Since January I've read over 50 books, many of them when I was laid up after an operation. The reading time was such a bonus that I didn't mind the lack of mobility! Along the way I've learnt a few more valuable lessons, and observed some oft-repeated errors I would like to share.
First of all, I'd like to thank Rayne Hall for this:
- Lots of descriptive words do not necessarily bring a scene to life. Making a scene come alive is an art, not a simple matter of having a large vocabulary of adjectives. I worry that I don't include enough description in my books, but I've read passages in which every time some guy walks down a road you can't get to the next bit of plot development without reading about what he can smell in the air, the colour of the stone the buildings are made from, the wild flowers he passes on the verge - I know creative writing classes tell students to be aware of these things, but it doesn't mean they all have to be included, regardless; perhaps they're best kept to creative writing exercises. In other words, it's a good idea to learn when you need description to convey atmosphere, and when it's holding up the action.
- I always feel irritated when reviewers mark down a book (any book) because they didn't like such and such a character, when you weren't meant to like him/her! A couple of times someone's said something to me like 'I did enjoyed 'Best Seller' but I'm afraid I didn't like Eden'. Um, no, I'd be worried if you did..... a book full of jolly nice people all being jolly nice to each other would be boring - but!!! You need at least one person that the reader can really, really like. I've had to think about making more of my characters likeable, sometimes; it's so much more fun to write baddies! But think about your favourite TV show; if you didn't actively like most of Rick's gang in The Walking Dead, you wouldn't care if they got killed by the zombies and/or Negan, would you? You've got to have someone to root for, whether they're saving the world from the undead, destroying a dragon, or just trying to get the guy in the corner shop to fancy them.
|It's never not a good time for a picture of Norman Reedus|
- Predictable sucks. Nothing makes me perk up and mentally prepare for giving a book another half or even a whole star than when it makes me say 'wow, I didn't see that coming!' Give me anything but withered old chestnuts like the heroine and hero getting off on the wrong foot and denying the sexual chemistry that their friends and the reader can see painted in huge red letters. A quick flick to the back of the book and there they'll be, snogging on the last page. Or the dedicated cop with an alcohol problem he's been fighting for ten years, whose methods aren't orthodox but get results. Similarly, it's a real disappointment when I've enjoyed a book but from the last 85-90% it's just a slow winding down, with nothing else happening. Not every book can have or needs a gut punching twist, but there's got to be something....
- The boring bits - cut 'em out. If a 'linking' chapter/page/paragraph was boring for you to write, it'll be boring to read, too. Be brave - try jumping into the next scene without all this: 'for the next three weeks, Joe and Sam carried on in much the same way; the days were moderately uneventful. Joe began his taxidermy course, and Sam handed in his notice at the strip club. He then got a job as a Sexy Fireman-o-Gram, and they put their plans together to go and rescue Princess Aurora from the Evil Baron's castle.' Cut straight to them rescuing Princess Aurora. You can fill in the info about Joe stuffing racoons and Sam taking his threads off for money, somewhere in the next bit. It just takes a bit of confidence and experience to realise that you don't have to tell the reader every damn thing!
- If you're changing POV (character point of view), there needs to be a reason for it. Now that multiple POVs is the new black, everyone's giving it a go, but if a change in POV doesn't add anything to the plot, all it does is to divert the reader from the main story. You also need to judge which POV a section is best told from, and make sure you have the ability to write in several different 'voices', or it just becomes confusing: "Hang on a minute, why's Joe taking his clothes off in that pub? Oh, of course, I forgot, this chapter is from Sam's POV. And how come the Evil Baron uses the same colloquialisms as two lads from Essex? So this is Joe walking down the tunnel, right? Oh no, he's wearing a skirt. Must be Princess Aurora." Another thing to watch is telling the same scene twice from two different characters' viewpoint. It's interesting, if the second person has a completely different outlook, but, again, the repeat of the same occurrences needs to add something else to the plot, or the novel can run the risk of becoming repetitive or too slow.
- Head-hopping. Just don't. This is when you start the chapter (or whatever) from Joe's point of view, placing the reader in Joe's head, feeling his fear and excitement as he enters the evil baron's castle to rescue Princess Aurora ~ then you suddenly, without any pause in the proceedings, move the reader into Aurora's head, telling us that she is feeling scared/excited/
struck by Stockholm Syndrome and actually wants to stay with the Evil Baron .I know that some consider this to be a choice of style, i.e., using the omniscient narrator, but you need to know exactly what you're doing to carry it off well. Otherwise, it's just confusing and reeks of 'amateur'; any decent editor should flag it up. If you want to change POV within a chapter/passage, it's best to leave a gap between paragraphs, or asterisks.
- Talent. Of all the elements that make a book a delight, pretty good, just okay or distinctly put-down-able, this is what much of it comes down to: whether the writer has the innate ability to write sentences that keep the reader wanting to turn the page. You can improve on what you have, but it can't be manufactured if it's just not there. Of course, we all hope we have it, and it's hard to tell if you do or not, or to what extent; reviews and book sales can give some indication but are not infallible. I've written more about this in my previous post on the subject, link in the first paragraph.
I reckon it was Stephen King who said something about not being able to be a good writer unless you read, and, whoever said it, it's so true. TV dramas and films help, as well, if you notice how a plot is constructed, how characters develop, and be aware of what works and what doesn't.