Monday, December 19, 2011

Why My Writing SUCKED and What I Did to Fix It.

Believe it or not, in 2009 I published a political thriller destined to be an international best seller. It was smart, loaded with intrigue, suspense, action and it was so timely I'd say it bordered on prophetic. My family and friends agreed.

Then I published in self-published with no idea what I was doing.

Sound familiar?

It didn't take long before I offered this amazing book to online readers. A few months later, reality hit me like a steel pipe across my face. The reviews started coming in and I soon discovered that what I thought was New York Times bound, in truth, had become another example of a self-publisher with poor writing skills.

I have recently unpublished that book. I can do better...much better.

So what sucked about my writing, you ask? Plenty.

The good news is, my writing is no longer what it was. I have since authored three books that are frequently in Amazon's Top 100 category lists. One of them has hit #1 in Amazon's ghost category and meandered around the top 200 on occasion.

I've read indie authors and many of them are amazing, selling, and getting incredible reviews. Unfortunately, some are not. The reasons vary, but these books suffer because of poor cover art, poor formatting, but most often because the author has much to learn. I know I did. Fortunately, I fixed my mistakes. Well, most of them anyway. Writing is an adventure, and I'm sure I'll be learning twenty years from now.

The following are some of the major mistakes I made before I knew what I was doing. If you see these mistakes in your book(s), especially if it is published, I'd urge you to fix your writing as soon as possible.
  • My pages were littered with "was". I've heard this described at the "fuzzy wassies". Too many was words, including were, is a sign that your writing is weak. That is because when you use "was" too often, you create a weak sentence, giving very little imagery and using unnecessary words. Fix your sentence... She was running in the woods...with She ran through the woods. This is shorter and more concise. Limit your was words to less than three per page and watch your writing come to life.
  • I had lengthy monologues that took the reader out of the story. I have since learned that where there is dialogue, there should be plenty of action, body movements, etc. Characters need to express themselves in shorter bursts of verbal exchanges. Include the character's thoughts and observations while another character is talking. 
  • Over use of adjectives and other modifiers. If you have a sentence that says something like.... Barron Von Dorkenwad ran his hands through Rapunzel's golden, straw-like, crusty hair... you probably need to do a rewrite. Limiting your modifiers is a must. If you can't find one good word to describe Rapunzel's ragged hair, cut it off and make her bald. You might as well because your reader will stop reading at that point.
  • Boring introduction for the sake of establishing the setting. Your intro is your first impression and it better be good. If you write supernatural thrillers, as I do, you better give some kind of indication (or foreshadowing) within the first few paragraphs that your book is going to be a frightening, mysterious or disturbing story. Give a sense of the genre on page one. Raise questions in the readers mind about your protagonist that they will want to answer. Start with conflict and slow it down later. There's a reason directors start their scenes with the word, "Action!"
  • I had a habit of telling my reader what was happening instead of showing. Here's an example: Jane Doe had it all together. Her hair was perfect, her smile glowing and she knew everyone loved her... Try this instead: Trixie stood nose to nose with Jane and sneered. Her lips curled and with one eye squinted said, "You act like you've got it all together. But your perfect smile and..." She flicked one of Jane's curls. "...flowing hair doesn't fool me. You're a mess. And I see right through you. We all do." See how that works? Let the characters do the describing. You hear it all the time ~ Show, don't tell.
  • Similar words within close proximity. These words began to bother my reader. Had I thought of different words, I might have been able to prevent more of those wordy speed bumps. I think you get the idea.
I know, you want to be original. You want to stand out. But listen, dear author; great writers can break the rules because the rest of their writing, plot, and characters are spot on. When you decide that originality means not following the rules, or disregarding them altogether, you have decided that you no longer want to sell books.

There have been plenty of authors who write amazing first novels, but the vast majority do not. And in today's "anyone can publish" world, this has never been more true. Your readers want emotion, feelings, thoughts, fully-developed characters, color, believable plot lines, action, vivid yet brief descriptions, poetry and alliteration. They want a story that plays out in their minds, without speed bumps. They want words spelled correctly and used in the right context. And it is my belief that they want shorter stories.

Trust me. I learned the hard way. But guess what? There is no easy way. Writing is work... and writing well is exhausting.

Write your story for the reader ~ not for yourself. Study and take your craft to the next level.

Unpublish your book if it sucks.

If you'd like to improve your prose, check out the following books: Write Like the Masters by William Cane, On Writing by The Horror Writer's Association, Novelist's Boot Camp by Todd Stone, On Writing by Stephen King and anything you can find by James Scott Bell.

Thanks for reading. Please follow me and comment. BOOM!

~ Jeff Bennington is the author of Reunion, an Amazon #1 bestselling ghost story, Twisted Vengeance and Creepy. Jeff provides $79 book covers among other author services.


  1. Excellent advice. And you had me laughing at 'Rapunzel's golden, straw-like, crusty hair..'

  2. Wow, you have described what some (all) of the reviewers of my first book.....thanks....I guess I have some work to do. Great Advise.

  3. Such excellent advice, if only people would listen to it! Thanks for the post.

  4. Story Structure, Story Structure, Story Structure:

  5. I'm french and write in french (no fictions nor essays, just "litterary chronicles") but I've been very interested by all you wrote. Thank you...

  6. Excellent post. And I too fell victim to that whole "I'm smarter than everybody and I can break the rules." attitude. Thankfully I didn't publish it, and now I realize that the formulas are my friends. And they are nowhere near as restrictive as I thought they were when I was nice and green.

  7. It amazes me how so many people think all there is to writing is to pick up a pen - or these days, sit at a keyboard - and have at it. Like it's easy and anyone can do it. Well it's not and your post is spot on. Writing is more than just putting words on a page.

  8. Fantastic post! Helpful to people like me, about to plunge into the exciting, scary world of self-publishing.
    I'm...going to check my draft stories and novels for some of the bad habits you mention.
    And I'm going to give your post a shout out on twitter -- because its awesome! :D

  9. I just got a professional critique of my first MS back and found out I'm big on telling, too, but not in the ways I would have expected. I learned that telling can sneak into your writing in subtle ways, like the phrases "I thought," "I noticed," etc. I've never heard the "was" rule before, but when I do my next round of edits, I'm certainly going to check for that mistake. Thanks for the great post!

  10. Love it. Thank you for the info. I am thrilled to be learning all of this wonderful stuff before I jump into my first re-write January 1st.

  11. Another excellent post, Jeff! I have a feeling some of my characters may be getting some Turtle Wax for Christmas to buff those bald heads.

  12. @ Kelly ~ Glad to make you laugh.

    @Anonymous ~ The key is to thicken your skin and listen and read and study and improve. Thanks for stopping by.

    @Hi Renee. True dat!

    @Isabelle ~ Thank you for visiting. I think you are my first French reader. Please come by often and share any of of my posts with your author/reader friends.

    @Michael ~ Glad things are working out. Always something to learn.

    @Ciara ~ Very true. Thanks for your input.

    @Bethany ~ Thank you.

    @Marsha ~ If you are new and getting ready to publish, please scroll through my previous posts; I have several posts that will be of great value to your journey. Thanks for stopping by and visiting. Come back.

    @Nichole ~ Glad to help. Let me know how the editing turns out. I know a great ebook formatter and book cover designer!

    @Ninja Gal ~ Best of luck with your book. Be sure to use a professional editor. I use Neal Hock from Hock's editing. He does a fabulous job.

    @Ebony ~ Thank you. Come back and visit again.

    @Rob ~ Ah, the shark man. Welcome back. I am lol right now. It's tough rewriting an entire MS and searching for "was" 2,000 times and making the fix, but when you're done, you don't seem to make the same mistakes as often. "Searching" is a great training exercise. Thanks for the comment.

  13. I popped by because I thought I was going to Johanna of @themanicheans blog, instead I found you. Thanks for talking about all the things that make me cringe when reading subpar writing. Well said!

  14. I love this post and will be using it to help my current editing process. Especially the part about the "was" I think I put them subconsciously in my first draft just to annoy the heck out of my editing process. Ah wells.


  15. Thanks for sharing some great tips that writers need to hear from as many sources as possible.

  16. I learned the hard way too. Thankfully, before I was published. Joining a critique group and reviewing the critiques those first few months was tough. But not nearly as tough as the reviews you received, since those were public. I've found that the keys to success are a willingness to learn and perseverance. Keep improving your writing until it's good enough to be recognized by an editor or agent. Yes, it takes much longer to reach publication-- that's where the perseverance comes in--but you and yur readers will both be more satisfied with the product.

  17. It is very difficult, but it is some kind of compulsive behavior with me. Write, edit, submit. Always good to hear horror stories from others!

  18. Great advice. After a reader pointed out all my "wases," I did an entire pass on my MS looking for "was." The writing definitely snaps into focus when you trim the "fuzzy wassies."

  19. Timely and much needed advice for this wannabe writer. Thanks for an excellent article.


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