Pet Peeves (the worst kind of domesticated companions)
By Axie Barclay
I’ve been reviewing books since 2010 or thereabouts, and have started editing professionally as well for a romance press. I have an English degree and have been an avid fiction reader since nursery rhymes, so I have some solid years of reading and critiquing under my belt. I’ve read a lot of amazing stories and I’ve read some truly hideous ones. (The sad part is that it’s the travesties that stick in your mind.) I understand that sometimes clichés, passive sentences, adverbs, and other grammatical winces are necessary. I try not to have pet peeves in writing, because as soon as you say something is bad and never works, someone pulls it off. (Check out Michael Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White, all 920 physical pages, all written in second person, if you don’t believe me.) But there are a few writing gaffs that thoroughly irritate me—as a reader, an editor, and a literate human being.
1. “The sensations washed over/ spilled through/ overcame her.” Okay, this is a legitimate cliché. That is what romance feels like, and this can be a good way to say that a character is adrift on the sea of sensation. But if every time your characters experience emotion it turns out watery, ask yourself if you are really pushing your storytelling skills or if there’s a better way to say this.
2. He looked/ She looked/ They looked and read something in the other character’s eyes. Over and over and over… My partner and I are an extremely close couple, and I use us as an example because I know him incredibly well and how he thinks. There have been two times, two, in our time together that I would say I read emotion in his eyes. (And one of those involves babies some months later, but that’s beside the point.) My point is to think about how often you really look someone in the eye and see something besides eyeballs. Maybe it’s just me, but I tend to read people by their body language, by their voice inflection, by how hard they kicked the trash can after getting off the phone with customer service that morning, rather than try to read anything in those fabled “windows to the soul.” Focusing on eyes might work in film, but calling attention to them in fiction tends to draw attention to a lack of originality and repetitive storytelling.
3. She pushed the thought from her mind. I almost want to see how this one works physically.
4. Telling more than showing. You can tell me every reason in the world why I should feel something for a character, but unless you show me the character performing some kind of action that makes me care, so the F what.
5. Stupid, convoluted reasons for things just because they sound cool. Stuff happens, and it happens for a reason. Write that reason. It doesn’t matter if they’re fallen angels or werewolves, characters have motivations and are driven by those motivations. Let motivation guide the plot. Anything else is going to feel superficial. And don’t include a soliloquy with a guy laying around in bed thinking. Never let characters lay around. Unless you write erotica 😉
What I’d like my readers to come away with from this is to encouragement to cultivate self-awareness. This is important in all aspects of life, to not just wander around blindly, but to understand the why and how behind your own actions. Self-awareness is key. It’s not enough just to write and write and write if you never improve. You should always be striving to improve. And there is no better way to improve than to examine why what you are doing doesn’t quite measure up to what you want it to be (writers, you know when this is happening) and pick it all apart until you understand what’s going on and what needs to change. Action without improvement (unless you don’t want to improve) is an exercise in sheer futility.
Write, read, improve, repeat.
Day of the Vikings by J.F. Penn. Tried reading this one out loud with my toddler at bottle time, but ended up caving and staying up late finishing it after he went to bed. (One awesome thing about being a grown-up is how much you save on flashlight batteries when you stay up late at night with a book. And not having to smother under the covers.) I don’t usually like thrillers, but JF Penn delivers each time. And writers shouldn’t miss the website, thecreativepenn.com
The Sword and the Pen by Elysa Hendricks. I don’t usually recommend books I’m on the fence about, but this one hits a lot of the pet peeves we’ve discussed, but does it while still telling a decent story. What I like about this book is the pulp quality it has, but how it seems to revel in it, almost like its making fun of itself in places. On the other hand, if it thinks of itself as a piece of literature, that’s a different story. Until then, I’m giving it the benefit of the doubt.
And it has a great cover.
The Crimson Petal and the White by Michael Faber. And you thought I was joking.
Axie Barclay is a Michigan writer with a cow-habit. Having discovered the joys and potential for growth inalternative agriculture, she quests ever longer and harder for ways to combine farming and writing into a business. When not milking cows, making disgruntled noises at the latest disgusting thing the heeler dogs dredge up, riding horses, or keeping the fence up around her small beef herd, she’s holed up reading an eclectic array of books or tapping out pages. When not working, she enjoys kicking back with her honey, family, and friends at a bonfire with some beers. Chat her up on Twitter and Facebook, /axieb, or http://barclayfarmsandlit.blogspot.com where she delves into literature and agriculture with a relish… and occasionally ketchup. Soon to be homemade.