Have you ever read a book so terrible that you felt sorry for the author? I have.
When this happens to me, it’s as if I’m cruising past a train wreck, and I can see into each derailed car and the disaster inside. I find myself wondering why someone didn’t switch the track to avoid the derailment.
What makes a novel a disaster? There are many elements that go into the making of a disaster, but here is what stands out the most for me in a novel:
First of all, I cringe when I see unrealistic or stilted dialogue. I want every word spoken by a character to contain 1) a realistic tone and conversation; 2) information that moves the plot along without the author obviously using the dialogue to tell what the reader needs to know; and 3) a conversation that is appropriate for the moment and for the genre. For instance, I do not want two characters who are, let’s say, astronomers, who, together, have detected a large meteor on a collision course with Earth, to begin reliving their discovery. They were together. Their conversation isn’t likely to go something like, “Harry, do you remember yesterday when we measured the meteor, did the calculations, and learned that Earth is in deep trouble.” That conversation is not likely to happen. Instead, those astronomers need to be in action and in conversation about how they’re going to stop the thing, save the earth, and become heroes in the process. Yes. All dialogue tells the reader information they need to know. The key to effective and well-written dialogue is to wrap the reader up in it so that they don't realize they're being told. Instead, they're a part of a realistic conversation that moves the plot forward.
Along with dialogue, redundancies are often what turns a good novel bad very quickly. You know what they are. The writer isn’t sure she even has a handle on the story, so she tries to cover it up by repeating what the reader understood from the start. While redundancies are most often caused by a writer's insecurity over her ability to relay the message, the reader comes away feeling as if they've been talked down to. As noted above, that is sometimes done in dialogue as well as narrative.
Stopping to smell the roses is another problem that stands out for me. Those are the moments when the characters are neck deep in trouble, and they’re talking about things that don’t matter. Let’s go back to our astronomers, Harry and Jacqueline. A meteor is streaking toward Earth. The force of the blast will take Earth out of its orbit and everyone will die. But Harry and Jacqueline don’t let that stop them from stealing a kiss on about every page or even taking about wedding plans. No-sir-ree, that part of the plot has to go forward, and they’re going to discuss those things right in the midst of a disaster.
When self-editing a manuscript, an author should check very carefully and remove any unrealistic and/or stilted dialogue from a manuscript. Redundancies should be reviewed and most often deleted. Likewise, all action and dialogue should be relevant for the scene. Remember, you're not going to stop and smell the roses when a serial killer is on your heels.