From Scott:

As a writer, you strive to write the best story you can. You come up with a solid story idea. You work hard to make the storyline believable and enjoyable. You throw in some suspense, a little danger, and you keep the reader guessing until the end. But does your writing style annoy your readers? And is it annoying enough that you are discouraging potential readers from buying your books in the first place? Even if they buy it, an irritated (and immature) reader might give your book a bad review based not on the quality of your work, but on the irritation from something you wrote. If the story itself is good enough, you might overcome some sales losses and bad reviews. But why take the risk? Let’s look at a few things that might be in your work that could be creating potential problems for you.

Have you ever heard the old adage about not discussing religion or politics with people you don’t know? The same thing applies in your literary works. Many of us, myself included, have strong political feelings in one direction or another. A lot of people have one particular issue, be it the environment, or a social issue, or government spending, that is a real hot-button. If you write a story with something counter to how your reader feels, that person will feel some amount of irritation with you. It may be something the quality of the story will overcome, but is it worth it? I once read a novel where one of the no-name bad guys wore a shirt that read, “Nuke The Whales.” The protagonist gave the guy an extra kick or two and expressed his opinion on how stupid the shirt was. Fine and dandy–I don’t think anyone really supports using nuclear weapons against whales–but did this serve a purpose in the story? No. And I can tell you, I found it highly annoying. The author’s opinions about the environment had no purpose in the story and should not have been there.

Another great example of this is the movie, Lethal Weapon 2. The plot involves a group from South Africa that is smuggling gold, money, and weapons. The movie was made back in the Apartheid days, so the bad guys are members of that oppressive white supremacist government. So far, so good. But were all the protests with chants of “Free South Africa” really necessary? Did they move the plot forward at all? And the scene where Danny Glover and Joe Pesci create a scene in the embassy to allow Mel Gibson to sneak in. Funny, but highly politicized, and not really needed. And let’s not forget the tuna sandwich scene. Danny Glover’s character gets in trouble for eating tuna because the fishing companies kill the dolphins that get caught in their nets. I like dolphins, I really do. But they had no place in this movie, other than to express someone’s opinion about tuna. Again, very irritating.

Next, let’s look at religion. In some genres, it becomes difficult to avoid. In all of my medieval fantasy novels, religion plays a key role in the plot. I have to invent entire religions. The names of the gods, their abilities, who worships them and how… all of this needs to be worked out. And because it is a central part of the plot, this use of religion is fine.

But what about other references to religion? If you have strong religious leanings, whether that is in the worship of a god, or as an atheist, you are better off keeping those thoughts to yourself unless it becomes central to your story. If your main character comes to find her faith as a part of her transformation, then by all means, put in all the religious references you want. But if your main characters look down on a non-believer, or if your protagonist constantly spouts off negative comments about people who follow a given faith, you are going to have some problems. People may be serious about political opinions, but religious opinions are to the nth degree. I can guarantee you, if you insult any specific religion directly, you will lose most of the followers of that religion and will likely get hammered in their reviews.

This can be a major problem in the area of international thriller novels. Inevitably, these stories turn to issues of terrorism. It’s a real threat and one that people take seriously. I’m not suggesting that authors avoid the subject entirely. My thriller novel, Martyr’s Inferno, involves Islamic extremists and weapons of mass destruction. But I was careful not to insult the Muslim religion. To do so would have turned off readers–not just Muslim readers, but other people who respect people’s right to worship as they choose. So if your novel turns to terrorism, keep that in mind.

A less volatile topic, but one that can still turn your readers away, is bad grammar. I think it’s safe to say that a large percentage of Americans never learned to follow the proper rules of grammar. And of those who did learn, many forgot many of those rules a few years after school. This is not acceptable for authors. We are expected to be masters of our art. By releasing a book filled with grammatical errors, you are screaming “second-rate” and “unprofessional” as loudly as you can. A discriminating reader who downloads your sample pages and sees bad grammar will not be likely to complete the sale.

In the old days, an editor at your publisher would correct your grammar, particularly the obscure things you may never have learned. But this service from your publisher was not something you were supposed to use as a crutch. If my first three novels (which were published traditionally) had been filled with grammar problems, I would have received a form rejection letter instead, and editors would never have gotten involved. The manuscript is expected to be mostly clean before being submitted.

And that’s where you should be with indie ebooks. When self-publishing, you have to be even better. You must be as close to perfection as you can get. Rick and I will be blogging about some of the more confusing points of grammar before too long. But suffice to say, there are simple ways to catch these mistakes. Joining a writers’ group can be very helpful, but you had better do some serious editing first. Rick and I are in a group with some every talented writers. However, there have been one or two people (no longer with us) who would post chapters for review, chapters that were absolutely filled with errors. I think these people believed they could just post their work and let the rest of us do their editing. But it doesn’t work that way. Try that, and most groups will show you the door.

Another simple solution is to pick up a copy of the Chicago Manual of Style. Granted, it’s a huge book (Rick adds: and somewhat, but not unreasonably, expensive). But the simple organization makes it easy for you to quickly find what you’re looking for. Keep in mind, this is a book, not a grammar checker. You must recognize that there’s a potential problem and look it up yourself. If you don’t know enough about grammar to realize there’s a problem, the CMS will do you no good. Also be aware that the grammar checker in Microsoft Word is fairly inaccurate. Sure, it will find some grammar errors. But it misses a lot of them, and will frequently mark some things as being wrong, when in fact they’re not.

Do your homework! Keep yourself fresh on the rules of grammar, and if you’re unsure about anything, look it up. Stay off religion and politics, too. To borrow a political punchline, those topics are the “third rail” of writing. Annoy your potential readers at your own peril!

–Scott