So, because I’m broke and also in the middle of a book (which means I’m not looking for one-of-a-kind, unforgettable books, but for popcorn mysteries I can put down and work again), I’ve been reading a lot of books borrowed from Amazon’s program.
I’m finding about 50% books that are so good I have to “kill” them by reading the end, so I can work, and I still read the books, anyway. just not as urgently. Which is good, because then work happens.
But what about the other 50% (BTW I want to point out that a) I always bought popcorn books for when otherwise really busy. I don’t do anything else for fun. I just read. I’m BORING. The reason I’m looking for them in KULL is that it’s cheap and convenient. I used to find just as many from trad publishing, usually used. b) I actually am finding a higher level of readable here than browsing the shelves, because there’s less fad-following. If I happened to hate the fad, I often found very little to read.) Why don’t I like the other fifty percent?
Well, ten percent or so are unexplained. I just don’t get into them. No, I have no clue why. Why do you like some dishes and not others? Why do your tastes vary with season and mood? I don’t know.
However, for the other 40% I’ve found that there are broad categories of errors, from the massive to the small that just lead me to fling the book against the wall (virtually, since they’re on kindle.) And I thought I’d post them here, for the benefit (eh) of those of you working the word vines. I mean, whether you’re going traditional or indie, you REALLY should not pop your reader out.
I do want to point out a couple of things before I start:
A lot of these errors, particularly the horrendous ones with historical research are from books that were formerly traditionally published, so gatekeepers are not the answer — you have to do it.
Also, a lot of these books that make me grind my teeth and fling them away have great reviews, and some even sell well. So if you want to tell me to go suck on an egg, go for it.
It’s just that I think even those that have great reviews and sell relatively well are being kept back from true stardom by (sometimes) truly stupid errors.
And, hey, if you have a book out there and it’s not selling and you don’t know why it wouldn’t hurt to check some of the more subtle errors, because those, particularly, tend to throw people out without their knowing why.
So, in no particular order, here goes:
1- Anachronisms and bad history.
I don’t think this bothers everyone. After all the book set in the regency in which an aristocrat shoots a commoner in the middle of London and no one cares, because the dead man is a “peasant” has tons of good reviews, is a previously-published by prime-crime books, and seems to do quite well.
Maybe I’m one of the very few people who KNOWS that such a thing is more suitable to ancien-regime France than to enlightenment England.
And maybe I’m one of very few people who will throw the d*mn thing against the wall, when a female character in a different regency mystery characterizes the father of another character as a “misogynist” because he doesn’t believe women should be highly educated, and thinks women should get married and be mothers. For the unenlightened, in the regency that is called “normal male.” And it’s still NOT misogynist. If she’d called him “Gothic” or “conventional” or even “hide bound” all would be fine, but no, this probable graduate of an excellent college had to lapse into the lingo of her generation. And this reader for one was popped clear out.
2- Related but beyond the last: DO YOUR D*MN RESEARCH.
Sure Dan Brown got away with not doing it. (No, the worst possibly is the one involving the secret service. Never mind.) However, he had a huge marketing program behind him, which few of you (traditional or indie) will get. So–
Look, I’ll forgive a lot, particularly if it’s not the area of history that I know really well. There is a medieval mystery series (medieval oxford mysteries, if you want to look it up) that I SUSPECT kicks small details around. I can’t tell for sure, because it’s not my main area of expertise, and I don’t want to check because it might ruin the books, which are good.
However, there are limits, and even someone half-aware as I am of these things, will note an accumulation of wrong stuff, which is when my disbelief gets hanged by the neck till dead.
I gave the thriller with a “Roman” part of its story line a long leeway. I let the nanny named (I swear) Maria pass with “well, maybe they mean Miriam. Maybe she’s a Jewish slave.” A few other bits in the scene seemed off but I wanted to read the modern parts of the book, so I glossed over it. But the other household slave is called Amy, a name I know for a fact is relatively modern (maybe 200 years) and of French origin (from Aimee) and I also know that info is free on Behindthename.com.
But then we got to the little girl being introduced to the high priest, who says her name is Rufina AntoniO Whatever.
Oh, hell no. Even if she had to have her father’s name in there somewhere, she would be Rufina Antonia, and anyone knowing even a little bit of Roman conventions would know that. Book got walled. I still wanted to read the modern parts, but if I couldn’t trust the author, why should I trust anything else they said?
This applies to other things too, and has many applications: I’ve been thrown out by wrong words in a language I know, by mischaracterization of places I know (Oh, yeah, sure, Portugal is a South American country.) I’ve been thrown out by wrong procedures when one goes to emergency, by wrong procedures in an office, by bad economics of scale in a civilization.
Do your D*MN research. Sure, maybe you’ll get lucky and most of the rubes won’t notice. But that’s not the way to bet.
3- More subtly, make sure I’m not going “Where am I? Who am I?” like some victim of a traumatic accident.
Look, there are many books out there competing with yours, and if I get to the end of the third page without being captured, then I’ll put it down and move on.
So a) have an engaging character and an interesting situation on the first page b) make sure I know where I am.
Yes, there are ways to write three pages without anyone having any clue if it’s in the present, in the future, in an imaginary world.
Stuff like “Bornil came running through the undergrowth. The sky was green and ominous above” could be any of them. And yes, I’ve found it’s possible to continue in this style for pages.
Do me the kindness of making sure you’re describing the scene in your head, and not a generic scene.
Make sure we have a sense of where and when, but mostly of a problem your character must solve. This doesn’t have to be an Earth shattering problem but it must matter to the voice character. It could be something like picking breakfast: “Gia sat at the table, in the cafe, and wondered if she should have the croissant” gives us all the information we need to get on with, though you might want to describe the cafe in the next paragraph and use voice and tone so we know if it’s funny, serious, tragic or strange.
Long ago and far away, I was trained to be a journalist (yes, I ran screaming. Long story) and learned the Who When What and Why thing. Do try to apply it to your fiction too. If I don’t know these, I probably won’t care too much what you’re talking about.
If you have exceptional gifts with wording (careful there, the bar is higher than you think) you might capture my attention with a couple of descriptive paragraphs, talking about the weather or whatever, provided they set the mood and give a feel of what’s to come. But after that you have to give me something to sink my teeth into.
4- Have SOMETHING HAPPEN. For the love of heaven, something. Anything.
This mistake is more common in Romance than anywhere else, perhaps because people who are beginning writers think they don’t really need suspense. After all we all know the couple will end up together, right?
I mean you can just describe your GOOD GIRL character picking clothes, being compassionate, caring for children and kittens, and the main male character madly smitten and — YAWN.
This would all be fascinating, no doubt, if it were happening to ME. But it’s not. It’s a book. And I’d better have some reason to keep reading the book.
In general this is a reason to hope, fear or worry for the characters.
If you’re writing a romance and want to know how a GOOD GIRL can get in serious trouble without meaning to, read Arabella by Georgette Heyer. You’ll learn how to keep her interesting and sympathetic, too.
For popcorn books I sometimes go ten/twenty pages of the character doing nothing much, if it’s a nice character, but at some point I set that book aside. More importantly, I won’t remember the book. This is fatal, because if people don’t even remember the book, they’ll keep borrowing it and get mad at you, and might give you BAD word of mouth.
But Romances aren’t mysteries, you say. You don’t need to have “something” happen. Oh, surely you do. The test in a romance is how your character interacts with the other main character. Will she lie? will she cheat to get close to him? Will he misunderstand her?
Yes, I KNOW you hate to torture your characters. DO IT ANYWAY. You can reward them at the end, but it will keep people who don’t have them in their head anyway interested in their fates.
By the way, other genre authors do this too, just less frequently. If it’s a mystery give us some hint of where it’s going to go — if you’re not going to kill the character in the first chapter — or at least something interesting happening (Rebeca is fascinating, long before we realize there’s been a murder. Its fish-out-of-water character and her fears are interesting and we follow to see what will happen to her.) If it’s science fiction have the character want, need or care for something beyond “oh, cool, science”. And it it’s fantasy (the second most likely genre to get caught in this) have something beyond a cool world and magic system. We’ll love your world building when your character leads us through the world, not before.
5- Make your character interesting.
No, I don’t care if she’s a multiple Nobel prize winner who loves kittens and flowers. What I care about is WHAT DOES SHE NEED RIGHT NOW that the plot will prevent her from getting, and keep me reading to see how she copes with it, and if she gets what she wants in the end.
This goes beyond something happens. I have read books where the characters are thrown willy-nilly into the middle of wars, into the middle of murders, into the middle of natural cataclysms, but in which there was nothing to drive me to continue reading.
The something that happens must affect the character’s dearest needs or hopes. And we’re not talking about “I need a walk on the beach and hope for world peace.” Please. This is not a beauty contest.
What the character wants MUST be tangible (possible to picture) and attainable.
So, your character is dying for ice cream when the entire world’s technology gets fried and the world gets very hot. And your character REALLY wants ice cream. It’s a memory of childhood, it’s… something. So she has to do something to obtain it. That engages the reader.
If you have your character serenely watching everything, that means I yawn and move on.
6- STOP JUMPING HEADS THE WRONG WAY.
What? Ask the SF/F writers and readers, you mean there is a right way to jump heads?
In most other genres, other than sf/f no one cares if you jump into multiple characters’ heads, one at a time, paragraph by paragraph.
Don’t do it in the middle of a paragraph, it makes it hard to read.
BUT there is still a right way and a wrong way to do this. The wrong way is where you rob the entire story of interest and suspense.
Take a recent mystery. The scene is simple: man is closing out his bookstore, looks across and sees a taxi hit a child, the child thrown high in the air, and man knows it was intentional and he has to solve who did it and why. Right?
Except that it takes almost a chapter (I skimmed forward) to find out the man thinks it’s a murder and wants to solve it (and even then we have no reason to agree with him. It’s a “hunch.”)
In the first chapter we are in the head of the man closing the shop, the little girl crossing the street, the man driving the taxi, another man doing something (don’t remember if customer or employee) in a coffee shop, the eyes of (I SWEAR) a dog walking by, the mind of a woman going out shopping, and a few dozen others, all so fast, that you never get a coherent chain of feelings or a reason why you should care about this scene.
Yes, I do suspect the writer was laying out clues in the way different people saw the accident, but it is VERY important not to forget that your readers are human. Before they are engaged in solving the puzzle, they MUST want to, and the only reason for that would be being engaged with a character.
In romances too, it is a very bad idea to show that the couple really loves each other from the beginning and that there are no obstacles. So if the girl sees a major obstacle, don’t remove it in the man’s pov, or else introduce another, and make sure it’s not something that can be overcome by talking if they would.
7- The inevitable infodump. Dump it.
Seriously, even if your worldbuilding is the best thing ever, don’t give me 10 pages of it, upfront. Heinlein the information. Have your characters act as if the world is completely normal to them, and then give us the information by stealth, in dribs and drabs, in one sentence here and one sentence there.
Because this is something I too was very guilty of once upon a time, TRUST me that your readers need far less info than you think they do. Sure, they need to know where and when your character is, but they can wait to find out her world branched from ours in the thirteenth century. And even then, it might be hard to mention the Black Death never happened, unless they know of other worlds. You really don’t need to walk us through every detail of divergence. If the world is solid enough, we’ll read it, and you can save the “raised in a world where the black death never happened” for your Amazon blurb or your cover letter.
Under this heading, no giving us a list of protagonists upfront is not clever. People will either skip past or throw the book back. I’m a throw-backer. If your characters are not memorable enough that I need a reference, I don’t have time for the book.
No, a prologue isn’t clever. Prologues are sometimes needed, but they should be done amusingly (see Pratchett) not just infodumps.
No, maps aren’t clever. Yes, some readers (and writers) adore them. JUST DON’T MAKE THEM ESSENTIAL TO UNDERSTAND WHAT’S GOING ON.
Yeah I know, a lot of besteselling and GOOD authors have infodumps, but it’s like the other flaws: if you’re very lucky, you’ll get away with it.
Do you feel lucky? (Well, punk, do you?) Or are you going to rely on craft and remove every stopping point you can between your book and the reader?
I know which I’ll do.