This will make the story sound more immersive and interesting.
Here’s an example of telling versus showing. “Mary was bored in class.” While this sentence isn’t necessarily wrong to write in your story, it’s better to show the reader how and why Mary is bored.
For example, you could say, “Mary doodled a house in the corner of her notebook as the teacher droned on about the Industrial Revolution.”
This example answers the question of why Mary is bored and how she handles her boredom. Giving her the action of doodling during a lecture conveys her boredom and shows her disinterest in the Industrial Revolution. These little character quirks make her a more interesting and relatable character.
3. Too Much Detail
Have you ever read a YA book where you skipped pages because there was SO much detail? Nothing turns readers off more than seeing a wall of text.
In order to avoid making this mistake, try to minimize the amount of detail in your story. It doesn’t matter if you are describing a scene/character or going into a character’s backstory: if you have more than one paragraph of details, you wrote too much.
However, if you want to continue adding in details without boring an audience, make the characters interact with their environments. For example, say your character just walked into the woods. While the sight and hearing senses are important, remember to utilize the feeling, smelling, and tasting senses as well.
You could say something like: “As John trudged along the muddy trail, his feet squelched loudly as they sank slightly in the wet earth. He gagged as he inhaled the acrid odor of cigarette smoke, instead of the fragrant tang of the pine trees. ‘Really?’ he thought, pinching his nose. He glanced at a no-smoking sign just a few feet ahead of him. ‘They couldn’t have waited until they were in their car?’”
By giving John these actions as he walks through the woods, the readers get an idea of the environment he is in without boring them. We also learn that he does not care for the smell of cigarettes, based on his reaction to their scent.
4. Unrealistic Character Actions or Character Dialogue
Have you ever read a story and thought, “Who does that?” or “Who talks like that?” While many readers suspend disbelief for many elements in the stories, the illusion gets shattered when characters do not behave or speak accordingly.
While it is your story and you can do whatever you please with it, keep in mind that you want your audience to think that what your character is doing is both justified and believable. If neither of those needs are met, you will have some angry readers.
This is one of the major mistakes authors make when writing a YA novel–I do that too when I try writing my own YA novels. The first time someone pointed this out to me, I had written a character getting milk dumped on her by a bully and running to the bathroom. Her friend had followed her and was trying to comfort her.
While this might seem like normal behavior, I forgot to include the key character action that would have made my character more relatable to readers–I didn’t make her cry. Someone online told me that if I made the character cry, it would highlight her humiliation of getting bullied and make her more relatable.
Through that experience, I learned just how important your characters’ actions are in the story. You might want to make your character seem strong by not crying, but instead, just make them feel sad and humiliated from the situation. Because by not having them cry, the reader has a harder time empathizing with them.
At the end of the day, that’s what your readers want to do with your characters. And you want your readers to sympathize with your characters and relate to their feelings. You cannot write a successful story without that key component.
5. Dialogue Tags
The final mistake I see authors make when writing a YA novel is misusing dialogue tag.
For those unfamiliar with what dialogue tags are, they are words that indicate a character is speaking, such as “Larry said” or “asked Jane.” These dialogue tags are an aspect that many authors, even the published authors, struggle with, due to conflicting information on the subject. We are told both online and in creative writing classes to use words besides “said” or “asked.”
When I was learning to write, I often used dialogue tags such as “snapped,” “growled,” and “giggled.” I thought I was being creative since I wasn’t using “said” or “asked” all the time.
However, when I stepped into my college Intermediate Creative Writing class, my professor told me using words outside of “said” and “asked” typically shows an inexperienced writer.
He explained that while it’s fine to use words outside of “said” or “asked,” find dialogue tags that are synonyms for said, like “intoned,” “added,” “droned,” etc. rather than descriptive substitutions for how a character is speaking.
He then pointed to a line in my story and remarked that the dialogue in the story should convey to readers whether a character found a joke funny or if they were snapping at someone. They did not need a dialogue tag to spell it out for them.
Therefore, based on my professor’s advice, a dialogue tag should not be used to tell a reader information they already know. They should only be used to indicate who is speaking in the story.
If you find yourself making these same mistakes while writing your YA novel, don’t beat yourself up. Good writing takes time and is a trial and error process.
Just remember: if you have one or multiple main perspectives in a story, avoid random character switches. It will frustrate your reader more than delight them. Do not plainly tell your reader information. Show them the information through your characters’ actions.
At the same time, avoid putting too much detail in stories. You do not want to bore your reader with scene descriptions. Try to keep it to one paragraph or break up the scene by having the characters interact with the environment using the five senses.
Try to make your characters’ actions and speech believable and justified. Finally, it’s okay to stick with the classic “said” or “asked” in stories.
As long as you do these five things, you are on your way to creating an amazing YA novel.