Writing for Readers

Often, when I pick up a book that is part of an already published series, I tend to read one book after another. Sometimes, this works well, as it does not give me time to forget characters or events that are mentioned in later books. Other times, the reading becomes tedious, especially if the author uses the same words or phrases too often, or repeats information that was new five pages ago. Right now, I am reading a series by a former employee of the makers of Dungeons and Dragons. I am on the third of what is currently a four-book series, and I am getting bored. So I sketched to break the monotony before I continue with reading… 

As I drew, I began to think about this series. It could be that the books were written with the adolescent boy in mind, or maybe the teenaged girl, as the main character is a young adult woman of not yet twenty years. The thing is, it doesn’t matter. If an over-thirty adult picks up a book for young adults–or even toddlers!–and finds the reading interesting, then the book most likely is better than most. If the adult gets bored with it, chances are good that the intended younger audience will get just as bored, and probably a lot quicker. The fact that I, an avid reader and former reading specialist, am feeling a tedium makes me think that these books will probably never be cherished by younger readers, and so will never become classics.

Regarding repetitive information… Not being much of a writer, I cannot guess at what happens in an author’s mind when he or she is writing a series. I have read series that, when referencing something from a previous book, provide just enough information to keep a new reader interested and an old reader reminded of the reference. Books (and series) that repeat information too often–especially in the same book–make me think that either the author needs to remind him/herself of the detail, or expects the reader to not remember that the information has already been presented at least once previously. In my opinion (as a reader), if the important information was not presented with adequate emphasis the first time, then it should not suddenly become a source of inspired guidance to the behavior of the character later in the book. But that’s just me and my opinion. Even when an author seems to feel I, the reader, have the attention span of a gnat, it is rather insulting to believe that I would not remember that I already read the detail earlier in the same book, possibly as little as two pages ago, and possibly more than once before. Writers, please review your writing so that all your information is fresh.

Regarding repetitive phrasing or words… Not long ago, I finished a long series of books that stars cats as the hero and heroines. The books were pretty good in terms of plots and even the behaviors of all the characters, feline and human. But as early as the first book, the author began to use one verb far too often. The first time I came across the usage, I thought the author had used the wrong word. When I came across it again a chapter or so later, I decided to look up the definition to see if there is a usage I am not aware of. It turns out that the verb to scorch means more than just burning a shirt with an iron that is too hot; it is a Britishism–apparently a little-used term at that–that indicates great speed of movement. OK. I now had a better understanding of why the author used the word. But the use of an archaic meaning also called attention to the frequency of the word’s use throughout that first book–22 times, I believe. And its appearance continued with similar frequencies for the next four or five books in the series. Then suddenly, as though someone called attention to its over-usage, the frequency with which a cat scorched up a tree was diminished to fewer than four or five times per book, almost disappearing before the last book in the series. It was a lot easier to read the rest of the series.

The reason I call attention to the problem of over-using words and phrases is that it tends to interrupt the reading of the book. Just as to many of us, a missing word or one that is continually misspelled can stop us reading mid-sentence, a single word repeated too many times throughout a book can derail smooth reading, especially since the way the author uses it is rare or unique or unexpected to begin with. Writers, read your work critically for over-use of “favorite” words or phrases. If you don’t catch it, your readers will, and chances are good that they won’t be happy–if the word or phrase appears too often, the reader is likely to lose interest, not because the book isn’t good, but because of too many interruptions to a smooth read. 

So back to the novels I am currently reading… I am about halfway through the third book. At this point, I am reading it because I have invested a lot of time in reading the first two. There is no novelty to this fantasy series any more. Even the way it the books are written, with cliff-hangers at the end to encourage purchase of the next book in the series, is getting old. All the “and then…”-type actions are a bit tedious, but not enough to put the books down. But… The heroine has wished for the presence of her husband (and maybe eventual hero) for at least the fifth time since she parted from him near the beginning of the book, and the wishing serves no purpose, as far as I can tell. Perhaps the author–a male adult–believes that a strong female (of almost twenty years of age in a world where a ten-year-old can be sent as a representative of a government to a foreign land and whose life partner is two years her junior) would somehow suddenly have major misgivings about her own abilities in contrast to those of her younger heart-throb. As a not very strong female of more than three times the heroine’s age who knows a lot of very strong females of various ages, I can’t help wondering why the author would believe the heroine is in constant need of male support for her intended actions, especially since she is surrounded by a host of people (male and female) whom she admires. These individuals are strong characters in their own rights, and her belief in their advice is unconditional. So why all the teen-age melodrama? For this heroine and her fantasy kingdom, it seems to make too little sense for her to be questioning almost every one of her decisions. 

My vagueness about the book series I mentioned is deliberate. I am not a good book critic. I have certain expectations from the fiction I read. Even fantasy or science fiction needs to be realistic for its setting and time. The Joe Gray series is entertaining and well-written except for the over-use of “scorch.” The Muirwood series which I am now reading is basically soundly written in terms of writing style; that it does not conform to the characteristics of my view of a strong female lead is probably a personal prejudice. It is these prejudices that make me feel unqualified to adequately critique books. It is my personal expectations that I am addressing above. 

Having expressed my feelings, it is time for me to get back to that third Muirwood book. Maybe sharing my frustrations will give me a fresh perspective on the rest of the book I am reading… 


About DrEMiller

Certified Zentangle Teacher (CZT). Home: Sint Maarten. K-12 teacher for 13 years (Special Education for 10 years); Post-secondary educator since 2002; Education consulting since 1995. When teaching, held teaching certificates in K-12 special education, reading specialist; and secondary social studies. Doctorate: Educational Psychology Programmer/analyst for 10 years, including project management and training of corporate execs.
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