I like doors. And alleyways, little paths, nooks that look as though I shouldn’t go there. They seem to be private. I take those paths and wander along them, feeling intrepid. And, because I am a law-abiding little soul, not wishing to encroach on someone else’s privacy, when I reach a barrier, I stop. I’m not comfortable enough to plough on through.
Writing can be full of little barriers, things that put you off or tell you this story is not for you. Put it down, put it away. You won’t like it. You don’t like it. Just stop. We stop readers reading it becomes too difficult or uncomfortable for them to continue. I demonstrate with a couple of personal hates of mine and then a couple which are universally known to push away the reader.
- I live in Suffolk, on the East Coast of England, that bump that sticks out into the North Sea, where some of the locals have a charming accent. Norfolk people have a similar accent, but broader. Fascinating to listen too, but unless you want me to give the book before I start, don’t write that accent down. It drives me scatty. Give me a taste, by all means, some little quirk in the speech to let me know this is East Anglia and the guy talking is not an in-comer, but please don’t go for the full-blooded vowel-busting dialect because I cannot be bothered to translate the written gibberish into sensible words, no matter how authentic you think it is.
- Different fonts and prints will do it. Small press magazines are sometimes guilty of this. I’m a quick reader, but capitals will stop me in my tracks. Even the great sometimes do it: J. K. Rowling used capitals when Harry was shouting in one of the Harry Potter books and it was unpleasant and like having reading hiccups. I also have a pet hate for italics. I find them a turn-off. Again, can’t be bothered.
- Repetition. Readers do not have the attention span of a gnat and it is not normally necessary to tell them something seven times in order to get them to remember it. And if the ‘something’ is a crucial plot point, then it’s not subtle to flag it up continually. Tell us once, maybe give us a gentle reminder later on if you really think we need it and then bowl us over with it at the end.
- Passive voice. Newspaper journalists use this a lot. They’re supposed to. It’s called reporting and again it serves to distance the writer from the reader. ‘Twelve nuns were taken hostage by the terrorists’ has much less power than ‘Terrorists have taken 12 nuns hostage’. Keep the verb, the doing bit, active and we all take more notice.
- Filtering. Easy to do and I suspect a lot of us are guilty of this. ‘She crossed the room, looked out of the window and saw a black cat was sitting across the road.’ OK, we know what’s going on, but do this too many times and we’ll switch off. If we write ‘She crossed room to the window and spotted the black cat sitting across the road’, it is more immediate, and we see the scene through her eyes. And it’s shorter, less wordy. Things like: it seemed to him, she looked, he felt, she remembered, he saw, these can all get between you and your reader. And you don’t want anything getting into that space. You want your reader to be right there with you, seeing what you want him to see through the character’s eyes.
No barriers then. Leave the door open a little, so I feel welcome, and I’ll stick with you through to the very end.