Sunday, February 12, 2006

Commoners

If I read one more debut novel this week that begins with a damn weather report, I'm going to get very cranky.

We've all agreed that the common practice of starting a novel with a variation of It was a dark and stormy night sucks, right? Yet if there's one thing every highly-acclaimed, promising young novelist seems to do without fail, it's to start with a weather report (my debut novel starts off with my protagonist checking out a shady tavern, but I wasn't young or acclaimed, and no one sent me the how-to manual for promising novelists.)

If you write fantastic blizzards, or tornados figure prominently in your plot opening, you may ignore this rant.

I pay special attention to opening lines because they're a pain in the ass to write. They're also the first taste of the novel, and can make or break a sale to a browsing bookstore patron. I work hard on my openers, and I expect other writers do the same. A good opener to me is one that makes me seriously consider burning everything I've written to take up scrapbooking. A Creative Writing 101 version of Doppler Radar on Channel 9 simply does not do that.

What else can I complain about? Oh, yeah: set-up paragraphs. Let me pick on someone famous who won't give a hoot what I think . . .

When Archbishop Richard Rushman, known to Catholic, Protestant and Jew alike as "the Saint of Lakeview Drive" because of his great charitable works, stepped out of the shower, he had less than ten minutes to live. -- first line of "Primal Fear" by William Diehl

With all due respect to Diehl, who I believe is the only writer in existence whose name rhymes with mine, this opener has always bugged me. It was brought to my attention when I read an article by someone talking about great opening lines in modern fiction, but I never saw why this was one of them. As lines go, it's TMI-chunky. Delete from known to works and you get a much cleaner, higher-impact opener:

When Archbishop Richard Rushman stepped out of the shower, he had less than ten minutes to live.

Naked, wet archbishop, death ETA ten minutes. Why throw character backstory in that kind of mix? The opener is also odd because the second sentence in Primal Fear is completely different in tone and structure: Death stood in the doorway. In line one we're given a mini-info dump; in line two Death Has Entered The Building.

And another thing: if you don't want to identify the killer in your novel immediately, please do not refer to him, her or it as Death. I have it on good authority that Death is tired of temping for you. Yes, we know you need to parade suspects and ratchet up the suspense, but please: until Scooby and the kids solve the mystery, refer to the killer as the killer.

I have another rant about heroes who spend half of every love scene quadruple-checking with the heroine to make sure she wants to do the nasty, and then apologizing endlessly for their unbridled lust after the deed is done, but I'll save that one for Valentine's Day.

What common practice among writers makes you cranky?

36 comments:

  1. Romantic heroines who until the hero kisses them have never worked out they have genitals. All of a sudden they get these unfamiliar damp sensations that astonish them.

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  2. Characters who stare at themselves in the mirror so they can describe to us what they look like.

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  3. Weak women. Drives me nuts. Makes me want to throw things.

    Also, endless description. Six paragraphs on how the lawn looks with the morning dew glistening on it is like, well, watching grass grow. Ugh.

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  4. Physical description over and over - "...tumbling gold locks fell from her head down to the small of her back."
    A couple pages later, more golden hair comments. And more. Until I want to shave the heroine's head, or strangle the author with long, golden tresses.

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  5. Landscape p_rn - Sean Russell are you reading this

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  6. I am tired of psycho sidekicks in PI fiction. About the only one I can stand anymore is Bubba from Dennis Lehane's books.

    And Dennis ended that series after 5 books back in 1999, so even he knows when to give it a rest.

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  7. When a character's only reason for doing something is Because The Plot Said So. ARGH! I hate that! If the plot says it has to happen, fine, but give the character a reason!

    I also hate "magical endings". A certain acclaimed SF novel I won't mention ends with aliens landing to provide the solution to the puzzle the protagonists had been working towards through the whole story. I SCREAMED. "I read this whole stupid book to find out how they're going to do it, and the writer takes the lazy way out and throws in aliens?" That's just cheating.

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  8. When an author constantly uses the same phrases to describe something.

    An author I used to read a lot of~she was always using the same words, same catchphrases. You could probably pick up any one of her books and pick certain phrases out a good five times, if not more.

    If your heroine has curly hair, hey that's cool, but we don't need to know five or six times that all she has to do with it is slick gel through it and let it dry naturally.

    Other than that? A book that starts out soooooo good, you have the conflict, the plot is solid~and then it fizzles. Goes from massive emotional trauma to oh, i love you, i forgive within a page. So not realistic.

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  9. I struggle with otherwise good stories that suddenly veer into info dump. The author builds the tension up with great plotting, but then realises they don't know how to elegantly get out of the bind the plot is in, and so just dump an explanation on the reader.

    It might be one character talking to another, for example:

    "I guess someone must have seen him come in and then called the police, so that's how they got here just in time" (read in a book where the main characters are rescued from certain death by the police in a completely unexpected just-in-time / deus ex machina moment)

    Or even worse the narrator suddenly springs out of the background to explain everything. I see this a lot in short stories, especially in some crime / noir short stories I've read recently.

    It's a shame because the authors can clearly write well.

    D.

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  10. Heros? who are total asses, treat the heroine in ways I feel are abusive. The heroines, who don't just kick those asses and walk away. Then they live happily ever after. I don't buy those authors books more than once.

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  11. Perhaps my biggest peeve is when point of view yo-yos from character to character. Especially when you've got two main characters interacting. One moment the hero is wondering why it is the heroine doesn't get his sense of humour, the next, the heroine is feeling misunderstood. Then, wham! We're back in the hero's head as he remembers how his mother used to hug him as a child. And back to the heroine. And so on, and so on.

    Many respected and influntial novelists seem to think there's nothing wrong with this, judging by their writing. I guess their editors must too. But it bugs the hell out of me.

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  12. That should, of course, be 'influential' novelists. I'm not sure what being influntial entails, but it sounds painful.

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  13. Strong women characters who end up needing to be rescued at the end of the book. One particularly irked me because the author spent a lot of time detailing the character's martial arts experience and capability of taking care of herself--and the guy still had to rescue her!

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  14. I'm reading a book where the heroine's mother says the nastiest things to her and the heroine doesn't tell her to stop, but just takes this abuse. I find this totally irritating and can't respect a heroine who doesn't stand up for herself.

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  15. Other than my own stuff making me cranky?

    A hero and heroine who do nothing but fight and argue and grate on eachother's nerves, but regularly fall into bed (or the bed substitute dujour) for hot nookie then resume fighting, arguing, and generally being whiney butt assholes.

    I'm sorry, but romantic bits, to me, shouldn't be about who's the bigger jerk or who did the other wrong by not putting the toilet seat in the proper position.

    It's why I stopped reading romance. I can't stand arguing in my own marriage, why would I waste my precious time reading about pretend people fighting?

    YUCK!

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  16. Love the whole post! I agree whole-heartedly about the openers, and your line about the naked, wet archbishop staring down his maker is excellent as an example.

    Oh, and --quote:I have it on good authority that Death is tired of temping for you. --- I'm in trouble. In my latest WIP, I have death temping for me... in fact, he (in person) is temping for both sides, and is really po'd about it. So I guess you're right. Maybe I should offer him fringe benefits. (Thinking of new titles now.... sleeping with death, death is my lover, death needs a holiday, -- oh hell, death-take me now.)

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  17. There's one thing worse than info dumps: info dumps that get it wrong. You've got your garden variety faulty research-type wrong, of course, but the ones that drive me really nuts are a little different. I'm thinking of the ones where the author goes into painfully explicit detail to explain his deus ex machina, but the explanation is so bogus that you still have a deity popping out of the woodwork to fix (or break) things.

    Technothrillers seem to do this a lot. Like the psychotic bad guy who somehow manages to fool the screening mechanisms of two different countries in order to get behind the controls of the superweapon. Or the giant log that gets swept off the deck of a ship just so that it can fortuitously -- in several gazillion square miles of ocean -- collide with and disable a submarine. (That second one took a certain very famous author off my To Read list for good.)

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  18. Female-like heros. If there is a gay or female like male in the story, that is just fine, but I could never day dream about a hero who has to ask the girl how she feels.

    Also, out of the blue events, where there is NO clue that lead up to the event. The killer was Uncle Bob, but Uncle Bob was only introduced in the first chapter and that was it. And he was hundreds of miles away from where the murder happened. But he's there now...

    Those get me.

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  19. None or weak motivation makes me crazy. I hate it when someone is risking their life to solve a murder for no logical reason other than they know the victim's uncle's third cousin. A close second is women who are single parents but risk their lives to investigate the death of someone they barely know.

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  20. 2 things:

    Dumbass characters. If townspeople have been disappearing in the woods at night for 2 weeks, why do they keep going into the woods at night? Duh.

    Dumbass authors. A romance by a Very Well Known Author some years back referred to the characters in Civil-War-era Atlanta going down to the harbor to watch the ships come in. Look at a freaking map!

    Re: the Diehl passage. Unless the next 10 minutes have some overwhelming importance to the rest of the story, the whole paragraph is superfluous. Ditch it and start with the killing. Wouldn't that be a much better hook?

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  21. heh. how about a blog entry about weather? (Hey, we're all about our 20-30 inches here. Already 24 at least.)

    But what about novels' weather descriptions that grab you? Can you think of any? I remember a couple but they reflect the story and impact the characters.

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  22. why do I hit enter when I'm still in mid-blab..

    things turn a book into a wallbanger for me:
    the misunderstanding that can be cleared up with a conversation and the hero or heroine's is too proud or too self effacing to say anything.

    the doot-brained heroine bent on her own distruction. Not sure why reckless TSTL heroes don't bother me as much--guess I'm a sexist. Hmm. Can't think of any actually.

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  23. Authors who think I'm an inattentive or dumb reader and repeat things: Look, I've written three paragraphs about the MC stumbling down an overgrown slope as fast as he can, but to make sure you get it that he's exhausted now, I tell you. And one book hit the wall after I was told for the 178th time that the heroine had learned to hunt with a sling though it was forbidden, and got punished for it.

    Whiny characters is another peeve. If I hadn't liked the style, the world and some other characters so much, and had not Phèdre in her function as narrator, that is when she didn't whine about herself, been interesting, I'd have tossed the books. But in that case the good outweighed the bad.

    But I think I stay away from Thomas Covenanter. ;-)

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  24. destruction.
    DAMNED spelling.

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  25. Writers who fail to remember that even minor characters -- however brief -- are people, too. In other words, writers who treat their secondary characters as if they were tissues to be spat on for plot convenience.

    And yes, acres and acres of character or room description...argh. I like the advice of writers like C.J. Cherryh and Stephen King: pick one interesting facet of the room or the character. His stunning blue eyes. The way the light comes through lace curtains. Her chestnut hair. The antique vase painted with naked Dick Cheney cherubs sitting on the mantle. Highlight that. Let the reader fill in the rest.

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  26. (1) Weak, fluffy heroines.
    (2) Weak, fluffy heroes.

    :-)

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  27. Keziah Hill wrote: Romantic heroines who until the hero kisses them have never worked out they have genitals.

    Agreed. One memorable heroine in a Tor paranormal I read awhile back could not believe the hero thought of her "in that way" or that he wanted to "do it" with her. I swear that chick was dead from the waist down.

    Kate wrote: Characters who stare at themselves in the mirror so they can describe to us what they look like.

    Guilty as charged, lol. Although mine are usually beaten up or bleeding and are checking the injuries.

    Shelbi wrote: Six paragraphs on how the lawn looks with the morning dew glistening on it is like, well, watching grass grow.

    Or six pages as we delve into the riveting memories of how the lawn looked last fall, when the dew was much heavier, and the sunlight played thin fingers of buttery gold over the sparkling crystals of the first frost, which of course eventually killed the lawn and the whole thing had to be sodded over with damp, brown-edged patches of new emerald. . . I can do this all day, you know.

    Sam wrote: Physical description over and over...Until I want to shave the heroine's head, or strangle the author with long, golden tresses.

    I hear you. There's one author who manages some steamy reference to her hero's (inevitably) steely blue eyes every third page for the entire length of the novel. I kid you not.

    Zornhau wrote: Landscape p_rn - Sean Russell are you reading this

    You can say porn on my blog, Zornhau. I don't think Blogger will bounce it. :)

    Jim Winter wrote: I am tired of psycho sidekicks in PI fiction.

    But then who would act as the foil to make the faintly seedy PI look good?

    Charlene Teglia wrote: I also hate "magical endings".

    I still haven't forgiven Thomas Harris for the ending of Hannibal, which I consider to be the most distasteful magical ending of all time.

    Shiloh Walker wrote: book that starts out soooooo good, you have the conflict, the plot is solid~and then it fizzles.

    I always wonder if an over-zealous editor has something to do with books like that. Sometimes you can almost see where an editor cuts into the flow of a story and starts revising (in one of my WFH books, I can still pick out every clunky word the editor insisted on inserting.) Or maybe the author just gets tired and they fizzle out on the story.

    Darren wrote: Or even worse the narrator suddenly springs out of the background to explain everything.

    I call that the classic authorial "Oh, Maybe You're Too Stupid to Understand My Story" device.

    Edie wrote: Heros? who are total asses, treat the heroine in ways I feel are abusive. The heroines, who don't just kick those asses and walk away. Then they live happily ever after.

    Or the reverse -- the heroine who treats the hero like crap, which he takes because he's a man (as in all men are pigs) and thus he obviously deserves it. They always end up getting married, too.

    James O wrote: Perhaps my biggest peeve is when point of view yo-yos from character to character.

    Head-hopping POV within the same scene never works for me. I always notice it and it always jars me out of the story a little. It's become a very popular device among big name romance authors, too.

    I'm not sure what being influntial entails, but it sounds painful.

    We'll ask MacBride. He'll probably know. :)

    Linda Adams wrote: Strong women characters who end up needing to be rescued at the end of the book.

    I've done that a time or two myself, but I do angst over it. The female-protagonist-down scene I brooded over the most was the last duel in Blade Dancer. I didn't like her guy rushing in to save her, but I plotted that out a couple of different ways, and it was the only one that worked (and kept her alive.)

    Gina Black wrote: I'm reading a book where the heroine's mother says the nastiest things to her and the heroine doesn't tell her to stop, but just takes this abuse.

    I was trained from birth to silently take verbal abuse from parents, adults, teachers and every other grownup who cared to abuse me -- it was called respecting your elders in my day -- but a good friend and getting out into the world helped me realize that I didn't deserve to be treated like that. Not every woman has the opportunity to do that, even in our enlightened society. I know too many women writers who were trained as I was to shut up and take it, and are still in dysfunctional relationships.

    Anyway, what I meant to say was, I agree with you, but I also understand a heroine who doesn't confront an abuser.

    Tambo wrote: A hero and heroine who do nothing but fight and argue and grate on eachother's nerves, but regularly fall into bed (or the bed substitute dujour) for hot nookie then resume fighting, arguing, and generally being whiney butt assholes.

    We call that "sparks fly" in romance, Tam, lol.

    Miss Write wrote: Thinking of new titles now.... sleeping with death, death is my lover, death needs a holiday, -- oh hell, death-take me now.)

    Lol. Death called and He'd really, really like to temp for you again. :)

    Katherine wrote: Or the giant log that gets swept off the deck of a ship just so that it can fortuitously -- in several gazillion square miles of ocean -- collide with and disable a submarine.

    No, really? Damn. And I thought some of mine were pushing it....

    Pixel Faerie wrote: Female-like heros. If there is a gay or female like male in the story, that is just fine, but I could never day dream about a hero who has to ask the girl how she feels.

    Sheroes are my least favorite commoner character, too. I could write a book on girls in mansuits. :)

    Darlene Ryan wrote: women who are single parents but risk their lives to investigate the death of someone they barely know.

    Yeah, that never makes sense to me. Hello, what about the kid? It's like going down into the cellar after the monster armed with nothing but a flashlight. I always shriek RUN THE OTHER WAY YOU TWIT.

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  28. Carter wrote: Re: the Diehl passage. Unless the next 10 minutes have some overwhelming importance to the rest of the story, the whole paragraph is superfluous. Ditch it and start with the killing. Wouldn't that be a much better hook?

    Diehl would likely resist that idea, because he'd have to ditch two more pages of setting and Death's idle thoughts. The archbishop isn't murdered until the very end of the scene on page three, in a killing so fast you'll miss it if you blink.

    Kate R wrote: But what about novels' weather descriptions that grab you? Can you think of any? I remember a couple but they reflect the story and impact the characters.

    Off the top of my head, the only writers I know who do great weather are usually magnificent world builders who work it in so that you never notice it, or use weather so effectively it almost becomes a character in itself. See any book by Pat Briggs, Doug Clegg and Holly Lisle for the best examples of this kind of weather non-reporting. :)

    Not sure why reckless TSTL heroes don't bother me as much--guess I'm a sexist. Hmm. Can't think of any actually.

    I always always annoyed by Inigo Montoya in the Princess Bride. Now there was truly an idiot character; his whole life was expressed by one prepared speech: "Hello, my name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die." Although the actor who played him was so funny I forgave the character for being TSTL.

    You know I can't spell worth a damn, Kate, so don't worry about visiting planet typo.

    Gabriele wrote: I think I stay away from Thomas Covenanter

    You mean that Donaldson character with the leprosy? Euuw. That was a nasty book.

    Stephanie wrote: writers who treat their secondary characters as if they were tissues to be spat on for plot convenience.

    Mine won't let me do that. I find this sort of thing particularly offensive when a writer draws on their cultural heritage only in order to give throwaway characters that special "color" appeal. It's like putting an afro on a Star Trek red shirt solely to get down with the brothers.

    Nancy J. Bond wrote: (1) Weak, fluffy heroines. (2) Weak, fluffy heroes.

    I'm guessing you don't read a lot of inspirational romance, Nancy. Lol.

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  29. "Hello, my name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die." Although the actor who played him was so funny I forgave the character for being TSTL.


    MANDY PATINKIN! OMG, have you heard the man sing???? To be as TSTL as Inigo was, to do Broadway, to now play on CBS' Criminal Minds . . .

    I have mad lust for everything Mandy.

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  30. " I always wonder if an over-zealous editor has something to do with books like that. Sometimes you can almost see where an editor cuts into the flow of a story and starts revising (in one of my WFH books, I can still pick out every clunky word the editor insisted on inserting.) Or maybe the author just gets tired and they fizzle out on the story."

    oh man, i'd hope an editor would have better insight than that. I mean, don't most readers want to see that conflict realistically resolved?

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  31. PBW wrote
    You mean that Donaldson character with the leprosy? Euuw. That was a nasty book.

    Yep, that one. I've heard several warnings that the MC was whiny, and never got at it yet. Don't think I will.

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  32. and your line about the naked, wet archbishop staring down his maker

    Maker? I always called 'im John Thomas.

    I discovered my least favorite opening line* when I picked up Stephen King's The Gunslinger and read, The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed. So far so good, but then, The desert was the apotheosis of all deserts, huge, standing to the sky for what might have been parsecs in all directions.

    I put the book down, and I never looked back.

    I liked the Thomas Covenant stories when I read them in college. When I looked at the first one a year ago, I couldn't make it past the first page -- way too overwritten, IMO.

    *Okay, second line. But still.

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  33. "Kate wrote: Characters who stare at themselves in the mirror so they can describe to us what they look like.

    Guilty as charged, lol. Although mine are usually beaten up or bleeding and are checking the injuries."

    lol! That's wholly permissable ... The problem occurs when they start listing their features, especially their deep green eyes, long lustrous hair, sharply chiselled cheekbones, etc etc etc.

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  34. oh now come on.... don't we all admire our lustrous hair and chiselled cheek bones ;)

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  35. I hate it when a writer uses the same word or phrase a billion times in the book. I stopped reading an excellent writer because she keep using the word "promptly".

    I mean, sometimes four times on a page. That word is peppered through all of her books, and she's a bestselling thriller writer.

    Same with another writer who used "'He stiffened." Or "She stiffened." People are always stiffening all over her books. Too bad because I really loved her stuff but it was too distracting.

    I also hate, "He snarled." Or "He growled." Stuff like that.

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  36. Thomas the Rapist Whiner Unbeliever, ugh. How I hate that book, let me count the ways.

    Any book where the hero and heroine bicker endlessly, supposedly to disguise their attraction, gets the old wall bounce.

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