1. Not Explaining How Things Work
One of my favourite books when I was a preteen was Lois Lowry’s “The Giver.” It’s an excellent example of what happens when authors don’t explain how their worlds work.
The idea of growing up in a society that had no suffering, premature death, disease, or pain of any kind mesmerized me. I spent hours fantasizing about what it would have been like to live there, especially early on before I realized what price the characters had to pay for that slice of paradise.
There was one part of the plot that drove me up the wall, though. Jonas, the main character, explained in an early chapter that 100 babies were born every year in his community. All of those babies were placed with adoptive parents, no single parent families were allowed, and no family was ever given more than one son and one daughter to raise.
The women who were chosen to give birth for the colony only needed to give birth three times in their entire life. Once they completed those pregnancies, they spent the rest of their lives as single adults. They never were allowed to marry or have/raise other children.
So out of Jonas’ 50 female classmates, about 17 of them would need to be classified as birth mothers in order to produce the next generation. This means that 17 of his male classmates would never be assigned a spouse. If you continue to do the math, each generation of this society would be smaller than the rest because of the restricted family sizes and the large numbers of people who were never assigned a life partner.
This problem bothered me for years. I couldn’t figure out why Ms. Lowry wouldn’t have added a throw-away comment about some women giving birth more than three times and/or some families being assigned more than two children. If my math is correct, both of those things would need to occur in order to keep their numbers steady from one generation to the next. Small details like that would have gone a long way in explaining why Jonas’ society had survived for so long.
2. Forcing Endings That Don’t Fit
Lately I’ve read several different books that pushed two characters who barely even liked each other into falling in love. No, I do not have a problem with romantic plots or subplots in general. There is definitely a time and a place for them, but not every story needs to end with two people falling in love and pledging to be together forever.
Some characters are better off as friends. Other characters might make a great couple in the future once they’ve gotten to know each other or have solved at least some of the problems that are currently preventing them from being a good partner to anyone.
I have also noticed this happening a lot when it comes to happy endings. I can’t count the number of times that I’ve seen a happy ending tacked onto a movie or TV show when there was absolutely nothing in the beginning or middle of the storyline to indicate that anyone would be lucky enough to end up that way.
Do I have a problem with characters living happily ever after? Of course not! I love it when a plot unfolds in such a way that every single character in it gets everything they need and want in it. With that being said, not every tale is meant to turn out that way.
If the ending doesn’t fit, don’t force it.
3. Telling Instead of Showing
Earlier this year I began reading a story whose blurb sounded amazing. I was excited to begin it and sure that I was going to love every single second of it.
By the end of the first page, I knew I was wrong about that. It was a real struggle to finish it, too, because of how much time the author spent telling the audience what was happening instead of showing it to us. When I closed my eyes, I couldn’t visualize anything that had happened in the scene I’d just read.
None of the characters’ adventures caught my imagination in any way because everything from what they ate for dinner to the battles they fought were described so vaguely that they almost might have been the same thing.
There was nothing to pull me into that universe, and so it was quickly forgotten.
4. Chasing Trends
Some people say you are what you eat. That may be true, but I also say that you are what you read.
The first time a teenage girl in a supernatural universe fell in love with a 200-year-old vampire who turned out to be a pretty decent person despite his sunlight allergy and intense cravings for human blood, it was fascinating. The twentieth time it happened, I didn’t even bother to finish reading the description on the back cover before I put it back on the shelf.
This isn’t to say that I’m totally against the idea of a normal person falling in love with a vampire. If I ever stumble across an author who has come up with a fresh twist on this idea, I will read his or her work with joy.
In general, though, it’s best to follow your characters instead. Maybe someday someone will write about a teenage girl who meets a vampire she finds vaguely attractive, gets extremely weirded out by the fact that he’s several centuries older than her, moves far away to attend college, and then eventually meets back up with him for a cup of coffee after she’s graduated and come back home to take over the family business.
5. Not Researching Your Subject Matter
No, this advice isn’t only for people who are writing nonfiction or historical fiction. After listening to one of my writer friends talk about this on Twitter lately, I’ve come to agree with her stance on this issue: everything that can be researched should be researched!
For example, if you’re writing about a character who has a peanut allergy and you don’t already have personal experience that kind of medical condition, go research why allergies occur, how Epi-Pens work, and what could happen to someone who starts wheezing after they eat something that was accidentally contaminated with peanut oil and then realizes that they can’t find their Epi-Pen anywhere.
One of the things that will make me close a book and stop reading immediately is if the author gets something very wrong about a topic I know a lot about. I don’t expect perfection in every single detail, but it sure is nice when writers at least attempt to get the facts straight.
6. Only Reading Books in Your Genre
Last year I wrote an entire blog post about why everyone should at least occasionally read books that aren’t from their favourite genres.
If anything, I believe this even more firmly now than I did back then. There is nothing wrong with loving one or two genres, but I’ve seen the difference between authors who only read books that are from the genre they write in and authors who have branched out into other types of storytelling.
Every genre has areas it excels in and other areas that it usually handles poorly or even ignores altogether. It is only by moving from one genre to the next that you will begin to see what your favourite genre is and isn’t good at discussing.
7. Even Worse, Not Reading Books at All
I’ve met a few writers who have stopped reading anything that isn’t directly related to whatever project they’re currently working on.
While I completely understand being crunched for time, reading well-written fiction is almost as important as attempting to write it yourself. One of the best ways to learn how to write well is to read essays, stories, or books from authors who have spent years perfecting their craft.
They say you are what you eat. I say that you are also what you read, for better or for worse.
How about you? What do you think are seven deadly sins of writing? Come tell me about it on Twitter.