An Editor’s List of Novel Shortcomings


One of the great bon-mots of popular cultural history occurred during the 1974 Academy Awards ceremony. David Niven was at the podium when a “streaker” (an inexplicable fad at the time was someone getting completely naked and running through a public forum) jogged across the stage.
The unflappable Niven calmly waited for the laughter to die down, and then remarked in his impeccable English accent, “Isn’t it fascinating to think that probably the only laugh that man will ever get in his life is by stripping off and showing his shortcomings.”
Thankfully, the streaking fad is kaput. But there are other places where shortcomings are wont to appear.
Some time ago veteran editor Alan Rinzler posted on Writer Unboxed about “issues” writers today are facing. While the post itself was solid, I was more intrigued by one of his comments. Rinzler was asked a question in the combox by none other than super agent Donald Maass. Don wanted to know what the #1 shortcoming Rinzler, as a developmental editor, saw in manuscripts. Rinzler’s answer was:

I see disorganized stories of excessive complexity… intrusive narrative voices that come between the reader and the story by inserting ongoing commentary, explanation, and interpretation…a failure to research and do the homework necessary to come up with something truly original and not reinvent the wheel… two-dimensional stereotype characterization…dialogue that all sounds like the same person.

I like this list. Let’s take a look at each item:

1. Disorganized stories of excessive complexity
I once picked up a bit of screenwriting wisdom that applies here. The best movies (and novels) consist of simple plots about complex characters. That is, while the plot may contain mystery and twists (and should), it is, at its core, a basic story with understandable motives. The real meat and originality comes from putting truly complex characters into those stories. The secret to originality can be found in the limitless interior landscape of human beings.
2. Intrusive narrative voices
Learning how to handle exposition, especially when to leave it out entirely, is one of the most important and early craft challenges. So get to it. Revision & Self-Editing for Publication has a whole section on this, but here’s one tip: place exposition seamlessly into confrontational dialogue. Instead of: Frank never wanted to have a baby. Not until he was a success as a writer. But Marilyn thought his quest was foolish. After all, it had been five years since he left his job at AIG. Marilyn dearly wanted him to try to get his job back.
“You never wanted a baby, Frank.”
“Shut up about that.”
“All because of your stupid writing obsession!”
“I’m not obsessed!”
“Oh really? What do you call five years of typing and no money to show for it?”
“Well, practice time is over. Tomorrow you’re going to beg AIG to take you back.”
3. A failure to research  . . . to come up with something truly original
Rinzler is talking about the concept stage here, which is foundational. Hard work on fresh concepts will pay off. And remember, freshness isn’t just a matter of something “unfamiliar.” All plot situations have been done. It’s how you dress them up and freshen them that makes the difference. Remember Die Hard? After it became a hit, we had Die Hard on a ship (Under Siege) and on a mountain (Cliffhanger)and so on. Take a standard rom-com about a writer struggling with writer’s block and set it in Elizabethan England and you get Shakespeare in Love. Heck, take an old dystopian cult plot like Deathrace 2000 and put it among kids and bingo, you’ve got The Hunger Games. 
4. Two-dimensional characters
We all know that flat characters are a drag on an otherwise nice plot idea. Such a waste! As Lajos Egri put it in his classic, Creative Writing: “Living, vibrating human beings are still the secret and magic formula of great and enduring writing.”
My favorite book on characterization is Dynamic Characters by my former colleague at Writer’s Digest, Nancy Kress.
5. Dialogue that all sounds like the same person
Ah! One of my sweet spots. In my workshops I always say the fastest way to improve a manuscript is via dialogue. It’s also the fastest way to get an agent or editor to reject you, or readers to give you a yawn. When they see good, crisp dialogue, differentiated via character, it pops. It gives them confidence they’re dealing with someone who knows the craft.
The place to start, then, is by making sure every character in your cast is unique. I use a “voice journal” for each, a free-form document of the character just yakking at me, until I truly “hear” them in a singular fashion.
So there you have it. Five vital areas where shortcomings might be a problem. The streaking guy at the Oscars couldn’t do anything about his own vital area, but you as a writer can.

Anything you’d like to add to the list?

31 thoughts on “An Editor’s List of Novel Shortcomings

  1. 1 and 5 are the most intriguing to me. 5 because distinguishing dialogue is a weakness of mine that I recognize and am consciously trying to work on.

    With #1, I’m not sure I’m totally sold on the unimportance of complex plot vs. complex characters. Complex characters are in the eye of the beholder—some may read a book and think the character was the most complex ever, and another may read it and think the character was a yawn. But I suppose the same could be said for plot. My point being, I’m just going to have to keep writing and see which theory wins out for me personally. I’m just not ready to throw in the towel on complex plots, even though good characters in those plots are a given.

    On the other hand, focusing on complex characters over plot may take some of the pressure off the writer in one sense. Complex plots can tie you up in lots of knots whereas it may be a little easier to work through the nuances of a character. I’d be curious to hear how other Kill Zoners see the complex plot vs. character gig. Maybe the discussion will give me a fresh approach.

    BK Jackson

    • BK, let me expand on the “simple plot” idea. It doesn’t mean (as I said) a plot without all sorts of twists and turns and shocks and mysteries and surprises. You want those things. What it DOES mean is that when a reader finishes a book, or a person walks out of a movie, and someone asks, “What was it about?” the plot can be stated in one sentence.

      “What’s Gone With the Wind about?”
      “It’s about this spoiled Southern belle who tries to save her home during the Civil War.”

      “What’s The Silence of the Lambs about?”
      “It’s about this young FBI trainee who has to play mental games with a genius serial killer in order to catch another serial killer.”

      “What’s The Stand about?”
      “Killer flu.”

      Now, these plots have all sorts of things happening to them, but we never lose the “through line” of the story. When readers lose the through line, they get frustrated, and if frustrated enough won’t finish the book, or buy another from you.

    • My best friend and writing buddy was bogged down. She has fab characters and a fresh whacky storyline outlined that was getting out of control.

      We talked for a long time and I asked her to boil it down to the fundamental crime.

      Just like the old saying that all great fortunes originated with a single crime, I think most books can be boiled down to the same.

      After some work, her book came down to, “Veronica didn’t know there was a serial killer in the neighborhood, she just knew she kept finding bodies.”

      My manuscript comes down to, “Attorney Juliana Martin has a choice. She can work with the FBI to betray a client or she can watch her father fry for a capital crime he didn’t commit.”

      Everything flows from that. I love complex characters and that’s where I draw on the things I’ve seen. The reckless FBI agent whose resentment of authority comes from having fatherhood thrust on him at age 17. The dysfunctional family relationships of the country club crowd. Shotguns and muscle cars. That is the fun stuff, but all their quirks must serve the main crime.

      So, #1 really resonated with me. The journey must be clear – the question answered. Of course, the journey should be anything but straight.

      That is my complaint on too many books is that the plot is too linear.


  2. Excellent tips as always, Jim, written in your usual very accessible, instantly understandable way. I’m not crazy about overly involved plots, but complex characters really amp up a story and drive the plot forward, especially when the main character has a few flaws and some inner conflict, baggage and secrets.

    #2, “intrusive narrative voices that come between the reader and the story by inserting ongoing commentary, explanation, and interpretation” is a biggie for me, and basically what most of my upcoming book, Captivate Your Readers, is about – step back as the author and let the characters tell the story. Use close POV rather than omniscient, show, don’t tell, cut way back on description, explanations, and backstory, develop an authentic voice, and more – all critical for engaging the readers in your story and immersing them in your story world so they forget what they “should” be doing.

    And I love your latest book, Write Your Novel from the Middle, Jim! I’ll definitely be adding that to the list of your books I recommend to my novelist clients!

  3. All around great information! Top take-away for me today was the idea of the Voice Journal for each character – and writing in it until I hear the character’s true voice. Lovely!

    • One of the best ways I’ve learned about voice was reading to my kids. I tried to “act” out each character as I read. I quickly learned that well-written dialogue made it much easier for me to “create” a character with my voice. One of my favorite reads was the “Hank the Cowdog” series.

  4. Great list! I agree these five are vital areas in fiction that need to be mastered. Doing so gives a novel narrative power, drawing the reader in, effectively hypnotizing them and compelling them to continue to read until the end, and leaving a story that lingers with them after finishing. A weakness in any of these vital areas prevents this from happening, or kills it in mid-stream.

    One thing I would add to the list is making sure your characters have *agency*, that they aren’t just reacting to events, or worse, drifting through your plot but are instead striving for something vital to them. This goes back to our old friends, the stakes of the novel. Our characters, especially the hero, want something, something is at stake, and they take actions to gain those stakes (a love, a friendship, life (thus preventing the various forms of death you talk about in your books on fiction writing) etc.

    Thanks for another thought-provoking post!

  5. One of the biggest problems I see in work that I critique is flashbacks. My advice: cut them out entirely and work backstory into dialogue or a couple of lines in the character’s thoughts. Nothing kills the pacing quicker than pages of flashback. Otherwise, great tips!

  6. Thanks for the information. Very helpful. Noah Lukeman wrote THE FIRST FIVE PAGES. This list might be called THE FIVE TOUGHEST HURDLES.

    On #1 – Disorganized stories of excessive complexity – I wonder if using the technique of writing from the middle, using the golden triangle, might help provide that organization and clarity.

    And that gives me the opportunity to ask: How has your approach to writing from the middle affected your foundation for planning a story? Where in the process of premise, characters, plot, etc does the golden triangle fit into the planning? Maybe the topic of another post (sorry, there I go again)?

    Thanks for another post loaded with helpful advice.

    • Steve, writing from the middle has supercharged my writing. It makes things so clear. The book goes through all the whys and wherefores, and where to use it.

      I personally am using it more and more toward the beginning of the process, which means I’m writing from the middle at the outset!

      The great thing about it is you can do it that way, or defer till later. You can also change your “mirror moment” if another one comes up you like better.

    • Ditto! Thanks James. Another tip I got here from JSP is directed at writer’s block but it works to add complexity as well. When you don’t know what should come next in the story (This is act 2 stuff), ask this question: What is the worst thing that could happen to MC at this point? This is scary powerful. It not only breaks the block but makes you learn new things about the characters involved. Makes them more complex.

  7. This may be simplistic to the point of idiocy but…

    The fault that always pops out at me is the writer getting in the way of the story. There is a lot to be said for clear, simple, uncluttered, un-writerly exposition.

    There’s a great interview in today’s NYT Sunday magazine with Peter Mattiessen. (Who just died yesterday). He is famous for his lyric novels yet in the interview talked about his sparest book, “Far Tortuga.”:

    “The trouble with metaphors and similes is they bring the author into it, and I was trying to stay out it,” he said. “A roach out from underneath the cook shack with its antenna up, that was so striking and strange and beautiful that you don’t need ‘like a radio antenna’ or something like that. You just don’t. The thing itself is so good.”


  8. I always look forward to the Sunday lesson from Professor Bell.

    On the Writing from the Middle epiphany, I went to the rough mid-point of my manuscript and look what I found a page or so later:


    I didn’t feel like messing with my hair today, so I combed it back and wove it into a tight braid. Dressing in another iteration of last night’s outfit, I laced my boots, remembering gentle hands easing them off my feet just a few hours ago.


    That’s one thing Dad had always warned me against. I could still hear his voice, “Sweetheart, never shit where you eat.”

    Clients and other lawyers at the firm were off-limits. Of course, he violated that rule regularly, but he always kept his heart out of it. I also tried to stay away from cops and other lawyers. Now here I was playing house with a married FBI agent.

    Even better, an FBI agent on the cusp of a divorce bloodbath. Whether I wanted to admit it or not, I was entangled.

    I needed to focus on the short-term, as in staying alive for the new few days. Then I could let the long-term take care of itself.

    So, as usual, I was listening to you before you even gave the lesson.

    My follow-up question is how much of your book should be dialogue. I know it depends, but your thoughts on a general rule. I’ve read 50%.

    I tend to be heavy on dialogue and have been accused of “talking-head-syndrome” and would like to get TKZ input.

    Happy Sunday! Terri

    • Terri, that’s awesome. Your instincts gave you the “middle.” Knowing it now, you can tweak both sides to make it really clear what your story “is all about.”

      As for dialogue, I don’t know that one can make a blanket rule. I do it by “feel.” I like a certain amount of white space on the page, but it’s a little like playing jazz by ear. Serve the story, and if there’s talk, there’s talk–so long as it has plenty of conflict in it.

  9. What good timing (once again)! I’m in the process of setting up an outline for a new WIP, so this is a good refresher (mini) course to get me going. And BTW, I just added placeholders for the 14 Signpost Scenes.

    Numbers 1 and 3 in your lesson are good for me. As a confessed perfectionist, I often let myself get bogged down while crafting a plot. I’ve been known to over-complicate things every now and then. 🙂 Thanks for the reminder that it’s about being creative with the simple things!

    As an editor, the item I’d add to the list is weak sentences. There are a few authors I would read even if their plots were weak and their characters bland, simply because they have a gift for combining words into artful sentences. (Two of these are Nelson DeMille and Tana French.)

    Off to write!

  10. Great stuff. And on the point that you make re: write something original I’d add the idea, write your story, not someone else’s. You can, like Jim said, take a common general plot, but when you take the characters and put them into your own world view, the perspective changes, and the story becomes original in the telling.

    Own it and pour your own spirit into it.

  11. Well done. I especially like the idea of a voice journal. I get into debates about dialogue from the “four-letter words should never be used” advocates. I lived in some tough neighborhoods and I never heard a street thug say, “Pardon me, please, but would you kindly give me your money.”
    He said, “Give me your money, bitch.”

  12. Excellent post, James! I should try to character voice journal. That would probably help me out a lot. I bought Kress’ book on characters, and yours on self-editing. Awesome.

  13. That may be the perfect list. I find that I tend to make plots overly complex. In which case the story is dead before I hit the magical midpoint. Thanks for a good wall-hanger of a post.

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