I had an interesting conversation with a writer friend of mine last night, focusing on the things that we both dislike in writing, and things that would get us to stop reading a story, should we run into them.
It’s not just about themes or settings or even setups. I am not a fan of adultery in stories and so I avoid stories where that is a major element. That’s pretty easy and most people have those things, which in circles I run in are referred to as bullets. For example, adultery is my bullet that will kill any interest I have in reading a story or watching a movie/TV show.
What we were talking about is more about the little choices that a writer or production team makes. To make this even easier, I’m going to focus on writing. One of the major things that will a story for me is poor grammar and word usage. This usually only matters with fannish type stuff or self-published work. This applies to people who use the wrong “to/too/two” or “their/there/they’re”- that kind of thing.
This is the kind of mistake that a good editor or a good beta reader should be able to catch. When I see this stuff, it screams “unprofessional” to me. Even if the work is a known unprofessional piece, say like fanfic or something of that nature, running into these issues just tells me that you, as the writer, were too impatient to find a beta reader and just wanted to post and get comments, so you put something up that isn’t as quality as it could be or should be.
Moral of this story? Get a beta reader and/or get an editor (esp. if you intend to get this work professional published or you want to self-pub) and get rid of all these little, stupid mistakes. It’s worth the time and the money. You want people to remember you for you great plot and fun characters, not because you consistently used the wrong “its/it’s.”
The second thing that will get me to stop reading occurs in the character description. I hate, hate, HATE it when two characters are described in the following way: “The older man turned to look at the younger man.” Or, “The blond looked over at the brunette and smiled.” That’s not WRONG, per se, but it screams inexperience. It tells me that you don’t really know how to deal with multiple characters in a scene that might require the same pronouns.
Let’s say that you are writing a romance novel, featuring a man and a woman. You can use “she” and “he” throughout the book, especially in the scenes that they are in together, and that makes it very easy to differentiate between the characters when you aren’t using their names.
Now let’s say that you are writing a story that has multiple characters of the same sex that end up together in various scenes. Using “she” and “she” or “he” and “he” can get confusing to the reader. I can understand why someone would want to find different elements to use as differentiating characteristics. That’s how you get “the blond and the brunette” or “The taller woman and the shorter woman.”
But that isn’t very fun to read. It reads rough, if that makes any sense, and comes across as unprofessional and unseasoned. There are a variety of ways to differentiate between characters in these scenes, as much of the published m/m romances will attest to.
An example: “James turned to look at Sean and frowned. He was wearing a short sleeved shirt and shorts, despite the below freezing temperature and James wanted nothing more than to throw a sweater at the guy and cover his clearly cold frame with something warm. But he knew that Sean would get weird about it, so he kept his opinions, and his sweater, to himself.”
Now, that isn’t the greatest paragraph in the history of the writing world, but I hope it works as a way to show how you can still use pronouns with two characters of the same sex, without resorting to using their eye color, height, or hair color to define them.
On a more serious note, how you treat sex in your work will determine if I keep reading or not.
I like reading stories where there might be some roughness, but all in fun. Or it might get a bit more serious, like bondage, dominance, BDSM, etc. That’s FINE, especially if I go into the story, knowing that’s what I’m getting. What I DO NOT like is walking into a story and suddenly it’s a rape fantasy.
I recently finished reading a book where the heroine had been attacked (raped, beaten, left for dead) and had lost her memory. She was discovered by her family three years later and comes back to them, not remembering any of them, including her husband. Instead of understanding that she had undergone great trauma and didn’t remember who they were, the husband decided that he was ENTITLED to her body because they were married and despite the fact that she repeatedly said no, he was going to continue to attempt (and actually achieve) having sex with her.
It was not sexy, it was not fun or cute, and it was not an enjoyable read. I DESPISED this “hero” character and was incredibly upset when the heroine finally gave in to his advances and suddenly, all of her rape induced trauma was suddenly cured.
I felt like this story was disrespectful of anyone who had actually been raped and it failed to understand the kind of mindset that would happen to a person if they had actually undergone that experience. Plus, the story was buying into and promoting rape culture, which is just disgusting and disturbing. That’s the kind of thing that will make me stop reading your stuff.
How do you translate that into something that you can use as a writer?
What the hell does that mean?
Have someone else read your stuff. Find someone you know who is really good at the grammar/spelling/punctuation to read through with a red pen and fix any mistakes that you have. No one is perfect and no one catches all their own mistakes. Our brains will correct things for us, making us see what should be there, as opposed to what actually is there, which means that if you don’t get a second set of eyes to look at your work, you could be posting or publishing with easily correctable mistakes and you’ll look like a giant toolbox.
Read a lot of books and stories. Read stories by other people, in different styles and voices, to find out how other people have tackled the same problems that you are facing. I’m not even talking about plots, but in the way that they craft a sentence, the way that they use words to describe places, people, and things.
There are a lot of great ways to do things and you may not have run across them all yet in your writing life. Explore and experience so you can better your own work.
Do research. If you are writing about a subject or situation that might be triggering to someone, like rape or murder or cancer, don’t wing it. There is a lot of research about the effects of rape on the body and on the mind. Same is true for victims of violent crimes, survivors of murder attempts or the remaining families of murder victims. Ditto for cancer. Honor those who have truly gone through these events and get it right. It doesn’t take that much more effort and those who read your work will appreciate what you’ve done to create the most accurate portrayal of those events.
That goes hand in hand with respect. Respect the situation and get it right. There are many people who participate in the BDSM lifestyle. That does not mean that they eroticize rape or torture. If you think that, you have NOT done your research and you need to stop right now and read some books. Hell, you are clearly on the internet- find some message boards, read some blogs and LEARN.
What this all boils down to is DO NOT BE IGNORANT. It will show and you will look like an idiot. You don’t want to look stupid and no one wants to read works that come off as stupid.
Be careful, do the leg work, and reap the rewards. Trust me, the time is worth it.