I read a lot. Not just novels, but about writing: opinions, articles, conversations, trends, blogs. And that includes those written, not just by readers, but by authors, publishers, freelancers, librarians, teachers, and bookbloggers. I like to get a feel for what a wide range of people think and feel about books and writing; I like to see how opinions vary based on age, career, location; and I especially like to review how reactions and opinions change from year to year.
Not too long ago, I set up a few polls on Twitter, asking readers what they thought about certain stylistic choices authors make for their books. The topic of each question came from things I’ve seen in manuscripts I've edited over the years that have always given me pause before offering knowledge or advice based on my experience, and have often led to me investigating and researching.
So, bearing in mind my audience on Twitter is made up mainly of authors at various stages of their careers, but also a decent cross section of other types that make up the writing and book-loving community, here's what I found out.
I ran the polls over a few days and most were retweeted so reached a wider audience too.
To be honest, this is the answer that surprised me the most. I see a lot of authors use this style in their manuscripts and, not only have I read a great deal of opinions against it, I personally feel it’s something that works only in very specific books – those generally that fall under the comedy genre somewhere. So, seeing as though I didn’t specify genre in my question, it did therefore surprise me to see such a large percentage of readers totally fine with this.
But, before you start letting your characters have full blown conversations with your readers, it’s important to consider some of the comments left in regards to this question.
"I like it in certain styles of books, usually humor. For me it has to be done often enough that it's actually part of the novel, and not just a gimmick the author pulls two or three times."
"If it's throughout, my brain acclimates. If it's rare and random, it makes me pause and I lose my connection to the character."
"I like it when the character is the omniscient narrator. "
"Like most things, if it’s done well I like it."
I once sat through a workshop with a successful, multi-published author of children’s books – picture books through middle grade – who said something along the lines of: “Chapters must all be of a similar length in your book or publishers won’t be interested.” Hmmmm, was my first reaction, followed by a long shake of my head and: “That’s a load of old ****!” In my opinion, from conversations with publishing professionals, and from many many many published books sitting on my shelves, chapter length can vary greatly. And so it should, in my opinion.
We know that every scene and chapter should advance the plot, so if something huge happens in your book and the intensity and tension and emotion can be delivered in just 150 words, then so be it. And, the results of this poll pretty much back this up. That isn’t to say that if you like the uniformity of similar chapter lengths you should be rethinking. Oh my goodness no. This poll was more to reassure those authors who don’t.
There is a lot of talk on the interwebz about point of view (POV) preferences. I see plenty of authors worrying so much about agents and publishers, and ultimately readers, showing aversion to more than one narrator, but they really really want to, or have to write their book from that of more. Well, authors of multi-POV books, readers don’t appear to mind that much at all!
We shouldn’t dismiss the quarter of voters who do prefer one POV, but, you know, our books will never ever please everyone, so follow your heart and write the book how you want to, how it needs to be told.
One of the most popular style choices I see in manuscripts, and I have to say used mostly by first-time authors, is that old favourite of headhopping. This, in a nutshell, is where the narrative hops mid-scene from inside one character’s head to another, so the reader sees through the eyes and hears the thoughts of more than one character in a single scene, sometimes in just one paragraph. It can be dizzying and disorientating, particularly if it isn’t used consistently.
But, is this really a problem for readers? Well, the poll results overwhelmingly suggest yes. So, if you’re writing and are not sure if you’re headhopping, I would forget the heads for a minute and hop first on to the internet for some important research about how this works and how to master it if you’re sticking to your guns.
More often than not, I do advise authors not to use this style though, and sticking closely with just one POV in a scene definitely makes a lot of difference to readers being able to immerse themselves completely and utterly in your words.
There’s an ongoing conversation among readers and writers these days about flashbacks and dreams. Some think they’re tools used only to pass on back story and there are other much more effective ways to blend the information in. Some think they’re overdone and cliché. Some think they’re distracting and confusing. And, in fairness, all these opinions are valid and well supported. But, does this mean writers should never consider including them again? Of course not, and the results of this poll heavily support this.
However – because there is always a "however" – be careful with your use and employ them only if they are essential and pivotal to the plot. The line is fine, and it’s worth getting your mucky mitts on some published books in the genre you write that have flashbacks and dreams, so you can see what’s been done before and what works.
One last point to include here is that, if you are going to consider any writing rules at all in your career then make this the one: DO ALL YOU CAN TO NOT START YOUR BOOK WITH A DREAM. It’s so overdone that for many it’s an instant turn off, which leads us perfectly on to...
Now, I am a majorly impatient person and am not proud to admit that my DNF (did not finish) pile is, let’s say, lengthy. We’re talking long-distance-race lengthy. I give books a paragraph to a page when I’m browsing in a bookstore – that’s if the back cover copy and cover do their job – and for books I’ve purchased from recommendation, maybe a chapter if I’m feeling generous. I know, I know. You have permission to scowl at me. I’ve skim-finished so many books that started promising but fell apart half way through, but, in truth, I have abandoned way more.
As writers, we know that we have to pack a punch with our first lines, pages, and chapters. Why? Because we’re swimming in a seriously saturated sea where every book is screaming for attention and, unless we are established authors with a strong fanbase, readers have no other basis upon which to buy our books. So, if we don’t impress them in those opening lines, if we don’t make them care from the start, then we can forget it.
But, checking the results of this poll is reassuring in that not all readers are as impatient as moi. Though, you still only have a few chapters to get that story rolling, that voice singing, and those characters selling their soul.
POLL 7 & 8:
These results speak for themselves and don’t need much input from me.
And finally, comes the question of word count. Do readers care how long your book is? The results of this poll suggest no. But, before you rush off to pen your epics of 150k words, there are A LOT more aspects of this to consider.
I didn’t mention price. It’s a fact that many readers consider books expensive and, in this expensive day and age, not everyone can go spending fortunes on books. Fair enough. And price is important when you consider production costs of a longer book – yes, it costs more. So, that means, if publishers want to earn money on these longer books they have to charge more for them, which might be what ultimately puts readers off.
If you do want to take the traditional publishing route in particular, you absolutely have to consider and learn average word counts because they will factor into an agent and publisher’s decision. Not because you’re bowing down to rules, but because publishers are businesses and businesses survive by making money.
I hope this info has been helpful and given you plenty to think about as you move forward with your writing. Be confident in what you do and never be ashamed to seek guidance if you're feeling unsure. I spend all my free time researching and then cherry picking and applying the information that works for me.
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