10 Ways To Lose Your Readers

There’s a plethora of advice for out there for new writers about how to hook readers in, how to engage their interest and keep them turning the pages. Sympathetic and stimulating characters, a cracking plot, an unusual setting; they all appear on that list. But there’s not quite so much guidance for the new writer about what not to do.

In these days of easy self-publishing and downloads at the press of a button, it’s ever more difficult to get your voice heard above the clamour. It’s tempting to just get your work out there, in front of that very discerning audience.  But to avoid it sinking without trace, or worse, garnering the sort of reviews you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy, it stands to reason that you should do all you can to avoid the pitfalls that will have readers pitching your book across the room and choosing some other novel, or, after reading a sneak preview online, not buying your book at all.

It’s surprisingly easy to turn readers off; sometimes it’s the tiniest things that will do it.

Getting the nuts and bolts right is as important as designing an attractive cover and creating an exciting and appealing story. To give your book the best possible chance it pays to be aware of the hazards, so here are my top ten mistakes that drive readers nuts:

  1. Poor Editing.

Whether you’re planning to pitch to agents and publishers or to go down the self-publishing route, you owe it to yourself to get your manuscript into the best possible shape. If you can’t afford a professional editor (sometimes you can find deals and special offers on the internet), at the very least get a trusted friend who is also a reader, to proofread it. A fresh pair of eyes will see things that slip by on a computer screen. They’ll also spot glaring holes in the plot, tense changes and non sequitors. Read your work aloud; you’ll hear clumsy sentence structure and clunky dialogue.

  1. Accuracy

If your facts are wrong, you’ll lose the trust of your readers. You can bend or ignore the truth to a certain extent to fit your story (it’s your novel, after all), but make sure you get the basics right. Readers notice everything and they will not forgive you for being lazy. Dates, places, events – somewhere, someone knows the truth. Don’t try to fool them. So, no $9 bills (yes, I’ve seen this in a story set in present day America), no driving from Cornwall to Norwich in two hours (not without the benefit of teleportation), and if you’re going to quote something familiar, make sure you get it right. On the television last night I heard someone say, ‘Don’t look a gift horse in the eye.’(If you can’t see what’s wrong with this, go to the bottom of the class)

  1. Bad Grammar and Punctuation

It’s an insult to your readers if you can’t be bothered to sort out proper grammar and punctuation. It’s is a tricky area, as publishing styles change organically. Today the trend seems to be towards fewer commas, but you still need to know where they go. Ration your use of exclamation marks. In fact, erase them altogether; they’re the sign of an immature writer. As for apostrophes… make it your business to know where and why they apply.

  1. Too Many Characters too Soon

The introduction of your whole cast of characters in the first couple of pages will turn many readers off.  It’s a common complaint that too many names are difficult to take on board in one hit and readers don’t know who to ally themselves with. Who to be sympathetic towards? Who to love, who to hate? Who will disappear after the first chapter? If it’s too confusing, some readers won’t be prepared to invest their time trying to find out, and they’ll just give up.

  1. Mind Your Language

Some readers are offended by swearing, others don’t mind it. Some markets frown on it, others see it as an integral part of the story. It depends who’s reading, and in what context. You won’t find much bad language in a story for a women’s magazine, for instance, but thrillers and crime novels almost demand it. Be sensitive to your audience and don’t put swear words into a character’s mouth if they’d be unlikely to utter them.

  1. Bad Spelling

There’s no excuse for this. A spellchecker will do most of the heavy lifting, but you can’t rely solely on it. It won’t, for instance, pick up an error if it’s correctly spelled word used incorrectly, such as a homophone (words that sound the same but have different spellings) eg: to, too and two; witch and which; there, their and they’re. It’s up to you to make sure you check for basic errors. Use a dictionary.

 

  1. Getting Lost

Geography doesn’t figure a lot in most of our lives, until we read a novel that distorts the atlas, then all hell breaks loose. If your novel is set in an identifiable place, don’t mess around with the topography; someone is bound to notice and will delight in telling you, probably in a review. So if there isn’t a Waitrose on the high street of your recognisable town, don’t add one just for the fun of it.

  1. Backstory

Info dumping – the introduction of too much background about your characters in one big chunk is boring and unnecessary. Worse, it shows you up as an amateur. You should be able to trickle vital information into the narrative, in the interplay between characters, or in the dialogue. Like introducing too many characters, too much information at the start of a novel is confusing. At this stage, readers don’t know if it’s essential, useful, or merely padding. You, the writer will need to have the facts to hand – they inform your storytelling – but do your readers benefit?

  1. Head Hopping

Having decided which character(s) will tell the story, it’s not a good idea to keep jumping from head to head. This omniscient method of storytelling has fallen out of favour, though I still come across the occasional novel that manages it well. Are there several narrators in your third person narrative? If so, keep confusion to a minimum by restricting each point of view to one per chapter, perhaps. If you have multiple points of view, consider using line breaks to make this clear, or using different fonts when different characters are centre stage. If it’s a first-person story, remember that you can’t jump into another character’s head and reveal some vital piece of information that the narrator couldn’t possibly know.

  1. You Can’t Please Everyone

Regardless of all I’ve just said, do remember that it’s your story and you can tell it how you like. I’ll end with a tale of my own:  after I had finished my first novel, No News is Good News, and before I sent it out to be considered for a competition, I had the first three chapters professionally edited. This was a rigorous process, to say the least, and I benefitted enormously, as did my manuscript. One thing the editor suggested was a reworking of the opening sentences:

Working in one of the UK’s busiest television newsrooms meant that Eleanor Wragby was often disturbed in the early hours and this morning was no exception. She hauled herself into consciousness, groping for the mobile phone vibrating silently under her pillow, and squinted at the tiny letters of the text message.

The editor advised me to drop Eleanor’s background (info dump!) and combine the two sentences to give a more fluid impression:

The insistent vibration under the pillow brought Eleanor into bleary consciousness and, groping under her pillow, she squinted at the tiny letters of the text message.

I made the changes and sent the manuscript off. It didn’t win the competition, but it was accepted for publication by Accent Press. I only mention this because one of the first reviews I received objected to this new opening sentence on the grounds that it described actions that couldn’t possibly be executed at the same time. One star.

And here’s me thinking that this graceful economy of words would convey a series of actions that follow each other logically and concisely. What do I know….?    

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Surprising Endings and New Beginnings

Now, here’s a thing. My current work in progress (WIP) has stalled before the halfway stage. I’m definitely more of a planner than a pantster but I couldn’t see a clear route to the end, even though I knew how everything was going to work out. I’ve twiddled with the plot, experimenting with various ideas, but none of the paths led to that happy-ever-after ending I’d envisaged for my characters. The more I’ve tried, the more bogged down I’ve got and the more complicated and unbelievable the plot has become.

Eventually I put the damn thing away in the vain hope that some miracle would occur. There are always plenty of other writing projects to be getting on with while I wait for the muse to return: blog posts, homework for the writing group, editing and proofreading pieces for our anthology, writing erotica.

Hang on a minute. Did I say erotica? Continue reading

Asking Myself Some Serious Questions

desert island

While on my desert island recently, I was thinking that it might be fun to bring a writerly perspective to some of the more random, even philosophical questions I’ve been asked over the years. Some are pretty run of the mill; some have personal resonance and most have nothing, specifically, to do with writing. But I think they’re interesting enough to run a series of author interviews in the future. See what you think. Continue reading

For the Love of Books

As a fledgling writer I was advised that my reading pleasure would be ruined for ever; that I would minutely study everything I read, dissecting the dialogue, the use of language and vocabulary, the narrative style, to determine how it worked. I would treat every novel as a lesson. And I did, up to a point. For a newbie, it was a great way to learn. But I’m getting over that now. I still read a lot of fiction but I’m not obsessed with dismembering every book so I can scrutinise its inner workings in forensic detail. And I still learn a lot from my reading, that’s one of its pleasures. Facts I was previously unaware of, a novel approach to an everyday plot, the crafting of a story arc, I absorb it all. Some books are instantly forgettable; others stay in my head for a long time. Some take up permanent residence, and it’s these that I’d like to share with you. Continue reading

Building Characters

character

When I first moved up to Norfolk from London I worked in a fascinating archive, The History of Advertising Trust, which has its offices deep in the countryside where real estate is cheaper than the capital. (Archives only ever grow, they never shrink.) Anyway, it was my good luck to happen upon it, because over the years it provided me with a lot of stimulation, sparking my imagination when I was struggling for ideas.

Advertisements are still a favourite source of mine. I love the lateral thinking, the wit, the ingenuity, the nods to popular culture, to classical art and literature, but I have a soft spot for 1980s cigarette ads. In this decade, tobacco companies in the UK were no longer permitted to show actual cigarettes in their advertising, although they were still allowed to promote their products. I’ve never been a smoker, and I’m not endorsing smoking here, but the imaginative and surreal advertising campaigns that resulted from the efforts to circumvent the ban are as fantastic as they are bizarre. Remember the Benson & Hedges pyramids and the Silk Cut scissors? You can see them here:   http://www.hatads.org.uk/catalogue/search.aspx?titleType=Print%20Advertising

But how could these curious images help drag my exhausted imagination out of the doldrums?

One particular series of ads was for Winston cigarettes and would have appeared on the London Underground. Because of the ban there are no images of lissom women enjoying cigarettes, no curls of smoke floating irresistibly upwards. The strapline reads simply, We’re not allowed to tell you anything about Winston cigarettes, so here’s something to pass the time.’  But it’s the text that followed that catches the eye.  Picture the scene…

You’re sitting on the train on your way home. You glance at the ad and read, We’re not allowed to tell you anything about Winston cigarettes, so here’s something to pass the time.’  You read the rest of the text and an idea sparks. You take out your notebook, (because you always carry one, don’t you?) and let your imagination go. By the end of the journey you have a serviceable character study…

  • Look at the person sitting opposite you.
  • Just a quick glance. Try not to stare.
  • What do you think they do for a living?
  • How much do you think they earn? 
  • More than you? 
  • Could you do their job? 
  • Think of 5 possible Christian names for them. 
  • And one nickname.
  • Are they married? 
  • Imagine their home. Their furniture. 
  • What do they keep on their mantelpiece?  
  • What colour bathroom do they have?
  • Consider the ANY DISTINGUISHING MARKS section of their passports. What does it say? What should it say? 
  • Where are they heading now? And why? 
  • To meet somebody? Who? For what reason
  • Do they look like they’re late?
  • And if they suddenly leant forward and offered to buy you dinner, what would you do?

 

I’ve tried this as an exercise with my writing group and it always gets good results. It forces everyone to think a little outside the box and consider alternative character traits. It acts as a catalyst, igniting the imagination and sending it off in unusual directions.

Works every time, often with very interesting results.

A Word of Encouragement

arvon-note1Sorting out the vast amount of paper that regularly accumulates in my writing room can be a very time-consuming task, not least because I do like to re-read what I’m about to throw away (well, you never know, do you?) During one epic clearance I came across this little missive. Continue reading

Things I’ve Learned Along the Way

christmas-cactus2After a rather bruising journey to the publication of my second novel, my writing mojo has gone temporarily AWOL, so I thought I’d step away from my current project for a while and look back on my writing odyssey instead. This is a rewrite of an old post but the advice is still relevant.

In my experience, writing isn’t a life choice like exercise, or dieting, or what colour your hair should be this week. We don’t decide to become writers any more than we decide to become a man or a woman (well, most of us, anyway). By the time we’re ready to make such a conscious decision, writing has already made the choice for us. It’s a compulsion: innate, instinctive and as inevitable as death and taxes.

Here’s what I’ve learned thus far. Continue reading