Readers can only keep track of so many characters in a novel. Too many minor characters can make readers confused and disengaged.
Write a list of your characters and consider them all carefully. Do they really contribute to your purpose? Do some of them only appear briefly? Can you cut them out? Can you combine some characters into one?
If you make a passing reference to an insignificant character, could you simply refer to them by their role or physical description (‘the bus driver’ or ‘the red-haired child’) instead of naming them? When you give a name, readers might expect the character will be important, make an effort to remember them, and be disappointed. Don’t make your readers work too hard; you might turn them away.
Too many characters is often a problem in memoirs and in stories (true or fictionalised) taken from real life. Ditching characters is hard to do, but sometimes it can really give your book the lift it needs.
I don’t know what this week’s writing tip was going to be because yesterday my formerly wonderful computer packed it in – completely out of the blue. My computer is salvageable but my years’ worth of work on it is not. So my revised writing tip is this: BACK UP! Thankfully I did back up all crucial documents like current editing jobs, but I was less diligent about not-so-vital documents like updates to tax records and writing tips. So guess what I’ll be doing over the Christmas break? *Ho hum*.
So don’t be like Hemingway … back it up – just BACK IT UP!
There’s a trap many authors fall into when trying to vary sentence construction. Consider this sentence:
Packing her bag, she ran out the front door to the taxi.
The way it’s written implies that she packed her bag and ran out the door at the same time. This is not feasible and it could be rewritten simply as:
She packed her bag and ran out the front door to the taxi.
Consider these other examples:
Brushing his teeth, he spat into the hand basin.
Kissing my daughter goodnight, I tucked her in and turned off the light.
The chronology’s not quite right because those actions are not occurring at the same time. That sentence construction is fine, however, as long as the actions are actually simultaneous. Here’s an example of one that does work because the actions could be simultaneous:
Singing at the top of her lungs, she ran out the front door to the taxi.
‘Hi, Fran! How are you?’ I said.
‘Fine, thanks. How are you?’
‘Pretty good, thanks. Want to come to the movies with me tonight?’
‘Sure, what’s on?’
‘A rerun of Jurassic Park.’
‘Oh, great! I love that movie. What time?’
‘Six o’clock, at the Strand.’
‘OK. Can you pick me up? I don’t have a car.’
‘Sure, I’ll pick you up at 5.30. See you then.’
This is a conversation you might have in real life. Sounds authentic, right? Yeah, but … does a reader really need to ‘hear’ all the small talk? No! It slows the pace right down to a crawl. This is a trap many inexperienced authors fall into. Try this:
‘Hi, Fran,’ I said. ‘Want to come to the movies with me tonight? They’re showing a rerun of Jurassic Park. Pick you up at 5.30?’
‘Sure! I love that movie.’
[Or maybe you could just have the characters going to the movie without the preparatory conversation?]
Occasionally small talk might have a place in a novel – if, for example, you want to make a point of a character’s fondness for idle chit-chat – but, in general, pleasantries are best kept to a minimum. As a test, do a global search and see how many times you’ve written ‘How are you?’, ‘Thanks’ or ‘Bye!’
Yes, people have these conversations in real life, but they also clean their teeth, put their socks on, stack the dishwasher, blow their noses – and we don’t need to know about those things. We just assume they’re going on. The same applies to small talk.
Misuse of the word ‘incidence’ is becoming so common that I think it’ll be one of those words that will change its meaning over time. But we’re not there yet, so I’ll take this moment to unravel the confusion.
An incident is an episode or an event. The incidence of something is the rate or extent of its occurrence. An instance is a case or example. For instance [that was deliberate, FYI], a car accident is an incident, whereas the incidence of car accidents refers to the rate or number of car accidents in a place and/or time. And if we’re talking about speed as a cause of car accidents, we might describe a particular car accident as an instance in which speed was a factor.
I recently read in an author’s note (in a published novel) that ‘all the incidences in this book really happened’. No! She meant ‘incidents’. Clearly the editor didn’t get to check the author’s note!
It’s the details that bring a story to life: the sights, sounds, smells and feelings. In my recent book about the voyage and quarantine of a typhus-stricken 19th century emigrant ship, for instance, I wanted to create a vivid scene – to immerse the readers in those foul conditions. The dimness below decks, the stench of steerage (think of vomit and dirty nappies), the cramped prickling of the 18-inch-wide berth and its straw mattress, the strains of the hymns typically sung during a funeral at sea. The good captain’s distress and outrage at the media’s finger-pointing.
In fiction or narrative non-fiction, these details are crucial. But they don’t just have to be there; they also need to be credible! Include an implausible detail and your readers will no longer feel part of the scene. Examine every detail. Is it the right time of year for the roses to be in bloom? Would you truly find mangroves so far inland? Your character’s wearing a singlet top – but wasn’t it mid-winter in the last chapter, just days ago? A cassette tape is playing in the 1950s – but weren’t they invented in the early 60s?
Writing a timeline can help to plot the chronology and keep track of the seasons, so that you can at least get the weather conditions right. Check everything in a scene: the flora, the fauna, the geography, the history. Even in a fantasy novel, you’ll need internal consistency, so it’s important keep track of your details.
You don’t need to overdo the details, but including little observations that are pithy, fresh and unique will really make your writing shine.
Sometimes we use particular words or phrases more often than we should, and we’re not even aware of it. For instance, a reader of a draft of my novel recently pointed out that I’d written ‘…she said, unnecessarily’ three times. Unnecessarily, indeed. Once would have been enough.
Try to be conscious of your favourite words and look out for overuse – but don’t expect a 100% success rate. This is where feedback from family, friends, beta readers and, of course, editors is valuable.
I’ll admit it: this one drives me more nuts than it should. When people say ‘potentially’ (and they say it far too often, in my opinion!) they usually mean ‘possibly’ – but the two words are not strictly interchangeable. If something is potential then it’s expected to happen in the future. If you ever studied physics, think of potential energy.
‘He was potentially murdered’ is illogical because the murder happened in the past. What the speaker (or writer) means is ‘He was possibly murdered’ or ‘He might have been murdered’.
‘Potentially’ is also one of those words people tend to throw in for padding. At best, it’s often redundant. Consider this: ‘If she’s late for work one more time, she could potentially get fired’. Take out ‘potentially’ and what happens? Your meaning remains clear, you’ve saved yourself from sounding officious, and you’ve made my day.
I was taught English by a strict traditionalist. She taught me what an infinitive was and warned me that I should never, ever, ever split one.
If you don’t know what an infinitive is, don’t worry. I won’t bore you with examples, because they really don’t matter. It turns out that my high school English teacher might have been wasting her energy on this point. When I studied editing, I learned that avoiding split infinitives was just some rule that a seventeenth-century poet (I think it was John Dryden) thought up because he had a thing about Latin, and in Latin infinitives can’t be split.
Apparently avoiding splitting infinitives has nothing to do with how clever you are (sadly, because avoiding splitting infinitives used to make me feel quite clever). The truth is that sometimes a sentence sounds awkward when you split an infinitive, and sometimes it sounds awkward when you don’t. Sometimes the placement of the adverb affects your meaning. So now I split to my heart’s content if it improves the clarity and flow of my prose – and when the ghost of my English teacher comes back to haunt me, I do my best to ignore it. There’s some guilty pleasure in that …
This tip ties in with tip #1: Be concise. It’s such an important tip that it’s worth elaborating on. Most of us use redundant words without noticing. As you revise your work, look at every word and ask yourself: is it necessary? Does it benefit the sentence?
Consider phrases like ‘for a long period of time’ and ‘at this point in time’. Rephrasing them as ‘for a long time’ and ‘now’ respectively will likely make your point more elegantly. And what about ‘reversed back’, ‘advance planning’ and ‘global pandemic’?
This brings me to the current fad of throwing ‘moving forward’ or ‘going forward’ into every second sentence. This is done more often in speaking than in writing, but it’s enough of a crime against language for me to feel it merits mentioning here. Unless you’re talking about literal movement – say, in a car, where the distinction between forwards and backwards is important – those phrases are almost always redundant. I’ve not yet found a sentence that benefitted from their inclusion.
About this blog
Through my experience as an editor, a reader and a book reviewer, I’ve noticed that some writing faults keep just popping up again and again. As an author, I’m especially aware of those writing crimes that I’m frequently tempted to commit myself. This series of brief tips addresses the common writing problems that I’ve encountered. Following them will help make your writing clear, accurate and stylish.