By Katy Munger, 2016 Piedmont Laureate
The written word asks more of an audience then visual mediums. All authors must make fundamental choices when creating a narrative: how much is just enough? What words will create the time and place I want to evoke—while still inviting readers to use their imaginations? To use the medium of written work correctly, we must leave space for the reader in what we write: readers who bring their own contributions to a book are more invested in its outcome.
Unfortunately, finding the right way to frame your story, and sticking to your guns about it, is not always an easy task. Primarily because we now live in a time when virtually every writer has been raised on television and motion pictures. This has fundamentally changed the way we approach and create the written word as well as the way our brains work while we are writing. For most of us, when we are in deep in a story, our imaginations are unfolding a sort of mini-movie in our heads, providing a visual track we describe as we write our books. But, unfortunately, by rooting our narrative in a primarily visual base, we leave ourselves open to bad habits that can limit what we ask the reader to bring to our writing. Since the last thing you want as a writer is a disengaged reader, it’s important to recognize these writing tendencies and root them out. To help, here is a list of the bad habits I have noticed in myself and in other writers, many of them identified during my time as a book reviewer for the Washington Post.
Too many adjectives and adverbs
This is the number one bad habit of writers today. In our desire to make that mini-movie in our head more real, we put way too much page space into adjectives and adverbs. The problem with this approach is that, not only do we drag our stories down with bloated word counts, we rob the reader of the chance to bring their own life experiences and imaginations to the story. We risk describing the appearance of a romantic lead, for example, so thoroughly that the reader has no chance to bring their own desires to how that protagonist looks. Taming this habit requires time and discipline. When I finish a chapter, I go back through it and cut out at least 25% of the adjectives and adverbs I have used (although my aim is to cut 1/3). If you are a writer, I highly recommend you do the same. You want enough adjectives and adverbs for your book to feel alive, but not so many that you dictate the experience for your readers.
Minute-by-minute action descriptions (the film reel effect)
Much like the overuse of adjectives and adverbs, many writers fall into the trap of describing every move a protagonist makes to get them from Point A to Point B. Readers don’t need to know that your protagonist woke up, got out of bed, brushed their teeth, took a shower, and made coffee… See what I mean? I almost fell asleep just writing that sentence. Identify the essential actions and emotional epiphanies of every chapter before you begin to write then concentrate on those moments. It may feel a little clunky at first, but you are doing your pacing a favor and keeping readers engaged when you learn to cut out the mundane.
Remember that you are a writer, not a movie camera. You must make deliberate choices about the viewpoint you use in your book, and if you choose to mix your viewpoints, then you must be very, very careful to stick to a single viewpoint within a chapter. Otherwise, you risk confusing your reader and muddying your story.
I find that many writers today use a limited omniscient approach by adopting the viewpoint of a single character within each chapter, but using the viewpoints of different characters across the arc of an entire book. Done well, I think this can give a story more depth. However, be careful how you use this technique, balance the use of multiple viewpoints, and, again, never mix viewpoints within a single chapter. In fact, my basic advice is this: mix viewpoints at your own peril. Most editors hate this technique because many readers do. It’s a tough act to pull off, even when you’re Barbara Kingsolver (Poisonwood Bible) or JK Rowling (A Casual Vacancy), so it’s not one I recommend until you are experienced enough to be extremely confident in both your characters and your approach. I could show you my own (unpublished) book as an example.
If you find you have chosen a viewpoint that limits your ability to develop the story, consider taking on the voice of the different, more universal character… or divide your books into sections, each section devoted to a different character… or take the plunge and choose the omniscient viewpoint. But whatever you do, choose deliberately and stick to your guns. Slippery viewpoint is jarring to the reader who has embraced your book and the narrator’s voice.
Most people today fit time for writing into their otherwise busy lives; few of us have hours a day to devote to working on our books. Because we must write in what amounts to fits and starts, I think that many of us end up with uneven pacing. That’s because, each time we write, we are like a car in first gear gradually revving up to go faster. This can make for very uneven pacing in a book, and its risks losing readers to boredom or leaving them behind when you rush. You can help mitigate this habit by working off a precise plot outline that guides you each time you sit down to write. If, on the other hand, you write organically and don’t like to be hemmed in by an outline, then be sure to put your book down for a long enough period of time to clear your head, then go back to it with one and only one goal in mind: would a reader brand new to your plot feel comfortable with your pacing and the way your plot unfolds?
Slow passages/not enough reason to keep turning the pages
Today’s readers have also been raised on television and motion pictures. Because of this, they bring certain expectations to the medium of the written word and you would be wise to meet those expectations if you want to build a following for your writing. One of those expectations is the idea that readers like to be kept in suspense and surprised. Without resorting to contrived plotting, it can help to identify the fundamental challenge of every chapter in your book and see what you can do to add smaller pockets of suspense to what should be an enthralling overall plot.
Just because a movie has extras in it, doesn’t mean your book has to. If you have to list your characters and describe them at the front of your book, then either you have too many characters or you have not devoted enough time to making them memorable. There’s nothing wrong with a minor character orbiting in and out of the book to add color or, perhaps, provide a clue or crucial plot transition. But, in general, if a character does not play a distinct role in your book, think twice about making them a part of it. It’s hard for readers to keep track of the secondary characters and it can lessen their enjoyment if they have to keep stopping to flip the pages backwards to figure out who the characters are. Just ask anyone who has read the fourth book in the Game of Thrones series.
Character names that are too similar
This bad habit, I think, comes from the peculiar tendency of our brains to store memories in the same place as specific emotions. As a result, many writers will give their characters names that are so similar it is tough for readers to keep them apart, especially at the beginning of a book. I think it’s a good idea to even avoid naming characters of the same gender with names that begin with the same letter. You may have two friends named Cathy and Caitlin, and understand that they are completely different, but your readers are going to have trouble keeping them apart, especially before you have had time to make each character unique. To combat this habit, I recommend choosing all names before you even begin writing your book, and even creating a short back story for each character. This helps you choose exactly the right name for the type of character can have in mind and allows you to consciously adjust your characters’ names when they slide too close together.
Don’t be that desperate writer who has paid so little attention to how your plot unfolds that you end up throwing the equivalent of a Hail Mary pass to one of your characters. Unless you give the reader a reason why someone is behaving out of character, don’t do it. Part of creating authentic characters in your book is establishing the boundaries of their psyches and actions. When you violate those parameters, you are impugning the integrity of your writer’s voice. Again, I recommend a separate reading of your draft solely so that you can ask yourself the question, “Would the character I have created act that way?” about every major action they take. Characters who suddenly behave differently are jarring to the reader and disrupt the imaginary world you have created.
Too much nuance
It kills me to write this but we all need to face it: nuance is dead. We live in a world where people are instantly labeled as heroes and villains, and there is little middle ground in between. If you are writing for that last, blessed slice of humans who treasure nuance and love creeping up on a realization, then have at it. But if you are writing for a larger market, always err on the side of the obvious. You’d be amazed how often your obvious is interpreted as someone else’s nuance. If you’ve got a sleazy character, don’t be shy about showing their sleaziness. If someone is secretly unhappy, make sure it’s not-so-secret to the reader. People today are used to being spoonfed their emotions. They are used to being told how to react and they are definitely used to having their emotions manipulated. You will risk losing some of the perceived depth of your book if you decide to be too subtle.
Breaking the “rules” of your genre
Very few fiction writers today write outside of a specific genre. Whether it’s crime, romance, speculative, women’s, historical or what have you — marketing considerations put virtually every fictional piece in a box. These boxes come with expectations. Every genre has its informal rules. You don’t solve a mystery by bringing a character in at the last moment; that’s cheating. You don’t end a romance novel by having the two protagonists engage in a roaring fight and break up. That’s just plain mean. In other words, readers bring certain expectations to the genres they love and it’s not a wise idea to disappoint them. Learn the rules of your genre by reading in your genre. Pay attention to the common structures and plot devices employed across your genre. Follow them. Sure, you can be different — I, personally, always applaud the different — but know that you are being different at your own peril and that it will decrease the likelihood that you will be published by a mainstream house if you break your genre’s rules.
As always, the advice above comes with a caveat: take what you feel, in your gut, might be useful to you in your writing and discard the rest. You are the captain of your own ship. But first take the time to step back and at least evaluate whether you have any tendencies toward the bad habits listed above. Read your work deliberately to look for them in your drafts as you work. If you find yourself engaging in any of them, rip out the offending passages as if you were weeding a garden. Your book or story will be the better for it.