“In Hollywood the woods are full of people that learned to write but evidently can’t read. If they could read their stuff, they’d stop writing.”
A confession: before I made the decision that I wanted to be a writer, I was reading very little. Most of my reading was confined to books related to my previous profession as an Intelligence Officer (so lots of reading on the histories of the Middle East and North Korea). It wasn’t long after separating from the military, as I settled into my new civilian job, that I decided I was going to also pursue my life long dream. To that end I decided that I needed to follow the truism that a writer has to be a reader as well. So since then I’ve read as much as I can, both traditionally published as well as independently published books.
Now it dawned on me as I’ve edited my most recent work that all that reading had an unintended consequence: I have found my skills at writing terrible scenes, poor dialogue, and boring characters actually being enhanced!
Ok, that’s a little backward. What actually had happened is that I found that there were certain common flaws in a lot of novels (particularly, as loath as I am to say it, in indie works) that increasingly grated on my nerves. To my dismay I would then occasionally find these same flaws in my own writing. So it became so very clear why it is that writers must be readers as well: I see a lot in other writers that I love, and a lot that I want to make sure that I avoid. I’ve captured three things that, when I come across them in a novel, make me cringe and potentially spoils the whole book.
Disclaimer: although it’s obvious, I want to emphasize that these flaws or blemishes are mostly my opinion. There may be some writers who can effectively incorporate the kind of writing I detail below into their narratives. If so, I don’t think I’ve found them yet.
1. Spelling it out. This is something I was able to weed out of my current manuscript after reading it time and again in other novels. The scene typically is one where the hero/heroine is finally “getting it”, or is dealing with a complex issue within the story. Often there’s a group of people together. Then, to make sure none of the readers fall through the cracks of the plot, a character sums it up. “Let me get this straight,” he or she might say before neatly outlining the previous few hundred pages. Or “So what you’re your telling me is [insert critical plot revelation here].” I have yet to be illuminated by these comments, and so I usually feel like the author didn’t trust me or his/her own writing.
2. Just say it. (This is not a contradiction of the above…bear with me). I wish I could remember where I read this advice, but a couple of recent novels and short stories have had a problem with their characters saying things. As in “ “you’re kidding!” he said.” Some books read like the author made it a point that their characters will say nothing. They “exclaimed,” “barked,” “ordered,”… you get the idea. I am by all measures a novice writer, but if a novel appears to be afraid of the word “said”, I mark it as written by a newbie as well. That’s not the impression you want to leave with your reader.
3. Sweat the big stuff, but sweat the small stuff. This one is being preached daily by Indie authors, and so I’m jumping in on it too. Please don’t take any of the above comments as taking shots at my fellow writers. What all this boils down to is that writers are artists. We have grand ideas in our heads, and we’re trying to transfer it to paper (or into bytes, whatever). We get so excited to have our creativity or message into that ultimate physical incarnation that I think some things slip by us. So while I might have the most original sword and sorcery novel written in decades, if it’s littered with spelling errors, sentence structure problems, or even formatting issues, I’m at risk of turning off my reader. I know this because I get turned off every time I come across these. It happens way too frequently. I’m nearly finished with my first to-be self-published work, and I already feel the temptation to “speed up” the editing and review process in order to get it on the book shelves. This is almost certainly self defeating.
Of course, most of this is just the opinion of this writer. I’d like to hear what other writers, or better yet, readers, on what makes a novel unbearable for you.