It’s interesting what you don’t notice about your own writing until you have an editor go through it and point things out. I’m currently going through edits for the upcoming Wolf Unleashed and I’ve discovered that I have a serious problem with “there was.” A rather embarrassingly high number of sentences start with “there was” or “there were”. This is weak phrasing because it merely tells the reader that something exists, but doesn’t tell the reader anything about how that thing is.
“There was a man on the couch,” doesn’t tell us anything about the man except that he is there, but “A man lounged on the couch,” gives us some indications of his posture, which could be compared to, “A man perched on the couch.” Even “sat” would give us more information because it rules out the possibility he’s lying on it. By making the sentence more active, we can get more information across without really having to add anything by way of descriptions, just simply changing a generic “to be” verb for something more precise.
Sometimes the information is there in a different way, but getting rid of this phrasing makes the sentence more efficient. “There was a man lounging on the couch” and “A man lounged on the couch” get exactly the same information across, but the second sentence saves you two words. Two words might not sound like a great deal, but if you’re trying to get your word count down, especially if you write short stories, these can add up.
I hadn’t realised how guilty I was about using this phrasing until I got the edits back for Wolf Unleashed, but now I hope I will notice as my fingers type out “there were” or “there was” at the start of a new sentence.
I’ve been writing books for about a decade now, but I’m still making mistakes and slipping into bad habits. Learning how to be a writer never really stops.
I find articles and discussions about authorial intent interesting because, as an author, I don’t always intend some of the things that turn up in my books. Sometimes I will be writing a book, or reading a draft in preparation for editing, and be hit by something in the text. It won’t be something I deliberately put in there, but it will be something that’s there anyway.
For example, it took me way too long to realise that Mira was named after Amiron. I named both of them and I’d used a naming pattern for other characters where male names end in “on” and female names end in “a”. When I realised the connection, it clarified some of Mira’s motivation, some of the emotion behind her actions, but I noticed it after I’d already written the foundations.
I’ve just finished the first draft of a book that includes a scene discussing fancy dress costumes two of the characters had planned to wear. I included that scene because it gave nice insights into those two characters, their relationship, and their relationship with another key character. It was only after I’d written the scene that I realised there were parallels between the story I had planned for them and the two characters they planned to dress up as. Holy freaking foreshadowing, Batman! It wasn’t a conscious decision. Either I got lucky, or my subconscious is cleverer than I knew.
When I see something like this in an early draft, I can choose to work with it and build on it in the later drafts, in which case it becomes intended. That said, whenever I recognise something like this in my drafts, it makes me wonder if there are other things in there that I didn’t notice.
A lot of foreshadowing and symbolism in books is put there deliberately by the author, but it’s always worth remembering that these things can be in the book without the author intending them. It doesn’t make them any less real. If you spot symbolism/foreshadowing/parallels, then those things are there, even if the author didn’t realise they were writing them.
And if you’re a writer, don’t worry too much about trying to put the clever symbolism in right from the start. It may be that you get to the end of the first draft and see things you can build on later.
When you’re reading a good book, it’s an enjoyable experience. You can get swept into a story and lost in the lives of the characters. Reading a bad book, however, can feel like torture. Sometimes you can be reading a book where the plot is dull, the characters are unpleasant, and the writing style makes you cringe. It can be tempting to put the book down and walk away – and there is absolutely nothing wrong with this. There are so many books in the world that it’s a shame to waste time on one you’re not enjoying.
However, as a writer, we can get a lot of benefit from reading a bad book. If you find yourself reading a book that you’re not enjoying, stop and think about why. What is it about the book that’s driving you away from it? The pace? The characters? The underlying concepts? If you think critically, you can notice the things which make this book one that you don’t want to read. Sometimes, I have been known to pull out a notebook and write down a bullet point for everything I disliked as I was reading a book I didn’t like. I wrote four pages of these notes for one book I disliked intensely.
The purpose of these notes is not to go and write scathing reviews on Goodreads afterwards, but to think about the elements that make up a book. When you come to your own writing, it will be easier to recognise the mistakes that drove you away from that other book, so you can stop them from creeping into your stories.
Even if you can’t face reading a bad book to its end, take the time to think about what it is that makes you want to put the book down. The more you think about the books you read, the easier you will find it to create a book that your readers won’t want to put down.
It’s worth noting that different books appeal to different people, so a book that you think of as “bad” might be another person’s favourite book. There have been books lauded as great classics that I haven’t got on with at all. Even a definitive list of “writing mistakes” is difficult to come up with, as I discussed in my post on breaking the rules. In the end all you can do is think about what’s bad for you, what drives you away from a story, because if you write a story that you will in enjoy, you can better odds of finding readers who will also enjoy it.