Bad writing habitsBasics of writingNovel writing

Hard habits to break–What not to learn from the pros

From Scott:

Last time, I discussed some good habits I have learned from reading the works of other authors. Great writers like Vince Flynn, Terry Brooks, and James Patterson have used many successful tools and techniques, and if you study their writings, you can learn to use them too.

This time, I would like to offer up a word of caution. Before you adopt something another author uses, even if he/she is a bestselling author, you must be absolutely certain that the particular technique is not a mistake.

Similar to musicians, authors experience a wide variety of levels of success. Like an 80s hair metal band, they might have one successful project and disappear forever: a one-hit wonder. Others have such high sales that anything they write is an instant bestseller. Either way, keep in mind: I’ve learned that just because an author sells millions of books, that doesn’t necessarily indicate a level of perfection that you, as a new writer, should try to emulate.

[RICK ADDS, SO THERE’S NO MISUNDERSTANDING: Seeing a particular style or technique in print from a noted author and a traditional publisher, does not mean it’s correct or an example you should or must do in your writing. “Well, so-and-so did it” or “I see it all the time” are not acceptable excuses for bad writing technique. In fact, many of the things we tell you not to do in our blog you can find copious examples of in published work. Why is this? Publishing is about making money. The most gorgeous and perfect writing will not get published (by a traditional publisher) if they don’t see dollar signs attached to it. Further, they don’t care about reviews criticizing the style as long as the book continues to sell and such reviews don’t impact their bottom line.]

I do not want to be openly critical of specific authors’ work. For that reason, I won’t name these authors, nor will I indicate gender. For the duration of this blog, I’ll simply refer to “Author A,” “Author B,” and so on, and I’ll refer to them as if all are male. On to business!

Let’s take a look at the work of Author A. He has written a few multi-book series, with most of his books topping out the New York Times Bestseller List. He has been critically acclaimed by many of the top writers on the market today. And he is the single most prolific source of bad habits in my writing, probably because I was focused on his books when I began my writing career. Ask Rick–it took him forever to help me weed out some of those problems.

First would be Author A’s use of habit words. As I read chapter after chapter and saw the same few certain words repeated endlessly, I subconsciously adapted that style as my own. After all, he had been published multiple times before I ever picked up one of his books. In my mind, that meant everything he did had to be right. Wrong! As a result, words like “that” and “slowly” kept popping up throughout The Killing Frost. Fortunately, Medallion Press saw past the flaws and believed the book could be successful… with a ton of editing. But I’m certain the habit words were the cause of a good portion of the rejection letters that particular novel received before that.

Author A’s habit phrases spill over into another area: flat, two-dimensional characters. Don’t misunderstand. His three or four main characters are very deep characters who immediately draw the interest and the sympathy of the reader. But the cast of supporting characters, and there are many, fall completely flat. Male or female, young or old, good or evil, the characters all seem to be the same. They all have the same catch phrases, the same dull personality, and the same dry sense of humor. Even four-year-olds make off-the-cuff, wisecrack remarks. Rather than show us the mood the character is in, which would have developed the character, he simply tells us. Because of that, I fell into the same trap. By studying Author A’s novels, I saw no need to flesh out the supporting cast. Unfortunately, this left the book feeling a bit shallow and unrealistic. Now, I write out complete physical descriptions, personality types, and biographical histories for every character who makes more than a cameo appearance. The result is a better read.

[RICK ADDS: Check out the reviews of The Killing Frost on and you’ll see that at least a couple of reviewers did point out this problem. And you don’t see those comments showing up in his more recent books.]

On to Author B. Like our previous example, this bestselling author has written multiple books that topped the charts for weeks at a time. I learned a lot from his work, most of it beneficial. In this case, however, the author had a habit of working too hard to set a scene. Prior to the latter years of the 20th Century, extravagant prose was not only acceptable, it was expected. But today’s reader wants to get right to the action. We have been raised on thirty-minute sitcoms, and we expect all crimes to be solved in a one-hour TV show. Most readers no longer have the patience to wade through an overly lengthy description of the scene where the characters find themselves. I count myself among the impatient readers. When I read books like those by Author B, I find myself skimming the pages until I find where the action picks up again.

As a result, I went in the opposite direction. My work was noticeably lacking in the scene description area. I tended to give only the briefest of descriptions before I dove right into the action once more. This is probably a greater sin than describing the scene too much. At least if you overdo it, the reader has the option to skim. If the description isn’t there, the reader is left wondering where the characters are. You risk pulling your reader out of the story by not giving enough information.

Author C likes to impress people with his vocabulary. In places where a common word would do nicely, he plugs in a word that sends the reader scrambling for a dictionary. Or worse, the reader simply passes over the word without ever finding the meaning of what the author intended to pass along. Believing this to be the way to go, I followed suit. I installed a thesaurus on my computer. Its primary function was to help me avoid habit words by providing synonyms, but I began to abuse it. I would look up a word and choose the longest, most obscure word out of the list. Sure, the words looked impressive, but I was cheating my readers by not using words they could understand. In fact, sometimes I would come to these words while editing, and even I–the person who wrote them down–had no idea what they meant.

Author D will be my final example. He tells a great story. His characters come to life. You love the good guys, and you despise the evil ones. He pulls you into the world he has created and makes you genuinely care how things turn out. The problem has to do with what we call “head hopping.”

We’ve all learned about first person, where the book is written from one person’s perspective, as if that person were right beside you telling the story (I worked my way up the stairs; I looked around the room). Third person is told from the perspective of a character as well, but is a bit less personal, using “he” or “she” (He worked his way up the stairs; she looked around the room). In both of these examples, the reader only has access to the perspective and inner thoughts of one character at a time. Omniscient point of view is different in that the reader might be given the inner thoughts of multiple characters in the same paragraph.

The problem comes in when the reader’s perspective changes without some type of notice. If the book is written in the third person perspective, as most novels are, when the point of view changes from one character to another, the author should insert either a scene break or a chapter break. And every new scene or chapter should begin with some indicator to tell the reader whose perspective the story is in. Author D tends to roll along in third person for a few chapters, then suddenly switches to omniscient point of view. He begins changing from one character’s perspective to another, multiple times within the same scene, and without warning. This becomes a major distraction for the reader, not to mention at some point pulling the reader out of the story in an effort to find out who is telling the story.

[RICK NOTES: The primary difference between omniscient point of view and head-hopping is that in the former case, there is an external narrator controlling the story and is privy to the thoughts and emotions of all the characters and can weave them smoothly into the story. Head hopping is essentially moving from character to character without a proper transition or control.]

These examples are just a few of the many bad habits you can acquire from studying other literary works without a due degree of caution. You can learn a lot from the right authors, and what you gain can be a definite boon to your level of skill. Just be careful what you pick up!

Next time we’ll provide examples of the bad habits so you can know what to avoid.


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