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”?