Books Magazine

Things I Hate About My Writing and Other People’s

By Isabel Costello @isabelcostello

Red Pen BluesOK, hate is too strong a word, but even blogposts need a good title…

I’ve been in hypercritical mode lately and I’m hoping this will get it out of my system.   It’s happened before.  At university I spent four years overanalysing and pulling to pieces the greats of French and German literature.  Parts of this I loved, parts I didn’t (a lot of German writers were deeply depressed and had a real knack for passing that on).  At the time it often felt a bit pointless, but with hindsight it’s probably the reason I enjoy doing what I do today.  The downside was that for a year or two after graduating I barely read at all.  I couldn’t turn off that critical voice.  (I can trace my rehabilitation to the publication of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History).

I’m within sight of finishing an epic restructuring and rewriting of my first novel, as many of you know.  (Fantastic response to last week’s post, thank you!)  It’s been a frustrating and fascinating process.  Writers have a natural tendency to be self-critical but not always in a particularly constructive way; editors are paid to be critical but constructive.  Mine showed me what wasn’t working and suggested how to fix it and there began my current preoccupation.

Once you’ve completed a novel of any kind, the way you read is never quite the same again.  It’s been strange tackling the re-write alongside all the preparation for Top 10 Summer Reads (16 May).  I read a lot of books, and a lot of them are very good, but something I’ve noticed since being edited and having to confront my writing faults is just how much published authors get away with (including some things I’ve been told I shouldn’t do.)  I almost can’t bring myself to do this, but you tell me you like honesty, so here goes:


This is not the blogpost equivalent of going to a job interview and saying your greatest weakness is being a perfectionist.  These are genuine problems which I am having to work very hard to overcome.

1 Being too cryptic

My fear of overwriting – especially of spelling everything out as if the reader’s an idiot – frequently leads me to the other extreme:  it’s not clear what’s driving the characters or what the hell is going on.  Over the years, the comment I’ve had the most is GIVE US MORE.  I’m trying!

2 You’ve got the look..

…but I haven’t.  If I could conquer the problem I have describing body language and facial expressions it would really help with #1.  I can visualise it so clearly, but words fail me or I fail them, especially as it’s considered poor style to use adverbs.  As I mentioned in my post on Sexy Literary Heroes, there are many ways you can raise your eyebrows.  This problem has me sitting at my desk pulling faces and making gestures into thin air.  ‘Tearing my hair out’?  It’s not quite that bad.

3 Jumping around all over the place

Good novels involve back story, and there are many ways to handle it.  I love flashbacks and they’re a key part of my book, but it took a pro to point out my habit of starting a flashback at a given point then immediately jumping further back in time, and back again,  and working my way forward to where I began.  It’s every bit as disorienting as it sounds for the reader.   My clever friend Isabel Rogers told me Virginia Woolf did this (apparently it’s called ‘hollowing out’).  It probably only works if you are Virginia Woolf.

4  The wrong reasons

Sometimes I do write a sentence or passage I’m really pleased with.  Unfortunately there’s a strong chance I’ve chosen the words because of the way they look or sound, or work together, rather than what they mean.  They don’t belong in the scene, or they take it in the wrong direction.  This is self-indulgence and if you’re lucky, someone else will point it out.  It’s one of the hardest things to see for yourself.


What would be the point of a sneerfest about books I think are rubbish? That’s not the Literary Sofa way.  These are subjective observations about novels which are otherwise very good, the kind of books I feature and issues I’d mention in an in-depth review. I’ve picked things I’ve seen repeatedly so I’m not mentioning individual titles, and in any case I am far too polite to do that.

5  In the Beginning

I’m relatively patient when I start a new book (I give it half an hour) but many people aren’t, so when picking Summer Reads I’m extra tough.  Considering that new writers are constantly being told the first chapter/paragraph/sentence must make the reader want to keep reading, I am amazed how many novels take an age to get going (more than half an hour).  The opposite – and to me, even worse – problem is when a novel opens with a contrived hook which doesn’t suit the tone of the book.  We get it that there’s going to be a story, no need to make it feel like a thriller.

6 Confusion reigns

This is my greatest bugbear as a reader and it happens surprisingly often even in excellent novels.  Multiple points of view?  Great.  Different timeframes?  Absolutely.  Both add to the complexity that makes a piece of fiction intelligent and satisfying, but few things are more distracting than constantly having to backtrack to work out when the events being related took place or whose head you’re in.  I recently read a novel which switched between two male first-person voices and it drove me mad trying to work out who was who.  It’s also unnecessary, as there are simple ways to avoid this problem.

7 So many People

The skill of writers who can successfully manage a large cast of characters is one I really admire.  Most of the novels I read seem to have one or two narrative voices/protagonists and no more than a handful of secondary characters; a manageable number for the reader to keep track of and get to know.  But some novels introduce six characters in the first chapter and they just keep coming.  You can’t keep up with who they are and stop caring.  Maybe it’s me – I find most crime novels hard to follow for this reason – but I’ve read plenty of books with characters I don’t think anyone would miss if they’d been killed off.

8 Calling it a Day

Ah, endings.  Very tricky, and perhaps the area where the greatest differences between genres play out.  Readers want different things: a happy ending, a ‘satisfying’ ending, an open ending (but not a cop-out), a partial resolution which allows for some ambiguity (my favourite kind).  My point about endings isn’t about the denouement, it’s about knowing when to stop.   Another novel I read recently was divided into several parts and on reaching the end of the penultimate part, which consisted of a beautiful sentence, I thought to myself, That’s where this book should end.  I felt the same way 100 pages later when it did end.  I’ve almost never read a final chapter set years after the rest of the story that didn’t weaken the ending.

In my opinion, that is – but please don’t make me do this by myself. Tell me yours! 


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