For the last year, I’ve been working for a literary consultancy. I read unpublished novels and try to help their writers make them better. In the course of doing this I have observed certain things, and also, in my time on earth I have read and watched many things that did get published or aired, but were unnecessarily annoying in certain respects. Here, therefore, I offer you a small bouquet of wisdom collected from this experience.

(All points are mandatory and legally binding for everyone reasonably defined as ‘a new writer’  with immediate effect).

1)   Cut the elves.

2)   (Elves called the Bla’fla-tra-la-la, which, in their ancient language, means the Shiny Superior Magical Pretty People Who Are Better Than You are still Elves. THEY SHALL DIMINISH AND GO INTO THE WEST AND GET OUT OF YOUR BOOK FOREVER THE END.)

3)   Your book shall contain the minimum level of magic possible to maintain its existence.

4)   Your book shall likewise contain the minimum possible level of rape to maintain its existence. (Yes, that certain novels treat “magic” and “rape” as likewise irresistible bothers us too).

5)   A novel is not the means by which you get revenge on all the hot people who cruelly failed to find you attractive.

6)   No, not all novels need likeable protagonists. Yes, your novel needs a likeable protagonist. You want to write an unlikeable protagonist? Wonderful. First write a likeable protagonist. And another one. And another one. And maybe one more after that. And then, when you know you can keep a reader interested in what happens to a character, (which is difficult even when that character is not a tremendous sack of shit) you can think about trying to convince the reader that time with a mopey, genocidal bastard is time well-spent.

7)   Do not assume that your character is coming across as likeable just because you based him on yourself.

8)   Or on Batman.

9)   When your character cooks something it is not required that you take us right through the recipe, including cooking times and gas marks.

10) Your erotic imagination is not wholly separate from the rest of your imagination and that is fine. But bear in mind: readers can tell when the author has one hand in their pants.

11)  Your heroine may have violet eyes, or she may be called Persephone, but not both.

12)‘Star Wars: A New Hope’ is the only work to which retroactive permission is granted to end in the following manner: with the hero or heroes on a stage, receiving a medal, being applauded by a whooping crowd of friends and erstwhile enemies, basking in the glow of how fully their awesomeness is finally acknowledged. This shall not happen to your heroes. It makes me hate them.

13)  Likewise your favourite celebrities shall not enter the work to tell the protagonist how great they are.  It makes me hate them.

14) Your villain is there to make things difficult for the protagonist, not to be your punching bag.  Your villain shall not have every trait you despise, nor shall every character in the novel be talking about how awful they are, nor shall they fail at everything. Your story will be boring because the villain will clearly not be a threat and your protagonist will coast to easy victory. But  also  I will be sorry for your villain, and I will want to take them out for cocktails.

15) Likewise you shall not write random annoying people into your novel just so your protagonist can complain about how awful their tastes and manners are: it will makes me perversely fond of the supposedly annoying people and hate your protagonist more.

16)  Your protagonist shall go to places and do things without always needing to be told by someone else where to go and what to do.

17) Things shall be difficult for your protagonist and they shall suffer, however…

18) Your initially interesting protagonist may not become the most tortured person in their world.  COUGH DEAN WINCHESTER JACK HARKNESS GREGORY HOUSE.

19) All your secondary characters shall have interests other than your protagonist, your protagonist’s destiny, and your protagonist’s smouldering good looks. They shall not apparently have spent their entire lives before the story started sitting around waiting for the protagonist to turn up. They shall have goals and intentions that are not about the protagonist. This shall be especially true of the male protagonist’s female love interests. PLEASE.

20)  You shall ask yourself, is it possible I am writing terribly racist things and have never noticed it? BECAUSE  YES. IT IS POSSIBLE.

21)   (I still see elves there).


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  1. Posted March 24, 2013 at 8:59 pm | Permalink

    I like elves. And I’ve read quite a few good books lately about fairies (Between Two Thorns, Ironskin), which could almost be said to be elves. So for me elves aren’t the problem, it’s when it’s obvious the author hasn’t read much further than Tolkien and maybe the Pern series or Eddings, and then based a secondary world on a mash-up of those books. It’s what you do with your elves that counts.

    This is a great list, though.

    • Sophia
      Posted March 24, 2013 at 9:42 pm | Permalink

      Sod nuance –just BANNING things from the world is more fun. ^___^

      Of course, everything on this list really comes with an implicit …”unless your idea is REALLY THAT GOOD.” And somehow I don’t think fairies are anywhere near as done-to-death as elves yet — I think there’s still plenty to get out of them. And I’d make a possible general exception for elves who in some way live in our world. But elves in a secondary world… to say the least, you need to have something very clever and new to do with them. And just switching the Tolkienesque portrayal around a la Terry Pratchett to reveal how unpleasant Tolkien’s elves probably would be to share a world with has been done plenty, too.

    • ursulawj
      Posted June 7, 2013 at 10:45 pm | Permalink

      With regards to the excessive cooking, i still haven’t got over the five-page fish pie incident in Ian McEwan’s Saturday, & it was several years ago that i read that.

      If there is a worse offender I’d love to know what it is.

  2. Posted March 25, 2013 at 12:00 am | Permalink


    I am so goddamn sick of reading novels – and especially novels written from a single first person perspective – where I can’t tell whether the protagonist is meant to be a plausibly-rendered jerk who keeps unaccountably being hailed as a hero, or if the author genuinely doesn’t realise they’ve written an asshat and thinks that simply being labelled a hero automatically transmutes acts of fuckery into Noble Sacrifices For The Greater Good.

    Because, I mean. GAH.

  3. Posted March 25, 2013 at 9:47 am | Permalink

    You forgot dragons. Dragons are like horses on acid. No dragons. No need for them. No excuse for them. Leave them out.

    • Sophia
      Posted March 25, 2013 at 11:03 am | Permalink

      I hear you and would support you in 90% of cases, but I can think of some good dragons. (Avatar: the Last Airbender, for example –it helps when they’re only a small presence in the narrative). I would support an outright ban on Dragons as Transportation, though.

  4. Waytoomanyusernames
    Posted March 25, 2013 at 12:57 pm | Permalink

    Great article with some excellent common sense advice that all writers should know, but somehow don’t.

    On the subject of excessive cooking in books, there is a specific sub-genre of romantic murder mysteries where half the book is taken up by what our charming, witty detective or her no-good love rival is cooking. I only know this because my mother absolutely loves them, and too be fair she has found an occasional decent recipe in them. But most of the recipes and the writing seem to be attempts to kill you with diabetes.

    I find it hilarious to think of this genre translated to fantasy. I can’t stop giggling.

    • Sophia
      Posted March 25, 2013 at 1:39 pm | Permalink

      I haven’t actually come across the excessive cooking thing in fantasy so far, I read a lot of genres. But yes, it would be funny: “She soaked her dried wild Wharbleberries for twenty minutes while she crumbled some lembas into breadcrumbs which she then toasted over a medium heat. Then, using the liquid reserved from the Wharbleberries…[goes on like this for two pages]”.

  5. Posted March 25, 2013 at 3:22 pm | Permalink

    You forgot:

    You shall not interrupt the story to spend two to four pages rendering a detailed description of the taxonomy of the wild animal that just so happened to amble past the protagonist at some distance.

  6. Maggie J
    Posted March 25, 2013 at 4:22 pm | Permalink

    I hope Rule #1 does not also apply to vampires… (please say no, please say no!) hahah

    • Sophia
      Posted March 25, 2013 at 4:38 pm | Permalink

      Hee. No. While I think the culture is squeezing vampires dashed hard at present, and I’m going to take a lot of wooing to want to read about a vampire, still, vampires are an incredibly adaptable receptacle for metaphor. I just don’t think the same is true of Elves. Vampires can be about addiction or sexual transgressiveness or mental illness or fear of death or fear of age or fear of never maturing… but elves are about… what, exactly?

      And the description of what vampirism feels like in Let the Right One In alone means I have to spare them.

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