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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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

A Sense of Place

giants-causeway1I was recently on holiday in Northern Ireland, where we visited the Giant’s Causeway on a wet and windy day. I was intrigued to see that the car park was laid with a hexagonal brick-weave, reflecting the basalt columns that make up the Causeway. I don’t think I’ve ever noticed a car park surface before. It’s only when we go on holiday, take a walk in unfamiliar territory, move to a new neighbourhood, that we actually take a note of our surroundings. We don’t realise how little we notice our immediate environment until we change it. And this can have a big impact on our writing. Continue reading

Swimspiration – how exercise can help your creativity

swimmingpool

Conscious that this writing lark is not very conducive to maintaining a decent level of fitness, I recently started swimming again. Now I don’t have a pool of my own, so when I was invited to join some friends in their time-share slot at a local private establishment, I jumped at the chance to use a pool that I didn’t have to share with the world and his wife (and their children). Even better, the next week none of my friends could go, so I went on my own.

Brilliant, I thought. I’ll have the pool to myself; I’ll get that all-important exercise, and I’ll be able to devote some serious thinking time to the development of my new novel, unhindered. That’s the good thing about swimming: the very mindlessness of ploughing up and down frees your brain to wander.  You can concentrate on nothing but the number of lengths you’ve covered, but if you’re a true daydreamer, you can use the time much more effectively.

Or that’s what I thought. Swimming alone turned out to be a very spooky experience indeed. Continue reading

The Plot Thickens

We’ve had some good sessions discussing plot in the writing group lately, which is useful as I’m midway through the first draft of my next novel. The outline, plot and its overarching narrative has been established, but the story needs a subplot or two to allow me to explore the characters’ personalities more deeply and examine their motivations. I also need to be clear on the story. A plot doesn’t make a story but for there to be a story, something’s got to happen. I was all set to share some thoughts last week. Then life got in the way.

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Making Crime Pay

No, I’m not suggesting actually going out and holding up your local post office or committing a murder. I mean, writing a crime story or even a novel, where you can let your imagination run riot. I couldn’t kill someone in real life – apart from the occasional parking ticket I’m usually a law-abiding individual. But in my head it’s quite a different story: I can visualise all kinds of lives lived on the other side of the law and all manner of grisly ends for a variety of people, some deserving, some not so much.

There are various forms of crime fiction and the choice of form and plot is huge. Should I write a police procedural, with a protagonist on the police force, like Peter James’ Roy Grace or Mark Billingham’s Tom Thorne? Should it be a traditional whodunit, when we get to know the identity of the perpetrator at the end of the book, or perhaps the more modern inversion, where the crime and the identity of the perp is revealed at the start and the novel describes the attempts to solve the mystery.

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A moment in time

An interesting event this afternoon. Actually, ‘event’ is too grand a word for it. It was more of a moment in time, but quite a strange one all the same.

This week we’ve had some old friends and their children staying with us. Today being the last day of their visit we decided to hire a couple of canoes and paddle up the river to the pub, where we would have lunch. There was a break in the clouds and the sun shone on our little expedition; the river was calm and almost empty of other river craft. Our journey through the bucolic countryside was punctuated with wildlife and the city-dwelling kids were enchanted.

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