by Ruth Harris
You worked hard. You pored through reference books, consulted Google and maybe even — gasp! — went to the library to do research.
And you made certain the characters were dimensional and well drawn. You spent time creating a solid, intriguing plot and writing zingy dialogue. You paid attention to your beta readers, worked with an excellent editor or maybe even two, and you hired a first class cover designer.
Those reviews! They weren’t what you dreamed of, because readers didn’t finish the d*mn book.
What went wrong?
You want to avoid the dreaded DNF (Did Not Finish) tag. But how many books have you started and maybe even liked, at least at first, but eventually put aside and gave up on?
Why did you lose interest?
What made you give up and find something else to read?
What were the barriers between yourself and a great reading experience?
Are you sure you haven’t made any of the same mistakes?
Deadly writer sins #1. Location, location, location.
I know. Sounds like a real estate agent run amok, but we’re selling books here, not condos and, in books, location matters, too. A lot.
Where are we?
In Paris or on Planet Klürff?
Or are we just plain lost?
Is the GPS broken? Did Google Maps screw up?
Why are these people in Chapter 1 speaking French? You know, bonjour and merci.
And in Chapter 2, why do they say Zxxxyq and Pzyeef when they really mean hi and thanks?
Oh, duh! The scene moved from Paris to the remote, mysterious Planet Klürff on an outer ring of Saturn.
The reader will eventually figure out that the scene has shifted, but the initial confusion annoys him/her. Why didn’t they tell me right away?
The fix: Clue them in.
When the scene shifts from Paris to the Planet Klürff, or from Chicago to Siberia, a brief alert at the top of each chapter or part will do the job.
A great example occurs in the current bestseller, The Weight Of Ink, Rachel Kadish’s historical fiction about two women who live four hundred years apart — in the 17th century and early part of the 21st Century. The author of this intricately plotted story sets the time and place at the start of each new part and chapter, immediately alerting the reader as to time and place.
November 2, 2000,
November 15, 1657
9 Kislev, 5418
With the help of G-d
Pay attention to Rachel Kadish’s approach. Every book involving different times or settings will profit from this technique. You will save your reader confusion and irritation — which can be fatal when it comes to reader satisfaction.
Ditto if you’re writing a book with multiple characters or POVs.
Start Parts or chapters with the relevant character’s name: Sue or Jim, Muhammed or Françoise. Your reader will appreciate it — and your book.
Deadly writer sins # 2. Thou shalt not double cross your reader
Do not double cross your reader. Ever.
Stick to your genre. Learn its tropes and conventions — and use them to your advantage.
Thriller readers want thrills, romance readers want romance, mystery readers want a mystery. Do NOT let them down. Period.
Here is one area in writing — other than spelling and grammar — where the rules matter.
To be specific here are the no-nos:
- There are no tears, tragedies, or unhappy endings in romances. If you write romance, readers buy your book for the HEA and that’s what you’d better provide. Or else.
- Nix the tearing up in tough-guy noir. Hard edges, damnit! (But lacy lingerie? Go for it!)
- No blood and guts, severed limbs, or xxx-rated steamy sex in a cozy mystery.
- No stopping the plot for a weepy heart-to-heart confession in action thrillers. The reader doesn’t care about the MC’s crappy, traumatic childhood.
- Forget that “revelation” at the end. The one that reveals the whole book, the characters, their trials and tribulations, was the MC’s dream. Your goal here is compelling fiction, not a shaggy dog story.
Don’t think you’re being “creative” when you subvert the reader’s expectations, because, if you do, the person you’re double crossing is yourself.
Deadly writer sins #3. Jargon, lingo and acronyms.
Half of your espionage thriller takes place at IBM in 1953, the other at FaceBook in 2022.
Most of the characters are techies. A few might be billionaires. Some could be digital pioneers, others twenty-first century evil doers doling out deadly misinformation.
Your fabulous plot and characters will let the reader sort out the good guys from the bad guys. Eventually.
But, before the final showdown, comes the all-important set up.
Sometimes they talk acronyms — TCP/IP or ARPANET — only they understand.
Or you’re writing a sports romance.
Yes, drop in a few MVPs, slices, drop shots, and triangle defenses, but remember, a little bit goes a long way to make your setting and characters feel authentic.
A lot? That would be a no-no.
Your reader, who’s looking for spies and double crosses or heat and sizzle, will get lost, bored or hopelessly confused..
S/he will close your book and ding you with a dreaded DNR.
Deadly writer sins #4. Overstuffed & undercooked dialogue.
Here’s a perfect example from Anne 😉 :
“As you know, brother Bob, our parents were killed in a car crash on the I-95, caused by a bull moose who mistook a Gremlin for a hot female. Our parents, Lucille and Doug, loved the Red Sox, so we go up to Fenway Park every year to honor their memory. But now an evil mastermind is planning to paint-bomb Fenway, and we must reach Boston in time to warn the mayor.”
Yeah. Bob knows that. And the reader has been taken completely out of the story.
And, yup, the author better learn how to wield the art and craft of backstory.
Besides, I’ve heard plumbers make more money. A lot more.
Undercooked (and half baked)—
“Did you get the aspirin? This headache is killing me.”
“Yes, I got the aspirin.”
“And the hamburger buns?”
“Yes, I got the hamburger buns.”
“Did you remember to stop by Elaine’s house? She said she had something for us.”
“No, I didn’t remember to stop by Elaine’s house. I didn’t remember that she said she had something for us.”
What’s the point?
Did the author even have a point?
Is this code?
Like, about what?
Please, have mercy on your poor, defenseless, soon-to-be-ex-readers and avoid these 4 deadly writer sins.
Top-Secret Bestsellers’ Tip.
Which brings us to the pro author’s key to bestselling fiction: The vitally important first line — and last line — of every chapter.
There is one purpose to those first and last lines — and that is to catapult the reader from one chapter to the next, from one page to the next.
IOW make them an offer they can’t refuse.
What the pros do — and what you should do, too — is to create irresistible flow-through that compels the reader to turn the page.
What you’re aiming for are reviews that say, “I couldn’t stop reading.”
Or, “I couldn’t put it down.”
Or, I stayed up way past my bedtime because I couldn’t wait to find out what happened next.”
No matter what genre you write, the first sentence of every chapter should be a seduction. It can be in the form of an invitation. A declaration. A tease. A promise. A jolt. A shock.
The first sentence can offer a change of pace. A slowing down when you want to give your reader time to pause after the action has been non-stop bang-bang. Or the opposite: when the story needs acceleration when some action is required.
The last sentence of every chapter (and scene) should be a cliffhanger — a question to which the reader must find the answer, a tense, unresolved situation, or dialogue interrupted just as a crucial point is about to be revealed. The goal is to compel the reader to read “just one more page.”
Here are two exemplary first lines.
Joe Konrath, Dirty Martini
“He calls himself the Chemist, but he isn’t a chemist.”
Someone’s gonna stop reading? Of course not. Reader has got to know if he’s not a chemist, then what is he?
Here’s Anne in Sherwood Ltd—
“I managed to call 911 and keep calm until the police arrived and paramedics took away the footless body.”
What!? A reader is going to put down the book and go to the fridge for a snack? Mais, non! A footless body? How’d that happen? And who did it?
Now check out last lines that compel the reader to read “just one more page.”
Marie Force Fatal Affair
“I called you,” he said softly. “For days after that night, I tried to reach you.”
“I didn’t know,” she stammered. “No one told me.”
“It doesn’t matter now. It was a long time ago.”
But if his reaction to seeing her again after six years of thinking about her was any indication, it did matter. It mattered a lot.
Someone’s gonna think meh, and turn on Netflix after that? Really? He’s been thinking about her for six years? And she had no idea? Wow. What happens next?
This is RH in Park Avenue Blondes—
Our heroine, Blake, learns her handsome, sexy, ex-cop husband, Ralph, has been shot and rushed to the emergency room. Her mind races as she waits to hear from his surgeons.
“Anxious thoughts of Ralph and the stakeout on Thirty-second Street whirled through my mind.
What’s happening in there?
What are they doing to him?
Why is it taking so long?
How is he?
Where was he hit?
Is he dead? Or alive?
Are bulletproof vests really bulletproof?”
Reader’s gonna go get a glass of wine water? Or turn the page? Think not. They want to know if Ralph is dead? Or alive? Will he ever walk again? Will he be able to think or speak or make love? Readers gotta know.
The point of all this is: Help your reader in every way possible.
Use every technique at your disposal to make the reading experience smooth as satin and as easy to consume as your favorite snack.
When the setting or POV changes, tell your reader right away where they are, who’s involved, and/or ID the day or year when relevant.
Make it easy for him or her to keep turning the page.
Your readers will thank (or Pzyeef) you and they will really, really mean it.
What about you, scriveners? Are you guilty of any of the deadly writer sins? Do you fear having one of those DNF partially read books? Are you careful with the first and last lines of your chapters? Have you ever felt “double-crossed” by an author who breaks genre rules? Do you always let your readers know where they are in time and space?
BOOK OF THE WEEK
“WOW! WHAT A STORY!”
“A master storyteller coaxed me through a maze of fascinating, brilliant, tragic, and heartwarming twists and turns, and left me feeling uplifted and satisfied. ZURI slides to the top of my favorite books of 2020!” —Sue Coletta, award-winning, bestselling author
They rescue endangered animals, but can they rescue each other?
Renny Kudrow, Director of the Kihali animal orphanage in Kenya, is a renowned elephant whisperer, a brilliant translator of animal communication. But human communication?
Not so much, thinks Starlite Higgins, the wildlife vet who Renny thinks is not up to the job.
Renny is prickly, remote, critical, and Starlite, accustomed to success, but who almost causes Zuri’s rescue to fail, is unable to win his approval.
When Renny and Starlite must work together to save the life of the baby rhino fatally wounded by poachers, they must face the shocking secrets they both hide—and the attraction they can no longer deny.
And here’s what Amazon readers are saying:
5 out of 5 stars Thoroughly enjoyed it!
Really enjoyed this sweet but important novella about a director of an African animal orphanage and a vet’s struggle to save an injured rhino calf after its mother is brutally murdered by poachers. On one level the story is a tender glimpse into the intelligent world of animals; on another it’s an expose of the tragic world of poaching and the wildlife it endangers. Add to that an engaging love story between the protagonists, and you have a delightful way to spend a few hours.
5 out of 5 stars Wow, What a Story!
The beginning cut deep. I feared and worried during the middle, and cried happy tears at the end. A master storyteller coaxed me through a maze of fascinating, brilliant, tragic, and heartwarming twists and turns and left me feeling uplifted and satisfied, but yearning for more of the lovable Zuri, quirky Boozie, majestic Maise, and the delightful Renny and Starlight. I hope there’s a sequel! ZURI slides to the top of my favorite books of 2020!