Book Fail part 1: How to lose readers at the start

Hi, all, it’s Sher today with some advice for writers. It’s been a while since I gave writing advice because I prefer promoting books I like, but I think it’ time to explain some important problems I’ve encountered over the years. These are all reasons I stop reading books early on, and I’ve read many book reviews confirming that others have the same peeves:

  • Problem: Starting in the wrong place. This often involves a prolog or first chapter full of information readers don’t need until much later in the story. Good world building doesn’t not include info dump. At best, it’s confusing. Worse, most readers forget the misplaced information by the time they need it because they didn’t understand it or its significance. But info dump isn’t the only way to start in the wrong place, especially in kid lit. Placing adults at the beginning (without kids) can make the latter put down books without getting past chapter one. What preteen or teen wants to read about old people ? Umm…none. And yes, to kids, “old people” means anyone  over the age of 20 or so. I bet you’re thinking of J. K. Rowling’s first scene in Harry Potter. Then ask yourself, what made that scene an exception to my rule? Well, who were they talking about? A kid. And were they normal adults? Uh, no. In fact, one appeared as a cat, and animals are one of the best lures to kids, not to mention to adults.

  • Solution: Unless you want to copy J. K. Rowling, and I would not recommend it, why not move your misplaced scene to a spot that follows the main character meeting the adults?  Not necessarily the first available spot, but the spot where the information will help answer important questions about  characters and their motives, or maybe where it will help solve a mystery. Letting the protagonist encounter an “info dump” situation later in the book, when the world building is farther along, will lessen the chances that readers will consider the information confusing and/or pointless. This might be difficult if the book uses only the main character’s point of view, but not impossible. Why not let the protagonist see old security footage or read a recording of the event in a newspaper or book?

  • Problem: Too many characters too fast. This is info-dump with people, another reason to avoid prologs or first chapters with characters readers don’t need to know or care about yet. I think authors imagine their book as a movie, and that makes them think it’s okay to include a big cast of characters. Hang on there. A good share of the negative reviews I read on Amazon mention too many characters, so it’s not just me who dislikes trying to remember who’s who.

  • Solution: Ever heard of dovetailing? That’s where you do two jobs at once, and it’s a good way to cut the cast in half. Maybe not literally like you see in magic shows, but if your story needs a magician, the best friend can study to become one.

  • Poor editing. Real problem: Readers think the writer is stupid, uneducated, or doesn’t respect the reader enough to present quality work. Sure I’m an editor and notice errors more than the average person might, but it’s not just me who finds them aggravating. My hubby won’t read more than a few error-ridden pages before quitting, if that many. You don’t want to hear his comments when he gets that upset.

  • Solution: Get multiple quotes from editors you’ve seen recommended by other indie authors. Send the same material to each so everyone has the same chance to make recommendations. If your budget is tight, choose a copy editor who is just starting and a more experienced editor to proof. Hint: I have two young English Lit college grad friends who I’m helping get started as professional editors. I train them in Chicago Manual of Style Rules and other things they don’t teach in college, and they do the first round of editing for clients on a tight budget. If I’m hired as well, I check my trainees’ work during proofing. Clients get the benefit of two pairs of eyes. Bottom line, if you’re thinking, “I can’t afford an editor,” you need to switch that to, “I can’t afford not to have an editor.” Otherwise, forget selling your book to many people because only a few will buy it, and their reviews will discourage others.

That’s it for this installment. Stay tuned for part 2 next week, problems that make me stop reading later on. Thanks for visiting!





Share A Heart

Indie author-friendly freelance editor, children's book blogger for picture books through YA, kid lit, SF/fantasy lover with special fondness for middle grade, pun-loving SCBWI member, meter-maid for poetry and rhyming picture books.


  1. Great post, Sher! That is really valid and important information. I hope every writer out there takes a moment to read and digest this information. Thanks for the tips!

    Paul R. Hewlett

  2. Pingback: IWSG: Writing Problems solved for free! | Sher A Hart: Written Art

  3. Didn’t think about keeping the adults out of the way until the story gets started in MG and YA. Thanks for the tip.

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