It’s a painful truth that nearly all published novels could still use a little work. It has been said that a book is never done, but due, and anyone who has been met with deadlines knows this to be a fact. An author or editor can always read back over their work and find something to fix, something to expand on, or something to perfect. An editor can always find a place for another comma. At some point, regardless of what shape the novel is in, it will go to print, and then if you are lucky, you’ll have a whole audience of people more than happy to point out where those missing commas go, what needed expanding, perfecting, and fixing. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take pride in the quality of work you send to print, or that you shouldn’t learn from your mistakes. In fact, one positive to backing away from a book once the deadline rolls in is that the distance can give you a better perspective to analyze what you have done and how you can do it better.
Missing quotation marks, missing commas, extra commas, and small grammar flubs are often overlooked or simply forgiven by readers, many assuming they were a printing or editing error. Passive writing, echoes and repeats, misused words, and consistency errors, however, tend to be viewed as content errors and placed solely on the shoulders of the author. One trip through the Amazon reviews section reveals just how harsh readers can be about these things, and even five-star reviews lauding content can’t always win back potential readers if you have enough grammar Nazis and error watchdogs slinging low-rated reviews your way.
It’s not enough to just sigh and say, well, my editor should have caught that mistake, should have pointed it out, because at the end of the day the only one hurting for the error is the author—the editor has likely already earned their end for the work and moved on to something else. The sad part is, if you do even a modicum of research and education into the craft of writing before you start, you’ll find a legion of writers before you have stumbled over these errors and weak writing devices and have shared them with the world. That’s not to say you can’t do it your way, even if your way is 100% against what the bulk of writing advice tells you. It just means if you do it, you have to wow with it. If it doesn’t make your reader pause for an instant and think, whoa, that’s new, then all you are doing is repeating the past mistakes.
How’s the weather?
Elmore Leonard, along with a score of other experts on the subject, says that beginning a novel with the weather is a bad idea because readers don’t connect with scenery; they connect with characters. Even once a story is well on its way, if you have paragraphs of description of scenery or weather, you risk your readers skimming. Opening with the weather is the literary equivalent of small talk—nice weather we’re having, isn’t it? It’s the throat-clearing, getting-to-know-you sort of filler that even in real life we try to avoid.
Have a look at Liz Carlyle’s Never Romance a Rake:
The West Indian sun beat down on the still and verdant fields, searing all which lay beneath. Galleried white plantation houses shimmered in the heat, dotting the lush landscape like perfect, lucent pearls. Inside the fine homes, their broad corridors were steeped in shadow, and window louvers lay wide to catch the meager breeze, whilst slave children worked the fans which fluttered from lofty ceilings like massive raptors’ wings. (Ch. 1, para. 1)
You’ll notice first that this opening passage is indeed about the weather and the scenery. What’s more, the author doesn’t bother to at least filter these details through the senses of her point-of-view character. If this information isn’t important to the character, why would the author assume it would be important to the reader? Modern convention leans toward a much deeper perspective than was expected even just a decade or so ago, and a narrative clearly flavored with the POV character’s voice is preferred. Readers have come to accept that if a detail is mentioned, then the detail is noticed by and filtered through the point-of-view character. Liz goes on for three paragraphs before she even introduces her characters, and when she does, it’s from a very distant POV.
Compare the above excerpt to the one below by Liz Jensen:
That summer, the summer all the rules began to change, June seemed to last for a thousand years. The temperatures were merciless: thirty-eight, thirty-nine, then forty in the shade. It was heat to die in, to go nuts in, or to spawn. Old folk collapsed, dogs were cooked alive in cars, lovers couldn’t keep their hands off each other. The sky pressed down like a furnace lid, shrinking the subsoil, cracking concrete, killing shrubs from the roots up… (Ch. 1, para. 1)
This excerpt too begins with the weather and setting details, but it’s hard to miss the voice of the character in the words. It has personality, voice, and the details are weighed through the character’s senses—in short, you know the character a little better just by reading it. Solid characterization is built through showing how your character sees the world around her, and in this excerpt, while a less-developed character might just say, “June was hot,” Jensen tells us what hot means to the character. It’s not enough to just tell the reader what something looked like or what the weather is like. In order to successfully break the “Don’t start with weather” rule, you have to show the reader how the character processes these details.
More than a mouthful.
It’s a good idea to always read your work out loud. It’s an even better idea to have someone else read it to you. I realize the latter isn’t always an option, but what we put on the page isn’t necessarily as clear and easily digestible to others as it should be. Often these bits will slip past editors as well, especially if you get an editor more concerned with grammatical correctness than readability. Meg Cabot’s Jinx, being published by a respectable traditional publisher, likely had a whole series of edits from content, to line, to proofing. Still many sentences are unreadable, especially out loud. Take the first sentence of chapter three, for example:
“Then one of the strangers, a girl whose jet-black hair matched the color of her minidress and high-heeled boots, came swaggering out of the gazebo and stood with one hand on a narrow, jutting hip while she eyed me suspiciously through heavily made-up eyes” (Ch. 3, para. 1).
This is a painfully long sentence fattened up so much by adjectives and adverbs that by the time the reader gets to the end of it, they may have to back up and read it again just to swallow the full image. Reading it out loud, as it is written, would require inserting an audible period that the author hasn’t provided. If the author had read her work aloud, she probably would have picked up on this and been able to correct it.
Without changing the wording overmuch, the most effective fix would be to break the sentence up into two or three smaller sentences. And just for the sake of avoiding echoes (audible repeats), I would also suggest a slight change in wording for the last section of the sentence to do away with the eyed/eyes repeat: “Then one of the strangers came swaggering out of the gazebo, a hand on her narrow, jutting hip. Her jet-black hair matched the color of her minidress and high-heeled boots. She gauged me suspiciously through heavily made-up eyes.”
Don’t tell me how to feel.
One of the worst things an author can do is violate the reader by trying to ham-fistedly shove thoughts and feelings into their head. Trying to force a sense of urgency by saying something is urgent, or trying to create a feeling of humor by making all your characters laugh and say how funny something is, is the literary equivalent of bad touching your reader. Part of what allows a reader to connect to a story or a character is the feeling that they're discovering something new, that they're smart enough to pick up on clues that allow them to possibly know that character better than anyone else reading it. It’s the same principle as when someone you know casually shares a deep and intimate secret with you; it’s human nature to feel bonded over that. You want your reader to bond with your words, so you can’t use them as a bludgeon to get the effect you are looking for. Think of it like trying to convince your husband you need a new washing machine. If you just say outright that you need a new machine, you may get groans and sighs and resistance. Send him to work a few days with stained and shrunken shirts, and you can expect the new machine to be on order most ricky-tick.
Consider Critical Impact by Linda Hall. At the beginning of the book there is an explosion, and the hero sees the heroine crushed under debris. His response: “He ran toward the building because he had seen a woman fall. He needed to get to her!” (Ch. 1, para. 17). With the clever exclamation point there, the reader knows they are supposed to be excited; they are supposed to feel that sense of panic and urgency. What I felt when reading it was, “Really, Captain Obvious? You think so? Maybe we should just let her simmer a bit.” Hall makes the mistake of trying to shake us into feeling the character’s concern. A more subtle and effective way might have been to simply say: “The weight of the rubble would crush her. If she wasn’t dead already, she would be soon.”
The benefits of not forcing the reader’s reaction to the information are multiple. The first is that if they are allowed to come to the conclusion that “he needs to get to her” on their own, they will be more invested in him doing so. The second is when you cut to the buried heroine in the next scene, we don’t know if he’s coming to save her or not. Yes, we hope he is, but since the author didn’t tell us that, we’re just as unsure how long the heroine has to live as she is, and this creates real tension, not the forced tension of before. Lastly, exclamation points in narrative are usually stupid, and this gets rid of one. Anything you can do to eliminate the screamy, attention seeking punctuation is a good thing.
Forced urgency can be deadly to your prose, but forced laughter is like being stuck in a room with your obnoxious brother-in-law who passes gas and slings one-liner duds, but thinks he’s hilarious. Having your characters laugh at jokes and silliness in your work can often come off like the author just amusing themselves and waiting for the rimshot (badum-CHING) at every punch line. If something is funny, you don’t have to cue the reader to laugh; they will.
For that matter, certain forms of humor don’t really translate well to fiction, and using them can be more tiresome to your readers than funny. Toilet humor and slapstick, or physical humor, have a harder time coming across as intended because these things work primarily as sight gags. It’s hysterical to see your favorite actress stumbling around and digging through trash for a lost cell phone, but reading about it just doesn’t have the same effect. In I’ve Got Your Number by Sophie Kinsella, the author employed a number of traditional sight gags and slapstick and as a result the writing had a tendency to come off tedious and a little melodramatic. In my experience, you can’t just show the character running around like a chicken with her head sawed off to get the laugh; you have to frame it with emotional support—it’s the character’s response to these things happening to them and what they’re doing that has the greater chance to get a laugh.
None of the discussions in this essay have been to say you should never do these things. There are no hard, fast rules of what a writer can and cannot do in their work. However, it’s hard to argue with overwhelming evidence and public opinion that, in general, these techniques don’t work. Don’t start with the weather. Don’t tell me, your reader, what to think or how to feel. Don’t let your writing outrun the reader’s ability to actually speak your lines. The breaking of these rules must be attempted experimentally, if at all, and with the understanding that it can really test your reader’s patience. If you can find a creative way to make them work, by all means, do so, but the aim should always be to connect with the reader and to communicate clearly, first and foremost.
Cabot, Meg. Jinx. New York: HarperCollins, 2007. E-book.
Carlyle, Liz. Never Romance a Rake. New York: Pocket Books, 2008. E-book.
Hall, Linda. Critical Impact. New York: Steeple Hill, 2010. E-book.
Jensen, Liz. The Rapture. New York: Doubleday, 2009. E-book.
Kinsella, Sophie. I’ve Got Your Number. New York: The Dial Press, 2012. E-book.