Friday, April 15, 2011

15 Sure-Fire Ways to Lose Your Readers

If you’re writing a novel, especially your first one, there are a number of common mistakes you can make that will virtually guarantee that you lose most readers.

1. Story starts too slowly. This is by far the most common problem with first novels. Unfortunately, most readers are not known for their patience, especially with authors they don’t already read. They want you to deliver whatever you promised in your synopsis or sales blurb, and fast. There’s an old Hollywood adage that applies here: a story should start on the day that's different. Let us get to know your characters while something is happening on that day that's different, just before, or during, the inciting incident (the event that sets your story in motion).

2. Story does not "perform as advertised." This is another way of saying that your story does not appear to deliver the promise made in your packaging (your title, book cover, and synopsis). It's supposed to be a thriller but seems to be a romance, or it's supposed to be a London murder mystery but opens with two little girls playing hopscotch in the Philippines. Roundabout lead-ins and slow starts often cause readers to assume that you don't know what you're doing, even if you do. It's important to make sure that the book matches the expectations you set up in your synopsis in the first few pages, if possible.  Otherwise, it’s like they’ve bought a box of corn flakes, but when they open it, Fruit Loops comes pouring out.

3. Too many characters introduced too quickly. This overwhelms the reader. It is like walking into a party and having the host introduce you to a dozen guests at once--chances are, you won't be able remember any of them. In your story, it's better to start off with one or two characters, let the reader get to know them a little bit, and then gradually introduce more. Also, try to choose names that begin with different first letters and have different numbers of syllables to help the reader distinguish between them. Many people speedread, and if you include three characters named Sharon, Sharika and Shannon, those who read fast will soon be very annoyed.

4. No clear-cut point of view. If your book were a movie, this is the equivalent of having the camera jump all over the place while the audience is trying to absorb itself in the story--first it's focused on one character, then on another character looking down from the ceiling, then looking at the first character as if viewed through the eyes of the second character, etc. The concept of point of view must be understood by the writer and used consciously and effectively. If you're unclear on this vital fiction writing technique, you should brush up on it.

5. Story has no distinct main character. When reading fiction, we have an inherent desire to identify with at least one of the characters as quickly as possible so we can get ourselves involved. We want to find someone we can root for, or root against. Most of us read in order to see how someone else grapples with an usual problem or situation--we imagine how we would react if we were in that character's shoes. The sooner you allow that to happen, the more involved the reader will become. 

6. Too much bio/backstory information is presented. Practically every author I've known, myself included, suffers from this problem--we want to tell the reader everything about every character, and right from the beginning. However, today's readers are accustomed to having this information parceled out in small pieces while the action takes place. Otherwise, the story bogs down with unnecessary detail. Review the first few scenes in your book and honestly ask yourself: does the reader really need to know all this at this particular moment in the story? A good rule to follow: If in doubt, leave it out.

7. Flashbacks used too often and/or too early. Some fiction writing gurus profess that flashbacks should be used as little as possible, and I'm one of them. The main problem with flashbacks is that they cover events that already happened relative to the main storyline. We as readers instinctively know that, unless the story involves time travel, your heroine cannot do anything to change the past--her hands are tied. So, naturally, we become impatient for the writer to get on with the story. I believe flashbacks can have a place in any good story, but opening one with a flashback is really pushing your luck with readers.

One of the best tricks you can use to make flashbacks interesting for the reader is to save them for the middle or later part of the story, and to build up tension the point where the reader is dying to know what happened when little Edward was left alone in the garage or that rainy night when two strangers appeared at the front door.

8. Opening scenes lack enough tension. Each and every scene in your book should contain some form of tension or conflict to keep the reader interested in turning the pages. Tension can simply be defined as "the desire to know what happens next." This is paramount in the first few scenes of your book, because your reader has often not completely left his present surroundings and become absorbed in your make-believe world. You have to snag her on Page 1 and hold her still, keep her turning those pages until she’s fully hooked.

9. One or more scenes do not advance the plot. In any well-written story, every scene or chapter advances the plot. That is to say, at the end of every scene or chapter, the hero (and therefore the reader) knows something he didn't know at the beginning of that section. The plot thickens. The situation worsens. The heroine digs herself in deeper. If a scene doesn't advance the plot, the reader will get an idle feeling, as if the writer is just marking time. Often, new authors (and even old ones like me) will include one or more "warm up" scenes at the beginning of a book in which nothing much happens except that characters get to know each other, or they perform routine activities so the reader can get to know them. These scenes must be mercilessly cut.

10. Reader cannot emotionally connect with main character. Within a few pages, the reader should know who the main character is and what she wants, and especially what she is feeling. The reader should empathize with this character--not necessarily like the character, but should understand the character's general attitude about the story events, and therefore understand why the character is doing what he is doing (the motivation). If this does not happen, the reader gets a distant, left-out feeling…and will likely turn to another book or some other form of entertainment. 

11. Too many seemingly unrelated plot threads. I've always enjoyed novels with vastly different plot threads that slowly converge, making you wonder, with delicious intrigue, how it all comes together. While this can look easy, it is tricky to pull off, because each and every thread must be engaging to the reader as a stand-alone story. Furthermore, we must trust that the author really will tie all these seemingly unrelated threads together at some point, and that it will all make sense. If the impatient reader (for example, a busy and somewhat jaded literary agent, if you’re trying to get your book traditionally published) sees no connection between the plot threads, she again may simply assume you don't know what you're doing and move on. So, for first novels, it's usually better to open with a plot thread that is clearly related to the title/genre/synopsis of the book, and then shift--with care--to the other threads.

12. Narrative is description-heavy. When considering a new novel, one of the things that literary agents and editors often do, as well as ordinary readers, is flip through the pages to see the mix of dialogue and description. (I have to confess, that as a reader, I do it, too) Passages of dialogue are generally easier to read and usually move the story along faster than descriptive passages. A book that's 90% description will appear heavy and imposing to many readers. Market research shows that today’s readers want a fairly even balance of dialogue and description. With most popular fiction, it's better to have more dialogue than description. I'm not saying that this is good from a literary point of view--it may well reflect a dulling of the average reader's (and my own) mind. But this is the way it is--novels that are heavily description-laden will not sell as well, all other things being equal, as balanced ones.

13. Description is loaded with "purple prose." This is often a problem in the opening paragraph of a book by a new writer. I can't tell you how many fantastic books I've read that started with a beautiful description of a sunset or other pastoral scene. However, these books were mostly written by literary masters, after they became literary master, with die-hard fans who would praise the authors’ laundry lists if they had access to them. So unless you are exceptionally gifted with this type of narrative expression, I include some action and dialogue in your story openings. If poorly done, this is the hallmark of an amateur, a person who believes every word he types is genius. You'll have plenty of opportunity to write poetic beginnings after you become rich and famous. 

14. Dialogue is not interactive enough. This is a common problem I've encountered in first novels that are otherwise well written. Good dramatic dialog is not real speech; it mimics real speech, cuts out all the nonessential information and focuses on the interesting parts. You might say that good dialog is ordinary speech''s "greatest hits." It should also bounce back and forth between people like a tennis ball--we do not give each other long-winded oratories unless we're addressing an audience (at least, not unless we want to be considered bores). In general, you should keep your dialogue exchanges short and to the point, unless your character is actually giving a lecture. This is especially true in the opening chapter of a book.

15. Story starts too quickly. This brings us full circle, back to the opposite of (1), the story starting too slowly. We, as readers, do need a little time to get to know the characters so we can care about what happens to them Prologues can effectively be used for fast starts, but generally we don't care about any of the characters yet because we haven't had a chance to care. We’ve all read a million action scenes with car chases, fights, and shootouts—unless we have an emotional stake in the character(s), it’s all for naught. So, yes, your story must start quickly...but not so quickly that we don't have time to gain some empathy for the characters involved.

I hope this article has been helpful. Most authors need to employ a story or content editor to identify the mistakes I’ve covered here—it’s very difficult for most people to have enough perspective to see these types of problems in their own writing.

If you found this article useful, feel free to buy me a cup of coffee 😃  click here  - ☕️☕️☕️



  1. As a publicist, the biggest reason that I turn down clients is that the books they send me are poorly written. I usually don't even get to issues like plot, characters, dialogue, narrative, etc. If the first few sentences are badly written, I usually don't go any further than the first couple of pages. And the sad thing is that clumsy/error-ridden writing can often be fixed by hiring a good editor. Even so, the majority of books I receive are riddled with grammatical and syntax errors.

  2. Great post!! I think sometimes it is hard to see these things in our own writing....I think it's very important for writers to have a trusted group of readers, both writers and non-writers, so read their work and give point out the problem areas they may not see themselves.

  3. Terrific summary of what we writers need to look out for. Oftentimes, we get so excited about our characters and story that we don't stand back and look for these traps.

  4. good thing i read this. my new manuscript...the story gets tense at the 4th page which i thought was a mistake but i wasn't sure.

  5. Hello Mike,
    Using only 140 letters on Twitter has its limitations.
    I told you that my stomach realy almost turned after I had written my 2nd query in my life to a publishing agent.
    Due to 'chance'/Fate I found out about e-book publishing (Amazon-Kindle in my case) through 2 different people and decided I'd rather do that than to suffer all this b.s.(excusez-le-mot) of those agents.

    Here's the letter, I took out all names etc of course.
    Thanks so much for offering me the chance to consider your material.
    Unfortunately, your project does not seem right for me. It's important that
    you find an agent who will represent you to the best of his or her ability,
    so I'm going to have to step aside from asking to represent your manuscript.

    You should know that my decision reflects the type and amount of material
    which I'm presently representing. It does not reflect on your material, and
    I certainly encourage you to continue to seek representation, especially
    since this is such a subjective business -- what works for one agent or
    publisher may not work as well for another (I'm afraid, though, that I
    cannot recommend someone for it).
    Also, please keep in mind that I welcome queries for exciting new projects
    from authors who have previously submitted other projects to me.

    Best of luck!
    I chose this lady more than a year before I wrote the query because she seemed right for me. (I told you I have a problem with humility, You did not choose me, I chose you)
    After I had this letter I went back to her website and noticed she recently asked for Christian books.

    Apart from writing e-books I have a project in mind, but I have to talk to a few investors first. It's about books. Don't worry about the investors, they are my peronal friends and bored to distraction after they sold out their companies!
    Cheers and regards,
    Constance Hampton Jones

    1. As rejection letters go, this one is long and very diplomatic. And the agent actually got back to you! Many agents don't respond at all, particularly to e-queries.

    2. It's pretty standard. I've gotten almost identical twice.

  6. Great post, Mike. And I will be the first to admit, unabashedly, that I have been guilty of some of those transgressions at one point or the next, and there is a folder full of rejections to attest to the fact.

    I've also chosen self-publication to get away from the gauntlet, but I've also taken pains to ensure that my writing improved in future work.

  7. Great Post! This is very helpful for someone like me writing her first manuscript.

  8. I am writing my first manuscript and have found this very interesting and helpful. Thanks.

  9. I have been a great reader since the age of 3. I share that bit of humble info. to illustrate my expertise at reading ;) Thank you for concisely putting into words the things I have always known were essential from my perspective as a reader, and am now challenged to present as a writer! My goal is to write the kind of book that I would go nuts over if I were reading it.

  10. Thanks Mike. Excellent points. I'm printing this list out as a reference when outlining/revising my novels.

  11. hello mike, that's a great post! just one thing about #6, I think that the writer needs to know the bio of his/her characters, and a good excercise might be to write the biography of main characters, including their background and the events of their life befor the time in which our story is set. this helps the writer in putting into scene the charachters, but at the same time as you said he doesn't need to tell everything to the reader, just let the characters act, influenced by their bio and background. hope this suggestion helps all th guys that would like to write a good story.

  12. you could do all this and still get rejected. suit up. rejection is part of the business.

  13. Excellent points, all valid. However, there is no secret formula to a bestseller. Believe in your work and don't give up.

  14. Really great post, Mike. Thanks for tweeting about it.

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  16. It is very difficult for an unknown to get published now. I have three books done and may give one away for free, I can't afford an editor. Everyone knows of successful authors who have written books with many of these problems, (and the most obvious for me is the book is way too complex to understand after say reading fifty pages). Sometimes one can get lost in a story that has only been published because the author has had prior successful books sales.

  17. Regarding Betsy's comment, I find it beyond belief that "many agents do not respond at all." I understand that these people receive many hundreds of MSs per week and they have to reject most, but where's the compassion? That MS has probably taken years to write, whether it is good or not and the author is probably sitting there waiting with baited breath for a reply. Even a brusque "no thanks" is better than nothing and ends the uncertainty.

  18. "Start on the day that is different" - I've never heard that before, but I'll definitely be remembering it. And thanks for making this list. I've not gotten very much feedback on the agents I've queried, but reading this now I can see that at least one of my books as the 'too many characters too quickly' problem.

  19. Really thoughtful tips - thank you!

  20. I just stumbled onto this post today from Twitter, and your points on dialogue have me thinking a LOT about my manuscript.

    My MC is alone for most of the first chapter of the book (he is running away, but gets caught at the end of chapter 1), so I worry that my lack of dialogue in the opening pages will "ding" me. The rest of my book has lots of dialogue. I've tried several different opening scenes and my beta readers preferred my "running away" scene to kick things off.

    My main point is that this is a tricky balance for me, and I think your post will give me plenty to mull over in the coming weeks as I begin the next wave of submissions.

    Thank you so much for sharing these tips!

  21. Hi, Mike. New to your blog. I loved this post. I agree with everything, especially reason number two-Story doesn't perform as advertised...

    "This is the equivalent labeling a box of cereal "Corn Flakes" but then, when the customer opens the box at home, Rice Crispies come pouring out." So funny!

    So funny, because that was one of my earlier problems. Ahhhh, so glad that learning curve is over.

    This was a great post. I should tattoo these tips on my arm, Angelina Jolie style.

  22. Mike, I shared link to this article in my Friday Links for Writers post today. It's interesting for someone to address that gap between getting an agent to respond to a query, to needing the complete manuscript to pay off on the expectation set by that query. Thanks for this.

  23. Good stuff! Thanks for this. I'm sharing it.

  24. Stephen King breaks all of these rules and is still a #1 best-selling author. Still a good article.

  25. Not BEFORE he became a bestselling author, only after, and this article is for people trying to break through the publishing barrier. Read Carrie, King's breakthrough novel, and you'll see that he adheres to every one of these guidelines. Once you break through with a mega-hit, you can do anything you want.

  26. Thanks for these tips. I have not even started writing my book yet. I am trying to learn as much as I can and posts like these are very enlightening. Writing a book is an intimidating venture but a bucket list item for me. I'm happily discovering the wealth of knowledge and experience here on social media. I'm hopeful all my research will lead me to a road of writing success. Thanks to all of you that comment as well, it all matters.

  27. Love this post, I've (as best I can) fixed everything else and am now working on plot threads, I think I might have gone overboard on them. @_@ also a big mess up a few chapters before the middle. Oh well, have decided a revision will fix everything and have corrected six chapters of 48. (2k words or so each.) After I'm done a hard edit, along with killing excess words (I do love the word, then, :P It dies a quick death during edits though.)

    Added to my bookmarks. :)

  28. Dearest Mike, thankyou doesn't seem a big enough word to describe the gratitude I am feeling. Since your tweet the other day I have been racking the brain for a creative hook to ask you questions on agents and offering the best two chapters possible. Your guidance is valuable and I found your humility even more easy to absorb. Some may see it just as a marketing tool but if words benefit the mind, entertain or better a writer's chance in grabbing their dream-market away. I find it generous for you to offer and a selfless act in a hungry industry.

    1. Thanks so much, Jess, glad the posted was helpful!