Tips, Writing

Write the Novel: book killers – major flashbacks to wishy-washy

This week we conclude our list of book killers. Some of the sneakiest ones hide in the back of the alphabet.

Major and minor flashbacks

Flashbacks at the beginning of the book confuse the reader, who hasn’t had time to settle into the story. As a general rule, there shouldn’t be a flashback for the first third of the story.

Minor flashbacks are a fews sentences long. This brief visit swoops the reader out of the current time and place and then swoops them back. They are very distracting and may actually make the reader dizzy.

Mundane details

In real life we get up, go to the bathroom, look at ourselves in the mirror, do personal grooming, go to the kitchen, plug in the coffee pot, decide what to have for breakfast, ad infinitum.

Characters get to skip all of this. Go from important action to important action. “At 8:52 I rolled out of bed; at 9:47, I was sitting in Collier’s office. I’d had far too little sleep and far too much coffee. I doubted this was going to be a productive interview.”

Passive voice

  • Active voice: subject-verb-object: Rachel smashed the piggy bank.
  • Passive voice: object-verb-subject: The piggy bank was smashed by Rachel.
  • Combining passive voice with prepositional strings is especially deadly: The piggy bank was smashed by Rachel in the hope of finding the key to the old door on the top floor of the house.
  • Clear up both problems: Rachel smashed the piggy bank. Nickels and dimes cascaded around her feet. No key. Blast, the pig had been her last hope.


Pauses are used to show that a character is thinking or is uncertain or doesn’t want to deliver the next line of dialog. What really happens is that pauses slows pacing. Turn a pause into a confrontation.

  • “I—” Wilfred paused. The grandfather clock in the next room ticked. The gardner made another circuit, closer this time, across the wide lawn.
  • “I—”
    “For God’s sake, Wilifred, spit it out. I have a Woman’s Institute meeting in fifteen minutes.”

Personal writing weaknesses

We all have them, and like dandelions, no matter how vigorously we weeded them last season, or in the last book, they are going to pop up again. We have to be kind to ourselves when they reappear. This is part of the learning process. However, we may want to make a list and work on correcting them as we write them in the next book.

Place holders

There are times when we haven’t names a character, or need to do research, or simply can’t think what comes  next. It’s a good idea to develop a consistent marking system. I like brackets, but highlighting them also works. This makes it so much easier to find those notes to ourself, such as [name this character], [When did the War of 1812 end?], or [add something here to show that Theresa misinterprets the reason for George’s visit.] All we have to do is do a global search for [.

Plateaus (places where the book stops)

Good book arcs should be jagged, with lots of ups and downs. Don’t give our characters any resting places.

Rambling, redundancies, repetitions, and echoes

  • Do we or don’t we know what we want to say here?
  • If we’ve said something once, the next time it, or something similar is said, it should have a slightly different meaning.
  • This includes lists. Remove all lists.

Telephone conversations and written material such as newspaper articles or letters

  • Essentially, these are information exchanges. Pare down the information to the absolutely minimum that needs to be conveyed.
  • Add a character reaction that makes getting that information make an immediate change in the character’s life.
  • Omit the social chit-chat on phone calls.
  • Use ambient sounds or include the character knows is going on at the other end of the phone line.
  • Be careful of copyright. If we reproduce a newspaper article, poem, or other non-original printed material, we’ve violated copyright.


  • Track time: is the reader kept informed of when the action takes place? Does the action happen in a reasonable time frame?
  • Track place: is the reader kept informed when the location changes? A throw away place is one used for a minor event, but the characters never return there. Change any throw-away places to ones that reappear several times in the story.


After a while we stop seeing these. We need critique groups and beta readers to spot them.

Using summary words to tell what a character feels rather than show it

This is the obligatory warning against telling instead of showing. Some time in the future there will an entire blog about stop telling, start showing.

Weak verbs

Replace them with active, vivid, engaging verbs.

Wishy-washy descriptions, or the other side of the coin, descriptions that go on for pages

  • Avoid too much physical description, especially early in the book
  • “If we can’t say something in two sentences, four paragraphs won’t help.” ~ William Lashner, mystery author

That concludes my list of book killers.

I hope to see you on Thursday, June 26 for Level Thinking: How to deal with multiple critiques.

Next Tuesday, July 1 (Happy Canada Day to my fellow Canadians), we’ll move on from draft zero (the unfinished manuscript) to the glorious Draft 1, or Goodness, now I have to write the whole thing over again.