Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Three annoying things writers do

My favorite thing about the holidays is the excuse to lounge by the fire devouring piles of bad food and good books.

Well, mostly good books. I’ll admit I’ve read a few that came perilously close to being hurled at the wall.

As a reader, I’ve always been aware of my pet peeves in novels. As a writer, I'm hyper-conscious about avoiding them in my own stories.

The Lazy Man’s Adverb

I don’t fault writers for the occasional use of adverbs. Sometimes you just need to toss a little -ly love around. But there’s seldom a good excuse for using them with dialogue tags. Any author worth his salt should be able to show the speaker’s tone with context clues, body language, and the words coming out of the character’s mouth.

Lazy: “I don’t want to suck your toes,” she said angrily.

Not as lazy (but maybe a little oogy): She folded her arms and sneered at him. “There’s no way in hell I’m sucking your filthy toes!”

The Big Mis

Short for “the big misunderstanding,” this is one of those ancient plot devices that never ceases to annoy the ever lovin’ snot out of me. It’s where the story’s conflict centers around something that could be cleared up if the characters just sat their pouty butts down and had a 30-second conversation. Jane sees Herbert in Victoria’s Secret, and rather than saying hello and asking if he’s buying her the latex thong she wants, she assumes he’s a cross-dresser and spends the next 250 pages sulking.

If you catch yourself crafting a Big Mis plot, slam on the brakes. Are there other forms of conflict you can introduce that have a little more substance? If you're committed to your Big Mis plot, what can you do to make it feasible the two characters wouldn't have that conversation? If your solution involves removing their tongues and hands, you might want to rethink the story.

As You Know, Bob

I’ll admit it, critique partner Cynthia Reese taught me this phrase by pointing out my own offense in some long-ago manuscript. As You Know, Bob is a clumsy method of introducing backstory by having one character spontaneously lecture another with information they both already know. The result is a conversation that’s stilted, awkward, and as natural as Chelsea Charms’ sweater potatoes (Er, that’s a fairly benign Wikipedia link. I make no guarantees what you’ll find googling her name on your own).

I’ve gotten better at catching myself when I start an As You Know, Bob info-dump. It helps to seek less sloppy ways to introduce the backstory, like flashback or internal musings. In general though, readers are smarter than we give them credit for. Trust them to piece together smaller clues as you slowly feed out backstory over the course of the story.

Do you have pet peeves as a reader? How do you stop yourself from committing them as a writer? Please share.

And really, please don't blame me for the brain damage you incur googling that name. I did warn you.

35 comments :

Charmaine Clancy said...

Good reminders!

Simon C. Larter said...

I haz bone to pick! *picks bone*

Good. Now I'm done with that, I'll add a caveat to your lazy adverb admonition: you can use an adverb to clarify the mode of speaking when it could be reasonably (ack! adverb!) expected to be something different.

Example from Neil Gaiman: "Sorry I held you up," he said, politely. "You in a hurry?"

Now, in the context of that little snippet, the MC been spoken to by a fellow on a plane he's held up a bit. The man's acting strangely, and where the expected response might be irritable, or curt, Gaiman chooses to have his MC speak politely. Also, note the comma before the adverb: this gives us an infinitesimal pause with which to apprehend the reversal.

And now I'm going back to picking my bone...which, in the context of your blog, doesn't sound very good, does it...?

Malin said...

My pet peeve is about introducing characters. Nothing makes me hurl a book at the wall (which I have) faster than the author introducing the main character by explaining how s/he looks, believes in, what job s/he has and what s/he's done in the past.

And then, naturally, the main character thinks through all this when meeting his/her friends.

Because, let's think about this. If you meet someone you've known for a while, do you really notice their height, eye colour, jewellery and clothes? I don't. I can see if they've got new shoes (rarely) or sometimes I muse about how damn tall some are (I'm rather short) but it's not a full character description.

I think I'll avoid mentioning the famous names that do this, but I wish I could tell THEM to stop so I can enjoy reading their work.

Also, some people do this pet peeve, and excel at it, making it fun as hell to read. But it's obvious when it's a stylistic choice, or just a lazy writer's easy way out.

Linda G. said...

First of all: how does Chelsea stand upright? Seriously, unless those puppies are filled with helium I can't see how she manages. ;)

Let's see...my pet peeve as a reader. I guess it would have to be info dumps. A reader doesn't have to know everything right up front. I prefer to find things out on a need to know basis, when it becomes _relevant to the story_.

Teri Anne Stanley said...

I get stuck with two things:
1) the reverse info dump. When a character says or thinks something obscure about someone who hasn't been introduced yet, and I have to go back and see if I missed some early info.
2) when one character asks a question, and the POV character spends three pages thinking about something before answering without going, "Oh, what was the question?" Granted, saying "What was the question?" is a big cheat itself, but it helps.

Danica Avet said...

I think my only main pet peeve is when an author spends more time describing the surroundings than delving into the story. Do I really want to know that this tree has five thousand branches, each with fifty thousand vibrant green that contrasts wonderfully with the solid brown trunk that had to have been in place since the dawn of time since it showed signs of it's advanced age? And let's not forget that the grass is yea high, bending ever so slightly to the right as a brisk wind swept across the landscape.

And then they do it all over again when they enter a room. I end up skipping a good three pages because I've had enough of the descriptions already! I want to read about the people, dammit!

Okay, mini-rant over. I'm better. Thanks for letting me get that off my chest :)

Christine said...

My pet peeve is when disembodied body parts roam another body or fly across the room.

EX. His fingers trailed along her spine and her eyes shot him a disturbed glance.

Tawna Fenske said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Tawna Fenske said...

I'm getting a jump on replying today, since it's going to be one of those loooooooooong ass days :)

Charmaine, glad you found it useful!

Simon, I love your bone! Er, you know what I mean. Seriously, great example (and exactly why I said "seldom" instead of "always.") Your example is perfect, and I'll throw out another in a similar vein. In one of the books that annoyed me most recently, the author kept having a character say things "sarcastically." Now come on. Surely the author could have found of ways to SHOW sarcasm...the crossing of arms, the rolling of eyes, the exasperated sigh, or just trusting the reader to understand that a one-word quote like "right" might just be sarcastic. On the other hand, it's a lot tougher to show a response that's a little bit outside what might be expected. One example my idol (Jennifer Crusie) uses sometimes is for someone to say something "flatly." It's usually in the context of a character learning something surprising, but replying in a subdued way. "You slept with him," she said flatly (spoken by someone upon learning her sister just slept with her ex-husband). It's a great way to demonstrate the character hasn't completely processed the info and decided how she feels about it.

Malin, oh yes...lots of characters studying themselves in mirrors in first chapters, eh?

Linda G, would you believe I'd never heard of Chelsea before googling "world's biggest breasts?" Which begs the question "why did you google that?"

Teri Anne, good point on the reverse info dump. I like clues, but sometimes it's tough to figure out if you're reading a clue, or just something the author already explained but you spaced out.

Danica, do you scream "show, don't tell!" and throw the book at the wall? Or is that just me?

Christine, good one! You see that a lot in older romance novels.

Thanks for reading, guys!
Tawna

Summer Frey said...

Ooh, the Big Mis is one of my huge pet peeves too. I think it's fairly limited to certain genres, though. At least on such a large scale.

Also, re: Chelsea Charms: OMG my eyes!!! Damn you, Google.

Geoffrey Cubbage said...

I sort of assumed from the title this was going to be "They stay up late, mutter to themselves, and sometimes respond to direct questions like 'what does it mean when I pee blood?' with a line of the text they were just writing." But good points all the same!

Matthew Rush said...

I'll never understand all these writing rules. I mean I get the second two, and I certainly get annoyed when I encounter them while reading, but I really don't understand why we can't use adverbs.

I mean I get that showing makes for much a much more immersive experience while reading, but if we have a conversation between several characters at once, there is going to be a lot of arm folding, eye rolling, sighing, and but crack scratching to get our point across. Sometimes an adverb here or there can keep the story moving forward without taking 5 times as many words to "show" how the character was speaking or feeling.

And I'm (hopefully) obviously not complaining about you Tawna. As you pointed out in your reply to Simon you din't say "never", or "always" or whatever. I just don't get why we are told to do such and such a thing or else!

I happen to be reading No Country for Old Men right now and Cormac McCarthy never uses apostrophes for conjuctions, never uses quotes for dialogue, and rarely uses any punctuation. He breaks pretty much every writing rule ever uttered and yet I always get what he means and happen to LOVE his writing.

Then again, he is a well established author with a long history of success, and I'm just a puny little writer trying to become a debut author. I should probably shut up now and get back to work.

Roni Loren said...

Ugh, I loathe the big misunderstanding. And I agree with Danica--painstaking setting description drives me nuts. Get us grounded, then move on.

Some other of mine are the "instant love" thing. I read one recently where the guy just knew she was "the one" on like page three. I can totally buy attraction at first sight, but not the "she's my soulmate" that quickly. I almost did hurl that most recent book against the wall--but I have a chronic finishing problem. It didn't get much better from there.

Tawna Fenske said...

Summer, yep, the romance genre is admittedly a big perpetrator of The Big Mis (especially old-school stuff).

Geoffrey, I'll leave that blog post to YOU!

Matthew, LOL, people say it because it's one of the most common newbie mistakes, and often an indication of a big-picture problem. "Showing" instead of "telling" doesn't require endless lines of description. In fact, less is very often more. Newer authors often fail to trust that the reader can tell from the context of the story and the words the character is speaking that something is being said angrily, cheerfully, sadly, etc. While certainly there are instances where an adverb is necessary and even strengthens the writing, they're more often a sign that the author hasn't infused the writing itself with adequate emotion and is therefore forced to TELL the reader how he/she should be feeling.

Roni, ah yes...instant love. I like a little spark or connection, but "SHE'S THE ONE" before you've even had a conversation? Um, no.

Tawna

demery bader-saye said...

"Great reminders," she said gratefully. Continuing laughingly, she said, "Going to call it the "As You Know, Bob" test from now on."

lora96 said...

I'm an adverb junkie. I'd go to meetings to rehabilitate but could never decide HOW to go--shamefacedly? reluctantly? exuberantly?

My pet peeve is LET'S DESCRIBE EVERYTHING. Unless you are mentioning that there's a big hole nearby because a character will soon overlook it and fall in, I don't care what anything or anyone looks like. I have an imagination for that.

elizabethreinhardt said...

I hate reading a really repetitive description (usually the same one), especially if it's groan-worthy the first time. I don't want to hear about her 'crystal blue eyes' or his 'Roman nose' every single time the character is described! Plus that, if the author is doing something so lame, the rest of the book is usually just as bad.
PS The day I got my Kindle I ordered "The Outlander" and have been happily noticing how much my husband is like Jamie (ugh, huge book crush!). I am completely sucked in and ordered a copy for my mom. Thanks for the recommend!!

Shakespeare said...

I agree with Malin about the physical description of all characters. I HATE that. How does a gold necklace indicate what kind of person someone is? Give me ONE big detail, and do it while they are acting on it. Otherwise leave it alone.

My biggest pet peeve is the omniscient perspective, when we know what everyone is thinking even while we know what they are saying (and wearing, down to their shoes). Showing everybody's disconnected thoughts AND dialogue is more than lazy. It turns a scene silly no matter what's going on.

One CAN break rules, but one must understand the rules first, and break them for a REASON.

Christina Auret said...

I have to say the Big Mis thing irritates me too. Not because of lazy plotting or anything smacking of writing critique.

It irritates me because I hate reading romances where my first thought after finishing is: Divorced in two years, three at the outside, because they lack the basic ability of talking to each other.

It totally spoils my happy romance reading vibe.

SM Schmidt said...

I'm beginning to loath the plot where the main character hates the love interest, realizes oh they've had a hard life, and then ends up with them. Um some people are still jerks and not necessarily relationship worthy no matter what horrible thing happened to said love interest.

Melissa Sarno said...

I hate the Big Misunderstanding! And I hate it when you know something but the main character doesn't and you spend the whole book waiting for the character to find out what you already know. I despise this. What's the point?
I'm reading Stephen King's "On Writing" and he has a lot of these kinds of funny pet peeves including the adverb thing.

Douglas Morrison said...

Over use of dialogue tags. Yes, I know the tags get a bad wrap, but do I really need constant reminder of who just spoke in a dialogue sequence?

The "as you know" is another one that really bites. It screams a lack of depth in the author.

I do miss "It was a dark and stormy night" though...

Great post Tawna, as always :-)

Doug

Melissa Gill said...

My big pet peeve is the police blotter description. So and so was six feet with black hair and brown eyes. Who cares? I won't remember that in another dozen pages unless it has some bearing on the plot. But for some reason, readers, especially young people want to know what everyone looks like. Bla, I like to form my own opinion.

Never2Late said...

I'll see your pet peeves and raise you two ...

I HATE it when a writer tells you the same exact thing over and over and over again. Like we're stupid. It's like, OK, OK, I GET it already! Can we move ON??? One very popular romance writer does this so much I can no longer bear to read her work.

It also drives me nuts when a whole horde of characters have names that are waaaaay too similar. I'm a fast reader, and don't want to have to backtrack to sort out all the who's whos.

Not too crazy about the POV and/or storyline jumping around all willy nilly, either. With rare exception, i.e. Jodi Picoult, who actually labels her chapters to indicate POV, I much prefer a more straightforward, linear approach. (Needless to say, I was not a fan of the convoluted out the wazoo TV show "Lost".)

Hmmm, I believe I actually raised you three. (inflation!)

Happy New Year, y'all.

Susan

Melissa Alexander said...

My pet peeve is pages of dialogue with no action or dialogue tag. There comes a point where I lose track of who's speaking. If I can't tell and have to go back and COUNT, that's a problem.

Abby Minard said...

Oh these are great! I've learned a lot in the past year, and I was happy to chop many of the adverbs in my story. I also hate the info dumps as well as introducing too many characters- it gets confusing and I keep having to flip back to the beginning going, "wait, who is that?". Also if it's a fantasy story and doesn't have a map. HELLO- you made up a world, I need a map.

Valeriebrbr said...

I agree with Melissa: Counting dialogue! Very annoying.

Worse is description of every single article of clothing the characters are wearing. It dates them and revokes my creativity to make them my own. Do I care how you perceive Gale in The Hunger Games? No way! He's raw sexiness to me. I used to love picking up romances from the 60s, but do end up hurling them when the author describes the blue and white tie-dyed ascot and yellow polyester bellbottoms. Why can't they say he pulled on dark slacks and the button-down shirt she'd thrown to the floor in her haste to undress him? You got a visual, didn't you?

Neurotic Workaholic said...

It bothers me if the characters are unlikable. If I can't find at least one redeeming quality in the main character, it's hard for me to finish the book. It also bothers me when the characters make long speeches, as if they're political candidates or something.

Jason said...

My biggest pet peeve has to do with a second (or third, or fourth) book in a series, or while not necessarily a series per se a recurring main character. Please, please, please, do not give me a lame synopsis of what happened before. If it's relevant to the current story, work it in as needed, but don't force it (similar to the police blotter description beef).

If I want to know what came before, I'll go read that book.

The funny thing is I recognized I hated this when I was reading Hardy Boys books at age 9. Every. Single. Book. It could be predicted that on page 8 there would be a two-page synopsis of who Frank and Joe Hardy were, their dad, their mom, their aunt, their friends, and it would always be the same.

And at that age it drove me crazy!

I promise, if I ever write a series (which would involve finishing one book and then inexplicably a second), I will not do this. Reader, I'm sorry, but if you want the full story buy the other one. :)

Malin said...

Never2Late/Susan,

Though I've already said my pet peeves, I must agree with yours as well!

I think the mixing up of the horde of characters with similar names is due to poor characterization. If the writer has anchored each character well in how they speak and act the name shouldn't matter much. I could separate all Elizabeth's sisters in Pride and Prejudice simply by how they are as persons.

See, I can't remember names, so I instantly get confused when the character's personalities are all the same (or rather when the writer isn't giving them one).

Matthew Rush said...

Glad I came back to check for your reply. Thanks Tawna!

Tawna Fenske said...

Demery, isn't the "as you know, Bob" thing the best? I'm not sure where that comes from (a movie or TV line, perhaps?) but it's stuck with me ever since the first time Cynthia said it to me.

lora96, great point...less is definitely more when it comes to describing things.

elizabethrheinhardt, if you husband is like Jamie, can I come over for dinner? :)

Shakespeare, amen to what you said right here: "One CAN break rules, but one must understand the rules first, and break them for a REASON." Excellent point. Obviously there are a million exceptions to the rules. People can go on forever pointing out that this famous author or that famous author breaks the rules like there's no tomorrow. But the point is that he/she is usually doing it deliberately, with full knowledge of how to avoid the pitfalls that tend to come from doing so.

Christina, I do the same thing! Always wondering, "and then what?" after the happily ever after.

SM Schmidt, oooh, I'll add to that another big pet peeve of mine. I can't stand it when the hero/heroine in a romance start off hating each other from the get-go without any real solid reason for doing so. Now I get it if there's a real history there, but "I just don't like you because I'm a judgmental jerk but the author wants to write a love/hate relationship" doesn't go very far toward making me like the character.

Melissa Sarno, good point, that IS very annoying.

Douglas, crap, you just stole the first line of my next book.

Melissa Gill, fascinating point! I notice with my critique partners and beta readers that some really want to form their own opinions about a character's appearance, and others want to know on page one what someone looks like. Go figure.

Never2Late, now I'm trying to figure out which romance author you're talking about :)

Melissa Alexander, wow, this must be Melissa day! (Three of 'em within a short burst of comments). I agree on the need to count with dialogue tags. Dropping them is good and necessary in quick bursts of dialogue, but if I have to flip back several pages to figure out who's speaking, that's a problem.

Abby, I just read a book that had three characters with similar names. Drove me bonkers.

Valeriebrbr, you're Team Gale, huh? I'm a Peeta girl myself. Should we fight?

NeuroticWorkaholic, I love flawed heroes and heroines, but you're totally right -- there has to be SOMETHING likable about them to keep me engaged.

Jason, I suspect some authors are contractually obligated to include the backstory so all the books stand alone, but I agree there are less sloppy ways to do it.

Malin, great point about good characterization making up for similar names. Totally true.

Matthew, I don't know how well I said it, but I thought Shakespeare made a great point in her comment -- it's true there are a million authors who break the "rules." But the reason they can do it is that they understand whey the rules are there (in the case of adverbs, it's often a symptom of writing that tells instead of shows) and they make sure they aren't guilty of that before proceeding with the rule breakage.

Thanks for reading, guys! Great discussion!

Tawna

Debs Riccio said...

What Danica said - hear hear!

Emilia_Quill said...

One of my pet peeves is too much war. I stopped reading a series because it had too much description of where battle would take place, what tactic will work, where do we get the men, the movements of the troops on the battle field...Argh, I don't care!
Ofcourse the characters are going to make preparations, but when the battle takes place I don't care in what formation and on what side are they flanking the enemy army I want to know whats going on in the characters heads, what they're going through.

Terry Brooks has war in the Shannara series, but the war doesn't take up too much space and there's usually one or more characters who lets me see what emotions and conflicts he's going through. Also he has seemingly insurmoutable obstacles such as sneaking into the enemy camp to destroy their war machine or rescue someone.
Not just faceless soldiers doing battle...

I also hate the big misunderstanding, it's a cliche, stupid and doesn't bode well to the characters relationshup.

I just finished the Silmarillion. I would have read it earlier, but mum warned me that it had a seemingly endless amount of names and families. I got through it by focusing on the main characters and not staring to think "Who's Huor again?"
If the book wasn't a collection of J.R.R Tolkiens works I wouldn't have read it. Which would have been a loss since I liked it.

Kelli said...

My pet peeve is a label whore author, you know the type that has to describe just how wealthy their characters are by the labels they own, for example,
"She parked her Porsche Cayenne in the lot, grabbed her Dior bag, and popped on her Gucci shades. The clicking of her Louboutin heels could be heard down the hall...." If there's a reason to mention a label, then do it but a constant barrage of them is annoying.