Last night I read the opening chapters of a novel by an aspiring local writer. There were lots of problems; reading it and taking notes was a sad process. I don’t want to go into every detail of what I found wanting, but I do think other writers may benefit from pondering one or two of my observations.

The lead character was not a pleasant person. She was hostile and suspicious toward her friends. In a word, she was not relatable. There was little or nothing in her that would encourage a reader to want to hang out inside her head for 100,000 words.

A lead character who is too good would also be a bad choice, of course. We want the lead to be flawed — perhaps determined to overcome those bad habits, or perhaps quite stubbornly clinging to them. But along with the bad stuff, we need to find things in the character that we can admire or identify with. We want to be rooting for the character. As readers, we’re in the cheering section.

The problem with this particular lead character was that there was nothing positive in her to counterbalance the negativity. She was just annoying and unpleasant.

The author also has a tendency to withhold crucial bits of information for a couple of paragraphs, or for several pages. Something happened at the picnic, but what? Who is that person the lead character has just spotted across the room at the restaurant, the one the author is referring to as a “figure” in order to keep you guessing even whether it’s a man or a woman? The author may be under the impression that this encourages the reader to keep reading in order to find out — but in fact it’s what we do know that will keep us reading. If we know the person across the room is a hated rival (as in this case), we’ll want to keep reading in order to learn about the encounter between the lead and the rival. Blowing smoke in order to hide basic information is not a good technique.

At the moment I’m struggling with how frank to be with this writer. It would be all too easy to rip the manuscript to bloody tatters, but I’m pretty sure that would be a bad thing to do. As a matter of simple human decency I’d like to offer comments that might help the writer improve.

On the other hand, there are so very many bad writers cranking out garbage — and putting it up on Amazon, and tirelessly promoting it. The world does not need to be drowning in swill. Maybe it would be a public service to discourage amateurs from writing. And maybe it would be merciful to the writer herself. Take up gardening. Your chances of growing a nice healthy bush are much, much higher than your chances of writing a good novel.

This is one of the hazards of being a professional editor. I do in fact know what’s good, and what’s not. It’s not a he-said, she-said thing. It’s not a matter of opinion. When it’s crap, it’s crap.

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