Pet Peeves and Good Advice

As writers, we have to balance a number of balls from the time an idea first forms to the post-publication promotion period. There’s the plotting of our story, the research that needs to be done, the actual writing of it. That’s followed by editing, promotion, finding the right cover, preparing for publication, publication, ore promotion. Then there’s the business end of making sure taxes are taken care of, supplies are bought, receipts are kept, etc. At each point along the way, it’s easy to take a misstep.

One of my pet peeves is when a writer fails to do their research. I’ll wall legal thrillers where the author doesn’t know courtroom procedure. Same with cop stories where the only research the author has done is to watch cop shows on TV. But where I really have issues are with historicals. It doesn’t matter if we’re talking historical romance or fantasy or family sagas. If a story is rooted in a specific historical timeframe, I expect the author to do their homework and be true to the time.

I won’t necessarily wall a book because the writer got the name of an article of clothing wrong, mainly because I won’t know the name myself without looking it up. But, day-um, get the society, economic and political structures right. Borrowing an example someone on this blog was talking about the other day, if you write Regency romances and your characters are royalty, know what their day would be like. Know who in the household would have what duties.

And, for the love of all that is holy, know that there were NO grocery stores in Regency England. There were markets and specialty stores. But there wasn’t a supermarket.Kindle or not, that book would have been walled had I been reading it.

Along the same line, as writers we need to be prepared to face criticism if we write future based stories that don’t fit our readers’ world view. This is something I learned first-hand when I published Vengeance from Ashes. I received messages, and a few reviews, from readers who didn’t believe a woman could be a front line Marine in the future. It wasn’t that these readers were sexists. They raised good points about the differences in the physiology differences between men and women.

It was something I noted when I wrote the later books in the series and did my best to answer better than I did in that first book. In the Honor & Duty universe, as with so many military sci-fi books, Marines wear various versions of power armor. Some of it is heavy armor, almost mech-like armor. These are your heavy gunners, your tanks that clear the way. Others wear lighter armor but it is still power armor, designed to augment a person’s strength, etc. These same Marines have various implants that improve eye sight, improve reaction time, tie them into the comm-net, etc. Each of those implants will be possible in the future, based on the state of technology today.

So, please, do your research. Don’t assume that because something exists today–or doesn’t, in the case of science fiction–it exists in the time of your book.

Now for some good advice. This comes from Libby Sternberg in an open letter to James Daunt, the new head of B&N. Each of her points is something Daunt and B&N’s new owners should take to heart:

  • Sell Books

    That seems pretty self-evident but, based on the current state of B&N stores, it is something that needs to be said. It means going back to what made B&N great for years. They focused on books, not on gadgets and gifts and other items. Books were up front and the focus of the store. In other words, if you call yourself a bookstore, you need to be a bookstore.

  • Advertise Your Wares

    Again, another duh! But think about it. How often do you see an ad for B&N? I couldn’t tell you the last time I did. For a company struggling to find its place in the market, that’s unforgivable. You don’t want the only time people hear about you being when they read about your latest round of troubles. You want to frame the narrative, not have it framed for you.

  • Advertise the Bookstore Experience

    Before you do this, you have to make the experience an enjoyable one. Go back to the days when there were sitting areas outside of the coffeeshop where customers could relax and skim through books or magazines. Train your employees so they are knowledgable about your stock and can recommend books if a customer says they like Author A and need something new to read. Give them a reason to come to the store and browse because then you have the very real chance of impulse buys being made. But, for that to happen, you have to get the customer through the doors. So give them a reason to come.

  • Help Readers Find Books

    This means more than just pointing readers to the right section in the store. It means having a varied stock that meets the needs and wants of your local clientele. It means arranging, as Sternberg said, for quick and easy delivery of books not in stock to the store or to the customer’s home. If a book isn’t in stock, B&N is instantly in competition with Amazon. This is the new ownership’s chance to steal customers away by giving them an in-person experience they enjoy along with the ease of ordering a book and having it show up at the store or their home in a day or two without any muss or fuss.

  • Mix Things Up

    The article’s author got me thinking on this one. Apparently in stores Daunt runs in the UK, books are shelved in a less restrictive way than they are here. Say you want a book about Russia, to use the author’s example. You go to the part of the store where Russia is the focus. There you will find non-fiction and fiction books. You might find a biography of Catherine the Great next to a copy of one of Pasternak’s novels. This is a great way to get readers to look outside their comfort zone and increases the chance for those impulse buys so many retailers rely on.

And the one that really struck home to me:

  • Recognize that Writers are Customers

    Yes, yes, yes and YES!

    Make it easy for us to publish our books and sell them in your online storefront. But go further than that. Don’t turn your nose down at Indies, assuming we aren’t as talented and our work isn’t as well read as traditional authors. Give shelf space to local authors, traditional and indie alike. Don’t make it impossible for us to hold events in your stores. As noted in the article, if you help us make money, we will help you do the same.

Finally, when considering how long your book should be there are a number of factors to consider. But first things first. If you are trying for a traditional publishing contract, simply check the publisher’s website. The word count, format requirements, etc., is almost always listed there. However, when you are going indie, there aren’t such guidelines and often all you’re told is to make the story as long as it needs to be. But what does that mean?

And isn’t that the million-dollar question?

in one way, the right answer is you write the book as long as it needs to be written. In another way, that answer is total crock. Why? Because it doesn’t deal with questions like:

  • What do the readers of your genre or sub-genre expect?
  • What price are you going to attach to the book and is that price based on length?
  • Do you have scenes or even chapters that, while well-written (or not) fail to progress the plot?
  • Conversely, do you have a lot of exposition that would be better suited if used as a scene or chapter where you action show the action instead of simply having a character tell someone else about it?

Those are questions only you can answer but I urge you to take a long, hard look at your work and ask those questions. They are also part of your research. You need to know what the market expects, not just the traditionally published market but those reading indie books as well. You need to know what the best price is for your book–and that isn’t always the price that will get you the most money per sale. You need to take a hard look at your work and make sure you aren’t spending page after page on something that not only doesn’t push the plot forward but that takes the reader out of the story.

In other words, you have to remember that, while you are writing a story you like, you are also writing for your readers. If you can’t hold their attention, you risk losing sales through poor reviews or through the loss of readers who would otherwise have bought your next book.

On that note, I’d best get back to work. There are books to write and edit and promote and, well, you get the idea. Until later!



  1. There is a historical series that I have come close to walling because the author kept making small goofs – like referring characters staying in a hotel – in the mid 1750s, in the north of England. Would have been more accurate to have them staying in an inn … or at lodgings. Anything but a hotel.

    1. Yep. That sort of thing drives me up a wall and is so easy to prevent. If it is an indie publication, you could almost put it off on the possibility the author didn’t have a knowledgable beta reader or editor to check the book. But if it is a traditionally published series, there is no excuse. That is something that should have been caught in edits.

    2. (Nods) Whenever you’re writing something that isn’t set in our present, ask yourself if the vocabulary and style you’re using actually sounds true to the time period. If you don’t know, use the giant information hose we call the Internet and look up when a word was first used.

        1. And if there’s been semantic drift, you may be stuck. Broadcast originally MEANT throwing the seeds about instead of tucking them in place, but the idea that your medieval character would broad cast news instead of telling a few souls would throw people out of the story.

  2. > legal thrillers … cop shows

    To be fair, the details vary a *lot* between jurisdictions. Even the basics like being arrested and charged. And I’ve *been* to court, and observed in person how different courts operate. In general, more like “Night Court” than “Perry Mason.” And if your ideas of the legal system comes from high school civics or “American government” classes, or maybe business law, you’ll likely be in for an unwelcome dose of reality.

    1. I’m well aware of that. But, coming from a legal background, there are some things you know are basically the same across the country, certain rules of law, procedures, etc. The things that make for “good TV” don’t mean they are real when it comes to actually practicing the law or being a cop, etc. Those “good TV” moments are usually what drive me crazy. It’s like the CSI-type programs that managed to get DNA results in minutes a decade ago.

      1. I believe i have discussed my peeves with police procedurals and not knowing the basics of jurisdictional; gun laws…

      2. Even where I am willing to suspend a LOT of disbelief, there can be “alright, that’s too far.” My example is the Flintstone’s cartoon. Alright, “cavemen” and dinosaurs co-exist and the dinos are pets/machine-substitutes. Names riff on contemporary names. Bird-phonograph, shell-telephone handset, mini-mammoth vacuum cleaner.. alright, it’s a cartoon, I can deal with all that. The rear axle should have fallen out. Tweak history and biology (more than) some, but physics is physics is physics. I could deal with the moon-men easily, but that rear axle staying in place? NOPE!

        1. Ox observant! However, to the (rare) extent I bothered to think about that one, I assumed the wheels rotate independently on a fixed rear shaft, which is fixed into the wyes of the frame with bindings (not shown at this level of detail).

  3. If you write fantasy, find Diane Wynn Jones _Tough Guide to Fantasy Land_ and read it. She hits a lot of the wall-points you find too often in fantasy novels: horses as machines, gold coins used for everything, boots that never leak, stew as the only food, all the roads are perfectly smooth and well maintained…

    I’ve become especially sensitive to in-world economics and trade, but there’s a reason for that :).

    1. That’s an excellent reference book and one I often recommend.

      As for in-world economics, totally agree, especially when it comes to fantasy. Not everyone is a farmer or shop keeper or royal. Roads aren’t all paved and windows don’t all have glass, etc.

      1. Barbara Hambly talked about world-building and said that she picked a time period similar to her story universe to use as a model for her fictional universe.

        Of course, IIRC she is a historian.

        In her first Darwath novel, she mentioned the characters moving glass for windows from one location to another location.

        1. I recommend reading lots of history, particularly primary source, just to pick up details like those windows that you would never think to research.

  4. I used you as an example in a recent discussion about the modern tendency to attribute superhuman fighting abilities to females, particularly in movies, but in general as well.
    In your case all your very competent females still exhibit human failings, doubts, make mistakes, but overcome them as should be the case in a well told story. And where they demonstrate abilities beyond the norm there are valid reasons, training, magic, shape shifting, and those powered military augmentations.

  5. “If you are a bookstore, sell books.” Damn right! I watched a place in $HOOTERVILLE die by failing to do something that seemingly simple and obvious.

    And I recall two conversations about WKRP in Cincinnati. Both with people who worked at radio stations. One insisted that it was nothing at all like that. The other claiming the show nailed it. My suspicion is that the truth is that the show was generally right, but amplified a few things – much like the Great Loudness Argument says about ruining the dynamic range of music, by ‘expanding’ things to the rails as much as possible.

    1. Which side of the GLA are you on? The “TURN IT UP!!!” side or the “dynamic range” side?

      I hate when they record “loud” because then there’s no difference between a vocal and a bass drum hit. All the same volume. Sounds like bears screaming into a sock.

Comments are closed.