The Top 25 Ways to Blow a Book

There are only so many ways to do things right in creating a book. But there an infinitum of ways to blow a book. Nothing we—or the brilliant likes of the bestsellers—write completely escapes every mistake and pitfall. But some of those mistakes are more costly than others. Let’s take a look at the top twenty-five ways to blow a book right into our readers’ burn barrels. (Click the asterisk at the end of each pitfall to learn more about how to identify and prevent it.)

1. Open the story too soon before the primary action (prologues are often guilty of this).*

2. Begin with a dream.*

3. Force feed the reader the backstory in large flashbacks or dumps.*

4. Skip any of the major plot points at the 25%, 50%, and 75% marks.*

5. Create characters who act unrealistically or inconsistently.*

6. Include scenes in which nothing happens (i.e., no conflict).*

7. Use POV inconsistently (e.g., head-hopping).*

8. Scorn common spelling, grammar, and punctuation standards.*

9. Tell (summarize) more than you show (dramatize).*

10. Pace the plot either too quickly or too slowly.*

11. Get the facts wrong.*

12. Fail to provide strong character goals and motivations.*

13. Use the passive voice more than the active voice.*

14. Riddle the prose with clichés.*

15. Fail to properly foreshadow and frame plot twists.*

16. Create characters who are passive*/non-reactive*/unlikable*/stereotyped.*

17. Include a glut of adjectives and adverbs in lieu of strong nouns and verbs.*

18. Dump info (usually in the form of either backstory or research).*

19. Confuse readers.*

20. Purple your prose.*

21. Craft plots that are too predictable.*

22. Let your climax peter off instead of slam-banging.*

23. Resolve the conflict with deus ex machina.*

24. Needlessly kill off lovable characters.*

25. Preach at readers.*

If you can avoid every one of these pitfalls in your story, you’re likely to please agents, editors, and readers alike!

Tell me your opinion: Whats the biggest factor that blows a book for you as a reader?

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. This post helped me greatly! 😀 Thank you. I have a suggestion. For your next post could you do “The Top 25 Ways to Have a Successful Book” or something? I am a young writer and can always use the helpful info! 😀 I LOVE your posts. Thank you again! 😀

  2. Ultimately, the best way to have a successful book is to flip all these no-nos on their heads and do exactly the opposite. But that sounds like a fun post idea. I’ll see what I can do!

  3. Thanks! 😀 I hadn’t thought of it that way.

  4. Inconsistencies! For example: “She seemed to glide across the room; her nightgown hung all the way to the floor. Her feet were small and dainty….” wha-huh?

  5. For me, when the author puts down a race, a religion, or a sex, I start to have trouble. When the hero or heroine betrays someone who trusts them, I almost always put down the book. I had to laugh at Amanda’s gripe! Great post as always, Roland

  6. @Amanda: A great story is all fine and good. But if the reader can’t understand it, that ain’t gonna work!

    @Roland: I have no problem with authors stating beliefs either indirectly through context or directly through characters. But the moment it becomes judgmental or preachy is a moment in which they’ve lost me.

  7. Head hopping and info dumping. It’s amazing how many traditonally published, highly successful authors are guilty of both of these “crimes”!

  8. Once you’re “in,” you can get away with more than when you’re still on the outside, with agents and editors *looking* for a reason to turn you down.

  9. As always, so helpful.
    Thanks

  10. Glad you found it useful!

  11. #24 is the biggest reader complaint I have… but personally, I think #6 and #10 are the biggest pitfalls I have to deal with.

    thanks for a nice condensed list like this… makes it easy to “check off the checklist”.. 😉

  12. Great “to don’t” list. Heh. I like that you provided a link to an article for each one. Thank you.

  13. Headhopping and info dumping are my bugbears and I am amazed at how many ‘big names’ out there do this. Wonderful list (many thanks) for writers to use for checking their own work.

  14. I’m currently wrestling with how to do the death of a main character. Your blog on the 3 essential ways to avoid getting “hate mail” by my readers will help tremendously. The death will matter greatly in the story, it is foreshadowed, and it will bring a thread of hope to all those left behind. Thanks for the tips!!

  15. Great list. #23–so tempting and so fatal!

  16. I guess I look at this as any element can be overused, misused, or abused. There really should be no hard and fast style rules as to what makes a good or not good story. In fact, the point of the story is to entertain and if the story entertains a segment of the population then we have done well. If it is good enough, broad enough to entertain a large to most of the population then we have done a great job. I realize that agents get stacks and stacks of manuscripts and need a quick way to find the gems, but I also think that hurts the industry more than it helps. Just my thought.

  17. Nihilism – I don’t like stories that have no ultimate meaning or victory. Even The Conspirator, while tragic, has a constructive coda. It means something. If I get to the end and nothing means anything and nobody I like wins, I’ll throw the book and blackball the author from my reading list. Life is too short, and I expect my stories to take me someplace worth going.

  18. Getting the facts wrong? Wasn’t sure if you meant the facts of the book, or facts facts (broken link), but I’m guilty of both. The former is especially embarrassing since they’re my own facts to begin with, and if I make them in one part of the book and contradict them in another, I look like a total idiot!

    Some of the others on the list I’ve actually played around with. The third act of my first novel I called “Deus Ex Machina” because that’s literally what happens.

    Thanks for all the helpful pointers!

  19. An ending that falls flat is the biggest disappointment to me, perhaps because I’ve already invested the time in the book – it’s too late to decide to put it down! And if the book is good up to the end, you get your hopes up. A real turn off.

  20. Lack of believable emotion, especially that sort that fuels conflict.

  21. No action…passive voice…boring characters…editing errors right up front.

    Other than that, ha ha! A book has to really hook me from the start or I put it down.

  22. Great tips, K.M.

    These are simple, effective, and should be posted above any writer’s workstation.

    -A.M.
    http://amschultz.com

  23. @Gideon: Killing off lovable characters really doesn’t qualify as a technical gaffe. You can have a perfectly structured story in which the death makes perfect sense – and still alienate readers. It’s always worth double-thinking before you send someone to the chop.

    @Graeme: Sometimes “don’t” lists end up being more helpful than “do” lists. It’s often easier to identify what we’re doing wrong and work from there.

    @Fiona: When we can identify what we, as readers, dislike finding in books, we have a good foundation from which to move forward and figure out what to leave out of our own stories.

    @Traci: I tend to like bittersweet stories, and many of my favorites end with someone dying. If you can do it right, you can often elevate your story into a sincere emotional punch.

    @worddreams: Isn’t though? Deus ex machina makes those endings easier to write, no question about it!

    @Patrick: The only rule in writing is that there are no rules – so long as we can break them brilliantly. But sticking to these guidelines is very unlikely to bring harm to any story.

    @Phy: I find myself much more likely to be forgiving of tragedy and immorality in historical novels and non-fiction, since the very fact of it having happened grants it meaning via its truth.

    @Thomas: Sorry you had trouble with the link. It seems to be working again now. I was referring to the facts, as in research, but you’re spot on about the further necessity of maintaining consistency in the inner reality of each story.

    @Monica: You know what they say: Your beginning determines whether a reader reads your book; your ending determines whether they read the next one.

    @Laura: And that ultimately comes down to believable character motivations.

    @Ruth: It’s almost a shame the beginning has to be the testing ground for the author’s skill over the course of the whole book – since the beginning is undeniably one of the toughest parts. But such is the writer’s life!

    @A.M.: Glad you enjoyed them!

  24. What a great and comprehensive list! 9# and 10# I know I could use some work on.

  25. Those are easy ones for any of us to mess up om. Fortunately, a little practice (and sometimes experimentation) is all it takes to fix it.

  26. Great points. Perfectly ended with number 25 😀 Amazingly helpful post.

  27. Glad you found it useful!

  28. All of the above. Also… since I’m a writer, if you write a lot of books and they ALL use the exact same mechanism to make your stories work. Because yes. I WILL figure it out within the first of your five books that I read.

    Another one: The instabond, if it’s not handled right or explained. I recently read a novella where the characters fell in love in the last quarter of the book. I looked at it and thought: the book was part of a romance series. it only has 20000 words. The bond was forced so that it fit into the genre and the word count. Sad thing is that the story would have been really good if the author left the romance aspect out.

  29. Sounds like the author should’ve killed his darlings. Romantic subplots, in particular, can easily sneak their way into books in which they really don’t belong.

  30. Lengthy flashbacks do it every time, or jumping around the story. Great list. Thanks for doing this.

  31. I actually love non-chronological timelines – when they’re done right. But that’s much easier said than done. When in doubt, tell it straight. Honestly, you can’t go wrong with that.

  32. Another blog e-book… 😮

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