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:
- 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.
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)
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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?
- 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.
- 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….?