On Writing – My Pet Peeves

I don’t know about you, fellow writers, but even though I’m a fan of some authors’ work and respect people who managed to get something published, there are a few things that bug me in their novels.

Things with the uncanny ability to drag me out of stories, kicking and screaming for my right to enjoy catharsis like everyone else.

As you’ll notice when I get around to examples of my pet peeves, they don’t make the author bad or unpopular, or the book unreadable – I voluntarily chose bestsellers. Nonetheless, I try to avoid these little things in my own writing and thought that I would share them with you.

                                   

Signature word/phrases
We each have “go to” words or phrases that tend to pop up in our writing regularly. It’s absolutely normal. Heck, I have a whole list of things I should try to replace as often as possible. And the list changes a bit depending on the voice of the narrator in any given story.

One of the goals of editing is to get rid of abundant repetitions.

For some authors, it’s not so bad. In one of Kim Harrison’s Hollow books, “sedately” seemed to describe the walk of half the characters. Maybe I noticed because little French girl me didn’t know that adverb before then. It’s entirely possible. Though I certainly can’t say the same for “suck dishwater”. I like the colourful expression but, for some reason, I’m starting to groan when I read it.
The first adventures of Sookie Stackhouse were plagued by “between a rock and a hard place”. I didn’t count but it must have popped up two or three times per book. In all fairness, it seems to disappear as the series goes on.

We, writers, must beware of the overuse of certain words and phrases. Especially recognizable, cliché phrases.

                                            

Shortcuts
Another redundant element in Charlaine Harris’ books is the way Sookie pushes something to the back of her mind so she can go back to it later. Which she never does.
It drives me nuts.
I probably wouldn’t mind as much if the author followed through but because she doesn’t it screams “shortcut” to me. A quick non-committal way to escape introspection before it slows down the pace of the story.

It doesn’t work for me: writing is about committing to the story.

Another example of the evilness of shortcuts is in killing a character. It’s a tricky thing to do because we want it to be meaningful to the story and make it as important as the character himself. It should never be the convenient way to handle a situation or trim the cast but there are plenty of examples when that happened anyway.

And it’s not enough for the writer to want it to be significant either; it has to be, on a visceral level.

I’ll reuse Kim Harrison and Charlaine Harris for that example because they both have a rather important character die “off page” – a death that isn’t witnessed by the first person narrator. Harrison’s character death made me cry, hate her and love her for it. I felt like that event ripped all our guts out: author, reader and main character alike.
Harris’ fell flat. I’m pretty sure her editor and she knew that because they told me the victim was pregnant the chapter just before her death, which felt like a cheap attempt to make me care.

Shortcuts kill the road trip.

                              

Pansting/Sitting on Laurel Feel
This one is a tricky one so let me open by saying I have nothing against panster. Nothing! Every technique is good as long as it gets words out there. Then comes the editing to polish the edges which will be there no matter how we write.

That being said, I’m pretty sure we’ve all encountered stories with a strong kick-off that keeps deflating as you turn the pages. It feels like the author is getting bored of his story – or maybe getting literally lost in it – and keeps writing because he has to. Sometimes, it’s a sagging middle that leads to an awesome end but sometimes, the end is just as meaningless as everything leading up to it.

The quality of the finished product is similar to the ones guilty of sitting on laurel leaves; stories that seem to assume that because the first scene was awesome, the same pattern can be repeated throughout the book to produce an awesome story.

Some people might want to throw rocks at me for writing this but, for me, Stephen King and J.J. Abrams (who writes TV series) suffer from this.
Yep.
The books from Stephen King I’ve read – or attempted to read – all had the same effect on me: I liked the beginning, then got bored. If I got to the end, all I could think was “Ok. That seems like it’s just been thrown there for no reason at all.”
As for J.J. Abrams, I loved Alias until the last season which was a messy wrap up. I got tired of Lost after two seasons and a half, and from what I hear the ending was… Fringe is heading in a dangerously similar direction.

In a nutshell, it’s important to make sure a whole project as an equal amount of love and care, and though it’s hard, the capacity to reinvent oneself is a great skill to develop.

                                

These are my pet peeves. Nothing that’ll kill the popularity of books but things that’ll bug me when I read them.

What are your pet peeves?

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About Aheïla

Somewhere in Quebec City, Aheïla works as a Game Design Director by day and writes by night. Known for her blue hair, unyielding dynamism and tasty cooking (quails, anyone?), she’s convinced “prose is the new crack”. She satisfies her addiction daily on The Writeaholic’s Blog and weekly on Games' Bustles View all posts by Aheïla

12 responses to “On Writing – My Pet Peeves

  • tara tyler

    nice rant! never really noticed the first one, now i will.
    i need to stop picking up books from some authors who now get published because of their name. last 2 books i started, eh. i also think that since i know more about writing and am editing, i’m more critical. will i ever enjoy a book again?

    • Aheïla

      Luckily, the first one is easy to pick up on by reading your stories out loud. It forces you to pay a bit more attention to each word and makes repetitions stand out. 😉

      I still enjoy books but you’re right; an interest in writing does make us more critical.

  • Claire Gillian

    Oh man so true!! And Charlaine Harris uses that back of the mind technique to clue us in that this is a huge clue to the whodunnit so later when she whips it out at the end (in an incarnation bearing no resemblance at all to the original “thing” she pushed back) you can’t accuse her of cheating in her mysteries. ha! I’m still mad about the Queen of Louisiana’s ring popping up on Sookie’s finger at the Vampire ball.

  • ralfast

    Well television suffers from the, “We gotta make another episode/season” syndrome which means that writers aren’t allowed to think ahead and therefore plan ahead. Even if you’re a pantser (like me you should have some idea of how you plan to end it. In fact, the reason why I am a panstser (largely) is that while I have a good idea of the beginning and the end, it is the mushy middle I’m clueless about (except for the odd scene here or there).

    If I don’t simply sit down and write it, it won’t get written.

    That in no way invalidates taking good notes, keeping track of your story arcs (by scene, episode, book, etc) and having a clear goal.

    That’s why I loved B5 (and came to loath BSG). One had a good plan from D-1, the other just winged it the moment they realized they had a hit on their hands.

    • Aheïla

      Even with the argument for the TV shows, a fair number of them do a fantastic job season after season, renewing their content and keeping things interesting.
      Yes, that reality makes continuity a bigger challenge but as you point out, it’s possible to develop tools to assist in the production of a quality story.

  • Starlight

    Good to know what bugs people about writing. I agree particularly with signature words/phrases. Especially when it’s a really good, big polysyllabic word that gets overused. Drives me nuts.

    Another thing is what can be called “word packages”. Original writing should find creative ways of saying things, not common turns of phrase. “Word packages” are often used out of laziness and they’re just as bad as cliches.

  • Jenn

    Thanks for sharing this A! It’s going in my writing folder for future reference 🙂

  • Hunger

    Man, I know I make a ton of those mistakes in my writing. All of my characters are constantly sighing because I can’t think of anything to write. And often many of the sighs make it through editing. But I must agree, I hate it when other writers do that (it’s not as bad for me because I’m not published yet… at least that’s what I tell myself 😛 )

    • Aheïla

      We all make mistakes and half the solution is to acknowledge that. I’m right there with you about the sighing and my characters look, shrug and “crooked smile” a lot too.

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