Friday, May 7, 2010

Advice from a Reader

A prolific reader (and book reviewer) I know posted this advice in a discussion forum. If you’re working on a novel, it’s worth considering.

1. Don't give me time shifts or reverse time chapters unless you clearly indicate what you are doing and the purpose is absolutely necessary to make your story work.

2. No backstory after chapter one. If it's that important, you should have written the earlier book instead.

3. Don't assume I have read all your previous books, but don't fully include them in the current book unless relevant.

4. Refrain from obscure references outside the current book. No, I don't recall what painting is hanging on the far west wall in the room of the Louvre just beyond where the Mona Lisa is displayed, and frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn.

5. Don't start multiple stories in the first 50 pages with the vague promise that they will all be resolved by the end of the book. Life occurs in sequence, not parallel.

6. Give your characters names that make sense but stay away from cutesy and/or tongue twisters that no one will remember. If your female characters are all Sue, Sue Anne, Suzanne, Susie, Susan, and all your males are Mike, Michael, Mikie and Mikhiel, well, forget it.

7. Check your facts. You don't have to be perfect, but please no ballistic checks for rifling on shotguns (there aren't any), no Chevrolet Thunderbirds, etc. The basics should always be right.

8. You can take certain liberties with reality if it makes story sense. It’s much better to have a temporary suspension of belief that an overly convoluted plot sequence just to make it work.

9. Limit coincidences. Yes, they do occur. But how often have you been walking down the street in a strange city, stop to help a little old lady cross the street, and discover she is your ex-wife's fourth grade school teacher?

10. Don't be unkind to animals or kids. I will throw your book against the wall whenever you beat, hit, kick, burn, or otherwise abuse either. Yes, there are animal abusers and child abusers in the real world, but not in mine.

11. Stereotypes are usually okay. After all, they help us quickly picture a character based on our real-life experiences. On the other hand, what I call an anti-stereotype can be distracting, i.e., if you paint the character one way and then have him/her act out of character.


L.J. Sellers is an award-winning journalist and editor and is the author of the Detective Jackson mysteries, The Sex Club and Secrets to Die For. Her new novel, Thrilled to Death, will be released in August. She also loves to edit fiction and works with authors to keep her rates affordable. Contact her at:
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  1. #5 was a jolt, L.J.

    I have two manuscripts that involve multiple point of view, and one of them violates this reader's preferences in a big way. As a matter of fact, it also violates #2. Darn, there's also a problem with #10.

    I'm about to start the submission process. I hope this reader/reviewer doesn't work for any of the agents or editors I'm sending a partial. :)

  2. I think you are safe, Patricia, none of us are acquisition editors. And keep in mind what drives one editor nuts is perfectly okay with another editor. And each of us has to try to be as objective as possible in the edits and only focus on errors of craft, not style.

  3. 9. Limit coincidences.

    I agree! I hate those. They feel like such a cop out.

  4. These are harsh! I particularly have a problem with #2, as many commenting do. Of course I also have a problem with "rules" in a creative art, since youAgent can do almost anything that works! Case in point: Donald Maass says no backstory until after page 50. I can follow all sorts of flip-flops in time if carefully wrought, and I think backstory scenes can bring a lot to the story and deepen characterization. Much literary fiction does this.

    As a list of things to check for, to make sure you have a sound reason for doing what you're doing, it works for me. Minus #2!

  5. Every reading experience is subjective, and people like different kinds of stories. Even the definition of backstory probably varies. But this reader got a lot of support from others on the discussion forum, so her opinions seemed worth sharing.

  6. Useful stuff.

    Thanks for sharing, L.J. :)

  7. Well worth considering. It's always a good idea to make the story as easy to read as possible without losing the creative zing.

    Blood-Red Pencil

  8. Patricia's comment seems to suggest that story dictates. And editors, like all of us, do have their own views/preferences.


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.


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