Pet peeves

Here’s a post by Elaine Viets at Kill Zone Blog, about problems that make a reader pause and perhaps slide into negative review mode.

This reviewer is not some crank who looks for excuses to rip writers. If he has to give a book a bad review, he agonizes over that decision. … But here are some writing wrongs that upset this reviewer.

1) Padded middles. Here’s what this reviewer had to say about this issue:

This is my reviewer’s number one problem – novels that slow down in the middle. “The padding doesn’t advance the narrative,” the reviewer said. “It’s pages and pages of the thoughts and feelings of people who aren’t very interesting. They offer no valuable insights. Sometimes, I wonder if editors make writers add this unnecessary information because big books are so popular. Most books I’ve read recently are 20 to 30 pages too long. …”

And here I paused. While not disputing with the perception that the pace slows down in the middle . . . an extra 20 to 30 pages? Really?

Who even notices a mere twenty extra pages?

I guess if you’re reading a Penric novella and stumble over twenty pages of not-much, you might notice. I’m not sure I would personally really notice twenty pages of static scenes in a novel of extra length.

Also, if the people aren’t very interesting, maybe that’s a bigger problem than the narrative slowing down?

Now I’m tempted to go back and look at the final Harry Potter book. It’s been a long time since I read it, but my possibly unreliable memory suggests there were about fifty pages too many about wandering in the woods feeling depressed. Maybe it was actually twenty. If so, then yes, that was a noticeable chunk of too-much-nothing in the middle of a book. It had nothing to do with the interestingness of the characters and everything to do with being really bored with the problem Harry was facing right then. I thought a paragraph of two would’ve been plenty, followed by getting out of the woods and back into the story.

The next couple of comments seem more reasonable to me:

2) Switching names. “The character is introduced as Joseph Smith. Then the author proceeds to call him Joe, Joey, Joseph, and sometimes just Smith. It’s hard to figure out who the writer is talking about.”

This is actually a real problem in some books. It’s very much connected to the next comment:

3) Who’s talking? “A character is introduced in the first 50 pages, and then shows up 200 pages later with no ID.”

This is the same type of Wait, who? problem. It’s definitely a real annoyance when a character steps on stage and I can’t remember who that person is. I suppose characters with too-similar names would trigger the same annoyed response.

I don’t believe any other pet peeve mentioned in the post bothers me as much as (2) and (3) above. Except seeing wrong words. Parameter instead of perimeter is one I recall. That made me ditch a sample rather than going on to the full book.

I feel like there’s one I’ve seen several times recently, but it’s not quite coming to mind … maybe it was “illicit” when the writer meant “elicit.” Something like that, certainly. That sort of thing is really just annoying, which I am saying even though last night I typed “insure” when I meant “ensure.” (I caught it immediately.)

Oh, and here’s the final pet peeve mentioned in the linked post:

9) TMI in the first chapter. Nearly every one of us at TKZ has written about this problem. Overcrowded first chapters slow the pace of your novel. Our reviewer said, “It stops a good book dead when the first chapter has an overlarge cast of characters and I can’t keep them straight.”

a) Yes, it does. Also, incidentally, not keen on opening in a battle scene involving characters I don’t know fighting for reasons I don’t understand.

b) But cramming the entire cast into the first five pages is NOT as big a problem as delivering a History of the World in the first five pages. Or even worse, the first 25 pages. Wow, is that boring.

Backstory is fine. It really is. Setting the scene is important. But for heaven’s sake, if you’ve got a history textbook you’d like to use as a prologue, just don’t. Work the five coolest details in someplace else, in tiny little bits.

I actually hated that in the Lord of the Rings movies, too. Never a good reason to start a fantasy novel with a history lesson. Never.

Feel free to drop exceptions in the comments.

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3 thoughts on “Pet peeves”

  1. My pet peeve is characters who act like idiots.

    This is definitely a peeve because I hate it even when I know that’s exactly what the character would do, and acting smart would have been out of character.

  2. I’m reading one that opened with the character in the middle of a space battle, but this time it worked. Sabrina Chase’s Long Way Hme . It may work because it’s only in one POV and she’s actually thinking instead of panicking.

  3. If the battle is part of a personal story, it can be fine. When the camera pulls back and pans across a crowd, then opening in a battle is a good way to create and epic fail.

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