Happy IWSG Day! For those who are new here, I participate in the monthly Insecure Writers Support Group blog hop. This month’s optional question is: Being a writer, when you’re reading someone else’s work, what stops you from finishing a book/throws you out of the story/frustrates you the most about other people’s books?
The more I learn about the craft of writing, the more I read differently. I notice problems in other people’s writing to which I would have been oblivious before. Before, I might have noticed that I wasn’t really into a book, that the book didn’t hook me or engage me or hold my attention, but I might not have been able to tell you why. Now I can, and I’m going to proceed to do just that. Here we go:
7 Reasons Why I Will Hate Your Book
(or at least give up on it).
In no particular order:
- Unlikeable characters. I’m fine with antiheroes (in fact, I usually like them). I’m fine with flawed characters (no one likes a Mary Sue). But if your characters are all miserable, hateful, selfish, narcissistic, and/or annoying–and they never redeem themselves–I’m going to hate your book. I’m lookin’ at you, Gone Girl. Also Seinfeld, which, thankfully, never became a book. I don’t like to spend time with awful people–in real life or in fiction. But give your arrogant narcissist some genuine charm and vulnerability, and you’ll hook me. A great current example is Lucifer from the Netflix series of the same name (and based on a character created by Neil Gaiman). Lucifer is insufferable–but also funny and charming and adorable and emotionally vulnerable. He’s the literal devil, and he’s won me over entirely.
- Telling rather than showing, #1. “Show, don’t tell,” is clichéd advice, sure, but it became clichéd for a good reason. Sometimes brief narrative summary is necessary. I don’t need to see your character go through a bunch of mundane activities; just get him to the crime scene and get on with it. But beware of infodumps. Give me just as much backstory or setting or world-building as I need to understand the story, especially in the beginning. And even better, sprinkle it around, let a few vivid details stand in for the rest, and show them to me through the eyes of your viewpoint character instead of through your own. Also, beware of writing that reads like: this happened, and then this happened, and then this happened. Slow down enough to put me in the scene. Show me the setting, use sensory details to help me feel the burning heat or icy wind, and most of all, show me what the viewpoint character feels. More on that in the next item on my hate list.
- Telling rather than showing, #2. Telling about emotions instead of showing them. Sometimes it’s OK to tell me how a character feels, like when the moment isn’t particularly critical, but usually you want to show emotions rather than tell them. Why? Because when you show them–and do it well–I’ll feel them right along with your character. Don’t tell me your heroine lusted after your hero. Show me the goosebumps on her arm when he brushes against her. Let me hear her voice squeak when she tries to talk to him. Let me taste him when she kisses him, let me feel the heat of his hands on her body. Make me pant after him as hard as she does, and I’ll stay up all night reading your book. Same goes for fear, hatred, anger, and all the other passions that get characters into trouble. Use body language, visceral reactions, action beats, short bits of internal monologue, and even short bits of backstory to make me feel what your characters feel.
- Blatant racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, etc. Of course if your story is set in the past, it needs to reflect the attitudes of that time and place. But your story should accurately reflect the real world (and the real world isn’t all white, straight, cisgendered, and able-bodied) and should present a diverse cast of characters with sensitivity and accuracy. It’s easy to accidentally write a stereotype (I’ve done it myself, I’m sorry to say), but there are lots of resources to help you avoid that while still diversifying your books. Confession time: this is an area I need to work on. I tend to let my fear of getting it wrong keep me from fully diversifying my stories. I’m going to be spending lots of time on Writing the Other and looking at other resources to up my game.
- Bad sex scenes. I get it. Sex scenes are hard to get right; at least I find them hard to get right. What I’m going to say here is primarily my opinion, and it doesn’t apply to erotica, because that is not a genre I read or write, so I would never presume to tell anyone how to do it well. So, with those caveats out of the way, my pet peeves with sex scenes include:
- Gratuitousness. Your characters don’t need to bonk constantly. Yes, even in romance. Let the poor things rest once in awhile, so they don’t exhaust themselves before page 100. Seriously, every scene should exist to serve a specific purpose, and that includes sex scenes. Know why you’re choosing to show these characters having this kind of sex at this point in the story. And if there isn’t a story-related reason, consider skipping it. With sex, less is usually more (at least in fiction).
- Unnecessary explicitness. I’m not a prude. I have no problem with explicit sex in fiction–including my own fiction. But, as noted previously, it should serve a specific purpose. Why are you showing us exactly where Character A is putting his/her/their finger/tongue/purple-helmeted love warrior? (Narrator: Do not, under any circumstances, include the phrase, “purple-helmeted love warrior” in your sex scene.) We all know that flap A fits into slot B. If you choose to show the flaps and slots, make sure it’s necessary to advance plot and character. And restrain yourself, lest your sex scene sound like a letter to Penthouse written by a fifteen-year-old. I read a romance recently that I really enjoyed–great characters, a fresh premise, and lots of chemistry. The problem? The sex scenes went on for many pages of graphic description that read like bad porn and did nothing to characterize the people going at it. Such a lost opportunity.
- Bad sex. If you want the sex to be perceived as positive, it should be fully and enthusiastically consensual (so, so many writers get this wrong). Also watch out for mood killers–silly names for body parts, blatantly bad technique, and anatomically impossible positions come to mind here. Example: a famous writer’s most famous sex scene has the female main character’s breasts, “quivering like puppies waiting to be petted.” I cringe every time I read that line. Quivering or not, puppies are not sexy. Ew.
- Just-the-facts sex: As noted above, we all know flap A goes into slot B. It’s OK to show us that, but show us more. Show us the emotional exchange between the characters (or lack thereof, if that’s important to the story). Show us how these 2 (or however many) people relate to each other. Make us feel what your point of view character feels, beyond just the sexual sensations. If all you want to convey is that your characters slept together, send them into the bedroom, close the door, and move on to the aftermath.
- Bad writing. That’s a broad category, but here are some of my pet peeves: 1) a zillion adverbs per page; 2) overwrought dialogue tags that make all your characters chew the scenery (she snarled, he gritted, they hissed, etc.); 3) starting almost every sentence with a present participle–negative bonus points for creating physical or temporal impossibilities (“Strolling up to the Ferrari, she shot Thaddeus dead.” “Wiping her prints off the gun, she touched up her makeup.”) These are newbie mistakes that tell me you haven’t taken the time to learn your craft.
- Sloppy writing and poor to nonexistent editing: grammatical errors, typos, punctuation errors, usage errors. I know some writers can’t afford to hire an editor. A good editor is expensive! But maybe you can barter with a friend or relative to copyedit your manuscript. Try offering tacos; that technique usually works on me. Also, consider devoting some time to learning basic grammar, punctuation, and usage. It isn’t taught in school as much as it used to be. *waves cane* Back in my day, we diagrammed sentences, and we liked it! (Narrator: They did not like it.) Seriously, if you’re a writer, words and sentences are your tools. The more you can learn how to use them correctly, the less money you’ll need to spend on editors, and the fewer readers you’ll lose because they don’t want to wade through your error-infested prose.
OK, so now that I’ve spent several paragraphs telling you what I hate, let me spend just a little more time pointing you to some resources to help you avoid those mistakes. Note that the book links are Amazon affiliate links, so I’ll get a few pennies if you use them to purchase.
- A wonderful resource for writing diverse characters accurately: Writing the Other.
- Hardy, Janice. Understanding Show, Don’t Tell: (And Really Getting It) (Skill Builders Series Book 1)
- Browne, Renni and Dave King. Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, Second Edition: How to Edit Yourself Into Print
Happy New Year, IWSG-ers! May all your words come easy this year.