|Image taken from One Prayer Girl|
My commitment to indies has made me more forgiving of writing that does not move me in the first few chapters. Indie writers don't have professionals behind them helping them to craft that killer opening chapter. With indie novels, I'm learning to be a more patient reader. However, last night I picked up and put aside almost immediately two indie books. It bothered me that I'd been so impatient with them, but I couldn't bring myself to read them after the first chapter.
What was so wrong with them?
Too many words
I don't mean the books are too long. They are over-written. They contain too much narrative, too many adjectives and adverbs, too many unnecessary tangents, and too much detail.
Too much narrative
When a character, let's say a young woman, feels her heart race and her palms sweat when she sees a certain young man, we don't need to be told she is in love. If a bear is chasing her, we don't need to be told she is scared. And if the man she loves does not love her back, we don't need to be told she is sad.
Writers need to trust their characters so speak for themselves. They also need to trust that they've written the characters well enough that the reader will not need any help in figuring out what the characters feel.
Too many adjectives
"Gary felt a draft against his muscled torso covered in a fine mat of blond chest hair. He pulled on his favorite blue cotton shirt with pearl-gray buttons and a stiff white collar. He ran a hand through his sandy brown hair flecked with gray at each temple and gave himself a wink with his blue eyes that inclined to green on sunny days."
My first though when reading narrative like this is "ugh!" My second is, "who cares what color his chest hair, shirt, collar, or buttons are?"
Adjectives are like spices. You need some to give the writing flavor. But too many muddle the writing and make the narrative feel forced.
Too many adverbs
Stephen King advises writers to avoid adverbs altogether in his book, On Writing, A Memoir of the Craft. When a character screams, you don't need to tell us that he screamed loudly. When a villain threatens, you don't need to tell us that he threatened menacingly. And when a mother soothes a child, you don't need to tell us that is was done lovingly. We get that from the context.
This is not to say that the occasional adverb is not called for. But they should be used far less than adjectives.
Too many tangents
J.K. Rowling often speaks about how she keeps notebooks full of backstory on her characters. She does this to help her flesh out how the character might respond to a particular situation or what his speech patterns should be like. But rarely does she include the backstories in the narrative because she understands that backstory is meant for the notebooks, not the narrative.
Especially with minor characters, backstory is an obstacle to the plot, not an enrichment of it.
Tangents are not always backstory. Sometimes they are a sidestory the main character engages in. Not all of these need to be cut, but for each scene a writer should be thinking about whether this moves the reader closer to the story's climax or further away from it. Think about the tight narrative of Jane Austen's books. There is not one outing her characters go on or one caller who does not contribute to the main plot line.
Too much detail
This is a pet peeve of mine. I considered whether to include it in the 'too many adjectives' section, but it deserves its own mention. Some readers, especially of historical fiction love a lot of detail. Georgette Heyer fans enjoy learning about each material that goes into each character's dress and how the ribbons set off the characters' hair. Beverly Swerling fans love her detailed explanations of colonial medical procedures and native rituals. And Bernard Cornwall is a master of military detail.
I tend to skim when the narrative is bogged down in detail. This is how I got through Shadowbrooke and the amputation scenes in City of Dreams. However, though I really enjoyed The Gallows Thief, I couldn't get through The Fort and found A Crowning Mercy plodding at best. Arabella defeated me in the first chapter. Georgette Heyer didn't just break the details rule with this novel, she broke all of them.
Detail that enriches the narrative is great. I love that kind of detail. David Liss is a master at including little tidbits of historical detail throughout his narrative. It is so cleverly woven into the story and not overdone that the reader comes away with an appreciation for the setting without feeling he's just been lectured on it.
Details are like cream in the sauce. A little goes a long way. Too much bloats the narrative and will make the reader either sleepy or sick.
If you don't like the foodie metaphor, try this one. Details are like knick-knacks. A few placed about a room add interest. Too many knick-knacks clutter the room, making it look tacky or like the room's owner has a hoarding problem.
One final note, according to Gabe Habash in a recent article from Publishers Weekly, the average book has 64,500 words. At 250 words per page, that is 258 pages. The average traditionally published debut novel tends to be between 70,000-75,000 words. However, self-publishing, particularly e-publishing, is not bound by industry standards. Also, many indie writers don't hire professional editors. This leads to novels that are just too long.
I'm willing to stick with a good story with flawed writing, but to ask readers to take on 300+ pages of your amateur best is asking a lot, even if your book was only 99cents. In fact, because it was so cheap to begin with, many readers will not feel compelled to complete it.
I'm struggling to get my latest manuscript down to 75K words. I learned the hard way with Hope of Israel (105K words, 294 pp), that too many words can mar a good story.