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My test of whether I want to read a book is opening to page one and start reading. In part 1 of Blunders that Stop Me Reading, I wrote about the overuse of “as.” (Go here if you missed it.)
Here are some other blunders that will probably make me set the book aside.
Blunder #2 – passive voice
To me warning signs of passive verbs are verbs preceded by "are," "were," "was" and verbs ending in "ing." "Began to," "started to" are also passive. I just want the character to do the action.
If your novel or story is written in past tense, it would be “John walked down the street to the hospital.” Not “was walking.” If one continued in the vein of “was walking,” then wouldn’t it be correct to say, “was opening,” etc. e.g. “He was opening the candy bag and was eating the toffees one by one.” Wow, the “was”es and gerunds are going to get old really fast. In present tense it also simply be “walks” or “opens,” etc.
What about began or started? Sure, sometimes a character starts to say something or do something, but most of the time he or she simply does the action. One “Sally began to cross the room” or one “Manuel started to eat his dinner” won’t stop me, but multiple ones will.
“There is/are” or “there was/were” can be passive too. E.g. There were many people in the concert hall.” That’s a fact but what were these people doing? Clapping, cheering? Sucking in a breath of shock? What they are doing will give the reader a more active picture.
Here’s a hilarious quote on passive versus active: “[The active voice is the] vigorous voice, unashamed to say whodunit. Passive voice is preferred by the weak, the cowardly, ashamed to name the fink who told them what they are evasively telling you.”
— John Bremner
Blunder #3 – distancing the reader
Distancing the reader is sometimes called filtering. Or in other words the action is shown through someone else’s eyes. Yes, your main character is experiencing what is happening, but don’t slow it down by pointing that out to us. “Tacy saw the man pull out a gun” is much less powerful than “The man pulled out a gun.” Show the person doing the action instead of someone hearing or seeing the person do the action. Warning signs are I/she/he “heard” or “saw.”
Again, one or two probably won’t bother me.
Blunder #4 – no sense of setting
I had a writing friend explain that no setting was like putting characters in front of a white board. I’d add that they are in a soundproof windowless room, wearing white, and not eating or smelling a thing. The reader doesn’t have any details to picture where and when the characters are.
Use sensory details to show the setting. Right now I’m sitting in my living room in a recliner with a crocheted blanket over my legs, a plaid shawl around my shoulders, and still my hands are cold. The washer is spinning out a load. My laptop hums. Down the hall in the office my husband clears his throat. Gives you a bit of a picture of where I am as I type. We want to do the same thing for our readers. Author Bruce Hale says, “I tend to slip my descriptions of setting into the beginnings of scenes, to help the reader picture where the action is taking place.”
Blunder #5 – too much description
Conversely, if the description bogs down the scene, I find myself skimming to get to the action.
Description worked in with action works the best. And not everything in a room or setting is described. I like this quote: “Best descriptions tend to be impressionistic, seizing on a few select details...letting the readers...do the rest.” – Peter Selgin
So telling me that a person is in their bedroom, I’ll think generic bedroom and won’t need you to tell me there’s a bed, a dresser, a bedside table, a trash can, etc. Instead show what’s different, what stands out in this bedroom . . . like the Haitian machete hung above the California king bed, which my then three-year-old grandson cut his finger on. Or the cribs stuffed into the open floor space—one beside the closet and the other between the two dressers—leaving just enough room to walk around the double bed.
This list of writing blunders is probably not complete. These are just ones that really bug me, especially in the opening pages of a novel. Once I get hooked on a character and his story, I’m probably more forgiving.
SM Ford writes inspirational fiction for adults, although teens may find the stories of interest, too. She also loves assisting other writers on their journeys.