Learning from other writers’ mistakes

I recently completed reading a novel that I, personally, thought had a number of flaws – both in general structure and, on occasion, the writing itself. The story premise was interesting – I bought it based on the intriguing blurb on the back and a quick scan of the first three pages. However, as I read it I became disappointed. In fact, the first time I tried to read it I had to put it down with a grimace because it wasn’t at all what I expected and I felt cheated. But, I returned to it over the last week or so and ploughed my way through the manuscript which, fortunately, did get better and – once focused on the central characters – had a good story behind it.

I’m not going to name this novel, nor am I going to review it in the traditional sense. What I am going to do is list what I have learned from this author’s approach and how it might help me become a better writer. There were a number of things that realy grated on me whislt reading the book, and I figure if I as a reader disliked these, then I, as a writer, should make sure that I am not guilty of them in my own manuscript.

So, here goes:

Multiple Viewpoints
This is not something that I would consider a problem usually. I use multiple viewpoints in my own writing and believe it can be a valuable tool to explore a story from more than one side. The issue I had with it in this particlar novel was that there were so many of them.
story tellingWithin the first one-hundred pages I counted seven different viewpoints deliniated by breaks in the text with the named character as a title signalling a change. One of these characters actually got only a page and a half dedicated to her view and then it jumped to another character who mentioned that she had died. The worst thing was that none of these characters were the main protagonists – of which there were three. The remainder of the novel did concentrate on these three women, but not exclusively. In fact, there were another three characters who were given view point sections just to reveal information that these woman did not know. One instance of which the supposed viewpoint character did not enter the scene until half way through!
Not to mention, that toward the end of the story, the author mixes some scenes with all three protagonists sharing the viewpoint – leading to some head-hopping between them.

What can I learn…Not to confuse a reader by diluting the story across too many characters and making sure I know whose story it is.
I was bored throughout the first one-hundred pages, waiting for the appearance of the main protagonists mentioned in the blurb who were not even born yet! While I understand why the author wanted to give the historical context of each characters background, I found the technique by which it was done clumsy and labourous for a reader. The later slip into minor character viewpoints were necessary for the reader to understand a few of the story threads, but again there could have been a better way to do this without leading away from the main characters.
The story was firmly set in the lifelong relationship between three women and I felt it should have been explored through only their view. Giving prominence to bit-part characters (like the one who died!) was unnecessary and made me wary of every viewpoint thereafter. There was no consistency to this approach and I felt it weakend the overall arc of each character.

 

Issues of Time
timeThere were two obvious issues that I identified regarding timeline during my hasty reading of this novel. One when a character goes out to lunch with someone on a Friday, who then mentions it is a Wednesday. And another when that same character goes to visit someone, apparently spends ‘all afternoon’ there but the text clearly states that she arrives at five o’clock and leaves at five fifteen. This really grated on my nerves. Issues like this should be caught by editors at least. It makes not just the author look bad, but casts aspersions on the publishers too – and the book is published by a major publisher.

What can I learn…Don’t trust my distotred view of what happens in my own work.
It’s easy when you have to write a book over a few months – or sometimes years – to lapse when discussing time throughout it. To my characters events only take a few hours or days, whereas to me they take weeks and months. But, that doesn’t mean this shouldn’t be rectified in the revision process. I admit that this is an element I take for granted in my own writing – I couldn’t really tell you over how many days my current WIP really happens over – but it’s something I know I need to work on. If not before reading this book, certainly after.

 

Convenient Solutions
easy buttonThe author provided her characters with a wealth of problems – not just stemming from their differing upbringings but also the conflict that arises between women as they grow up together and their own individual journeys. Having said that, some of these issues were clearly unresolvable in the confines of the five-hundred page novel. So much so, that when one character secretly spends 30million of someone else’s money, this is neatly fixed by his wife randomly depositing 25million into his account after nothing more than a single conversation that hints he might be jealous of the fortune she possesses (despite him being supposedly wealthy in his own right).
Not only this, but the prologue of the novel opens with the terror of a woman who has been looking after her friend’s child who then goes missing. Rather than that being the inciting event, this is the set up of the black moment – when their friendship is tested beyond all measure. When the reader finally gets to this point in time in the main text the crisis is over in less than thirty pages, the child is safe and the novel ends without resolving if these women will ever make it past this betrayal of trust. A disappointing ending if ever there was one.

What can I learn…Make sure I tie up all the loose ends to my novel and don’t disappoint my reader.
This novel was a saga; it did not just deal with the three women and their lives, but the lives of their parents and – in one case – the generation before that. However, unlike a saga it simply ended on a huge question of ‘what happens now?’ that was hinted at right at the start of the novel in the prologue. While the events leading up to that situation give us a suggestion of how the issue may be handled, it never actually provides a solution. That is down to the reader to infer from what has gone before. As a reader, I don’t want to do the author’s work for them…I want to see the conflict play out and know what happens: not try and have to guess for myself.

 

Unique character voice
Despite all those characters from whose viewpoints the reader ‘sees’ the story, I didn’t feel able to recognise a single unique character voice. Now, the manuscript was written in third person, so it is fair to say that the story is being told from the writer’s narrative rather than perhaps the characters. However, the omniscience of the narrator still didn’t distinguish between characters through dialogue. There were some instances where it was obvious who was speaking – the stilted English of a Russian mother for example – but between the three protagonists, whose backgrounds were clearly set out as being distinct from one another, it was not always clear whose voice I was reading. This led to some re-reading of conversations, especially between the three of them to try and work out who was saying what.

What can I learn…Characters should have a voice separate to mine as a writer.
I’ve come across this already in my own novel; the need to ensure it is the character telling the story, rather than me as a narrator. It’s an interesting debate over whose voice needs to be strongest – the character’s or the authors, especially when publishers often talk about taking on authors for ‘their unique voice’. Things like sentence structure, vocabulary and speech patterns can help deliniate between characters in dialogue, which – in my opinion – should never be tainted by the author’s voice.

 

Repetition of adverbs
LYThis is one of those ‘nit-picking’ examples that I think could cast me as a very negative reader. However, had it happened once or twice I might have been able to forgive. It would also perhaps have been easier to forgive if the text hadn’t been so laden down with adverbs and also didn’t repeat ones within a page of each other. I often got ‘deja-vu’ when reading the book – “hasn’t that just been said?”. Well, yes – turn back a page and there it is: not just individual words like ‘majestically’ and ‘placatingly’ (which, if the text is clear shoud be a redundant adverb)  but whole phrases like ‘she affected not to’ and ‘a few more’ and my personal favourite: “spent an unusual and unusually exciting few days”.

What can I learn…to line edit ruthlessly and identify key places where my writing needs to be more precise.
I know I have a habit for repeating myself. Not just because I’m a fairly ‘new’ writer and want to make sure my readers understand my characters, but also because I catch myself making this exact mistake. It’s like my brain uses a word and then, a few paragraphs later thinks ‘Oh, that word from earlier is perfect for this sentence’ and slots it in again.

 

All of this is not to say that the novel did not have it’s good points. Despite the repetition of adverbs and lack of original voice for some characters, the story as a whole was well written and did provide some excellent descriptions of places in order to ground the action. Fortunately, the story itself was a good one in the end and I felt this carried it. I did actually like the characters  – once the text had turned to focus on them – and thought that their pasts were well thought out to demonstrate how their motivations and goals contributed to them as individuals. Perhaps because the author took so long to mould them, they seemed like real people – not stereotypes or flat versions of characters. They had contradictions and habits that defined them and these appeared to be demonstrated.

All in all,  while I wouldn’t recommend this book to other readers is does provide me with a number of lessons in what not to do with my own novel, thereby standing me in good stead for the future (I hope).

~~~

Have you read books that remind you what ‘not to do’? What issues do you hope to avoid in your own writing?

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30 responses to “Learning from other writers’ mistakes

  1. I’ve only just stumbled across this post but wanted to say thank you so much for it. I love the approach of careful analysis of what you didn’t like, because I think this can tell you as much as (or maybe even more than) working out what you do like about books that have already won you over. All of this stuff is so instructive. But I also love it that you’ve not named the book – it makes it read as an analysis not an attack. It’s made me consider it too, for the times when I want to write about a book I’ve read but don’t, for whatever reason, want to make it quite as personal as it is when you name the book. (I can make an exception of this for writers who are so well established that they’ve just become too lazy to make their books as good as they should be)

    • Thanks Helen, I’m really glad you found it useful and appreciated the technique I used to examine the book. I also appreciate the comment because it’s always nice to know that my posts are helping those who read them on some level.
      Good luck with your own reviews.
      Take care, Cat

  2. What a very good and well thought out post, Cat. I particularly agree with the convenient solutions bit – I just hate that! Dramatic happenings just to push the plot to where the writer wants it to, go, or dialogue that isn’t in character to do the same. I think when you write yourself it’s hard NOT to learn from other novels all the time, isn’t it? Even if it’s subconscious!

  3. Great post, Cat. Writing is one of those things that’s so much easier said than done. Every book we read can provide lessons in what to do, and what not to do. But in the end I think if we’re serious about craft, best to have some beta readers lined up who can point out problems, which can be addressed in revisions, and a good professional editor along the way can’t hurt, either!

  4. Excellent post, Cat! We as writers can learn so much from reading “bad” books, especially “bad” books that have been traditionally published. I’m glad you found enough to enjoy in the book to make it worth your while to read it. I do wonder about all the problems you cite, however. What does it say about traditional publishing or about readers if these books such as this one are published? Have you looked to see how the book has been rated? I’m curious as to whether readers have also gotten lazy, lowering their expectations for how well a book is written.

    • I hadn’t thought of looking up other people’s reviews: what an insight! Many people commenting on the disappointing ending, and a few also picked up on the wealth of characters with no storylines (and other timeline issues that even I missed!).and yet still said they enjoyed it and gave it a good rating. I think that perhaps a lot of it was based on past-reputation, as I found many reviews from people who said they enjoyed other books by this author.

      As a result perhaps it’s not lowered expecations that readers have, but rather that they are less likely to judge as harshly – which means that they don’t have to alter their expectations.

      It’s interesting to discover that, if you have a number of other books and an existing readership, these readers will stay with you and allow you to make mistakes and yet still give you a good review. Demonstrates how well this author has built up a loyal readership, showing she must have a good storytelling talent at least.

      Thanks for suggesting I look at other reviews – it’s been revealing. 🙂 Appreciate you stopping by and leaving a comment.
      Take Care, Cat

      • Thanks, Cat, and I appreciate your comment about the author building up a loyal readership that is forgiving of the author’s occasional lapses into bad writing. Perhaps that also shows that authors are, in the end, only human, bound to make mistakes and perhaps this author was compelled to publish by a contractual arrangement even if the novel wasn’t as well written as others. I have a favorite author of a mystery series who, in my humble opinion, really “dropped the ball” in one of her novels. Yet I eagerly await each new novel in her series 🙂 Your post and subsequent comments really give one a lot to think about! Best, Marie

  5. I once read a novel that was written in first person from two characters PsOV. It threw me completely being the first time I’d read such a book. Each chapter alternated and I only realised several chapters in that the font was different for the other character. That appeared to be the only indicator that another character was speaking. Wasn’t a fan of that book.
    As for the issue of time, I started writing a novel set over a week that began on a Wednesday. Having reached the end, I’ve decided to change it to start on a Monday. (There’s just something about a weekend that screams climax!) I’m still stressing about ensuring I’ve corrected all the time references!

    • I would never have thought to change the font for two different characters, but that’s an interesting approach. Still, not highlighting that this was the technique used to separate character POV is probably a mistake.

      We all have our comfort zones in reading, and if something isn’t within that convention it can be difficult to enjoy. It took me a long while to get into ‘Dracula’ because of the old fashioned lanuage, but once I got used to it I loved the book!

      I know what you mean about weekend’s screaming climax – the idea that things ‘happen’ on the weekend, rather than mid-week. It’s great that you can be flexible enough to switch the time-frame but can imagine it’s challenging to make sure you catch all the changes. Beta readers might be able to help you out there. 😉

      Thanks for stopping by to comment and share your experience.
      Take Care, Cat

      • Ha! I recently read Dracula, too, and thought the same. I also felt it dragged on a lot. Seems to be a common thread. Authors from prior to the mid-20th century seemed to think readers had nothing else to do with their lives than to read their books! And Bram Stoker seemed to think his characters had an awful lot of time to sit around writing letters and filling their diaries with slabs of colourful descriptions of their days. I found that a tad unrealistic. Or is that what everyone did back then?

      • It was a very different time, both in writing style and publishing I imagine. I quite liked the slower pace of some of the novel – if Dracula had been written today it would be an action-packed adventure novel with no room for reflection or intrigue about the race of vampires and their origins.

        It can be refreshing to sometimes fall back into another era of writing and appreciate the traditions that allowed writers to tell their story a hundred years or more ago. Not sure you would get away with the letter writing techniques and diary approach for such a novel any more, so I find it interesting to read now.

        I suppose in ‘ye olden times’ before the rise of the internet and television and all this convenience people did have more time to write and read – at least if you were wealthy enough – and so it would pass the time as entertainment rather than folly. Writing like this was the only way they had of recording their observations/adventures so I think it’s more believable than unrealistic. Besides, if Stoker hadn’t allowed his characters to do this, would Dracula ever have been written?

    • Thanks! In my early frustration I did consider just writing a scathing review, but then I realised that I could turn it on it’s head and learn something. I think perhaps if I hadn’t acknowledged this I might have stopped reading, but in the end I’m glad I stuck with it because the story was interesting and the characters were well built.
      Thanks for stopping by and taking the time to comment.
      Take Care, Cat

  6. A really interesting post, Cat. 🙂 I find that I read novels and stories as a writer now that I’m writing and am much more analytical. Although I had only thought of using other novels as models of good practice, I hadn’t thought of learning not what to do either.

    • Thanks Jan – glad that it’s added to what you can learn. 🙂 I have spent quite a lot of my reading time thinking ‘that’s great, how can I do that?’ but this novel made me think about what I would do ‘better’ or what didn’t work for me as a reader. I’ve now started a lit of things to check before I start sharing my work – a reader’s bug-bear list of sorts!

      Thanks for stopping by.
      Take Care, Cat

  7. Nicely done and great points. The POV is tricky. My WiP has alternating viewpoints and I had originally written them each in first person. After some beta tests came back that it was sometimes confusing, I switched the entire novel to third person and although I still have the alternating POV, it solved the confusion when both characters were in the same scene!
    On another note R.R. Martin has done a masterful job of the POV switch, but he makes sure they are per CHAPTER. Multiple POV in one chapter would me mighty hard to follow.
    I find now that I’m a writer I can’t help reading from a writer’s perspective. I recognize the good structure or clever scenes and also become frustrated when a novel has been published when there are so many “mistakes.” At the same time, It gives me hope. And maybe it’s corny to say and unfounded, but if Seamus McMonstersauce can find a traditional publisher, so can I.
    Found you on Candace’s website. Nice blog 🙂 Love your background picture!
    ~ Tam Francis ~
    http://www.girllinthejitterbugdress.com

    • Thanks Tam – sounds like you’ve struggled with the POV issue too and learned from the feedback that you’ve been given. It’s always worthwhile to study those writers who do things really well, but to contrast those with examples where it’s not so well done – these can be key for learning what works and what doesn’t. I sometimes find that I can identify really great writing – but struggle to understand what makes it great. It’s much easier to comprehend why things aren’t working I think!

      Good luck in your search for a traditional publisher – I hope to be on that journey too, one day!

      Thank you for stopping by and commenting. Glad you like the background it’s an old writer’s study (I forget who!). Hope you pop by again sometime.

      Take Care,
      Cat

  8. These experiences (and we, as writers, have all had them) can be frustrating. We are regularly bombarded with “don’t do this” advice, yet it sounds like you came upon an author who made all those mistakes and still got published.
    You mentioned repeated adverbs. I am currently reading a sci-fi novel in which a character said something “thoughtfully” twice on one page. A single use of “thoughtfully” is lazy writing, in my opinion, much less two appearances. Otherwise, it’s not brilliant prose, but it is serviceable for the genre.
    I’m in a tricky situation with my WiP in that I have four character PsOV, alternating by chapter. I want to make sure it all flows for the reader and is not distracting. Although it’s limited third-person, I still alter my voice so that narrative suits the character’s personality. I hope I’m not setting a bear trap for myself.

    • You’re right – it can be very frustrating. But, at the same time, it gives me hope that I can use these examples to improve my own writing. I can’t recall who once said something along the lines of ‘Don’t compare your work in progress to someone else’s final draft’ – but it’s good to keep in mind. I would much prefer to learn about these mistakes so I can avoid them rather than be published for other writer’s to discover!

      Your approach to dealing with your 4-POV novel sounds sensible – separating them by chapter will allow the reader to get used to a change when there’s a chapter break and the alteration in narrative voice should also mean that each POV is distinct. I think those are the two biggest issues when dealing with POV in a novel, so as long as you’re aware of them you’re probably already ahead of the game.

      Good luck with it. Thanks for stopping by to share.
      Take Care,
      Cat

  9. I find a disappointing read is best salvaged by learning from the mistakes and looking for the parts that were good. a no a tendency to paint with too broad a brush and over-populate a novel and I understand how that can happen. My current novel has a cast of 60 or so characters covering three generations in the backstory, but it’s backstory, so you only meet one or two of the key people. The story has to focus on the main character and the key supporting cast. If I want to write about a backstory character, I need to write a separate book.

    And if it makes you feel any better, I also get ticked off by repetitive phrasing, especially when it’s bad. A series I’ve been loving includes a physical tic I find unusual, and all her characters do it under stress. I notice it every time. If only one character did it, OK, but all of them? So I will look more closely at my go-to “tells” in my book and make sure that I don’t overuse anything or at least limit the weirder ones to a single appropriate character.

    • Sounds like you’re going about it the right way Kit – as you say, if you want to use a minor character as a major one: there’s another book to be written!

      One of the things I have noticed about my own writing is that a lot of my characters express things with their hands – like you say, it’s okay for one character to have this habit, but all of them…? It’s definitely a learning curve. I possibly wouldn’t have noticed this if I hadn’t picked it up elsewhere.

      Thanks for commenting and sharing your own ‘what not to do’ examples.
      Take Care,
      Cat

    • Thank you! I’ll have to find a book where I can focus on the good next time 😉 It has been useful to read with a more critical eye.
      Thanks for stopping by and commenting.
      Take Care, Cat

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