The Mark of an Amateur Author

*As a disclaimer, not all new authors do these things.  Those who’ve done their homework, know better.  But those who haven’t, usually do.  This is what I’ve noticed as an overall trend, but I’ll use one horrible book (title and name withheld for professional reasons) I just read to illustrate my point about newbie authors who are amateurish.

So what are some signs that the author is an amateur?

1.  Tell, tell, tell.

Classic sign.  Telling should be minimized at all costs.  It’s fine to do some telling, and I admit my earlier published works reveal this but not to the point this book I just read did.  I felt as if the author was stepping outside the story to tell me information that wasn’t even pertinent to the story.  It was a lot of background information or the author explaining to me what the characters are thinking and feeling because I’m too stupid to get it unless the author drew me a “road map”.  Bad idea, people.  Sometimes, “Less really is more.”

First of all, the characters’ histories are usually not important to the story and can be tossed out.  It’s not important that I know where each character went to school, what they majored in, where they grew up, etc.  I skimmed a good 1/4 of the book for this reason.

Second of all, use actions to convey some of the stuff the character is feeling.  This isn’t to say, you can never put, “She loved him” in the story, but how about more smiling, softly saying something, a caress on the small of the back, an arm wrapped around the waist instead of telling me in every chapter how much these characters love each other?  There was little physical action, and you can use physical action and the tone of voice to make the reader infer some things.  It’s okay to let your reader think or connect their own dots, even if those dots vary slightly from yours.

2.  Plot points left hanging. You have to make each scene count, and you need to tie up loose ends, even if you’re planning on a sequel, there should be a sense of completion to the tale.  It seems to me that some parts of the book were randomly thrown in with no other purpose than to make a certain word count limit or the author got lazy at the end and wanted to hurry up and finish the book.  Granted, some traditionally published books have this because authors have to meet deadlines and will rush to the end, but I expect a self-published book not under the constraints of a contract to be clean in this area.  Finish up loose ends and take a few breaks if you need to in order to make sure the whole book is complete.

3.  Simple dialogue.  And lots of it.  This is in the realm of doing sections of telling followed by 90% dialogue and 10% action (usually in the realm of the he said, he continued, he walked to the door, etc).  Baby actions.  I’m a big fan of dialogue but not at the expense of sacrificing meaningful action to advance the plot.

When the dialogue reads something like this, it’s time to add some action:

“Where are you going?” he asked.

“To the park,” she said.

“Where’s the park?” he asked.

“Down the street.  Along St. John and Wilcox,” she replied.

“Oh,” he continued, “sounds good.”

“It is good.  I’m looking forward to it.”

“Have fun,” he said.

She left.

End scene.  See what I mean?

4.  Give a small autobiography of their lives or the lives of their loved ones.  Another tell tale sign of an amateur writer is the need to incorporate elements of their lives into the story.  They say, “Write what you know,” but sometimes, people have very boring lives and should invest in some good old fashioned imagination instead.  Look, I know how easy it is to write your life story in the realm of fiction.  Been there and done that, but if you can’t make it something that is interesting to other people, then what’s the point?  If you must incorporate your life somewhere in the book, then do this loosely and make sure you build a solid story around it.  I know some people like to read autobiographies, but that is not the purpose of fiction. 

Okay.  So those are some things I notice that new writers do, and that is just in the writing of the horrible book I just read.  Now for other signs of an amateur author… 

Looking for Book reviews: I’m noticing that a lot of new authors solicit book reviews from strangers, mostly from friends of friends or authors they’ve read.  Want some reviews, fine.  Bug your friends and family.  But please don’t bug strangers unless they have a blog or website dedicated to reviewing books.  You’ll pretty much have to rely on strangers leaving you reviews, and good luck on getting the nice ones.  Instead, offer free copies on a place like Goodreads for honest reviews.  Books with all glowing 5 star reviews reek of ‘author has buddies giving bogus reviews for him/her’.  Not everyone on this planet will have a book-gasm when they read your book. 

On the Physical Properties of the Book

1.  Covers Look Tacky.  Another thing new authors tend to do is skimp on the book cover art so it looks tacky and looks “self-published”.  Typically, these are covers with a lot of blank space and a smaller picture.  The back cover does not have a logo or a price amount.  It only has the book bio and maybe a snippet about the author.  The spine usually only has the title and author name.  Look at the cover (front, side and back) of a traditionally published book and aim to get yours as close to that as possible.  Just because you’re self-published, it doesn’t mean you have to “look” self-published.

2.  Formatting Sucks.  Also, check to make sure your pages are numbered and you have headers when they should appear in a book.  Maybe sure your margins are justified and remember an inch on the top and an inch on the bottom.  Remember, you need a title page, a copyright page, a dedication or acknowledgement page.  And make sure page 1 of your story starts on the right side of the book. 

And as for Marketing…

New writers also assume that an agent is the magical equivalent to success, should they pursue the traditional route.  To this, I say, “Good luck” because these days marketing is a hat both self-published and traditionally published authors wear.  The playing field has been leveled a lot.

They also assume as soon as their book is published, it magically sells itself or that marketing will take a couple of months and presto–mega sales!  The truth is, this is a game of patience and persistence.  You have to stick it out, and among the bed of roses, there are thorns.  Ups and downs are a writer’s life. Be prepared: volatile mood swings may be ahead. 

New authors also assume everyone will be interested in their book, their blog, their website, etc.  Nope.  Not everyone will be, but this is often a matter of taste and not a reflection on you as an author.  Don’t assume that just because you love your book that others will too. 

Case in point:

The person’s book I just finished is not a good fit for me, and since I don’t go for soap opera types of romances with tons of drama and indecision, the best I can give this book is three stars.  Plus, I don’t feel the author is at the point where she has fine tuned her writing enough to get four or five stars.  That’s my perception of her work.  It doesn’t necessarily mean others will agree.  She already had a good five friends/family members/whatever leave her glowing four and five star reviews, and based on the type of stories she writes, I’m sure she’ll outdo me on the reviews in a couple of years, but I do not care much for the book, and I told her if I reviewed it (as she solicited me to), then I would give her three stars.  And the three stars was being overly generous.  It really deserved two.  BTW, she said, “Please don’t.”  This is why I say when people ask for reviews, they want glowing ones, not sucky ones.

And this brings me to my final point in this post…

A lesson to pass on to seasoned authors:

I’m no longer going to sugar coat things because I’ve learned when you do that, you get rounds and rounds of people asking you to review their work.   So if I read a book and think it sucked, I’ll be reviewing that to show them that I don’t automatically post four or five star reviews for every book I read.  Sorry but I have too much on my plate.  I’ve learned my lesson the hard way.  Do not be the person who only leaves glowing reviews because then everyone and their sister wants a review, or don’t get into the habit of reviewing any books to begin with and avoid the whole mess.  (For the record, I only enjoy about 20% of any book I pick up.  Most are okay.  The rest are those I hated.  I rarely finish more than 20% of the books I start, or I skim them.  So just because you didn’t see me giving poor ratings in the past, it doesn’t mean I wasn’t hating some stuff I read.)

When you sell enough copies and word of mouth spreads far enough about your book, you will be solicited to look at other people’s books, their blogs, etc.  What will you do when one of your fans writes to you and says something like this:  “I read your book and loved it!  I couldn’t put it down and even reread it a couple of times.  I told all my friends about you and they are excited about you too.  By the way, I have this book out and was wondering if …  ”

Yes, you will get these emails too.  Will you deny the fan (and potentially lose that word of mouth rep you got?) or will you go along with her request in order to protect your reputation because people will judge you by how they perceive you? 

The time is now to figure out how you’ll respond before it happens so you aren’t taken off guard when (not if) it does.  I promise you that this will happen if you sell enough.

About Ruth Ann Nordin

Ruth Ann Nordin mainly writes historical western romances and Regencies. From time to time, she branches out to contemporaries romances and other genres (such as science fiction thrillers). For more information, please go to or check out
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8 Responses to The Mark of an Amateur Author

  1. I believe I recognize this – but great advice all the same! I actually get more people wanting me to read their book as a cover artist than I do as a writer. I have one now waiting for me to get to it, but I make it clear i will if and when I have time, so don’t wait on me unless they want me to read it to make the cover, and then if they’re paying, hey, I’ll read anything!

    • Yep, this came from Myspace. I transfered some posts over here.

      What a pain to have to read someone’s book to pick a cover. Can’t they figure out what they want on their cover? It’s their book.

      That reminds me. I’ll be emailing you about proofing my pen name’s book in the next couple days.

  2. sonia says:

    Some of these sound familiar – I had a hard time at first figuring out the difference between show and tell. Pretty sure I was never guilty of number 4. I might still guilty of numbers 2 and 3. It’s hard to tell sometimes.

    • Show and tell was hard for me as well. I’ve learned that it’s okay to use some balance between the two. Sometimes you tell to move the story along if showing would slow it down, but at times, it’s easy to want to tell to just hurry up with a scene, esp. if you’re tired. That’s where I struggle the most. I have to take a break if I start telling because I get lazy. 😛

      I think 2 can be cleared up in the second or third draft, but it’s hard to see when you’re doing it in first draft. I don’t know if you’ve ever experienced a situation where you felt led to write something in and thought, “Why is this going to be important?” and later realized you could use it to add to something in the story.

      I probably should have clarified that 3 is really about dialogue that doesn’t advance the plot at all. It’s meaningless and is there to take up space. I wasn’t referring to the “said” and “replied” tags since those simple tags become invisible when the person is reading the book (I just learned this a couple weeks ago). Anyway, this particular book I read was full of dialogue about boring topics that had nothing to do with the actual book. I think the author was looking for word count.

      As for 4, this particular book had a couple chapters dedicated to a couple of characters’ backstory and it was all lumped together, and in the end, only a couple sentences out of those chapters were relevant to the plot.

  3. “…wasn’t referring to the “said” and “replied” tags since those simple tags become invisible when the person is reading the book (I just learned this a couple weeks ago)…”

    Ha ha! Yeah, sometimes when I’m reading a really good dialog scene I’ll skip everything that’s not in quotes except for who said it. Yes, this means I often have to come back because I miss valuable things, like “Oh really?” he asked and pulled a knife. Then, when he stabs someone I am going, “knife? Where’d he get a knife?”

  4. Rose Gordon says:

    I just found this post and I believe I constantly break Amateur Author rules 1, 3 & 4. In fact, in one blog review I got, the lady even mentioned I do far more telling than showing!!! Oye.

    I know I have a lot of dialogue in my books, most isn’t inane, but sometimes… My take is, as long as there’s not too much short, pointless dialogue it’s okay (particularly if it’s amusing).

    However, I personally liked this, “(For the record, I only enjoy about 20% of any book I pick up. Most are okay. The rest are those I hated. I rarely finish more than 20% of the books I start, or I skim them. So just because you didn’t see me giving poor ratings in the past, it doesn’t mean I wasn’t hating some stuff I read.)”

    I’ve noticed since I started writing, I skim/don’t finish a lot more books than I used to. I try not to, but it happens.

    • You found one of my ‘I hate the world’ posts. lol This was during a bad phase in my life. Well, I was coming out of it, but I wasn’t fully out of it yet.

      I wrote this right after I got solicited for a review on a really bad book that I couldn’t give a good review to, and at the time, I was getting two requests a week to read and review people’s books. My friend said it was because I gave all authors a 4 or 5 star review. Her advice was to start giving 1 and 2 stars. For awhile, I did, but then I felt like crap for making another author unhappy and removed all of those reviews. I might have kept one or two. I don’t remember. If I did, it was because they were traditionally published, and I figured they already had their kudos from the publisher. All of that seems so long ago, and yet, it wasn’t.

      No author is perfect, and my early works show how bad I was back then. I figure we’re all a work in progress. 😀 Today, I wouldn’t write this kind of post. If I wrote on the topic, it would be on tips to improve, not bashing the bad stuff.

      Anyway, it’s still true that I only like 20% of what I read. It’s also true I only finish 20% of what I start. There’s a lot of stuff I’ve read that never gets mentioned, but I figure for the most part, it’s not to my taste.

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