Don’t annoy your reader

I used to think that as a writer it was up to me to pretty much write  as I wanted, that I shouldn’t pander to my unknown reader… gosh, how arrogant, how silly and immature! The point was, any person reading my book – apart from friends who were usually very lenient, was a complete stranger to me. Like any stranger you might come across in real life if you waffle on to them, chances are they’ll probably politely move on, and go away thinking what a pompous self-important idiot you are! Even if what you’re trying to tell them is partway interesting, if you’re patronising or irritating then they won’t want to listen to whatever you want to tell them.

I have learned my lesson now, and really do try to imagine how someone who doesn’t know me might  engage with what I write. I pay great attention to what friends say – for example, don’t have endless conversations between characters, idiosyncrasies and funny habits of those characters can become irritating, then tedious, then just infuriating. If your reader has engaged and paid you the compliment of reading to the end, don’t have such an abrupt surprise ending that they feel as if they have been left dangling. Another thing I belatedly realised, make sure that at least some of your characters have a pleasant aspect to their character –  a friend once told me she found most of the characters in one of my books unpleasant… oh dear! On rereading it, sadly, I had to agree with her – I’d become too self-indulgent, too involved and not objective enough!

I’ve just read a book, which I won’t name because my point is not to slag off another writer but to reflect on how important it is not to annoy your reader. It was the second in a series of nine books and I had read the first, but I don’t think I’ll read any more. The first one I read had some clumsy writing, and some distracting aspects in the way it was written and the characters, but it was set in a part of the country I love and the plot did keep me reading until the end. I finished feeling fairly dissatisfied, and decided I wouldn’t read more. However after several months, I softened and relented and read the second in the series, and all the things I found distracting and irritating in the first were there and more so in the second.

This was such a lesson to me, although a lesson I was already aware of. It’s not enough to have a great setting (which this author had) nominally interesting characters (which again were there in the book) an ultimately intriguing mystery (although aspects of it bore an awkward resemblance to the Dr Ruth Galloway mysteries by the excellent Elly Griffiths -I’m sure unintentionally) and a solution to the mystery (which I guessed) I shan’t use the names of the actual characters in this book, because as I mentioned, I’m not trying to mock the writer, but I will call them Sandy Smith, Kerry Jones and Alex Baker. It wasn’t just in the opening pages when it’s important to get the characters names into a reader’s head, but all the way through the writer used both names – even though there were no other characters with similar names which needed distinguishing. I’ve made this up, but this is what it was like:

Sandy Smith turned to look at Alex Baker, wondering if they shared the same idea about the suspect. Back at the station, Kerry Jones was going through the files as Alex Baker had asked, but Sandy Smith and Alex Baker were on their own, paying a call on a potential witness.
“We’ll split up, you go round the back, I’ll knock on the door,” whispered Sandy Smith.
“OK, will do,” Alex Baker murmured, and set off down the side of the house.
Sandy Smith’s phone rang – it was Kerry Jones, there was a photograph of the suspect sitting on a beach with the victim! They knew each other. Great work Kerry Jones!

I have exaggerated slightly, and occasionally single names were used – the male characters were called by their surnames except in conversation, the females by their first names. Now this probably wouldn’t bother anyone but an exceptionally fussy and intolerant reader like me, but it jolly well did, and I couldn’t see the point of it.

Another irritant was that on occasion, simple actions were described in step by step detail for no reason:

He reached out his hand for his cup of coffee, touching the white cup and then sliding his first two fingers through the elegant handle. He carefully lifted it from the contrasting grey saucer, and raised it slowly to his lips. He took a small sip and then another, the warm liquid flowing over his tongue and round his teeth before he swallowed it, feeling it pass his tonsils and epiglottis and glide down his throat. He moved the cup from his mouth and carefully lowed it to the awaiting slate coloured saucer, taking care not to set it down on top of the small silvery spoon.

This is something I made up, but it’s a parody of the author’s style. This was a police procedural, and although detail is important, interesting and engaging, this was grindingly slow in parts. Cut to the chase!  I wanted to say.

Reading this book – which I did read right to the end having seen someone on social media say it was rude not to finish a book you’ve started and disrespectful to the author who took the trouble to write it – was a lesson to me; it’s important as a writer – and me as a writer, to really try and distance myself from my work and to be as objective as possible, because I don’t want someone like me reading my books and being sidetracked from enjoying them by something stylistic which is patently really annoying to a fusspot!

PS note to the anonymous author of the book I have just read, crestfallen doesn’t mean shocked, devastated or shaken to the core, it means sad, down-hearted, despondent

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