Let’s face it, I don’t have the worst commute in the world. Four miles across town isn’t anything to complain about. And yet, with each passing day, traffic around here seems more and more like it has been specifically choreographed to annoy me in the most precise manner possible, like a laser-guided headache narrowing in on the very behavior that drives me up the wall.
So to distract myself from being annoyed on the road, I recently found myself thinking about things that annoy me about reading books. (No, there’s no reason you should expect to understand the jump. Welcome to my brain.) I’d wager that anybody who has written a fair amount, and probably lots of people who haven’t, start picking up on certain things that authors do that, for no obvious reason, grate at them every time. I’m not talking about occasionally mixing up “its” and “it’s” or “your” and “you’re” or something. That doesn’t happen very often in published books anyway, being more of an online or magazine/newspaper problem. Grating and annoying, of course, but I’m talking more about things people do with their actual writing.
In the book I’m currently reading, the author plays the same general trick on a couple of different occasions. (I won’t name names; it’s not important, and there’s no reason to dis on what might be someone else’s favorite book.) You can generalize all of them as the “they had no idea yet but…” line.
I’m sure you’ve seen it before. Things are okay, there have been a few pages of exposition or maybe the team has just pulled off their mission and are heading out, hanging up the phone, walking out the door, or otherwise doing something perfectly normal and uneventful. And that step forward probably saved his life. Cue the explosion, gunshot, car crash, or blast of magic. (Followed, at least half the time, by the end of the chapter.)
Not a big deal, right? Actually, no, in this example it really isn’t a big deal. It may be even less of a deal when you consider this particular book is written in the first person. I’ve only done shorter bits of first-person writing, and so I don’t have enough experience to say, but it seems reasonable to think of such things as being a natural part of the narrative style.
But where it starts bugging me is when it happens over and over again. I don’t impose any hard and fast rules as to how many times any given writing trick or plot accelerator can be used, beyond which they’re all bad. Instead I have a simple “noticification threshold” which says, basically, that if I start to notice it, it’s too much. As soon as I think to myself, “oh, he/she did it again,” then that becomes one time too many. It knocks me right out of the story.
Now, for the record, I like this book. Clearly, occasional random things like this don’t permanently ruin the story for me. It’s more like a record skipping (everybody knows what that is, right?) during a good piece of music; it jars you out of the experience for a second, but then you’re back in to it again and all is well.
Maybe that means that whatever these things are (Writing tricks? Shortcuts? Normal things no one else ever notices but I do because I’m a fiendishly hyperobservant read-o-tron?) they don’t detract from a well written, enjoyable story. I can believe that. For example, compare this book series to another popular (I assume?) fantasy series from a few years back, in which the author repeatedly used the same kind of things (“She had no idea how important that would come to be later on.”) over and over and over and over again. (It seemed.) I didn’t much care for that story at all, and as it went on I groaned every time I kept seeing the same basic phrases. (“If he had only known how much he’d pay for that later, he would have never agreed.” Stuff like that. Over. And over. And over again.) In that case, it was a story I had long since stopped being crazy about in the first place, and so each and every instance of that stuck out like a sore thumb. Now it’s one of the key things I remember about those books. Not, I think, something that an author sets out to be remembered for.
My single strongest memory of another book is of its hilarious inaccuracies. In this case, the book claimed to be in the hard SF genre, which I had been trying to venture in to for the first time by choosing a few well reviewed samples of then-recent novels. Maybe most of the biotech topics it covered were portrayed accurately; I don’t have the knowledge to judge. But when the author (through one character’s dialogue) gives such laughingly wrong descriptions of how computers store numbers, well, I really can’t summon up a lot of faith in the more complicated science they discuss afterward. Again, I seriously doubt the author would enjoy knowing that I remember that particular dialogue more prominently than anything else in his story, but there it is. As before, I ended up not being a big fan of this particular book, so the faults stand out.
Does every writer do something like this? Or, perhaps more importantly, does every reader have something that bothers them? Maybe someone reading this is, at this very moment, pounding their fists against the desk because it drives them bonkers when people use a ton of parenthetical comments in they’re writing. (Just be thankful I don’t know how to put footnotes in the blog!) At least I’ve gone an entire post—so far—without using em dashes. I usually use those a lot. Oh wait, there I went and ruined it.
Did you see what else I did there? Does it bother you?
With NaNo coming up insanely soon now, I’m going to have to dust off all the writing tricks I’ve picked up over the years, because every single one of them will probably be essential if I want to reach 50,000 words on time. It’s also nearly certain that some of them are on someone else’s list of things that annoy the heck out of them when they read. We know it isn’t always a dealbreaker, though. If a story keeps you glued to it from cover to cover and you can’t wait to read it again, who cares if there are one or two spots that make you cringe when you get to them? If the story sucks, and it’s a slog just to finish it, would fixing those occasional spots have made any difference?
Maybe I’m more persnickety when I read than most people. Everybody has their quirky pet peeves, things that just drive them nuts, and they don’t have to have a reason. But if the story is good then that probably won’t matter, and that’s why I probably won’t be drastically changing my writing style any time soon. If my writing sucks, then at least it’ll suck the way I meant it to.
On the other hand, if I do catch myself writing “reaching down to pick up that penny probably saved his life” then I really should try to come up with another way of putting it.