5 Things To Avoid When Writing Fiction

3 Mar, 2020

Simple mistakes that damage the reader’s experience; a letter from your beloved reader

by Kate Maria Pennell

Dear Writer,

I’d like to start by saying thank you.

Thank you for transporting me away from the doldrums, for comforting me when I needed it, and for adding spice and excitement to my weekdays.

Thank you for writing for me.

However, because I love you and your writing, I’m going to bravely ask you to consider the following five points, presented in reverse order, because I’d rather you didn’t do these things.

They’re not doing either of us any good.


5. Don’t remind me that I am reading

This may sound odd, as you are obviously writing in order for me to read. However, when I read, I want to be immersed in the world you have created, carried along in the flow of the story, and there are few things that slap me out of my reader’s trance.

Errors

Typos, grammar mistakes, and hiccups in the plot line are classic ‘Say, what?’ moments.

‘The reader must never read the line twice. Nothing must break their flow or remind them that they are reading.’

For example: They looked around, trying to take in their surroundings through the morning mist. He walked through the trees edging the clearing and saw the valley below bathed in the afternoon sunlight. Apparently, a walk of 100 meters takes that long. It’s only a small mistake, but I stopped and flipped my page back and forth to understand what had happened.

Now everybidy can mak a misstacke now and than, but with Grammarly and a writing/editing/proofreading buddy there really is no excuse, even for the penniless self-publishing digital author just starting out.

(Incidentally, the timeline mistake mentioned above appeared in a hard copy book from a renowned publishing house. Tut tut.)

A rose by any other name

I come across some amazing names in my reading journeys. Please, dear author, if you are going to transport me to faraway lands, help me to hear the names you hear. If I have to try and decipher a word every time it will break the rhythm of my reading.

After reading a fantasy fiction novel recently, I found the glossary of names and terms at the back of the book and realized I’d had the character’s name wrong in my head all the way through the story. This is the traditional place to nestle your glossary of terms, I know, but for fiction it is so much more helpful to have it up front and centre. You wouldn’t put your map at the back of the book, would you? Well, sometimes I need a vernacular map.

Making things easy for me helps reading to be a smooth, immersive experience.

A publisher and editor once told me, ‘The reader must never read the line twice. Nothing must break their flow or remind them that they are reading.’

That is sage advice from one who knows.

4. Don’t back me up in backstory

Who doesn’t appreciate a complex, 3D, HD, character?

Those characters who have endured beyond the limits of their pages are those we can connect with and believe in, whether we love them or hate them. The masters of character creation help us to glimpse just a part of the character’s lives as we read their story. However, if you back me up in backstory I may lose the will to read the rest.

Writer and fantasy-fiction blogger Aaron Miles explains, “An author should know their character intimately, they should know their history, how they would react in a situation, they should know their look and mannerisms down to the smallest facial tick. Yet all of this need not be revealed to the reader.”

Yet all of this need not be revealed to the reader. Especially not in one go. Please, keep me wondering, give me glimpses and insights and insinuations.

J K Rowling is a master of character reveals; more than 20 years after the release of the first Harry Potter book in the series she is still sharing her characters with us and we still want to know more.

Tolkien, the master of backstory (in my opinion) seems over-generous in what he shares in-story to the modern reader, who generally likes to get on with the storyline. However, Professor Tolkien gives us ‘The Silmarillion’ as a history to ‘Lord of The Rings’. A gift to us geeks who want one book to know it all.

I love that you know your characters and their history so well. Rather than overstuff your story, why not write me something for dessert? I’m itching to know about what really happened on that mission in Naples, or read the Annals of the Kingdom of Farn and learn about the wonderful, vibrant world you created.

Leave me hungry to know more and I’ll reach for your novella, a little something to keep me going until you can serve me up a new book.

3. Please don’t needlessly torture your darlings

Stephen King cries, “Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.”

And I get that. Sometimes I hate you for it, but I get it.

However, endless torture is another matter. It doesn’t invoke empathy and connection, in fact, it gets a little boring. I can only take so many pages of it before I begin to wish you’d take King’s advice and finish them off for good.

Characters shouldn’t just respawn after a ‘game over’ moment if, in reality, they would be puking up their own spleen.

I’ve found that as a genre, fantasy fiction is worse at this than the others. The heroes battle the evil villain and his monsters, are left barely alive, are healed by their mystic, and set off to fight another battle. Huzzah!

And end up broken up again. This cycle of physical (and literary) butchery continued throughout the book — from a famous series — and, sorry dear writer, I was skipping pages by then. I began to wonder if the writer had run out of ways to move the plot along.

Conflict and suffering are essential ingredients but the angst must also generate progress in the storyline or character. If it doesn’t, why is it there? If you don’t want to kill your darling you can always kill the scene.

Furthermore, when our spies have adrenalin pens and our warriors have mystic healers, it makes reading like playing a video game. Characters shouldn’t just respawn after a ‘game over’ moment if, in reality, they would be puking up their own spleen.

I don’t want to suspend my belief in the world you have made me. I want authenticity, even if it is to the rules of your created universe.

Whether the suffering is physical, emotional, or romantic/relational even, if the character just bounces right back they feel less real to me, thus creating detachment from the character rather than sympathy and connection.

2. Please note: women do not need to be raped and beaten before they become strong

There has been a worrying trend among writers of all genres to have horrible, vile things happen to their female characters so as to enable a ‘phoenix’ storyline.

Please, don’t buy into this lie and then lay it out before your readers. We as women can be strong — are strong — and do not need to be attacked by a man before we discover this about ourselves.

Adversity can bring out deeper truths about a person’s character but crushing a character sexually or because of their gender is not a prerequisite for strength.

Neither is this one of those situations that a character can just bounce back from (as in point 3). The wave of a magic wand does not cure the effects of this kind of abuse and torture, neither does meeting a ‘nice guy’ in the next chapter.

On a lighter note, dear male writers, I’d like to let you in on a secret or two.

When at home, us gals don’t generally sashay around in our silken underwear. We wear baggy, comfy clothes and scratch our bums because no one is looking. If we look to see how a dress clings to our curves, it is probably because we are concerned about PMS bloat more than anything.

The same goes for squeezing our own boobs. We only do that in the magical moment when we let the girls out of the bra at the end of the day or when we have fluid retention from, you guessed it, PMS.

Some female characters may go through their story in a horny haze but most of us are just tired. A back rub really will suffice.

Photo by Tobias Tullius on Unsplash

1. Please, please don’t leave me hanging

I once tried writing an article about the pros and cons of ending a book on a cliffhanger. I couldn’t write it, because the only pro — for you, dear author — that I could think of was the supposed increased chance of selling the next book.

633 pages. That’s how many there were in the last book I read. I was so excited as I settled in to read an epic fantasy adventure. Yet after 628 of them (and there was some drudgery in my reading, I can tell you, dear friend) the book had a power cut.

A vivid scene was before my eyes: the main man tied to a burning stake, the fire creeping nearer as he has a heart to heart with his guilt-ridden mentor, this warrior mentor swings his sword (is the other guy dead?), cries ‘Men of the mountain, to me! To me!’ and the soldiers begin to gather and

Power cut. The screen goes blank.

I turn the page and am invited to subscribe, blahdy blah if I like character X and Y etc. I liked the characters but I no longer like that writer. I’d gone right off them. They cheated me!

They cut me off from all the satisfaction that an ending should have. And I won’t be buying the next book.

I love, dear writer, that you have a story so rich and wonderful for me that it won’t fit into one book. It thrills me to think about it! But please don’t cheat me; don’t cheapen our relationship and our trust by trying to trick me into buying the next book. Create such wonder and such a hunger in me that I compel myself to buy it!

Give me enough conclusions to feel that satisfaction in my belly but enough left open for my mind to enquire, ‘But what happens now?’

Be brilliant. Be as great a writer as you can be.

Let me love or hate your characters; soar with them, battle with them, overcome with them, love with them. Let me immerse myself in the worlds you create; I want to feel the scrabbling tiles under my feet as we run across rooftops, breathe in the scent of escape, and hear help coming for me.

Do this, love me as I love you, and I will buy your books.

Kindest regards,

Your avid Reader


You’re welcome to a copy of ‘Create Smarter Not Harder’ ; it helps you to use the innovative power of your subconscious mind & habits to be less stressed and more productive — even in your sleep.

Notes from the Honeypot editors

Kate is a writer’s writer. Besides the above missive to fellow writers, Kate has shared so much great advice to budding and writers with a few books under their belt.

You can read all Kate’s other articles here on Medium.

Kate Maria Pennell

Writer. Teacher. Creative. Coach. I’m a catalyst for those I meet & work with; Create Smarter Not Harder at katepennell.net