WG2E Guest Joanne Phillips talks “10 Things Readers Hate (And What You Can Do About Them)”

Happy Monday, WG2E-Land!!!

As Indie Epublished Authors, it’s all about Making Readers Happy. So, to that end, please give a Big Ol’ WG2E Welcome to Joanne Phillips who’s sharing her research on how to do that.

Take it away, Joanne…

Recently I was asked the question: Do you write for yourself or for your readers? Even though I understand that the urge to write has to come from within, I firmly believe you need to fix your reader front and central and keep her there at all times. Which got me thinking about how to make readers happy – or more importantly, how not to tick them off!

Based on extensive research :-) here is my list of the top ten things readers hate:

  1. Flat or stereotyped characters. Characters are the doorway into a story for readers, and they need to come to life on the page. It doesn’t take much to ‘lift’ a character – one excellent tip is to give a character a conflicting or unexpected trait: a gritty detective who secretly loves to play the piano, say, or a beautiful heroine who can’t stand cats because she’s allergic to them.
  2. Inconsistency – in character description, storyline, viewpoint (head-hopping or switching viewpoint without realising), tone or style of writing. Inconsistency will pull the reader out of the fictional world. This is a bad thing. The cure? Thorough editing by someone other than the author.
  3. Predictable endings. This is a tricky one, because some genres appear to demand a predictable ending – romances need a happy one, mysteries need the puzzle to be solved. But your job is to bring about the ‘predictable’ ending in an unexpected way. It’s a good idea to surprise the reader towards the end, even if you aren’t writing a thriller. But …
  4. Unbelievable endings! … don’t go so far that you make the ending appear out of nowhere just to give the reader a jolt. The ending, although unexpected, should fit the rest of the book perfectly, and seem with hindsight totally inevitable.
  5. Slow beginnings. Many creative writing tutors advise their students to cut their first chapters completely and see what remains. Some books could quite happily lose the first three chapters! Start right in the action, or at the most dramatic point possible, and then build in any backstory as you go along.
  6. Too many subplots. One review of my debut novel, Can’t Live Without, complained that it had too many subplots, and I think she had a point. (And I’d already cut two!) Sometimes writers can add too much to a novel, afraid it will be boring if the focus is too narrow. If your central premise is strong, there is no need to worry. Subplots can be great if used well, but too many and the reader gets tired.
  7. Overly long descriptions. My own pet hate, and I’m afraid I tend to scan-read if a description goes on for more than half a page. Of course there are dozens of literary exceptions to this rule, and if you are 100% sure your description won’t bore the reader, feel free to ignore this too.
  8. Having their intelligence insulted. Readers are clever, educated, interesting and interested people. They don’t take kindly to having information forced down their necks, or being told the same thing over and over for emphasis. Less is more. Let them do a bit of the work.
  9. Spelling, grammar or formatting mistakes – obviously. The cure is to have your book professionally proofread. But we all do that anyway, don’t we?
  10. Single-book authors! A surprising one this, but lots of readers complain when they find a book they love and then discover there are no more available by this author. So get writing – and publishing – and give readers more of what they want.

Thanks for having me on WG2E today everyone, I hope you found something useful here and will ask me back again soon! :-) And please share your thoughts and findings when it comes to keeping readers happy…

About Joanne:

Joanne Phillips lives in rural Shropshire, England, with her husband and daughter. Since leaving school she’s had an eclectic career, working as a hairdresser, an air hostess and a librarian. She now writes full time.

Find out more about Joanne’s writing and books at http://www.joannephillips.co.uk

Twitter: @joannegphillips

Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/joannephillipsauthor

Can’t Live Without links

UK: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Cant-Live-Without-ebook/dp/B0083SJB4M/

US: http://www.amazon.com/Cant-Live-Without-ebook/dp/B0083SJB4M/

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  1. Sibel Hodge says:

    Great post! I think you definitely need to increase your virtual book shelf and get stocked up on your back list! :)

    • Hi Sibel, I certainly do! This research was a wake-up call for me when it comes to number of books published – I’ve got a publishing schedule for next year that would make D.D. proud :)

    • Thanks for the post — I agree with you on the descriptions that are too long. Some writers are very good at writing a description that’s succint but still shows you a picture of setting, clothing, etc. I liked the other points, too.

  2. Lois Lavrisa says:

    Joanne- Welcome! I love all of your points- so well done. And my thorn in the side is the same as yours “Overly long descriptions. My own pet hate, and I’m afraid I tend to scan-read if a description goes on for more than half a page. ” maybe I am just not into that- or bore easily (hmm short attention span perhaps) but I skim through long passages until it gets to dialogue and/or action- preferably both :)

    • Hi Lois :) I’m doing an MA in Creative Writing at the moment, and some of the descriptions I’m having to plough through! Argghh! Yes, I also have a very short attention span … now, what was I talking about? Oh yes – I love dialogue, and as I tend to write a lot in the first person, I find dialogue and action a great way of avoiding that whole ‘show don’t tell’ thing. (Which is also really confusing when you read the ‘classics’ as they tend to ‘tell’ a lot!)

  3. A terrific post. I have just tweeted it.
    Yes, overly long descriptions – agree.
    Predictable endings – yes, there are certain genre obligations but, as you say, coming from a different direction or a little sting in the tail makes a book so much more enjoyable. I always look for an unusual setting as so many books are predictable these days and I think we need something fresher.

    You haven’t mentioned the number of characters: the orthodoxy is 5 or 6 plus minors. I’m not too sure about this – I love a lot of variety, and as in your point 8, I think readers can follow more than one thought or person. Who are we to restrict things so artificially?

    • Thanks Alison, and thanks for the tweet. That’s a great pointer about unusual setting – what a brilliant way to transport the reader and give a novel an extra edge. I’m so poorly travelled, but you can do so much research on the internet now without having to visit a new or unusual location. Google street view is amazing for getting you right inside a location. What did we do without it?

      You’re right about characters too, and the rule of thumb of whatever works for the story you are telling seems a good one. I’ve cut down the cast of characters significantly for the sequel to Can’t Live Without, and I think it works, but for future books I wouldn’t restrict things artificially either :)

      • I really love setting, so I’d caution against only relying on the Internet for research. What you’re going to find there is mostly visuals, but there are five senses. And there’s nothing like actually going to a place to get the flavor of it.

        A friend of mine’s first published work was a work for hire that the editor had set in Tucson. She did her preliminary research on the Internet, but wasn’t able to make a trip to actually see Tucson until the second book in the series was written. Lucky for her I had recently moved here and could fill in some of the things that wouldn’t necessarily be mentioned online. For instance, the heady perfume of the creosote bush after it rains, the smell of mesquite smoke in the winter from fireplaces, the engine-starting sound of the cactus wren, the fact that there are no street lights on side streets because of Tucson’s Dark Skies program (to protect from light pollution because of the observatories), knowing that almost every plant attacks you as you walk by, etc. Even so, there were things that were wrong in the books because she didn’t know to ask and she assumed they would be like where she lived. Probably not a big deal for someone who’d never been to Tucson, but I cringed every time I read one of these errors.

        • SK Holmesley says:

          I do agree with you on knowing the area you’re writing about. I love books that take place in cities that I’m intimate with, particularly when they mention streets I’ve been on, troublesome intersections that we’ve all suffered through at rush hour, restaurants I’ve eaten at, and so on. But whereas I give a lot of leeway to creative license, I get really annoyed when a writer seems to think that spelling the name of the city correctly is the only effort they have to expend when using that city as a location for their story.

          • That’s so true about having to know a place really well to bring it to life. And a setting doesn’t necessarily have to be exotic to be unusual – I set Can’t Live Without in Milton Keynes (a ‘new town’ in UK which doesn’t have a reputation nationwide as a must-go destination), and lots of readers have commented on how vividly I brought it to life. Of course, I could only do this because I’d lived there myself for many years and new a side of it a visitor, or researching author, would never know. :)

  4. Sheri says:

    Hi Joanne,

    Thanks for the insightful post! The minefield of writing can make a hard working author want to tear her hair out sometimes. Whenever I get frustrated with all the ‘rules’ I stop and put my Reader hat on – just as you’ve made us do with your post today. :)

    My pet peave is too many character names in one paragraph. Even if the characters have been previously introduced, my little brain doesn’t like it. I try to keep to no more than two names, plus the POVC in any given paragraph.

    I took a quick peek at your website and love that you’re brave enough to put your to-do list out there for public consumption – you go girl! I also ‘liked’ you on FB.

    Thanks again for the reminder to keep readers in mind!

    • Hi Sheri,

      Yes, that’s another great point! On character’s names, I don’t like names I can’t pronounce in my head. Unusual ones are great, but not names with un-phonetic spellings that you’d only be able to read if you already know the name.

      Ah, my To Do list – the bane of my life! I don’t manage to complete it every week (far from it), but it helps keep me focussed. Thanks for the like :) x

  5. Tamara Ward says:

    Thanks for the post, Joanne! I’ve found my readers want better justice. I’ve got a very unlikable character in one of my series, and she and my heroine are always going at it. Sometimes my heroine wins; sometimes she does not… but my readers really wish my heroine would put this other character in her place, and that all the other characters would recognize the evil character for what she is. I think they have a point.

    • Hi Tamara,
      That’s such an interesing point, and brings to mind the whole thing about what we let readers see and when. The really fascinating thing is that your readers wish “all the other characters would recognize the evil character for what she is.” Isn’t that amazing, how you’ve managed to create such a life-like world in which your readers immerse themselves and talk about the characters as though they are real people? (Makes me want to rush out and buy your book, Tamara!)

      It must be tricky, especially in a series, to keep the suspense and drama going – with the evil character, say – while giving readers the justice they want. But you’re obviously doing a great job of that! I need to check this series out for myself :)

  6. First chapter gone! I did this for the fantasy novel I was writing. My goal was to reduce word count and when I realised the story started slow, I deleted the entire first chapter and inserted the few key facts into later chapters.

    These are great tips to keep in mind on our journey through the fiction world. Thanks.

  7. Great post! I especially love #10. We writers love to write, so being encouraged to keep doing it is always a good thing!

  8. Angela Brown says:

    Bookmarked! Definitely something that I’ll want to reference this regularly as a reminder of what NOT to do :-)

  9. PJ Sharon says:

    Excellent list and very true! I’m guilty of a few of those. Will heed advice for future! Thanks for the tips.

  10. Nice post! Very helpful!

  11. I’m a sponge! Thanks for letttin me soak up some great pointers, Joanne.

    ~Nancy Jill

  12. Julie Day says:

    I like the last one, too. Because the two genres I am writing for, YA and adult romance, are series. And I have plans to write a series of short stories next year. My point is to make the characters and what they do believable, as that is what I have been told to do. As well as leave out as much mundane actions as possible, unless they live mundane lives. So that is what I am trying to do now.

    • Hi Julie,
      That sounds great. I’m writing a sequel at the moment, and I wish I’d known I was going to write it when I wrote the first book (if that makes sense) as I could have planned it better. Planning a series ahead of time seems a much more sensible approach. :)

    • SK Holmesley says:

      I do agree that leaving out mundanity is probably good, but I’ve read books that go too far in the opposite direction so that people who were standing one place end up magically in a crucial part of the room at a crucial time and I get distracted trying to figure out how they got there instead of following the action. Sometimes writing something mundane like “he walked across the room” may lessen the surprise that he was there to get shot instead of the actual target, but it’s less of a distraction in the end. I do appreciate well placed stage direction sometimes.

  13. Wonderful post, Joanne!

    I think you got my top ten and explained them very well. As a writer, I do my best to avoid these things, but it can be difficult.

    My number eleven is when the author skims over dramatic opportunities, making me feel cheated that I didn’t get to experience the drama and suspence that could have been delicious–like giving me a sip of hot chocolate on a cold evening instead of a full cup. It’s the old show don’t tell that we’ve all heard since we first started writing fiction, but many of us don’t seem to understand. Then, I’ll find a scene with little dramatic value stretched out way too long–oops, kinda like this comment.

    Again, great post!

  14. Celina Grace says:

    Great post, Joanne. I think unsatisfying endings are a particular hate of readers as the whole experience of reading the book is then tainted and you’re left wondering why you bothered! I totally concur with point 10 as well – I remember reading The Secret History by Donna Tartt, being blown away by how brilliant it was and then having to wait 10 YEARS for her next book (which turned out to be total bobbins…).

    • Hi Celina,
      Endings are really hard to get right – there’s so much to do, tying up loose ends and subplots, building to a climax but not rushing things. I used to be a big Star Trek fan (the Next Generation) and some episodes would have this massive rush at the end where everything was suddenly explained and you felt totally cheated. Now I call those kind of endings ‘Star Trek endings’ and they really spoil the reading experience for me – and put me off trying an author’s other books.
      Agree totally about Donna Tartt, by the way! :)

  15. Judith Lown says:

    A standout among the great posts of WG2E. Thank you, Joanne.

  16. Talli Roland says:

    Welcome, Joanne – it’s great to see you here! Increasing your virtual bookshelf is so important. If readers like your work, they want more… immediately!

    • Hi Talli, I’m getting about a bit this week – guest posts are like buses ;) Yes, I’m working hard on that one! Looking forward to reading your Christmas novella :)

  17. Great post, Joanne! Thanks for this list. Being a reader as well as an author, I often ask myself what I want and don’t want in a book, and this matches up perfectly. Good to know it!

    • Hi Alicia,
      That’s good to know :) When I’m writing I try to take off my ‘writer’s hat’ as often as possible and put on my ‘reader’s hat’. If I’m getting annoyed or bored, I know that’s not good!

  18. Stacy Green says:

    Great post! Everything listed here are things that stick out when I’m reading, and I know I’m pickier as an author. But I also think we don’t give readers enough credit when it comes to knowing what they like and want. Great list – thanks for sharing!

    • Hi Stacy, I think we are pickier as authors, mainly because we can see how it could have been done. I was a hairdresser years ago, and now it’s impossible for me to relax and enjoy a haircut – I’m constantly watching and thinking: No, don’t cut it there, No don’t hold it up at that angle! Sometimes having an inside edge doesn’t help though – I can’t take my head off and cut my own hair! :)

  19. Great insight here. I cringe every time I read some wannabe on the Kindleboards or another writing forum, saying, “We don’t have to obey those rules any more, because we’re not trying to please agents and editors.” No–you’re trying to please readers, who can be much crankier about this stuff. What makes good writing is hardwired to our brains. Readers don’t want to be bogged down in endless description and slow beginnings any more than agents to. Thanks for this!

    • Hi Anne,
      I agree 100% Anyway, it’s essential to know the rules, and be able to master them, before you even think about breaking them. Many of the writers we are studying on my MA have broken the rules – and their works are considered literary masterpieces. But these are writers in complete control of their craft, not newbies deciding to ditch the hard work because they can circumvent agents and editors :) Readers are even tougher to please, anyway!

  20. CC MacKenzie says:

    Great post!

    Give them what they want and then give them more of the same. Yes, Tamara Ward, kick the nasty, horrible sister in the butt. My toe was itching and you know who I mean, lol! What’s wonderful is that we ‘care’ so much about well written characters and that’s praise when a reader identifies with one.

    • Thank you :) I’m looking forward to reading Tamara’s series, and I love the concept “Give them what they want and then give them more of the same.” I’m going to write that out and pin it on my notice board!

  21. Debbie Young says:

    Great list and I agree with all of those points from the reader’s point of view.

    And from the writer’s point of view – it’s REALLY important to write more than one book if you want to make a living out of writing!

    It’s so easy these days to track down (and download) the complete works of a writer you’ve enjoyed, that it’s madness for any author not to try to be prolific – if they can do so without compromising the quality of their work, of course!

    Looking forward now to your second novel :)

    • Hi Debbie,

      Thank you :) You’ve only got until 14th Feb to wait! I’ve got a few projects in the pipeline, and I plan to publish 3 novels next year. This year my learning curve was all about how to publish and take a book to the market, which takes so much time out of actually writing! But I’m back in the groove now, so watch out :)

  22. I call my first draft beginnings the ‘coughing up the hairball’ stage of writing. You write. You end up with some disgusting looking hairy thing upon the floor. You pick it up with a piece of toilet paper and throw it out. And then you salvage what’s left. I just threw out seven chapters of the one I’m editing right now.

    Too many plot lines? I write epic fantasy with 12 viewpoint characters and six different plot arcs. No such thing!!! Of course, each of my novels tops 500 pages and is written in a multi-book series. I need plot arc and character arc sheets to keep it all straight or its a train wreck, but surprisingly my readers enjoy it (thank you old ‘Plotting the Fiction Novel’ teacher!!!) My rough drafts are terrible, though (see earlier comment about coughing up the hairball).

  23. Hi Anna,

    My first drafts are hairballs too! One of the most important things I ever learned was that it’s fine to write stuff and know you might one day erase it. It freed me up to just write, and not worry if it was any good or not.

    You’re so right about plot lines – some books manage to carry off multiple plots perfectly, and they are essential in your genre. I think my review critique was talking about sub-plots, which maybe weren’t essential and detracted from the whole :)

  24. Just want to say thanks to D.D. and everyone for having me on the blog, I really enjoyed it! Would love to be a guest again soon. Bye for now :)

  25. D. D. Scott says:

    Nothin’ beats reaching readers, Joanne, and makin’ ‘em happy!!! And you’ve given us some terrific scoop on just how to do that! Thanks Bunches!!! :-)

    The secret is to spend as much time as you can with your readers and with potential readers too! That way, you’re well versed on what they like and what they don’t like as well as what keeps ‘em hangin’ with you and one-click-buying over and over and over again.

  26. LK Watts says:

    Inconsistency in characters is what really gets to me. If the writer doesn’t know their characters inside and out then they should spend more time developing them. First they have blonde hair and then they have brown? Not without a trip to the salon first ;)