How NOT to Write

Most of us know enough about writing to get by. When we take up this craft, we learn about characterization, settings, plots – a whole laundry list of concepts that go into a book.

Many of these things can be learned by reading other, well-written novels and short stories, and extrapolating from there, with occasional references to more standard teaching materials- lectures, diagrams, articles like the ones here at MGC. This is how I learned to write, for better or worse.

But most of us are dipping at least a toe into the world of indie publishing, where there’s no one to catch you if you write something absurd, like Sarah’s favorite example of the Regency duchess who took the carriage and went grocery shopping (in defense of the author, that book is apparently very popular, so he/she must be doing something right).

I propose to compile here a list of ‘little things.’ Things that should or shouldn’t go in a book, but don’t rise to the level of needing an entire post for each one. There will be large numbers of caveats, and much abuse of the words ‘but,’ ‘however,’ and ‘under some circumstances, this is okay.’ And since I won’t think of all of the items that should be here, please add your own in the comments, keeping it civil, of course.

Without further ado:

-Don’t have your modern character get in his car and sing along to a popular song. It dates the book and, without fail, a portion of your readers hated that song and think it’s the worst thing ever. Make up your own lyrics or structure the scene differently, so the karaoke session can be cut.

-Avoid brand names. There are some words, like Xerox, aspirin, and Kleenex, that have entered into our day-to-day vocabulary; these are usually okay, as long as they’re period appropriate. But the Apple/android battle is too polarizing and too young; have your character talk on a mere smartphone.

-In-jokes. A long running series can have jokes that refer back to previous books, but try to avoid jokes that make sense only to you, the author, no matter how funny you think they are.

-References to celebrities, politicians, or other famous people. So your character looks like Taylor Swift. That’s fine. But don’t say that to the reader; he’ll wonder if you’re referring to the cute little country singer from next door or the slinky pop star who turned herself into a man for her latest music video. While the reader is wondering about that, he’s not paying attention to the story. And inevitably, at least one reader will hate the celebrity you’re trying to lovingly describe, or vice versa. Stick to more general description- hair, eyes, dress, mannerisms.

-Research your setting, both space and time. Entire books have been written about this, so I’ll just say that even your middle class suburban life isn’t necessarily typical of middle class suburbs. Get outside the box and look up all those weird details that you think you know.

-Mood-killing description. This is tricky, because there are some genres that make hay out of bait-and-switch adjectives. Interestingly, this is common in humor and horror; why is an exercise I’ll leave up to you, dear reader. But in general, use description that’s in keeping with the mood you want to set. If your MC calls a neighbor’s carpet ‘vomit-brown,’ your next sentence probably shouldn’t talk about how pretty the carpet is and how the MC wants one of her own just like it.

Okay. That’s hardly an exhaustive list, but it’s a good start. Add your own in the comments. What (small, general) pet peeves do you dislike seeing in a book? What details make you smile and say, “Hey, that author knows what he’s talking about”?

87 comments

  1. References to celebrities, politicians, or other famous people.

    Especially if you’re making a “political statement” in your reference to the politician.

    IE: Your villain resembles Trump so you “think” you’re going to get the Anti-Trump readers.

    Of course, you’ve lost the Trump supporters. 😈

    Oh, one SF author had two “intelligence officers” comment on that crazy American President (Reagan) who almost started a Nuclear War.

    What’s funny is that one of the “spies” was American and the other was from the Soviet Union. 😆

    1. “Especially if you’re making a “political statement” in your reference to the politician.”

      This. I think it came up in a discussion on one of Sarah’s threads last week – it was as if there was something in the contract for British writers in the 80ies to make at least one snide reference to Margaret Thatcher, even if it had nothing at all to do with the plot. There was a British mystery writer whose books I loved – Robert Barnard – and one of his best books (“Out Of The Blackout”) had a very jarring insertion of this kind.

    2. I called It “The Jan-Michael Vincent Rule” because I sometimes read older novels that threw in his name as a shorthand description of a character’s looks. I had NO IDEA who JMV was, and still don’t really after looking him up.

      1. The Jan-Michael Vincent Rule is the perfect name. Ironically, I would have known who that was when I was a kid, because I watched “Air Wolf.” But when a middle-grade book said the heroine’s big brother looked like John Travolta, I was clueless. Apparently he was good looking, but I simply made up a description because I had no other detail than that the young man looked like some guy I’d never heard of. Then “Look Who’s Talking” came out, and I figured it out. I liked my description better 🙂

        1. I recall pa referring to “Revolta” – and musing on ‘American Crappola’ (instead of Graffitti) and pondering large hogs terrorizing the midwest in not Jaws, but ‘Jowls’.

  2. OH I am an expert at that

    oh wait, that would be ‘how to not write’ wouldn’t it?

    1. You have no idea how close I was to writing a post on that, instead of this one. The ideas were not flowing very well this week.

  3. honestly, I dunno. the player piano in Westworld that plays mostly late 90s grunge covers is an interesting affectation. John Ringo’s books are filled with injokes and pop culture references, and Larry’s books can be, too. Sometimes they’re subtle, sometimes not.

    1. I suspect that the Key is “Would The Story Work If The Reader Missed The Reference/Joke”?

      1. As someone pointed out about _Ready Player One_: Readers who played the games will love it. Fifteen years later, it won’t make sense to the 15-25 year old reading and gaming cohort. So large chunks of the story will go “thud.”

      2. That’s a big thing. As an example, consider.. Moose and Squirrel. No, really… I recall watching Bullwinkle as a kid and being amused. And *decades* later watching again and realizing there was an entire a layer of humor I’d missed the first time ’round. BUT… that I missed it, didn’t truly hurt things back when.

        1. That show was completely full of references that the children it was allegedly for wouldn’t get (but the adults who were watching would). For example, the kid would not necessarily appreciate why the jeweled boat named Omar Khayyam brings on a difference when it gets referred to as “The ruby yacht of Omar Khayyam” — but the adult would. And, of course, it has a specific timebinding reference to the 50s (when the episode was written) which a modern viewer is likely to skip over completely — there’s a body of water called the Veronica Lake.

          The first part of the story (main stories took many weeks, with short episodes continuing into a single story) is online at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0kL7uZoHdu0

      3. “The sky was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.”

        That was a massive faceplant of an opening sentence. It was close to two decades after that before I found out the author didn’t mean “dots of black and white static.”

          1. Yeah, it wasn’t until decades later, in an interview linked off slashdot that I learned he meant the blue screen, not static.

            I really liked the phrase, as I pictured that tumbled grey and thought it worked perfectly as a cyberpunk reference and a grimy port. (At the time I lived downwind of a coke plant. I understand grime.) Since the sunniness or lack of sunniness made no impact on the story, the misunderstanding worked just fine.

            1. He couldnt have meant the blue screen. When the book was written, a dead channel was static not blue- the blue screen is from a digital tuner. IF Gibson said so later, he’s retconning.

  4. If you’re going to portray politicians and parties you’re not a member of, take the time to do the most basic possible research on them and run a sanity check. For example, No Republican in modern day modern time is ever going to run, much less win, on a slogan of “Make the South 1861 again.”

    I mean, seriously? That’s when you completely lose me as a reader, because the assumptions in your world-building indicate that you are so… blind in your hatred, that anything else I read is going to be an exercise in holding my nose and constantly dodging your blind hatred smacking me in the face. Also, I immediately know who your bad guy is going to be, and your story question is solved. Just find the Republican, and add some racist/sexist/homophobic justification for making your victim virtuous.

    *grumbles in disappointed reader after terrible short story from author who should have been better, damnit.*

  5. There impulse to have your first-person narrator stand in front of the mirror and describe themselves to the reader should be shunned. I haven’t seen that one make it into too much actually published stuff, but it drives me nuts when I see it.

    1. I actually used that in a short story recently. I couldn’t come up with another way to convey a woman who looks Italian with a Scottish name early in the story.

      I’m not proud of this, but I didn’t know what else to do.

      1. Which means her appearance was at least kind of important. I’m assuming there was no way to have another character twit her about it?

        1. For the entire first story, she’s alone or with people she just met. I couldn’t think of any other way to get that information to the readers.

    2. I’m doing that in a work in progress.

      Our heroine is desperately trying to convince herself that she will not, in fact, grow up to be fairest of them all.

        1. A good writer can break most any rule and make it work.

          I love the story about Jim Butcher and his two series. In Dresden Files, Bob the Skull is a talking head who gives information to the reader!

          “As you know Bob, potions are an important part of magic.”
          “Yes, and if you make them using the smell of money you can be lucky!”

          And the Furies of Calderon is the “Lost Roman Legion” meets “Pokemon.” Also the “Lost Prince” and “Farmboy Leaves Home.”

          1. A good writer can break most any rule and make it work.

            Rules are made to be broken… when you understand why they are there, what the risks are, and the many, many ways it can go wrong.

      1. Mary – I’m betting you can pull that off! After all, that’s not just tripping down the trope path, that’s hanging a lampshade on it!

        1. bats eyelashes

          Why, what is so odd about Snow White’s younger half-sister worrying about that? Especially when Snow White is still out like a light?

  6. Be careful with slang and jargon. One is time and location dependent, and the other is education and/or training dependent.

    I’m not saying don’t use it, just be careful.

    1. “OK” is so hard for me to avoid. My favorite alternative is “QX” from The Lensmen.

          1. According to Bill Bryson in “The Mother Tongue,” there are many competing stories for the origins and evolution of “OK.” They mostly contradict. I will stay agnostic. Fun fact: Bryson also claims OK is perhaps the one word whose pronunciation, definition, and grammar is universal. It is found in every existing language. “OK” sounds and means the same to an Inuit and a Berber and a monk in Tibet.

            1. What has this to do with going old school? A lot of old-fashioned things were invented on the spot. . . .

  7. Avoid metaphors that are not natural to the point of view character.

    This can be tricky, because you may not realize that to have a strong suit, you need to have cheap paper, so you can have playing cards, so you can have bridge. Or that not only low-hanging fruit but windfalls require fruit trees.

    But I once read a medieval-England-setting work where a woman spent a long paragraph arguing to herself that a man looked at her like a man lost in the desert toward water, instead of briefly saying that he looked like a storm-tossed mariner who finally spotted land, or a traveler in a night forest who spotted a light, or a peasant in a drought when a rainstorm blew up.

    1. Reminds me of a drive in the Dakotas, during a blizzard. Had to get off the Interstate (was closed) but the side.back roads were not. Was rough going in spots. At one spot in North Dakota, one lonely ILLUMINATED Christmas tree was a truly wonderful sight to behold. It wasn’t much. It was a long, long way to the house (how much wire did they use to light it?!) but that simple, “you are not alone” was impressive just then.

  8. I’m pretty sure I broke every one of those except mood-killing description.

    I’m sure I wrote “Yngvi’s Delousing Clinic” somewhere, which is the in-est in-joke ever afaik. The characters all get “Blackberries” which are (sadly) no longer a thing. Therefore the Blackberry is the most amazing and unhackable phone EVAR!!!

    There’s also a joke about the Hamilton Mountain which I stole from Johnny Wayne and Frank Schuster. People who are not from Hamilton are never going to get that one. But it doesn’t change the story, its mostly “local colour.”

    As usual, I’m doing it wrong. ~:D

    I did refrain from putting any political party names or hatred of specific people by name, because when other people do that I won’t buy the book. Readers can figure it out from the damn-fool behavior of those characters and the context. Or they can insert their own most-hated guy in there. Besides, it doesn’t really matter which party he belongs to if the idiot ordered an airstrike on a fusion powered tank as big as a Walmart store, does it?

  9. Diane Duane’s Young Wizards series has an example of dating without the use of brands in her first book in the series. A minor character sneers that Nita doesn’t have a color TV in her house in the original edition of the book; in a newer version, I think it was changed to a plasma TV. It amused me.

    1. I gotta say, I’m getting really tired of reading stuff and about four “huh?” buy-ins that add nothing to the story later but are hard to swallow, I realize that the author was shoe horning something they wrote when cellphones, the internet and sometimes laptops weren’t a “thing” into a “modern” setting.

      It’s especially bad since those authors always seem to have their mental state of the world frozen at the point when my mother was in high school, not realizing it’s two generations later.

    2. A minor character sneers that Nita doesn’t have a color TV in her house in the original edition of the book; in a newer version, I think it was changed to a plasma TV.

      I’ll admit that these sort of updates are one of my pet peeves. I generally think its better to go ahead and let the story become an unintentional period piece than try to keep shoving in technology to update it.

      1. Re-reading a work can be fun. Realize that the references to computers have made it a period piece. . .

        Also, you want a sequel to be a period piece, too, even if you write it three decades later. Sorry, if the world is clearly in the 1960s — the prices if nothing else giving it away — the characters won’t have cell phones in the next book, clearly a year or so later.

        1. You mean things such as Kimble Kinneson on Tellus III using a CARD SORTER to find top scientists. I laughed and laughed.

          1. While published much later, I laughed at some scenes in Piper’s Cosmic Computer (after they found the supercomputer Merlin).

            Merlin could answer almost any question but the operators had to translate the question into machine language first (a task that took hours).

            Once the question was feed into Merlin, the answer came out in seconds but the operators had to translate the answer from machine language into “human” language (again a task that took hours).

            The comment was made that Merlin could not translate human questions into machine language and could not translate the answers into “human” language.

            Of course, now days the computers can translate human questions into machine language and output answers that are human readable.

            Of course, when Piper wrote the story, computers couldn’t do that so his supercomputer couldn’t do it. 😈

          2. No, things like the characters in Castle Perilous having exactly the computers they would have had.

      2. I get the reason why she had that done though. There was a huuuuge gap between the first four books, and when she picked up the series again, IPods were a thing. Plus the Harry Potter resurgence in interest in YA books. I have the older copy somewhere, but I had to chat with my son that while Nita’s sister could fight back in self defence, kids can’t do that these days unfortunately. (Unintentionally dating the series too.)

    3. I wanted to reread Stephen King’s The Stand but the “update” was so hideously bloated, PLUS he added in cellphones and modern touches. I ended up hunting down the original, in which so much depended on land-lines not working and people hanging onto broadcast news for guidance.

      1. Yeah, some plot bits don’t work in updated versions.

        In retrospect, what really dates that series is the ability of the main characters to go off into New York City by themselves, all on their own, to go to the museum or the library, without someone siccing CPS on their parents in the early books. They’re teens in the later books, and one of the MCs has a discussion with her mom about miniskirts.

  10. Some of my pet peeves (and sadly, they are all common tropes.)

    Opening a story by introducing a character who is just there to be killed.

    The only person who has the knowledge/skills needed to do the job is the main character’s ex-spouse, so they have to work together.

    The character’s superior seems to betray the character, but it’s just a ruse to lure the bad guys out into the open.

    Introducing a character in a moment of weakness and bad behavior in order to show that people can change and grow. (Honestly, when I hear the words “character arc” I reach for my pistol.)

    1. The only person who has the knowledge/skills needed to do the job is the main character’s ex-spouse, so they have to work together.

      During my first ever backpack through Europe trip, I picked up and read almost all of Robert Ludlum’s books. They were quick, fluffy reads with enough action to keep me interested. But in every single one of them, Jason Bourne or somebody else, had to get his ex-wife to help. Every. Single. One. I don’t know that I would have noticed it if I hadn’t read so many in a row. But, geez!

    2. You never get a second chance to make a first impression. Introduce a character in a typical moement.

    3. “Introducing a character in a moment of weakness and bad behavior in order to show that people can change and grow…”
      I dunno – I had a lot of fun with that, introducing a major character by having him stagger out of the Stinson Field Airport with an empty bottle of Cristal in his hand, and start throwing up into the bushes by the bicycle rack … and then, twenty-four hours later, galloping stark naked across a goat pasture, followed by a friendly baby goat.
      The character had nowhere to go but up, after that

      1. Celia – you pulled it off well, but a lot of authors I’ve… well, I hesitate to say I’ve read, because erasing the sample before I got much past the third page, or in some cases, by the end of the blurb (not even downloading the sample)…

        …they clearly decided “I shall make the character extra low and disgusting and mean and stupid and otherwise objectionable, so that they have lots of room in the character growth arc.”

        But if there’s nothing interesting or redeemable enough in the character to make me care whether or not they get better? I’m not going to stick around for the growth arc.

  11. Finish the story. I’ve read far too many books where the hero defeats the bad guy, solves the mystery, or whatever is appropriate for the genre, and then the author just stops writing. It’s like ending Star Wars after Luke destroys the Deathstar rather than after the medal ceremony.

    There’s a reason Hero’s Journey ends with a return to the normal world. It’s only in the return that we can see how the adventure changed the hero. Skip that and you skip the ultimate payoff to your entire story.

    1. That non-ending or non-resolution is something I loathed about some later 60’s/early 70’s or such movies I used to see on TV. The end was…. “well, we’re about of film, let’s just stop here” it seemed. HUH??

      1. Worse are/were the Horror Movies where “The Monster Isn’t Dead”. 😡

        1. That’s so they can do endless sequels, of course.

          At least Hammer always killed Dracula once and for all . . . until the next time.

          1. IMO That’s only part of it.

            One of the classic themes of Horror is “The Evil Is Defeated” along with “The Proper Order Is Somewhat Restored”. (The Evil in Horror is something outside the Proper Order.)

            I believe that many Movie Makers don’t like “Good Guys Defeating The Evil Guy” and perhaps believe that “Proper Order Shouldn’t Be Restored”.

            Sure Hammer loved “bringing back Dracula” but understood that Dracula had to be clearly defeated at the end of the movie.

      2. The end of Niven’s “Ringworld” made me wonder if pages were missing from the end of the book. Other copies I found were the same. It ends at the bottom of a page (in my paperback edition), in the middle of a conversation…

    2. Skipping the falling action is a big problem. I’ve read a lot of stories where the writer puts in the climactic battle, finishes with the hero victorious, and then just ends the book. Admittedly, I like falling action more than most people (I adore both the Scouring of the Shire and Season 5 of Babylon 5), but I think very few people want it to be falling off a cliff.

    3. THAT was a style enforced by the publishers when I first broke in. I always try to have at least something after. Dan calls it “the cigarette moment”

  12. Back in the 1970s Pinnacle was a major publisher of “men’s adventure” genre books. Stuff like “The Penetrator”, “The Death Merchant”, etc. Most of them were “house series” designed by an editor and an author pool; a particular series might have three or four authors.

    At least one of the editors seems to have thought that “current events” might be a selling point, because they all, regardless of the specific author, began referencing then-current news, TV programs, etc. Forty-odd years later, some of the asides are head-scratchers. (and were to me then, too; I preferred to read instead of watching my parents’ choices in TV programs)

    I can’t say it didn’t work, but it makes for some odd moments reading them decades later. If you’re planning to ride the long tail you need to keep that in mind. And at a worst case scenario, someone else might go through and “update” your work to meet whatever current standards are, like the dirtbags who decided to edit out references to smoking in reprints of Piper’s work. That’s the greased slide down to Winston Smith’s job in “1984.”

      1. So do I. (*innocent look*) It’s totally authentic 19th century, innit? There’s even a character who observes that doctors say that it is good for the lungs.

        1. One of David Weber’s Haven characters smokes cigars (in a time & place where smoking isn’t common). 😉

  13. Unless you are writing script for an anime do not have the character pause in the middle of a crisis, where at any minute the time to the World Ending McGuffin is fizzing, to navel gaze, or worse, get into a emo discussion with another character about why You Never Loved Me.

    And if you have the characters get hog-filthy “on screen”, and you don’t plan to keep them that way for plot (ala The Silver Chair) for the love of all that is right and good let them wash up.

    1. Pulp detectives who got a couple of teeth knocked out in every book… after a while you start wondering how many teeth do they have, anyway? And the ones that take two or three bullets, or a major beating with broken bones, and then they’re back in action a few hours later.

      I know it was the style of the genre, but even as a kid I found it annoying.

      At least when one of Dick Francis’ characters got hurt, they usually stayed hurt through the end of the book. Francis had broken enough bones and been stepped on by enough horses to *know* how long recovering takes.

        1. Because these are Tough Guys and Manly Men; “Tis but a flesh wound” is part of the trope. You mere mortals might be moaning in pain, but not these guys. 😎

        2. Adrenaline.

          There was a case in the Napoleonic Wars where a man on horseback. noticed his leg had been blown off when someone pointed it out to him.

          But then the reaction after tends to be powerful.

    2. And the other day-to-day stuff: Eating, sleeping, and the bathroom. That was my big gripe about The DaVinci Code. That whole giant book takes place in 24 hours and not one character takes a break for anything.

  14. In fantasy, extraneous encounters with random things that are only there to be fought, felled, and forgotten. Usually happens during the sloughs of a journey. The march has gotten kind of long, the exposition and description starts getting a little too thick, and then, out of nowhere … “Look out!” The author rolls out a roving gang of orcs, or a mountain giant, or the dreaded (but heretofore unmentioned) Shrieking Blob of Certain Death, which must be battled for about four to five pages before inevitably being dispatched.

    I can usually spot these scenes in the first line that they appear and find it a challenge not to skip them over.

    1. Remember your characters know what sort of world they are in! Mr. Bilbo Baggins, in the safety of the Shire, knew that dragons tend to have soft bellies!

      Therefore, your characters ought to know the perils of the road. It should be a matter for planning. And your characters, if at all experienced in fighting, should be eyeing the way to consider what looks good for an ambush, and whether they could flee to a defensible location if attacked.

      On a wider scale, the characters should be aware that they don’t know what lies beyond the horizon, or that they do. One annoying series had an experienced traveler who always knew what the monsters were as soon as he met them, or the intelligent race and their customs, but never thought about them otherwise. Not even to think that a certain region is not so cosmopolitan as back home, having, oh, only orcs and humans.

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