Marcy’s Blog

Writers – Value Yourself and Your Work

Image Credit: Michael Faes/www.freeimages.com

Image Credit: Michael Faes/www.freeimages.com

By Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

Over the last couple of months, an online debate has risen about whether creatives deserve to be paid for their work or whether they should work for free or for “exposure.” By creatives, I mean those who produce intellectual property or the like for the purpose of entertaining an audience—writers, musicians, dancers/performance artists, etc.

(If you’re a reader rather than a writer, this post isn’t for you. Instead please read Kassandra Lamb’s excellent post A Reader’s Look Behind the Curtain Re: eBook Pricing and Kindle Unlimited. She talks about what readers, rather than writers, need to know about the issue at hand.)

On one side of the firestorm sits Kristen Lamb. In her post “How the Culture of Free is Killing Creatives,” Kristen put out the call for writers to stop allowing themselves and their work to be exploited. Is this a career for you? Then you should be paid for your work. As Will Wheaton said in his post on the topic, you can’t pay your rent with exposure.

On the other side are opinions like that expressed by Joe Konrath on his blog: “No one owes me a living. A sense of entitlement is a dangerous thing. If you’re lucky, you’ll find readers. If you’re really lucky, you’ll make a few bucks. But just because you can string a few pretty sentences together doesn’t mean you get to earn a living.”

Many other posts have followed, including Jami Gold’s practical take on it in “Should We Work for Free?

At the bottom of all of this is a question of value. Do you think what you do is valuable? Do you believe your work is valuable?

Because if your work has value, then you do deserve to be paid for it.

I’m not a fan of people claiming a situation is black and white. The truth is that most of our world is greyscale. It’s nuance. It’s caveats and exceptions.

So look carefully again at what I just said: If your work has value, then you deserve to be paid.

Something of value is something that people want.

We don’t deserve to be paid for what we write if it’s not good and if no one wants it. No one is obligated to pay us just because we decided to write something. If I went out and bought a box of cookies, brought them to your house and left them there, then expected you to pay for them, that’d just be crazy. It’d be even crazier if those cookies were moldy or soggy or covered in dirt.

If, however, someone enjoys our work, if someone wants to read it, then yes, we should be paid for that. That’s not entitlement. It’s supply and demand. If you asked me to buy those same cookies for you, and then refused to pay me back for them, that’d be rude, wouldn’t it?

There’s a big difference there. Will Wheaton pointed it out in his post. He didn’t contact Huffington Post asking to write for them. They contacted him. They wanted his work, but they weren’t willing to pay for it. Performance artist Revolva said the same thing in her open letter to Oprah Winfrey when she was contacted by the producers for Oprah’s The Life You Want tour. She didn’t ask them if she could perform. They sought her out. But they expected her to perform for free.

But wait, you might say. If you query a magazine or a book publisher, you made the first move. Does that mean you shouldn’t expect to be paid?

Nuances, remember? Who approached whom isn’t the only factor in whether you deserve to be paid or not.

If someone wants to use your creative property to make money, then you deserve to make money too.

You know what it’s called when one person uses another person’s hard labor to make money and doesn’t reimburse them for their hard work, right?

And we’re not talking about volunteering to help a charity or a good cause here. We’re talking about a for-profit business earning income from someone else’s work without paying that person for the work.

To quote Taylor Swift’s response to Apple’s plan to not pay musicians, song writers, and producers for three months, “It is unfair to ask anyone to work for nothing.”

(Jami does a great job in the post I linked above about discussing whether or not the payment always needs to be money. I agree with what she said, so I’ll direct you there for the answer to that inevitable question.)

The point of all this is that if we don’t value and respect ourselves and our work, no one else will. If we don’t draw our line in the sand somewhere, eventually we won’t have the option of earning money for our creative work. Eventually it won’t matter how good our work is because we’ll have accepted non-payment for so long that no one will value what should be valuable.

And that would be a sad day not only for creatives but for our society and culture as a whole.

So, creatives, value yourselves. Value your work. Work hard to make something others will value. Then expect to be paid for it.

Interested in more ways to improve your writing? Deep Point of View is now available! (You might also want to check out Internal Dialogue or Showing and Telling in Fiction.)

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When To Hire Help And When To Do It Yourself

By Marcy Kennedy (@Marcy Kennedy)

Janice Hardy Fiction UniversityOne of the most frustrating parts of indie publishing is how conflicting the advice can seem. One of the areas where I’ve frequently noticed this advice dichotomy is in whether or not we should hire out the non-writing work involved in our business.

Some people will tell you to do as much as you can yourself to minimize costs (allowing you to “earn out” quicker and bring in profits). Others will tell you to hire out everything you can because you’ll end up with a more professional product and have more time to write.

So how’s an indie supposed to know what to do?

How we handle it will depend on our individual situation. Anyone who tells you that their way is the only right way is…well…wrong.

We can ask ourselves some questions to figure out what solution is the best one for us.

Today is my regular monthly guest post at Janice Hardy’s Fiction University. I hope you’ll join me there to read the rest of this post.

Interested in more ways to improve your writing? Deep Point of View is now available! (You might also want to check out Internal Dialogue or Showing and Telling in Fiction.)

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Four Crippling Misconceptions About Deep POV

DeepPointOfView 1By Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

Myths and misunderstandings abound no matter what skill we’re trying to learn. An important part of learning is sorting out the misinformation surrounding a topic. So today I want to talk about what deep point of view isn’t.

Misconception #1 – You need to write in first person to write deep POV.

Deep POV isn’t about pronouns. We can write deep POV from a third-person point of view. And we haven’t necessarily created a more intimate story by writing in first person rather than third person. First-person point of view can feel cold and distant too.

Misconception #2 – You create deep POV by spending a lot of time on internal dialogue.

This is possibly one of the most dangerous misconceptions about writing in deep POV because it can lead us to include too much internal dialogue (character thoughts) within our stories. Books written in deep POV usually will include more internal dialogue than a book written in a more distant POV, but that internal dialogue still needs to be seamlessly woven in with action, description, and dialogue. We shouldn’t allow our stories to stall out by dropping in giant chunks of internal dialogue.

This isn’t the only issue with this misconception, though. Deep POV is about more than simply internal dialogue. It’s also about internal, visceral reactions to what our viewpoint character experiences. It’s about creating a feeling of immediacy, as if we’re watching the story play out in front of us as it happens (regardless of the tense used). It’s about allowing the viewpoint character’s judgments and opinions and biases to color everything on the page.

Misconception #3 – Deep POV requires us to put our internal dialogue in italics.

Point of view can be a confusing topic for writers because of how closely it ties to showing vs. telling and internal dialogue. Whether or not to italicize internal dialogue is a question of formatting and not one of whether you’re writing in a deep or shallow point of view.

The guidelines for italicizing our internal dialogue are outside the scope of this book, but generally speaking, we’ll have less italicized internal dialogue in a book written in deep POV than we will in a book written in a shallower POV.

This is because we only italicize internal dialogue when it’s what’s called direct internal dialogue. Direct internal dialogue is written in first-person present tense regardless of the tense and person of the rest of the story. Because it’s italicized, it draws attention to itself.

In deep POV, we’re so close inside the character that the character’s thoughts tend to flow and interweave with the rest of the writing and are best written in the same person and tense as the story itself. To explain this another way, the less the internal dialogue draws attention to itself, the more immersed the reader feels in the character. The less attention the internal dialogue draws to itself, the closer the reader feels.

Misconception #4 – Deep POV means we have to show everything that happens.

One argument I’ve heard against deep POV is that it will make your story too long and feel too slow because you need to show everything that happens and you can’t summarize.

Let me give you an example. You might write something like this…

They gathered up their belongings.

Or something like…

They ran two red lights on the drive to Brenda’s house.

According to this misconception of deep POV, you wouldn’t be able to write either of those sentences in a deep POV book. You’d need to show them collecting every single item or you’d have to show the entire drive.

Deep POV doesn’t mean you show everything that happens in a stream of consciousness-style narrative. Deep POV is an overarching technique we can use in our writing, but we can still pull back and use moments of narrative summary to skim unimportant information when necessary. We can also cut any internal dialogue that would bore the reader. Deep POV is a tool, not a straightjacket.

Deep Point of View: A Busy Writer’s Guide is now available!

Do you want readers to be so caught up in your book that they forget they’re reading?

Then you need deep POV.

Deep POV takes the reader and places them inside of our characters—hearing their thoughts, feeling their emotions, and living the story through them. Compared to other writing styles, it builds a stronger emotional connection between the reader and our characters, creates the feeling of a faster pace, and helps avoid point-of-view errors and telling rather than showing.

In Deep Point of View, you’ll learn specific, practical things you can do immediately to take your fiction to the next level.

Each book in the Busy Writer’s Guide series is intended to give you enough theory so that you can understand why things work and why they don’t, but also enough examples to see how that theory looks in practice. In addition, they provide tips and exercises to help you take it to the pages of your own story, with an editor’s-eye view. Most importantly, they cut the fluff so that you have more time to write and to live your life.

Grab a copy from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Apple, Kobo, or Smashwords.

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Using a Montage to Handle Time in Fiction

Image Credit: Zoli Plosz/freeimages.com

Image Credit: Zoli Plosz/freeimages.com

By Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

Welcome back to my mini-series on handling time in our fiction. Today I want to talk about what I call the montage.

If you watch movies, you’ve likely seen a montage. It’s a quick collection of images used to compress time or information. In other words, it’s a pacing tool.

And a montage can help us handle the passage of time in our fiction. What I mean by that will make more sense when I show you how they’re used, so let’s dive in.

Montages for Compression of Time

As an editor, I often have a discussion with writers over “empty” scenes—scenes without enough happening in them to justify their existence or where the character’s goal isn’t exciting in and of itself. They make the story feel slow, but the writer will argue that the scenes are important because they need to show time passing. What they often need instead of all those extraneous scenes is a time-compression montage.

In movies, time compression montages are used when it’s important to know that something is happening—for example, a character is learning a new skill—but it’s not important enough or interesting enough to spend a long time showing it happening.

In other words, the fact that this time passed or that this skill was gained is more important than the details of what happened during that passed time or skill acquisition.

I’ll give you a quick example of how a time-compression montage might look on the page.

Let’s say we have a woman in the 1800s awaiting a letter from her husband, who has gone ahead of her across the continent to set up a home for them and was supposed to send for her once he arrived.

Each day I walked to the post office to check our box. Each day the clerk came back empty-handed. At first it was, “Is there something special coming, dear?” and then “Are you sure he has the right address?” and finally “Letters get lost all the time. I wouldn’t worry.” By the time winter set in, she didn’t say anything at all. When I asked if I had any mail, she simply shook her head. She wouldn’t look me in the eyes.

In the movie Notting Hill, when Hugh Grant’s character is walking through the market and the seasons change around him, that’s a time-compression montage. A Knight’s Tale (starring Heath Ledger) used multiple montages in this way. The novel version of Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding uses at least one montage. If you watch for them from now on, you’ll see how frequently time-compression montages show up in fiction, on both screen and page, across all genres.

Montages for Backstory

I could write a whole series about backstory (and I might eventually). The biggest danger of backstory is that we insert it in such a way that it stops the present-day action dead. (A close second is adding unnecessary backstory, even in small bites.)

I could name on one hand the number of times I’ve come across a flashback (a piece of backstory turned into its own scene) that was essential enough to justify its existence and worked well. Very rarely is a scene-length flashback the best way to handle backstory. That’s not to say that the backstory itself isn’t essential—sometimes it can be—but we need to handle it properly.

There are many ways to do that. One particularly effective method for emotionally charged bits of backstory is to use a backstory montage.

The best way I can explain how this works is to point you to the movie K-Pax. Near the end, the psychiatrist, Mark Powell, has gone back to the home of Robert Porter, the man he believes is Prot (a patient who claims he’s an alien). As the sheriff tells the story of the rape and murder of Porter’s wife and daughter by an ex-con, we see these flashes of images of what happened.

We can use the same method in our stories when we want to share backstory or have our character relive a particularly traumatic event in the past, but we also want to keep the present day story moving.

Share a present day event, then a flash of images or sounds or smells. A present day event, and then a flash of the memories it triggers. It works like a chain of links as the character struggles to face the past without losing touch on what’s happening in the present. The montage flashes should work in sequential order to tell their own mini-story alternating with the present-day story of the character.

Montages for Altered States of Mind

Sometimes we run into a spot where our character is very sick, drugged, having a mental break, or is in an otherwise altered state of mind. For example, when Katniss has been stung by the tracker jackets in The Hunger Games and she’s hallucinating, stumbling through the forest.

These are moments when we need to cover what could be a large area of time in a fast, interesting way. We also need to be able to do it in an authentic way that feels like we’re still inside the viewpoint character.

Let me show you how this might look.

Angie struggled to stay awake—some part of her brain screamed at her that she should after a head injury—but her whole body felt strange. Achy and heavy and hot. Black dots swam in her vision and the world was upside down. No, the world was right side up. The car was upside down. Windshield smashed and glass all over the floor-ceiling.

Her eyes slid shut. Flew open.

Sirens. Red and blue and white flashes of light. A voice saying “on three.”

Daggers of pain plunged into her whole body and blackness swallowed her again.

White walls in a moving room. Someone taking her pulse. An IV line dangling from her arm.

Beeping machines. A mask over her face. The stench of skunk.

She fought her way back to consciousness. The room smelled of antiseptic and sweat, and she brushed her fingers over a thin, rough blanket. This wasn’t her house and it wasn’t her bed. The crash. Someone had t-boned her on the way home from work, right? She couldn’t quite pull all the pieces from her memory, but how else would she have gotten here.

The curtain around her bed pulled back, and a woman in smiley face scrubs leaned over her. “Nice to see you awake again. On a scale of 1-10, how would you say the pain is today?”

Angie has been drifting in and out of awareness for nearly a week by the time she finally comes fully awake.

While we have the option of skipping over times like this, a montage can show the passage of time in a natural and interesting way.

Have you ever tried to write a montage? Or would you like to share an example of a montage from a book or movie that you felt worked particularly well?

Interested in more ways to improve your writing? Deep Point of View is now available! (You might also want to check out Internal Dialogue or Showing and Telling in Fiction.)

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Unbelievable Real Life: Caves Under Our Cities

By Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

Recently I’ve been researching what life is like in the oceans (I’m thinking about writing a book involving an underwater society), and I stumbled across this video. I wanted to share it because of the spectacular images the speaker shares. And listen carefully near the end of the video where she talks about what she’s dived under. Some of the caves she’s mapped run under populated areas. It reminded me about how little we really know about our world.

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Managing the Passage of Time in Fiction

Image Credit: Toni Mihailov/www.freeimages.com

Image Credit: Toni Mihailov/www.freeimages.com

By Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

We’re almost constantly aware of the passage of time in our daily lives. We check our watches, set alarms, mark important dates on our calendars. We live by the change in daylight and the change in seasons.

The passage of time will be equally important to our characters…and to our readers. Readers can find it confusing or disconnecting if they don’t know when something is taking place or how long a time has passed.

Part of what makes our story feel real to them is the natural passage of time.

Unfortunately, how to deal with the passage of time is something that’s not as commonly taught. That means many of us don’t know how to deal with it correctly (or at all).

Lines like “the next morning” or “a week later” can feel clunky. As readers, we know they’re inserted by the author. They break the fictional dream because they feel like they’re coming from an outside source.

Or often we’ll write an entire story without a hint of when it’s taking place. Winter or summer? The 1950s or the 1990s?

So how can we deal with the passage of time more naturally—in a way that feels like we’re still living it with our characters?

Today I’m going to start a short series on dealing with time in our fiction. This week I’m going to look at ways we can establish the “time” of our story using subtle cues.

When our book opens, when we start a new chapter or scene, or whenever there’s a major change, we need to establish the time.

Establishing a Specific Time

You can establish a specific time internally or externally.

Establishing a specific time externally is usually done in thrillers where there’s a clock ticking down to a tragic event and every minute counts. The author opens each scene/chapter with the date and time.

E.g. 8:00 pm, Friday

Kassandra Lamb did this in her thriller Fatal Forty-Eight. We find out early in the story how long the serial killer keeps his victims alive, and seeing that clock counting down at the start of every new segment really added to the tension.

Externally establishing time doesn’t work for most stories, though, so if we need to establish a specific time, we have to do it internally, through the characters.

Have your viewpoint character look at a clock or their watch. This is the simplest method. To make this believable, give them a reason for doing so. Maybe they know they’re running late. Maybe they have a deadline to hit. Maybe they have an important meeting.  

Use dialogue. We have to be careful that we don’t fall into As-You-Know-Bob dialogue with this technique. As-You-Know-Bob dialogue is where a character says something they wouldn’t normally say. It’s dialogue that’s for the reader’s benefit rather than dialogue that’s from one character to another. Like with looking at a clock, make sure your speaking character has a strong and natural reason for mentioning the time. Would you include the time if you spoke this dialogue?

Establishing a General Time

Often we don’t need an exact minute or hour. Often all we need is an approximate time to show the days moving forward.

Use the sun or moon’s position. This is the simplest way to keep time moving forward. If in the previous scene our character was in a dark alley, looking for a place to hide from her stalker, and we open this scene with the sun making the broken glass seem almost pretty with the way it glitters, we’ll know time has passed. It was night. Now it’s morning.

Reference a commonly known time of day. As long as your story is set on Earth, you can also establish a general time using an event like breakfast or lunch (or happy hour or siesta). If the diner on the corner is filling up with lunch customers, giving your character a chance to vanish into the crowd, that sets the time and keeps the story moving forward.

Compare this day to the previous day. In the opening to this post, I mentioned that saying something like “the next morning” can feel awkward and intrusive. There are more natural ways we can handle this. A good one is to show what’s changed between this day and the previous one.

Yesterday’s sunshine had vanished and rain splattered her face, promising she wouldn’t be able to sleep out in the open again tonight. It was find shelter or perish.

We know it’s the next day, but it feels more natural because it feels like the character is thinking about the difference. It gives them a reason to note the change in days.

The important thing to remember with these cues is that they still need to fit naturally within the story. We shouldn’t stop the story in its tracks just to describe the time.

Establishing a Season of the Year or an Era in History

These time cues are the easiest to establish but nonetheless important.

Seasons all have built in cues for us to use. Christmas carols on the radio mean it’s before Christmas. Dead trees by the curb on garbage day means it’s after Christmas. The leaves change in fall. Stores bursting with heart-shaped boxes of chocolates mean Valentine’s Day is coming. We don’t have to hit the reader over the head to convey the season. A passing mention of seasonal items can subtly do the job for us.

Technology and clothing can help identify the era in history. If our character isn’t talking on a cell phone, we know the story isn’t set in modern day. A woman who struggles to breathe because she had her corset laced too tight or a man who is arrested for buying illegal booze gives the reader a general idea of the era. It usually won’t pin down a year (unless you include a radio broadcast about the death of President Kennedy for example), but it will help establish the right era for the setting.

Do you struggle with including enough time cues in your writing? Would you like to share another natural way to include a mention of the time?

Interested in more ways to improve your writing? Deep Point of View is now available! (You might also want to check out Internal Dialogue or Showing and Telling in Fiction.)

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Unbelievable Real Life: Underwater Art Museum

Image Credit: Alex Furr/www.freeimages.com

Image Credit: Alex Furr/www.freeimages.com

By Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

I’ve been to museums across the world, from Australia, to Europe, to Canada and the United States. I’ve never been to a museum under water. Until I saw this video, I didn’t even know something like this existed.

When I watched this video, full of fantastic images of how submerged sculptures are changed as the ocean reclaimed them, a few thoughts crossed my mind. I’ll let you watch first before I share my reactions.

My first thought was “how does someone come up with an idea like this?” It seems like a melding of creativity and a desire to change the world. Part of deCaires mission is to bring attention to the danger our oceans are in. Art is for entertainment, but art can also send a message. I believe it can change hearts and minds in a way that non-fiction never can. That’s a part of why I write fiction.

My second thought, I’ll admit, was much less deep. The sculptures were both beautiful and grotesque. I started to wonder what it would have been like if we’d found these sculptures, not knowing who put them there or why. What would we have concluded about the culture and people behind them? What would we decide about how they’d come to be there?

Perhaps there’s a story idea in there somewhere 🙂

What did you think when you watched this video?

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The Biggest Mistake Made By Self-Published Authors

By Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

I’m going to be a tease today. I’m over at Janice Hardy’s Fiction University for my regular monthly guest post, but I’m not going to tell you more about the topic than this–I’m sharing what I think is a fatal mistake made my self-published authors. And it’s probably not what you’d expect.

Please join me at Fiction University to find out more!

Interested in more ways to improve your writing? Point of View in Fiction is now available! (You might also want to check out Internal Dialogue or Showing and Telling in Fiction.)

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Will Humanity One Day Live on Mars?

Image Attribution: By NASA and The Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Image Attribution: By NASA and The Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

The next milestone in space exploration seems to be putting people on Mars.

NASA has mentioned plans to place human beings on Mars sometime in the 2030s. Non-profits like the Netherlands-based Mars One Project and private businesses like Elon Musk’s SpaceX intend to do it sooner than that.

While there are many scientific reasons for wanting to explore Mars, the reason for Mars exploration that earns the most press seems to be colonization. Many people see Mars as a backup planet to our own.

I’m a science fiction and fantasy girl. In theory, I love the idea of venturing out into the universe.

But I also have some questions about the feasibility and practicality of something like colonizing Mars.

Our planet is more hospitable than Mars, and yet look at the large portions of it that aren’t lived in because they’re not friendly to human life. Our vast stretches of desert. Mountain peaks. The depths of the ocean. Antarctica.

In an interview with The Telegraph, award-winning science writer Stephen Petranek responded to similar objections with this: “I suspect Antarctica’s a pretty good analogy of how we can build habitats in a hostile environment. The food’s pretty good, there’s a lot of entertainment, people have a lot of camaraderie. There are now several year-long stations at the South Pole. The French have one and they have fabulous food.”

While that sounds fantastic, I do think he’s overlooked a few key points.

No one lives permanently in Antarctica. The stations are there year-round; the people cycle in and out. There is no indigenous population.

It doesn’t have an infrastructure. While the science stations there do have hydroponics bays to grow some fruits and vegetables, most of the food still needs to be shipped in frozen, including all meat products. Clothing, medical supplies, and all the other non-edible necessities of life are brought in. They’re not produced there.

To put it another way, life in Antarctica is possible because it takes place on a planet that already provides for people’s needs. Life there isn’t sustainable in and of itself, cut off from the outside world.

It’s also on a planet with oxygen. In a region with plenty of available water (albeit frozen water). And where temperatures are concerned, Antarctica is actually a little bit warmer.

I’m by no means an expert on space travel. I’m not a scientist. I’m not an astronomer. I’m not a biologist. And I’m not saying it will never happen. Technology has changed so much in the past 150 years that only a fool would say that technology won’t continue to advance further in the next 150.

But I wonder. I wonder if we’re searching for answers off-planet when maybe we should be searching for more ways to save this one. Because the more we look at the universe, the clearer it becomes how unique and special Earth really is.

What do you think? Am I wrong? Will future generations colonize Mars? Would the time and resources being spent on reaching Mars be better spent on finding solutions here on Earth?

(I welcome disagreement and discussion on this blog as long as it is polite and well-reasoned. Open discussions help us all grow. Name calling and assertions without logical arguments to back them up serve no one. If you want to engage in those, you’ll need to find another place to do it 🙂 )

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6 Qualities of Bad Writing

Bad WritingBy Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

Whenever a book becomes wildly successful (or even moderately successful), a funny thing seems to happen. Among all the people who love it, another segment of the population rises up who hate the book.

Now, some of this could be sour grapes, spouted by people who’ve wanted to write a bestseller and have failed. Some of it could be folks who like to disagree because they don’t want to be a part of any crowd or a part of any popular movement. They value being contrary.

But I have to believe that, equally as often, some of the people who claim to hate a popular book really do hate it. They really believe the writing is terrible. They really believe the story is boring or “nothing new and special.” They really couldn’t stand spending that many pages with the main character.

What started me thinking about this was watching the final Hunger Games movie with my husband. We’ve both read the books. I’d been anticipating this movie since last year. But when I asked my husband if he was excited about seeing the movie, he said, “Meh, it’s really more your thing.”

I valued the series enough to buy it in paperback. He thought the books were merely okay. He won’t ever read them again.

I couldn’t stand the Twilight series, but I have friends who loved the books.

So I have to ask, what makes something a good book or a bad book? What qualifies as good writing and what qualifies as bad writing?

These six qualities of bad writing can ruin a book. (My theory on why they don’t always do so is coming up afterward.)

Bad Writing Quality #1 – Flawed Writing on a Sentence Level

I’m not talking about the occasional typo here. I don’t even mean the occasional poorly written or wordy sentence.

By flawed writing, I mean regular use of awkward, overly wordy, or confusing sentences or sentence constructions. I also mean grammar or punctuation that’s bad enough to cause the reader comprehension trouble. Flagrant overuse of figures of speech fall into this category as well.

Flawed writing on a sentence level ruins a book because it makes the book difficult for most people to read. You’re not able to lose sight of the words on the page.

Bad Writing Quality #2 – A Slow Plot

A slow plot can be caused by a lack of stakes (which I’ll talk about in a second), but it can also be caused by subplots that never connect to the main plot, a character who thinks more than acts, or too much chronicling of daily life.

Any type of rabbit trail can slow the plot. So if we have an “exciting” chase scene in our book that doesn’t connect to the main plot, it will still make the book feel slow.

A slow plot leads to readers feeling like the book was boring—in other words, a bad book.

Bad Writing Quality #3 – Low Stakes

Another element that can lead to a boring book is low stakes.

Many writers misunderstand low vs. high stakes. Every book needs high stakes, regardless of genre. High stakes aren’t simply a threat on the character’s life.

Let me explain.

James Scott Bell has famously written that the stakes should always be death. That can easily be misunderstood. Death can be emotional or professional as well as physical. It can be the death of a dream. The risk of losing anything your main character cares deeply and passionately about qualifies as death stakes. A part of them will die if they lose this thing.

When we’re considering stakes, giving our character higher stakes is only part of it. We also need to explain why our character wants it so much. When the reader understands the why, they’ll be more invested in the story.

Bad Writing Quality #4 – A Predictable Plot

You might have noticed a pattern already—many people will define boring writing as bad writing. A predictable plot, without interesting twists or an escalation of events, will quickly lose the reader’s interest.

Another way of looking at this is the lack of a fascinating premise. If we’re telling the reader a story they’ve heard a hundred times, they’re not going to want to hear it again. The way around this is to take a tried-and-true premise and put a spin on it or to write the story that you could never find and desperately wanted to read.

Bad Writing Quality #5 – Flat Characters

Our characters don’t necessary have to be likeable in order for people to love our books, but they do need to be compelling in some way. Maybe that is a character who’s likeable. Maybe it’s a character who is interesting because they’re in a strange profession (that you leverage in your book) or who has fascinating quirks or an unusual skill. Maybe it’s a character your readers can relate to on an emotional level or who faces struggles similar to the ones your readers face.

Here’s the thing—a story about Bob the Plumber, going about a day that’s like anyone else’s day, isn’t interesting, especially if Bob is your average person with no unique qualities.

If Bob the Plumber wanted to be a detective, though, and has exceptional deductive skills that allow him to spot and solve crimes, you have a story.

Or if Bob the Plumber is a devoted single dad trying to help his daughter prepare for the Olympic trials while also running his business (which was always his dream), then you have a story.

Make your character special in some way. Make your readers want to spend 10 or more hours with them.

Bad Writing Quality #6 – No Emotional Resonance

This is a tricky one, but try a little exercise. Think about two books. One book you read once but won’t ever read again, even though you didn’t hate it the first time. The other book you read over and over again.

Oftentimes, the difference between the two is emotional resonance. Emotional resonance can hide under the alternate name of “well-executed theme.”

How did Harry Potter reach so many people? One of the reasons was that Harry’s deep need was one almost everyone could relate to. The stories and characters transcended the details of the magical world to tell a story of a boy who longed for a family that loved him, who just wanted to feel at home somewhere, who struggled to figure out the line between right and wrong, and who learned that some things are worth fighting and dying for.

In other words, the struggles of Harry, despite their magical trappings, spoke directly to many people’s hearts.

Then Why Do Some Books With One (or More!) Of These Flaws Still Succeed?

I have a theory about why some books with one or two of these bad qualities still become bestsellers.

Reading is subjective. Look at that list and rank those qualities from least important to most important for your reading enjoyment. If you compared your list to a friend’s list, they would probably rank those items differently.

So when we read a book, if that book fails miserably at one of our most important criteria for reading enjoyment, we’ll hate it. But that same book might beautifully execute the element that tops our friend’s list, and so they love it.

Wait!

This doesn’t mean I’m saying that as writers we shouldn’t try to do all these things well. We should. We should try to write the best book we can possibly write.

But we also need to understand where our strengths and weaknesses lie and be prepared for bad reviews. No book is ever perfect. No book will appeal to absolutely everyone. And books we think are crap will often become someone else’s favorite read.

What’s most important to you, as a reader, from the list? Do you think my theory is right or a load of hog-wash? 🙂

Interested in more ways to improve your writing? Deep Point of View is now available! (You might also want to check out Internal Dialogue, Description, or Showing and Telling in Fiction.)

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